February in Athens is the turning season— wet-cement-gray winter is cleared by a clean black-and-white clatter of magpies; the blackbird atop the lemon tree colors the wind. Abandoned lots serve as makeshift parks, as the daedal earth throws up yellow-flowered sour grass and giant nettles and dandelions and daisies—once sacred to Zeus—and the scrollwork of acanthus. (Island children have taught my daughter to chew the lemony-sour stems of sour grass as a thirst quencher.) In the actual parks, little islands of green surrounded by the paved-over rivers of Athens, forsythia sparks, tortoises stir, and the odd almond tree asterisks the sky. On March 1, Greeks (and parents in other Balkan countries) fasten a bracelet of red and white string to the wrists of children to protect them from the rays of the sun. Come April, they will set the threads on tree branches to be taken by the birds for their nests. Good Month, Happy Lent: the formulae of the Greek language flow even as traffic is ever at a near-standstill.
Winter eases, and so do capital controls. Imposed in June 2015, the original controls stipulated you could only withdraw €60 a day, then €420 a week, then €1,680 a month. Those angry young turks, the Coalition of the Radical Left, suddenly capitulated to everything they claimed to fight against. Now, in 2018, the limit is raised to €2,300; the bank teller seems giddy. But every time I hear “capital controls” I briefly picture it referring to poetry, the lines, left-justified, capitalized, or . . . no.
It’s the time of year to think about Persephone, maybe, stirring among the roots in some cold, dark exile. (In Homer, remember, Odysseus arrives at the land of the dead by sailing North to a cold, dark Ultima Thule.) I have been thinking about the Greek poet Nikos Gatsos (1911–92), one of whose poems is entitled “Persephone’s Nightmare.” It depicts the destruction of Eleusis, once one of the prettiest coastlines in Attica (and of course the site in ancient times of the Eleusinian Mysteries, in which Demeter and Persephone featured), as it became dotted with oil refineries, the dull orange flames visible at night around the Saronic, as if the gates of Hades peeped open. In the poem, turned into a popular song by Manos Hatzidakis, Gatsos’s Greek rhymes “initiates” with “tourists.”
Athens is all about the register shifts. Greek too, of course. The vernacular of modern Greek is an amalgam of demotic (strictly speaking, in nineteenth-century terms, the language of folk songs), and phrases and words from katharevousa, the purified tongue, another nineteenth-century experiment that attempted to purge Greek of loan words and return it to something akin to ancient morphologies. Ancient Greek itself can come through as a palimpsest, as can koine—the language of the New Testament—and Gringlish. Athens is likewise a jostle of architectural periods—neoclassical mansions in various states of repair or dis-, featureless apartment blocks from the 1960s and ’70s, the odd modernist gem, dilapidated refugee housing from the influx of refugees in 1922 from the Asia Minor Disaster, all presided over by the rock of the Acropolis, with its gunpowder-shattered Parthenon, the residue of other centuries (outbuildings, a Catholic church, an Ottoman mosque) scraped away. Somewhere in its heart, the staircase to a no-longer-extant minaret climbs to a silent call to prayer. Below, the sparkling new Acropolis Museum awaits the return of the Parthenon marbles from their “xenitia” in London. Perhaps they will never return; meanwhile the most impressive gallery is one that emphasizes their absence with plaster casts, which have none of the inner gold warmth of the marble carved/calved out of Mount Penteli.
“Xenitia” isn’t exactly exile, though it is often translated thus. Exile is properly banishment—Ovid is in exile. A person may be compelled for various reasons to enter the sorrow of xenitia, but return is not forbidden, only difficult, or impossible. You could say that when we discover Odysseus weeping on Calypso’s island in Book 5 of the Odyssey that he is homesick, “nostalgic,” longing for his “nostos,” or homecoming. In modern Greek, though, his emotion is instantly recognizable as “xenitia”—the pain of being a stranger in a strange land. “Wherever I go, Greece wounds me,” as Seferis famously says. Yet it is a two-sided emotion, for the person left at home also suffers the pain of that separation. When Penelope weeps for her husband, away among strangers, her lament, too, would be termed “xenitia.”
At a recent event at the Athens Centre, Thomas J. Scotes presented A Weft of Memory: A Greek Mother’s Recollection of Folk Songs and Other Poems (augmented second edition, 2017). Scotes, born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to Epirot Greek parents, had spent years collecting scores of folk songs and poems that his mother used to sing and recite. Born in the mountain village of Theodoriana in the Pindus mountain range in 1908, Vasiliki had emigrated to the United States as a newlywed in 1931. (She lived until the age of 104.) These songs are naturally steeped in “xenitia.”
