Walking down the winding hand-laid drive of native Peloponnesian stone, the stone warms my bare feet. In the stillness of a new day, I wander through dancing butterflies way too busy to be bothered. Silver–dollar-size humming birds buzz up and down, in and out of the colorful flowers. Wondering if the little hummer’s are giant Greek bumblebees, a closer look brings a quick peak at the long beak.
This is Villa Jenna Marie, a few kilometers down a winding seaside road just south of Petalidi, Greece. It’s the funky Mediterranean hideaway of Jimmy “The Detroit Greek” Panagopoulos. Sitting atop cliffs with olive groves, pomegranate trees and grapes vines, the villa overlooks a beautiful secluded beach, a beach carved over the centuries.
But, before I tell you more—allow me to explain how this journey began.
Sitting in a window booth at Jimmy’s New Parthenon Restaurant in Detroit’s Greektown, we were watching the street traffic and drinking coffee.
“Come to Greece and let me show you where I was born and where the greatest olives in the world comes from,” Jimmy said.
”Gee, I’d like to, but…” I said, starting to make an excuse. But, for some reason caught myself, thinking that life doesn’t get longer and one doesn’t get younger.
” I go for six weeks soon; come anytime.”
Before you could say “Opa,” I was making plans to fly to Athens in early September.
The plan was to spend a couple of days in Athens, see the Acropolis and other sights then met Jimmy and drive to Messini, the town where he was born.
Tommy, another Greek friend, picked me up at Athens airport. On the drive to his home we had a disturbing discussion that led to a very disappointing discovery.
“There is no “Opa” in Athens,” Tommy said.
“What?” I said. “The waiter doesn’t bring ouzo soaked cheese, light it on fire and scream, ‘Opa?’”
“No, Opa,” Tommy repeated flatly.
“Because they don’t know about it here.”
“No!” I said.
“So, Opa is just something the Greeks made up to sell cheese in America?
“That’s right,” Tommy said chuckling.
INTO THE FUTURE
This is Athens—the new Athens, exciting, exhilarating, exploding with construction amid chaos, confusion and controversy. Thousands of Greeks working day and night rush to prepare the goddess to welcome the world to Olympia, 2004. It’s been over a century since this hallowed event that began in Greece, has been held in Greece.
In February 2002, Athens took a huge step into a different world when Greece joined the European Union. Life shifted into high gear. Busy, busy, busy, day and night, movement everywhere, traffic all the time and people on the streets at all hours.
In all of the madness of Athens, there is still a strong sense of the old, romantic Greece—it’s there, in the faces of its people. However, with the Euro replacing the drachma, prices have risen and soon, I fear, we’ll see a loss of the old romantic Greece as all night shopping malls, and grocery stores that never close become reality.
Sadly, an era is passing.
Greeks confuse me. They are people who literally spend hours sitting, talking and eating. A more laid back people is hard to find. After a meal, Greeks walk slowly, almost drifting, all the time lazily twirling their worry beads. Each afternoon shops close from 2 or 3 till 6 so owners and workers can—what else—eat, talk and rest.
What confuses me is the insane spell that comes over a Greek when they get behind the wheel of a motorized vehicle, Men, woman, children—hell if Greek dogs and cats could drive they too would become an absolute maniac. Greeks are mind-boggling incorrigible drivers.
Stop signs? Poof! Greeks only stop if another vehicle is less then 10 feet from them. If that other car is of equal size, its blow your horn, cut ‘em off and go.
A complete stop? Ho, ho. The closest thing to that in Athens is a rolling almost stop that comes only if a bus, or a huge red Mercedes truck, is about to permanently put your lights out.
Double lane, no passing zone? Hah! To a Greek that means blow the horn and go like hell when you see any miniscule opening.
Double lane no passing zone on curves? Blow the horn and go, go, go. Speed limit? Radar patrolled? Caution? Hahahahaha. Blow the horn.
I didn’t rent a brilliant yellow car because I liked the color. I haven’t seen this kind of insane driving since the last time I was in northern Alabama on a Saturday night at a dirt track demolition derby.
It is absolutely clear to me, that every Greek man, woman and child comes into this world with one indelible inherent deep, deep fear. That fear is that when their time comes, they will go to Greek hell. That’s a place where vehicles have no horns.
