(Re-) Learning Greek

I spoke Greek before I ever learned English.  My birth and early years in Brooklyn were immersed in the language and culture of my immigrant grandparents and our extended family.  “Why teach her English?” my parents reasoned, “she’ll learn it fast enough when she is older.” So true. I was four years old when we emerged from that urban ethnic cocoon and were instantly submerged into middle class, English-only America. The shock of moving to a small New Jersey town left me speechless–literally. No one spoke Greek and I didn’t speak English.

Without exaggeration, this was traumatic. The first day that neighborhood children came to play, I was considered strange and branded as different. I wanted to fit in, and communication was the key. I dropped Greek and quickly learned English, refusing to speak my native tongue at home and only to my grandparents. Years of weekly Greek school lessons were detested, as it was a reminder that I was “not like the other kids.” My defaced and marked-up Greek language primers were an outward symbol of my inner conflict.

Fast forward. I have traveled to Sparta four times in the past five years and I am going again in May. I am desperate to regain my language skills. With every trip, I foolishly hoped that immersion would work its magic and that I would wake up in Sparta with a fluent four-year old’s vocabulary–certainly not admirable, but passable. After all, this is my native language. It’s all up there, floating around in the grey matter, isn’t it? Reading articles such as this one reassured me that I was not alone, yet I was being unrealistic. We most certainly can–and we often do–forget our first tongue.

Determined to do better, I have enrolled in private online Greek language lessons. I have doubled up on the lessons, two per week for twenty weeks.  Despite many hours of study, I am struggling mightily. The verb tenses are making me tense, and the multiple formats of nouns are confusing and exasperating. After 10 weeks of frustration, I have designed and fine-tuned these color-coded “cheat sheets” for nouns and verbs. Except for those pesky irregulars and exceptions, they work!

Verb Cheat Sheet

Nouns Cheat Sheet

Many native Greeks speak English (children learn in school, and are fluent by graduation), and a non-Greek speaking tourist can get by quite nicely. But, I am not a tourist. When I am in Sparta, I have work to do, family to visit, and books and articles to read. Although I am blessed by good friends and cousins who cheerfully help with translation, I am losing out by not being able to read and communicate. Many older people (the ones who know our family history!) speak only Greek, and there are historical writings such as village histories, which are of significance.

I am halfway through my 20-week course and slowly feeling a bit more confident. This summer, I won’t be fluent but I hope to be understandable. It’s easy to lament my childish rejection of the language, but that won’t bring it back. I am reading those primers now and smiling at the full circle that I have made.


A Greek at RootsTech 2019

After four days of classes and meetings at the largest genealogy conference in the world, I am both energized and exhausted. RootsTech, held every year in Salt Lake City, Utah, is a sensory as well as intellectual experience. The vacant hallways of the Salt Palace before opening day give no hint of the pandemonium about to hit.

Before and after

Choosing from the myriad of classes was tough, but I was drawn to sessions focusing on records preservation (both archival and personal), what’s new and upcoming at MyHeritage and FamilySearch, resolving conflicting evidence, alien registrations, military research, and DNA. I enjoy and learn from Mary Tedesco’s Italian genealogy classes, as research strategies in Italy and Greece are similar.

But the most rewarding part of this RootsTech was connecting with several friends of Greek descent. One is a volunteer at the Family History Library on Wednesday mornings and helps people with their Greek research. For the past ten years, she has guided patrons in their quest to get started. She related that most people do not know the original surname and village of origin of their ancestral family, and with no centralized online database in Greece, research must be done at the local level by mail or in person. Thus, much of her assistance centers on teaching patrons how to use U.S. records to find needed information.

My Greek friends at the Family History Library.

There is a feature on the FamilySearch Family Tree app which calculates how many people, within 100 yards, are related to you. Twenty thousand people attend RootsTech, with thousands in the Expo Hall at any given moment. Every year, I pull up this app and every year, my matches are ZERO! The real-time board which displays the numbers of related attendees irritates my Greek friend, Georgia, and me. It is so annoying to hear people say, “I have 300 cousins in this hall right now” when we have none.

We have zero cousins in the expo hall!

But I do have many blogger friends in the genealogy community known as GeneaBloggers. We write about our research and our ancestral families; our backgrounds are multi-cultural and our blogs reflect our areas of expertise. Our goals are to assist others in learning how to research, and to support each other in our own efforts. We are a tight group but never exclusive, and invite any and all who write about family history to join us.

