Greece has been a central influence in my adult life, though I haven’t lived there except for a single year over 40 years ago. There are so many images associated with the mention of the country’s name: the cradle of civilization, the best olive oil, blue and white, the Parthenon, music, beaches near sparkling clear water, mythical gods and goddesses, great wine and ouzo, all those islands, Never on Sunday. But these images only hint at aspects of the strong tie I have with it.
Greece came into my life initially on a whim. It was 1973, I was living in Chicago, and I had disposable income I wanted to invest in something that would affect the rest of my life. I didn’t need a car, wasn’t into clothes, and worked evenings in a restaurant, so didn’t eat out much. I found the idea of investments incredibly boring. There were Greeks in the kitchen where I worked, and I loved the sound of the language. So I decided I would learn Greek. I promptly called up Berlitz in downtown Chicago, and I began receiving private tutoring from an excellent teacher. After about 6 months, I thought I should really go to the country that speaks the language, and booked a 3-week holiday there. No sooner did I emerge from the Athens airport than I fell head over heels in love. I told myself I needed to sell my belongings and move there. And that’s what I did 5 months later. With the blithe innocence of the young, I assumed that, once I was there, I would find work teaching English. Which I did! I spent a formative year with Athens as my base, visiting other places on Sundays, my day off.
Living in Greece was my first experience living in another country, or even traveling outside the US, apart from Canada. I grew up with French in New England, and had played with Spanish (necessary in the restaurant business at the time), but the Greek language was my first experience learning a language I needed every day to survive. I fell in love with it, too. Surprisingly few people spoke much English then, including the man I was dating.
What I witnessed in Greece changed the way I saw the world, and life. I first understood American excess there. Things in Greece were on a human scale, in size and complexity – from items used in the home, and how they were used, to the cars they drove, if they had a car, all the way to the maintenance equipment used to maintain the public spaces and utilities.
Having worked in upscale restaurants, I was familiar with a broad spectrum of food. But in Greece, the food knocked my socks off. It was the best I’d eaten ever, and it was made with simple raw ingredients that were locally sourced. This was the birth of my interest in, not only cooking (though I rarely cooked while I was there), but in sourcing local foods and farming. In addition, I was charmed that meals were served family style, with everyone digging into the serving dishes on the table with their own utensils, rather than everyone having their own serving on their own plate.
I taught English in Athens, and found most Greeks, children and adults alike, to have warm hearts and a well-developed sense of humor. The language lends itself to humor because of its structure, but there was a devil-may-care attitude about the people I was teaching that I really appreciated, being an earnest, hard-working, serious person. It relaxed and softened me, and helped me not take myself so seriously. I learned that I loved teaching English – at least to Greeks.
I encountered a different kind of family dynamic there. There was a closeness, a fierce love and loyalty, in many families I met that I hadn’t witnessed before. Families tended to live together, with extended family close-by (even if they fought loudly), unless someone emigrated. And even then, the emigres stayed in close touch, often intending to, but always longing to, return to their homeland and to the bosom of their families. When a child came of age, that child generally lived at home until marriage, which, for males, often extended beyond the age of 30. Unfortunately, this close bonding is one influence that I was unable to incorporate into my own family life. But the awareness of it contributed to sharp feelings of inadequacy in that area throughout my child rearing years.
There is plenty of truth behind all the humor portrayed here:
And then there’s the music. Early on, I developed a passion for Rebetika, the music reflecting the hardships and heartbreak of the Pontic Greeks who were forced to leave their homes in Asia Minor and be relocated within current Greek borders in the 1920s. This music was closely associated with drugs and alcohol, and the life of the mangas, a working class man with a tough exterior, who survives all the pain and heartache, drinking and dancing with his fellow manges. The lyrics were often beautifully poetic. Women were also rebetika musicians. And the music itself? It gave wings to my soul!
I left Greece at the end of my year to do a road trip through the US and Mexico with British friends I’d met in Greece. I met my children’s father, and didn’t return. For years, I longed to go back, but my life didn’t lead me there until now – forty-one and a half years after I left.
