One of the joys of our lives has been our ability to have the time and luxury to travel. Larry and I have seen Macho Picchu shrouded in clouds, savored coffee and pastries in Vienna, swum in luminous waters in Jamaica, and hiked trails in the Rocky Mountains. Along the way, we have met people who have briefly enriched our lives and, in some cases, have become dear friends. It was on a 2014 trip to Greece, however, that we experienced an encounter that was so special, so unique, so generous, that it will always be considered one of the highlights of our travels.
In September, 2014, Larry and I went to the Greek isle of Naxos with two other couples that we had met through our trips to Jamaica, Peter and Margaret from England, who had recommended the island from their previous visits, and Linda and Rob from Alberta, Canada. We spent our first three days enjoying the beautiful beach across from our rented rooms above the owner’s restaurant. In the evening, the six of us would pile into our rented van and drive the three or four miles into town to eat at one of the many al fresco restaurants available in the town center.
Peter and Margaret had told us that the people of Naxos were known for their generosity, and we saw this from the first day we were there. Every morning at breakfast, our hostess Anna always brought us “a gift” of donuts or pastries or biscuits with our eggs and toast. At dinner, along with the bill, our waiters brought out a special treat —a glass of wine, some fresh fruit, a small parfait—that was always presented as “our gift to you for eating in our restaurant.”
On the fourth day, Peter and Margaret suggested we take a day trip into the mountains to visit the Temple of Demeter, a site of ancient Greek ruins dating around 5300 BCE. We climbed up narrow paths to a lovely site overlooking green pastures and rolling hills on both sides. After viewing the site and taking numerous pictures, we headed into the town of Filoti for lunch.
We all dined on gyros, the national fast food of Greece, in an al fresco restaurant in a bustling town square. After lunch, we walked through the town’s quiet, narrow streets with marble steps leading up to residential homes and the town’s Greek Orthodox church.
The outside of the church was in the iconic Greek style, white walls with blue doors. Inside, we found a small room decorated with the icons, statues and other symbols of Greek Orthodoxy. We each dropped a euro into a contribution basket, thanked the elderly gentleman who was serving as the church greeter, and started to leave. The man stopped us, thanked us again for our contribution, and in very broken English, asked from where we were. We explained our nationalities, and, after introducing himself as Georgio*, he said “Come, come see my home!” We followed him out of the church, up another flight of marble stairs, and in front of a lovely three story white building with the classic Greek doors.
Georgio led us into the first level, where his wife was in the kitchen cooking at her stove. “Guests!” he said to her, and introduced his wife Athena. She greeted us as if having six strangers come into her home was an everyday occurrence, and joined Georgio on the tour.The first floor was the living area, filled with ornate furniture with floors covered in beautiful white marble and walls decorated with pictures of their parents, grandparents, and their two sons. The next level, accessed through outdoor staircase, led to a bedroom off a balcony. The third level had another bedroom off another balcony that offered views of the church’s bell tower as well as the the surrounding mountains.
We posed for pictures with Athena and Georgio, thanked them, and began our leaving when Athena* said, “Come! Come see our museum.” She grabbed a set of old fashioned keys and led us down the stairs to another white building with the ubiquitous blue doors.
Inside was a large room meticulously recreated by the local women’s guild to look like a Greek home from the 1800’s. A large table dominated the room, with walls covered with pictures of families from the 1800’s, tapestries, and all sorts of embroidered dresses and linens. In the corner was a lovely canopied bed with embroidered nightgowns laid out as if someone was to slip into the warm comforters for the night. We felt as if we had stepped back two hundred years.
Again, we thanked her profusely and started to leave. “Wait!” she indicated, and pulled out of the cupboard a bottle of liqueur, which she poured into small glasses and passed out. We all raised our glasses with shouts of “Oompah” and “Cheers” and “L’chaim.” She turned down our offer of Euros for the museum, but when Peter pressed money in her hand and said, “For your church,” and she smiled and accepted it.
As we walked the short distance back into the center of town and back to our van, Peter and Margaret, seasoned travelers, commented that in all their years of seeing the world, never before had they encountered such generosity and openness. “Can you imagine,” Rob mused, “if I walked into my home with six strangers and said to Linda, “We have guests!” The six of us left shaking our heads in awe. In a world filled with so much hatred and fear, we found in a tiny town nestled in the hills of a Greek island friendliness, warmth and two very generous hearts.
*Not their real names.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York.