The first day in Athens, I laid down trying to adjust to the 7-hour time difference. Just as I was dozing off there came a noise worse than fingernails on a blackboard.
“Attention, Attention,” a raspy, scratchy, whiskey barrel voice tormented through the open bedroom window. The sound was being amplified through the worst, most annoying, aggravating tinny sounding loud speaker ever manufactured by man.
Politician, I thought.
Walking downstairs, I asked Tommy what was that racket about, adding that I’d like to fire a shot across their bow.
“No, no. no.” Tommy said lowering his voice in a conspiratorial tone. “Those are Gypsies, you no wanna’ mess with ‘em. They’ll steal your underwear while you’re wearing it, and then cut your throat.”
So, added to the chaos of the traffic, are loud grating gypsy commercials heard throughout Athens neighborhoods as nomads wheel trucks loaded with everything from trash to trees for sale.
Athens is bursting with life. There is passion here in these ancient streets.
NEXT STOP HOMETOWN
Friday night Jimmy, his sister and five of his pals gathered for dinner. Dinner in Greece is like a midnight snack here—ten midnight snacks all at once.
Sitting comfortably under the awnings of a waterfront restaurant in the port of Piraeus, we begin eating at 10:30 PM. Jimmy is holding court, sitting at the end of the table; white linen sport coat draped over his shoulders much like a movie star from the 1940s.
There’s lots of wine, lots of Coca-Cola, (Greeks mix Coke with wine) lots of Greek salad, bread and lots of different small fishes followed by a main course. There is lots of lots—too much. No question, these people know how to eat.
The conversation shifts to mostly Greek losing me. Killing time, I’m throwing chunks of bread to the fish to stay awake. The live fish in the harbor, waiting for their turn to be dinner on the table, push the bread around the surface. It ‘s like water bugs skating.
It’s now quarter past midnight—dessert time and by the size of the crowd in all of the restaurants it could have been 8PM in Detroit or New York. Despite the tourist season being over, the joints are loaded with people eating, drinking, talking, and even singing. It’s all so very carefree.
The next day, under a broken cloud Grecian sky, Jimmy and I head southwest toward Messini taking the new highway. We cross the Gefire Isthmou or Corinth Canal, a narrow, single ship-wide passage cut into the Limestone Mountains to allow ships to pass from the Gulf of Corinth to the Aegean Sea.
The canal, an astonishing engineering feat was completed in 1893 after the Greeks talked about it for centuries.
Nearing Mycenae, Jimmy explains that the ruins on the mountaintop I spot is the 13th century stronghold of Achaean kings—kings like the infamous Agamemnon, said to be the most powerful king in all of Greece at the time of the Trojan War. Mycenae was destroyed in 468 B.C. and was pretty much forgotten until Heinrich Schliemann discovered the ruins of ancient Troy in 1874. Think about it, Mycenae slept for over 2300 years.
We drive through Argos and Tripoli and, about halfway to our destination the highway returns to the old road and lots of curves. The billboards on this stretch are of a different nature and take on a new meaning along this section of the road to Kalamata. Instead of insurance, beer or butts the eikonostasi’s advertise death. Eikonostasi’s are small chapel-like memorials erected for those who died at that spot along the highway. At one curve in the old winding road, I count six different shrines.
CAREFUL HOW YOU SAY IT
In a little under three hours we arrive in Messini, Jimmy’s birthplace. He drives past his father’s long-gone olive factory and shows me the exterior of the house he was raised in. People shout “Kalispera,” when they see Jimmy’s Jeep. Once around the town square and we pull up in front of The Chef Restaurant, Jimmy’s hangout, where he visits with boyhood friends.
“Kalispera, Jimmy,” a muscular mustachioed man says smiling.
Jimmy returns the greeting and introduces me to his cousin, George and the food and drink comes.
“When I come home,” Jimmy says holding a glass filled with wine to the light, “ all the wine I drink is only homemade.”
The afternoon slips into evening and, as we start to say good-bye, I figure I’ll show my respect and say something in Greek. With Tommy’s help back in Athens, I’d written down different sayings in Greek. I pulled the paper from my pocket and while holding it under the table studied it.
Getting up to leave, I look at cousin George, smile, pat him on the back and say, “Stokalow.”
