So I’ve spent 3 weeks in Greece. I can’t talk about being back at Uni in Freiburg. My brain hasn’t quite come back from Greece yet. I have so much to write in here, but I doubt I will get to half of it. I wanted to write during the seminar in Corfu, but I was using the bf’s old computer and it was so slow, and I was so tired, that I kept falling sleep before I managed to type up anything.
Where do I even begin? I don’t want to discuss the seminar, except to say it was a huge waste of time. And the people at the Greek university that I was hoping would turn into helpful contacts ended up being disinterested and a major let-down. I have a 15-page paper to write and I have no idea how to do it. That PISSES me off. It also certainly comes as no surprise that a group of young (21 year old) students from Athens and Saloniki would be stuck up and think they are better than me because my Greek isn’t perfect yet and that the co-ordinator of the program was busy enough to be unreliable and insincere. But oh well, my Greek improved. And I don’t care what strangers think of me. If that were the case, I would be much less honest here.
But I am not so inexperienced and immature to let a few stupid narrow-minded people upset me and ruin my whole trip. Outside of the (often 8+) hours wasted at the university everyday my time in Corfu was amazing. And I want to talk about Greece.
My friend Giota and her mother have told me a number of times that I am more Greek than many Greeks, or Greek-Americans. How weird it is for me to belong somewhere where I don’t belong. When I am in Greece, I am home. Period. End of story. I am more at home there than in Germany, and dare I say it, even America.
I mean I define my American identity as part of the counter-culture that resists the lull of complacency and technology that distract us from changing the system and tearing off the chains of student debt and political apathy and consumer loyalty that enslave us. Am I American, yes, but I resist almost every label that comes with it. Is that option part of America, of course. I have many like-minded friends, but when I go home I see people that care, but feel powerless and when I am home the influence of my own culture slowly seeps in, until I too begin to go with the flow and stop questioning whether small decisions can indeed change things. I am much more comfortable away from “home”, looking at things with a critical eye and knowing why I don’t belong anymore. I guess some would call it being a europhile snob, but I think I get so angry because I care. All the things I was told and believed in good faith during high school and college turned out to be lies. I am disillusioned with my country. But I will still defend to all the bastards, (sorry but I’ve lost my patience) I meet here who think that just because they’ve learned English in school and have studied abroad during college they know it better than me. (Oh the next time I will have to write about how infuriating it is to belong to a country and mother tongue that the rest of the world thinks they own claim to, but that’s enough for now, before I get too far off topic.)
In Greece I belong. Not in a naive way. I lay no claim to it, like all the Greek-American friends I have. I didn’t choose it. I resisted it, but it always found a way back into my life. Greece chose me people. Don’t try and tell me otherwise unless you want to spend a whole day listening to my whole life story. Because in the end you will have to agree with me. I am not trying to “be Greek”. I am Greek. When I taught the kids, I let them discuss America and hid how much Greek I understood. I was a good teacher, not because I was American, but because I was like a Greek they spoke English with. Some traits we didn’t share. I am my own person, but because their culture was my culture, it was easy to understand each other, even if they never realized why. I asked them about their dance group for instance, and they never realized their teacher had been dancing these dances before they had been born.
And that’s when I knew it was too late. I wasn’t trying to prove it, I didn’t have to show it off. It was a part of me and maybe it was always meant to be that way. That’s another reason this Corfu seminar was so funny. I think the group of students were waiting for me to come up and beg them to talk to me cause they were so cool and I was trying to learn the language, but I wasn’t bothered, because I (no longer) don’t have to befriend every Greek person I meet, especially those I think are spoiled brats and behave rudely.
Here I am then, with so many ties to the land, the culture, the language, the food. I think I underestimated the influence of growing up in the Greek church. I mean for goodness sake, I taught myself the Greek alphabet at 8 years old, so I could follow along in the liturgy and I learned these sounds myself at 10 when I starting singing them in the choir. This language, while not modern Greek was imprinted onto my heart and soul. In Corfu I went to a Wednesday night lenten service, which I was never able to attend in Nbg, because I always had to work, and even after so many years of not attending, I still knew all the words to the psalms/chants, which surprised me even as I was singing along.
Did I grow up speaking the language fluently? No but I grew up hearing the sounds on a regular basis and it makes sense that these sounds are part of my identity in a way that German never will be, even if it’s not the same sounds that you might hear on the streets of Athens. Just like I grew up as “Greek-orthodox” as all the rest of the 3rd generation grandkids did too. I had adopted Greek yiayias. I danced at Greek fest, dropped out of Greek school, sung in the choir, went to Sunday school, ate and cooked Greek food, was part of youth group and had about 100 Greek words that we used for certain things. My church friends were normal Americans with this Greek thing that we all did together. I didn’t grow up in New York and mostly I was spared from the insecure exclusionary closing of rank that sometimes persists in certain Greek American cultures until I was nearly an adult. After that I swore to never marry a Greek boy and I placed my faith above the culture and that was that.
Even in my first trip to Greece in 2005, I stayed mostly focused on my faith, and not worried about my identity. But it was then that I realized Greek Americans were more than anything else, American and Greeks in Greeks were far more diverse than people at home had led me to believe. And so I became curious to find out who these people really were, that it seemed I’d spent my whole childhood learning about.
For instance on this trip I wanted a spanikopita. I asked a woman at a rest-stop. She made no sound, no movement, but simply rolled her eyes. I was so shocked, I thought, “how rude!”, but by the end of the trip I discovered that an upward jolt of the chin and a rolling of eyes means “no” and doesn’t even require a sound. But if you don’t feel like saying, oxi you can tsk with your tongue and that alone can mean “no” too. Oh how far I’ve gotten in my life with this head movement. I tsked no to the kids all the time. It saved countless hours of useless discussion. I’ve been using it now since at least 2009. And btw “yes” is similar, a slow nod down to the right.
