A woman is dropping her young daughters off at the port. She stops them halfway up the steps of the boat to plant a loud kiss on their cheeks. “You look like sisters!,” the captain tells her, gesturing to the girls. Greek flattery tastes like the perfume of the first boy you loved — you recognize the scent instantly and you find yourself missing it for a split second, even if the love itself tasted bitter. “Take care of my girls,” the woman says to the captain. A man helps the girls with the luggage — “only because you are so pretty.” “You’re pretty too,” he tells me. When I don’t respond, he turns to another crew member and says, “Ξένη είναι.” She’s foreign.
I balk at my own foreignness. I didn’t clap when the plane landed. When my luggage didn’t show up, I stood a few meters from the claim desk, anticipating order, hesitant to mob it. When an American man (you always know who the Americans are) starts yelling at the employee that “this” “would never happen in America,” I feel instantly Greeker. Willfully so. And when I finally approach the desk and the employee tells me that she’s not sure where my stuff is or when it will resurface or what I can do, I treat it as my national duty to forgive the chaos. Maybe it comes with the affection and the warmth. As I walk to the taxi line, I wonder how many of the everyday miseries of life in my homeland were born out of our affectionate forgiveness of chaos.
When I say καλησπέρα, the taxi driver registers his own surprise at my Greek voice. It catches me by surprise too. It comes from a different place within me than my English words do. Once the driver registers me as Greek, we partake in the familiar choreography: where you grew up, what school you went to, how you likely share a second cousin. “You’re fancy out there in America.” I don’t argue; it is a lesson in both the relativity of privilege and in the invisibility of losses.
“How did your dad let such a girl leave the country?!” I tell him the story of how my father insisted that I dream of a life outside of Greece, even when such a dream was premature and incongruent. This is a story of urging, not of permission. The driver tells me about his children: a 9-year-old who wants to be a police officer and a 13-year-old who wants to play ping pong in the Olympics. “She’s quite good, you know!”
As we zoom from the Athens airport to the port, the city is denser than I remember it. It had always been denser than I recall, I suspect. My memory did the filtering.
The driver asks what brought me here and I briefly mention my work with refugees. I can feel myself rushing through it. “I don’t suppose you’re one of those… what do you call them — ‘solidarity people’, are you? Do you want this country to be overrun by Muslims who oppress us?”
I recognize this moment: it marks the choice between nodding and willing the drive to end, or assembling the harsh consonants to point out the true direction of oppression. My Greek words fail me. “They are fleeing war,” is all I can muster.
“Listen, I don’t want you to think I’m a neo-Nazi or something. I’m just a patriot,” he offers. I say very little, but notice the ‘just’ that normalizes all sins. A week prior, I was sitting in an ethnography workshop, discussing whether these affective responses — the nod, the non-committal empathetic mmmm — are a tacit signal of approval when others spew hate. Can you nod when interviewing a war criminal? A racist? When is the “right time” to engage in “the right way?” Thirty hours of travel across continents later, I have forgotten what the answer would look like without the quotes. In my own passive silences, I see a shameful endorsement.
“So, don’t tell me you Americans over there will elect a WOMAN for president.”
I hesitate in narrating this story. I suffer from my own type of nostalgia washing over everything: I want Greeks to be my hospitable, kind Greeks. The Greeks who change the ticket for the boat you missed for free because they know it wasn’t your fault and you’re human and they’re human too, and they wouldn’t make you fight with an automated answering machine yelling “Representative!” to yourself until you can find a live person to book your ticket. My heart knows there is no such thing as “the Greeks”, that it would be its own kind of single story that flattens textures and inequalities and humanity. And yet I feel I ought to be an ambassador for my homeland, which inspires a protectiveness and hesitation: if I’m going to tell stories about it, I should at least paint a fresh coat of something over the misogyny.
Can you be an ambassador for a place and showcase its kind beauty without denying its fraughtness?
“So, don’t tell me you Americans will elect a WOMAN for president.”
There are plenty of Americans, too, who think it’s absurd that a woman might just be capable of being president. We have a way of other-izing sexism. When I explain that I work on gender and violence in war, it is often met with “it’s awful what they do to people over there.” Ambiguity lingers over the they and the there.
“Ehhh! Hillary girl! I can see it on your face,” the taxi driver says. I think of all the violence that has been justified in the name of seeing politics on people’s faces. I wish for words. None of them come in Greek. All my fighting words are those of other tongues. I have fought all my battles elsewhere; it is elsewhere that I have learned how to fight. The word “patriarchy” is a Greek word, from the root for a ruling father. And yet when I utter it in Greek, it feels clumsy in my mouth, foreign to the context.
Three weeks after I exit this taxi, I will be sitting at a bar by a fountain near one of Athens’ main avenues. A Greek man will ask me if I really do think misogyny–another Greek word –is still a problem in Greece. Somehow, I will be at home in my life again: the type of home that you recognize because here you are, on a Saturday evening, discussing misogyny with wine. That night, I will find the words. Subject-verb-object. I will forgive myself for mismatching the tenses, and for translating into my mother tongue from an adopted stepmother of a language.
Naming ghosts of patriarchy and misogyny is a feminist project to which I have committed my life with little hesitation or regard for propriety (ever the fear raised to caution people away from uttering powerful words). Except, somewhere along the way, I became more comfortable exporting this project to other domains rather than finding the words for it in my homeland. The same can be said for tolerating all other manners of abuse–racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, xenophobia–for which the words felt foreign or the battles felt like they were someone else’s to fight. Is that not a form of complicity in oppression, disguised under the banner of foreignness?
Perhaps we can train tongues to embrace the clumsiness. Perhaps patriarchy becomes less strange to the ear the more we utter it. Like ghosts, inequalities need to be named if they are ever to be dispelled.
I rode back to the airport a few weeks later, this time traveling from Athens, Greece to Bogotá, Colombia. The driver wished me καλή επιστροφή — a safe and good return. He assumed Greece to be my home, the place to return to. Perhaps a few weeks of finding the words helped me shed some layers of foreignness. By the time I left, I was more legible as a Greek. I am under no illusion that the naming, of patriarchy or xenophobia, is enough by itself. I know that the politics of sight and speech, the acts of rendering visible and of uttering, can themselves be fraught. But I also know that my notion of citizenship in this world–a feminist, immigrant notion of citizenship–requires that I not let the words become elusive. That I find those chipping away at the patriarchy and xenophobia in my native tongue, and that I let them teach me how to string sentences together again. That I learn how to say “entitlement” in Greek. That I be more honest about the false and convenient divisions I have created within myself about where my work lives, where I am from, and where my life’s chosen battles take place. And that I return to fight them.