Monday, December 02, 2013

All roads lead to Balkans

Last year at Thanksgiving I was in New Jersey. I was invited by Sophia and Spyros, a couple of psychoanalysts and close friends, to share their Thanksgiving dinner. Sophia is one of the child survivors of the holocaust and Spyros a child of Greek immigrants, who came to America in the 1930s. Sophia and Spyros met in Manhattan in the 70’. Sophia was finishing her PhD in psychoanalysis and would often have lunch at a Greek diner, run by Spyros’s family and where he was working as a waiter. This was the beginning of a romance that ended in their marrying after a few months. Spyros decided to quit his job at the Greek diner and dedicate himself to psychoanalysis. He told me how his parents couldn’t understand what “psychoanalysis” was about. They were hoping for him to become an engineer, so that he could go back one day to their birthplace, in the tiny island of Erikusa near Corfu, and build roads there. Spyros remained in Manhattan and became a renowned psychoanalyst. Last year they celebrated 40 years of being together.
All these stories were told under the strong smell of turkey and other delicious dishes. Because Thanksgiving in America is mainly about personal and family tales, well cooked turkeys and cranberry sauce. This is its bright, warm side. If you were a Native American, though, you might have had a different family story to tell. Thanksgiving for Native Americans, as I learned from my psychoanalyst friends, is a day of thanks and mourning.
Last Thursday I celebrated Thanksgiving day in Boston, with wonderful colleagues from Emerson College; Americans of third generation, American-Cubans, American-Americans, Greek-Austrialian-Americans. And I, an Albanian and somehow Greek and a bit American, perhaps. Over a table dominated by a huge cooked turkey and full of many delicious dishes, we discussed and told stories about politics, literature, cooking, multilingualism and even animals; according to Aristotle the main difference between human beings and animals is that human beings are able to articulate sounds which express justice or injustice, while animals can only articulate sounds that express pain and pleasure. Therefore, if turkeys could articulate human sounds, they would tell many stories about how cruel humans are toward turkeys, killing them by the millions each year for Thanksgiving.   
I have asked some of my American friends whether they know the origin of the word turkey. Usually they shrug their shoulders. I decided to research the etymology of the word and discovered that it all began in the 1540s, when "guinea fowl" (Numida meleagris), was imported from Madagascar via Turkey, by Near East traders known as turkey merchants. By 1575, turkey was becoming the usual main course at an English Christmas. Around 1927, in business show slang, turkey in English meant "inferior show” and “failure", probably from the bird's reputation for stupidity - In few words, the word “turkey” is associated with Turkey, therefore, with the Balkans as well. In further words, am I wrong then if I think that in some way all roads lead to Balkans?


Turkeys made up an important part of my childhood in Albania. They lay on their back on the platters of Albania every New Year. The whole month of December was dedicated to turkeys. Albanians preferred buying them live, took very good care of them during a whole month and then put them to the sword (or to the knife more precisely) on New Year’s Eve. There were arguments in Albanian families about who should slay the turkey, because there were two completely opposite beliefs on how it should be done. According to the first, slaying a turkey brings luck; according to the latter it brings bad omens. Families who believed the second thesis usually hired a slaughterer. It’s always safe to make disgrace fall on the Others - even in regard to our own choices and pleasures.
I remember the turkeys invading my town, every year, in early December. My family lived on an apartment building and as a child I never had the chance to take care of a turkey.  Every New Year’s Eve, in the morning, my father went to the bazaar to buy the turkey live; he then slayed it himself, in the bathroom of our house, over a huge basin of warm water, using a perfect killing-technique, in order to not let the blood spill onto the floor and walls. Once, trying to satisfy my insatiable curiosity, I decided to secretly watch the killing procedure. I saw the red blood of the turkey, very similar to human blood, fill the basin, the body of the turkey shaking in my father’s hands, as if desperately asking for help; I couldn’t help the turkey and moreover, after noticing me, my father ordered me to stop watching. I fully identified with the victim; I remember myself crying for three days, every time that the image of the slain turkey invaded my memory. I refused to touch the turkey on our family New Year dinner table, considering it, almost, the result of a crime. My father told my mother “maybe we have a weird boy”.


