A Farewell to Tolo
by Jamison Koehler on April 25, 2019
We were not the first tourists to visit the village of Tolo. But we were the first foreign family to spend a significant amount of time there — almost a year in 1972 followed by multiple summers. And with seven of us in the family, including five children, it was inevitable we would make a lot of friends.
Forty-seven years after our first visit, four of us – my brother, two sisters and I – board a flight for Athens. We are accompanied by two spouses, one significant other, and six of our children.
Vaggelis meets us at the airport with a driver and van.
With only so many names in use in Greece, we always gave people nicknames. We needed to distinguish among the numerous guys named Yiannis, Yiorgos, Demetrius, Kostas, Nikos or Vaggelis. There was Tall Yiannis, for example. Blinking Yiannis, and Yiannis from Athens. There was Crazy Vaggelis and Vaggelis with the mustache.
But we did not need a nickname for Vaggelis. He was just Vaggelis to all of us. Then 19 years old, he was first brought in to translate for my father when we arrived late one night looking for a place to stay. Not many members of the older generation in Tolo spoke English back then. But people always knew a younger person who was learning English at school. That person would be summoned to translate.
All of us remember the first time we met Vaggelis. My younger sister – the only surviving member of our family who isn’t able to join us for the trip – described him in her journal as tall and slender with dark eyes and “black hair spun in hyacinth curls”: “At the time,” the 10-year-old wrote, “he had been working, and had torn working clothes on, and plaster in his hair.”
The plaster in his hair was from the Romvi hotel, which was then under construction. It is at the Romvi, now run by Vaggelis’ sister and her family, and at the Koronis hotel, run by Vaggelis’ other sister, where we will spend much of our time during the week ahead.
Sophia and her husband Kostas greet us in the lobby of the Koronis Hotel after the hour-and-a-half drive from Athens. I spent two summers during college living with Vaggelis at the Koronis, helping him out with the small bar at the hotel, and I am thinking it will be fun to stay here as a hotel guest.
Kostas makes a big deal about how much weight I have put on since he last saw me 20 years ago. Later, sensitive about my weight gain, I complain to Vaggelis about Kostas’ ribbing. Vaggelis apparently passes along the complaint to Kostas, and Kostas tries to atone. “Vaggeli,” he shouts out across a crowded restaurant a couple of nights later. “Tell Tzimi he looks thinner already!”
On our second night in Tolo, my brother organizes a slide show at the Koronis. We invite many of our old friends. Vaggelis is there with his wife Melinda and their 18-year-old son Nikos, and we present them with the gifts we have brought for them.
My brother begins with photographs from my mother’s return to Tolo five years ago with my oldest sister. He then works back in time. There are photographs from the tours my parents organized during the 1980s. There are a few shots I contributed from the summers I spent working for Vaggelis. There are photos from the summers we all spent there in the mid to late 1970s.
And then we are in 1972.
Back then there were only two cameras in town. One camera was owned by a middle-aged Greek man, not from Tolo as I remember it, who would walk around snapping candid photographs of the townspeople. He would develop the film and then offer the photos back to their subjects, presumably in exchange for some fee. The other man with a camera was my father, and it is these photos that we see now. Most of the hotels and the nightclubs and the fancy restaurants disappear. Tolo is returned to a quiet fishing town. Many of the older women wear black. Men sit cross-legged in front of their houses, tending to their fishing nets.
Vaggelis has broken out the bourbon we brought him, and the room erupts with laughter and recognition as we walk back in time through the photographs. The show is so well received that my brother organizes a second showing the next day.
On our third night in Tolo, we are hosted at Aris’ restaurant down the beach by Yiannis Bikakis and his younger brother.
Aris’ used to be a Greek taverna with a modest hotel on top. It is where my younger sister and I used to hang out with our friends – flirting with members of the opposite sex, jumping in and out of the sea, pushing at the tables. I also remember Aris and my father sitting on the patio, enjoying each other’s company as their children played soccer on the sand just below them. We also introduced the frisbee. No one in Tolo had ever seen one before.
Now run by the two brothers, the hotel and restaurant has been transformed into a high-end establishment, twice the size it used to be and crawling with hotel guests and employees.
Yiannis and my middle sister Jenny were an item for at least one summer.
“My first love,” is how Jenny describes Yiannis today. Yiannis has had three heart attacks and an operation. But he looks as good today as he did back then, and he is warm and gracious. His younger brother, whom I remember as a 9-year-old boy, looks exactly as their father did, with his slender, lined face and gap-toothed smile.
