And life goes on.

The last few days in Ikaria were very emotional.  It was difficult to balance such opposing feelings-the sadness of leaving compared with the excitement of returning home.  Our friends in the village had a surprise party in the platia for the children a few days before we left, and our friends in America had a party for us a few days after we arrived home.  We are fortunate to now have two homes.

The morning of July 11th we loaded up the car, left the village and started our 25 hour journey home.  As we walked out of the village we pinned this letter (the Greek version) to the bulletin board.

Just a few of the faces we will miss…

..and a few of the daily sites of Ikaria.

And now that we are home, we have traded one for the other….

The Roads

The View

The Vehicles

The Super Markets

Our Friends

We are truly blessed to now have parea in two countries.
Thank you to the Ikarians for allowing us to be part of Karavostamo,
and thank you to our American friends for welcoming us back with such love and joy.
And a special thank you to all of you who followed us along our journey, supported us, sent us emails, commented on the blog, “skyped” us, fed my husband, cared for my pets, and sent us your love across the miles.

DSC_4994

Bucket List

Part of my dream of living in Greece was to master (or somewhat master) the language.  I have been exposed to Greek all of my life, but I have never spoken it.  I didn’t go to Greek school as a child, but as an adult I took lessons multiple times.  I was sure that if I lived in Greece for a year I would finally be able to understand and speak the language with confidence.

The road to learning to master the language has been a rocky one.  I have to admit that although I understand much more than I did when I arrived, I am not still where I want to be.  I very rarely say an entire sentence correctly, and when I first started talking my kids asked me not to speak in front of their friends.  Yes, funny, I know.  It was at that moment that I realized I had finally become a true mother–you know, someone who embarrasses their children.  (Do note that a few months ago Rea did come to me, unprovoked, and apologized for having made that comment, AND Elias and Rea have been my biggest cheerleaders along the way.)

I have many issues with the language.  I do know the grammar rules after going to lessons two times a week for the past 10 months.  I have been exposed to a huge vocabulary and have sheets upon sheets of papers to prove it–first category verbs, second category verbs, third category verbs, adjectives, synonyms and antonyms, “small words,” and masculine and feminine, singular and plural, objective and subjective, and possessive cases, just to name a few.  However, the words don’t make it from my brain to my mouth. It’s as though my tongue is wrapped with cotton, and I cannot form the sounds.  I also can tell you the beginning part of most words–the first syllable or two, but struggle with the endings because they change with the gender and case of the noun or verb.  Sometimes I know what I want to say but I begin to speak too quickly and make silly errors.  Thankfully, most people are able to get the gist of what I am trying to say.  But sometimes my errors are too funny for them to resist laughing.

A while back I went to my Thea Avgetta’s house, and there were a number of people gathered around the table eating their midday meal.  She invited me to join them but I had just eaten.  I said, “Έφαγα το σπίτι μου.”  I meant to say, “Έφαγα στο σπίτι μου.”  Can you see that there is just one letter difference?  The difference is “I just ATE my house,” versus “I just ate AT my house.”  

Then last night I was at my cousin Petros bakery, and he asked when I was leaving.   I told him Thursday, and then I had to turn around and walk out because I was getting teary-eyed. When I came home I was speaking to my cousin Marina on the phone, and I was telling her the story.   I said, “Peter asked me when I was leaving and I said Thursday. Then I left because I wanted to fart.”  Apparently cry and fart are also only one letter/sound different! That one letter is very important!

Needless to say if I’ve done nothing else, I’ve provided a few laughs for the people around me. I guess I can’t check “mastering the Greek language” off of my bucket list just yet.  But then that’s no reason for me to be upset.  It just means that I’ll have to return every summer to keep working on it.

Fifty-one down. One to go.

Seven days. That’s one more Thursday, one more Friday, one more Saturday, one more Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and one more Wednesday. Then it is all over. Just typing these words caused my eyes to well up with tears. I was given 52 of each of those days, and I cannot believe I am down to my last ones.

