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Here and There
When I was a kid living on Chios I remember going to the harbor and the “prokimaia” to see people off on the ship that would take them to Athens and the world beyond. The ship was colossal to me: like a vast white cliff with rivets on it belching water from its sides. And the people on it looked impossibly high, perched on the railing and staring down on us like eagles from their lairs. I remember watching the stevedores in their blue jackets and fishermen caps bending nearly double to haul up the rickety rope ladder of the ship our suitcases (tied with rope) and trunks (tied with rope) and sometimes the huge baskets (tied with rope) sewn over with discarded tablecloths or napkins or men’s shirts (with the names and addresses of their owners or their destinations on them).
I could hardly imagine where all these baskets and packages and suitcases would wind up: somewhere in the noisy, glittering, bustling world of Athens with its public parks and municipal buildings and yellow trams and traffic cops with white gloves standing precariously in the middle of traffic circles and the real-life parrot in the Papagalos coffee shops and kiosks selling everything from worry beads to “thimiata” and cigarettes and newspapers blaring news of the big outside world.
The world beyond, which to my family meant mostly America, with places like Brooklyn, New York, and Warren, Ohio, and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Chicago, Illinois, and even Montreal, Canada, where they said people dressed like Eskimos and rode in sleds. We received packages from this outside world periodically brought by the mailman on his “mihanaki” who would stop by the side of the road and mop himself and reach into his leather pouch and produce letters in striped envelopes that sometimes had wings on them and sometimes shoe boxes with actual shoes inside—beautiful glossy shoes with strange names like Buster Brown and Thom McAn which smelled like leather and had cream-colored soles with big white stitches and gold lettering for the size numbers. I would wear my new big black shoes to church (though they pinched) but by the time we got to church they would be coated with dust from the road and Yiayia would have to use spit and her “mantila” to wipe them down before we walked into the church and Papou hoisted me in my new black shoes in his “stasidi.”
The vast world beyond our little island seemed inconceivable and frightening—particularly since whoever boarded the great white ship in “prokimaia” would almost never come back and got reduced to the name that you saw periodically in those striped overseas envelopes bundled with rubber bands in the leather pouch of the postman’s “mihanaki.”
People now visit Greece like they visit Long Island in New York or the Great Lakes in Chicago or Big Sur in California: it’s barely a few hours away to get to the familiar baked heat of Greece with its aquamarine waters and bowl of a blue sky. I receive on Facebook countless photographs of the old village and of “mirovolos” Chios or I can go to Google Earth when the mood strikes me and roam through the old streets of Chora even though I am four thousand miles away.
It’s wonderful seeing this from four thousand miles away but even more wonderful to be there. Enjoy your time if you’re going there this summer.