excerpt from a memoir in progress: Travels with Persephone: An Archaeologist's Life in the Land of Odysseus
Afternoon rush hour. Mixorrouma, Crete.
It’s late in the day when I arrive, and I am feeling lost. Not just physically lost, but mentally and emotionally beaten. I am supposed to be a big, strong, American girl coming to Greece and having my “year as a broad” experience, impressing all those at home with my bravery and language skills. Right now all I feel is weak, puny and a complete failure. Like Odysseus, I am facing my own Scylla and Charibdes in this foreign place, and I am afraid that I will not pass some unseen test.
The bus lets me off in the tiny village of Mixorrouma in the mountains of central Crete; I am told that my family lives there, behind this small kafeneion. I drop my bag on the concrete curb, pull a chair into the shade and lean against the wall of the building. It is August and the heaviness of a Greek summer afternoon descends; dust spools behind a passing car and I hear a donkey rustle in the bushes across the street, a snake slithers out into the afternoon light. About two hours go by when a woman in a faded housedress pokes her head out of the door and asks if I am A-man-tah. When I answer yes, she responds by dragging my suitcase through the door. I follow her into the kafeneion, through a rustic kitchen dominated by a fireplace, table and chairs and something I hereafter will covet in my own kitchen: a couch. A large cast iron pot hangs from a hook over the hearth; swinging over the table is a cage, holding some leftover food I can’t identify - flies cluster around it, hanging lethargically in the afternoon heat.
She leads me across an outdoor breezeway to a room. In the corner is a bed, a thin mattress slopes towards the center of the frame, forcing it into a ‘V’ shape. I sit on it gingerly, examining the space. Piles of boxes line the perimeter; it is clear I am to sleep in the storage room. Chrysoula, as she has introduced herself, gives me a half-smile and leaves me, pulling the glass door shut behind her. Although I realize she is trying to allow me some privacy, I imagine for a moment that I am to stay in the room for the balance of my visit: a month. I contemplate the humor of it as I gaze out the glass door at the outhouse, which Chrysoula pointed out on the way from the kitchen.
Some days I am left alone, and if it weren’t for the fact I was supposed to be learning Greek, I would have wandered off into the wilderness until the end of August. Being around people with whom I cannot communicate except for hand signals and vocalizations that usually elicit laughter and derision generally makes me nervous. One day, however, my little sisters and brother have decided they know me well enough to start treating me the way they do each other – cruelly - and use me as a target in their latest game.
The first watermelon barely misses me, hitting the whitewashed outside wall of the house where I am feverishly jotting down my “field” notes (please God let this end….I will promise never to want to live overseas among foreign rural people ever again….). I look up in surprise to see a pack of grinning faces rising up just beyond a concrete wall. Ignoring them will work, I assure myself, continuing with my notes, and they launch their second salvo. This one is too close. I stand up, indignant at the splatter of seeds and pink juice across my sacred notes. Not knowing enough Greek, I stomp away back into my glass cage, where I continue my feverish note-taking on the damp, ‘V’ shaped bed.
A few days later, some sparrows get caught in my room. Flapping their wings helplessly, I try to sweep them out the door, waving my arms and shouting at them in English to get out. It doesn’t work. Hearing the noise, my brother and sisters come running, excited at the possibility that their exotic houseguest is in some sort of peril. Upon seeing the birds, they react, not by trying to shoo the little buggers out the door, but by running at them, trying to knock them to the floor. Horrified, I ask the middle child why they are terrorizing the creatures, and she looks at me in amazement, as if I couldn’t understand this desire to corral birds. She lifts her hand to her mouth and smiles. Oh my God, these people eat sparrows.
As a peace offering for terrorizing me, the littlest sister, Despina, enters my room some time later, carrying a plate. Atop the white dish is the sparrow, resembling a tiny roast chicken; its minute drumsticks protruding from its body. Despina looks at me, her eyes pools of contrition and innocence, and extends the plate. Sparrows are a real treat here – I learn, as the family eats little meat. And now that it is August, they don’t eat any at all, because of a two week fast prior to the fifteenth of the month: the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Not wanting to offend my five year old host, I pull a wing away from the tiny body and cringe….eating a swallow is just a notch above eating a rat in my book. She looks pained at first, then thrilled when I offer her the remainder, telling her in broken Greek that it was delicious, thank you, but I am not feeling well. Screeching with delight she skips back into the kitchen and pulls the creature apart with tiny fingers, smacking her lips and licking the oil residue as if she had just finished off a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
One night my father and his buddies commandeer my storage room for a poker game. Some young men have asked me and another girl to accompany them to a festival in the mountains above Mixorrouma. I accept, somewhat relieved, to be away from the tension of being in the household, looking forward to an evening where I could be a spectator and watch other people dance, eat and interact.