The Family History Library (FHL) is one block away from the Salt Palace and most genealogists split their time between the two venues. The FHL provides access to digitized materials which, due to contractual restrictions, must be viewed either there or in one of the 4,500 Family History Centers worldwide. Its collection of 2.5 million microfilms is almost entirely digitized, but some have not yet been converted; thus, it is the place to go to view these films. The FHL has 3,000 microfilms of records from Greece, predominantly the region around Athens and some islands. This list, compiled by Lica Catsakis, can be found here. While most Greek films have been digitized, some remain on microfilm and can be viewed and downloaded at a scanner such as the one below.

Microfilm scanner at the Family History Library.

Microfilm image of a page from a death index book, Thessaloniki, 1918.

The FHL has a few reference books for Greek research. Of particular value are the gazetteers, or geographical dictionaries. Since the Revolution of 1821, many villages underwent name changes, consolidations, or even extinction. This image shows a list of villages in the Dimos Lakedaimonos in 1836.

Join me at RootsTech next year! The dates are February 26-29, 2020. I can promise you an extraordinary experience of inspiration and education. And great fun!

Crossing the Atlantic: The “Nea Hellas”

Prior to airplane travel in the 1950’s, cross-Atlantic journeys were by passenger ship. There were several which transported my ancestors from Greece to America. Some of those trips were their inaugural immigration travel; others were for return trips to visit family.

The Nea Hellas (Νέα Έλλας) was a popular vessel as it traveled directly from Piraeus to New York, unlike other ships which stopped at multiple ports. Its maiden voyage was May 19, 1939. With six decks, first, second (“tourist”) and third-class cabins and restaurants, it provided a comfortable one-week crossing for 800 passengers and 200 crew.

I was truly excited to see this article on the usa.greekreporter website which describes the history of Nea Hellas, with photos and the video below.

This ship transported some members of my Aridas family on their visits to Sparta

  • My grandmother, Harikleia Aridas Kostakos and her daughter, Afroditi, had traveled from Brooklyn, N.Y.  to Agios Ioannis, Sparta in 1939. The Nea Hellas brought them home on March 16, 1940. It was among the last ships to leave Piraeus before Hitler’s invasion of Greece and the deadly attack on that harbor on April 7, 1941.
  • My godfather, Peter George Aridas (Harikleia’s half brother) journeyed from Piraeas to Brooklyn on the Nea Hellas in June, 1953.
  • This March 15, 1950 newspaper article announcing the trip of my second cousin, Effrosyni Aridas Revelos:
    The Middletown [Ohio] Journal, News of Society
    Mrs. Nick Revelos of Harrison St. is in New York where she will leave Friday for Sparta, Greece.  She will leave on the tourist ship Nea Hellas which is arranged for by the Ahepans and Daughters of Penelope for members to tour the old country.  Mrs. Revelos will visit her family Mr. and Mrs. Michael Mihalakakos of St. John, Sparta Greece.  She will be gone for three months.  Bill Revelos will take the same trip and visit his family.

Our ancestors’ stories can be more fully told with the myriad of articles, photos and videos so easily available today. These resources enable us to almost visualize our ancestors’ experiences, enriching our lives and our understanding of theirs.

The USA Greek Reporter article can be found here: https://usa.greekreporter.com/2019/01/29/nea-hellas-the-historic-ship-that-brought-thousands-of-greeks-to-the-us/

Additional information about the Nea Hellas and peoples’ memories of this ship can be found on this website: Memories of the Nea Hellas.

The Times of Our Ancestors’ Lives: Part Two, Home & Family

This post and part one examine the everyday life of our Spartan ancestors from the mid-1800’s to mid-1900’s, and draws upon Thomas W. Gallant’s book, Modern Greece From the War of Independence to the Present.

in the years after the 1821 Revolution, the majority of Spartans  lived, worked, married and settled within a few kilometers of their place of birth. Marriages occurred among couples living in close proximity–usually within one day’s walk or donkey ride from each other. Women married in their early twenties, and men by their late  twenties. Almost all Greek men and women married; they married somewhat younger and lived longer than their forebears; and they produced more children who survived into adulthood.[1]

Households were a mix of nuclear (parents and children), extended  (nuclear plus one or more relatives, often a widowed parent) and joint (one or more married siblings, usually brothers, with their families residing together). Sometimes, the family occupation determined which type was most beneficial; for example, “more complex households were better able to pool resources and manage labor in a way better suited to the needs of shepherding, especially where transhumance was involved.”[2]

Herding goats in Vathia, 2014

Newlywed Spartans followed a common pattern found throughout southern Europe:  their new household was formed by “combining the land that the husband received as his inheritance with the property that the woman brought through her dowry.”[3] Young girls worked for years preparing their dowries, which consisted of linens, clothing, jewelry, household utensils and often land. (See this post about dowries.) Thus, the contributions of both men and women were equally important in creating a fully and mutually supportive household.