In the fall of 2009 an idea popped into my head. I began to toss it around and eventually became brave enough to share it with Chris. We shared it with a few others in the summer of 2011. Then I let it fade away, because it didn’t seem possible. But the idea didn’t die. It kept resurfacing, and I had a choice to make. And the choice wasn’t would I bring my children to live in Ikaria for a year or stay in America. The choice was do I follow a dream or do I regret not following it?

I don’t like regret. So I went for it. With all of the support and love of my husband, I moved the children 5000 miles away and stepped back in time to live in Ikaria. (Beautiful, beautiful Ikaria.) Friends and relatives alike questioned our decision. Many wondered if Chris and I were having marital problems, and some thought we’d never make it here the whole year. Those from Ikaria thought we were crazy, and they often thought they misunderstood what I said. (“You mean you are living in Athens for a year, not Ikaria, right?”) But we weren’t, and we did, and we aren’t. And now that it is over, I know that we made the right choice.

My children came to Greece knowing almost no Greek and are leaving as fairly fluent speakers. They lived without fast food, malls, and movie theaters, in exchange for connecting with a village, swimming in the sea, and playing outside unsupervised. They experienced cultural differences and similarities, and they faced situations where they knew nothing going in but came out the other side successful in one way or another. The education they received didn’t come solely from the 6 hours they spent daily in the school or the 2 hours learning afterward. It came from their interactions with their teachers, their classmates, their cousins and relatives, the yiayias and papous of the village, the store owners, and each other. Their lives have been enriched in more ways than I ever could have imagined.

We were also given a gift this year–completely unexpected and unpredicted, We received the gift of time. In America I work. I cook and clean. I shop and run errands, and I taxi the kids from place to place daily. I talk on the phone and text. I go out with my friends and away with my husband. I rush from place to place and event to event. I didn’t do that here. For an entire year I did nothing other than give my attention to my children. We ate dinner together every. single. night. Three hundred forty-eight days and counting. We played games. We went on hikes. We held hands as we walked down to the platia. We cleaned together and folded laundry together. We watched Little House on the Prairie and a documentary on Elmo. We sat by the fire and read. We visited new places and explored the area around us. We talked about what we missed in America, and we cried together when we ached too much. We gave lots of hugs, and we even fought now and again. And one of our favorite things was that almost every night we gathered in the bedroom and I read to them. Children grow quickly and the time we have with them is only a fraction of their lives. I am so thankful that I was given this year with my kids in a way I wouldn’t have had , had we spent the past year at home.

Is it any wonder that I can’t bring myself to think about packing or leaving? It’s not that I don’t miss my family and friends. I do! And it’s not that I can wait for the four of us to be reunited with Chris–I can’t! It’s just that I had a dream that I didn’t know if ever would come true, but it did. And I was able to live it. And I loved it. And I am just not ready to see it end. A year sounds like a very long time. But 52 weeks fly right by.

Us with our village behind us

Us , in Karavostamo

Oakmont Greek Food Festival

The Oakmont Greek Orthodox Church has its food festival the last weekend of June every year.  I went almost every year growing up when I lived in Pittsburgh. I danced for the audience when I was in elementary school and then again when I was in high school.  I volunteered  for many years with set up, baking, and serving.  And although we’ve lived in Lancaster for 13 years now, we often go back to Pittsburgh specifically for the festival.  In my opinion it’s one of the best festivals out there.  There’s the food–the pastichio and moussaka and chicken and rice, the gyros and souvlaki, the loukoumades and the pastries– the live music, the outside seating, the beer tent, and of course my family and friends and all of the Ikarians from Pittsburgh, all in one place for three weekend nights in a row.  Traditional dancers, from school age to adults, put on shows in the evenings, dancing in costumes, dancing on tables, and waving the Greek flag with pride.  Later on in the night everyone else dances for hours.

I was well aware that this past weekend all of my family and cousins would be together in Oakmont, enjoying the festival.  Of course I thought of them and wondered what they were doing.  But as it turns out, we had our “own” Oakmont Festival right here in Ikaria, which made me feel just a bit closer to home.

