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Out of the Balkans


I am a first generation American ~ a Greek-American. Ironically, neither my mother nor my father was born in Greece. My mother, my maternal grandmother and their ancestors came from a Greek speaking, Greek Orthodox community in Sozopolis, Bulgaria. They were Bulgarian citizens of Greek ethnicity. My step-grandfather, in every way but blood my grandfather, was born a subject of Victor Emmanuel, the King of Italy. His family was from Avellino, Italy, which is located in the mountainous region east of Naples, the ancient, seventh century B.C. Greek colony of Neapolis.

My father was the child of a Greek speaking, Greek Orthodox family that lived in a mountainous Balkan region populated by Greeks, Bulgarians, Albanians, Serbians, Vlachs, Turks and communities of Jews. Many villages were dominated by one or another of the ethnic groups. At the time of his birth in 1900 Macedonia was a province of the Ottoman Empire; so my father was a Turkish citizen. When western European powers redrew the Balkan's national borders in the early twentieth century his village, which might easily have been incorporated into today's Bulgaria or Serbia, became part of Greece.

In my youth I rebelled against the label 'Greek-American' and disliked attending the Greek speaking, Greek Orthodox Church. I, like my friends in school, considered myself an American. My father tolerated my rebellion and allowed me to find my own identity. Eventually I came to celebrate the amalgam that is me: Greek, Hellene, Macedonian, Thracian, Bulgarian, and adopted Italian; Greek Orthodox, for a time an Episcopalian; an American, born in the United States, and veteran of its armed forces.

Knowledge of my origins began with stories about the life of my family's most powerful personality, my grandmother, Eleni, who was legend. Born ten months after her death I never saw her face nor heard her voice. Yet, among my strongest childhood memories are anecdotes told about her by my aunts, uncles (by tradition I called my mother's first cousins aunts and uncles), cousins, family friends and especially my mother, Lily.

Eleni, beloved matriarch of the family, was bigger than life. She was celebrated as beautiful, strong, gracious, smart, generous, courageous, and devoted to her daughter. Her portrait was on our mantle and photographs of her were in our family albums. She seemed to live on in our home even after her death in 1933.

My impressions of my grandmother were so powerful that as a child I sensed her next to my bed as I drifted to sleep, or sitting close by the piano as I practiced. Years later I felt that she was standing behind me late at night as I wrote term papers for my college classes. Her spirit was welcome and comforting, and I spoke to her, acknowledging her presence.

Much of what I learned of Eleni came from my mother who spun romantic and stirring tales ~ not all accurate ~ of her early years in Bulgaria, Greece and America. My mother had memories of surviving smallpox, seeing bodies carried off in handcarts to be burned at the edge of a city, escaping a Bulgarian pogrom against the Greeks, living in Greece, coming to America with her mother, and at the age of eight, being lonely when left alone in a log cabin in St. Paul, Minnesota while her mother worked. As a self-absorbed child and teenager I asked few questions about their lives or about my grandfather, Eleni's first husband. I knew only that he did not come to America but according to vague references, died in an accident in Bulgaria.

My father, Demetrios Athanasios Mavrovitis, was born in a Greek village named Mavrovo in Macedonia. As we hunted and fished together in the countryside near the Hudson River, northwest of New York City, he told me about his life as a young boy, his family and village, and the center of his childhood world, the small nearby city of Kastoria located on a promontory that jutted out into a mountain lake.

While I was a child and teenager, my father's mother, Kalliope Mavrovitis, and others of his family still lived in Macedonia. They were only names to me until I helped fill boxes with food and clothing to ship to them during the Second World War. In the early 1950's, after the end of Greece's devastating Civil War, two of my first cousins Nick (Nikolaos) and Thanasi (Athanasios), sons of my father's brother Constantinos, immigrated to New York City. My father's youngest living brother Aristede and his wife Filareti followed. With their arrival and participation in our family life my attachment to my Macedonian relatives grew.

In 1955 while on leave from military duty in Germany I visited Greece. There I met my grandmother, my uncle and aunt, and many family members who lived in Kastoria and Mavrovo.

Ten years after my mother's death in 1967 my daughter, Demetra, spent time with her cousins in New York City. On her return to California she told me that that she had heard rumors of secrets about my mother and father, and their marriage. When we were young my sister Helene and I asked our parents about their wedding. There were no photographs except for one taken on the boardwalk of Atlantic City. They told us that no one had elaborate weddings in those days and that they had gone on a simple honeymoon.

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