Essay: “Squid! Afghanistan!” By Elizabeth Boleman-Herring

Excerpted from “Greek Unorthodox: The Best of the Close to Home Column (Selected from The Athenian, Greece’s English Language Monthly, between 1982 and 1990)”

Elizabeth Boleman-Herring

“The day after Thomas arrived for a two-week visit, I lost him en route to a gallery opening. I thought he’d enjoy seeing a show which turned out to consist of oversized photographic prints of naked women in wings and Minotaur masks. It’s the kind of thing one has come to expect in Kolonaki, the area of Athens where I make my home, and I thought it might entertain Thomas, who’s been living in Los Angeles for 15 years. I could see him scribbling postcards home to sophisticated Redondo Beach friends: ‘Athens not so provincial after all: Feathered al fresco anorexics don bull heads in Kolonaki. Wish you were here.’

As it was, I and an English friend led Thomas out of my building into the largest-ever Athenian ‘march on the Albanian embassy.’ One minute, we were trying to explain to him just why all the priests were roaring up the street waving little Greek flags and singing, just who the fellows in the white plastic helmets were, and why they were roughing folks up, and just what the people in the street were demanding and when they were likely to get it (never); the next minute, we got separated, and managed to lose our six-foot-four American Jimmy Stewart lookalike in the throng. Thomas had no idea where he was, no key, no Greek to use on all those much shorter, much better armed men in white plastic, and I, incorrectly, imagined I’d given him a slip of paper with the four-syllable-long gallery name on it.

My English friend and I went on to the vernissage, waited a while for Thomas who was, of course, circling my neighborhood in an advanced state of jet lag, and then doubled back to find him ambling placidly, if dazedly, up and down Deinokratous Street in search of his hostess. ‘Where you been, Buckwheat?’ he asked, amiably. (We Southerners take all sorts of abuse from Yankees, even when we haven’t darkened Dixie for years.) In Thomas’ shoes, I’d have been fuming or long ago taken in for questioning by the riot police. My California houseguest, however, was just hanging out and savoring the strangeness.

Whenever I have guests from America, from home, I’m always amazed at the good-natured way they approach this city which is able, after ten years of softening me up, to drive me bats without even lifting a long-nailed pinkie. For my visitors from the so-called First World, Athens is foreign and quaint and ‘abroad.’ They can cope with its garbage and bank strikes, its whimsically malicious cabbies, its insolent plumbing, its demonstrating priests. I can’t. But I’m beginning to see how a long-term resident might get her or his blessedly-distanced perspective back and start enjoying the place again. It has a lot to do with adopting, or retrieving, a houseguest’s mentality.

Here I was today in the kitchen, for example, trying to teach Thomas rudimentary Greek. He wanted to stop saying, ‘Squid!’ instead of ‘Good Day,’ for example, a lesson we all have to learn. ‘Kali mera, Thomas; not kalimaria.’ He also wanted to get ‘Thank you’ down, for once and for all. This takes a bit longer, but the F. Gary Stowe Method still works. My English friend added, ‘Try saying Afghanistan, and then switch over to F. Gary Stowe.’ Thomas now felt ready to face the city, armed with only a threadbare, and woefully inaccurate ‘Divrys Greek/English Dictionary’ with which I’d maliciously supplied him. (I have an excuse: Thomas has been calling this South Carolinian ‘Buckwheat’ for years. It was my moment for revenge.)

Well, I thought he was going to come back whimpering from smog inhalation with his tail between his legs, ready to head back to Redondo Beach, winged women in Kolonaki notwithstanding. Instead, I myself came back in suffering from cabbie-abuse, garbage-mountainindignation and bank-strike-fear-and-loathing to find Thomas tinkering with Phillips screwdrivers and wrenches in my bathroom. He and Divrys had gone downtown, braved Athinas Street, said ‘Squid!’ to all and sundry, and managed to 1) Locate a store selling toilet seats (he’d noticed mine, pistachio green, unfindable shape—needed replacing); 2) Come up with and install a new shower hose (mine had been broken for months); 3) Purchase an oven thermometer and thus render my oven usable for the first time in two years; and 4) Prepare and have ready baked chicken, rice pilaf, green beans and apple pie, all before 7:00 p.m. ‘F. Gary Stowe, Thomas.’