On Friday evening Elias and Rea had a dance performance in Agios Kyrikos.  It was their second and final show–an opportunity for the dance teachers to showcase the work they did with their students over the year.  Just as with the food festival, there were multiple groups of dancers ranging in ages from  young to adult.  For this performance the dancers were all given traditional costumes to wear, and they performed outside with chairs set up all around for others to watch.  As the kids danced, the sun set and the string of lights came on.  I looked around and remembered that in a few short hours my niece and nephew would be doing the same thing that my kids were doing.  My sister would be watching from the side, along with my mother and other family members, and I was watching with my father and cousins cheering them on.  “CHECK” in the box for traditional Greek dance performances.

On Saturday and Sunday the young people in Karavostamo were setting up, preparing for a panagiri that was going to be held in our village on Monday.  There were tables to be set up, leaves to be raked, lights to be hung, potatoes to be peeled and food to be prepped.  Since this festival is run by the young, it wasn’t my place to volunteer.  After all, I am a mother.  So instead of helping, I sent Elias and his cousin, Zach, up to help the group.  They went up to the church and didn’t come back for hours–“CHECK” in the box for volunteering for the weekend.

And on both Sunday night and Monday night we went to a panagiri. Sunday’s panagiri was in a small mountainous town of Droutsoula–a town with only nine people living there over the fall and winter months!  We went with my father and our cousins and ate goat wrapped in paper, Greek salad, crusty bread, Greek pastries and Greek coffees.  The band played and we all danced the Kariotiko, the Sousta, and the Kalamatiano.   “CHECK” for live Greek music, dancing and food!

Our imaginary Oakmont Festival concluded on Monday night when we walked out of our door, down the street 100 yards and arrived at the church, where the panagiri was being held.  Unlike the larger panagiris of Karavostamo that are held in the river bed, this one is held on the hillside adjacent to the church.  The tables are terraced along the slopes and from almost every seat you can see the small cement dance circle under the trees.  Because it is early in the summer season, there weren’t a lot of people, comparatively speaking.  The dance floor never became too crowded, and we were able to dance much more comfortably than the night before.  Rea and her friends danced for hours on end, while Elias and Zach hung out with their friends in the church yard.  I did a bit of dancing after I ate more traditional Greek food and drank a beer with my cousins Chris, Stella, and Sofia.  As the clock moved forward, I sat with Marina and watched our girls dance until they were the last young ones out there.  At 4:30 am we walked back to the house and crashed.  Although we didn’t dance until the sun came up, I can “CHECK”  beer tent off of the list.

So, although we weren’t in Oakmont we did just about everything we would have done had we been in Pittsburgh for the weekend–volunteered, watched dancers, listened to live music, danced the Kariotiko, ate Greek food and pastries, and spent time with family and friends. Knowing that the calendar was going to turn from June to July this weekend made me a bit misty eyed as I thought about leaving.  But after a weekend of realizing that so much of what I have here can be found in America, I am reminded of all that we have waiting for us at home.
** And as an added footnote, when we go to Pittsburgh for the festival we often celebrate Rea’s birthday.  It was no different here.  On Saturday night we had a party for Rea with her friends.

Another Treasure(s)

Just when I begin to think that the island has nothing else new to offer, we find something else! With less than three weeks left in Ikaria for the year, we discovered a little known hidden treasure.  Last Sunday my friend Efthimia invited us to go with her and her daughters, Avgi and Sotiria, to the other side of the island to visit Drakano Castle (which we visited last summer), to swim at the beach in Faros (where the children had their field trip), and to visit a monastery in the town of Xilositri.

The monastery, which I hadn’t known about, had been active until 2012, when the last nun living there passed away.  We arrived, expecting to find it closed and planned on walking around the perimeter to just view the property, but when the kids were sitting in the shade, leaning against the gate, it popped open and a man was standing there.  He is here from Athens cleaning the property with a few other nuns, and it just so happened he was at the monastery when we stopped by.  He was kind enough to show us around.

The property isn’t that large, but it has amazing views of the sea and the mountains.  A number of the buildings had crumbled or had been destroyed in the fires on the island in 1993.  During the fires the residents worked hard to protect the church, and it wasn’t damaged at all.  As with all churches we have seen in Greece it has its own unique beauty, including a hand crafted, painted wooden alter.  Many of the rooms and buildings haven’t been used for years, and the kids had fun discovering things that were “quite old”–including a rotary phone which I had to explain to them how to work.