This is my son, Brendan, and his wife, Nok:
This is my daughter, Molly, and her partner, Vic:
I think they are worth the wait to get to Greece!
What was I searching for in my desire to return? I wanted the simplicity I experienced there, I wanted the warmth of the people, whether they knew me or not. I wanted to walk into the little shop where I bought feta, and have the shopkeeper’s familiar smile light up his face as he hurried over to the barrel of feta I liked best. I wanted to see carcasses, yes, hanging carcasses from which I could choose my purchase, even though I don’t eat much meat any more. I wanted the light as it is in Greece, the blue water, the soft gentle October. I wanted to feel my toes in the water of the sea. I longed to hear Greek spoken all around me and speak it back. The list goes on, but I think overall, I longed for a simple, hands-on, beautiful, and human-scale life, lived while speaking Greek, the most beautiful language on earth. Thus, I was returning to Greece with a heavy package of history and expectations, while at the same time knowing much of that wouldn’t exist any more, and questioning any expectations based on new information.
The evening before I entered Greece, I was in Gevgelija, just across Greece’s northern border, and I was nervous. I knew that Athens had become a hub in the area, and that many people with businesses there are not Greek, but are immigrants. I doubted very much, given the state of the world today, that Athens, that safest of cities in the world when I lived there, was so safe any more. Many of my favorite rebetika singers are gone. I had heard and read that there was a lot of graffiti in the city, which I found completely understandable. I also knew that the Parthenon had scaffolding on it. I didn’t plan to go there. The history, though I found it interesting, was never at the heart of my love of Greece.
I took the bus into Thessaloniki. Following an amazing meal of grilled fish, rice pilaf with mussels, and marouli salad, followed by the requisite watermelon “on the house,” I spent an evening and a night there. The city had some things I enjoyed, but as a whole, I didn’t really care much for it. Of course one overnight stay isn’t really a fair length of time in which to judge. Still, it was wonderful to hear Greek spoken all around me!
I was happy to board the train headed for Athens. It was scheduled as a 5-hour trip, but we were hung up along the way, and I arrived 1.5 hours late. In spite of that, it was a comfortable ride. My Airbnb host, bless him, met me at the train station in Athens with his car and drove me to his (my) neighborhood.
Back in 1974, no foreigners lived there except one other American who left while I was there. Now there are many immigrants there, African, Pakistani, Asian, all speaking Greek. Many of the vendors I bought things from were immigrants. At first, it felt strange to be speaking Greek to a Pakistani or Asian person, but it was easy to get used to. There are many from other countries as well, but they were less visibly different to me – Albanian, Polish, Australian, Bulgarian.
The neighborhood was very busy and very loud, even in the night. I used a table on the balcony when the heat of the day relented, and there were dogs barking, children crying, people talking, scooters screaming, and other curious loud noises late into the night. I don’t remember the noise being quite so intense there, nor the neighborhood being quite so densely populated. The drone of my fan helped, so I could sleep.
When I lived there, garbage was picked up, and folks would put little bags of it on the curb. Cats would sometimes get into it, but it was easily cleaned up. Now there are huge dumpsters in the streets, usually one for recycling and one for garbage side by side, and garbage overflows from them. In the heat (my first day, it was 103 – 107, depending on who you talked to), the garbage smelled. My thought about the volume of garbage I was seeing was that either there are more goods, especially packaged items, available to buy, or there are more people. Maybe both. And keeping the recycling separate? Not so much.
I had to look hard to see what I had known in the midst of all this. I walked around a lot, and some areas were somewhat familiar, some not at all, and a few I remembered well. My apartment building was surrounded by some renovated buildings, so I didn’t recognize it until I went right up to the door to peer in. As my host said, in the 90s there was a big boom and then a bust. New buildings were built, old ones torn down or renovated. When I lived in Athens, new buildings were continually being built up around old ones, a trend that is ongoing. I don’t remember well enough the specific old buildings around me back then, but now there are many that are in serious decay. One in my neighborhood, a lovely old thing, is being restored. Some appear to be occupied.