Penelope possibly sang something like this at her loom—“The Lonely Wife”:
All were gazing at the sun as it set in royal splendor
And a girl with grief and sorrow scans the distant open seas,
The open seas and islands where the ships come and go.
—Dear ships of mine, dear little boats, that come here from foreign shores,
Have any of you seen my man, have any seen my lover?
At what tables does he sit himself and in what tavern drink?
What hands are pouring him the wine, while mine can only tremble?
What eyes look and gaze upon him, while mine can only weep?
Greece has long been an exporter of people, not just during the current economic crisis, but during the currant economic crisis of the 1890s (the collapse in the French currant market, overproduction on lands that had once held olive groves, and the knock-on effect of debt and insoluble loans). Greeks sought a better living or fled political conditions, and the songs reflect the pain of families separated, often forever. (Nothing is so permanent as the temporary, a Greek proverb reminds us.) When we meet Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant, in “The Waste Land,” published in 1922, here in the future we are aware of at least two dramatic ironies—the economic disaster represented by the currants in his pocket, and the looming Asia Minor Disaster—and that his xenitia in London is about to become indefinite.
Many of Nikos Gatsos’s poems were set to music by Hatzidakis and became popular songs, among them (easily found in many versions online) is “Now That You Are Going To Foreign Lands.”
Now that you are going into xenitia/
I will become a bird of the south and bring you the cross you asked for
and give you a ring.
Many, if not most, of the neighborhoods of Athens are named for the Greek refugees from Asia Minor and the Black Sea who suddenly flooded the capital in 1922 and 1923 (1.2 million refugees in the space of a year): New Smyrna, Caesaria, Philadelphia, New Ionia—all settled by ethnic Greeks for whom Greece itself was xenitia. Following the Balkan Wars, World War II, and the Civil War, Greeks left Greece in droves, a million Greeks to Germany, the United States, Australia—all carrying with them the songs of xenitia, and leaving behind the laments of xenitia. I myself live in Neos Kosmos, the New World for some displaced people from Asia Minor, not far from the paved-over banks of the Ilissos River where once Socrates discoursed on Love, sprawled in the lush grasses of spring, under the shade of trees just starting to chirr with cicadas. The cicadas had once been men, but upon hearing the beauty of song, forgot to eat and drink and shriveled into insects.
The register shifts of Athens either fascinate you or exhaust you; maybe both. In a twenty- four-hour period, I may be stuck in traffic because the center is closed off for an anti-austerity protest, riots over house foreclosures, or the visit of the Irish president—a poet, who is receiving an honorary degree in English literature at the University of Athens. I may give a talk on translating Hesiod—a Boeotian poet of the eighth century, and the son of an economic migrant from Asia Minor—at the American College of Greece; later I may be volunteering at a refugee squat in an abandoned school now housing Syrian, Afghan, and Kurdish families; in the evening I may be at the American School of Classical Studies, attending a talk on Aeschylus’s The Suppliant Maidens—fifty Egyptian women from near the border with Syria who arrive by boat to Greece seeking asylum, in their foreign garb and their head-scarves, the Sidonian “kalyptra,” which the presenter, the professor Geoff Bakewell, translates, matter-of-factly, as “hijab,” to a soft gasp of recognition in the audience.
These worlds would seem not to overlap, but in fact the overlap is constant. It’s a small world, we say in our small talk. At a lecture I might see a half-dozen fellow volunteers: Tori Bedingfield, who, when she is not sourcing shampoo for refugee women, is working to discover evidence of Neanderthal habitation in Naxos in the Paleolithic period; Benjamin Lewis, who coaches baseball with the refugee kids and is also finishing a Ph.D. in Augustine (when not working as a liturgical translator for the Vatican); Benjamin Folit-Weinberg, with a recently minted Cambridge Ph.D. in “Parmenides and the Road”; and the family of the lecturer, Geoff Bakewell, one of the current Whitehead Professors. (The professor and archeologist Stephanie Larson connected the American School with the squat in 2016.)
My fellow volunteers tend heavily towards Classics and archeology, academics and poetry. Why is it? Is it only the proximity of the foreign archeology schools to the squat? Or, as foreigners living and working in Greece, do we have an interest in and empathy with other foreigners? Even the Greek Americans among us seem to have a heightened sense of not-quite-belonging—one of Adrianne Kalfopoulou’s collections of poems, translated into Greek by the poet Katerina Iliopoulou, is entitled Xeni, Xenos, Xenitia.