George’s smile instantly turns to an angry frown. The waitress looks shocked, starts giggling and covers her face with her hand. Jimmy bursts out laughing.
“What?” I say.
“You better stick to English,” Jimmy tells me— still laughing.
“Why? All I said was have a good day.”
“No, actually what you said to George was ‘Up yours’” like in “Shove it—“ he doesn’t finish. George is laughing now and pats me on the back.
Red faced, I climb into the Jeep.
We drive out for about 30 minutes with Jimmy still chuckling. Just south of the seaside village of Petalidi, Greece, Jimmy wheels the Jeep onto a dirt road. Ahead—the blue of the sea; on each side of the road olive trees and vineyards. At the end of the road, Jimmy turns left and there sits Villa Jenna Marie.
Jimmy unlocks the ornamental gate and we unload the car. Inside, he gives me a brief tour of the villa and announces it’s time for any good Greek to take a nap.
Too geeked to sleep, I walk the beach.
An hour or so later, we sit on the porch sipping coffee, eating Greek cookies, watching the day fade. The first star breaks, it’s the evening star of the west; I feel more settled because this very star, I see from the deck of my home in Michigan.
It’s an early dinner at Olympic Restaurant where “English is spoken.” The owner’s son, Peter, has lived in Toronto and has come home to help Dad who’s getting on in years. It’s about 9:30 p.m. when Peter sets down a big plate of octopus. This is not just any octopus; this is his dad’s specialty. The fresh octopus is placed in a cement mixer and tumbled for a couple of hours to tenderize it. Then it’s thrown on a very hot charcoal grill for a few minutes. Off the grill, the octopus is topped with a mixture of extra-virgin Kalamata olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic and secret Greek herbs.
“The Greeks have a saying,” Jimmy says finishing a mouthful of octopus. “You go to America to make money. You come to Greece to learn how to live.”
CELEBRATE THE DAY
The morning is quiet, sitting here, sipping coffee watching the sun move higher; I realize how peaceful it is, and I am.
The sounds of the sea—a half a dozen colors of blue and green sing a lullaby so soft it soothes the soul. Cotton candy clouds lay across the mountains of Mani across the Messian Bay and the mythical Taygetos Mountains call to you with legend and lore. It is there you’ll find the forest that the god Artemis took his daughter to hide when Zeus, the almighty god of gods, expressed vile plans for her.
Sitting here is hypnotic.
“Kalimera,” Jimmy says breaking the spell. “After coffee, we fish.”
Fishing means snorkeling with spear guns. We are out to get the days lunch and octopus is at the top of the hit list.
For over an hour we search in vain for the elusive octopus.
“It must be something in the tide’s, Jimmy mumbles, as we climb aboard his bright yellow jet boat moored about 20 yards from shore.
“Forget the octopus,” he says, “ Let’s go for a ride.”
“I’ll swim in and get the boat keys,” I tell him.
“That’s beautiful,” he responds sitting down on the boat.
About 10 yards from shore, I spot something foreboding in the water below me.
“Hey Jimmy, there’s an eel below.”
He shakes his head no.
“What do you mean no? It’s a big eel.”
“No,” he shouts, “That’s a sea snake, the only poisonous thing around. Where’s your spear gun?”
“By your feet.”
“Good place,” he laughs loudly.
I smile—life is good, very good. . .in fact it doesn’t get any better.
Later, cousin George joins us for a 4 o’clock lunch on the porch, Greek salad, quails, bread, homemade vino and Greek french-fries (the best I’ve ever tasted because they’re done in olive oil instead of vegetable oil.)
Jimmy again becomes the teacher explaining that the meat of the sea snake is delicious, but that he doesn’t attempt to shoot one unless he’s with someone.
“They’ll chase you if you wound them,” Jimmy tells me. George grunts agreement.
Lunch ends and Jimmy announces that any good Greek would do just one thing now, and he does it. Jimmy laughs as he closes his bedroom door. It is time for rest.
R O A D T R I P
It’s another sunny day and we’re headed for ancient Messini. Dust chases behind a car on a dirt side road to our right as we approach the ruins. Built about 370 B.C. Messini was an effort to block the power of Sparta from spreading.
