Joanna Eleftheriou

 

 

(USA)

 

 

 

THIS WAY BACK

 

I used to see a road sign in Limassol, Cyprus that said on it Πορεία Επαναστροφής (transliterated poreia epanastrofis) and beneath the Greek, WAY BACK in English. The road sign pointed north. Like a one-way sign in most parts of the world, it bore a silver arrow bordered in black. It was positioned on the island of cement and rose laurel that divided the lanes of my city’s shore road. For several years, I passed it on my commute between Asgata village and the language institute where I worked, in the city of Limassol. I puzzled over what the sign might mean. In the direction the arrow pointed, there was only a tiny side street and some small shops, a souvenir shop or an ice cream parlor and perhaps an optician. I wondered, every time I passed it, what the sign indicated a way back TO. By the time I reached my destination I had stopped wondering, and I never bothered to ask anyone about it.

I made a guess. Since the back of the arrow was on the side of the southern shore of the island and the tip of the arrow pointed in the direction of the north of Cyprus, I deduced that it must be a political message. You see, Cyprus is an independent island-nation whose northern part has been occupied by Turkish military forces since 1974. An invasion by Turkey led to a brief war and the partition of Cyprus, with the unrecognized “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” in the north, and the internationally recognized Cypriot Republic in the south. A resolution to the status quo has been attempted by many United Nations officials, but as of 2018, a solution to the Cyprus Problem is still pending.

Thus, while the constitution of the Republic of Cyprus recognizes three official languages, Greek, English and Turkish, the road signs in the unoccupied territory are all in Greek and English. I’m a native speaker of English with pretty good Greek—so good that sometimes, I forget that my mind frequently guesses the meanings of Greek words from their roots and prefixes and the context. The absence of a context for the words on this sign – ΠΟΡΕΊΑ ΕΠΑΝΑΣΤΡΟΦΗΣ / WAY BACK – other than their position on a sign pointing north led me to think the message was political. I deduced such a political intent for this reason: typically in Cyprus, when context seemed to me to be absent, the context was the invasion. For example, when I moved to the island in 1988, I would see the words δεν ξεχνώ,  I don’t forget, everywhere, from school supplies to highway billboards. Before I could wonder too long about what this ghostly “I” refused to forget, I’d understood that the ubiquitous motto refers to the wound of the invasion and the northern territory, which at the time was not accessible at all to Greek Cypriots.

The motto I don’t forget would appear at the bottom of a television screen after commercials, together with mournful patriotic music and  an image of a village or geographical site such as the long Karpass peninsula. The Karpass juts northeast from the elliptical shape of the island, like a finger pointing across the sea and points toward Syria at a point close to the Syrian-Turkish border which, according to Google maps, is called Samra Beach, and lies seventy-six miles across the water from Cyprus).

I don’t forget is featured on the mandatory one-cent postage stamp that fed a fund for 1974 refugees, and on the slim notebooks public school students received for free.  Elsewhere, the motto appeared on images of the island that were manipulated to make the northern half drip blood, or the Karpass peninsula look like the barrel of a gun.

My assumption that the road-sign’s way back was another incarnation of I don’t forget, with the object of the sentence obviously the ever-present and urgent political trauma, seemed to be confirmed by the arrow’s northward direction. After all, the answer to “back where?” whenever people talked about “going back” in toasts and in prayers was always to the occupied north. I heard “next year in the north!” many times and was surprised to hear, later, that “next year in Jerusalem!” was the original wish on Passover and Yom Kippur. I also reasoned that the sign was in both Greek and English in order to make the declaration of defiance intelligible to the tourists who passed by the sign daily on their way to the hotels and beaches of the sandy southern shore. I mentioned my unquestioned assumption in the first essay I ever published. The journal sent me a contract that noted they had employed a fact checker, but naturally, the fact checker couldn’t detect my mistake.

