When It’s Time to Go Home

In my first post, I stated my wish to share a couple of events experienced by few, if any, Greek adoptees. Finding my birthmother, Hariklea Voukelatos, when I was 30 was a gift beyond measure. Twelve years later Hariklea made a remarkable request that changed the lives of my family forever and makes my adoption story truly unique.

It was the summer of 2007, and I was glad to be back in Greece after two years away. My usual itinerary involved spending a couple of days in Athens with my cousins before I took the bus to Patras to stay with Hariklea, my birthmother. A phone call changed everything. When cousin Zoe phoned Hariklea to tell her I had arrived, I had an inkling something was up when their conversation lasted longer than what seemed necessary. Even so, I was not prepared for Zoe’s announcement: “Maria, Hariklea has made other plans for your weekend. She wants you to come to Patras today.” “Why today?” I asked. “Because Hariklea wants to go home to her village on Lefkada Island and you are going to take her there,” Zoe replied. Her comment was met with dead silence. Then everyone started talking at once and peppering Zoe with questions. She quieted everyone down and continued: “Hariklea left Nikolis 44 years ago as a frightened, pregnant, teenager. Now she is an old woman who wants to see her childhood home one last time before she dies. When you arrive in Patras, she will rent a car for the drive. You will stay with my parents, Thodoris and Marianna. Hariklea has even arranged for a translator for your visit. We sat in silence, each of us trying to get our heads around what this meant to the family when cousin Eve cut to the chase and stated, “Forty-four years ago your mother was forced to leave Nikolis because of you. Now 44 years later, she can return to Nikolis because of you.” In two short sentences, Eve had articulated the irony of Hariklea’s request. It was understandable and profound.

What a crazy morning! In two hours, I had gone from sipping coffee on the beach to a hard, wooden bench at a bus station. I had no idea what to expect, but the abrupt changes in my plans were small compared to the total transformation of my Greek family’s life. All these changes only heightened my anticipation of the upcoming trip.

I boarded the bus for Patras and settled into my seat. Looking out the window at the familiar countryside, memories of my first visit to Lefkada in 1996 returned. With God’s grace, a fork in the road and the letter “N,” Bev and I had found tiny Nikolis clinging to a steep mountainside on our first day of looking. My uncles were more than a little shocked to meet the child Hariklea was carrying when she left the island. Hearing the grown woman standing in front of them was their niece must have been like seeing a ghost from the past. We shared a meal that started with a bit of tension but ended with Thodoris welcoming me to the family.

Three hours later I arrived in Patras and took a taxi to Hariklea’s home. Parked out front was a funny, little, purple car with an anemic three-cylinder engine. Perfect for our trip, it suited the narrow roads and got good gas mileage. We stowed our bags and climbed in the car. Settled in, Hariklea looked at me and said, “Pame” (“Let’s go”).

Driving together for hours with an unavoidable language barrier made for a challenging trip. We managed to converse about simple things, and while there was not much said, a lot was communicated. Barreling down the road, I wondered what could be more reasonable than a mother and daughter driving home to visit the relatives. Nothing, except we were no ordinary mother and daughter, and the home had remained unseen for four decades. The significance of what we were doing was not lost on us at all.

Five hours and 15 hairpin-turns later we pulled into Uncle Thodoris’ driveway. There were hugs and kisses all around as he and Marianna came out to greet us. Once inside, we were introduced to our translator, Kalliopy, a friend of Thodoris. Hariklea and I got settled in our room before joining the others at the kitchen table. We stayed up for hours talking, laughing, and drinking Thodoris’ homemade krasi (wine). Around midnight Kalliopy returned home and we went to bed. Tomorrow was going to be a big day.

We were up the next morning sipping coffee when there was a knock at the door. I opened it to find a tiny, senior, man with his hands in his pockets, watery eyes, and trembling lips. He was shaking as he asked to come in. The minute he saw Hariklea, he shuffled to her as fast as he could, embraced her and sobbed. Kalliopi explained his name was Andreas Adipas, a childhood friend from Nikolis. They sat close together on kitchen chairs, holding one another like old friends do and sharing their news. The tender scene unfolding in front of us brought everyone to tears. How sad these two friends had lost out on a lifetime of friendship. Andreas was the first villager to welcome Hariklea home, and that meant the news had spread: Hariklea Voukelatos was back on Lefkada.

The excitement in the house was palpable as we changed clothes and prepared to leave for Nikolis. We were all expected for lunch with Nikos and Zahareena. There were five of us, so Thodoris and Marianna led the way in his truck with Hariklea, Kalliopi, and me following behind. The drive was short, but no one spoke along the way. I wanted Hariklea to have time to prepare herself as we drove over the steep, windy, roads she had not seen since she was a teenager. We passed the field where her mother’s dowry of nine olive trees still grew as well as the olive press our fathers had shared. I turned right at the sign that led travelers to Nikolis and within minutes parked in front of Hariklea’s old home.

Details about Hariklea’s return home after 44 years, can be found in my recently published book: Beyond the Third Door: Based on a True Story (Vancouver, WA, 2019)

About Maria

Returning to Vietnam

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Returning to Vietnam in April this year was partly to do some searching but what I’ve realised since being back, is that it actually had more to do with my inner healing. What I didn’t realise until now, was the after-effect and impact that would continue strongly, three months since returning to Australia.

I was blessed to be able to make my fourth trip back to Vietnam with my adoptive parents and my youngest biological daughter. The trip was a three-generation shared story.

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It’s been 25 years since my Aussie mum, dad and I made our first trip back. I recall on that first trip, declaring that I’d changed my mind about returning and mum had to physically support me off the plane as I wept at the enormity of the situation. This time, I looked lovingly out the plane window at the lights of Ho Chi Minh city and felt genuine happiness to be back. 

We had a plan to meet with a priest who was in the same order as the priest, Father Oliver, was who ran my orphanage when I had been here as an infant before my adoption. This priest still works at the same church where Father Olivier had been head priest. The most amazing thing was, we got to see where I was born!

Throughout this trip, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude for the people I met who have invested in helping me search for my family. I also got to meet the investigator who was working with ISS Australia before they lost their funding. This investigator has been the only person able to locate a document that had my Vietnamese mother’s name on it. The investigator is herself a fellow Vietnamese Australian adoptee, so she completely understands my story and the feelings associated with my search. 

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Whilst in Vietnam, I enjoyed eating as much like a local as possible and I made sure I had a Vietnamese coffee every day. But the real surprise has been what’s happened for me since returning from Vietnam this time. I am filled with a genuine sense of peace about my search. I’m truly okay with not being any further along with finding blood relatives. The connections I have made with people who are still searching for me has been amazing. Just knowing there are people who care enough to help is very humbling.

Since being home in Australia, I have a real sense of being more present in my life and I have more space within, to just be me. I can’t explain the feeling but I’ll try. I feel content and no longer have the need to operate from a place where I’m trying to impress people or get them to like me. I don’t care if they do now or not. I’m filling myself with more self worth and know that I can trust myself to be my own keeper i.e., take care of myself. This  return trip has been a real growth journey for me.

I’m also excited knowing that I will return again next year. I left not needing to be sad or wondering when I’ll be back. I’ve decided I need to make a trip back at least once every two years to stay connected to my homeland, where my soul feels at peace.

About Kate