One full trip around the sun. How does our family trip to Greece seem like yesterday, but it’s already been a year?
It was a special trip it was for my Dad’s 80th birthday. The only true gift he wanted: sharing is heritage and his story with his grandchildren. I’ve heard so many pieces of the story before – but to watch him, in his native land, sharing his love of the mountains, the soil, the ocean breeze – was truly a gift to us all.
So the back story on my father. Panayiotis Karaouzas (Peter Caruso) was born in Stefanada, Greece (up in the north), a village outside of Karditsa in 1936, just as the climate of Europe was heating up. Living there for about 20 years, he came to the United States in 1956, not knowing a stitch of English, single and ready for what life could throw at him. Landing in Detroit, he was a waiter for a while and eventually owned several restaurants. Wanting to expand his life outside of work, he returned to Greece to be married to my mom, Evangilia (Eva) in 1961, from the nearby village of Fountoto. In true “arranged style,” my mom met my dad for about 15 minutes, was told by her father she was going to marry this stranger and move across the ocean, back to America. Imagine that in this day and age! They have been happily married for 55 years. LOVE THEM!!
I am the oldest of four kids and the only girl. I am 1st generation, bilingual, born and raised in Detroit and now live the last 26 years in Grand Rapids, MI. I have 2 boys, one named after my dad, three beautiful nieces and three fantastic nephews who make me love being their Thea (aunt).
Back to the trip….
In three whirlwind weeks, we smashed in everything we could. Packing in a trip to see my husband’s family, my family, and a little time to relax in some of the island. All of us on board for the adventure, all of us crazy to be doing this together. One Big Fat Greek Return Home
The first few days had quality time carved out with my cousin, who I consider to be my older sister in every way. Alexa and her family taught me so much about my Greek culture and I continue to learn from her, developing a fond love for this northern part of the country.
From there, we spend a little time in Athens with them and venture out, leaving the port of Pharina and headed to Andros. We found an amazing family-owned villa to that could house our rowdy bunch. It felt so warm and inviting. Our Greek Host, Mrs. Keria Andropoulos, would have a special breakfast each morning for us and by the sun’s setting a signature cocktail for the evening. One of my personal favorites was a Portokali Pita – an Orange Pie – and her Mastika drink (a local liquor). YUM!! After the flurry of activity until this point, it was the perfect way to decompress – and we’d absolutely do it again.
Next up, a trip to see my husband’s side of the family in Lami, Makrakomi and Dikastro. We stayed at this beautiful spa in the middle of nowhere, olive groves dotting the landscape in every direction. I must admit I was scared driving in the middle of nowhere but when we drove up we all were very surprised. It was only 10 min drive to the villages, and it was perfect. There, we got to see my father in-laws home and family and my boys got to experience Papou (grandfather) Gus’s story.
The journey continues as we meet up with the rest of the family and we continue to caravan and visit my mom's side of the family. We are on our way to Legaria, my mom's winter home and also where my YiaYia and Papou (grandparents) are buried. I spent many summers here as a kid and all of the old memories were just as fresh as could be. On our way, we meet up with more cousins and visited my mother’s sisters, Thea Argyro (Theo Vasili) and Thea Toula. It was a fortunate meeting, as my Theo Argyro was lost to Alzheimer’s this past November. Unfortunately, all of my mom's sisters have had this ugly disease which is where my passion to walk and raise funds for the Alzheimer’s Association comes from.
So many of these places brought me back to my childhood. Amazing how we see changes, but our environment stays the same. The kids were mesmerized by my parents and their stories of growing up in large Greek families (both with 10 kids in each home!).
Next off to Fontoto where we meet up with my mom's brother and family. The gorgeousness of the mountains was not lost on any of us. Replete with a huge feast, we celelbrated our love of family.
From there, we were off to my dad’s village to meet up with my brothers John and Andrew and with my cousins Kosta and Ourania. Dad, being the youngest of 10, and the only one who went to the US, has so many family members spread across Greece.
I can’t tell you how proud I am of my parents. My father and mother opened their home to two brothers in-law, nephews and nieces over the years. He provided for them until they were married and even build a home for his brother in Mousaki. Working hard, not only for family and extended relations living with them in the States, but often returning money to various family members back in Greece. As my father was sharing his stores, he was emotional and realized “this is where I came from and what I accomplished and I have lived to tell my story to my grandchildren.” A remarkable moment to behold.
Our trip began to wind down, staying briefly in Stephania to see the area where my father’s home used to be….and to celebrate his name day (which was just last week!). August 15 is Panayias – an important day for those of the Orthodox faith. The celebrations are amazing. Having my father celebrate in his native land was such a gift! We celebrated the night before with a big Panarigyi and celebrated with food, drink and dance. The next day we went to church had Artoklasia (the five loaves of this recipe represent the five loaves Jesus blessed that fed 5,000 people. The health and well-being of the family who baked the bread are celebrated in the Artoklasia service) and we say a special prayer for the five loaves.
After the big Paneryeri we all got back in the caravan and spent quality time in the island of Zykinthos to rub our toes in the sand, float in the refreshing waters of the Mediterranean and drink in one more fill of the summer sun. I will always be grateful for this time with my family – I will be grateful for the memories this made for my children – as well as the joy it gave my parents. May we all be blessed to see these memories flourish.