In 2005 I returned to the United States where I was born, and over time, I forgot whether I had seen the sign in Greek or English or both, and I forgot the precise wording of it. My fading memory notwithstanding, I chose the words on the sign – an approximation of them, that is – for the title of my book, a memoir about leaving the United States for Cyprus because my father longed to go back home. The political message in the guise of a street sign felt representative of the political situation in Cyprus. I called my high school best friend in 2014, after I’d been using This Way Back as the working book title on my CV for months, to ask her to photograph it. My friend quickly found the sign, but hesitated to reveal the anticlimactic truth: its wording in Greek was poreia epanastrofis, and so it just meant that by making the (northward) left turn indicated to by the road sign, motorists could easily make their way back to the center of the city. Why such a sign is needed still eludes me, though friends who’ve lived in Limassol all their lives assure me it’s an important sign to have. I did learn, though, that while epistrofi means return, anastrofi is a U-turn, and epanastrofi indicates the retracing of one’s steps—the word specifies not only getting back to the place one used to be, which is a return or epistrofi, but also retracing one’s steps. Readers familiar with words like strophe for stanza, and catastrophe for “an enormous turn for the worse” might recognize the strofi root.

What I learned from this blunder was worth the embarrassment I felt when my friend told me my book title was based on a mistake: I had misinterpreted the sign not only because I learned Greek later in life, but because of  how entirely the trauma of the invasion pervaded not only my own psyche but the psyche of the country. When there is no obvious context, the context is history – and specifically, the moment at which the island was split in two. That trauma gave rise to a rhetoric of suffering and resistance with such power that not one Cypriot who has listened to my story was surprised I made this mistake.

Over the last four years, I’ve revised and changed most of my book manuscript, but the working title remains This Way Back. I kept this title because the mistranslation works as a perfect metonym not only for life in a country with a historical trauma, but also for the life in a second language that I led during my years in Cyprus. Everyone that speaks a second language fluently experiences moments like this, where a slight change in a word makes a difference not perceptible from the context. Just the other day, I realized that for years I had been saying συστήνω (introduce) for recommend, for example, “I don’t introduce allowing me to sing” when I meant “I don’t recommend letting me sing.” I know that a recommendation letter is a “συστατική επιστολή” so I had just assumed that συστήνω meant recommend.

Life in translation means that at any moment, I know I may be saying something foolish, or puzzling, or incorrect. Life in translation means that we bilinguals must accept, always, that we’re missing double entendres when they’re there and at other times, we make a second entendre up when it isn’t. We use words incorrectly and our listeners figure out for us what we actually mean, and we have to live with that, like children. I would like to think this deepens my humility, but I’m not sure. I am only sure that it complicates for me the terrain of communication, even with English speakers, because sometimes my mind accidentally uses a Greek idiom translated awkwardly into English.

While I hope that for Cypriot refugees, there will soon be a way back to their abandoned homes, for bilinguals like me, there is no way back to a simpler time, a time of thinking only in one language. Greek is so much a part of my life now that I am compelled to go back to Cyprus where I struggle to be understood, and I listen to music knowing that I am likely misunderstanding many lines. There’s no way back to being just an American, who gets the jokes and reads road signs correctly. Here I will stay, among the tricky riches of a life in translation.

 

 

 

Dancing Greek 

 

Greek teachers terrified me during my New York childhood, their lessons a tyranny of readings and rules that I never seemed able to master. But the terrors of Greek class paid off and earned me what I call the best job in the world. Every June, I spend a month teaching Greek to the American writers that come to live in Greece, immerse themselves in a new landscape, and practice their craft. I translate the Greek world into English for American travelers, and every other job I’ve held pales in comparison.

We study together on the island of Thasos, a Balkan place with grey stone rooftops and steep pine-covered hills that reach the coast. It lies in the sea, the poet Archilochus wrote, like the backbone of an ass: ηδε δ’ ωστ’ ονου ραχις εστηκενThe quarries of Thasos supplied marble for sculptures that have made their way to the Louvre. Flatbed trucks still carry marble on ferries to the mainland. As we descend from our docked ferry and head to our bus, such a truck waits to get on, a single slab chained to its bed. The gleaming enormity of an unmade sculpture seems like a sign of the unwritten poems that are the island’s promise.

After the first night with our local hosts at the Archondissa tavern, my students come to class not with poems but with an urgent practical question: “How can we hang out here without getting shit-faced every night? They keep refilling our glasses!”

