In Search of Home(s), Oldies but Goodies
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In your country’s shoes

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“I have a question for you… Why do all the Greek girls here wear those shoes that could kill cockroaches?”

I was 17, and part of the Greek National Debate Team contingent that competed in the World Schools Debating Championships. I am not sure which is more astounding: that I ever recovered from that level of … coolness, or that to this date, I look back on that experience with the kind of sincere, boundless gratitude that faux teenage coolness could never inspire.

Our team had just managed an upset victory in a debate against Scotland, a country which had for years produced debate powerhouses (Yes, “debate powerhouses.” Ceaseless coolness, I tell you.) When it dawned on us that our team full of vividly gesturing English-as-a-Second-Language debaters just might beat the polished Scots, I remember thinking back to all those subtitled movies about underdogs that Greek TV loved to broadcast on Sunday afternoons: the Jamaican bobsledding team that wins in the Winter Olympics, Herbie the Beetle that beats the much cooler cars. As it turns out, you have no real sense of heroic magnitude at the age of 17.

After the judges congratulated us on our unlikely win, we were standing on a train platform in Stuttgart with the rest of our delirious, shocked team and our coaches, when the question arose from a fellow debater: “Why do all Greek girls wear those shoes that can kill cockroaches?” If you zoomed out, you would have seen my teammate in an enormous coat and black, pointy-toed boots. My coach Eirianna stood next to her in black kitten heels, with a hint of fishnets peeking out from underneath her jeans. My other coach Effie wore an identical pair and Helen, my English teacher, stood next to her in – you guessed it – her own pair of black pointy-toed heels. I was in a white cream suit– my first ever suit, in fact –coupled with a pink pashmina and black suede heels. Our unprecedented good fortune continued through multiple rounds of debating and, when it became apparent that we would reach the quarter-finals, my teammate’s mother got on a plane from Greece to Stuttgart to cheer us on, arriving with a case of champagne and her own pair of black heels. My male teammates had their own lucky dressing rituals before each day’s debate, though, disappointingly for the purposes of this story, they didn’t involve black pointy-toed heels.

“Why do all Greek girls wear those shoes that can kill cockroaches?”

None of us had an answer. Unlike other debate teams, we had neither a uniform nor a dress code. “It’s just what you wear at home” was, I think, the best we could muster.

***

What I learned from Effie and Eirianna and Helen can be summarized as follows:

There is no such thing as “arguing like a girl.”

Notice your voice — its sound, its pace, its impact.

If you have a question–a good question, the kind of question that bubbles up to be asked- do not hold it back. Especially do not hold it back out of shyness.

When you are nervous, you do not breathe. The whole room can hear you not breathing. To this day, Elijah will sometimes point out to me in the middle of an argument that he can hear the absence of a breath.

You can be kind and opinionated. Your opinions, the forcefulness with which you argue them, your desire to be an excellent debater, a compelling speaker, a person who wins the argument needn’t come at the expense of kindness. If you have to be unkind to win an argument, you are probably not being smart enough.

Do not retreat before you finish your sentence. You sometimes let your sentences trail off, as though you are debating apologetically. Lose the question mark, the lilt at the end. End in a period, in a firm step.

When a boy comes to the hotel lobby of the debating competition with a rose, let him talk to you about the PSATs, his love of Napoleon, or how you look like Alicia Silverstone — even if you don’t. Even if you’re an awkward teen too. He might just teach you a thing or two about love.

Also: Iron everything. Wear sunscreen in the winter. Baby blue and forest green go together, even if it looks like they don’t. Wear a pink dress to a debate round, even when you’re scared of being The Girl in a Pink Dress. And, when in doubt, pointy-toed heels.

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***

My sartorial education began long before I joined the debate team. My hometown, Thessaloniki, has a reputation of “I will not even take the trash out in my house clothes.” What are house clothes, you ask? Sweatpants, leggings-that-are-not-pants, pajamas, all of which are acceptable within your own home domain, and not a step outside of it. Relatedly: Are you wearing sneakers? You had best be en route to or from wherever you exercise. That grace period expires approximately half an hour after the sweat has dried. If you cannot wear your house clothes out, surely you can wear your Outside Clothes in the house, no? Trick question! You would never have been able to slip past my mother and get on the bed–or worse, in it– without changing back to house clothes.

The rules continue, and they are arbitrary, strict and generous in stereotyping: “You never wear a skirt and heels in the winter without hose – that’s what Americans do.” In the age before opaque tights and Brooklyn hipsters, thin black tights were the only way to go. Never skin-toned — because whose skin tone do those flesh-colored tights really match? — and never white. Those are for children’s birthday parties. Women’s dress shoes all came with a long pointy toe. The only exception to this rule was if your feet were above a certain size: “above 39, pointy toes makes it look like you are wearing flippers, not shoes!”

