“Achileas’ yearly celebration of a country he would never see again was so deeply felt, as young as I was, it made an imprint. Did he know he’d never see his beloved Aegean, again? A pang of sadness for him led me to whisper, ‘See it through my eyes, Pappou. Touch it through my fingers.’”—Helen Noakes
By Helen Noakes
“Compassionately, tranquilly, I squeeze a clod of Cretan soil in my palm. I have kept this soil with me always, during all my wanderings, pressing it in my palm at times of great anguish and receiving strength, great strength, as though from pressing the hand of a dearly loved friend.” Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco, translated from the Greek by P. A. Bien
SAN FRANCISCO California—(Weekly Hubris)—7/4/2016—Gazing at the foamy white wake of the Samothrace, the briny scent of sea stinging my nostrils, the bright sun warming my shoulders, wind ruffling my hair, I felt a deep love for this country. It was a strangely familiar feeling, unwavering and fierce.
On the flagpole extended over the water, the Greek flag snapped and waved, and I instantly felt a welling of pride. The Greek national anthem surged into my memory, rendered in the booming choral tones of a scratchy recording my grandfather, Achileas, played every March 25th, Greek Independence Day.
The image of him standing over the record player, singing along, tears glittering in his eyes, erased any question I might have had as to why I, who was seeing Greece for the first time, would feel such love for this land.
“Απ’ τα κόκκαλα βγαλμένη Των Ελλήνων τα ιερά . . . . From the sacred bones of ancient Greeks . . . .” Our national anthem, “A Hymn to Liberty,” acknowledges liberty’s price in blood. Yes. There was a price, always a price.
Achileas’ yearly celebration of a country he would never see again was so deeply felt, as young as I was, it made an imprint. Did he know he’d never see his beloved Aegean, again? A pang of sadness for him led me to whisper, “See it through my eyes, Pappou. Touch it through my fingers.”
My grandmother’s more cerebral love of her patritha, her fatherland, gave me my native language, its myths and poetry, its art. And my father gave me its music, its dance.
I smiled, thinking of my father dancing, a sirtaki, a hasapiko. He was a good dancer, my grey-eyed father. Grey-eyed, like Athena, and very much like her in temperament, it occurred to me. There was a sweetness to these memories, a nostalgia. In seeing that, I also saw there was more than my family’s love of a far-away homeland in my feelings towards it. My love for its land and sea, its myths and language was imprinted in my body and mind, an inherited trait, in my DNA.
The above is an entry in my journal, dated July 1, 1979, as I was making my way to Thira, or Santorini, if you will. I prefer the Greek name.
It was my first voyage to Greece and a time of great personal discovery, great upheaval. Although I was beginning to get intimations of its effects, I did not yet know that this fateful journey would alter the trajectory of my life.
A child of the diaspora, I never quite felt I belonged anywhere, until I arrived in Athens those many years ago. It was a shock, this feeling. For Athens, its chaotic traffic, its smog, its mad taxi drivers, was not at all the Athens of my grandparents’ memories. But then . . . but then . . . as our driver careened around a corner, I saw it. The Parthenon! And I was struck by awe and a love so profound it brought me to tears.
Eight years I lived within sight of the Acropolis. And love, as all love must, often turned to fury, impatience, sadness. But love it remained, in all its madness. I was embraced by some, rejected by others but, in the end, it didn’t matter.
In the end, it was my sense of Greekness (I know it’s not a word, but I’m keeping it) was all that signified. In the end, I had an unwavering sense of myself.
In the end, our homeland is that abiding knowledge of who we are at our core.
In that core I hold a handful of Greek soil.