Athens or belonging to a place

“I’m going home.”

For a split second he looks at me confused. Then teasingly, “What do you mean home?”

To be honest, that's a question I've frequently asked myself. I have no answer, so I don’t respond.

Another day is drawing to a close. The pink streaks radiating from the yolk mix with fluffy clouds. The light illuminates the people and the cars in a glow reminiscent of dreamlands. As I weave through it all, I’m looking and not looking and lost in thought again. From his surprise, something had clicked for my new friend who up until now had spent the day enchanted by the idea of long term travel. Obviously, I do not live here. I’m returning to the home of a young Athenian single mother whose couch I’ve slept soundly on for nearly two weeks. Somewhere in the freedom of being solo, the endless possibility in having no itinerary, the ever constant meet and greets, there could be some serious homelessness that leads one to knowingly call any place with a roof home. Returning to a new place has become so natural, the secret ingredient being time. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll end up growing from all of this or if I’ll lose myself along the way. 

These days I’ve embraced my city slicking alter ego. I know, because I finally bowed to fate and bought a nice jacket for myself after weeks of borrowing from generous hosts in every new city. Still, I hold on to the idea that settling in doesn’t mean I’ve traded the wide open spaces, the shear edges and the never ending curves of earth, for concrete jungles. Integrating into the activities of the residents seems to help diversify my days from typical big city travel itineraries.

Somehow I get by with two non English words, yassas (hello and goodbye) and yamas (cheers), but I can navigate the subway, not get lost in the streets, and sound out words on menus written in what I had only known prior as math class variables. I even find myself giving directions to museums to out of town Greeks and fare dodging on public transportation like the rest of the locals. I’ve sat for hours on end in crowded coffee shops, tavernas, and local cheap food establishments (here it’s souvlaki/gyro/or falafel) just people watching. If the Greek pastime wasn’t sitting at cafes and lazily sipping freddo and chain smoking, all my observing would be just plain creepy.

However, being able to navigate and adapt doesn’t fill the gaps made by transiency. Cities have a way of reminding me that I’m foreign. Maybe it’s standing alone amongst or being an ephemeral part of all the families and groups of old friends out enjoying the town. Maybe it’s the added cheer of loved ones returning home that are the hallmark of the holiday season.

Here, the Christmas spirit has taken over. The streets are overcrowded with people doing last minute shopping and scarfing down dirty gyros, tzatziki sauce dripping, on route to the next activity. The Christmas villages play holiday classics mixed with club techno and dubstep through loudspeakers. Kids run along asking for money, often unable to hide their greed, in exchange for kalanda (carols). Christmas boats (the Greek equivalent to the tree) float in little bakery windows alongside melomakarono (sweet oblong cookies filled with honey and nuts). At the start of the long nights, midnight to be exact, everyone packs into coffee shops. Then, loud chatter flows out of tavernas where people sway and drink ouzo to the sound of the bouzouki. Whole streets are draped in mesmerizing lights. A fantastic energy brings merry laughter to rosy faces. It’s a cheer I can’t escape. I enjoy it, though it comes with a bittersweet recollection of distant and past people that are mine and not here.

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Later, I learn of a Christmas Eve dinner event affectionately named “for the alone and motherless,” travelers and Greeks who are not with their families or friends in other places. Considering how packed the restaurants are, it seems like Christmas Eve here is a night spent out with friends. We, maybe 13, stick out and take up a long table in the middle but against the wall. No one knows each other, so it’s the formalities of asking questions in between bites of meat on skewers or spoonfuls of soup.

This international group, diverse in age, is not shy in sharing their opinions. In fact, it’s a characteristic of most people I have met in Greece so far. No doubt it's because of the setting made in the shadow of the crisis leaving many Greeks still unemployed, the added pressures of hundreds of thousands of refugees, and the anarchist graffiti desperately trying to cover every inch of space in the streets as if hoping that doing so would balance out the fascists. The conversation quickly bounces from the advancement of America under Trump, to whether Palestine is a legitimate place, to the global resurgence of Nazis. The opposites of each argument are represented, and so the topics linger for too long. Crossing into the realms of words ending in ‘ism’ has most in a tailspin of emotions that ultimately leaves us paralyzed. The only short term solution is to toast our differences aside and appreciate what we have. It is turbulence reminiscent of holiday meals across the pond.

So about the question. I’m lucky to so frequently come upon new homes and be welcomed. It’s a luxury that stands in stark contrast to the many refugees, regardless of cause and misnomers, whose travel is entirely different from mine. To belong to a place requires one to be understood and accepted by its residents as human. Something too often rescinded, if ever even extended, and the price of human dignity too high making it next to impossible to reclaim.

Home is more than one constant place through time. But rather, places where the mind can find a sense of belonging from a collection of memories of past homes, of present ideals, and hopes of comforts that follow into the future. Our experiences shape our truths. Everywhere I've been will follow me everywhere I go in some big or small way. Therefore, homes may be scattered in time and space, but they are always close. For me, knowing this is comforting when the direction of next steps remains unknown.