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Aegean Odyssey

Alistair Taylor-Young Downtown Izmir, Turkey at night.

Photo: Alistair Taylor-Young

There's something haunted and tangled about my own family's history hereabouts as well. My dad lived on Chios between the ages of five and seven, so we spend a few days there on our way to Turkey and are welcomed by his cousin Emilia, who is 80; they haven't seen each other in about a lifetime, but they played together here as children. Emilia's aunt Angeliki was, for a brief time in the 1930's, my dad's stepmother. Brief, but intense: there were allegations of starvation and what amounted to a kidnapping. My father, as is his custom, has always offered up a gauzy idyll of round-the-clock frolicking in the backyard, knocking olives off trees with bamboo sticks and gathering resin from the mastic trees for fun and profit. In fact, it is not a very happy story, and it left that branch of my family hurt and embittered.

"This place has a mystique for me," my dad says wistfully. We're sitting on our hotel balcony in the Kambos area, outside the port of Chios—just off the main road, through a gate, and across a courtyard centered around the mánganos, a horse-drawn wheel connected to a well, that gives our hotel its name (Manganos). The setting is beautiful: pear and persimmon trees close by, orange groves beyond, cypresses and the island's signature stone walls in abundance. On a distant hill, a monastery is visible.

Identifying it as Agios Konstantinos, my dad recalls that Angeliki, his stepmother, used to spend her days walking many miles to one monastery or another, taking him, barefoot, along. (On Sundays, he was allowed to wear shoes.) Word started getting back to my grandfather—who was working in the States as a waiter and sending money—that his only child was not thriving, in fact was gradually turning into skin and bones. Whether it's accurate or another kind of possibly inadvertent glossing of history, Angeliki's family's recollection—which dovetails with my father's—is that she loved the boy and took good care of him.

"I never had an unhappy memory of the three years I lived with my stepmother," says my father over the din of the cicadas. What exactly did he do here for three years, I wonder.

"Do?" he says. "I walked to monasteries."

On one notable occasion, the two of them took the boat to the island of Tinos, where an annual pilgrimage celebrates the Assumption of the Virgin. During the service in the crowded church, Angeliki went into a hysterical religious fit and had to be escorted out. "I decided years later that she was probably the main reason I chose psychiatry as a profession," my dad says. "I realized, later on, that she was a very troubled lady."

My grandfather left Turkey for America in 1908, at the age of 16. (His siblings in Smyrna and Alatsata scattered before the fires as well, but my great-grandparents were still there in '22; they fled to Chios.) Years later, while working at the Commodore Hotel in Manhattan, my grandfather became smitten with a coworker, an Irish-American Wellesley girl. They married, and my dad was born in 1927. Two years later, she died. My grandfather was still in his thirties, a widower with a small child. Within a year, his parents arranged his marriage to Angeliki, who had also come from Alatsata and was therefore a patriótissa—one of their own. The couple had planned to live in the States, but even before the ship sailed there were tantrums, outbursts—Angeliki couldn't bear to leave her mother. She went anyway and lasted roughly one miserable year in New York before prevailing upon my grandfather to allow her to return to Chios. But it was conditional. Someone had warned her, If you ever expect to see your husband again, don't go back to Greece without the boy.

"So I was basically sent to Chios," my father says, "as a hostage, at the age of five." My grandfather, unable to both work long hours and take care of a small child, was buying time while he figured out what to do; he asked his brother Vasili, who was living in the village of Thymianá on Chios, to keep an eye on the boy.

Not far from the grocery store Vasili had owned in Thymianá, we sit down to a delicious meal at the Talimi taverna. Over the next few days, we do the Chian grand tour.

In a café in the lively main square of Pyrgi, we drink visináda, a sweet wild-cherry drink, watch a vicious game of távli (backgammon), and look around at the geometric black-and-gray patterns on the houses, unique to this village. Up the road lies the larger medieval city of Mesta, its self-contained Old Town a maze of stone buildings and shady squares. The tour never feels grander than it does at the Argentikon hotel, a restored 16th-century, eight-acre estate—it once belonged to an Italian family called Argenti—whose rose gardens and indigenous, aromatic lemon trees and orange groves sprawl unseen behind a high wall along a Kambos back road. Argentikon has Chios's oldest working mánganos, which our host, Mr. Dorizas, gamely demonstrates for us. Watching him in harness one is acutely aware, despite his commendable forward lean, that this contraption was designed to be pulled by animals, not middle-aged hotel managers in light cotton suits. A drive to the southern tip of the island brings us to Emboriós, with its popular beach of charcoal-colored lava pebbles. Our friends Costis and Mary—London-based Greeks who, like many other Chiot shipowners, return every summer to the home they maintain on the island—spoil us with a late seafood lunch on their patio. We tell them we're headed for Alatsata in a couple of days. "Ah," says Mary, "apénandi." Which means, essentially, "across the way." Greeks will go to any lengths to avoid using the name of the country they still feel took their land.

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