Finding Konstantinos: a Peterson Family Pilgrimage

Internet, meet my parents.

Our little family (I have no brothers or sisters!), taken right after my half marathon in Prague this year.

My parents are awesome.

My mom:

  • Was at the original Woodstock.
  • Swore when I was born that she would always let me wear whatever I wanted to wear.
  • Can burp the alphabet.
  • Speaks Russian and French.
  • Has beaten George Lucas at bowling. No joke!

My dad:

  • Has a PhD in philosophy.
  • Is the head of International Education at Montana State, so he travels all over the world!
  • Makes the best pasta carbonara in the western half of the United States, if not the UNIVERSE.
  • Loves Zorba the Greek as much as I do, and was the first person to introduce me to Kazantzakis.
  • Had a Fulbright himself a few years ago, for a few weeks in India.

Together, with our loveable, goofy pooch Abbie, we make quite the little family unit. I’ve always been very close with my parents, and it is from them that I get my love for travel, food, and literature. As these are three of the things I love most in life, you can see how much my parents have influenced me, in the best ways possible.

It was for all these reasons that I had to find the tomb of Konstantinos Bastounis.

My parents with Abbie and my dear friend Bennett, watching Lord of the Rings on Christmas (a long-standing tradition in the Peterson household).

In the 1970s, my parents went on a long backpacking trip throughout much of Europe, which became the source of many of their best travel stories. My father in particular is a phenomenal storyteller, especially because he has traveled all over the world. Those of you who know him will understand how much it means when I say that the story of Konstantinos Bastounis is probably his best travel story. I can remember hearing this story from the time I was a little girl.

What follows is my father’s journal entry from the day they met Konstantinos, on their way to the ruins of a temple called the Argive Heraion near Argos in the Peloponnese.

“We met Konstantinos Bastounis today, and it made this day into one of the most beautiful of all our travels.  He knew not a single word of English and we knew hardly a word of Greek, so our communication was very slow and simple.  However, Konstantinos communicated some very important and beautiful things about himself to us and we had a good time together.

We leave Kharvati on foot, passing by the café with the sign that reads, ‘Café, Bar, Ice Cream & Friendship.’  The road to the Argive Heraion starts out as a narrow paved road, turns into a gravel road to the village of Monasteraki, and continues on as something less than that.  People in the village are very friendly and some of the little kids come running out to gaze at us with our big packs.  I take a picture of a woman working in a vegetable patch.  She looks up, I wave, and she laughs and laughs.

We continue walking down the road, but soon stop to cool off a bit.  Sitting in the shade, we hear singing down the road a ways, a haunting Greek folk tune.  Then we hear another voice pick up the tune in a deep bass.  We stare down the road, expecting to see a young woman and a man.  In a moment, a lone old man on a tiny donkey comes around the bend, singing both parts.  He stops before reaching us to pick up some broken glass on the road.  As he approaches, Mary asks if she can take his picture.  He emphatically indicates that that will be fine and stops directly in front of us.  After the picture is taken, he gets off the donkey and wants to know where we are from, where we are going, etc.  He also tries to tell us something else.  Finally, we realize that he wants us to send him a copy of the picture.  We, of course, agree and he writes down his address for us.  

Instead of continuing along his way, however, he indicates for us to come with him and he starts off in the direction he came from.  As we truck along with him he very patiently tries to talk to us.  ‘He is 73 years old,’ Mary tells me.  ‘He wants to know, are we friends or married?’ 

He indicates we should stop and leave our packs.  We follow him down a little path, along the edge of a field.  What?  Well, we soon see.  Konstantinos has brought us to an ancient tholos, collapsed and generally not so spectacular as the Tomb of Agamemnon, but quite something nonetheless.  It’s really nice to be here with no guards, ticket booths, fences, guided tours or flashcubes popping – to be truly alone with the place.  Konstantions insists that Agamemnon is buried here and indicates one of the partially excavated shaft graves.  Evidently, Agamemnon is buried everywhere around here!  

We go back to the road and set off once again for the Heraion.  As we arrive there, we start to say goodbye to Konstantinos, but he indicates for us to come with him again.  We go up a hill to a little church.  He takes us inside and shows us a plaque that has his name on it.  Then he takes us outside and shows us a cinder block structure with another plaque.

Konstantinos points to the plaque, then crosses his arms over his chest, makes a sweet smile and closes his eyes.  Suddenly, the meaning of all this becomes clear.  This is his tomb and his plaque for over the opening.  Next, he takes us inside his tomb and shows us the interior where there is a chair, a lamp on the wall and several religious pictures, all carefully arranged.  He indicates that now he reads his book in there.  Then he very vividly indicates how when he dies (same gesture as above) he will be bricked into the tomb.  In all this it is clear that Konstantinos is very aware, very joyful and very proud of all this.  

