Bouboulina. Karaiskakis. Kolokotronis. Mavrogenous. So much more than names I used to read about from a Greek school text book, after a long day at “real” school. Names my dad would tell us with pride and deep emotion, when all we wanted was to play soccer or eat fruit roll-ups like other American kids. Not realizing that these were forces that changed history. That these names were the reason for the Greek blood running through our veins.
"To Kryfo Sholeio” (“The Secret School”) was the name of my Greek school poem when I was 10- years-old, for our 25 Martiou Celebration. While I recited that poem over in and over in our kitchen with the yellow linoleum, my dad sat at the table across from us, regaling us with stories of children who were educated at night in caves during the Ottoman rule, learning the Greek culture and practicing the Orthodox faith in secret. My brother and I were wide-eyed but unable to grasp a story so far removed from our favorite recess snacks and after school playdates, in a culture so vastly different. When you grow up with everything, how can you comprehend having nothing?
Not forgotten were the stories of Greek women and their heroism. Stories my dad told us of our Grandmother and Great Grandmother and all they sacrificed. During the Ottoman rule and the eventual fight for freedom, it was the fierce bravery of the Greek women that knocks the breath out of my chest. Mothers, daughters, sisters, wives. The women of Epirus, a region in northwestern Greece, defied Ottoman rulers by taking their young children in their arms and jumping off the cliff to their deaths, rather than face enslavement or death. In what is now known as O Horos tou Zalongou (The Dance of Zalongo), the women were said to have held hands, dancing off the cliff one by one, in the act of ultimate heroism.
I kept stories in the back of my mind through childhood. Through the two opposing lives of growing up as a Greek-American, yet wanting nothing more than to be like everyone else. But as I grew older, I began to appreciate the names that fought in the revolution. The history. The fight, courage and pain that laces the Greek culture even today. The joyful sorrow in traditional village songs, sung to the strum of a soulful bouzouki after a glass of raki.
When I was 25, I visited the childhood home and museum of Laskarina Bouboulina on the island of Spetses. The infamous Greek naval commander and eventual admiral of the Imperial Russian Navy. The heroine I read about in Greek school text books. As a child, Bouboulina was fascinated by the sea and married captain Dimitris Bouboulis, from whom she derived the name Bouboulina. Bouboulis, her second husband, was killed during a pirate raid. Left with a large fortune from two previous marriages and seven children to support, she became a strategic business women and invested in several ships, including the Agamemnon, the largest warship in the 1821 revolution against the Turks.
Bouboulina joined the secret organization Filiki Etairia (Friendly Society), a group preparing Greeks in the revolution against the Turks. She was the only female member and was instrumental in using her fortune to supply arms, while collecting men to fight. On March 13th, 1821, Bouboulina raised the Greek flag onboard the Agamemnon, starting a naval blockade against the Turks. She fought until the Fort of Nafplion fell, also taking part in the blockade of Monemvasia in the Peloponnese.
Bouboulina. Karaiskakis. Kolokotronis. Mavrogenous. It is these names we carry with us. Names that have impacted the course of Greek history. Names that as an adult I honor, deeply grateful for all the kitchen table conversations with my dad, grateful he engrained this history into our veins. Grateful for Greek school poems that lay the foundation of who we, as Greek-Americans, are today. Names that have influenced the Greek diaspora worldwide, and have spurred the greatest creativity, love, and veneration of this land through young people that were not even born on Greek soil, yet carry the deep pride in their veins. Greek roots, Greek earth, and a deep unwavering pride.
Zhtw h Ellada mas...Long live Greece.