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Carry On


Pes mou, the driver said to us at the taxi stand, leaning against his car, all bored and beautiful. I stumbled, as I often do, at this multipurpose, open-ended Greek question, delivered as a gentle imperative, which, to my American ear, is always disarmingly intimate in both tone and content, the soft sibilants and long rounded vowels, always delivered with direct eye contact and a soft diagonal uptick of the chin. Tell me.

Exhausted by grief dreams and exposed by the linguistic vulnerability of a language acquired in adulthood, I feared what I might confess and resorted to English to negotiate the fare from Thessaloniki Airport to the Macedonia Intercity Bus Station, where my mother and I planned to catch a 2:30 p.m. westbound cross-country bus to Kastoriá where we would disembark, and then, somehow, follow the Aliákmon River upstream to the Albanian border high in the Grámmos Mountains. There we would repatriate my father’s remains—traveling with us as contraband in my mother’s carry-on—to my parents’ birthplace. I told the driver all of this, save the part about my father in the suitcase. I also left our village unnamed because we knew it by its Slavic name, which had been changed to a Greek one, despite the village remaining uninhabited since the civil war. The new name had no meaning for us, and I was sure he would not know it by either name regardless.

Our driver’s name was Xarálambos, I learned, when my mother asked, though he invited her to call him by the diminutive—Xáris—as he helped her into the back seat. He was long-limbed and slender, as are many northern Greeks, with a couple days’ growth on his face and his hair cropped close to his scalp. In his wrinkled lavender dress shirt, worn open at the neck, he looked as if he might have pulled his clothes off the floor that morning—in my mind the floor of some pouty stranger—and he hadn’t had the time to put himself together before rushing straight to work. He was maybe five years younger than me, and after he put our bags in the trunk with swift ease—everything except the wheeled carry-on my mother insisted, in Greek, that she’d keep with her—and we settled into our seats, I became very aware that my hair was greasy from the long trip, my ill-fitting clothes stretched out, and unlike my mother, who, after deplaning, had taken the equivalent of a small bath at a sink in the restroom, removing and reapplying her makeup, I hadn’t freshened up at all.

From my place behind the passenger’s seat, I could see Xáris slouching into his door on one hip, a cigarette burning between the first two fingers on his large left hand, which he draped atop the steering wheel. He sped out of the airport onto a highway that wound around undulating mountains close to the sea. I pressed my fingertips deep into the seat to balance, as best I could, against the whip of the vehicle as it weaved its way between the other careening cars and I wondered, again, why driving must be a blood sport here, given that the entire cadre of drivers would inevitably slam their brakes at the same bottlenecks, where even the most reckless among them might find himself a mere car length or two ahead of the more cautious and sometimes even farther behind. Greek mothers say they used to lose their men to war, but now they are lost to concrete.

This was my own mother’s first return to Greece since emigrating as a teenager after surviving the wars and the horror of the paidomázoma—the abduction of 30,000 children from her region, taken after the civil war by retreating communist guerillas for placement in Eastern Bloc countries, in her case Romania. If it caused her any grief or sentimentality, none showed. She nodded off to sleep, swaying this way and that, the red nylon suitcase rocking gently between her legs, which were clad, as they always were, in beige pantyhose. Her stockinged feet, including the reinforced heel and toe, were exposed in her sandals. Her knee-length shiny gold-brocade shift, fantastic for a wedding or a baptism but ridiculous for air travel these days, was hiked up just enough to make room for my father in the suitcase.

I had a strong urge to share a joke with my mother, about never having imagined I’d be in the back of a taxi while Dad bounced around between her knees, and though I knew it would get a laugh out of her, I also knew she would not want me to humiliate poor Xáris with our vulgarity, and, having made it all this way with our stowaway undetected, she wouldn’t want to alert Xáris to the peculiar contents of my mother’s bag. I thought to tell her the joke in Macedonian, another language I learned as an adult and one, unlike Greek, in which I was more fluent than her, given that she’d learned it as a small child before being taken from her village. I resisted for a different reason, though, because to do so would be rude to Xáris, and she would most likely not want him to think we were from “up there,” and thereby judge us to be not Greek enough, maybe even not Greek at all. Macedonia is Greece, went the nationalist slogan, and it was best not to suggest that some Greeks speak the Slavic language Macedonian without understanding whose company one was in. But, the more I thought about it, I realized both our declared final destination and the Slavic remnants, digraphs that most native Greek speakers don’t have, hidden in her Greek, had certainly already revealed her secret.

