I didn’t think of myself as an immigrant when I first arrived in Greece. I wasn’t even planning to stay. It was supposed to be my year of self-indulgence before starting a “real career”. I would finish the play I had begun in graduate school. I would travel to the islands and Italy and France.
But even if I had known I would wind up living here for twenty years and not one, I would still have been a privileged immigrant. The place I had come from had not been visited by war or famine or persecution. I didn’t speak the language, but the one I did speak was understood by most here. I had money. I had skills and education. More importantly, I had a place to go back to.
Of course, I was a foreigner here and almost as clueless about the local culture as the Ethiopians and Filipinos and Kurds with whom I stood in line at the Alien’s Bureau to get my papers processed. But by virtue of my skin color and place of birth, I was one of the “good” foreigners, even when many Greeks consider Americans hopelessly naïve. I was generally treated well, except at the Alien’s Bureau, where I was dealt the same rudeness, condescension and indifference as my counterparts from Asia and Africa were.
There was one other thing I had in common with my fellow immigrants. The only possessions I had were those I arrived with. I had given away my books and most of my clothes before leaving Boston. Living with Mark and Annette I hadn’t needed to have any furniture of my own. Apart from my beloved Motobécaine, which they offered to store until I returned to the States, I actually possessed nothing other than the clothes I had packed with me to come to Greece.
I might have packed differently if I had known I’d be staying the rest of my life. Ahmed and Sultana and Tadeusz knew they’d be staying, and their suitcase was likely better suited for a life of exile than mine. Among the inexplicable objects I carried with me across the Atlantic was an umbrella. What possessed me to bring an umbrella in August to a country that has a word for the rain that breaks the summer drought in late September I don’t know. And of all the umbrellas I could bring, I schlepped a non-retractable one. Admittedly it was elegant, with its wood-tipped ribs, generous slate gray fabric and an ash-blond wooden handle. But it was too big to fit in my suitcase and I had to carry on board. If I had know what awaited me in Athens—apart from the lack of rain—I would have left it in Boston and brought something more practical with me.
No one had told me before that when you rent an apartment in Athens, you get basically just the physical space. No refrigerator, no stove. Not a single piece of furniture. Just the space.
I rented a tiny basement studio flat in an area of town frequented by students and the lower intellectuals. The flat was basically a room that served as both bedroom and living room, plus a small kitchen and bathroom. The place was dark, even at noon. Only the top quarter of the single window looked out on to the street; the rest faced a very narrow window well. Now I wouldn’t be able to stay there for more than a day or two but back then I was so happy to finally get out of the cheap hotel I was staying at that it seemed the perfect place to finish my play (not without justification, since there was very little I could do in the place other than sleep, read and write). And the landlady was nice. She took a liking to me and arranged for her brother to deliver a cot to the place.
Apart from my clothes and toiletries, the cot and my umbrella were the only possessions I had. The next day I bought some cheap sheets, a blanket, a couple of pots and pans, and a hotplate. A few weeks later I got a small desk and a pair of chairs. I was set.
Living so sparely had its disadvantages, but I suppose I saw it all as an adventure of sorts and it didn’t bother me much. I couldn’t entertain the few friends I was making, but they had much nicer places and would invite me over for dinner. The owner of the language school I worked for took me under her wing, and I’d go to her place in the early afternoon for a Greek lesson followed by some of her amazing cooking. I think she was eager for the company. Her husband was in jail at that time for embezzlement.
At home I accommodated. I bought powdered milk for my breakfast cereal. I cooked things like omelets and tuna stir fries and canned bean salads that I didn’t need a refrigerator for. But mostly I ate out in tavernas, which is where I met Matthew. I sometimes think that if I had been living in a nicer place he wouldn’t have asked me to move in with him so soon. We would have waited, and then he might not have ever asked me to move in with him. And like the privileged immigrant I was, I would have returned to the States.
I still have the umbrella twenty years later. Considering how easy it is to lose an umbrella, this is remarkable. I’ve lost more than a dozen umbrellas over the decades but this one is still with me. Part of the reason why, I suppose, is that’s so conspicuous. I would start to leave a restaurant or the movie theater without it and someone would inevitably cry out, “hey, you forgot your umbrella!” But the real reason is that I just stopped using it after a while. It was too big—when I stood it erect on the floor it reached up to my hip—and utterly inconvenient for travelling. The fashion statement it made was anachronistic and, yes, somehow very foreign.
I keep it in an umbrella stand on the landing outside my flat. It’s been used once in the last ten years, when a sudden autumn storm broke when Nikolas was about to set off for home after supper at my place.
The umbrella, along with the overcoat I’m not parting with, is the only thing left from the stuff I carried with me from the States. It’s a relic from a bygone culture. The firm that made my umbrella has gone out of business; American Umbrella Company now refers to an Ohio roofing and siding firm run by an Air Force vet. I don’t know what happened to the bike; I think Mark donated it for a church fund-raising garage sale. It, too, was a relic of a dying tribe. Motobécaine was bought by Yamaha, which didn’t continue the bike line of business (the Motobecane bikes sold in the US under the French company’s old logo are Taiwanese). Even Mark and Annette are gone from Boston. Sadly, Mark died last year. Annette moved to Rhode Island with her new boyfriend. My umbrella is a symbol of my life in Boston but a reminder of transience and mortality, an emblem of loss. It is among the saddest objects I own.
Ever more frequently I notice immigrants, mostly South Asian, wheeling shopping carts around my neighborhood, stopping at dumpsters to pick through the garbage and retrieve pieces of wood and scrap metal and, if they’re lucky, an old appliance or gadget. Considering how little Greeks recycle their waste, the immigrants can actually eke out a living out of this trade. In the evening I bring down my vintage, non-collapsible umbrella and set it beside the dumpster. The next morning when I set off for work, it’s gone.