While we lived in Greece, a source of succor from the daily reality of life and work in Athens were trips out of the city via Greece’s new superhighways. A plethora of alpine and seaside jaunts, along with historical destinations, beckoned us and were only a few hours away. On one such trip, just before we moved from Greece, on a wet November weekend, we pointed our VW Golf southwards toward an uncertain destination. I knew I wanted my wife and son to see Mistra, where Byzantium lived out its Indian Summer, and Monemvasia, the Byzantine-Venetian-Ottoman Gibraltar. There was also another destination, at the southernmost tip of the Vatika Peninsula, in the mountains above Neapolis, where my grandfather, Alexandros, was born, and from where my family name, Billinis, derives.
A land so dense in history as Greece cannot help but have riddles, and like navigating modern Greek bureaucracy, asking one question may well lead to more questions, and perhaps unexpected answers. After a lovely evening in Monemvasia, having enjoyed great food in an absolutely lovely pension on the “Rock,” we drank our coffee before we were to start back for Athens. In the café, when I mentioned my last name, Billinis, the proprietress exclaimed, “you are from these parts, just over the mountains. You know,” she said, “I grew up in Mozambique, and knew a Billinis there, before we returned in 1975 after the Portuguese left the colony.” It occurred to me that my late father had once visited this same Billinis relative in Mozambique when he was in the merchant marine in the 1950s. That settled it. “Go to Neapolis; find your family,” the proprietress said. How could we refuse?
The VW Golf is a fine car for Greece, navigating both the barbaric chaos of Athens traffic, the sleek autobahns of the countryside, and the winding hairpin turns of the alpine regions. This vehicle was the best perk of my banking job in Athens. Without any fuss, the Golf took to the uneven mountain tracks of the Vatika, and within an hour, we mounted and descended many microclimates, viewed several rainbows, negotiated passage among goats, and arrived at Neapolis, a charming seaside town, where a café with the name “Billinis” in neon welcomed us. We walked in, ordered coffee from the proprietor, and I asked my son, in Greek, to tell our host his name—“Iannis Billinis.” The owner smiled, asked us where we were from, I said, jokingly, “Athens. No, actually, America.” He knew of Billinises in America, Australia, and elsewhere. I told him that when I was an exchange student in Chile, in a tiny Greek Orthodox Church in Santiago, I met a fellow whose grandmother’s maiden name was Billinis. “Yes,” he nodded, “most of our people went away, some to Athens, others further,” as had my father.
I had attempted to close the circle, and to repatriate, but while the poverty that drove my forefathers out had faded, the gap between the quality of everyday life and particularly career options were sufficiently wide between Greece and the Diaspora that re-emigration made sense still.
“Go to the mountains and find your grandfather,” Billinis said. Obviously, he would not let me pay, and he invited us back.
Nearly thirty years ago, when I was a boy of ten, my late father took me to Neapolis and into the mountains to visit his father’s village, but I had forgotten nearly everything about the trip, except the name of the village, Ano (Upper) Kastania. The road toward the village was a vertical stack of switchbacks, ascending nearly a kilometer into the air. I had remembered this road thirty years before, unpaved, but in spite of new asphalt and partial guardrails, the road still resembled a goat-track. After about a half hour of ascent, descent, and turns punctuated by a warning honk, we arrived at Kato (Lower) Kastania. The village, possessed of several dozen houses in various stages of repair, seemed deserted in mid-day and temperatures just north of freezing, but in passing I saw a small marble plaque commemorating some event whose meaning escaped me, and listing several names, among them, Tzerefos, the last name of my great uncle, a Billinis who borrowed his cousin’s name, Tzerefos, when passing through Ellis Island. Thus, Tzerefos, an assumed name, stuck in America.
It was not the only case of name change. I felt we were “getting warmer” but, since we were nearby, a bank colleague in Athens with origins in the region said that we must visit the Grottos of Kato Kastania, a very interesting underground cave complex complete with stalactites, stalagmites, a guide, and a number of tourists which included Diaspora Greeks, Chinese, and Germans, and local Greeks.
The cave also boasted a café and gift shop, and I chatted with the employee serving drinks, a Romanian lady married to a local. I asked her if she knew of Ano Kastania and the name Billinis. She asked some local men milling about to talk to me and while they knew the name, Billinis, and they knew the village (“if it could be called that”) of Ano Kastania, they said that Billinises did not live in Ano Kastania, never did, and instead originated from the nearby village of Falakros, though many lived in Neapolis and surrounding hamlets.
