Monday, 11 November 2013

A Family of Emigrants

A Family of Emigrants

Takis was born of Greek parents in Egypt and had visited Greece five times. I had studied about Classical Greece and had been there once before. So this was a journey of rediscovery for both of us. We both arrived with dreams and hopes, even though they were not identical dreams and hopes. What we have found during the years we have worked on this project is that some of these were shattered, some were augmented and others were fulfilled.

In his book, Returning Home, Jerry Burger writes about the difficulty of returning home. The research and stories that Burger uses comes from interviews with people who have made these journeys, for each year millions of American adults revisit a childhood home every year. Most people who revisit a childhood home are motivated by a desire to connect with their past. When they see the buildings, schools and parks from their childhood it helps them to establish a link between the child they were and the person they are today. As Burger points out these trips can serve several important psychological needs.

Returning Home, by Jerry Burger, is published online at the following retailers: Rowman & Littlefield Barnes & Noble Amazon Powell's Books) 

Thus it’s not surprising that we found the experience of ‘going home’ had its problems. Even before we put in place any serious actions there were questions about going to Greece on our retirement that troubled me. Several of them touched on the subject of being a hyphenated citizen.

Do Takis and I feel as though we are Exiles from Europe when we are in Australia?

Do we continue to feel we are Emigrants there? 

Perhaps we are now Assimilated Australians or are we perhaps now Intergrated Australians (both terms now frowned on in Australia)? 

How will I handle this, yet another (a third), cultural adaptation?

If Takis returned to Greece would he become ‘more Greek’?

Will I, or we, still be Outsiders in Greece? 

Miriam Gross has also written a book about the difficulty of returning home, and of living somewhere else as an outsider. She recently wrote an article in the Guardian (8.9.12) called ‘Living in England as an Outsider’. She appears to have pondered some of these same questions as I did, and she asks,

Does being uprooted matter? Does being removed from the country in which you were born and where you spent the first years of your life leave an indefinable emotional scar? I don't believe so. Many of the "uprooted" are clearly much happier in their adopted countries than they were in their countries of origin. But making a new home in a completely new environment and a completely new language inevitably influences a person's perceptions, both about him- or herself and about others.’ She concludes, ‘Though I have never felt totally at home in England, I married an English husband and had brought up two English children. I was very happy to be English – or almost English.

An Almost English Life, by Miriam Gross, is published by Short Books, £14.99. To order a copy for £11.99, including free UK p&P, go to or call 0330 333 6846

It all began with a watermelon

When describing the attraction the house had for him, he told me about the first time he’d visited it, when he’d come from Australia in order to meet his mother, who was holidaying there with other members of the Greek family.

‘There’s something about the way old traditions are kept on the island, and this has always attracted the family, and me too. I arrived on August 15th, St. Mary’s Day. This is one of the most celebrated Greek holy days and it’s also my name day, and my mother had prepared a great celebration. I hadn’t seen my mother for a long while, nor most of my relatives since boyhood, so seeing so many of them all staying in the house was amazing.’

‘So everybody was still going there in those days.’

'Some were in the kitchen, some playing cards on the terrace, and I could hear others calling from upstairs as they got ready for a swim. There were wonderful aromas from the kitchen where my aunts were preparing meals and sweets, supervised by my mother who was the matriarch at the time. Ah, I remember it so well, the meals, the swims, the discussions on the terrace every evening while we sipped coffee, Greek coffee of course!’

I was touched by this affectionate description, and I considered how little I knew about this distant Greek family. But I also asked myself, why take his nostalgia so seriously? Hadn’t I too had left family and country behind? And did I feel the need to buy and run a hotel in Devon?

In spite of the two big problems (being once again a newcomer, and the great distance we would have to travel to ‘go home’) Our Great Greek Adventure has turned out to be very worthwhile. It has been challenging but also exciting, confusing but also enlightening, frustrating but also very satisfying. Yes, there have been many problems, but the plusses have heavily weighed the scales down.

Culture, family and language are important aspects of life. They enable us feel ‘at home’ and it’s hard to overcome feelings of loss when we leave these behind. You can sometimes replace what you feel is missing, and often you can find something that is similar in another place. This happen to us when we moved to Australia and I sought out English newspapers and Takis listened to Greek music. But we settled down and grew to enjoy aspects of the Australian culture. Now the reverse happens so that here in Greece we try to listen to the ABC breakfast show, and continue to have marmalade every day for breakfast (jams and marmalade are unknown here so we make our own).

But not only is culture, family and language important, so too is a sense of place. Takis had been brought up in a big city and I’m sure that why he felt at home in Melbourne. The towns along the river Thames were ‘home’ to me, and so too was the valley where I raised my children, so that still the way a river or stream draws life towards it thrills me – very much as it did Ratty in Wind in the Willows.

Takis’ images came from his youth in Alexandria but also from the stories his parents told of their old island home. He was aware that the hills in Lemnos were dry, and the fields were rocky, but always there was always the sea nearby. So, while most of Takis’ childhood stories were about living with his family in Alexandria nevertheless I have often heard stories of  Lemnos and his few visits there.

And when times got so bad the people were starving they would have to resettle elsewhere. In earlier days they would relocate to villages and towns around the Mediterranean or the Black Sea, where they could find colonies of Greeks – for instance to Smyrna, Odessa and Alexandria. In later times they would immigrate to New York in the States, to Melbourne in Australia, and to Durban in South Africa.
Takis great grandfather left for Alexandria in the mid 19C to run a store there, his grandfather George left the island as a bare foot young boy and found a job in that shop. Both kept their ties with the island and this house was given to George as dowry when he married the grocer’s daughter. They had nine children and they would all come by boat every year to spend their summer on the island. And since then the house has been the summer residence of any of their progeny that could make it here for the summer. This family representing what occurs all over the island, when in the summer the population tends to double as Greeks return to their natal island and villages.

Books by wives of Greek nationals and others who have moved back 

Sofka Zinovieff, Eurydice Street, a place in Athens (Granta Publications, 2004). The writer marries a Greek. This book details the first year of her life after the couple with their two daughters move back to live in Athens.   She writes knowingly about the rites and rituals that Greek families all observe, and quite lot about what it means to live in Athens.

Gillian Bouras, A Foreign Wife (Penguin Books Australia Ltd.,1990). This well-known Australian writer tells of her difficulties accepted as a new wife in a Greek family and in a small village community. She has also written A Stranger Here (Penguin Books Australia, 1996). This book is a novel that looks at the lives of three women and studies their feelings of displacement living in Australia and Greece.

Arnold Zable, Sea of Many Returns (Text Publishing, Melbourne Australia,  2010) In this book the author discusses the seagoing life of many who live on Ithaka. He draws on his own experiences of returning to Ithaca with his Greek wife over the years. Although this island is far from Lemnos, and set in another sea, this story reveals how many Greeks journeyed past Lemnos on their way to trade around the shores of the Black Sea.


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