Greek hospitality, I explain, demands that the hosts supply their guests with more than they could possibly need. Not unlike the American South, Greece is a place where hospitality is painfully well choreographed, and one must develop special tactics in order to comply without eating and drinking too much.

“Here’s what you do,” I tell them. “Always leave your glass full for as long as you still feel like partying. Hold onto that same full glass. Even if it is for hours. Don’t drink that wine until you’re ready to go to bed.”

This advice becomes a good entrée into the first of many lessons on untranslatable Greek words. My curriculum for traveling writers includes the “untranslatable” because learning them is like taking a secret shortcut into the culture’s heart. Translations fail because implications and assumptions remain stuck inside the Greek language, ensnared by the sinews of values and norms that a foreigner can spend years struggling to know. Yet attempting translation brings those norms into sharp relief. So I tell the students about philoxenia, love of a xenos, which means foreigner, stranger, and guest. While the context typically indicates whether foreigner, stranger, or guest is implied, the use of one word for all three is itself telling. There’s an unexpected parallel with English here – hospitality shares a root with hostile in the Latin hostis, both enemy and guest. While Greeks might tout their own word, love of a stranger-guest-foreigner as indicating a native generosity and big-heartedness, they would be failing to acknowledge the way hospitality is often wielded as a tool of power. Lavishing food and drink on a stranger isn’t altruism. By feeding a stranger I disarm him, and I place the potentially hostile foreigner in my debt.

And so, I warn my students, when your glasses are refilled without your asking and your hosts insists it’s all on the house, don’t be surprised when you are expected to buy a pricy lunch tomorrow. After this lesson the cultural dance between stranger and local, I ask the students to take out their notebooks, and proceed to the alphabet.

As I sing the alphabet song with my class, I’m still thinking about hospitality, and how I, too, get mixed up in the dance even though I cook almost all my own meals on the hot plate in my room. I recall the way stuff like that used to happen to me when I lived in Cyprus in my twenties, and celebrate my decision to live, for the rest of my life, in America, where so far no one has done me unsolicited favors and then demanded payback.

 

This year, our writing program will overlap with a Greek Dancing class—between the writers and the dancers, every room of the small hotel above the Archondissa tavern is booked. Greeks who left home for Germany in their teens, Bambis and Nikos became car salesmen who moonlight as dance instructors, and they bring a dozen Germans to Thasos every year and teach them to dance. The lessons in Greek folk dancing begin earlier than our writing classes, break for lunch, and resume in the afternoon. Round and round the olive trees of the tavern’s patio the Germans practice their dances. But at night, Bambis and Nikos are off the clock, and they dance for themselves. While the folk dances they teach during the day developed before the nineteenth century, at night the music tends towards rebetiko, or the Greek Blues. When a hasapiko comes on the loudspeaker one night, Bambis, Nikos, and I rise. I put my right hand on Bambis’ left shoulder, while his left-hand rests on my right shoulder, and Nikos is on the other side of him. Bambis taps my shoulder and says είσαι ελεύθερη, literally you’re free.  I freeze. I forget that I’ve been waiting for him to lead the synchronized improvisation of the hasapiko, and believe he is hitting on me.

Free also means unmarried, and I have since I turned twenty often been the subject of pity or wrath for being free. I think that Bambis is about to demand I date him—or, if he is married himself, he plans to admonish me for lacking a husband. Greeks seem to think badgering unmarried women about their status is some kind of moral duty. Because I’ve endured thousands upon thousands of microaggressions about my no-husband life, I can’t ever relate to Greek strangers calmly, or believe that they accept me as one of them.

But that’s not what’s happening now. After more seconds than should have passed Bambis makes a gesture that I understand. He wants me to lead the dance, and by you’re free, he had simply told me I was free to start the dance as soon as the music was right. I tell him I need him to lead, and we step into the dance.

The German students stand around us, watching, since their dance program doesn’t reach as far towards the present as the World War I era that generated the rebetiko or Greek Blues. They may have seen this dance in some of the Greek films that made it onto international screens in the 1960s, like Never on Sunday. Together, Bambis, Nikos and I figure out how to match to the music the various steps in our repertoire: hop-and-twirl-around, bend each knee to the ground, cross one foot over the other, slide on foot towards the other with hands tightly grasping onto the shoulders of the dancing partners.