Tiny white lights are strung across the outdoor square; a bouzouki band whines and locals lock arms in a circle dance. Old men sit on the sides, placidly watching the festivities and flipping worry beads through their fingers in intricate loops. Women sit in cliques, wiping their hands on aprons and gossiping while children shriek and run between tables. An arbor stretches over the seating area, sagging under a tangle of leaves and late summer grapes; the night air is a cocktail of music, laughter and smoke.
The festival is sumptuous – and would have remained a lovely memory - until it was time to go home. Our dates, fortifying themselves with ample amounts of local wine, are assuming we will sleep with them now, as they have seen dozens of American women do on T.V. The other girl and I have turned down their offer and they are now livid. To express their indignation, they proceed to race back down the mountain in the pitch black, passing through tiny villages and hairpin turns at 100 miles per hour. When we beg them to slow down, the driver floors the accelerator, laughing uproariously at our terror-stricken faces.
The next day I am violently ill – the entire group has contracted food poisoning from the festival. Counting the steps to the outhouse from my room, still filled with the stale air and smoke from the poker game, I wonder how it would feel to be this sick at home, close to my own bathroom, in my own bed, back in my own, sane, safe, world.
Towards the end of the stay, I am actually speaking Greek. My brother and sisters know not to launch rotten melons at me – in fact, they sort of like me now. I help them with their English until they are bored and resort to a new game, brandishing knives and imitating their favorite American TV show, Hawaii Five-O. Afternoons in the kafeneion, I help my grandmother peel potatoes and snap peas. We sit in front of the old reruns, until a variety show comes on with an American soul group. Grandma’s eyes open wide and she whispers to me, as if someone in the next village might overhear, “Look, they are black….”
At long last it is August 15th, and, instead of the Virgin rising as she is supposed to do, all hell breaks loose. The family spends an hour in the kitchen, liberally dousing each other with cologne and slicking back my brother’s hair like a crime boss. Shirts are ironed and donned, curls are pinned, sandals are buckled onto little feet. No sooner do they leave, when they return to the kitchen, exhausted. Church is now over – they have spent so much time primping that they have missed Mass.
Chrysoula sets about making the cake for the evening’s festivities, which promises to be the Mother of All Meat Eating festivals. She struts about the kitchen, one moment crushing almonds with a meat grinder then moving to another table, flopping the glossy batter about with her fists in a large metal pan. Cousins and neighbors mill about, commenting and shouting out instructions as children run in the kitchen door, grabbing at a bag of potato chips and spilling over one another like a litter of puppies. Earlier, I had watched her behead part of our dinner. Grasping the unlucky chicken by the neck, she laid the struggling prey on its side and casually hacked its head off with a hatchet. The gathered crowd laughed approvingly when the beheaded creature and its cherry Koolaid spurting neck resumed its frenetic waltz around the courtyard.
The townsfolk have slaughtered goats, lambs and rabbits for the evening’s festivities – the bloody carcasses hang from the fireplace as I belly up to the kitchen sink, recruited to pluck feathers from the now silenced chicken. In the afternoon I accompany Chrysoula to the village’s communal oven. We tread a gravel path up a hill, carrying the cake batter to an outdoor courtyard surrounding a brick hearth; a group of aproned housewives helps us push the metal pan into the fire with a large wooden paddle. Before we return to the house, I sit on a stone wall and gaze at the mountains surrounding the village. Canary-colored pears dangle in the orchard and arbors edging the hills groan under the ballast of grapes, thick, purple and filling the air with saccharine.
The celebration lasts until 4 a.m. and I walk home, the stars still smeared above my head
in the predawn darkness. Feeling limp from the combination of wine and dancing, I have a revelation. The faces of my father, mother, neighbors and friends blur as we circle the smoke filled room from left to right, the bouzouki cutting the air with a caustic oriental shriek. The people I have come to know in the past weeks will stay with me now, gathered among the folds of experiences both dismal and exhilarating. Between the fists churning batter, the sink full of feathers, the scream of the bouzouki, the muffled benediction of my mother stroking the youngest to sleep and the blessed fragrance of bread wafting down the valley in the blackness of early morning, I feel, finally, that I am beginning to belong.