She hadn’t wanted to come at all. To her the trip was an outrageous ask, an emotional extortion even, from my father. To her one must always look forward and never back, and she had agreed as long as we did not stay longer than one day.

I closed my eyes, inviting visions of Xáris and his pouty stranger into my mind, and I tried to let the vibrations of the tiny car relax me, maybe even provide some pleasure. But the windows were open, and a hot June wind bellowed into the cabin bringing with it the roar of motorcycles splitting lanes on either side of us and the honks of the cars around which they swerved, all of which amplified my sense of chaos and disorientation. I could not relax. My hair whipped my face repeatedly and I had to hold it back with one hand. My mother remained asleep, unmoved. Her head was tipped back, a little drool pooling at the corners of her mouth. Xáris glanced at her in the rearview mirror and smiled.

I was annoyed. I had imagined that after so many decades away, and having left under such traumatic circumstances, she would likely be overcome with emotion upon her return. I had worked it out that I, a Byzantinist who specialized in the history of the Macedonian region, and the patient and loving mother of two well-adjusted adult children, would act as both her guide and emotional support system to this crisis that seemed unlikely to appear. I had nurtured a fantasy that I would take care not to embarrass my mother by flaunting my proficiency—my mastery, if I were to be honest—at navigating her own native culture, and would share it with her instead, give her the gift of the home she had been denied as a child, and that she might be so grateful that she’d finally recognize the value of my many years of study and maybe even thank me. Things did not seem to be moving in that direction. In fact, I had already failed at the one thing she had asked of me before our trip began, and the evidence of that was in the case banging around between her knees.

My mother had asked me to make the arrangements for my father’s repatriation shortly after he died. She was displeased that he had burdened her with this task, that he’d used his deathbed to extract the promise that she should take him back to the village after all this time, especially when he, more than anyone, knew how much she did not want to return. She was even more aggravated that her children, myself included, expected her to honor her promise to return our father to his village, that he would be laid to rest on the same continent as his mother, whom he had not seen since being ripped from her arms at gunpoint in the village as a small boy. And though we’d learned our grandmother had died in Skopje prior to amnesty, never finding her way back to Greece, at least he would be in a place her ghost might be able to find him.

“You are not thinking straight,” my mother told us, in the days that follow death when nobody thinks straight, when everyone feels around in the darkness and tries to understand what strange new planet they now live on. “You are not thinking straight,” she said, “because if we take him there then where will you put me when I die? Do you imagine we won’t be together?” My mother would not be the sort of widow to throw herself into her husband’s grave, certainly, but she was bound to him by duty and affection and it was not possible to imagine one without the other nearby when the time came for her to join him in the sleep of the dead. “You’re nuts,” she said, “if you think you’re going to leave me up there on that mountain with nobody to tend to my grave but ghosts.”

“You’re nuts” is the worst insult my mother slings in English. But, in the end, her devotion to family won.

When my mother asked for my help in making the coming journey as smooth and brief as possible, I said, “Yes, yes, Mother, of course I will help you to do this thing that none of my siblings can do for you.” I was to scout the path for my father, who, tucked into his coffin, would travel from Chicago to Greece on an airplane and then, somehow, across the country, and ultimately to his village, a place accessible only by an old mule path that follows an ancient river, a path rumored to be strewn with an occasional active land mine, remnants of the civil war. Of course, getting him to Greece in the first place was no easy task. After many hours on the “Hellenic Republic—Greece in the USA” website, and thirty-seven consecutive email exchanges between myself and Voúla, a painfully well-informed consular employee in Chicago, I learned that the process required: two copies of the death certificate; two copies of the out-of-state transit permit; two copies of the embalming certificate; two copies of the certificate attesting that the deceased had no communicable diseases in the past six months preceding, nor at the time of, death; a notarized authorization by a family member certifying permission to transport the remains; and a document with the flight number and details. Each of these required an Apostille and translation into Greek. The authenticity of the translator’s signature had to be certified by the consular office. And all of these documents were to be submitted to the consulate in an application for the certificate, to be issued by the Hellenic Republic, that would allow for the transport of human remains. Only then would my father be placed in a hermetically sealed casket, which would then be secured in an air tray or in another wooden box, for his trip home.

