A homecoming

A homecoming

On any given day, in a sleepy rural village near Kalamata, a group of elderly men gather at the kafeneio for a drink and lively conversation. Nothing unusual about that until you get to know them.

Although they were all born in this village, at least half of them are called “the foreigners.” They are the ones who left many years ago as children or young men. Like many young people today, they left for a better future overseas.

However, life was much worse for them. They didn’t leave with university degrees; rather, they set out with barely more than the clothes on their back.

The oldest ones remember the horrors of war, hunger, and deaths at the hands of the invaders in the village square. But they all see this as the only place to spend their golden years. The reasons for their return are different but at the core identical, they have all come home.

They see their homeland very differently to those who never left. They will never be crushed by any crisis and can still feel the romance of Greece and see its potential.

They know that this wondrous country can survive anything.

They are the diaspora who have come home to live their retirement to the full. They have returned with a wealth of knowledge and financial stability. Their reflection has much to offer modern Greece.

Every morning, the aroma of freshly baked koulourakia has the same Proustian effect as the madeleines of 19th century Paris. It evokes memories of their youth, both joyous and sad, and prompts emotional and volatile conversations.

Among the group is a former New York taxi driver and a retired retailer from Boston. They also include a restaurateur from Montreal, a lawyer from Adelaide, a lecturer from Melbourne, a banker from Dusseldorf and a tailor from Paris.

One elderly gentleman is a little more “foreign” than the rest. His wife left the village at 19 years of age and bravely started a new life in Chicago. Fifty years later she has returned with her husband, an American-born Greek lawyer who now calls her village home.

There are others who migrate here every year for about six months to tend their olive groves and spend time with the family they left behind.

The Australian lawyer returned in his late 60s. For him this is the perfect base from which to explore Europe. He also has the luxury of being able to visit many sites less than an hour’s drive from his home anytime he feels the need for an ancient experience.

The Chicago lawyer, who came here in his 80s, is only half joking when he says he did it to avoid Trump’s America. A passionate historian who has enjoyed yearly visits to Greece, the sirens of antiquity have finally tethered him.

The Montreal restaurateur wanted to create a home that his Greek and Canadian family could all enjoy every summer. When alone, he and his wife can sit on their veranda for hours overlooking the mountains which surround their village.

These mature travelers are breathing gentle new life into the village. Old homes are being restored with respect to their historic integrity – now the main source of income for many local tradesmen.

Money is being infused into many businesses in the area by people with high disposable incomes – a rare commodity these days.

There are also long-term spin-offs from this gray invasion. Once-neglected family homes are now holiday magnets for the children and grandchildren of these expats. Maybe they will retire here as well one day.

In summer, the square is a hive of activity after a day at the beach for friends and family who now make an annual pilgrimage to what was once considered a dying village.

Like their spiritual ancestor Ulysses, these old travelers have finally come home, all the wiser for their experiences abroad.

Karen Reichelt is an Australian writer and author of “Extra Virgin.”

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