There are several variations on the story I’m about to recount; I just happened to choose this version. A group of friends from Thessaloniki have just returned from a holiday at a glitzy Indian Ocean resort in Mauritius, and are out at dinner with other companions.
Of course, the friends want to know all about the group’s experience at the resort. “We had a good time,” they all agree. “The sand on the beaches was golden, the sea was crystal clear, the hotel offered every luxury, the French restaurants were excellent and we had plenty of free time to play cards. It was really great… (small sigh) … but it was not Halkidiki.”
Now picture the same group in Heaven: “It’s really nice here,” one of them says. “Sure,” answers another one wistfully, “it’s very nice, but it’s not Halkidiki…”
In a separate, slightly more real incident, I am swimming with my daughter at Bousoulas Beach, in Sani in Halkidiki.
I ask her what her favorite beach is in Saint-Tropez, a place she visits every summer with her French mother. Without hesitation, she says it is Club 55. I insist that she makes a comparison between the two, disregarding for the moment just how the psychologists would frown on presenting a child with such a dilemma. She skillfully evades the question and, all of a sudden, I feel like one of the protagonists from my joke.
I have brought my daughter on a two-day holiday to this popular resort on Halkidiki’s first finger so that she can get in touch with the history of my forefathers.
On my father’s side of the family, I hail from Polygyros, the capital of the peninsula of Halkidiki. According to my aunt, Kaity Zambouni, author of the book “Otan o Pappous Epiase to Molyvi” (When Grandfather Picked Up the Pencil), our family lived in this area for centuries, but they were forced to flee after one of my ancestors killed a Turk during the latter years of the Ottoman Empire.
Fearing retribution, the family sailed by caique to the island of Skopelos, only to return later, once the incident had been forgotten.
The rest of the information I have regarding the family history is fragmentary.
I do know, for example, that my great-great-great-grandfather Michalis fought in the Greek War of Independence that began in 1821, and that his son, Nicholas, was the only family member to survive a cholera epidemic a few years later. I know the family worked hard and eventually prospered. A hoe in their calloused hands turned wretched earth into fertile land.
In those days, anyone who cleared a forest claimed it as their own. Any olive trees they grafted became theirs. That’s how my ancestors acquired land. They were royalists and conservatives, and even gave Halkidiki two mayors; my grandfather and my great-grandfather.
(That tradition was broken, at least as far as Halkidiki was concerned, when my father, for professional and ideological reasons, moved to the town of Veria, where, by sheer coincidence, he also ended up being elected mayor.)
We come now to the joyful year of 1960. My parents have just moved back to Polygyros after lengthy stays at medical school in Germany. My father is a cardiologist and my mother is a pediatrician.
The “village,” as locals still refer to it – perhaps because it is the smallest regional capital in Greece in terms of population – holds little future for them.
What do I mean by this? My father, because of his left-wing ideological beliefs, refuses to accept any money from his patients. My mother, pregnant with my humble self, needs to travel to Thessaloniki to give birth, as Polygyros has Sithonia rewards true seekers of authenticity by nature in its purest form, pine forests that plunge into the sea, the scent of wild thyme wafting like holy myrrh, the song of cicadas soaring like the Vienna Symphony.