In the Footsteps of my Ancestors
Genealogical Wanderings - Samos
One of the great joys of genealogy research is visiting the places where your ancestors lived. It's a profound privilege to be able to stroll the streets they walked, feel the soil of their farmland between your fingers, breathe in the sea air or the fragrant wild broom they would have smelled.
So much genealogy research is done over books and library microfilm and on websites, and that makes it all a bit abstract and "over there" sometimes. What's fascinating to me - and for most people interested in genealogy, I imagine - is to try to put together the dry facts and see if they can tell me how these ancestors actually lived.
The best way, of course, is to go to where they came from.
I had the great good fortune to visit the Greek island of Samos in 2016 and again in 2018. My grandmother, Anna Margaronis Spinos, was from the town of Neo Karlovassi. It was a small but reasonably prosperous place, where leather tanning and cigarette manufacture kept the town fairly bustling. To this day you can walk among the ruins of the tanneries, or tambakika, which are oddly scenic in their decay.
You can see the watermark of the photographer at the top right corner, as well as most of the word "Cairo".
Anna was one of the ten children of Diamandis Margaronis and Kalliopi Roukouna. As a teenager, she was sent to Egypt to became a maid for a wealthy French family in Cairo. She was sent with an aunt as a chaperone.
Anna in her maid's dress, 1915, Cairo, Egypt. She would have been about 18 or 19 here.
Madame Aimée, the French lady Anna worked for. I never learned her last name or what her husband's business was, but there were many French citizens in Egypt at this time.
For a girl from a small Greek town, living in Cairo was a wildly cosmopolitan experience. Turbans! Fezzes! Camels! She learned some French and Arabic, as it was her job to go to the markets and haggle with the merchants.
Her relationship with her employer, Madame Aimée, was quite close, and she was as much a confidante as a servant. The husband of the house was said to be away on business quite a lot, but my yiayia described him a kind and gentlemanly fellow who always treated her with respect.
I was never able to learn the name of the aunt, nor if she was single or widowed, and as such had the freedom to sail off to North Africa for a few years. I've also never been able to find out how such a far-flung employment arrangement was made in the first place. Was this common or unusual for the time? I have no idea.
A Letter Changes A Life
After a few years in Egypt, Anna received a letter from Samos. She must return to the island, as a husband had been secured for her in America.
Imagine. She would have to cross the Atlantic - alone - to marry a man she'd never met. How exciting! How terrifying.
All she had was this photo of him...
Theodoros Dimitrios Spinos
At least he was quite handsome, she was relieved to find.
He was good-looking even by today's standards, if you can picture him without the twirly hair-do and mustache.
The tall, striking man in the photo and his family were refugees and exiles from Alatsata (Alaçatı), near Smyrna (Izmir), in Turkey. He had grown up as an Anatolian Greek, and as a young boy, he would play with his little Turkish friends (because kids can't be bothered with politics) and go to their houses. There he learned to dance the tsiftetelli from the ladies of the house.
Traditional Turkish homes were segregated into men's and women's areas. Theodoros would visit his friends and when the ladies were done with their work, they would amuse themselves by singing and dancing with each other, since Turkish women were rarely permitted outside of the home. This is how my grandfather learned to become the amazing dancer he grew into.
As an older man he would dance at parties and events with my mother, whom he taught, and they became very well-known for their wonderful and authentic dancing in the vibrant old immigrant neighborhood of Brickbottom in Somerville, Massachusetts.
While unfortunately I don't have any photos of him dancing in Massachusetts with my mom, there are a few of him dancing on his visits back to Samos in the 1950s.
Theodoros escaped forced conscription into the Turkish army as a young man. He fled from one end of town while the army was marching in the other. Young Greek men were not given weapons and were used almost as beasts of burden, frequently being worked to death, and my papou wanted no part of that.
What happened next was an interesting quirk of fate.
He ran to the house of a neighbor named Despina. In through her front door, and out through a window or doorway in the back of the house, then down to a street below to make his successful escape.
Despina in her turn moved to the same Brickbottom Somerville neighborhood where so many Alatsatiani had emigrated to, and married a man from the Peloponnese. They had three sons - one of which was my father. Despina and the man she helped flee the Turkish army became inlaws when their children married.
Theodoros left Turkey with a small amount of clothes he could carry, as well as his prized possession, a clay drum he had decorated with pieces cut from old magazines. He was both an artistic soul and an incredibly talented drummer.
I have this precious heirloom to this day, and at over 110 years old, it still sounds great.
As someone told me recently, "You will hear your grandfather every time you play it. That's precious, that's immortality".
He "lived in the mountains", as he described it to us, then somehow made his way to Greece, and from there, to the US on the "Themistokles" in 1913.