In December turkeys gave life to our little grey town. Actually, we didn’t call them “turkey”; we called them “sea roosters”. I don’t know why. Maybe they were brought to Albania by ships. Adolescents gave them heroic human names and made them fight each other, the way Patricians used to do with gladiators in ancient Rome. Thanks to the turkeys we all felt Patricians for one month.
The turkeys were split into two categories. The domesticated turkeys and the wild turkeys. Albanians agreed with Englishmen about domesticated turkeys: they were considered rather silly animals. The wild turkeys instead were revered like holy cows in India; only wild turkeys had the “right” to fight. I assure you that wild turkeys are very proud animals and fierce fighters. They never abandon the battle without “destroying” their enemy. Some of the duels among wild turkeys became part of the heroic memory of our town. The famous duel, for example, between two wild turkeys, “Stalin” and “Ulysses” (a very famous name in Albania in the 80’s because of a film by that name, where the role of Ulysses was played by Bekim Fehmiu, a Hollywood actor of Albanian origin while Penelope was played by the Greek actress Irene Papas). That year, Stalin and Ulysses were considered the most terrific fighters, among all the turkeys of our town. Three days before New Year’s Eve they faced each other in a life and death duel, on a meadow on the outskirts of our town. A huge crowd – some even bringing old wooden chairs from their houses – gathered around the fighting wild turkeys. The crowd was absorbed by the fight and divided by it, some rooting for Stalin to kill Ulysses and others for Ulysses to kill that “motherfucker” - as they called Stalin. Ulysses won, even if it was politically incorrect, as you can imagine. The crowd, though, was so dizzy by the excitement of the battle that, for once, it didn’t pay attention to the fact that winning against Stalin was strictly forbidden. The owner of “Stalin”, a tall guy with read hair who looked more Russian than Albanian, disappointed and angry with his defeated turkey declared that he will kill Stalin by his own hand right away. “Ulysses” won but he never won his freedom. He also was sacrificed, in the cheerful day of New Year’s Eve. At least he had a glorious death. He had already become a legend...

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Ducks are lucky…

Next to where I live, walking yesterday under zero and toward the NoWhere, lost in my thoughts, I met these unidentified ducks. To tell the truth, when I suddenly saw them in my way, my thoughts went to Alfred Hitchcock and his film "The Birds". Then, looking at how the ducks reacted to my presence completely duckly, that is peacefully and above all with absolute indifference, I started thinking that ducks are lucky; when they want to take a drink all they do is duck their bill. Doesn't matter if they spill. When they want to take a swim, all they do is dive right in; and they never seem to sink. Ducks are lucky, don't you think? After a bit, I realized that all I said about ducks is from a poem I had read some weeks ago (Mary Ann Hoberman, an American writer of children’s books, is the author). Realizing that I took other's verses for my own I felt a little bit like a foolish duck, with a bit of luck. 

Generally I like ducks. When I was a child my parents used ducks as a metaphor. "That's how good children should behave" they used to say " like little ducks do in the lake, always follow in blind obedience their parents". The presents I got from my parents as a child included all sorts of toy animals: bears, elephants, dogs, and even tigers imported from Maoist China. But ducks held a special place in my little menagerie of plastic animals, most of which were Made in Albania. (By the way, animal toys were the only thing that our socialist factories produced that looked anything like their counterparts in the capitalist West. The Dictatorship of the Proletariat promised us the New Man – totally different from the Old Man of the capitalist world - but animals would have remained unchanged and old as there were before). 

As a child I was also highly impressed by how big ducks’ eggs were (in comparison to chicken eggs they were XXL): in our house they were treated with reverence, like a very special thing, almost like a holy secret, almost like ostrich eggs. I never understood why.

I like the very word "duck" in English: it rhymes with words that sound something between jazz and rock: duck, buck, chuck, cluck, crick, guck, huck, luck, muck, pluck, puck, ruck, schmuck, shuck, struck, suck, truck, Truk, tuck, yech, yuck.
I don't like being a sitting duck, with no luck…

PS. I just received a message from an American friend who read my post, that reveals my huge ignorance about animals - at least animals in America. The nice creatures you see in the photo are not ducks but… Canada Geese. They are very unusual as a species because they are always in pairs and monogamous. This gives a totally new moral dimension to our meeting. But I will write about it another time. In any case, my thoughts on ducks, even if product of ignorance and illusion, remain unchanged. I now have to think about my relation to the Goose. It's an interesting word, by the way. Goose rhymes with some very special words to me: douce, juice, mousse, Seuss, truce, use and Zeus…

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Autumn Leaves…

The trees in front of my house lost their beautiful leaves overnight. The autumn leaves lie now on the sidewalk, like the lost hairs of a beautiful blond head. I didn't hear any complaints though: trees don't blame anyone, they don't play the victim. They surrender to their winter fate while and their naked branches tell me to stay warm, because winter came to town. My second Bostonian winter; the beautiful and wild winter of the North. It made me realize, once more, that I like people and personal freedom more than trees and roots; It made me discover, for the first time, that "I don't like climate, I like weather"…