The night ends with chif te teli (halfway between belly dancing and the freestyle generic bodyshaking that’s a standard response to almost any music). The students, American writers and German dancers alike, shyly approach and begin to move together. Although I take great pleasure in dance, it’s also fraught with anxieties about Greekness and belonging for me—I yearn to pass as native, to perform my Greekness perfectly.

Escape from this inner tension is provided by the students, who aren’t trying to be Greek, but are only moving their bodies to the beat. Their clothes, too, reflect their freedom from my hunger to conform. I like to look at the surprising styles the Germans sport in Greece, a fairly fashion-conscious place, even in out-of-the-way islands like Thasos. A man with tiny glasses and thin-soled black sneakers wears striped pajama-like pants and will wear them again for three nights in a row, until he switches to green pajama-like pants. A sweet, mountain-tall woman with whom I dance a tsif-te-teli has long, red-brown hair and wears startling, brightly sparkling slippers and a long, many-colored skirts.

While dancing with this motley crowd, I experience a different sense of who I am. I am just a person who delights in music, who dances as well as the people around her. It will be short-lived, I know, this feeling of belonging, but it’s a better feeling than I ever expected to have.

Part of this feeling comes from communication with the musicians. The musicians who play for the German dance students are Nikos, on guitar, and Paris, who plays bouzouki and also waits tables at the Archondissa when he isn’t playing music. They know me and the songs that I like from years past, and because of our connection, every time they strum the chords, or I swing my hips, we are making a statement of honor, affection, and respect.

Over the course of the Germans’ stay, musicians even more accomplished than the local Nikos and Paris will be hired, and they will be given rooms at the Archondissa, and I will stay up with the students until sunrise and try to go to sleep as the island sky turns from black to gentle blue. Once the sun has risen behind the pine-covered peninsula in the distance, I can’t get to sleep, and after these two full nights of song, I am red-eyed and dazed, but happy—happy especially that my one responsibility, the teaching of Greek, comes even more naturally to me than sleep. And I do it fine—the students progress, making their way through the alphabet, ordering their food in Greek, and studding their creative work with images of Greece.

Soon, my students ask about the way the musicians and waiters stay long after they’ve stopped being paid and keep on playing music and serving drinks and seem so happy about it, even though it’s 2013 and for years now their country has been ravaged by the austerity measures that are punishment for debt. The answer, this time, is more complicated than philoxenia, but still requires the introduction of untranslatable words. I start with the concept of parea, or a group of people who take pleasure in one another’s company. Parea can, specifically, refer to a group of friends that meets regularly—a posse. In other contexts, you’d say “come to the movies with me – I want company, I want parea.” And then it can just mean the concept of a group, a group combining its energy to produce joy.

You’ll see people pushing each other to drink more, I tell the students, or to dance when they don’t really feel like it, or to play another song, all for the sake of the parea. An individual’s momentary desire is always trumped by the demands of parea.

When I ask the students, during the third week in Greece, what surprises them most about the place, they say it’s how happy the Greeks seem to be to work. The owners, cooks, and waiters start their preparations at nine in the morning, washing down the restaurant, serving breakfast, filling the wood oven with lunch. By daybreak, the fisherman who is the owner’s father has already set his nets. Even the cleaning staff, calloused and sweaty from their labor, set down their brooms and join a dance or three. And they are all still working, deep into the night—setting down their waiters’ trays when they can for a dance with the clientele. They pop the top of a beer bottle and take long, pleasurable draughts on a cigarette and never complain about the work.

There’s something about the relationship of these people through the existence of a whole word that’s not available in English. The boundary between work and play is less starkly defined than it is in America, and I let the students themselves speculate about the origins of an “ethic” that suddenly seems a little masochistic against the backdrop of this staff. Someone points out that the owners have a small house for themselves behind the restaurant, and the rest of the staff sleep in trailers next to that – all summer, no one leaves the site of the job.

