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Punch the knife

As I relish one of my last scorched, wind-blown afternoons on my little
stone-paved veranda on a Cycladic island, I think of my past few weeks here and
the Greece I have encountered.

Greece is a country in perpetual crisis. It has been in a constant
crunch, a state of emergency, a permanent state of transition, for a while now. Scenarios of doom and reckoning have been floating in the air for
at least half a decade. It’s hard to miss how all that has affected its people.

In between reconnecting with my sensory home – the smell of thyme bushes
and fig trees, the crisp taste of watermelon, the buzzing of the cicadas in a hot
afternoon – all I seem to be doing this summer vacation is talk; probe; ask questions.
I seek out mostly the younger Greeks. They are the ones hit the hardest; the
“lost” generation of Greece, as they are now called by sociologists and the
media. More than half of them are unable to find jobs. Most of them can hardly
envision, let alone plan, their future. They are also the ones that
overwhelmingly voted “No” to the recent Greek bailout referendum, which I have had a hard time making
sense of.

I talk to the young woman serving me at the village coffee shop. When I
ask her how she and her peers are coping with the crisis, she tells me with a
half smile: “I am serving my degree,” implying that her university degree is
utterly useless in getting her a job. There is no anger or bitterness in her voice. She seems rather stoic. “I’m grateful that I can wait tables; at least I have a job, unlike most
of my friends,” she rushes to add.

Across the street, the small crafts shop is empty most of the time I
pass by. As the shop owner carefully wraps the piece of hand-made pottery I just
bought, she shares with me her worries about her three children, aged between
17 and 22. “They are constantly angry and I don’t know what to tell them,” she says.
“They have no future and it’s not their fault. But I have raised them to
endure.”

The more I talk, the more it seems to me that the whole country is immobilized.
Nobody really knows what’s coming or when, what the next development will be,
which rumors are true and which are baseless. Everybody is in a state of
suspended animation. At the same time, I witness an unprecedented level of
stoicism and a very particular kind of resilience in the face of so much
uncertainty. When I came here, I was expecting to be confronted with anger,
frustration and bitterness. There is a lot of that going around, for sure; a
lot of disillusionment. But there is also an extraordinary level of kindness. The crisis has
brought families together. People support each other whenever possible, even
with limited means. Everyone seems to realize that a selfish way of living
belongs firmly in the past if the nation is to survive these times.

Resilience is in our Greek genes for sure. As a country, as a people,
we have been through many crises over the centuries, most of them worse than this
one, and we have always bounced back. But the kind of resilience I am observing
here is not just the one that is bound to a strong survival instinct. This resilience
comes packaged in humanity and compassion. It is a kind-hearted resilience; a caring
resistance; a gentle, but undeniable, strength. Quite a contrast from the polarization
and intolerance of only a few weeks ago.

As I am leaving the little crafts shop on the Cycladic island village,
the owner tells me something that makes an impression on me. She says that,
although her kids seem to have no future in a country that is battered and
bruised from both the outside and the inside, they haven’t given up. “They are
the ones inspiring me for moving forward,” she admits, “rather than the other
way around. They tell me ‘Mom, you need to punch the knife!’” She looks at me
with a half-conspiratory, proud smile. “We all need to punch the knife. Keep
going even though it hurts.”

A whole country is doing that right now. Again. In our own, gentle way.

Losing home

I have written a lot about finding home – the two words that, in my mind, sum up the essence of nomadic life. But until today, I had not felt the need to write about losing home. For the past few weeks, I have been watching my vision of home slip away, little by little. I have been watching the people I love lose their home. I have been witnessing a whole nation becoming homeless, slowly but steadily, for a long time.

Even though I chose to leave my home and become a permanent foreigner 20 years ago, that home has always been in the back of my mind. I could always return if I wanted to, even though I probably would not. If I did return, though, I knew that I would be welcome; free to be myself; surrounded by people who share the same values as me – my people – because that’s what home feels like.

I have been a silent observer of developments in my home country, Greece, for the past few years. I have watched the country struggle and tear under the weight of the economic crisis and its people battle hardship and poverty – without losing their beautiful spirit. I have felt heartbroken but proud to be Greek, not least because in times like these, more than ever, Greeks stick together. We help each other. We share. We stay true to our values. We endure.

