Greece: A Tapestry that Defines Me
Being in Greece, to me, is more than a simple trip. Not only does it remind me of my immigrant roots; it also grounds me as nothing else can.
I grew up hearing my family’s mother tongue. At home, it was my parents using it as their secret language and then trying to teach it to their kids before it was too late. Regardless, from a very young age I was immersed in the sounds and cadence of Greek at gatherings, at church, or at relatives’ homes as my little girl cheeks turned pink from pinches inflicted on me by old ladies with adoring smiles. Whenever I hear this ancient language being spoken — anywhere — my ears perk up. And even if I don’t grasp each colloquialism or possess a huge vocabulary, I pretend I understand every word. It’s as if the language resides within me, just waiting to cut loose.
This trip was not a planned one. At one point about 6 weeks ago, I learned that I had lost several elderly relatives — people who had been strategic parts of my Greek life even though I did not see them often. One was a cousin’s husband — the man who rescued me from Piraeus after a 10-day ocean voyage from New York when I was 18 years old. Seeing me sitting on huge pieces of luggage meant to hold a year’s worth of belongings, Nick must have thought I looked like a terrified immigrant when I arrived here for a year of school. After establishing I was indeed the relative in question, he began speaking to me in rapid fire Greek as an unsupported cigarette magically bobbed up and down with each short vowel sound. I watched as he furiously tried to stuff my luggage into his tiny European car, filling both the trunk and the back seat so high it obscured the rear window. Suddenly I was being driven through the streets of an historic city as huge vessels disappeared behind me. He drove as fast as he spoke, dodging other tiny cars and cursing at those leaving him little room to pass when he wanted to.
Huge, marble clad buildings with inadequately tiny sidewalks moved past me, and a foreboding came over me. Here I was. For a year. My parents and brothers were thousands of miles away, unable to come to my aid even if I were to change my mind. It would be ten days before my American school’s dormitory would open, and I was to stay with Nick, Soula and their kids in their tiny apartment in the interim. During this time I would learn just how different it was to live in a foreign country simply by observing their habits, eating their food, and insisting (to their disbelief) that people at home took showers nearly every day without having to flip a switch for hot water. Their daughter, Mary, five years my junior, spoke a little English, interpreting what she could during those ten days. And her little brother, Dimitris, was to serve as cute comic relief.
The other person lost to my living family tree was my Thea (aunt) Katina. The oldest of five, she was a tiny, physically twisted little woman who had never married, by default elected to take care of her parents. She had a larcenous smile and an uncharacteristically nasal voice. She was my father’s favorite cousin, and I could see why. She was funny, patient, and independent despite her lot in life. Thea Katina died at the age of 97, just 11 days after Nick this past summer. Because of the loss of these two people, I felt compelled to return to a place that taught me a football field of life lessons despite its old world ways. I needed to see my cousins, hear the language being spoken again, and absorb the loss of two more individuals who had touched my life.
Part of this trip is being shared with my two brothers who arrived here a few days earlier than I did. They come to Greece nearly every year, tooling around in a rental car visiting the country’s stunning coastlines and mountain villages while retracing the steps they once shared with our parents on a number of previous voyages — a pilgrimage that seems never-ending and touching all at once. After my having encamped in an AirBnb in the heart of Athens, they emailed me, asking how my stay was going. Some of my best-intentioned plans had fallen through due to events over which I had no control, freeing up time I thought I would be spending with family. So they urged me to join them in southern Greece a day earlier than we had planned before leaving California.
As my bus arrived in the little town of Megalopolis, I was greeted by two waiting, friendly faces spewing sibling banter. They whisked me off toward the very village from which our paternal grandparents emigrated so long ago, their car scaling the nearby mountain as if they knew the route blindfolded.
Today I stood there in Isari’s tiny town square, filled with thoughts of how, but for the grace of God and my hardworking immigrant grandparents who braved an entirely new world in the U.S., I might have been born and spent much of my life here. playing with the other village children, eventually heading to Athens for work or a higher education. And perhaps I might have learned to speak English so that if a cousin visited from the States, I would be on hand to make things easier for them.
I think it’s important to think of the what-ifs in life. The older I become, the more I am overwhelmed with how so many parts of my existence felt choreographed, all designed to teach me what I know today. The people, the tears, the laughter, the adventures — even the Greek language— all make up a colorful tapestry that is me. And while I can’t make others fully understand it all, I can at least write about it, releasing the rich legacy that is within me and being grateful for having one foot in each of two very special countries, my soul at home in both.