Arriving at the Arcadian Way Gate, a half mile from the ruins, we find workmen continuing to preserve the site.
Standing among the ruins of Messini surrounded by olive trees, I look up to see another village. From the distance it looks new. It is, in fact, very old. . . a village born out of the ruins.
A soft breeze whistles through the marble pillars and abandoned stone scattered on the ground. The sound is almost that of an ancient melody. Amazingly, part of the ancient city’s water carrier remains. It’s a rounded trough cut in stone, not unlike a bowling alley gutter. Water from the mountains and springs ran throughout the city.
Jimmy sits, gazing out over the ruins. It’s as though he is seeing through past centuries.
In new Messini, folks are preparing for the Holiday of the Icon. Hundreds of years ago, the legend goes, a shepherd discovered the gold impression of mother and child icon while tending to his flock near ancient Messini.
Each September, the priests begin the walk down the mountain at 1:00 a.m., carrying the icon many miles to Messini. The procession, growing as villagers along the way join in, arrives in Messini about mid morning. With musicians playing solemn music, the icon is carried through town. As it passes the old Bishop blesses the people. The procession winds through town and ends at the church, where candles are lighted and respects are offered for nine days.
INTO EACH LIFE RAIN MUST FALL
The usual hypnotic rhythm of the sea is far from a gentle lullaby this morning. The rains came last evening. Even though it was not hard rain, with it came heavy seas.
Slowly at first, deceptively, the dance began. By twilight the sea became more and more frenzied. Somewhere out there, beyond the horizon, perhaps near Africa, deep in the bowels of the Mediterranean Sea, it had occurred. Perhaps an earthquake rumbled and shook under the sea stirring it like an over-filled bathtub. It’s as if the sea belched and set forth a fury that knew no boundaries.
Sometime before midnight, the fury of the wild sea snapped the metal bracket and thick rope holding Jimmy’s jet boat to it’s mooring. Like a toy, the sea threw the sleek yellow racing hull into the waiting rocks of the cliff.
Just after midnight, I’d searched the darkness for the brightness of the yellow boat. In minutes, I spotted it trapped against the jagged rocks. Each wave battering at the body of the $22,000 ski boat.
At dawn it is torn and battered. Floating like a fishing bobber, a large chunk of her topside bounces up and down in the water.
I go back to bed.
By seven, under dark clouds, the boat is gone.
The scene on the beach is frightening. It’s as if an airliner had crashed at sea and debris washed ashore. Life vests float aimlessly in a large tide pool. Chunks of fiberglass, foam padding and the skeleton of the seats are scattered across the wet sand.
Jimmy stares at the ruins, and the rhythm of the sea continues its song that never ceases.
LESSONS IN LIFE
Driving south from the villa along a narrow road, I spot a side road almost hidden between two ancient buildings. Looking like a road less traveled; I turn onto it and start a climb into the clouds, to end at the top of a mountain in the southern most part of Peloponnese.
Entering a village not on any map, I come upon ancient stone and mud houses lining a road wide enough for only one car. Turning a corner, I am in front of the only store in the village. An old woman sits on a rickety chair in front of the door.
A huge grapevine covers the one-story building. With a trunk as thick as a big man’s thigh the vines cover the roof almost hiding the Coca-Cola sign. Deep purple bunches of grapes hang above our heads.
“Kalispera,” (Good evening) I say, and smile.
“Kalispera,” she replies, returning my smile.
Reaching into a cooler the likes of which I haven’t seen since I was a kid, I take a Coke and notice another woman standing behind a dusty cooler in the back of the single room. Lined up on a shelf behind her are dust-covered bottles of Ouzo and other spirits.
“Yassus,” I say. She answers with the same hello.
The Coke and a bottle of water cost ninety cents.
She follows me outside to where the other woman has now been joined by an old man with a cane. She gestures to an empty chair and I sit. I drink, she smiles and the storeowner says something. She too smiles. I smile back.
I point to the grapes above and give them a thumbs up sign, they all respond with something said in Greek and more smiles. We are communicating.
I grab my digital camera and take a picture of the three. As the picture fades in, watching like kids at their first circus, the brightest smiles appear on all three faces. Their smiles light the darkness of the overcast day.
They are amazed; they are delighted . . .we have become friends.
Copyright – JS