I have watched the most recent developments in Greece, feeling tormented and powerless. I am not a person who talks politics, yet I have found myself actively engaged in discussions about my country’s future, its politicians, the merits of different views. I have read and debated scenario after catastrophic scenario. I have watched in disbelief as my people, led to the edge of a cliff, willingly, passionately, fanatically embrace self-destruction. I have heard the terror in the voices of friends and family who feel trapped in a country without a future, about to be forced off that cliff in the name of
democracy.

As the crisis deepens and living conditions in my unraveling country resemble less those of a developed country and more those of a country at war, the spirit of unity that I was so proud of has all but vanished. In the place of solidarity with those less fortunate, I see polarization, aggression and intolerance. I see difference of opinion being regarded as treason. I see people viciously attacking and insulting each other on every occasion and through every available medium: in front of overcrowded ATMs, while waiting in line for their daily ration of cash; while queuing at the gas station; on social media. I see threats, bullying, intimidation. Friends tell me that, for the first time,
they are afraid to express their views openly or post on social media, for fear of being labeled as taking one side or the other – by people whose help they might need in the near future. There is an atmosphere of fear and despair.

I fail to understand how all this is happening. Like many others who live away from our home country, I feel like I have lost touch. I no longer “get” my own people – how they think and why they act the way they do; what their values are; what they believe in. It feels like the home that was there is there no more. This is not the country I grew up in. These are not the values I was taught. These are not the people I was proud to be part of.

We are all losing our home.

There was an eerie silence yesterday on social media. There’s an eerie awkwardness today at the other end of the line when I call to check on my loved ones. A sort of numbness. As a good friend wrote recently, these are uncharted waters. Very dark uncharted waters. I hope that we can cross them and still find our lost home on the other side.

Seasonal foreignness

 

Every year , around the start of summer vacation, I hear the same familiar complaint from my children: “Why do we always have to go to Greece for vacation? Why can’t we go somewhere else for a change?” Every year, my answer is the same (including the part where I tell them how spoiled they are and that other kids – not to mention adults – would be thrilled to go to Greece for
vacation, while they are being so difficult about it): “Because your mother is from Greece, which makes you half-Greek, and this is our home.” But is it really?
Lately, I have been reading a lot about what happens to people when they move back to their home country after having lived abroad; how the experience is predictably rewarding but can also be unpredictably challenging. The fact that the challenges catch most people completely by surprise is the main reason why repatriation is so hard to cope with. Not having been through it myself, I have been trying to find ways to relate to that experience, so that I can write about it.
In fact, a lot of what I have been reading about re-entry reminds me of what happens when I return home for longer periods of time, which is the case every summer. Many expatriates who go back to their passport countries find that home does not feel like home any more; that they have become foreigners where they least expected that to happen; that their loyalty is divided between two (or more) “homes.” That’s something to which I can relate. It does not make such a big impression on me now – maybe because I have been used to it over the years – but being home always reveals that split in my life and in my identity. On the one hand, I have a strong bond with Greece. It overwhelms me with euphoria the moment the airplane touches down on Greek soil and crushes me with nostalgia when that other airplane takes me away. I love everything about “my” country – its natural beauty and its (disorganised) chaos; the warmth of the weather and that of the people; the fact that I can understand both the text and the subtext when I interact with them; the feeling of belonging.
On the other hand, when I am in Greece, I am always the visitor; the tourist; the foreigner. Nothing much is expected of me. I am not supposed to completely fit in, but that feels strange rather than liberating. There are moments when I miss the comfort of being a foreigner somewhere where I am actually justified in being one, rather than somewhere where I really shouldn’t. And, of course, after a while
I start missing my “other” home; my house; my routines. To quote Kundera, (my) life is elsewhere.
Many of us perpetual foreigners experience this duality – the “split personality,” the unexpected emotional connections to different places at the same time. The contrast is always there, but it is only when we come “home” that it becomes blindingly obvious.
Do you feel foreign, at home?