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Hereditary travel neuroses of a Greek childhood


Things I learned in Greece: Never rush your coffee, summer is everything, always chase the dust.

This is my last morning in the United States for some time and I have spent it shaking my head at dust.

Let me explain.

Ever since I was a child, I could never sleep the night before a big journey. “A big journey” then meant a car ride from Thessaloniki to Larissa, 2 hours away, where my father’s family lived. I prepared for those trips for days, lining up all my stuffed animals, deciding which of them get to go on this trip, making packing lists (for them, not me, because the beauty of being six years old was that I could live in a single pair of shorts all summer), writing up itineraries (again for them because, um…), and packing car snacks.

In the summer, my aunt Mina would move from her home in scorching hot Larissa to the seaside town of Platamonas. At least two weeks before my family descended on Platamonas to join aunt Mina, cousin Neni and I would spend hours on the phone exchanging packing lists for our dolls. “Are you bringing the pool or shall I?” “You have a bigger bag, you take the pool, and I’ll bring the outfits,” the conversations went. When our respective mothers were not yelling at us to get off the phone (“do-you-know-how-much-it-costs-per-minute!”), they would shuttle our dolls’ pools and shoes and luggage from my house to Neni’s until my cousin and I could come to some sort of agreement about who is packing what. Over the course of this process, Neni and I would have at least three fights, at least one of which would involve tears and threats not to go on the trip, even though we always knew that she and I and our two dolls both named Artemis would be squeezed into the sweaty back seat of my mother’s 1992 Volkswagen on the way to Platamonas.

In retrospect, the fact that we had dolls that shared the same name and that the name was one of the goddesses of Olympus and that we put that amount of time into making travel itineraries and packing lists for them explains a lot about my later life of wander and neuroses, but at the time, it was just ‘cute.’ [Yet another reason that ‘cute’ should worry us.]

Neni and my litany of preparations for those trips could never match up to my mother’s. First, she would pick out the outfits for the entire family, given that ‘the kids’ were picking outfits for the dolls, not themselves, and my father never successfully dressed himself in his life (despite many unsuccessful efforts to ‘match’, whatever that meant to him.) Then she would meticulously wash the clothes that were obviously already clean because they would not have been allowed entry into the closets otherwise, and then she’d iron each of them, even though Neni and I would proceed to sit and sweat on our shorts within five minutes of getting into the car (and then for the entire summer). Then she’d ask me to pack the bags because she had a unique talent for making them swell like the back of a hippopotamus — and, let’s be serious, all those years of packing Artemis’ toy pool and ten pairs of shoes really taught me a life lesson about how to live out of a suitcase.

And then — then! Then she’d clean every single corner of our already spotless house. It was drilled into me from a young age that there were two prerequisites for trips: (1) We can’t leave until Neni and I have picked at least three fights and (2) We can’t leave until there is not a single speck of dust left. The latter was always a bit of a mystery to me. We swept and mopped and dusted every day of my childhood. We washed the dishes. We shook out the sheets (which mystifies my American friends, but if there are any Mediterraneans reading this, you’ll recognize the ritual of hanging the sheets from the balcony and then hitting them with an object whose name I obviously don’t know in English so you could “tap the dust” out of them). We did the same to the carpets, but luckily, there were no carpets on the floor in the middle of July.

It was explained to me that our house always had to be clean, in case someone decided to stop by without calling, or in case something unexpected happened and we needed to come home with people without having a chance to straighten up. It will surprise nobody, therefore, that when I broke my ankle and foot on a particularly terrible day this year, a panicked Elijah met me in the hospital to ask what I needed and I did not say I needed painkillers, a hug, help learning how to crutch around, help processing the sheer amount of now laughable tragedy that coalesced in one day, or help running one of the dozens of errands that piled up. Instead, I insisted in a very urgent tone that “you need to go home immediately and clean the house – people are coming over!”

Cast in this light, my mother’s insistence that we clean up extra well before trips made even less sense. Who would visit while we’re gone? “We’re cleaning the house for the burglars,” my father would grumble, but he knew better than to disobey the marching orders of mopping. You could say, as I do now as a still neurotic Greek adult in the diaspora, that we’re cleaning for our own return. Who doesn’t love coming back to a clean house? Ahh, though! Every time we came home, a new cleaning spree would commence, consisting of laundry and more ironing and dusting everything again because “you may be on vacation, but dust is not.” Looking back, I now know that we were cleaning for the sake of cleanliness, which was a goal and a character judgment and an aspiration in itself.

