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A Little Bit of Highlandtown on a Greek Isle A Letter From OLYMPOS


Olympos, Greece. -- Baked by an afternoon in the Aegean sun, dusty and heavy with baggage, it is not a welcome sight for a honeymoon couple: the 7 p.m. (and last) mini-bus stuffed like one of those clown cars at a circus.

The driver will return, he assures us in broken English, as he speeds off into the hills toward Olympos, a mountain village on Karpathos, the Greek island poised like a crooked finger between Crete and Rhodes.

We lumber toward some benches, where a half-dozen teens are horsing around. They pour water on each other and trade jokes and insults in fluent American slang. A small boom box pumps out heavy-metal music. Perfect.

"You guys from America?"

"Baltimore," says the most boisterous of the group.

Yeah, right. He sees my Baltimore Sun T-shirt. Just what we need, a wise guy.

"Really?" I say, calling his bluff. "What part of Baltimore?"

"Highlandtown," he says matter-of-factly.

Before long we are all heading toward Olympos. But not aboard the mini-bus. We're in the back of a pick-up truck driven by one of the Baltimoreans' friends.

The human cargo includes Manuel Nicolaidis, 16, of Newkirk Street in Highlandtown. His father, Minas, owns Pizza City in Randallstown. And there is John Nikitas, 18, a former Highlandtown resident whose father moved the family back to Greece several years ago.

We bump along the dirt road, which soon angles into the honey-colored mountains. They are dry and creased as an old man's face, covered with tufts of brush and gnarled pines.

Rounding a dusty bend we come face to face with Olympos. It is a lonely and mystical sight. The village appears suspended on a 2,000-foot rock face. Tan and white blocks of houses stack row upon row. Along a ridge is a squat line of medieval stone windmills. Rising above the village homes is a Byzantine church tower.

Small white chapels, with Cycladic domes and curved arches, are scattered like pearls on the valley floor. Alongside one chapel is a cemetery, its graves eerily illuminated by candles.

There is a timeless quality to Olympos, settled in the 1500s. A man with a long stick guides his donkeys. Women wear a traditional embroidered dress, the kavay. They trudge along the maze of narrow streets and stairways bearing baskets of fruit and bundles of sticks for the communal ovens. Many houses have small second-story porches, intricately carved doors and white lace curtains.

At night the mist curls like pipe smoke around the mountains and the wind plays the low, hollow sound of a flute. Dawn is pierced by a barnyard chorus of donkeys and roosters.

Villagers started moving to the United States around 1920, driven by the lack of work. The earliest migrants labored in the coal mines of West Virginia and some eventually ended up in Baltimore. Relatives and other families followed. Still others arrived from Rhodes, Athens and the island of Hios, setting up restaurants and stores in what became known as "Greektown."

"If you say you're from America, they know it's either New York or Baltimore," says John.

Manuel's parents, who grew up in Olympos and left in 1969, return for summer sojourns, as do many other former villagers. This is Manuel's third visit and he feels the tug between two worlds. He will likely stay in America and pursue a career in architecture. But, he says, "When I'm here I want to stay here."

We have come at a good time. Tomorrow is the feast of St. Irene, a patron saint of one of the many chapels. There will be a church service and then dancing and singing well into the night.

Olympos, with a summertime population of 2,000, was virtually cut off from the outside world until the 5-mile road was built from the port village of Diafani in the mid-1970s.

"Most of the people in Diafani and Olympos went to Baltimore," said Nikos Vasiliadis, owner of the Mayflower Restaurant in Diafani. His uncle was among the first, leaving the island about 1920. After a stint as a coal miner, his uncle opened a small restaurant in Baltimore.

Mr. Vasiliadis lived in Baltimore for 20 years, operating a grocery store near City Hospitals with his family. Two brothers and two sisters remain in Baltimore, but he returned in 1980.

"Why? Everybody wants to come back some day," he says, relaxing in front of his restaurant, shaded by a floral canvas awning. A few steps away, fishermen spread their yellow nets on the stony beach to dry. Inside his store, above a postcard stand is a framed diploma: "The University of Baltimore, Nicholas John Vasiliadis, 1972, School of Business, Bachelor of Science."

Others have also returned. Nick Filippakis, 32, went to Baltimore with his family as a 5-year-old. Five years ago he came back and took over the Parthenonas, a small taverna opened by his great-grandfather.

"Even though I left when I was young I wondered [about Olympos]," he says, as he --es off to wait on customers. "Roots?" he suggests, with a shrug. "I don't know." On the wall, high above the bric-a-brac, plates and needlepoint Greek dancers, is a portrait gallery of three sturdy mustached men: his father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

John's father, George Nikitas, 40, another Olympos native who went to Highlandtown as a teen-ager, took his family back to Greece about five years ago. "The kids were getting older, too many drugs," he explains. "In a big city, you don't have control over them." And he was concerned that their Greek identity would dissolve in America's melting pot. They live on Rhodes and return to the village in the summer.

Despite some reverse migration, there is worry about what the future holds for Olympos. Next year the dirt road to the village will turn black with a coat of asphalt.

At Diafani, a massive dock is being readied for a steady stream of cruise ships. Now a weekly ship is met by caiques, small wooden boats that ferry passengers to shore. There is also talk about extending the landing over the beach to handle more cars.

the changes. "The older people are against it," says Nick Pikos, 22, a burly and bearded former Baltimore resident, now a Rhodes artist who is painting Byzantine murals on a Diafani church.

The village elders worry the modern world is eroding their traditions. Young girls who grew up far from Olympos balk at wearing the foystani, the colorful dresses used for celebrations, and being told to stay close to home. There was a time when the celebration of a saint's day would start in early evening and last well into the next day. Now they start late and end early.

But on this moonlit night the traditions of Olympos seem secure. In a tiny plaza bordered by the church of St. Mary and the tavernas, several generations join in song and dance. The old men stuff sprigs of basil in their pockets, a sign the gift of music is with them. Perched on wooden benches, they launch into impromptu song about friends who have returned.

John Nikitas and his brother Manuel take turns with fast-paced strumming of the lute, a pear-shaped guitar. They accompany an old man with a lyra. Together they produce a sweet fiddle sound as the dancers begin to curl around them, arms locked and feet tapping the rhythms.

Manuel Nicolaidis and John Nikitas jump in, one who will likely remain in America and another who returned. It is now past midnight, and the young dancers are swirling faster and faster around the seated men, all linked by the rites of this mountaintop village.

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