The Bikakis brothers spare no expense in our honor: They have hired musicians, including a three-piece band with a bouzouki player, and professional Greek dancers to entertain us. They have also brought back Yiorgos, the singer and main attraction during the 1970’s from the bouzouki nightclub Zorbas. Yiorgos looks remarkably unchanged. He is short – probably 5’2” – and still slender, and his skin is still youthful. Jenny and I go over to meet him before the show. We feel like we are in the presence of a celebrity. He is gracious and pretends to remember us.
The grand finale for Yiorgos’ show consists of him running back and forth from one end of the restaurant to the other as the music reaches its climax. He then takes off his suit jacket and hurls it across the room where it lands on Jenny’s still unfinished dinner plate. We laugh about this later. Maybe camp is the whole idea, suggests a member of the younger generation.
Our host Yiannis appears again at the end of the night as things begin to wind down, and our children break into a spontaneous slow clap in his honor.
We do day trips to Mycenae and Epidavros. We also take one of Manolis’ boats to Hydra and Spetse. Manolis has expanded his business from the Pegasus, the size of a small yacht, to three gargantuan boats complete with two decks, inside and outside seating, and a bar. His sons, who are included among the crew, refuse to let us pay for anything. In fact we have hardly paid for anything this entire trip.
The younger generation appears to be enjoying itself. With six of the 13 cousins present, three sets of two siblings each, they are at once clubby and open. They join the old folks for scheduled events during the day and evening. They then go back to the Koronis and play cards well into the morning. I can hear them laughing from the hotel room next door. One afternoon I poke my head into the boys’ room to find that Jack and Peter have organized a cocktail party. Fresh bread and ham have been laid out on a table on the balcony. They are sipping ouzo.
My father used to prefer the company of the young folks at any social function. My mother was always running over to retrieve him. Stan, she would say. Come back and join the old folk. I remind myself of him: I join the cousins for a spirited game of Resistance on our boat ride to the islands. I also tag along on one of their multiple trips to the game arcade at the center of town. Rachel and Isabel, my brother’s daughters, turn out to be particularly fierce foosball players.
The cousins have noticed that every other time one of our friends from Tolo is mentioned, it turns out that the person has either died or had some major calamity befall them. Sadly, this is true: Many of our friends have since died from accidents and illnesses. But we enjoy the people who are still with us. We make do with the circumstances such as they are.
On our last night in Tolo, for example, Crazy Vaggelis hosts us at his restaurant at the far end of town. Once again we are not allowed to pay. The building used to be a two-room house with dirt floor that accommodated Crazy Vaggelis’ entire family, including his uncle. It has now been converted into a high-end restaurant. Crazy Vaggelis has survived cancer and a near fatal car crash. Wheelchair bound, he is now suffering from a neurological disorder that will soon kill him. His son cautions us that our host will only be able to join us for 10 or 15 minutes. But Crazy Vaggelis stays with us for most of the night as we celebrate my daughter Laura’s birthday. I have some problems with my back, he tells us from the head of the table with that familiar glint in his eye. But there is no problem with my sex life.
Another of our friends, Noulis, has lost sight in both eyes because of diabetes. But he joins us for one of our dinners at the Romvi. We are spread out across a large U-shaped table at the restaurant. Vaggelis’ cousin is playing the bouzouki along with a guitar player. Vaggelis is on one side of me. Jenny, her husband and my old friend Germanos are on my other, with Noulis sitting across from me. Vaggelis yells for his nephew Adonis to bring us some more wine and another plate of lamb, and when Kostas leans over to tell me once again that I am in fact looking much thinner, this time I actually believe him.
The cousins are sitting together on the side of the table closest to the beach, and I see them laughing and leaning in with Nikos and some of the other younger Greeks who are present, the offspring of the people who have meant so much to us. The group of them leave the restaurant briefly only to return with a practiced entry and dance designed to amuse the rest of us. It works. Later they all get up to do the syrtaki, with my niece Meg leading the line.
Noulis is enjoying himself immensely. Although his blindness may prevent him from reading the normal social cues, he joins into the conversation seamlessly and the people sitting next to him prompt him with everything he needs to know. Noulis, they say. The food is coming. Lean your body to your right. Or: Noulis. Move your chair in. Someone needs to get by. When the group breaks into Stin Apano Ghitonitza– one of our favorite songs – Noulis sings along with exaggerated enthusiasm.
I look over to see my siblings, older now but still good looking, reminiscing with our old friends, and I remember — with only a touch of sadness — who they used to be and what they used to look like. Looking then to my right, I see my children and their cousins singing along as if they have known this song their entire lives and when Noulis gets up to dance, straight-armed and graceful and sure, surrounded by his friends and the people who love him, the first time anyone has seen him dance in ten years, I know then that all is good with the world, at least for this evening. I know then what it means to be blessed.