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Aegean Odyssey

Alistair Taylor-Young Downtown Izmir, Turkey at night.

Photo: Alistair Taylor-Young

Angeliki, like her fellow Greeks from apénandi, was left to an unhappy fate on shore, watching as the ships that represented all they wanted—for the Smyrnean Greeks, salvation; for Angeliki, her stepchild—steamed toward the open sea. Back on Chios, she lived with her family, who later revealed that she grew disconsolate and gradually deteriorated; they said she would often watch approaching ships and wonder who might be on them.

"They faulted my father for not having done right by her," my dad says now, "but they knew little of the tortured life he'd had with her. They could only see my father as having been unnecessarily cruel in abandoning her."

Angeliki's family eventually sent her to the asylum of Dafni, outside Athens. While trapped there during the Nazi occupation, this well-meaning but disturbed woman, who had been suspected of undernourishing her charge, died of starvation.

On Chios, her descendants—and step-descendants—are sitting happily down to dinner at O Kambos, the taverna owned by Emilia's son, which occupies the ground floor of the house my dad lived in during those years with Angeliki—his old room, in fact, is now part of the taverna. Tonight we're out back, at a table by the olive trees. The mood is light and the place is packed, even when we leave well after midnight. Back in our rooms at Manganos, we hear loud Turkish music coming from over a nearby hill.

Of course we do. It's been a week of cultural and emotional whiplash. Istanbul-born hoteliers with a passion for Mikis Theodorakis. Luxe Greek hotels created from rundown Italian estates. Turks from Bulgaria. Turks from Miami. Technically Turkish self-described Cretans who've spent their entire lives in the formerly Greek Turkish village that my Greek grandfather—a Turkish citizen, by the way—called home. The crazy, often overlapping, language, food, gestures, ruins, airspace of two chronic antagonists whose differences and similarities seem both crucial and beside the point. And, yes, that painful family saga, which, seen up close with some of the players in the very place it unfolded, is even more heartrending than I'd always imagined it.

Not long ago, my father's first cousin Thalia, a teacher and tutor who now lives in Athens, sent him a wonderful letter, handwritten in English, that filled some of the gaps in the family history. Here is some of what Thalia wrote:

"To be honest, I and all the children who knew [Angeliki] at that time avoided discussing this sad story because it hurts us….I remember her, a rather tall woman with black hair, good-looking, embroidering, playing her mandolíno and singing, attached to her mother. She was the fourth child of the family; her father was buying and selling quantities of produce from their village of Alatsata. She had gone to school and got the basic education of the times. Her father died young, and Marigitsa, her mother, had to bring the children up. They were not rich, but they had their own big house, fields, and they lived well until they were forced to become refugees and go to Chios. You remember the place opposite the school. It's the place you lived.

"From the moment she lost you she collapsed. I will never forget the day she knocked down her mandolíno and never played again....Her situation was hopeless, so they decided to send her to a hospital in Athens. My brother Nikos visited her at times (he was studying at the university). One day during the German occupation, he was informed that she died. He went to the hospital and they gave him her engagement ring (vera) with your father's name. I don't know what happened to it. She never took it off her finger. In lucid intervals she always hoped she would meet again with you and her husband. Well, I think I have written a lot.... Let bygones be bygones forever."

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