The Men

The σπίτι (literally “house” but used to designate the household) was the primary unit of society and family, and it was the man who was its primary protector. Gallant explains:

A man’s overarching obligation was to protect and further the interests of his household, his σπίτι, and after that, it was to the extended network of men to whom he was related by blood. Should a conflict arise between household and community, between kin and non-kin, the former always took precedence. Household interests come before all others.[4]

Interwoven with responsibility for the σπίτι  is the concept of τίμι or honor. This was of  paramount importance in the Greek community. A man of τίμι commanded respect by maintaining firm control of his land, property, animals and family. As such, he could deploy any means to defend and protect them. In 19th century peasant society, if a man or his family was insulted, injured or wronged in any way, “he had to respond with aggression or risk seeing his reputation diminished.”[5] The result was often manifested in a vendetta, a form of honor-related violence. Any threat, implied or real, to the σπίτι justified a man’s need to defend his family and thus, his own character. Of the highest priority was protecting the reputation of women. If confronted with “any imputation that the women of his household were anything less than chaste, a man had either to rise to the challenge and fight, or be humiliated. This form of violence was socially sanctioned and accepted.”[6] While many vendettas became feuds ending in death, others were resolved by arbitration sealed with the payment of “blood money” and even marriages between the dueling parties.

Elder Tripolitsiotis with fusanelles, c. 1900. Archive of N. Grigorakis. From the tribute to Kathimerini on 4/6/1995 “Tripoli the heart of the Peloponnese.” Appreciation is given to Giannis Mihalakakos for sharing this photo.

The strata of Spartan society, even in rural villages, reveals a variety of levels tied to men’s occupations. Some households were larger and wealthier than others, employing laborers to work their fields and shepherds to tend their flocks. Men’s  occupations included: shepherds, goatherds, farmers, landowners, laborers, traders, grocers, butchers, bakers, tobacconists. Some learned trades and hand crafts, working with leather, wood or stone; these men became sandal makers, rope makers, cobblers, masons, carpenters. Schooling, if it existed, was rudimentary and most adults were illiterate.

The Women

“In many ways, a woman’s life only began when she got married. Marriage signified not just her transformation from child to woman but it also marked the union between two households and between two sets of kinsmen…Once a wife, a woman had to conform to roles society defined for her.”[7] These roles were paradoxically simple yet complex. The house was her domain; modesty was her virtue. From bread for the stomach to prayers for the soul, a woman provided both physical and spiritual nourishment to those within her σπίτι.

Her life was dominated by food preparation, fetching water, and the care and nurture of children. Women spun and wove cloth, and produced clothing. In the early-mid 1900’s, many Spartan families owned silkworms and it was the women who tended them, spun the silk and created intricate embroidery. They also worked the fields, threshed grain, tended animals and assisted during the harvest.

Cornelia Themistocles, baking bread in her outdoor oven, c. 1930; photo courtesy of Theodore Papaloizos

Like men, women defended their own reputations and that of and their family members. Unlike men, they did not resort to violence, but to words. Gallant wrote:

“There was an ethical code for women similar to men’s honor and, like men, women engaged in contests over reputations…If a woman did not contest malicious gossip about sexual comportment, the cleanliness of her house or her devotion to the church, her sons might have a harder time to find a good match, her daughters might require a much larger dowry to secure a husband, or her spouse might find himself drawing the blade to defend her and his reputation.”[8]

.Although men and women’s lives were segregated by custom and tradition, they were united in one common purpose: to prosper the household and protect those within it. That tradition remains paramount in Greek families through today and throughout the diaspora, and is a hallmark of our Hellenic heritage.



[1] Gallant, Thomas. Modern Greece, New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. p.121.[2] Ibid., p. 122.
[3] Ibid., p. 125.
[4] Ibid, p. 124.
[5] Ibid., p. 143.
[6] Ibid., p. 145.
[7] Ibid., p. 148.
[8] Ibid., p. 150.


The Times of Our Ancestors’ Lives: Part One

Who we are is a product of multiple factors:  genetics, environment, and opportunities (or lack thereof). So it was with our ancestors. Where they lived and how they lived framed their mortal existence; but it was their personalities which molded their lives.From the villages of Sparta and the southern Peloponnese came a great exodus of young men in the 1880’s to mid-1900’s. Seeking relief from poverty and focusing on a new world, the majority were from Laconia, perhaps as many as 3/4 of its adult males (ages 18-35) eventually left. They embarked as pioneers and emerged as prototypes, paving the way for the thousands who followed.

