Winter in Thessaloniki, Greece. My first visit during the cold months in a decade. I walk along familiar streets in a city I know better than any other. I'm instantly at home here; lacking a sense of direction elsewhere, I never lose my bearings in this place where half a million people live.For Thessaloniki is home, claiming from me an emotional attachment I cannot give to any other place.
It is not a beautiful city. Not today, when the sky is heavy, and the bite of Vardar the wind rushes down the open riverbed from Yugoslavia. I cover my mouth with my scarf as I force my steps against the wind to keep it from burning my throat dry.
I leave my brother's home and walk to my old neighborhood. The apartment building where I grew up is still there. The shutters are painted the same gray-blue, though the color is faded and the place looks closed, deserted, sadly old. Not a chile peers through the windows.
Where an I?
My physical self is standing on the street corner across from the balcony which was my world for 15 years. But where are you, little Katerina? What child has sat in the same corner looking at passers-by, making up stories about them? Where are you, looking for your grandfather's daily visit, and the return of Daddy every noon, loaded as he was with nets full of fresh fruit and a loaf of freshly baked bread?
I hold my camera with frozen fingers and take a picture of that balcony. I walk away from theneighborhood a total stranger, knowing that a decade and a half of my life is locked forever in building No. 9. Are those years lost?
Fighting against the wind, I reach the Courthouse in the next block. It is very handsome, freshly painted. How is it I never noticed that the wrought iron fence was so finely made, that the windows were elegant? All that meant nothing in my childhood.
I remember what did. At the gates there was a sentry box. The identity of the sentry inside it changed with the currents of war. The German stood immobile, looking straight ahead under his impersonal helmet, disciplined, unemotional. As we walked to school, we pulled as far away from him as we could , unwilling but having to share the same sidewalk. At first we looked furtively at him and marveled that his eyelashes never fluttered, but eventually we pretended he was not there -- the enemy became the invisible man for us.
After the war a British guard would stand there. He too was disciplined like the German, but we passed close to him and stood deliberately in front of him as we talked, making bets about his face. Would he wink, would he smile, could we break his concentration? When occasionally his eyelids did flutter and he almost broke out laughing, bound as he was by his helmet's strap under his chin, we walked away triumphant.
There are no sentries at the gates these days.
I climb toward the high city, the old part of Thessaloniki. After so many years I expect radical changes. The populationhas doubled, cars, once rare as private along streets not made for them. But I see no changes except for age. The single dwellings look ready to crumble, and the fear persists that soon all this will be replaced by apartment complexes.
I move on, still wondering about the little girl who walked these same streets and asked questions about God, life and death.
Gingerly, I approach Grandfather's house. It was the only home among those of our clan that had a yard. How we loved the place. Grandmother's fig tree is still there, and I try to remember how the fruit hung succulent and aromatic in summer, sacks of red, juicy, golden-seeded taste and prehistoric memories. And the lilac tree under their window, paschalia,m we call it in Greek, the flowerof Pascha, Easter, spring.
I stand in the deserted, uncared-for yard and look up at the wide balcony where all of us fitted when we gathered for the important events of our lives and looked across the bay at Mount Olympus. I think I am going to weep aloud. But instead I am standing there smiling. I'm looking up through bare branches and remember my grandparents, who were the strongest, most stable influence of my life, and everything I recall is good.
All they left us is of value and none of it is monetary: strong, fine, inquisitive minds that made their grandchildren able, creative people and good parents. Genes which were so loaded with musical talent that their 15 grandchildren alone could create a choral harmony to fill a large auditorium. An example of devotion to one another that did not allow them to spend a single night away from the other's presence in over 50 years of marriage.
But above all they bequeathed us their unshakable faith in God, the strong assurance of His fatherhood and the eternal verities which have undergrided us even as we traveled thousands of miles from our origins.
I retrace my steps full of gratitude for my ancestors, knowing exactly who I am and where I am. And little Katerina? Sheis not shut up in that apartment building. She is here within me, richer for all the memories, the events, people and feelings that have touched me in this ancient city -- a grateful descendent of my grandparents, a keeper of their heritage.