Fast forward 20 years to find me alone in Elijah and my attic, treehouse-like apartment on the morning of a transatlantic departure. I had spent the week finishing a journal article and book chapters and watching the World Cup and reading about my new work project and avoiding tornados and not sleeping out of anxiety and travel anticipation alike. And also doing load upon load of pre-trip laundry because you can take the girl out of Greece, but you can’t take Greece out of the girl. On Thursday night, after hours of writing about the politics of victimhood, I found myself in the stroller and baby car seat aisle at Target, which is where this lovely store decided they should also sell their luggage. Every carry-on bag insisted that it has the packing capacity for a “1 to 3-day trip,” and I scoffed, recalling my years of practice in packing my mother’s perfectly ironed summer dresses and both Artemis dolls’ six-changes-of-outfits-a-day.

Six hours before my flight, everything is as ‘done’ as it will be, which is a small miracle given the amount of sleep deprivation, bureaucracy, and mind-devoted-to-victims-not-ironing that this week held in store for me.

Except. Except! I woke up shaking my head at dust.

You see, I didn’t have time to vacuum. There were stray hairs on the bathroom floor, which are invisible to the normal eye, but I see them. I know they are there. Some of the laundry that is not packed in the “1-to-3-day-but-really-18-days-of-carry-on-luggage” was sitting on the couch and I had not put it away. There were dishes in the sink. It did not smell like chlorine in the house. I confronted all this with the same facial expression of shock and judgment that my mother put on when she called me on my first week of college and I reported to her, with joy, that “in America, we (we!) don’t iron the sheets.”

When I was in the shower, half-washing myself and half-inspecting the state of the bathroom around me, I had a few nostalgic realizations. I don’t know where all this fits in the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate, but to me, it is as close as you get to hereditary travel neuroses. My mother set a standard for what a peaceful home looks like, and apparently I’m incapable of peace as long as there is hair on the bathroom floor, however invisible it is to the human eye. This is particularly baffling, considering I have spent a good amount of my working life in the world’s conflict zones, where there is often not a functional bathroom and, if there is, it most certainly is covered in all sorts of things. This prompted the next realization: My mother set a standard for what home looks like – my home. I am much more likely to want to iron the sheets in my attic, treehouse-esque abode than, say, in yours (much to the chagrin of many friends who have jokingly sought to take advantage of my stealth ability to spot invisible hairs), or in West Darfur.

I also realized there was something very instructive about both the gendered division of labor and what constituted work in my household growing up. My father was not a traditional Greek patriarch by most senses and I remember him regularly helping with the cooking and other housework. My mother would self-identify as a feminist, and both of them were committed to raising a feminist daughter. By circumstance and choice alike, and by virtue of the fact that they were both older when they had me, both retired and were able to be at home for much of my childhood. In my father’s case, this meant he could insist that I redo my homework until the handwriting was perfect. In my mother’s case, it often involved chasing dust. The social expectation that our home be clean “in case anyone drops by” and that the sheets be ironed fell on my mother, not my father, highlighting the gendered expectations of femininity, motherhood, and housewifery. When my father left crumbs all over the kitchen, Hansel and Gretel style, he would be promptly reprimanded — but there was still something gendered to having the disciplinarian matriarch safeguard the spotlessness of her kitchen against all odds.

She imbued in me many of the same values and neuroses, but I have faced this mandate with mixed success. On the one hand, the first thing I did when I graduated from crutches to an orthopedic boot that allowed for greater mobility was to to get down on my knees and mop away the rubbery grey marks the crutches had left on our floors. I notice the absence of the smell of Chlorine in the air on the morning of a long journey. On the other hand, the amount and type of labor in my own day looks different… and it crowds out (not without some shame on my end) the chasing of the dust. It takes a small miracle (and, let’s be honest, all of Elijah’s patience and help) to bathe, feed, and clothe myself, without having expectations of culinary wonder, glimmeringly clean bathtubs, or crisp ironed shirts. On some nights, dinner is popcorn and wine and I feel the universe of disapproving mothers I have now acquired in my life shake their heads in unison. On some Sundays, we wake up to piles everywhere. Piles of the books and notes we dumped on the desk when we wearily came home for twenty minutes between meetings, the clothes we dumped by the bed, the life we dumped everywhere, instead of folding, creasing, and putting it away.

Then again, I would be lying if I did not tell you that before one last pre-trip breakfast with my friends and a mandatory trip to the bookstore, I could not resist looking for the Chlorox wipes. Just for a quick wipe, “just the surfaces.” The deep cleaning will have to wait till I am home again. Or maybe this is home. With just a few extra hairs on the floor.

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