Wednesday, March 15

My Grandparents at the Baths

I talked to my parents on the phone this past Sunday. They wanted to know how Balkan Night had gone since they weren’t able to make it. An 11:30 pm set is a bit on the late side for them at their age. I mentioned to them that Joe and I are supposed to play a set at Café Apollonia in Roslindale on March 24 and suggested that they come, since the food is quite good. They said that they’d already been talking about coming to hear us play at Apollonia with my dad’s nephew and his wife, who were also interested in hearing us.

My mom reminded me that this cousin of mine and his wife are going to Greece with their son and daughter-in-law in a few weeks. They’re going on one of those Aegean cruises that all seem to follow more or less the same basic itinerary: Piraeus, Mykonos, Santorini, Crete, Rhodes, Kuşadası (Turkey), Patmos, and sometimes Istanbul. In their case, they are planning on going all the way to Istanbul. I’m not sure how much free time they’ll have there, but I told my mom that she should definitely encourage them to visit the hamam, since it really is an unforgettable experience. Actually, I referred to it as “the Turkish bath,” because I wasn’t sure she’d know what a hamam is.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned to my mother that Joe and I visited the hamams during our trips to Turkey. She never had much to say in response (perhaps the thought of us in the hamam made her uncomfortable), but when I brought up the hamam this time, almost immediately she said, “Oh, your grandparents raved about the Turkish baths.” I have to admit, this one threw me for a bit of a loop.

Back in their day there were several functioning hamams on their native Lesbos, but it’s doubtful that my grandparents ever had a chance to visit them. They certainly wouldn’t have gone together, because they didn’t know each other before coming to America (not to mention the fact that it would have been terribly improper). I’m certain, moreover, that they never visited Turkey. In fact, they took only one trip to Greece together, back in the summer of 1958 right after my mother finished high school. They wanted her to go with them. She refused, even though it would have afforded her an opportunity to see Greece for the first time.

The reason she refused is that she understood there was one reason and one reason only that they wanted to bring her along: so they could find her a husband. It’s not that my mother was unattractive. She had refused many dates in high school with boys who asked her out, not because she wasn’t interested, but because the boys weren’t Greek, and my grandparents had made it clear that she wasn’t allowed to date non-Greek boys. A Greek boy had asked her to her senior prom, but she didn’t like him so she declined his offer.

When my grandparents were getting ready to depart for Greece on the Queen Frederika (yes, they went by steamship), the entire family went aboard to see them off. My mother loves to tell the story of how the mayor of some town on Lesbos was traveling on the same ship, and he and my grandfather had arranged for my mother to meet the mayor’s son, who was also on board to see his parents off. My mother caught wind of the plan from one of her sisters who had tipped her off. My mother made herself scarce that afternoon. “Που επήγε η Μαριό?” (Where’s Mary?) her father kept asking. She just wandered around the deck, giving my grandfather the slip when he went looking for her.

My grandparents were beside themselves that their youngest daughter had gone off unaccompanied; but they were also irritated because they suspected that she was being deliberately evasive. When the announcement came for all non-passengers to disembark, my mother reemerged from her hiding place to say goodbye to her visibly frustrated parents. They could tell from her subtle smirk that she had bested them, thwarted their plan to fix her up. I suppose it was her way of getting back at them for making her refuse all those dates with non-Greek boys.

When my mother first recounted this story to me, I asked her why she risked upsetting her parents on the day of their departure, knowing that she wouldn’t see them for eight weeks. She never really gave me a straight answer. She said simply, “I didn’t want to get fixed up.” My mother was only eighteen at the time, but she could be very stubborn when she wanted to be. It would be another four decades before she finally made it to Greece.

My grandparents’ trip to Greece in 1958 was the first time they had gone back since coming to America before the First World War. I figured if they had visited a hamam as my mother said, it must have been during that trip, since it was the first and only time they visited Greece together. It turned out to be a trip that was frought with difficulty for them both. Some of my grandfather’s relatives proved less than hospitable. Worse still, my grandmother came down with dysentery and almost died, and they were forced to return to America ahead of schedule. Moreover, I imagine that seeing Lesbos for the first time in more than four decades must have been an emotional experience in its own right. Doubtless, it had undergone significant change since the Balkan Wars when it was wrested from Ottoman control and joined to Greece. It might have been traumatic for them to see the homeland that they had longed for all those years, only to barely recognize it when they finally returned.

I would like to think that my grandparents’ visit(s) to the hamam afforded them a relaxing respite from what was an emotionally and physically exhausting trip for them. I assume from my mother’s recollections that my grandparents had visited one (or more) of Lesbos’ thermal baths, the most famous of which are located at Polychnitos, at Eftalou, and at Thermi (which means “thermal bath”). Each of the natural hot springs is housed in an old Ottoman-era hamam. They are still operational and are a popular destination among those seeking relief from a variety of ailments. When I mentioned to my mother that I thought her parents must have been referring to the island’s hot springs, she recalled right away that they had spoken of the curative properties of the waters. My grandparents were already advanced in years in 1958, and the soothing mineral springs would have been wonderfully therapeutic for them both.

Whether or not visiting the thermal baths was a new experience for my grandparents, it clearly was a memorable one for them. It’s easy to lose oneself in the hamam. For them, it may have helped take their mind off the many ways in which their much anticipated trip to Greece had failed to meet what were probably their own very unrealistic expectations. And it may have made them forget, if only for a short while, about their stubborn daughter back home whom they still needed to marry off.

Click here to listen to the Θερμιότικο συρτό (Thermiotiko syrto or “Dance from Thermi”) recorded by the great Rembetiko violinist Ogdontakis (Yiannis Dragatsis) in the 1930s. This was a melody that my grandparents knew well, and they probably had this recording on 78 rpm.

The photograph is of my grandparents and six of their eight children (my mother, her four sisters, and their brother; their other two brothers are not shown) along with two of their grandsons. It was taken on the day my grandparents departed for Greece and it later appeared in Boston’s Greek-American newspaper under the caption, “Departing for Native Mytilene.” Mytilene is the more colloquial name for Lesbos. My mother is in the back row, second one from the left.


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