My mother found this timeline unacceptable. How was she to plan her life like this? She scoffed at the idea that anything she deemed, in her sole discretion, to be reasonable might be impeded by someone else’s judgment, say that of the FAA or the Hellenic Republic, for example, and what could be more reasonable than honoring your deceased husband’s wishes to be repatriated to his place of birth in a timely fashion? She issued me her own official Certificate of Parental Disappointment, delivered via a look that said I was incapable of navigating any of the troubles she had endured, and that she still loved me just the same in spite of my sheltered incompetence—created by her and my father—though she had hoped my expertise in Byzantine bureaucracy might have proved more useful in this circumstance, because it certainly was not in any other. She then took matters into her own hands and did the unthinkable. She had my father cremated.

My siblings and I condemned my mother’s unilateral decision. The Greek Orthodox Church does not permit cremation. Priests may offer neither funeral rites nor burial in a consecrated cemetery to someone who can’t be bothered to keep himself tidy enough to rise intact, on little to no notice, upon the second coming of Christ without requiring the trouble of tracking down each of his atomic components for reassembly during what, presumably, would already be a frenzied time. My mother had two responses to our objection. First, neither she nor my father believed in any nonsense about God, so the absence of a priest was no concern. We knew this, from birth, and it had made us balk at being forced to attend church and Sunday school during our childhoods. My father laughed at us throughout those years, and told us it was very important to him that we not believe in the one, holy, universal, and apostolic church. Besides, he said, church was where children went to Greek language school and took traditional dancing lessons. And, he insisted, even though we don’t believe in them literally—and look at those priests who have only one or two children themselves, so they’re not fooling anyone—the ancient rituals of orthodoxy are like a time capsule by which we can compare our own progress. When we go to church and see no women behind the altar, we think oh, how stupid these men were to set up their church this way, and we feel good that we are much smarter than them, and we also feel good to know that our descendants, two thousand years from now, will be much smarter than us. So, after his death, literal belief or not, my siblings and I were not convinced that our father would have so easily dismissed ritual funeral ceremonies. We told my mother that he would not have wanted us to miss one of his lessons, perhaps his last. 

My mother listened to us from her seat across the kitchen table, all the while giving us a look that said she doubted her own descendants were headed down a two-thousand-year path toward enlightenment. Regardless, she countered, what priest did we imagine would be available for a burial in their abandoned village at the border? She and I would have to dig the grave with our own hands and a small urn would make easier work of the task than a casket. Somehow, in the dream days after a death, when life is suspended between two worlds, when the impossible has happened, thereby making everything else seem possible, I thought this plan was plausible, that my mother and I would climb a mountain, cross a river when it was at its highest, and dig a small grave in an inaccessible village, where many of the fallen were never buried, where skulls were likely to have decomposed far from their matching skeletons, where my father’s ashes would not be so out of place in a cemetery next to a church that had been burned to the ground. 

Unfortunately, the cremation would not make the repatriation process any easier. All of the same documents, except the ones about communicable diseases and the embalming certificate, which was to be replaced by a certificate of cremation, are required for the repatriation of ashes. My mother looked at me with outright pity when I explained this to her. “We don’t have to do any of that now,” she said. “We will wrap him up and I will take him in my carry-on,” she said, and then said, very slowly, so that I might understand, “We will not announce this at the border.” I shut up and accepted both my failure and her plan. 

I couldn’t even savor the anticipation of a spectacular catastrophe at an international border when her tactic failed because I knew very well that what was unnavigable for the rest of us, she could readily accomplish with a dismissive wave of her hand. I also suspected that she had known all along that this was exactly how it would all go.