Konstantinos takes us to a nearby door in the same cinder block structure and shows us where he sleeps – within five feet of his future grave.  At a little hut a few yards away, Konstantinos goes down into the cellar and draws retsina out of a huge keg for all of us, which he serves to us with olives.  

Now it is time for the photograph.  Konstantinos takes us back to the church and carefully prepares the scene:  he props up the empty coffin against the altar, sets his chair in front of that, and places the first plaque on the floor in front of him.  He looks seriously and solemnly into the camera.  Afterward, we again exchange addresses and then go outside.  Konstantinos walks us down the road, we shake hands and say good-bye.

Norm Peterson
Saturday, September 29, 1973

[We mailed him the photograph after we got home to Colorado, but we never knew for sure whether he received it.] “

The first picture my parents took of Konstantinos, while walking along the road.

The final picture taken of Konstantinos, with his own future coffin.

This story is remarkable in several ways. First of all, it’s incredibly Greek: the singing, the donkey, the spontaneous decision that whatever he was doing before was far less important than showing my parents around the site, the retsina, all of it. Especially now that I live here, I understand just how Greek this experience was, and I’m so happy my parents got to experience that. And second, of course, the sense of being comfortable with death like this is something that few Americans dare to even think about. Building our own tombs, having daily contact with our own future coffins, and sleeping so close to the place where we will one day be buried is laughably far from what most Americans would consider normal or desirable. And yet, in some ways, there is something so admirable in it. If we were all so comfortable with the idea of our own death, isn’t it possible we would all lead happier lives?

When I found out I would be coming to Greece, I knew I had to find the tomb. So, on day three of my trip through the Peloponnese (the same day as Dinner with The Legend! This may have been my most epic day in Greece thus far!), I took the bus from Nafplio to Argos, a town very close by. I knew that half the challenge would be simply getting to the Argive Heraion itself. It’s a pretty obscure set of ruins that doesn’t get a lot of visitors, to say the least. I knew I’d have to take a taxi there, so I memorized the name of the site in Greek and hoped for the best.

Kserete pou ine to Iraiou Argous?” (“Do you know where the Argive Heraion is?”) I asked the taxi driver at the front of the stand. After a long pause, the response I got was, “…Ti?!” (“What?!”). I repeated my query, and he told me that he was from Argos, and still had no idea what I was talking about. He asked a few other taxi drivers, and none of them knew. Finally, the fifth driver he asked knew where it was, and gave my driver directions for a full two minutes or so. I got in the cab, and explained that I would like him to wait when we got there and then take me back to Argos.

The cab driver didn’t speak any English at all. So when he asked me why I was going there, I braced myself for a long and difficult test of my Greek. I haven’t learned anything in past tense yet, which made it extra challenging. What I ended up saying was something like, “My parents come here. They have a friend. The tomb of the friend is there. I will go to put flowers on it.” He understood, thankfully, and we drove on.

Naturally, after hearing this, he drove me to the cemetery in the closest town.

“Uh… ohi, signome. Den ine afto. To mnima ine sto arkaiologikos horos, ohi stin poli,” (“No, I’m sorry. This isn’t it. The tomb is at the archaeological site, not in the town,”) I said as politely as I could. The taxi driver totally lost his patience. Here was this tall, gangly, pale girl with red hair and crappy Greek, who clearly had no idea where she was going or what she was doing, but it had something to do with a tomb, and all he knew was it was weird. He started yelling in Greek, and I caught “What am I supposed to think when you tell me you’re going to a tomb?!” He drove on. Before, we had been attempting to communicate and make small talk as much as we could. Now, a painfully awkward silence settled upon us.

But within a few minutes, we arrived at the actual site itself. I asked him to wait ten or fifteen minutes, and hopped out of the cab. I walked up the hill to the site.

The entrance to the Argive Heraion.

Part of the ruins of the Argive Heraion. There isn't much left.

My father’s instructions were to find a small church, which the tomb would be behind. I couldn’t see any church at all. I walked around for a bit, but still couldn’t see any churches. Thankfully, there was an attendant in a little wooden booth at the entrance. I walked back down and told him I was looking for a tomb.

“Oh, do you mean Bastounis?” he said in English, with a smile.

“Yes, yes!! How did you know?”

Ela! (Come on!) I’ve worked here for twenty years! How could I not know Bastounis?”

I stared at him in disbelief. What did he mean? Who was Konstantinos, really? Was there more to this story than could be communicated between Konstantinos and my parents through the language barrier?

He offered to walk me to the tomb himself, after explaining to my taxi driver where we were going. His English was so-so, but my Greek is so-so too, so we were able to meet each other halfway as I asked questions about Konstantinos and he told me as much as he knew.

