When I first met my 92-year-old grandfather in a small village four hours north of Athens, the first thing he said to me was, “Why have you come to see me now, like this?”
This was not the family reunion I expected, but it also wasn’t a complete surprise.
It’s been 20 years since I travelled to Greece and met my grandfather for the first and only time. I was 25-years-old, was named after him and also the only grandchild he had yet to meet. All that meant I was excited and nervous to see him.
Back home, when I was shown pictures of my grandfather, I remember seeing a handsome moustached strong-looking Greek patriarchal figure. But when I saw him in person, it was like a scene straight out of a Euripides play.
I didn’t know this at the time, but my grandfather was dying. So when I walked into his room I saw an old, brittle man lying in bed.
I didn’t know this at the time, but my grandfather was dying. So when I walked into his room I saw an old, brittle man lying in bed. When he got up, I was shocked by the ruins of his face. He only had one eye. The right one was completely missing with bloody tissues in the eye socket. As I looked more closely, I noticed he only had half a nose which had been eaten away by cancer and his other eye only had half an eyelid.
Then, as if in an actual play, my auntie (my father's sister) attempted to lift his remaining eyelid not so delicately, while screaming at him, "This is your son's firstborn, his name is Konstantine. He has come all the way from Australia to see you. He has your name. Open your eye so you can see him! “
At this point, he started to cry and started yelling out in Greek, "My eyes, my goddamn eyes. I can't see my grandson. Why have you come to see me now, like this? Why didn’t you come earlier? Why come and see me like this? ”
I instantly burst into tears. It was like I was crying with my whole body. A simple ‘Hi, Grandpa” had turned to horror. My auntie and my dad’s cousins ties to comforted me.
Then, when the commotion died down, I heard my grandfather say, “Yes! I can see him now.”
I went over and held his hand and started to talk to him. My spoken Greek isn’t great. I only made it to primary level at Greek school, but still managed to have a conversation with my grandfather and I was proud he didn’t correct my grammar or pronunciation once.
I only made it to primary level at Greek school, but still managed to have a conversation with my grandfather and I was proud he didn’t correct my grammar or pronunciation once.
We mainly spoke about the weird Australian animals and landscape. But what I really wanted to talk about was just how much of a badass my dad was as a kid. My very strict dad had a fraught relationship with my grandfather, who actually kicked him out of home when he was 15. My father was in and out of jobs and relationships until he was 35 and only settled down when he met my mum and moved to Australia. Before that, he was a pretty wild man. He had told me snippets of what life was like in the village. How growing up in the 1940s during the German occupation of Greece in WW2 and the subsequent civil war meant that food was scarce and life was dangerous.
But I rarely paid close attention to his stories. Growing up, I wasn't proud or interested in my Greek heritage, especially since Greek school wasn’t a happy experience during my primary school years. My peers and I would regularly get beaten by Greek school teachers who smelt of smoke and rage, and used a one-metre ruler as their preferred way of reinforcing the rules of grammar.
Encountering casual racism also made me want to rebel against my Greek culture.
But that all changed on that trip, when I finally got to see where my dad grew up. That four-hour journey north of Athens on a creaky bus was eye-opening. Witnessing the lush landscape of central Greece’s mountainous regions gave me a completely different perspective of my ancestral home.
That four-hour journey north of Athens on a creaky bus was eye-opening. Witnessing the lush landscape of central Greece’s mountainous regions gave me a completely different perspective of my ancestral home.
When I arrived at my dad’s village, I was blown away by its natural beauty and the amazing welcome I received. One of my father’s cousins, a tall large Greek woman gave a stirring speech welcoming me. People from all over the small village came to see me. I loved mingling and chatting with my family and the locals from the village. They all came to my grandfather's house and started sharing stories about my dad when he was a kid. Hearing these stories made me see that he wasn’t just a ‘strict Greek Father’, but was once an actual, mischievous child.
I loved finding out about the time dad dug small holes on the road and covered them, so the local donkey carrying cherries to the markets would get stuck and trip. His plan worked. When the donkey fell over, all the hungry kids from the village who were in on my father’s scheme would scurry to collect all the cherries.
On that trip to Greece, I felt my roots strongly. But it was an experience that also haunted me. Seeing my grandfather at the end of his life was confronting. I felt the gamut of emotions in a classic Greek drama — guilt, happiness, joy, shame and fear.
My grandfather passed away just a few months after that meeting. While that experience was short, it gave me back a sense of who I was.
And even though it was just 24 hours, that time with my grandfather was a life altering moment. It showed how much my father sacrificed by leaving his family to travel to Australia, in search of a better life. When I think of what it means to be Greek, I always go back to the time I spent in my dad’s village. Filled with laughter, tears and memories of dad’s cherry heists as a clever, resilient kid.