And so here we were, in the back seat of the taxi of a beautiful man who was no doubt in the habit of leaving his custom-tailored shirts on the floors of equally beautiful strangers, with me stealing glances at the suitcase between my mother’s legs, whenever I could bear to avert my eyes from their task of keeping the car in contact with the pavement through sheer force of will. The case had been shoved and heaved and dropped through three international airports, and with each new bump in the road, I half-expected the case’s fabric to cough up a puff of gray dust, even though I knew that if there is any job at which a Greek woman of her age, who has spent decades in the West, is prepared to excel, it is to properly wrap and seal anything into an impermeable package. And while it seemed that she would not need my stolid emotional support upon her dramatic return to her country of origin, there was still the matter of displaying my extensive historical knowledge of the region, for her edification. And so when my mother began to stir, I turned my attention to the task of redeeming myself as her guide.

I asked Xáris to take the historic Egnatía Odósthrough the city center to the bus terminal, rather than taking the faster bypass, to get us a look at some sights, if only from the car, thinking I would show off my knowledge to my mother, and truth be told to him too. In the haze of my grief, I hoped that even my father, inside the case, might glean something. Xáris balked at the increased travel time and the traffic we would encounter, and as we argued in English, the noise roused my mother. “Take her where she wishes,” my mother said, “fifteen minutes longer won’t make a difference.” I pushed a ten-euro note over the seat for his trouble. He swatted it away. He turned onto the ancient road, deferring to his elder, conspiring with her, and assuming I spoke no Greek, he said, “Just like an American to think her troubles will be fixed with money.” In Greek, my mother said, “It’s true,” and I didn’t know whether she meant it is true that we think we can or true that we do fix our troubles with money. Probably both. I ignored them, pretending I didn’t understand Greek.

“We are on Egnatia Street,” I started in my academic Greek, thinking, Take that, Xáris, you beautiful man with pouty lovers. “Egnatia Street,” I continued, “is built along the ancient Via Egnatia, the second-century BCE Roman road that connected the Adriatic Sea with Constantinople, through Thessaloniki.” I pulled on the hem of my mother’s skirt to make sure she was listening to me. She was not. We had entered the city, and the long avenue was lined with brutal concrete blocks of seven-story apartment buildings, made human with awnings and planters and laundry and all manner of antennae and satellite dish. My mother took in the city as we sped and stopped, sped and stopped in traffic, but she was looking out the wrong fucking window. Everything good to see would be coming up on my side. I poked her in the shoulder.

“Here,” I said, “are some of the people whose feet have fallen on this Roman road and the ancient path through Thessaloniki that preceded it: Aristotle; his student Alexander the Great, the city itself named for his half sister Thessalonike who was born to a concubine of their father Philip II, King of Macedon; Julius Caesar; St Paul the Apostle who wrote two epistles here; the brothers Cyril and Methodios, born right here in Thessaloniki, who would become apostles to the Slavs and inventors of the Cyrillic alphabet. Mom, did you know that?” I asked, but she was looking at her phone while Xáris muttered into his wireless earbuds, probably arranging another floor on which to put his shirt that night. I tugged on my mother’s elbow again, thinking I sounded like a middle-school student who had memorized an oral report but still unable to stop myself. In fact, I spoke quicker, matching the hyper-lapse experience of Xáris’s driving. I wanted to make sure that the three of them—my mother, my father in the suitcase, and Xáris—had all the necessary background knowledge before we came up on the architectural sights. I grabbed the handgrip at the top of my door to brace against Xáris’s increasingly violent lane changes. The words wobbled in my throat, but I forged ahead, holding the handgrip in one hand and my hair back in the other. “Did you know that after becoming a second seat of the Byzantine empire, second only to Constantinople, the Ottomans sacked the city in 1430 and massacred so much of the population that resettlement programs had to be instituted to keep the city running?” Xáris slammed the breaks at an intersection, and my mother lurched forward over my father’s suitcase, hurtling into the back of Xáris’s seat before slamming back into her own.

“You think about ghosts,” she said to me in English, “and you look past the people right in front of you, alive and suffering.” Xáris grunted and nodded, affirming her assessment of my character. Now she was the one pointing out the window.