Knowing their environment is critical to understanding the choices our ancestors made. I am finding that Thomas W. Gallant’s Modern Greece is an excellent resource, and its chapter, “Society and Economy” describes the everyday world of a rural Greek village and home. In this post, I have extracted information from Gallant’s book to help us understand the times of our ancestors’ lives.

Although over 50% of the Greek population today resides in the Athens metropolitan area, this was not the case 100 years ago and before. The 1861 census revealed that 74% of adult men were farmers or sharecroppers; by 1920, this barely dropped to 70%. [i] Thus, the majority of families’ financial securities were tied to crops, a variable commodity. The demise of the current crop caused a revenue crisis in the 1890’s which, in turn, was a major factor in the earliest wave of emigration.

The typical village had a population of 200-300, or 600-700 people. In 1920, almost 52% of the population of Greece lived in villages of less than 1,000 people, and about 35% of people lived in villages of less than 500 people.[ii]

Theologos, Oinountos, Laconia, 2017. This village is 6 km straight up a mountain, and is the home of my great-grandmother, Stathoula Zaharakis

Villages around Sparta are nestled in majestic mountains, and until the mid-1900’s many were accessible only by foot or donkey. Building in the foothills and even atop mountains was a necessity, as flat, arable land was scarce and designated for farming. Space in the center of the village was reserved for the church and the town square or platea, the hub of social life.

The arid climate and hot, dry summers required a source of water, and villages were settled near rivers or streams. Even today after hundreds of years, pure mountain water gushes freely from rocks and every village has fountains which are in constant use.

left: water gushes from the mountain in Pikoulianika; right: a fountain in the platea of Xirokambi.

In the summer, shepherds took their flocks of goats and lambs to graze high in the verdant hillsides, several kilometers from their home. There, they lived in small huts known as kalyva. A settlement of several huts occupied by shepherds of the same village could get its own name. For example, a group of huts occupied by shepherds from the village of Soha would be given the name Kalyvia Soha. During winter, the shepherds would leave the mountains to reside in their primary home in the village.

Most farms were single-family peasant households. The father was the primary laborer, with his sons assisting as they grew old enough to work in the fields. Women also helped by weeding (considered to be “woman’s work”) and on a seasonal basis during harvests. The primary focus was to provide enough food for the family; therefore, a variety of small crops would be planted:  wheat, barley, maize, legumes with some olive and fruit trees, and vines. Tools were wooden and rudimentary. Livestock would include a donkey; sheep and goats for milk, cheese, hides and wool; and chickens for eggs and meat.[iv]

Despite its self-sufficiency, every Spartan family needed cash. Goods such as salt, tea, coffee, gunpowder, and metal had to be purchased. Dowries had to be provided. Funerals and weddings necessitated money, as did medical and other family expenses. Thus, a means of generating cash income was required. Many families grew a “cash crop” which could be sold locally, such as tobacco, grapes, or cotton. Some produced extra olive oil or wheat. In other cases, groups of male kinsmen (brothers, fathers and cousins) or entire families would work as seasonal wage laborers harvesting grain or picking grapes. Or, men might acquire skills such as smiths, knife sharpeners, carpenters and masons. They would travel the countryside, offering their skills in small villages that could not support a full-time artisan on their own.[v]

Our Spartan ancestors would have encountered a “myriad of movement across the countryside” of ξένοι (foreigners) whose livelihoods necessitated being on the move:  transhumant  shepherds of certain ethnic groups who specialized in large-scale animal husbandry, or itinerant merchants who transported goods over land on donkeys.[vi] “The image of the nineteenth-century Greek villagers as ensconsed in their little villages, isolated from and ignorant of the wider world, is grossly inaccurate. No village was an island unto itself. The Greek countryside was a fairly dynamic place characterized by a relatively constant movement of people across it and periodically punctuated by the larger-scale arrival and departure of work gangs, itinerant merchants and artisans, donkey caravans, shepherds with their families and flocks, and of course, the dreaded bandit gangs which continued to be a menace to society until late in the century.”[vii]

Thus, despite the relative isolation of many villages, people were exposed to news, ideas, and customs which expanded the microcosm of their world.

[Part Two will cover the social world of men and women, and the home.]

[i] Gallant, Thomas. Modern Greece, New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. p.127.
[ii] ibid., pg. 128.
[iii] ibid., pg. 129.
[iv] ibid., pg. 135.
[v] ibid., pg. 140.
[vi] ibid., pg. 140.
[vii] ibid., pg. 141.