Sunday, November 7, 2010

Chapter III - The Wine Dark Sea

Aegean Sea
I know the “Wine Dark Sea” is a much-quoted turn of Homeric phrase but I am going to use it here nevertheless for in three words it depicts the great vastness of the sea, a sense of loneliness and wonder. I don’t think Homer would have minded if a fellow Chiotico borrowed this, especially as the sea, so strong a character in his life and every other generation of Hellenes, played such a central role.

For my grandparents, the sea surrounded the place where they were born and met, the sea separated them once my Papou left the island, the sea, that vast battle ground of ages would have been the canvas of sorrow on which my Yia Yia would have transcribed her worries, dark and looming as it were. And yet, the sea would have been a place of hope. Yia Yia was not a very social person and I can imagine that during the occupation, even less so. But perhaps, when the mist of early morning crept up the hill from the harbour of Lagada, she ventured out from their stone dwelling to go the water’s edge, to utter a prayer for the safety of her husband and the child that would arrive imminently.

Staring out to sea, Yia Yia would have wondered where Papou was, if his merchant ship had entered the lists of countless others sunk by German U-Boats. Then again, there may have been another thought that might have been chipping away at the hard edges of worry, that Papou would make it to America and that he would send for them. Both would have been possible but as is the way of things in that ancient land, it was not good to think of happy things until they actually happened, it was more important to address the darkness of thoughts and worries than dwell on hope. Hope is to remain hidden and unvoiced, this to avoid jinxing it. A Greek, when presented with going to either a funeral or a wedding, will always choose the funeral because that is what you do. Not because they enjoy it, but rather because that is what requires addressing, that is when others need you most. The happiness will take care of itself.

Ruined stone dwellings of Lagada village
where Ploumi lived with her son Manoual
No letter came to Chios and Yia Yia gave birth to my uncle. I don’t know where. Perhaps in the little stone house attended by the village midwife and some of the other black-clad ladies, all young at the time but no doubt showing early wrinkles in the brow and around the eyes as they all carried a weight that Atlas would not easily shrug.

The baby was named Manoual and he came into a world occupied: by Germans and Italians, by women and worry. He would have to grow up quickly with little time for boyhood games. He would not meet is father for eight long years. I imagine that when he was old enough, Yia Yia would have explained to him that his father was at sea on a ship far away, and that he was to pray for his safe return. My uncle might have gone with my Yia Yia into the hills to pick wild greens for food, and other items not taken by the occupying forces. Perhaps he ran around with some of the other boys, his cousins Emanoual, Zani and others, pretending to shoot at German and Italian soldiers with sticks or toy guns?

Whenever I imagine the Greek Islands, I hear music. Island music is generally happier and more upbeat than that of the mainland which is dark, aggressive. However, during those dark years, how can the music have been anything but dark and brooding? Mournful chants would have wept out of the doors of Nea Moni up on the mountain and the harbour of Lagada must have been silent except for the occasional record playing Wagner or Pucini for soldiers dining at one of the few tavernas still open to keep the unwanted clientele happy and distracted.

Harbour of Lagada
 I need to find out more details about the life of the people of Chios and our village during this time, but it was probably a time of trepidation, an exhaustive state of constant alertness, especially for someone with a small child. When my uncle was older he began going down to the harbour and looking out to sea, wondering about the father he had never met, perhaps picturing him heroically manning the barrels of a deckside canon on the ship he worked on. Did he know that his father was a cook on a ship? Did he know that every person on board that ship was risking his life daily, that they were constantly under threat of having a German torpedo rip a hole in the side of their vessel? Probably not. The questions were likely more simple than that: what does my father look like? Will he like me? Will he ever come and take Mama and I away from here?

If my Yia Yia and my uncle were lonely, I can only imagine what my Papou must have been feeling when he stood on the deck of his ship staring out to sea. The break from the sweaty environment of the kitchens would have brought the welcome freshness of sea air on a good day or near hurricane gusts of Atlantic wind that would not even have allowed him to light the cigarettes he had started smoking. He could not have helped but be plagued by worry for his wife and the child she had been expecting when he left the island. For him, as for most other Greek men with family, children or lovers, it must have been like leaving Ithaka behind for Odysseus, uncertain how long the war would go on or whether they would ever see home again.

US Navy cooks at work in the 1940s -
photo from Naval Slide Collection
Apparently, on ship, they would receive reports of other merchant navy vessels that had come under the guns of Germans destroyers and U-Boats and many of the crewmen of these unfortunate ships turned out to be friends and relatives of my Papou. The lists of dead men known to him must have weighed heavily, especially since he had a wife and child depending on him.
It might have been as he stood alone on the deck during one of his breaks, watching a lonely sunset, his pea coat wrapped tightly about him, collar up, that he must have taken the decision to do what any man with something to loose might have taken. Tossing his cigarette into the sea, determined not to get blown away by the Germans like so many others, he decided to jump ship. And where better to do that than their next port: New York City.

The sea had taken him there safely but there was still another hurdle. Many men un-wanting of death were doing the same thing, so it did not take US Immigration long to find Papou and give him the same options there were giving everyone else: incarceration until the end of the war when he would be sent back to Greece for punishment or join the US Navy. And like most others, Papou chose to serve and went from a Greek Merchant Navy vessel to an American Navy ship. The two constants in all of this were his role as a cook and second, the thoughts he had of being reunited with Yia Yia and his child.

As we all know, the war to end all wars, finally ended in 1945 and as the world rejoiced it also set about picking up the pieces of a life blown to smithereens. Families scattered to the four winds had to find their way home to places and loved ones, their own Ithacas.

Papou met up with a cousin of his in New York and began to work in a restaurant there. I do not know the name. What I do know is that when he had enough money he finally sent for Yia Yia and my uncle to come and join him in America. The mixture of hope and worry he must have felt when he posted that letter, or sent that telegram, is difficult to imagine. I do not know how much contact Yia Yia and Papou had during their war-time separation. They were not letter-writing people but somehow, this one message would have got across, along with some money for the journey.

Ploumi and Manoual Haviaras - Chios 1947
However it happened, Yia Yia and my uncle boarded a ship bound for America in 1947, two years after the war ended. This photo is the last photo of them that was taken on Chios just before their departure.

Like her husband eight years before, Yia Yia would have looked back on the village of her birth, of the birth of her son, and wondered if she would ever see it again. Perhaps a few relatives waved her off from the quay, their black silhouettes fading away as the boat pulled away from Chios one more time. She would have held her son close, her chin up as they headed into the unknown, to a place of modern myth, a place where anything was possible.