Quick! Think of home. What is the first image that comes to mind? Is it the house you grew up in? The house you spent your summers in? Is it your hometown? Or any other place that you have spent years of your life in? When I think of home, I think of a place I have barely spent a season, but that I have been able to locate without the help of a map for as long as I can remember.
First you need to get yourself to Sparta, Greece. From there, take the Sparta-Githion road heading south. Cross the river, and then make your first right and take the road that goes up the mountain. Stop the car when you get to the first town square. Get out of the car, cross the square on foot. On the opposite side, there is a short, steep downhill that levels off into a road. Take that road. Walk past the house that juts into the street. You’re almost there. A little farther along you will see a downhill-sloping driveway on your left, leading to two attached houses. Walk down the driveway, then up to the balcony with the metal railing. Take a seat and look out across the valley. Close your eyes. Breathe. Feel the love and comfort of home wrap you up like a warm blanket.
Growing up, there were many places I referred to as home. They were the houses I lived in, yet although I called them home, slept there every night, made memories and lived out my daily routine for years at a time, I forgot them as soon as I left them. I may have spent formative years there and made many beautiful memories in those houses, but my magnetic pull was to a place I barely knew.
The first time I went to Petrina, it was to be seen. One of her daughters had a new baby, and she wanted to show her blessing off to the village that formed her. The second time I went to Petrina was to be shown. I was older now, nearly five. I was shown the house where my mom was born and spent the first years of her life. I was shown the grandfather that loved her, the aunts and uncles and friends that surrounded her, the orchards that fed her, and the town square where she – and now I – danced and played. And just like that, the invisible cord that connected me to my mother stretched right through her and plugged me into the same land that she was rooted in. Her roots became my roots. And then I went back to playing.
The next two trips to Petrina were different. Mom was gone. Dad took us in his dad’s red Jeep Niva with no air conditioning. We drove around the town square this time, down the hill, squeezed past the house that jutted into the road (Dad said the house was there first, so when they made the road they had to pave around it), and into the now familiar driveway. I sat on great-grandfather’s knee while he spoke to Dad, looking out across my valley. It was hot, the wasps were out, I was sticking to my clothes and great-grandfather’s bony knee was not exactly comfortable to sit on, but I didn’t fidget. I settled in. More trips followed. Great-grandfather was bedridden, and then he was gone too. Uncle Spiro bought and fixed up the adjoining house, and we slept there now. Grandma and I sorted through the boxes of family photos in her old bedroom as she shared stories I had never heard before. Every trip was similar: always in summer, never for more than a week, and a feeling of being wrapped in a blanket of belonging the moment I turned into the driveway. In Petrina, I wasn’t the girl with the funny name, that looked different and never quite fit in. In Petrina, I was with my tribe, and my grandfather’s name gave me an all-access pass. I loved it there. And then I grew up.
My affinity with Petrina didn’t fade, but my memory did. I went to university, got summer jobs, and then a full-time job. My priorities changed. I didn’t have all summer off anymore, and with the vacation I did get, there was a whole world to see! So I disconnected the cord that tied me to Petrina, and I floated. I floated to Europe, and Asia and South America, and I loved it all. Seventeen years somehow passed, and I was offered a chance to return. I said yes.
I got myself to Sparta, Greece. My aunt picked me up from the bus station in her air-conditioned Jeep, still dressed in her bathing-suit and coated in salt. We drove down the Sparta-Githion road, so deep in conversation that I barely noticed we were crossing the river. She took the first right, drove into the first town, and parked the car. I walked across the town square, down the hill, past the house that juts into the street, to the driveway I could sense before I saw it. I turned, looked at the house, walked up the steps and sat on the balcony. It was siesta time. The house was quiet. I looked out across the valley, breathed, sank my feet in and started to cry. I was home again.