Most people who know me know that I am obsessed with Greece, and have been since I was a kid. Very few know why, probably because it took me until recently to come up with a decent answer.
I am a pretty typical American mutt. My father was born in the Bronx, in a neighborhood called Pelham Parkway. His father was a Romanian immigrant; his mother was a Polish immigrant. They were both Jewish and spoke Yiddish at home. Yiddish was my father’s first language, and he grew up Jewish. My mother was born in New Jersey. Her father’s background was English, with some Scottish mixed in, and her mother’s background was English, with some Irish and Native American (Iroquois) mixed in. My mother’s father was raised Episcopalian (I think) and my mother’s mother was raised Catholic (I think).
My parents met in the early 1970s and were married in 1975 at the house that they still live in today, a beautiful old farmhouse in rural Virginia. I grew up in that house, with a somewhat idyllic childhood (in retrospect) – we had no television or video games, because my mother thought they rotted the brain, and we read a lot of books and played outside. When I was 8, my parents put in a swimming pool, and we always had croquet and badminton and things like that. My brother learned to ride his bicycle before I did, and our favorite game was for him to ride his bike and for me to chase after him on foot. We did this for hours, and then went in to my mother’s home-grown homemade organic everything.
My mother is a textile artist and organic gardener, which meant that not only did she grow everything we ate, she made everything we wore. My childhood memories fit into seasonal categories: sitting by the fire in our stonewalled living room with my mother spinning wool into yarn on her antique spinning wheel in the winter; sitting at my mom’s feet in her weaving studio (that doubled as the master bedroom) on a thick wool-scented rug while she threaded her looms in early spring; eating lettuce and peas directly off the plants in late spring; watching my mother toil for hours over heirloom tomato plants and finicky hot pepper plants that needed more fussing over than a newborn in early summer; sitting on the deck by the pool pitting cherries with my parents in mid-summer; hanging over my mother in the kitchen as she prepared multicolored salads and fresh barbecue sauces in late summer; jumping in huge piles of leaves on the front yard with our blue merle collie, Silva, in autumn.
My father is now retired, but before that he was a medical school professor, so he was often gone before I got up and came home after I went to bed. On the weekends, he would putter around in his workshop making furniture, or mow the grass, which he was allergic to, inevitably causing himself distress, or, perhaps his favorite, fixing up his old antique cars. My favorite was the 1936 black Chevrolet with running boards. It was a dramatic automobile, but it was highly unreliable.
Neither of my parents traveled, at any point in their lives, beyond the odd weekend in Canada or conference in Puerto Rico. Europe wasn’t on their map: to my father, it was the site of World War II, one of his favorite hobbies. To my mother, it was the site of good recipes, one of hers. But they didn’t ever go there, or show any interest in doing so.
When I was 11, and in sixth grade, my school had a book fair in which donated books were sold. One of the donated books was Gerald Durrell’s book, My Family and Other Animals, bound together with its sequel, Birds, Beasts, and Relatives, which I bought and read. The book absolutely delighted me. It tells the story of ten-year old Gerald, who, together with his family, moved to Corfu in the 1930s for about five years. During that time, young Gerald, an aspiring naturalist who went on to become very important in that field, explored the island’s flora and fauna, and came into contact with the locals. His own family, eccentric and hilarious, formed the basis of most of the stories. The book was so charming that I fell completely in love with Corfu, even though of course I hadn’t been there.
As time went on, I read the book over and over. After three years, at age 14, I decided that I wanted to live in Greece permanently. I would learn Greek, learn a trade of use to Greece, and find a way to make my dream come true. I didn’t waste any time, and in fact used most of my time, energy, and money over the following 14 years in order to make it a reality. I’m pleased to report that I have accomplished a lot of what I set out to do, and am very happy with the path I’m on. I think the 11 year old version of myself would be very pleased with me.