It was 2015, the height of the economic crisis, at the brink of a potential Grexit and return to the drachma, and everywhere shops were boarded up, the boards themselves marked up in protest. fuk usa, fuk capitalism, fuk gold was sprayed across a window we passed. Black anarchist circles covered concrete walls and the word oxi was everywhere, in red letters. People of all ages lined up at ATMs to withdraw their daily ration of sixty euros, a small balm to soothe the austerity mandate, the prime minister’s attempt to curb capital flight. Soldiers guarded the shuttered banks. Even pensioners had no access to their own accounts. Outside the closed gate of an Alpha Bank branch, an old woman held her head in total defeat. Other old women sat on the stoops, waiting. Some cried. Everywhere, there were dogs, more resident than stray, not having strayed from anyone or anywhere at all, but there were no open shop thresholds to offer them a place to rest. In a country obsessed with the value and care of its elders, a country where multigenerational living is still the norm, it was new and shocking to see old men, unwashed and drunk, asleep in the squares with the dogs. The old men had become the strays.

“What the Germans failed to do with their military in the war,” Xáris said, “they have completed with their economic policies three-quarters of a century later. They have brought Greece to her knees once again, but this time with an invisible power. Your mother”—he turned his head and spoke to me directly—“fought hard for us, but you people decided to rebuild the enemy, not those who resisted. No mountain guerrillas can save us now.”

My mother blushed. He knew. In one of the few pictures we have from her childhood, she is holding a rifle as tall as herself, engulfed in the enormous uniform of an andárte, staring into the sun setting over a mountain. She had been one of many child soldiers who fought side-by-side with adult men and women in the hills of her native Grámmos, which became the stronghold of Greek Communists who knew the land and were already organized in small, informal units and thus poised to form an impressive resistance after the royal family and its army had fled the occupation. After the war, though, those same fighters, my mother and half of her family among them, went from heroes of the resistance to public enemy overnight, when the so-called great powers demonized the Communists and the nationalist Greek government returned to reclaim power. A second war, a civil war, the first proxy war in the cold war, soon followed. Unfortunately, nobody told the Greeks that Churchill and Stalin had pre-negotiated the outcome on a piece of scratch paper, so they went on to fight one of the bloodiest civil wars of the twentieth century, the nationalists fortified heavily by the USA, and the Communists abandoned by Stalin. 

“I believe it is over for us,” said Xáris in a quiet voice. We didn’t insult him with a specious argument. Much was still to be lost that summer.

The car started moving, finally. The ruins of fourth-century Roman emperor Galerius’s arch and the Rotunda came up on our right, and I tried, god help me, again to tell them all about it, because Greece’s troubles go on as far into the past as one can look, and perhaps as far into the future too, but I had only this one moment to show my mother, tell my father, prove to Xáris, all I had learned about us. If it were possible to die of cringing, I would have died then because I knew what I sounded like, and then I would die again now in the recalling of it, and yet it was going to get worse. “The Rotunda,” I said, “has been a polytheistic temple, a basilica, a mosque whose minaret still stands, a church again, and now a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is the oldest standing Christian church from the Greek-speaking world, or if you ask many Greeks, the oldest Christian church full stop.” My mother shushed me and Xáris even went so far as to turn on the radio. And that did it. 

Perhaps because I was exhausted from the flight, or hungry, or grieving my father, who would have loved all of this had he not been crushed and sealed into a suitcase, who had always wanted to return to Greece but never could because my mother refused, who read all of my papers in graduate school and sent me insightful questions in overly formal emails, I burst out, in English, “I got a fucking Ph.D., for this moment, to be able to show you this now. Right here, right now. It took me seven years,” I told my mother, “and you can’t give me seventeen minutes.” And then I said, “Dad would have loved this.” Fuming, I turned to my window so that my tears wouldn’t be noticed, letting snot run down my face rather than give away my shame with a sniffle. The car crept up to the Platía Aristotélous, in the city center, where a statue of national hero Elefthérios Venizélos looks down across a vast plaza to a statue of Aristotle at the sea, and we were at a full stop again, completely stuck in traffic, neither us nor the hot air moving at all. I stuck my hand out the window and waved at the Turkish baths, the Roman agorá, the crumbling wall of the old city, the red roofs of ´Ano Póli, the only part of the city untouched by the great fire of 1917, and I said, “I wanted to give you all of this.” I sounded like an insulted Roman emperor. My mother and Xáris burst into laughter. I got out of the car and slammed the door.

