Going home to Rizes

Greek village still the most beautiful in the universe

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RIZES, Greece — When I mention our family's village in Greece, I usually write that Rizes is the most beautiful village in the universe.

And it is.

Your family's village might also be the most beautiful. This is possible. I understand that. But this village is mine.

The name means "roots," and it nestles at the root of the mountain of Agios Elias, along a fertile plain in Arcadia, in the heart of the Peloponnesus, where tourists don't go.

When tourists tell me they've been to Greece, they often mean Athens and the islands and grilled octopus and ouzo and the beach. But there is no beach here.

So tourists don't go high up the mountain to the old monastery to see this: the sweet cherry trees in blossom, with their pale pink flowers. And within days, the sour cherries will pop. The potato plants are ready to sprout. The wheat is green in the fields. The apple trees are budding.

At the monastery, I could hear the church bells ringing from down below and kids playing soccer in the square, their shouts echoing on the tiled roofs of the thick-walled houses, each one with a courtyard and grape arbor.

And I thought of my family, my father and uncle and aunts and cousins and grandparents, and the generations upon generations reaching back to before recorded history.

That's when it happened. I didn't see it coming. It started with nothing really, just a catch of breath, and then came the rush of it.

"Don't be embarrassed," said my cousin George Ganios, who was up there with me. "You think you're the first man to cry here? They all do it, my boy. You're in Rizes. You're home."

And it came at me, relentless, all those stories our family would tell at Sunday dinners in America, the extended clan gathered around to listen to the same village stories we'd heard the Sunday before.

How Truman the white mule fell as if dead in the road, until someone ran to tell my grandmother and she said the special prayers to fight the evil eye. When she finished, Truman shot up, snorting and alive.

Or the time my grandfather, Papou Ianni, fell into the well. Or the story of the wolf and the boy, or the time Thea Alexandra caught my dad trying to cheat her out of a piece of sweet bread when they were children. The stories of Sophianos, my great-grandfather's brother, who was a mountain guerrilla and outlaw known as a klepht, and was shot dead by the army as he visited his fiancee in Rizes.

And story after story, of the Italians and Germans during the occupation, and of the Civil War and the famine.

As children, we demanded those stories, and the elders doled them out like candy. It was our way of connecting to the permanence of what had been left behind.

But the other day, I was there.

The first stop was to see my first cousin Kostas Zaharias, a physician at the hospital in Tripoli.

"Where do you want to go first? To the village or up to the mountain?"

To the graveyard, I said, and he nodded.

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