Konstantinos Bastounis is apparently quite the local legend. The site attendant used the word mythos to describe him. I told him my parents were here in 1973, and that Konstantinos was very kind to them. He whistled in surprise and said, “They will be sad that he died in 1975. And his death–it wasn’t natural.”

I stared in shock as he told me that Konstantinos was murdered, just two years after he met my parents. The attendant couldn’t be completely sure as to why, because it took place a long time ago, but locals in town say that Konstantinos found some ancient gold coins while digging on his farm. Some people killed him in order to take the coins.

By this point we had reached the tomb. There was the little church and, as promised, the little white stucco building behind it.

At long last: the tomb!

I went inside. Though it had fallen into disarray, several ikons (religious pictures or figures) lined the inside, and a chair still sat there. I assume that was Konstantinos’s reading chair, as he told my parents he read inside the tomb.

Part of the inside of Konstantinos's tomb.

Outside, on the top of the structure, was his actual grave.

The grave itself.

The inscription on the grave has faded a lot, but you can still make out a few of the letters here and there.

As we walked around, the attendant explained to me that Konstantinos actually built the church himself! That’s what the plaque in my parents’ picture actually says: that Konstantinos built the church, and it was finished in 1967.

The very same plaque from my parents' picture, now placed on the wall of the church Konstantinos Bastounis built.

It was wonderful to have the chance to spend some time paying homage to Konstantinos, a man who was so kind to my parents when they were on their own traveling odyssey.  The feeling of finally being in the place where this amazing family legend actually took place was remarkable. Greece, being so steeped in history and tradition, often gives the sense of being able to simply jump right through time: to skip around the centuries and decades as easily as if one was diving into a pool. That’s exactly how I felt as I was standing at the tomb of Konstantinos Bastounis.

The Peloponnesian countryside where Konstantinos is buried.

When I got back in the taxi, the driver had cooled down quite a bit and was ready to resume our attempts to communicate. However, it went no better than it had before. He clearly didn’t have any experience interacting with non-native speakers of his language. Even when I said, “Siga-siga, parakalo” (“Slowly slowly, please!” Siga-siga is a phrase used often to describe not only things that physically proceed slowly, but also an entire lifestyle often associated with Greek cultural conceptions of how one should spend one’s days!), he would repeat himself at exactly the same speed as before. It was useless. We both gave up.

He drove me back to Argos, and as he was printing out the receipt to show me the cost of the ride, his little printer ran out of paper. At this, he said the Greek equivalent of the f-word.

“Afto, katalaveno,” (“That, I understand”) I said quietly with a small smirk.

After a brief silence as he looked at me in surprise, we both began howling with laughter.

For all the awkwardness, frustration, and total inability to communicate we had been through, it was a perfect way to end our bizarre little odyssey. It’s delightful how some things that are “dirty” can break through the most formidable of social barriers, be they cultural, linguistic or experience-based. Ours were all three, but the driver was actually laughing so hard he was crying as I rattled off the list of curse words I know in Greek. He managed to wheeze out “Kalos orisate stin Ellada!” (“Welcome to Greece!”) in between breaths, which set us off again as I paid him. When I went to get out of the cab, he shyly said, “Er… beautiful,” before I left. I thanked him and actually blushed, as there was a sense of total sincerity to what he was saying, especially because it was in English (and was probably one of the four or five words he knew). One thoroughly awkward journey and two moments of bonding later–the first through curse words, and the second through kindness–and that was all I will ever see of him.

That afternoon, I Skyped with my parents and e-mailed them the pictures. The internet connection was awful, but it didn’t matter; I still had a chance to add my chapter to the legend. Thousands of miles away from one another, our whole little family was happy together. What a world we live in, where an elderly Greek man with a remarkably comfortable attitude toward his own death can be a part of that happiness.

Rest in peace, Konstantinos.

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About wrap me in phyllo dough

travel addict. greece-obsessed. grad student. bottomless pit.
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7 Responses to Finding Konstantinos: a Peterson Family Pilgrimage

  1. Bennett Drozic says:

    Well done, Kate.

  2. This is a such a beautiful journey. I get so happy reading all of your stories; happy because Greece is a wonderful place that brings me so much joy and happy for you that you’re experiencing so much of what the culture has to offer, and in such unique ways!

    – Xristina =)

  3. costaarvan says:

    wow what a wonderful post.

  4. Ioanna Mpatsios says:

    I loved your tribute to Kostantinos Batsunis. The picture of his portrait is something else. I’ m an artist and as soon as I saw that old man, I felt I must paint his portrait. Please let me know if that is ok with your parents. I could send you a picture of my painting.

  5. Beth says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this with me. It is an amazing, rich, and touching story. I am so glad you were able to bring your parents’ story to the full circle of culture and chance meetings of special people.

  6. Pingback: The Wrap Me in Phyllo Dough 100th Post Spectacular! | wrap me in phyllo dough

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