***

Translating sartorial expectations is an exercise in puzzled indignation and marvel alike. During my first year of college, I gaped at people in plaid pajamas in our 8 AM class and at friends crawling into bed in their jeans. I have never met a Greek abroad who hasn’t encountered the “oh, what are you dressed up for?” when they leave the house on a random Tuesday. To this date, my freshman year roommate–who remains one of my very closest friends and who has witnessed an array of memorable moments–claims her most striking memory of me back then involves ironing pashminas at my desk.

The welcome packet for Harvard “strongly recommended” the purchase of a warm winter coat. I dutifully pack the ivory peacoat that came with that first debate suit, and the pashminas that went with it. As my first New England fall unfolded, my classmates trotted out their own ‘uniforms’: seas of North Face jackets and Columbia thermal sweaters. After the first snow, the coats got puffier. Our radiator stopped working, prompting my roommate to prepare for bed every night as one would for an expedition to the Arctic: hat, gloves, three pairs of socks. That was the winter when I learned what the “wind chill” is and that, when in doubt, the “feels like…” temperature is the one to note. Weather.com tells you it is 12 degrees Fahrenheit, but feels like 3? Always cite the more dramatic one, even though the scale means nothing to you. When it got so cold that the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales began to converge, we called Campus Facilities once again to fix our radiator. “The cold builds character!,” we were told.

Through that winter, and the four that came after it, I insisted on my own character-building ivory coat. A kind boyfriend tried to convince me of the value of a Practical Jacket and even went so far as to attempt to purchase one for me to no avail. When he said practical, I heard ugly.

I was a migrant. I began understanding Fahrenheit temperatures. I became fluent in the wind chill. I bought flannel sheets and toe warmers to stick in my (pointy-toed) boots. I even bought a single sweatshirt, which I wore to the annual iconic football rivalry (and not a step beyond). But the coat? I couldn’t abandon the ivory coat. It felt as though Greece was watching, and would take note of my leaving her behind.

***

Recounting these memories as a feminist who tries to be conscious of the construction, production, and (dis)approval of particular iterations of femininity, I am dismayed. In fact, many of my recollections of Greece don’t hold up to feminist or class-conscious scrutiny. Why is it that there was an unspoken standard of women’s presentation? Who created it, how, and what role did we as women play in its construction? To what extent was our active deliberation on what to wear itself an act of choice and feminist agency versus a mechanism of oppression and exclusion?

Even then, I knew that debate judges — often older, white men — would approach our coaches and comment on the length of my skirt or the pinkness of my pashmina. I also knew that the same comments, be they playful, derogatory, judgmental, inappropriate, or all of the above, rarely surfaced with regard to my male teammates’ appearance. Girls’ dress is “distracting,” boys’  is, at worst, “disheveled.” I remember the first flash of quiet rage when someone called my speech about capital punishment “cute,” confounding the content with the petite girl in the pink dress from whom it emanated. I remember wanting to be noticed for Not My Dress, but also learning that rendering my dress or appearance invisible was shifting responsibility away from the listener who ought to pay attention and towards myself, perceiving a need to obscure any hint of ‘distracting femininity.’ I didn’t have the words for this then, but I know now that hearing my speech be dubbed ‘cute’ was a formative moment for my budding feminist consciousness. Ultimately, I am sure that narrow and gendered conceptions of femininity guided the rulebook for Girls From Thessaloniki — and yet, I still uphold many of those expectations to this day, an ocean away from home, not out of gendered conformity, but out of nostalgia, out of a memory of what my self looks like and how she came to be.

***

Ten years later. -29 Celsius (yes, with the wind chill). Leggings, and over them pants, for leggings are not pants. My favorite summer T-shirt, which smells like Thessaloniki and the soap in my drawers. Three layers over it. A hat, because Elijah has finally convinced me that “most heat escapes from your head.” A puffy green jacket. And Practical Shoes. My ivory coat still hangs in the closet, with a tiny bar of almond soap in the pocket. This one I learned from my mother: always scent the drawers, and the coats.

As I walk to work, I am amazed that people here had been this warm in weather this cold for this long. I partake in New England winter rituals now. When I look down at my feet, I can’t help but feel that on the day I walked down my stairs in round-toed, brown, functional snow boots, Greece became a little more foreign to me. Or I to it.

4 Comments

  1. You are such a talented writer. I loved how your story unfolded. I also laughed at some similarities between you and me.

    • Roxanne says

      Thank you very much for the lovely words! I’m so glad you enjoyed the essay.

  2. Your story about your outfit for debate team unfolded so beautifully into something deeper. The debate still continues, though: what to wear so that we represent our truest selves while transcending first impressions.

    • Roxanne says

      Thank you, Bespoke Traveler, and yes, indeed — that tension still continues!

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