I set out one morning from Ermoupoli to follow part of the route which VC had taken on his way to Della Grazia, now Posidonia. My mission was to try to discover more about the priest of the Church of St. Anargyris at Ano Manna. The church is actually dedicated to the two saints, Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian and should really be called Sts. Anargyris as in its latinised Greek name of Agioi Anargyroi .
In the book, VC recounts meeting the priest, Papas Chalkis, and his wife, who tell him the sad story of the loss of their son, killed by the Turks while piloting a British plane which came down in the Dardanelles. VC left a number of loose threads in his account and I hoped to find evidence of living descendants who might be interested in learning the details of the intimate conversation which took place between them. I also hoped to maybe find family graves or memorials.
Certainly, the road up to Ano Manna has changed considerably over the intervening years but, especially as one gets further from the city, it’s still possible to identify some of the elements he described.
The road first passed up a valley full of reeds and market-gardens watered by Persian wheels, under the new buildings of the American Refugee School. Then it climbed the bare hills under the Aegean sky.
The reeds and market-gardens can still be seen further on but the section before the American Refugee School (see the blog about finding the school) is now almost completely urbanised and, unsurprisingly, the “Persian wheels” are long gone, however, the impressive remains of a Persian Wheel can be seen in Posidonia.
It takes about an hour of easy walking to get up to the village on foot; VC travelled in a horse-drawn cab. Coming upon the village, one sees the church sitting high on the hill amongst the trees. It’s still a “handsome church” and the priest’s house, “on a terrace raised above the marble court”, is still there, although now expanded by a newer building to its right.
As I walked up onto the terrace, the barking of the dog alerted a young woman inside to my presence and she came to the door, surprised to find a foreigner speaking gibberishGreek to her. She was a chirpy girl. Half in Greek and half in English I learned that the priest was out but would be back shortly. I could walk around and look at the church, she told me, and she asked if I’d like some water or maybe a coffee while I waited – it’s good to see that some things in Greece haven’t changed since VC’s day!
The small kitchen garden is still there as described by VC and striking red geraniums still line the garden wall. As I wandered around the church grounds, I came across a plaque on the wall of the church listing all the priests since the church was built. There at the top was Michalis Chalkias, NOT CHALKIS, as VC had told us was the son’s name, and hence the priest’s also.
Shortly, a car arrived and a lady, a young boy and the priest in his robes climbed out and greeted me. Papas Antonios and I introduced ourselves. I explained that I would like to see inside the church but that I also had another reason for visiting.
On my mention of Papas Chalkias he threw up his arms in surprise and disbelief. Bit by bit, I disclosed the details of VC’s meeting. The lady eagerly took over from me, reading from the book that I’d brought and translating it for the priest, all the while, his arm around my shoulder, clearly delighted that somebody should bring such news of part of the life of one of his revered predecessors.
He knew of the son who was killed but was unaware of the other seven of their children who’d died previously. Most importantly, he confirmed that it was Papas Chakias’ remaining son, Konstantinos, who had later followed in his father’s footsteps to become priest of Agioi Anargyroi. He believed that the family line had ended with the death of Konstantinos and he was unaware of any other family members or any graves or memorials.
He laughed heartily on hearing that VC was offered ouzo. On VC’s mention of the lavender outside the house, he reached down into the garden beside him, plucked a sprig, rubbed it it his palm and picked another for me to do likewise.
Papas Antonios proudly introduced me to his son Alexander, a bright, polite young boy, who’d attained ‘A’ grades in French and English at school and was to start German in the next school term.
The key to the church was fetched, and what a key! The brass antique, a good 15-20 centimetres long, was handed to me. I briefly weighed it in my hand – not one you’d want to drop on your toe, I thought! Papas Antonios kissed a card containing images of the church’s saints and passed it to me. We descended the steps and walked across to the church. To the right of the porch, inside which was the main door, the Papas showed me the marble tablet I’d already seen while awaiting his arrival. He pointed out the very first entry bearing the inscription “Michalis Chalkias 1900-1935”. Half way down the list was the son, “Kontantinos Chalkias 1943-1944”. At the very bottom he pointed to his own entry “Antonios Chalaris 1992 – “, his terminating year, thankfully, still blank. I moved my finger further and further across the tablet, by way of wishing him a long life. He laughed, “I’m 48 years old” he said, but his boyish face belied those years.
We stepped inside the porch. The Papas inserted the huge key into an equally enormous keyhole and gestured for me to turn it – “Turn it twice” he said. With a satisfyingly heavy ‘clunk’ on each turn, the door opened into a church interior as “handsome” as its exterior. The Papas pointed out the icons by Chypris, seen by VC, and, with his permission, I photographed the icons and the interior of the church. I left the Papas at prayer inside and went to sit under the shade of one of the huge cypress trees gracing the courtyard of the church.
Presently, he re-appeared. I asked whether I could have a photograph of him in front of his church. He seemed pleased to honour my request and as I was about to press the shutter, with a chuckle he exclaimed “Wait! Let’s do it with this.” holding up the antique key to the church. I would like to think this was his way of giving me a very personal souvenir of my visit to Agioi Anargyroi.
We said our goodbyes and I promised to send him the part of the book that had so stirred him earlier.
I started on my journey back down into Ermoupoli turning over in my mind what Papas Antonios had told me about the end of the Chalkias family line and what I’d encountered in the Greek cemetery in Ermoupoli the day before. I’d gone there looking for signs of graves or tombs bearing the name ‘Chalkis’. I’d seen a stone inscribed with the name ‘Chalkias’ but had dismissed it as not being the same family, in the belief that VC had given us the correct name. Now I knew differently.
Once back in town, I headed again for the cemetery but, try as I may, I could not find again the stone engraved ‘Chalkias’. I spied a priest coming down the path and approached him. In Greek, I told him I was looking for a grave of a family named ‘Chalkias’. Unsurprisingly, my poor Greek was not understood and he called across a younger man who introduced himself as Panos. He spoke absolutely perfect English, having spent time in Scotland, and being an English teacher and teacher trainer at the University of the Aegean. “Why are you interested in this man Chalkias,” Panos asked “are you a family member?” I explained about VC’s book and his meeting with old Papas Chalkias back in the late-1920s. As I told him the story, he relayed it in Greek to the priest I’d accosted.
It was at this point that the most amazing coincidence unveiled itself. “This priest,” said Panos, “is the great grandson of Papas Chalkias and he knows about his son, the pilot, and the way he died. In fact, he tells me there is a street in Ermoupoli named after him”.
I had so many more questions to ask and I wanted to clarify for certain that the priest was the son of Konstantinos. But Panos excused himself and the priest. “Excuse me, we’re burying my mother today,” he told me to my utter embarassment. I was appalled at my own insensitivity not to have realised that the priest was there to conduct a funeral and that Panos was surely part of that service. Panos gracefully dismissed my apologies as being absolutely unnecessary. I proffered my condolences and we said our goodbyes.
The next day, my last on this visit to Syros, I found the street in Ermoupoli named after the pilot Ioannis Chalkias.
I returned to Syros 3 weeks later to continue my research. In the archive section on the 1st floor of the museum in Ano Syros, I found more about Ioannis Chalkias. Protected under the glass of a display box was an old document, ‘Heroes who died for Greece’. At the very top was Ioannis Chalkias.