Disappointed, and needing to start back to Athens, several hours away, we began winding back, but then at some turn we saw a sign that pointed right and upwards to Ano Kastania. Turning to my wife, I said, “shall we?” She said, “we’ve come this far, find out.”
It is interesting how a quick decision, a road taken rather than not taken, can have a transformative effect on one’s life.
I had forgotten much, clearly, and when we entered the hamlet, on a tiny concrete track, we met up with a sturdy, kindly woman in big boots and a winter jacket pruning a tree. I blurted out “My grandfather was from here, he walked out of this village in the 1920s and went into the merchant marine, raised a family in Athens, and was torpedoed at sea in 1943 in the Battle of the Atlantic.”
“I see,” she said, “and his name was. . . .” I replied, “Alexandros Billinis.” She shook her head, “no, son, you must be looking for another village. Where are you from?” I told her we lived in Greece but that we were from America. “Many of our people left, including to America, some still come back, but Billinis is not a name from this village.”
Suddenly, I remembered how much I had forgotten. “Wait,” they had had another name, “Meimetis!” Nodding, she said, “Let’s go.” Getting into the back seat of the Golf, next to our son in his car seat, she said, “drive.” On steep inclines that seem deliberately designed to burn tires, we passed a parked car—with North Carolina plates! I had to concentrate on the road so as not to fall into the ravine, and never got a chance to ask about the car or its North Carolina owner. “Yes,” I said, “my grandfather, or his father, I do not know who, changed his name from Meimetis to Billinis, his mother’s maiden name, because he felt the name Meimetis sounded too Turkish.” To which she replied, “No, the name is not Turkish, it is Albanian, if not Greek, our people were Greeks. Let Auntie explain…”
We stopped at a small, one-story “house,” no more than two rooms, where we met three old people, half the permanent population of Ano Kastania. My wife, my son, our newfound hostess, and the three old people crammed into the room heated by our togetherness and an antique wood-burning stove. Then one of the septuagenarians began:
At the time of the revolution against the Turks, in 1821, the Turks were driven into the citadel of Monemvasia, and in the course of the massacre of the Turkish population, two children were targeted, brothers. One was killed in the Greeks’ rage, the other, jumped into the sea to save himself, saying in Greek, I am Christian, crossing himself. This child, now brother-less, survived, and eventually sired the Meimetis family. His grandson, Kosta, was your grandfather’s father. But they were not Turks, they were fair and decent.
I had heard a slightly different version, that my grandfather’s great-grandfather was born of a mother taken hostage by the Turks in the course of the Greek revolution, and that when the citadel of Monemvasia was taken by the Greeks, out came a pregnant Greek woman, whose child, Haralambos, received the last name (paratsoukli) of Meimetis (son of Mehmet).
I would find out later, in fact, that my ancestor was the child of mixed Muslim-Christian marriage, who converted to Christianity after the Greek War of Independence. This was the most plausible explanation, backed by his baptismal certificate (shown herein) and by his baptismal name, “Haralambos”—”delight in God’s light,” depicting a newly Christian (enlightened) person, combined with a surname, “Meimetis” which reminds both the bearer and the hearer of more exotic origins.
Back at the samovar, we sipped strong Turkish coffee, and our three-year-old son chattered away in Greek. The old folks smiled, as they imparted to a young family the history of their hamlet, fading, like them, into the ages. We exchanged kisses, no eyes were dry, and went out again to the wind. Our hostess lived in Athens but came down every month or so to check on the old folks and tend her home. I did not know which of the fallen-down houses had belonged to Papou Alexandros; neither did my new-found “Aunt.” It did not matter. I felt I had solved a riddle as to my origins.
We left the village, feeling on our shoulders an almost-nudge of a hand from above, as if someone were bidding us goodbye and thanking us for our visit. Many times, in Greece, when I depart a place of some significance or profundity, either historical or familial, I felt a similar hovering, presence bidding me farewell.
To get down the mountain, we had to go up a few switchbacks. There, below us in the distance, we saw the venerable “island” of Monemvasia, which we had left that very morning, shining in the rain –silver and copper, a citadel of Hellenism which survived and absorbed Slavs, Franks, Venetians, and, yes, Turks. Perhaps Great-great-papou Haralambos had Turkish blood in his lineage, or that of all of the others who passed through Monemvasia. His story is the story of Greece, of the Balkans, and really of humanity. I felt proud to have found in the rocky soil of Kastania, a reference point which rooted me, in the lands of my ancestors. Like others who came from there, it was time to leave again for distant shores, back into the Diaspora, which, like Ano Kastania, was also part of my destiny.