This is the story my father loves to tell: on the journey from North America to Athens, the sky grew dark, the winds howled and the sky opened. While our ocean liner pitched back and forth, I slept peacefully, tucked inside the metal ship’s crib, rocked by the sea. Thalassa. I didn’t know this word yet. Nor did I know that this storm would precede another. The winds raged and the Sirens called to me. They sang a song about the land that would become my home – a sweet melody. You will love your home always, they sang. As the storm wore on, passengers ran to the rails, hands wrapped around middles, faces pale. “Everyone was miserable,” my father says, “but not you. You loved it.”
When we arrived in Athens, Anna came to live with us. She arrived from her small village in the Peloponnesus and immediately hung a mati over my bed. A bright circle of blue glass, as round as a fish eye. She believed like many Greeks still do, that the evil eye would guard me against jealous looks, against those who wanted to rob me of my good luck in this world. Bad luck would soon befall many. Once the second storm began, those who spoke against it would land inside secret downtown prisons or on tiny, barren islands. Mavri Periodi, they called it. But this had not happened yet; I knew nothing about such darkness. To me, Greece was full of light and safety. Potted pink geraniums lined the wide front porch of our house. Rose gardens and a small fish pond filled the front yard, while fig and plum trees bordered the sides. I spent my days beneath the fig trees, listening to the wind rustle leaves overhead. Leaves as rough as sand paper. As wide as a giant’s hand. No darkness could touch me. I had Anna’s mati and I was protected.
Several times a week, Anna took me to the laiki. Every manner of bright and shiny item stood stacked, laid out or hung inside its stalls. Red coffee decanters sat beside stacks of pink plastic sandals. Plump, speckled pigeons sat motionless inside small wire cages and wooden barrels overflowed with every kind of dry good – lentils, fava beans, tiny macaronis for soup. Produce merchants hawked the juiciest tomatoes, the cheapest onions. When a merchant handed Anna a bag of ripe tomatoes or a bunch of oregano, he looked down at me and asked, “Is this little one yours?”
“No,” Anna replied, “but she is like my own.”
Wandering among the crowds was a man with a red painted organ strapped to his middle and a monkey perched on his shoulder. Each time he turned the crank, a song chimed and the monkey did flips. People paused to give the man coins. I clapped whenever the monkey did flips, but when he leapt out from behind the man’s shoulder and bared his dirty yellow teeth I ducked behind Anna’s skirt.
Every trip to the laiki took us past the yia-yia. She sat inside a forgotten and dusty doorway, shrouded in mourning clothes. Each time I glimpsed the grandmother’s face, I saw tired, sad eyes. It was a tiny glimpse into the emotion of the other Greece, the one I had little contact with. The life of hardship and suffering. In her lap lay a small wooden box. She opened the lid and pushed it toward me. “Parakalo.” Her dry voice called. Anna pressed a drachma into my palm and so I dropped it into the box, listening to it ring inside the empty space.
When Anna was busy with chores, she gave me a book of Greek nursery rhymes and sent me into the garden. On the stone bench, my dark hair pinned under a plastic head band, I opened the book and squinted at the page. Each letter was like a small puzzle. Day after day, I studied the looping shapes of the Greek alphabet. Zita was a bird on a branch. Lambda, an old man leaning on a stick. I saw how each letter combined with the next. Finally one day a sentence surfaced. I rushed into the shaded house and found Anna downstairs, folding laundry in the coolness of the small basement room that was hers. She set aside her basket and took me onto her lap.“What is it, my girl?” I read the simple sentence. “O skilos gavgizy!” The dog is barking! Anna embraced me. Her approval shimmered inside the enclosed space. “Bravo!” She exclaimed. “You are a real Greek girl now!” Sitting in Anna’s lap was like being in the arms of Greece.