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Immigration & Loneliness

“Do you feel alone here?” – this is a question I hear some times, from some Americans I meet by chance, once they learn I am a new immigrant in Boston (even though I belong to the "privileged immigrants" this time around). I instinctively sense the “nature” of the question. A new immigrant, usually, suffers loneliness.  
“Not really” - is my answer.
My interlocutors look puzzled and stare at me as though I were some bizarre species. “I guess I have made some wonderful new friends here” I add. Then, they nod: as a sign of encouragement or disbelief.
The truth is that “immigration” and “loneliness” are like communicated vessels. The “literature of immigration” is full of characters who crave to escape from the crushing burden of loneliness in the new and unknown land. The foreign language, the prejudices against the newcomer, the lack of time and lots of anxiety about the unknown don’t allow the immigrant to make new friends easily. Moreover, here in the new land, he has to make friends from scratch. The same way that he starts his life from scratch.
I have to confess that as an immigrant, I have never felt lonely. Even in Greece, where I immigrated without speaking a word of Greek, I made new friends in the very first  months. When I say “friends” I mean people who are still an important part of my life now. The same in Boston: I never felt alone. Maybe because I am in denial; it’s a sort of defense mechanism against it. Or, because as a writer, I can exorcise loneliness through reading and writing.  Maybe I will face loneliness later in my life.
To tell the truth, I have never had problems with people – wherever I lived. I feel lucky to have met wonderful people in my life, at the right time and in the right place. For me the problem was never people but States and rogue groups within the government. I have lived in two countries, Albania and Greece. In both, the State is a tragicomic imitation of the Ottoman bureaucracy and autocracy characterized by provincial megalomania, fear of the Other and corruption; in both countries, the Government coexist with rogue groups, working together against the rights of the individual; turning them usually into outcasts or “collaborators and clients” of a corrupt system. Most of my friends in Albania and Greece belong to "minorities" of some kind; at best they are "tolerated" by the System; usually they feel like outcasts and as the "Other".
In any case, the most precious “lessons” I learned from this “disharmony” between people and countries, is an ability to distinguish the individual from the nation, the person from the country he "belongs" to - against the prevailing narratives that want individuals and nations, persons and countries to be totally (and in the case of Greece racially and religiously) identical. This is how I became, with the passage of time, thoroughly inappropriate and useless for the so called “collective" (the way nationalists, xenophobes and bigots define it); no country can turn me into a nationalist, xenophobe or bigot. I don’t feel alone and scared, in a peaceful crowd; I feel crowded, though, if I am asked to give up my individuality for the crowd, even a peaceful one. I feel alien anywhere and everywhere at home. (That's why, I guess, I was considered as "very dangerous for the security of Greece" in 2003, arrested and threatened with deportation by rogue elements within the Greek police).
To return to “immigrants & loneliness”; I think friends and acquaintances are like luck. They come and knock at your door at any time of the day or night. You can open the door or be curious about who is   standing in the dark corridor. Or you can believe that whoever is out there wants to kidnap and kill you; so, instead of opening the door, you might choose to hide under your nice warm bed or call the police.
If you don’t want to risk opening the door, better not emigrate. Stay where you are and try to make the best for yourself and your country there. Try, though, to not hate those “bizarre” people who were forced or chose to leave their countries and share the same light and darkness as you. You can build a better future, if you see them not as kidnappers and killers but as creating opportunity for both of you…

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Two Yellow Finches

I saw them hanging there, yellow sneakers on black power lines, without the foot that used to wear them and with the half-blue-half-cloudy autumnal bostonian sky as background. I saw them in my neighborhood that is full of students and adolescents; actually, every now and then, while I'm walking on the streets of my neighborhood, my eyes fall upon sneakers hovering over my head, hanging on telephone wires, power lines and even trees; usually during the weekends, when students have a lot of alcohol, dancing and sex.
There is already a term in America for this phenomenon: “shoe tossing”; the guy who does the shoe tossing is called “shoe thrower”. There are a bunch of urban legends on why young Americans want to show their old sneakers to the entire new world. It is believed that this is a sort of rite of passage for adolescents; teenage boys who've just "scored" for the first time — i.e., lost their virginity — are wont to heave an old pair of sneakers over a power line to celebrate the moment and proclaim their conquest to the world. Some others say that the rite is linked to gang sign — sneakers hanging over telephone or electrical wires were to designate gang turf. Depending on what part of America you are from, one shoe from a light post or sign represents the death of a gang member. Judging by what I have experienced till now in my new neighborhood, I don’t feel like being encircled by gangs and pistoleros. There is also the drug theory: usually you see a pair of shoes hanging in the ghetto where everyone does drugs; it means "stop here". But then again the theory of the ghetto doesn’t apply here either, as this is one of the nicest and artistically thriving neighborhoods in Boston. Talking with “shoe throwers” among my students I got a simple explanation: after getting a new pair of sneakers, it is a common ritual to tie the shoelaces of your old pair together and throw them up on power lines and  telephone wires. What else are you going to do with your old pair of sneakers?