Increasingly, I find myself fascinated simply on the level of language, picking up scraps of Arabic, Persian, and now Kurdish, a Western Iranian (and thus Indo-European) language. I am learning to count: yek, du, se, char, pench. In Persian and Arabic, the word for poetry sounds like the English word “share”; it is the only word I can write in the Arabic script.
The combination of economic crisis and refugee crisis has closed down many of the shops in Victoria Square—where elegant old cafés once stood, there are garish stores flogging cheap Chinese goods and used clothes, cell phone stores, and dodgy places to send or change money. A 1906 sculpture by Johannes Pfuhl dominates the square—Theseus, the king of Athens, is rescuing Hippodamia from a centaur. Around this scene of rape or rescue, Afghans and Syrians are waiting—for money or papers—in attitudes of patience and despair, while ill-shod children play with sticks and throw crumbs to pigeons. One of the few famous old cafés to still draw its clientele of elderly Greek men is the Poets’ Café, with its photos on the wall of Palamas and Ritsos, Cavafy and Seferis, its bulletin board full of carefully hand-written verses.
On Acharnon Street, the shabbiness at street level belies the grand neoclassical buildings that rise above; you have to look up to see Athens as she was, or as, with a bit of paint, she might be. My husband and I are trying to track down a restaurant that has been set up by the refugees at the squat, using produce from a farm they have started renting and working in Boeotia. (They use their own produce mostly from thrift, but have taken up the hipper label of “farm to table.”) We find it in a chilly, cavernous restaurant that had once been called “The Mesopotamia” and is now called “Roots.” Kastro, a Syrian painter (not a refugee himself) is in the kitchen stirring a turmeric-yellow squash soup. The five tables are full of patrons trying the vegetarian Syrian-inspired fare. The flavors are not altogether different from Greek flavors, the shared legacy of the Ottoman Empire perhaps, and the productions of the Greek earth. For a while we notice the restaurant is music-less—much to be preferred, we decide, to eateries too loud for conversation. But when the music does come on, it is the music of xenitia, “The bitter bread of exile” goes one song, and then there is Gatsos set to music by Hatzidakis, speaking to the Greeks, speaking to the immigrants, of being in foreign lands:
Now that you are going into foreign parts/
I will become a bird of the south.
As we are standing at the door at the end of the evening, chatting to a Greek acquaintance we have run into, I see “Mesopotamia” in Greek backwards through the door—a Greek word itself (Between the Rivers); backwards the word starts with “aima,” “blood.”
My own Greek nephews (now young men) have left the country to make better lives elsewhere. Both are lucky enough to also hold American passports, and one has gone to San Francisco, where, though he has a degree in IT, he is a barman in a fancy hotel. The other lives and works in Belgium, where he is treated as an economic migrant (which, of course, he is). Both, in the long tradition of Greeks who go abroad, send money home to their mother, a widow who has remarried. But there is no future for them here. Greece is the past. Or, to paraphrase Cavafy, Greece is what has given them the beautiful journey. Without her, they would never have taken to the road.
Greece is a migration route for birds as well as people, and the spring brings birds from southern climes through the Attic skies; the National Garden, once the gardens of the royal palace, can be full of exotic visitors this time of year, such as hoopoes. “One swallow does not make a spring” was a proverb even in Aristotle’s time, but the sight of the first swallows scissoring the twilight always seems a sign of better times to come. Children used to sing carols to the first swallows (the Chelidismata), songs that are still taught in school. But even swallows travel through a native element of xenitia. As with Persephone’s spring, their summer here reminds us of the winter of elsewhere, the foreign parts from which loved ones may never return.
One of the songs Thomas Scotes records from his mother’s memory is “Black Swallows from Araby.” The idea that a man who has left home is detained somewhere by a sorceress is of course at least as old as the Odyssey. But maybe the sorceress is xenitia itself:
O swallows of mine so black, from darkest Araby,
Please lower a little your feathery wings,
So I can send a letter, a little written note,
To send to my mother to wait for me no longer,
For here on foreign shores, I’ve gone and gotten married.
I’ve taken a sorceress as my wife, a sorceress is her mother.
They’ve put spells upon the ships and the ships do not sail,
They’ve also put a spell on me and I cannot leave for home.
When I wish to leave for home, the sun appears with starlight,
And when I start to leave, snow appears with rain.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 8, on page 30
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