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...

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