So, it is Sunday morning and I'm staring at this pair of shoes, hovering over my head, hanging on black power lines, like two yellow finches, surrendered to their winter-solitude. The comparison with the finches brought suddenly some favorite verses by J. Prevert, from my adolescence, back to my "mature" brain: “Feet are very smart/ 
They take you very far/ When you want to go very far/
And then when you don’t want to leave/
They stay there with you, they keep you company/
And when there is music they dance/
You can’t dance without them/Just be stupid like man is so often/
As stupid as his feet/ and happy as a finch”.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Smoking Shelters

I am sitting on one of the blue shuttle buses going toward Boston airport. I am searching the pages of Europe, travels through the twentieth century, the book of Geert Mak, looking for a precise quote I intend to use in an essay I am writing currently. I find it, finally: “Blood is stronger than any passport” – one of the slogans of the Nazis in the 30s. I take my eyes off the book and start staring out of the bus window. I see a Smoking Shelter across the street, next to the airport. This is the first time I see something similar. It looks like a glass-cage; there is someone smoking there, but he stands out of the cage, out of the smoking shelter. Repeating silently the words “Smoking Shelter”, the words "Fallout Shelter" follow suit in my brain, like an association of ideas. Who knows, one day, smokers would have to buy or rent fallout shelters, in order to be allowed to smoke.

- “Excuse me, are you American?”. A female voice, in her forties, sitting next to me, asks me and takes me out of my shelter-like thoughts.
- “No, I am not” I answer, automatically and rather surprised.
- “You look Italian” she continues, making my surprise even bigger. I sense her Italian accent under her English words. “Italian from South Italy, Sicily or Naple”.

As she says Naple, a city that I love particularly, I start speaking her in Italian.
- “Non sono Italiano, ma parlo benissimo italiano” (“I’m not Italian, but I speak very well Italian”)
The lady stays puzzled.
- “Io sono di Napoli. Tu di dove sei?” that is “I’m from Naple, where you from?” - she asks me, stressing that "you" in singular, a gesture of southern familiarity and indiscreetness at the same time.
I stay suspended for a moment. And then: “I am from Albania and somehow from Greece as well”

We get off at the same terminal. She says something like “you don’t look like an Albanian or Greek”. She insists that I look absolutely from Naple, a Napolitano. Therefore, I understand that she is questioning me, indirectly, whether I am concealing my true origin. I feel amused and awkward at the same time. And then she suddenly says she has to run, because she is late and afraid to loose her Alitalia flight.

I look her running for some seconds, dragging her pink suitcase behind her; then I begin thinking how time after time there is someone, somewhere, who gets so much interested on how I look and where I'm from. In different countries and circumstances I have been defined as: Israeli, Arab, Spanish, Italian, Hungarian Gypsy (I don't know why exactly Hungarian), Turkish, Indian (this was quite recently from a taxi driver in Boston) and a bunch of other nationalities and origins. Actually, I could very well have been all these and even more - especially with a surname like mine that you can find a bit everywhere - East and West, North and South and in all three monotheistic religions. I never look like an Albanian, though. That's my destiny, it seems, to always be the Other.

At that very moment, I am walking inside the building of the airport, close to two airport employees, who are talking to each other, dressed in their orange uniforms; one of them is young and the other is pretty old - the one pushing a wheeled garbage can. Familiar words arrived then to my ears: in Greek this time.
- “Efyga giati peinasa” (“I’m going because I got hungry”) says the young one
- “Mipos eisai egkyos?” (“Are you pregnant perhaps?”) jokes the old guy – the one pushing the garbage can.

I smile listening to this joke; I have heard it ten thousand times in Greek, one hundred thousand times in Albanian; it's a very popular Balkan joke, a manish one usually; hearing it now here in Boston, at the airport, makes me smile. Makes me feel privileged to be able to understand people talking in different languages.

My American students usually don’t know foreign languages. But what incentives do you really have to learn a foreign language if you are born in a super-big and dominant one? You should feel a sense of lack and of missing something, a longing for escape, a longing to cross a border or a wall as an explorer, a bohemian or a refugee, in order to learn and love another language and even more than one.

At the same time, America is a country that has reconciled itself rather successfully with this “fatality of human diversity”, as Benedict Anderson names it. This is the source of strength and richness of this country. If America looses it, it’s gonna loose its soul, its gonna loose itself…