I didn’t learn a lot about the history of the monastery, but I do believe that it was built in the 1700’s.  I really hope that they are able to preserve it and do something with the property.  It was such an amazing place, and I felt very fortunate that a caretaker was there and we were able to see inside.  It would be a shame if other’s aren’t able to enjoy it.


The remainder of the day we explored Drakano again, and the kids enjoyed running around the ruins.  However, I think that they enjoyed the two-hour swim that followed the most.  Later in the evening we stopped by a wedding of a friend of Etfhimia. Sofia and the boys and I returned to Karavostamo after the ceremony, but Rea stayed on with her friends to enjoy the celebration.

This week Sofia and Stella’s brother, Chris, returned with his son Zach (who was here last summer as well).  We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to show them the hidden cave, which Sofia and I think is one of the best finds of the island.  Sofia brought along gloves and a rope so that we could travel further into the cave.  After sliding down a slippery and muddy slope we entered a larger, open area with more amazing rock stalactite and stalagmites.  Some of them were much crystalized and some reminded us of ocean coral.  We also saw a rope hanging from the roof and couldn’t figure out how it got there until Zach R. figured out it was a long root.  The closer we looked, we saw roots everywhere.

And while I share treasures, I will share these two photos.  My father swimming with the kids, and the “Super Moon” of 2013 rising of Ikaria.

Elias, Papou, Rea, and Zach

Elias, Papou, Rea, and Zach

Super Moon, June 2013

Super Moon, June 2013

So Close, Yet So Far

Sometimes I forget that I live on an island in the middle of the Aegean.  I mean, I don’t really forget.  I see the beautiful blues everywhere I go so it’s hard to not take notice.  But what I forget is how hard it is to get places when you live in the middle of a sea.

Last summer, shortly after we arrived, Chris and I took the kids to Samos for a few days, with the hopes of traveling from there to Turkey for a day.  We had purchased ferry tickets from Ikaria to Samos, but the travel agents here don’t sell ferry tickets to Turkey.  We were told to buy the tickets when we arrived in Samos.  When we arrived I tried to purchase tickets,  but I was told that the ferries were all sold out during the length of our stay in Samos.   Of course we made the best of our time in Samos, but needless to say, we were frustrated.  Turkey is so close.  But so far away.

So the weekend before last we had the opportunity to travel to Turkey and visit the ruins of Ephesus with my step-brother-in-law, Greg.  As a professor of languages, he tries to take time every summer to travel abroad, visiting various countries to keep his skills current.  He LOVES languages and always has…he is fluent in 5 or 6 (or 7) languages and can speak more languages than I have fingers on my hands.  Early spring he emailed me, letting me know that he was going to be in Turkey in June.  I told him 1) we wanted to meet him there and 2) he was going to be so close to Ikaria, he needed to come visit.  For months we tried and tried to find a way to make it work.  The dates were fixed because the kids didn’t want to miss the last day of school (June 14), and because Greg had plans to be somewhere else by June 18.  It was so difficult because the boat schedule for June wasn’t available–until the first week of June.  Every few weeks, beginning in March, I visited the ferry ticket office and asked if the schedule was out.  And every time the woman would shake her head and say, “Oxi akoma,“.   I was fine with “Not yet” throughout March and April, but by mid May I was just annoyed.  I kept telling Greg that sooner or later we’d find out if the kids and I could make it to Turkey, as long as he was flexible and didn’t mind last-minute plans.  I knew eventually the schedule would have to surface.

When it finally did, it looked as though it was not going to be possible for us to make the trip.  Boat schedules came out with new times and days beginning on June 14.  We needed to take a ferry to Samos, which although is only a stones throw away (10 nautical miles) can take 6 hours to get to from Ikaria.  Yes, you read that right, and I agree…I could probably swim there faster than that.  There are two ports on Ikaria and two ports on Samos, and one small island in-between. So from the first stop in Ikaria (Evdilos) to the second stop in Samos (Vathy) there are three extra dockings, resulting in an extraordinarily long trip for such a short distance.   Keep in mind the ferries don’t run everyday, so in addition we had to throw that fact into the loop.  And once we arrived in Samos, we would have to take another boat from Vathy to Kusadasi, Turkey. In short, by the time we would arrive in Samos, we’d be too late for the ferry to Turkey.  Later during that first week of June we found out another boat was being put on the schedule, shortening the trip to an amazing 1.5 hours!  Again, I got my hopes up, thinking it was going to be possible, only to find out that the although the trip was direct, the ferry would be docking at the port closest to Ikaria–an hour by car from the port where the ferries leave for Turkey.  It would arrive at 4;30, but the ferry for Kusadasi would be leaving at 5pm.   So on June 11th I talked to Greg and finally conceded to the fact that we were not going to be able to make the trip to meet him, but still hoped he’d be able to visit us.

