Dena Kouremetis

Personal Blog

The Athens odyssey continues

The past weekend has been a swirl of jet lag exhaustion mixed with excitement of seeing my beloved cousin Dimitris and speaking of all that has passed since being here two years ago. I have also just begun getting used to a little apartment that will become my home for the next two weeks.

The Athens of my youth was a very different place…

The Athens of my youth was a very different place…

So as I sit at the cafe in front of my pedestrian alleyway apartment entrance, I am in latte bliss at last. And my first thoughts are of two very brave people — my parents. Why brave? Not only did they introduce this magnificent country to my brothers and me when we were teens; they also sent me here for a year of college that was to change my life. I realize I am at home in a great European capital primarily because of them, able to speak enough of the language to feel secure, and happy to share in the culture that produced me.

The college year I spent here was nothing short of a miracle for me. Having lived a very sheltered, very cloistered existence with my parents constantly trying to keep our ethnic identity alive in a small town in Indiana, at age 18 I had been set free to discover the world — one that had few boundaries, myriad growing pains, and an opportunity to see things from my own unique perspective with no authority figures to filter them. How could they possibly permit their only daughter to do this — one that had not even been allowed to have her first date until college?

The Athens of my youth was a somewhat different place. A military junta had taken over the country, and people spoke in whispers much of the time — anathema to an expressive Greek population whose everyday talk sounds more like a spirited discussion. “Radical” notables, such as novelist Nikos Kazantzakis and composer Mikis Theodorakis, were seen as subversive influences, and when boys defied authority, their long hair was shaved off as punishment. Athens was the cleanest I had ever seen it, even though weekends often saw those clean streets filled with military parades and soldiers lining them. TV programming happened for only a few hours per night. And couples strolled down waterfront promenades, devoid of handheld devices.

I was to live in a dormitory with forty other girls. Some were American-born of Greek descent, like me. Others were American military and embassy brats who had been brought up all over the world, finishing their educations at an American-sponsored school. Many of the Greek-American boys possessed dual citizenship, dodging the Viet Nam draft as long as they possibly could, returning home every six months so they wouldn’t get drafted by the Greek military in the interim. It was a colorful mix, and I was like a toddler, soaking in all of it at a dizzying pace. Having grown up with brothers, I began learning what concerned other women at last. Some of it fascinated me, but much of it was scary, making me realize just how protected I had been my entire life. The native-born Greek girls were an enigma. They came from wealthy families and spoke the king’s English. Some had been brought up on coffee or tobacco plantations in parts of Africa. All of them knew their way around the block.

I learned to flirt. And I learned to dangle a cigarette in one hand (pretending to smoke it) and a drink in the other as my friends and I navigated the dazzling discos and clubs of the Plaka area, a bus ride away from our dorm. Buses stopped running at precisely 2 am, parking wherever they were along the street and abandoning their passengers. While I’m sure my parents surmised I would spend a lot of time with my relatives, the opposite would be true. Few spoke English, and my Greek was frustratingly rudimentary. Their rapid-fire speech left me in the dust, unable to find the meanings to their words (and especially their expressions) in my pocket Greek-to-English dictionary fast enough to keep up. So I hung out with the other girls, following the boldest ones around Athens. I would not know until much later how much more the Greek language may have enriched my life had I forced myself to learn it at the time. And I have since made great strides in learning more of it — fluency being a bucket list item now as I approach my 70s — of course, an age I thought was eons away back then.

As a postscript to introducing my experience here with all this background information, I must say that because I informed them that that I intended to find a job and stay another year, my poor parents (now in shock) found themselves flying here to collect me at the end of that prophetic school year. My father would be aghast at my appearance. He had placed a well-dressed young lady aboard a ship in New York, and was now greeted by a bell-bottomed semi-hippie. Pop handed my mother money with orders to outfit me before seeing family, after which Mom and I enjoyed a shopping spree along Ermou Street, now about ten steps away from where I am typing this.

I hope to offer more perspective of my time here during these few days I am privileged to spend in my “old country.” In the meantime, suffice it to say that my brain will constantly be reliving that one year that was to last a lifetime. 

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