Homing Instinct: Return to Pigeons and Home in Athens
For the last two years now, a pair of pigeons have made a home on top of the Fujitsu combo A/C heater unit in my apartment in Athens. Sensing that no one is home (the apartment is empty for most of the year) they have nested and have made a mess of the verandah. Their dropplings and free feathers have piled up. They have soiled the verandah with their droppings; their dirty feathers fly around in silly cyclones in the corners. Their incessant cooing and that gurgle the males make over and over as they strut back and forth in front of the females annoys the neighbors. In fact, the neighbors have complained about possible hygiene violations. “We are going to get an infection or lera,” they complain to my aunt on the bottom floor. “Do something about it!”
When I arrived in the summer, they had left a surprise: a mound of pigeon poop outside the French door to make Hercules cringe. So corrosive and massive it was that it ground into the marble of the verandah. They have dirtied the lanterns overhead, the Ikea bamboo armchairs spotted with poop; they have perched on every inch of the verandah railing and left their dropping. The white walls and marble floor of the balcony are lined with the black tracks of their shit dotted with that icky white paste in the middle of it. And the stink!
Every morning when I open the French doors to let air in, they scuttle and fly away from the air conditioner to their spying position, the electric pole across the street. “Get the hell away” are the first words out of my mouth on any given day. Day in day out, they keep coming back. Shoo! Shoo! I go out round the clock to let them get the idea. You are not wanted here, someone has come back to live here. I have started to hate pigeons. They are just rats with wings. I turn on the A/C in the hopes that the noise and the heat from the unit will drive them away. It does, for a bit. They fly and perch on top of the electric pole and look at me sideways with that dumb look they give as they push their chins out.
Eventually, however, they get used to it. They just wait for me to turn it off and then they return.
I had to pay a cleaning woman a good 90 Euros for the two hours and two chlorine bottles she used to scrub the filth of the pigeon guano away. We had to climb a ladder that teetered over the narrow space of the railing and the wall to get to what they had been hiding: a nest full of duds. And another nest that had two juvenile pigeon skeletons. It was disgusting to say the least. I had to scoop up dander and the remains of half rotted carcasses. There was no way this was going to happen, year in, year out. I had to find a way to get rid of the pigeons once and for all.
I decided to pay a handyman another 50 Euros to get those spiky metal runners installed on top of the heating unit. He with his nephew came and climbed the ladder in a dizzying feat that involved climbing and stretching across the narrow verandah and silicone gluing the spiky runners across the unit and the lanterns.
And still, they came back.
How do they manage to live in between the space of the spikes? What drives them to return to this particular patch over and over? My apartment luckily overlooks a green square full of trees of various lengths and heights. Wouldn’t it be simpler to find another place to make a nest? Dumb birds. Why do they insist in coming back to this spot to the peril of heat, slipper, and spikes?
I curse at the pigeons for their homing instinct, yet I stop to think, am I not like they are? What keeps me coming back year after year to this one place? Is it not that I too have a homing instinct. This is the first nest that registers as home. The place my parents brought me in my golden years. My wooden bed with the line of sparrows along its posts. Images of my golden curls bopping all around. The round transparent ball with the yellow duck wading in blue liquid. Magdalena the beautiful baby doll in her green dress in a wicker basket. Afternoons on the verandah with yiayia feeding us boiled eggs just soupy enough for a one-year old with no teeth. My mother in her beehive hairdo wrapping grape leaves like blankets around little logs of rice. My Baba sipping his coffee from a white wide cup, his hairy legs stretched over the rails.
This year, when I first arrived in Greece, sick of city life and even more of the grittiness of Athens, I marched the next day straight into the local Re/Max agent and put it up for sale. “It’s time to start another chapter,” I convinced myself. “Sell it and find another house in the country or on the islands where the real, more authentic Greece is found.”
But as the weeks passed, the homing instinct grew stronger. When the couples would come in to see the space and ask about the meters squared, I began to feel “some kind of way” as my students say. When the agent called to say that the man in dungarees who had come in with blueprints of the new space already re-envisioned in his head had given an offer, I broke out crying. I want to start over, I do not want to live in the past. But how can I give up this home? How can I sell the memories and the fragments of pasts, even if they are ghostly, to a stranger that cannot understand the value of this home? For a stranger this might be an investment, but for me it is the precious pearl of my existence. This one place is the last remnant of my Edenic childhood, the few years of my life that I can truly cling to as happy. After that, what with the trauma of moving to New York City and the hell and stress that it ruptured in us, my life went downhill. Why had we left Eden?
I carry that pull to return to that time, that place even now when I am old. The pull of home is so strong, the desire to belong in a place you feel wanted and loved, the place you know you began, is so embedded in our psyche, heck, entire epics are written about it.
Can I blame those stupid pigeons? I return, again and again, to the place that is home. Even if it is easier to take a ClubMed vacation to Bora Bora, even if it is becoming overwhelmingly claustrophobic. Even if the ENFIA taxes and the DEH are through the roof. It is home. There is no place like home.