Sunday, September 26, 2010

Chapter I - The Land of Homer

Our story really begins on island of Chios in the eastern Aegean Sea, the place where our family hails from. More accurately, the village of Lagada, a tiny fishing village a few kilometres north of Chios town, on the east coast of the island.

Map of Chios - Eastern Aegean
In 1998 I had the chance to return to the family island, the village. The historian in me had already set about researching the background of Chios, one of the largest islands in the Aegean with its mountainous landscapes, ornate villages and beautiful beaches. The island is perhaps most famous now for being the only place where masticha trees grow; the resin from these ancient squatters has been the island’s source of wealth for thousands of years and continues as such where other items like Chian wine, a luxury item of the ancient world, have faded into the realm of memory. Masticha has been used in everything from chewing gum, alcohol and medicines to glue, nail polish and instrument lacquer to name a few. There are several medieval masticha villages (including Pyrgi, Olympi, Mesta) which are well worth a visit if only to see the dizzying array of buildings covered top-to-bottom with black and white geometric patterns.

The island is also known as one of the possible birthplaces of the poet Homer, to whom the epic Iliad and Odyssey have been attributed for ages. Homer has generally been thought to have been born c. 850B.C., four hundred years before the historian Herodotos. For hundreds of years afterward, there was a guild of bards on Chios known as the Homeridae (the Sons of Homer) who specialized in Homeric recitation.

The first colonist of Chios is said to have been Oinopionas, a grandson of King Minos of Crete. Oinopionas was said to have brought the art of viticulture to the island thereby teaching the inhabitants to make the wine for which Chios would later be so renowned. Oinopionas had a daughter whose name was Chiona, whom the island was said to be named for.

Reproduction of Chios' ancient seal
During the classical period of antiquity, Chios was one of the original twelve members of the Ionian league, taking as its symbol the Sphinx for almost 900 years.  Amphorae bearing the Sphinx and grape seal have been found as far away as Gaul, Upper Egypt and Eastern Russia. Shipping and trade have always been part and parcel of Chios and its people, as it was and is for many islands. Though the island is vast and varied in its terrain, the sea is a part of everyone’s lives, everything. The sea has surrounded it, created it, destroyed parts and given birth to others. As with many island cultures, the sea has influenced music and poetry, trade and tragedy. It allowed people to settle on the island, to find refuge, but also to escape it, however reluctantly.

The small village of Lagada, where the Haviaras family comes from, produced mainly two things, fishermen and merchant marines. Though the name ‘Haviaras’ is derived from the word for caviar, my grandfather entered the merchant navy during World War II, the sea being the vehicle by which he would begin his own Odyssey to America.

I should not get ahead of myself however, for there is one thing that shaped the place where my grandparents came from perhaps more than the crystalline globules of the much sought-after masticha trees – WAR.


There were three gateways though which the members of our family funnelled into America: the Atlantic Ocean, Ellis Island and lastly, Rosedale Lunch, the diner begun by my grandfather sometime around 1949 at
11506 Woodward Avenue, Detroit, Michigan.

Rosedale Lunch became a sort of vessel of Americanization for those first members of the family who came from Greece to America after the war. The diner was a doorway to all that the USA had to offer. People went in as travel-weary Greeks each carrying their own worries and sad experiences, armed with resilience and the hope of something better. After a metamorphosis that involved trials of dish washing, peeling potatoes, making soups and flipping burgers, they came out as Americans, they came out as artists, military men, engineers and accountants, dreamers and even crooks.

As a child much later on, I remember crossing the border from Windsor, Ontario to Detroit every Saturday or Sunday to visit the two short, elderly people that I called Yia Yia and Papou (Grandmother and Grandfather), my father’s parents. I could not really speak with them because of the language barrier (they had never attained their comfort level with the English language) but I remember feeling their sense of pride in their grandsons, my younger brother and I, a warm affection.

My grandparents’ sharp, humorous and quick mimetic attempts at communication always got the message to us. If words failed, waiving arms, shoulder shrugs and an extensive repertoire of sighs, whistles and other sounds would get their meaning across. Usually the meaning revolved around food. Even though, by the time I was born, the diner had closed, they still served up the works. Some of my fondest memories are of cornucopic Saturdays and Sundays, running about with my brother and cousins getting into mischief and refuelling at the table of plenty that was my grandparents’ kitchen table. Mountains of stuffed vine leaves, creamy pastichio, steaming lemon rice soup, platters of cumin meat balls and all manner of honeyed sweets brought all of us to a tingling euphoria. It was all made fresh, all with an extra measure of love because we were family. If you loved someone and wanted to make them feel good, you fed them. In a way, Rosedale Lunch went on living after the lights on Woodward Avenue dimmed. Indeed the very pots and pans from that family diner are still being used by myself and others.

But why write a blog about this? Good question. As I get older, I find myself wondering more and more about these two loving people, whom I did not know very well but to whom I am eternally grateful for the risks they took to come to America, the happy memories and their kindness. Where did they come from? And how?

Polykarpos and Ploumi Haviaras - Detroit 1967
There are many questions to be answered. Admittedly, I do not have all the answers, lost as they are to time and the elements of humanness. This blog is not only an ongoing exercise in research and genealogy, it is also a record, a tribute to people whom I did not know very well but who, I know with absolute certainty, loved and trusted their family very much.

I will share with you, dear readers, anything useful that may aid your own research along the way. Your comments are welcome as well as any helpful tips you may have for me. Though this is the story of one branch of our particular family, it is also a story that likely rings true for many families who came to America from far abroad in the hope of creating something better for themselves, a future for their children.

I hope you enjoy…