And so I traveled and lived in Greece, made Greek friends, went to the Greek Church, and finally, accidentally got my job teaching Greek kids, met the most hilarious caring guy who happened to be Greek and I guess sealed my fate into this culture.
When I was a teenager I used to be mad at my dad for making my life needlessly complicated and forcing me to be the outsider. It would definitely make things more comfortable for me if I looked the part, or could just say that I am Greek American. Sometimes in Greece when I don’t want to discuss things, I do. But usually I try to keep things honest and short. I can now choose from 3 explanations, or even 4 depending on my mood. My dad’s a priest, although that normally ends with them frustrated that at least one of my parents isn’t somehow Greek. That my boyfriend is Greek, which is the one I use mostly now, since it’s the shortest and most logical explanation. The third involves me being a teacher for 3 years. Sometimes I just say I like the language and my bf tells people I just like Greece, which I hate the most cause it simplifies things too much. No one really ever gets all 3 unless I feel they can be trusted to listen carefully enough to understand it.
This trip was different in so many ways from all the other times before it, because this time the language we used together in front of others was nearly exclusively Greek. It was also coming back to Crete, the place where I fell in love with Greece, the place where I decided belonging to Greece could be a good thing. The first time I ever felt a part of the Greek culture and not just a part of the church.
My boyfriend has always listened to me and accepted my childhood and identity for what it is. He has never passed judgement or made assumptions about the situation I grew up in. He is the first and only man who got to know and fell in love with me for me, and not for what he assumed or hoped I was like. Our love for Greece is a huge part of our relationship. It’s a place we both feel at home. *Funny aside though, the only thing that he didn’t expect was a few years ago, when we were on the island of Skiathos and I bought all my ingredients in a market and made my favorite Greek dishes without any help or recipe. I think he had never dared to hope I was so Greek in that respect.*
Being in Crete was amazing. I hardly need to say it. I showed him all the things that I found so, well magical those many years ago. The lemon and orange blossoms were blooming. I’ll never be able to smell those without thinking of Crete. The tinkling of sheep bells on top of the mountains. The weathered Cretan men who look like they’ve come from another time period. The accent. The snow-capped peaks as you sit on the beach with your toes in the water. The blue of the waves. The soft Cretan cheese. The mountain greens. The chilly evenings. The Cretan folk music guiding you around the dangerously winding roads, hugging the sky. The hawks soaring above the mountains. The shaggy goats coming out to greet you. The Venetian-styled cities. The rocket fuel called raki.
When I am in Crete I think in English and Greek prose. I have so many poems about Crete. All terrible, but who cares.
If one day you never here from me and you think I am dead, go to Crete, up to the mountains and ask someone where the crazy American is, and you’ll find me alright.
We spent the whole week talking about what we wanted for the future. But not about the “romantic us”, about the practical stuff like the values we wanted to hold onto, about the difficulties each country would bring, about how we could make our careers work in each other’s best interest, about the difficulty of raising children in two languages, about where we wanted home to be. Because two people who both don’t belong to the country they choose to live in, visiting the country they both most feel at home in awakens a longing that is hard to explain to anyone who has not experienced something like that themselves.
I would give up so many things to live in Greece, my bf would not. But we haven’t completely given up the possibility either.
But Crete wasn’t all. I spent two weeks in Corfu (Kerkyra). The people there were so friendly. I had so many nice moments where people patiently let me speak in my slow Greek, sincerely helping me choose gifts for my niece and nephew in a warm fashion. The neighborhood priest told me the time for liturgy. The women in the church got an extra candle for me to hold during the service when I was standing without one. The shopkeepers called me “my girl”, “my doll”, “my love”, “my beauty”. (Sure it’s like the dear or hun in America, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it!) The people in the neighborhood smiled back when I was smiling. I made jokes about my bad Greek that were sometimes funny. I got to speak to adorable little kids running around without their parents giving me dirty looks. I found a great place for vegetarian pitas, where the owners made me and the German girls I brought with me feel welcome. I found homemade pita place for breakfast where the sisters running it got so flustered that I wanted to bring my plate in. I started recognizing the people there in the city. I had long conversations with a man in a gyros stand, waiting for my fries about the crisis, and later in the week when I passed by the shop, he was standing outside and waved to me as I walked by. (This might seem normal to Americans, but in Germany it’s normal to sort of ignore people on the street after one interaction). I also had a long conversation with a man in the student cafe who told me about good dishes to try. Both were just friendly normal conversations that I miss so much in Germany. In the student cafeteria, the woman offered to serve up the lenten octopus dish when at first I only wanted some beans. The woman in the bakery gave me an extra little bit of bread every time I came in.
I had at least a hundred little stupid conversations, which weren’t always friendly or nice, and I had to be really active in making sure all these interactions took place in Greek. But every interaction brought my language skills further, and even though the people spoke far to quickly for me at times (the accent on the island is sped up, popularly attributed to the Italian occupation) they were not arrogant when I asked them to slow down or repeat it. I felt welcomed and at home by the people of the island. I feel at home in Crete, but that’s sometimes despite the people.
I got stuck in Crete one extra night because of all the strong winds and I laughed because Crete wasn’t ready for me to leave just yet. Then I went to Corfu and was blown away by the people and shocked by how quickly I had settled in in two weeks. You can put your body on an airplane and take it where ever you like, but your heart follows different rules.