His family must have all eventually made their ways to Samos, so close as it was to the Turkish coast. I know that one sister married there, and I have immigration documents for his brothers that say their last residence was Samos.
Married in the USA
They married in Somerville, Massachusetts in 1922.
I'm guessing the Margaronis and Spinos families met somehow in Samos, and concocted the marriage arrangement for their daughter and son.
They had a good marriage, and regularly sent money and big bales of clothes to Greece to help out their families. I remember my yiayia putting together these bales - carefully folded bundles of clothes wrapped in a large white sheet, tightly and tidily cross-tied with heavy twine. Imagine hoisting something like that onto a post office counter today. "I'd like to mail this bed sheet full of clothes, please!"
They traveled back to Greece when they could as they got older, taking a slow cruise across the Atlantic on the "Queen Fredericka", and spending the whole summer there.
Theodore and Anna, on the left, aboard the "Queen Fredericka" in the 1950s, a ship well-known to Greek-Americans.
Many traveled back to Greece aboard her.
Some of the time they spent in Athens...
...but most of the time they spent on Anna's beloved island of Samos.
Here they are with the statue of Lykourgos Logothetis, the Samian hero of the Greek war of independence.
(Inset) When my sister and I went to Samos in 2018, we tried to recreate some of the photos of our grandparents.
They always looked like they had such a good time. I've met many of my Samos relatives, and even a couple of generations later, they still know how to have fun!
My mother visited Samos in the 1970s for the first and only time. She had arrived by boat, and had arranged with a relative to be met at the port.
When she arrived, she was a little alarmed by how many people were milling around the dock, feeling sure she would never find a Margaronis relative in the throng.
A man came up to her and asked, "Are you Kalliopi?". She said yes, and he introduced himself as Yiorgos Margaronis. My mother greeted him, and joked that she was glad he'd found her, as she was sure she would never have been able to find any Margaronises among all these people.
Yiorgo looked at her with surprise and glee, gesturing to the smiling crowd. "These are ALL Margaronises!"
The whole clan had come to the dock to greet her.
My mother Kallie (named after her Samos grandmother Kalliopi Roukouna Margaroni) and Yiorgos Margaronis, along with several other relatives.
I Visit Samos
When my sister and I went to Greece together for the first time in 2018, Samos was one of our stops. It was her first time and my second time. We went to the church where our grandmother Anna had been baptized, and where she and her family had attended services.
Agia Matrona in Neo Karlovassi
For years when growing up, we'd heard about "the bell tower". This was the church's bell tower, for which they were raising money, and for which our yiayia had consistently sent money over the years. We always jokingly called it "Yiayia's bell tower", for the amount of cash she'd sent over through the years to help get it built.
What a moving experience to actually see it in person! It's a modest tower - nothing ostentatious - but what an emotional impact to see it right there in front of me. My sister dissolved into tears immediately upon setting eyes on it.
The bell tower,
and (inset) Anna and Theodoros in front of it in the 1950s.
The church it's attached to is Agia Matrona, where Anna was baptized. This was the family church and still very much the neighborhood place of worship. We were able to visit and speak with a caretaker, who let us go up to the intricate gilded iconostasis and see the icons up close.
We lit a candle for Yiayia. I think she would have been pleased.
On my first trip to Samos with my husband in 2016, we visited what had been the site of my great-grandfather Diamandis Margaronis' ceramic workshop, where he made keramithia - the curved ceramic tiles so typical of roofs in Greece. He had learned his trade in the Turkish town of Tsesme (Çeşme), and named his workshop after it. To this day there are tiles around Neo Karlovassi with his name or initials on them.
These two photos courtesy of my second cousin, D. E. Margaronis.
This was the workshop, below.
Today, great-grandfather Diamandis' grandson and great-grandson have renovated the workshop into a tiny farmhouse. The ceramic workshop was still in business until 2013! The land around the old workshop is now a lovely organic farm. Diamantis' bricks and tiles have been lovingly collected into the cottage where the workshop used to stand. Some bricks with his initials on them can still be found in the terraces on the farm.
Me making friends with the farm's Greek shepherd dog, Hermes (Ερμής).
It's difficult to express what happens when I visit Greece, although many of you will know the feeling yourselves, no doubt. It's like your cells themselves are crying out "Yes! This is it! We recognize all this! We're home!"
Going to the places where my ancestors lived, meeting current family members and being embraced by their great kindness and boundless hospitality is a dizzying and wonderful experience. If you are a Greek in the diaspora and you haven't yet made the journey back, you owe it to yourself to make every effort to go.
Be prepared for a flood of feelings, though. It's impossible to walk in the steps of your ancestors and not hear their footsteps walking along with you.
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