‘Don’t mention it, Buckwheat. Nice city you have here.’ Who was he kidding? Athens, nice? After all, I’ve lived here for a decade, and havethe psychic scars to prove it. That metropolis out there is a land devoid of people speaking Thomas’ language: ‘Good day,’ and ‘Thank you.’ I’d just come back from the post office, the bank (on strike), a taxi, and the National Tourist Organization (closed due to being located in a bank), and I was exhausted and peevish. But here was this upstart Yankee telling me what a great day he’d had getting all the things done I’ve always said you can’t get done in Athens. He even had a receipt, an accurate one, for the pistachio green toilet seat.

So, Buckwheat’s decided to change her strategy. I’m going to start packing my Divrys again and replace my painfully correct efcharisto with ‘Afghanistan.’ I’m going to amble placidly along the traffic-clogged thoroughfares, imagining I hail from Redondo Beach. I’m going to try to forget I even know why priests might march on Albania or empty cabs refuse to pick up paying, ambulatory customers. I’m going to attempt to become what I once was here, a houseguest: a person from somewhere else who will eventually return there.

This past Christmas I was, in fact, just that. I went to England with friends and stayed in South Yorkshire near a place called Old Denaby. It was an environment as unlike Athens as is imaginable. The climate, both natural and emotional, was one in which the volatile Greek blacks and whites were replaced by more temperate hues of grey. People held doors open for one another and said ‘Excuse me’ when they inadvertently bumped into you. Traffic observed certain consistent laws. Voices were not raised. One was not asked embarrassing personal questions. I could go on and on. As a houseguest, I made rudimentary stabs at learning the language. I mispronounced Salisbury and Marjoribanks, and Featherstonehaugh. Everything seemed pleasant and relaxed. The ambulance strike and the flu epidemic didn’t affect me. I didn’t get the political jokes on TV, and I didn’t get nosebleeds about the poll tax. I enjoyed making the fire and doing the dishes, and was pleased when my hostess marveled that such chores were something I seemed to relish. For me, everything that was typical and dull and commonplace and preternaturally English, and perhaps even annoying in South Yorkshire, was new and pleasant and to be savored because temporary. I was passing through. I was, myself, temporary.

For that matter, aren’t we all temporary, wherever we are?

Thomas is, as I write this, out with some of my friends at the cinema. It’s not going to bother him that no one stands up for him when he wants to get out of his seat and go get a drink. The smoke in the lobby probably won’t give him an allergy attack, either, and he won’t mind the projectionist’s turning on the lights before he’s read the credits. After all, next month he’ll be back in LA. And me? I’ll be here with better plumbing and a new lease on (Athenian) life, flagging down surly cabbies with a tad less ire, and fracturing my Greek so I sound less like a wily native.

Thomas has cottoned on to a fact longtime residents soon forget: In Greece the stranger, the houseguest, is the recipient of hospitality, kindness and tolerance. There are exceptions, but they prove the rule. A foreigner is an ‘honorary child’ exempt from many of the slings and arrows of daily Athenian life. Thomas and Divrys, both possessed of a certain benign ignorance and detachment, can get away with murder here. Even a plumbing supply store holds no menace for them. And I’ve seen this visitor of mine underpay a smiling cabbie—‘Squid! Afghanistan!’—mirabile dictu.

I’m going to give the houseguest ploy a shot this winter. If it doesn’t work, I’m heading back to Old Denaby, where it should take me at least a decade to wear out my welcome.

By Elizabeth Boleman-Herring © Elizabeth Boleman-Herring, 1990. Author Photo: Panorea Galata.