Twenty-four hours later I called him back and told him things had changed!  Without boring you with details, we found a small boat that would take us early in the morning to Samos, with plenty of time to make our way to the 5pm ferry to Turkey!  We left Friday morning from Karavostamo at 7:15 am, ferried to Samos, spent the day there and arrived at the hotel in Turkey at almost 8:00pm.  Saturday we spent touring a tiny piece of Turkey, and beginning early Sunday morning (7:00am) we began the trip back to Karavostamo.  Fifteen hours later we found our way into the house…delirious from four ferry rides, two bus trips, a taxi ride, and various trips in the hotel “shuttle”–along with a day of site seeing!  It was A LOT of waiting and planning and fretting and a lot of travel for 36 hours, but so very worth it!

What was so special about going to Turkey?  And why would I want to do that, considering the Greeks and the Turks have had their fair share of “disagreements” in the past?  I wanted to see the ancient Greek city that in the first century BC was one of the largest Mediterranean cities of its time, housing over 250,000 people.  I believe that only 15% of the town has been excavated, including an enormous library, second only to the library in Alexandria, Egypt.  What remains is the impressive two-story facade of the building, which at one point held over 12,000 scrolls.  We walked the marble streets, sat in the Odeon theater created for political meetings as well as social events and concerts, pretended to shop in the ancient markets, saw where they got water from the fresh springs, and even visited the public latrines.  From the minute we arrived the latrines were a high priority to find for the kids.  They couldn’t imagine a large public restroom where “toilets” were lined up right next to each other with no stalls or partitions.   A  gutter of clean flowing water ran in front of the long marble benches so that the people could dip in a stick with a sponge in order to clean themselves afterward.  We found out that the wealthy often sent their slaves/servants in advance in order to “warm” the marble before they took their turn.

We also visited an amazing part of Ephesus still being excavated–the terrace houses or as we concluded, the rich neighborhood of Ephesus!  These homes had the most amazing mosaic tiled floors, marble walls, and frescos–so many of which were preserved to perfection.  As we traveled through this “extra” exhibit we saw a sign describing this project as “Solving the World’s Largest Jigsaw Puzzle.”  It was amazing to see how the archeologists are able to piece together the pieces that they find and recreate the walls, pillars, pipes, and floors so that visitors can see what life was like for people who lived over 2000 years ago.

After touring Ephesus with Greg and Sofia and Antoni (I can’t imagine an adventure without the two of them along), we walked around the town of Selcuk, Turkey, giving us the opportunity to take in a bit of the Turkish culture.  We visited a mosque, saw both ancient baths and the Temple of Artemis (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) from afar, helped tie a few knots in a rug at a turkish rug factory, ate fruit, Turkish ice cream, and a doner kebab from the weekly market, and returned to our hotel with time remaining for a night swim.  Early Sunday morning we loaded the first ferry of the day and brought Greg back to the island with us for a short stay.

The trip to Turkey and  Ephesus was well worth the two days of traveling, the expensive ferry ride from Samos to Turkey, the port taxes, and the Turkish Visas.  We packed as much in as we could during our 24 hour stay, and I am so glad Greg is a go-with-the-flow kind of traveler.  I can’t believe that 48 hours out I didn’t think we were going to be able to pull it off!  Amazed and thankful how opportunities present themselves; you just have to be willing to take them when they are in front of you!  I have to say that I have seen a number of archeological sites over the years, and I do believe that Ephesus was the most impressive I have ever seen.  If you ever have the chance, GO!  But not by way of Ikaria.


