Summer in Greece: Return from Exile
The Greek Diaspora ritual for the summer is to visit the motherland. It is something like what the geese do every winter; every summer Greeks flock to Hellas. Walking around my local Astoria, it is becoming more and more apparent that the Greeks have gone home for the summer—the neighborhood alley running amok with kids is empty (Antigone and her sisters have gone to Kalamata); at Dr Paul’s pediatric office, I am greeted with Dr. Omish, “Dr. Paul is on vacation in Greece.” Even the souvlaki guy under the N elevated tracks has an Indian kid running the truck because he and his partner are in Kalamata, sipping frappes on the beach somewhere no doubt.
This year because of family and work obligations there was a chance that I might not have gone. But due to a cheap flight and some needed “me time,” I have a ticket in my hand today as I write this. I can’t describe how joyous, how exhilarating it feels. I HAVE A TICKET TO GREECE AND I’M GOING NEXT WEEK!
The joy at going to Greece for the summer I know is due to all the good-time associations I have had there from my youth. It’s due to all the expectation of fun-loving, spontaneous fun. Of course, vacation anywhere is great. The idea that you have unstructured time, outside the bounds of schedules, work and family responsibilities, combined with an arena that offers superb beaches, mountains, and delectable food—all this of course adds to the Greece mystique.
But for children of the Diaspora, I think the joy is connected to something deeper. It is connected to the joy that comes from going home after a long period of exile. The opportunity that going home, even for a short two weeks, every year affords us, the wandering Diaspora, a sense of rootedness, a sense of belonging. As a minority, a foreigner struggling for recognition in this bustling Babylon, going home to Greece relieves my heightened xeno angst. I am no longer the stranger or the outsider, but the insider. I go into my own tent and relish in the comfort that the “insider” status of my tribe provides.
In New England, or worse yet, the country of dried toast, the expansive Mid West, my exuberance and spontaneity single me out. I am too loud and too emotional to be an American. But when I get off the plane in Eleftherios Venizelos and join the finger-gesticulating, frenzied hulk of humanity, kissing three times on both cheeks, smiling loudly, bronzed and beautiful, embracing a bit too firmly and exhibiting their feelings like a catalogue of the Mr Happy and Mrs. Grumpy kindergarten picture books, well . . . I fit right in. Now I can understand why I am the way I am. Now I don’t have to apologize for it. I’m not alone—here is an entire country full of maniacs like myself, loud (sometimes obnoxious) overly physical and spontaneous (sometimes irrational).
Our native Greek cousins cannot understand what it is like to live in exile. They look down on our obsession with all things “Hellinika” as overly traditional or fanatical.
“My husband has his cousin from California staying with us,” my Greek cousin complains. “He has been living with us for the past two weeks. He is constantly with us, from morning to night. He is single but he does not leave us even to go out with friends by himself. Echei gini tsibouri (he has become a tick).”
“Oh I think I understand,” I explain to her. “Think about it—he’s single and living alone by himself in a small town in California. This is the only chance he has to feel surrounded with family. Perhaps he has adopted you and your three kids and is feeling out what it is like to have a family,” I say.
“Then he should get a move on and get married and start his own,” she continues.
Our Greek cousins who have never had to undergo the immigrant experience can never ever understand it. They can’t understand how deeply both consciously and unconsciously that great act of mobilizing from one’s home turf can affect psyche. The great identity changer is so transformative it’s like trying to change the color of stone. It’s like taking a skein of wool of one color and pulling and stretching it through a weave and dying it a different one. Migration registers as exile. Assimilation is a slow excruciating process that robs you of your name, of your language, of your history, of you.
So it is summer once again. Hellenes of the Diaspora flock to their native grounds, to breed, to feed, to remember who they are. That longing to regain what was lost, to fit into the crowd, to pitch one’s robe next to all the same colored ones in the tent. And then to get wrenched away from all that in a bitter farewell—at Elefterios Venezelos, tears streaming with a heavy heart, holding the seeds of hope that maybe, again, next year, at the same time, they will return again.
“Next year, Jerusalem,” is the parting phrase of every good Jewish person. For the Greek, “Kai tou chronou to kalokairi stin Ellada.”
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