None of my old shops still sell what they sold in my day. The little grocery store is now a shoe store, the butcher shop sells some kind of sports wear, the little yogurt shop is locked up, not being used. The place where I bought souvlaki and retsina with a pop top is a clothing store, too. Unless it was the shop in the next block??? But I discovered a nice little ouzeri where I had a great gin and tonic after a hot day.
Some of what I love is still there, like balconies overflowing with flowers and plants. A farmer drove his truck full of watermelons through the neighborhood, announcing his presence through a speaker on the top of his truck. There was still some traditional Greek food to be found in neighborhood restaurants. Cheap but delicious wine abounded, one with the dubious name Nectar of Piraeus, which was really quite lovely. People were friendly and helpful. The heat there felt different than it does elsewhere. It’s hot, but it’s bearable. In Eugene, Oregon, my hometown, 95 feels less comfortable. One morning, I stepped out of the building and smelled a familiar hot smell of the city – a good smell that really took me back.
Koliatsou Square is very beautiful these days, with tables and chairs under the shade trees to accommodate the surrounding coffee shops. In fact, there are several places throughout the neighborhood with seating in a space free of traffic – little oases from the din and hustle here and there. A big student dormitory sits in the middle of a miniature forest of tall trees and gardens.
I visited the Syntagma metro station with an American woman who has lived in Athens for 30 years. This is the location of the ruins discovered during preparation for the Olympics, and they are being preserved. In many places, the floor is made of glass over what remains. It was interesting talking to Karen about the changes in Greece, and Athens specifically, over the years. She seems to have a firm grasp of the politics of Greece, and had a fairly lively political discussion with our taxi driver (who was Albanian), which was fun to listen to.
The time in Athens was challenging, as I tried hard to adapt to the current situation by immersing myself in it. I felt gratitude to Greece for allowing the immigrants to make a safe and productive life there. I enjoyed interacting with them. I was grateful for the loveliness of the people always so available to help. But I also felt sad about the loss of innocence of the city I once loved, of the whole country, in fact. Which is probably in large part down to the corrupt politicians that sold Greece down the river. I am no expert on Greek politics, and the whole world has changed, not only Greece. I came to an uneasy peace with what is, even as I felt the urgency of changes needed.
After a few days in Athens, I decided I needed to get out to some water and away from the crowded, hot city, so I booked an Airbnb in Galatas, in the Peloponnese across from the island of Poros. What a great decision! I took the Flying Cat, a fast ferry (an hour and fifteen minutes) to Poros, where I caught a little boat taxi to the port in Galatas.
The time in Galatas was spacious, like a retreat. The house was situated uphill out of town a good distance by car, but only a 15-minute walk to town down the mountain. I went down to shop for groceries and poke around Poros, and the hike back home was a fabulous cardio workout! My host, a woman my own age who lives alone, cooked all my meals with ingredients I shopped for down in the town, added to what she had on hand (not the usual Airbnb arrangement).
Part of the path down to town:
Lemon trees – Poppi made homemade lemonade that was delicious, using these lemons:
The light and scenery around the house changed beautifully from morning until night. In Greece there is a softness that comes with the sun going down, and there is an almost pinkish hue that falls over everything (maybe it’s my rose-colored glasses?). I just drank it in, delighted to acknowledge for myself that I was right all along about Greece. Each day, I spent the mesimeri hours (naptime) sleeping, serenaded by the cicadas. After waking, I did some writing and reading. When I was ready to launch the evening, I emerged. The house was beautiful, my room perfect, and I found my beloved Greece there in so many ways, thanks to the location and to my excellent host, Poppi.
My perfect room:
On my last night there, as we were drinking wine, listening to (and singing along with) Rebetika music, and talking, I felt profoundly grateful.
After this trip, I feel peaceful in my relationship with Greece, at long last, and full of hope as our relationship resumes.