I have two objectives when discussing the miracle of a staff that works so hard, so long, and so joyfully. First, I want to guard against dangerous stereotypes of an underclass of people who don’t want the leisure afforded by wealth that a globalized world is concentrating into the hands of a smaller and smaller elite. To romanticize a life, we wouldn’t want for ourselves is to be complicit in the radical injustice that plagues struggling economies like Greece. Second, and conversely, I want to let students see what happens when a language makes possible a word like meraki. It’s one of my favorite words, in any of the languages I know. Meraki is the pleasure that is derived from attentive, caring, passionate labor. It is the joy of expending effort that will bear fruit—whether literally, like tending an orchard, or figuratively, like the results of careful, attentive teaching or a performance that has been meticulously and lovingly rehearsed.  In an article I’ll send to my students, I read that “a meraklis musician is one who skillfully improvises a solo employing both modal knowledge as well as intense passion.” By glorifying the pleasure that is to be found in practicing one’s craft with diligence and passion, the word sort of undermines words like overthink, overwork, obsess—makes them impossible, because within the definition of the word is the notion that a sort of transcendent, spiritual pleasure comes from spending a great deal of time and focused attention on a task.

Spiritual pleasure – the heady ecstasy of total connection with others that happens when a party hits its collective high – is another experience that is in one sense universal, but in another it is distinct in Greek culture because they have a word. It is kefi. There are French, English, Turkish, and Arabic words related to kefi, and they mean things from jouissance to hash. What I suspect may be special about kefi in Greek is how it’s a shared experience. It depends on everyone devoting their full attention to communal joy.

I send the class two recent articles in the Journal of Modern Greek Studies which attempt to articulate in English what kefi is—simply put, it is that spiritual momentum that a gathering takes on, the sense of excitement, transcendence and being outside time. One of them, about dancing in a Greek-Australian community in Adelaide, links kefi to meraki.

The two terms kefi and meraki articulate a particular construction of passion

which simultaneously indexes an ideology of « soul » (of feelings, body, and

mind) and a construction of « community. » Passion in Greek music-making and dancing is constituted as a cathartic experience of the individual symbolically (through music and dance) asserting a strong sense of the self within the collectivity of the community. The externalized expressions kefi and meraki of dancers and musicians are « read » as celebratory signals by participants, and function to generate an event with kefi and much social interaction.

 

Teaching at this June program in Thasos offers me my own chance to exercise meraki – I develop exercises for the students, spend my days looking for opportunities to enrich their experience, and don’t get tired of it because the work itself gives me pleasure. And not because I’m satisfied because I’ve worked—but because the actual work itself is pleasure. For me, it’s healing, too. By articulating the untranslatable words, and having students see their meanings at play in everyday Greek interactions, I heal a sense in myself of being split between two worlds. It’s hard to be both from New York, where early marriage is scorned and individuality is key, and a Greek woman, yearning for tight communal bonds and in love with Greek language, music, and dance.

Since I became bilingual when I was an adolescent, I’ve felt like being stuck because worlds kept me from fully belonging in either American or Greek social situations. I always feel that a big part of my life is tucked inside me and invisible when I operate in English only contexts, and in Greek situations I’m always the American.

But because of this work between worlds that I do in Greece, because of this beloved summer job, I don’t bear this two-world burden alone. Somebody knows—people see me be as both at once. Here, and only here, in Thasos, my betweenness – my very failure to be entirely Greek or American – turns me into a bridge.

A part-time Greek, who translates for Americans, my in-between-ness and my not-quite-ness is not a liability but a necessity. And so, however fleetingly, on this island of dancing, sea spray, olive trees and pines, I dance freely, as if I belong.

 

Work Cited

 

Tsounis, D. “Kefi and Meraki In Rebetika Music Of Adelaide – Cultural Constructions of Passion and Expression and Their Link with the Homeland.” Yearbook for Traditional Music, vol. 27, 1995, pp. 90–103. doi:10.2307/768105.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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BIO

 
Joanna Eleftheriou earned a PhD in English following studies at Cornell University and the Center for Ottoman, Byzantine, & Modern Greek Studies in Birmingham, UK. An Assistant Professor of Literature at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, her poems, essays, and translations appear in journals including Arts and Letters, Poetix, and The Common.

Her current manuscript is This Way Back: Essays from Cyprus.

 

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