The Beginning of the End

The ticker on the right of the page is beginning to count in days instead of months.  There were days in January when looking at “6 Months to go” made me well up with tears.  I was struggling with learning Greek (who am I kidding…I still am), and it seemed to me that all I did was spend time in the kitchen, prepare the kids American lessons, or work with the kids on their lessons–while spending time in the kitchen cleaning up dinners and snacks.  And now, there are only four weeks left until we are on a plane to return to life as we knew it.

Last Monday the entire school took a field trip, and today was the last day of school for the kids.  The end of the year was easier here than it seems it was for my friends in America.  We had no end of the year projects, poetry presentations, major exams, band or choir concerts, or awards ceremonies.  Instead, almost every day for the past two weeks the kids have come home from school, completed the school work I assigned them, and then we all trotted down the hill to swim in the sea.  And for the next 28 days swimming is about the only thing on our agenda!

I remember the day last fall when I heard and then saw the entire school walking past the house headed to the church for their ekdromie.  It was a field trip that was “requested” by the students, and the teacher’s obliged.  Throughout the year they had a few other field trips to the flat court-yard around the church, and one day this spring they even all walked up to the pevka, or pine forest in the upper village to spend a morning.  In addition, every year all the schools take a bus to another place on the island for a “real” field trip.  This year the students from Karavostamo headed to Faros, a beautiful seaside town an hour away.  (And in case you are wondering, Zach did get car sick–the last five minutes of the bus ride.)

When I received the notice they were going on the ekdromie I asked the kids what they would do in Faros.  I was told they would do the same things they do at school and the same things they did on the closer field trips….they would play soccer, run around with their friends, and have a lot of unorganized fun.  There were a number of parents who drove along separately to accompany the kids–but not as chaperones, like we have in America.  Rather, they went to enjoy the day by the sea with their friends, just like the kids.

The bus did make one stop before reaching the town of Faros, and that was at the studio of a woodworker who lives on the island.  The gentleman finds drift wood and old trees and carves them into works of art, just like his father and grandfather did.  A number of the items he makes are religious, including wooden icons, and others are dictated by the shape of the wood, such as animals and mythical creatures.  The pieces he carves are enormous and can be seen in various places on the island.  There is a large owl outside of the elementary school in Karavostamo and there are two of his pieces in the Ikarian airport.

NMS_4458

In Faros, the kids did exactly what the said they would do.  I found Elias playing soccer on a small grass field, Rea played in the sand with her friends.  Zach bought a fishing net and he spent the majority of the day trying to catch fish–which he was successful in doing, snagging four tiny ones that he gave to his friend.  The entire “student body” sat down at a small taverna at one long table (although the oldest boys from the school sat at a table of their own) to eat souvlaki, french fries, Greek salad, and bread.  The teachers sat at another taverna and drank their coffee from afar, enjoying their ekdromie as well.

For the last day of school the students played games by class.  The parents came and watched, while the children cheered each other on.  The best game to watch, by far, was the “blindfolded feed your partner yogurt” game.  The parents were laughing so hard they were rolling and the kids were covered in yogurt.  I am fairly certain that this is a game my kids will want to replicate with their friends when we return.

Of course when the games were over the students and the parents all headed down to the platia for a few hours of relaxing and fun.  The kids will return to school tomorrow to pick up their report cards, and then there will be a small party in the platia.  My kids, however, will be missing that because we are headed on our last ekdromie before we leave the island.  We are off to Ephesus in Turkey for one final educational experience!

It’s hard to believe that my kids have finished another year of school.  And it’s amazing to see how far they have come.  I remember sending them out the door that first day of school, being so scared for them, wondering how they were going to survive in a school where they didn’t know the language.  Today I sent them out of the house as fluent Greek speakers (for the most part) for the last time as students in a “village” school.   It was a school year completely unlike anything my children ever would have had the opportunity to experience in America.  A year I wouldn’t trade for anything.

We may have to return to life “as we knew it,” and there will be many things we have no control over, such as the end of the year madness of the American schools.  However, maybe when we return we can bring back with us the “life as we now know it”– a little more free play, a little more relaxing, and a little more time with family and friends.