This is the fifth post in a series about my trip to Greece, June 30-July 20, 2016 — an amazing journey of history, family and discovery. Previous posts can be found here.
When giving presentations about genealogy research trips, I always counsel people to have a “Plan B”–just in case. Almost anything can happen when you are away on a trip, especially overseas: an office can close early, a festival in town may shutter all public repositories, a clerk can be uncooperative–or, in a more positive scenario, you could find a new piece of information that sends you in a different direction than anticipated.
All of this happened to me on a Monday morning in Athens. Except, I did not have a Plan B.
My Plan A was to research at the National Library in Athens with my friend, Giannis Michalakakos. We were seeking Aristeia records* for several men who could possibly be related to me. Giannis had contacted the Library in advance and even changed his work schedule to make this visit.
As we ascended the marble steps, I was excited to go inside this impressive building and see what treasures were awaiting our discovery.
The answer was: none.
We found the front doors locked, yet saw many people within. Confused, we knocked several times; one man came to the door and waved us away. It was then that we noticed a sign: the library was closed all day for a staff meeting. That was unexpected! We looked at each other, a bit disoriented. What to do now? Giannis gave the classic Greek answer: Let’s go for coffee. Seated outdoors in the brilliant sunlight, we lamented this unfortunate turn of events. Then I looked directly into Giannis’ eyes and said, “We need a Plan B.” He perked up.”I have a Plan B,” he replied. “Let’s go to the University Library and find the book about Xirokambi. I’m sure your ancestors are in it.”
I remembered our previous conversation about this book. Written by Theodore S. Katsoulakos, it is the history of the village of Xirokambi and its families. My maternal great-grandmother, Poletimi Christakos, was born in Xirokambi, so I jumped at this unexpected turn of events. “Let’s go!” We left without ordering drinks and headed for the Athens subway.
I was impressed with the sleek, modern new station that had been built for the 2004 Olympics. Three transfers later, we arrived at the stop leading to Giannis’ alma mater. As we walked a distance in the mid-summer heat, I began to wilt, both physically and emotionally. What if this turned out to be a wasted morning?
We entered the Library and Giannis immediately headed to the exact shelf where the book resided. Taking it to a table, he flipped to the index, found entries for Χριστάκος (Christakos) and quickly scanned the pages. The history of this family was laid out before us: Christos Rizos had arrived in Xirokambi (a village within the region of Koumousta) in 1761! From Christos, the name morphed into Christakos (akos – son of; son of Christos).
Excited and astounded at this wealth of information, I began taking photos of pages where the Christakos name was listed. That was an exercise in futility, as the name was scattered throughout the 400+ book. I put my camera on the table and with great emotion said, “I must have a copy of this book to take home with me.”
Kind soul that he is, Giannis offered to call his friend, Dimitris Katsoulakos, son of the author. Arrangements to meet were made; and a few hours later, Dimitris came to my hotel in Athens, book in hand.
To say I was thrilled to hold this volume in my hands is a gross understatement. This was a priceless treasure to me! Dimitris and I talked for almost two hours about his father, the research process, and the history of Koumousta and Xirokambi. We arranged my visit to Xirokambi to meet his father and walk the streets of my Christakos ancestors.
Xirokambi is a charming village, 17 kilometers south of Sparta, lying in the shadows of the Taygetos mountains. Accompanied by my friend, Joanne Dimis-Dimitrakakis, I headed straight for the village square where I met the esteemed professor, Theodore S. Katsoulakos.
I had so many questions! How long did it take to write the book? Where did he get the materials? Why did he start this project? The answers were as honest and forthright as this wonderful man.
It took 20 years to write the history of Koumousta. This was a joint effort between the professor, Theodore S. Katsoulakos, and the village shepherd, Panagiotis X. Stoumbos. Although both men had long roots in Xirokambi, Panagiotis knew the old stories. The two men would talk, write notes, and collaborate on the details. Theodore was passionate about this project. His desire was to preserve and pass on the rich history of the area for future generations. He researched in Archives, libraries, and the local monasteries of which there are two: Golas and Zerbitsis. I was stunned to hear that monasteries had records other than those of a religious nature! Monks kept meticulous records of the families, activities and history of the surrounding area. One can only imagine the untold stories and historic events sequestered in the libraries of hundreds of monasteries throughout Greece!
Our visit was enlightening and great fun. I could have spent hours talking with Theodore. He is articulate, kind, gentle, and intelligent. I asked him to sign my book, and to my delight he wrote: “History does not make you smart for once, but wise forever.” Brilliant counsel from a brilliant and esteemed friend.
Just when I thought the day could not get better, Dimitris offered to give us a tour. Joanne and I piled into his car and drove throughout the village. Stone houses and lush gardens make Xirokambi both picturesque and very liveable.
I was somewhat surprised to see an old lady filling bottles at a fountain in the plateia. When she saw me taking her photo, she actually hissed at me and waved me away!
The local fruit and vegetable vendor makes his rounds.
The oldest church was built around 1500 A.D. and there are four cemeteries which I must explore on my next visit.
The town’s amphitheater was recently built and is actively used for festivals and plays. Several youth were rehearsing for an upcoming performance.
Among the most historic sites of the village is the Bridge of Xirokambi. Built over the Rasinas River and at the edge of the Anakolo Gorge, this bridge was constructed 2,000 years ago during the Hellenistic period. There is a well-trodden path over the mountains that leads to Kalamata, one of the few routes to the Messinian Gulf over the forbidding Taygetos mountains. I asked Dimitris if my great-great-grandfather, Nikolaos Christakos, might have walked this path, to which he replied, “Most certainly!”
I have often contemplated the unexpected turn of events that dashed my Plan A. If the Library had been open, I would have been thrilled with whatever documentation we found, whether or not I could trace the men to my ancestral lines. However, I would never have found Koumasta and the history of the Christakos family. I would have missed meeting wonderful new friends and experiencing the thrill of literally walking in my ancestors’ footsteps.
But on my next trip, I will make a Plan B–just in case.
*Aristeia is an award given to men who fought valiantly in the Revolution of 1821.
Faris is a quarterly newsletter with information and history about Xirokambi. It has been published for the past 50 years, and issues are available online at: http://micro-kosmos.uoa.gr/faris/teuxi.htm