I only intended to catch my breath while we were stopped. Inside, I saw my mother tap Xáris on the shoulder, saw him lean back. She whispered into his ear and, Jesus Christ, for a second I thought maybe hers might be the next floor his shirt landed on, so tightknit had they become in such a short time. He nodded, he shrugged. She passed him some bills, which must have been USD because she had refused to change any money for the trip. What the fuck is she doing, paying him now, I wondered. I reached for the door but she blocked me and climbed out too. “Here is your messenger bag and phone,” she said, handing them to me.  Then she shut the door and slapped the roof of the taxi, and Xáris drove off before I moved again. I was humiliated. To have shown such desperate need to a stranger, a beautiful stranger at that, was unbearable. When finally the lights changed and his taxi slipped around a corner, I breathed in relief. And that’s when I noticed. There was no red nylon suitcase on the curb. Xáris had left us with our other bags but had driven off with my mother’s carry-on.

I took off to run after Xáris and my father, but my mother grabbed my arm and told me, “Let them go. It is done.” I didn’t understand her meaning in that moment. I could not grasp what would become clear much later, that she had paid Xáris to shuttle my father into the afterlife without us because returning to that village for even one day, and under the implied threat of a reunification with my father there at the time of her own death, was so unthinkable to her that she preferred to part with him forever. She had split the difference between the conflicting lessons she and my father had taught us all these years, his about how important it was to look back and hers about how important it was not to. 

At the time, though, I thought surely Xáris will swing around when he realizes my mother has left her bag behind. Surely, he will find us right here where he left us. We must not go anywhere. We must wait. But, it was hot, midday on a Tuesday, and my mother complained that she was thirsty. Before I could express my concern about my father, she walked to a kiosk to fetch some drinks. Her brown pleather handbag hung from her elbow. I was too stunned at the time to mark how strangely unbothered she was. At the corner, standing among other women, shoppers around her age, holding their goods in worn plastic bags and woven plastic baskets, she was unremarkable. Because in spite of the heat, they too wore beige pantyhose with their sandals. They too had hair that didn’t move. I thought she might slip away and dissolve right into this city of reinforced heels and toes. But she didn’t. She returned with two cold sodas and two cheese pies.

That afternoon, long after the last bus to Kastoriá had departed, we sat on a bench in the shade, at my insistence, staying close to where we last saw Xáris. Even in my distress—and I was out of my mind, though my mother remained unmoved—the square below us was gorgeous and the sea sparkled, and I tried to focus on that but I could not dismiss the fact that the square, normally bustling with shoppers and people enjoying iced coffee, was empty save for the dogs, pigeons, and the long lines at the ATMs. I told my mother I would stand in line to withdraw some cash, and then come back and then she must do the same because we would need it now. We could each withdraw 200 euros, a concession for foreigners, but the bills were in short supply and running out so that when I got to the ATM and made my withdrawal, the woman behind me said the word beets loud enough for me to hear, and it took me a moment to realize that she had called me a bitch for taking out such an amount. Back at the bench, I warned my mother, suggesting that she only withdraw sixty euros like the others, but she declined to stand in line at all. “Why are you taking these people’s money,” she said, “when we have cards to use?”

We waited a long time on the bench, taking turns to find a public restroom—a challenging task, given that so many businesses were boarded up. When shadows grew long, the square began to fill with protesters, all in their oxi shirts, and though the international news will always find a Greek anarchist throwing a Molotov cocktail through a window at a protest, the people gathering were families with children on men’s shoulders and young students in sneakers. There were older men and women among them. Scaffolding and speakers were erected near the waterfront, and large banners condemning the troika unfurled. Within an hour Egnatia Street was full of pedestrians, and all motor traffic was blocked. Xáris would not, could not, return with the red nylon bag. 

When the sun fell over the mountains west of the bay, when it became clear that we had to find a place to eat and sleep for the night, when it was decided that we would make our phone calls and visit police stations, coroners’ offices, and hospitals the next day, though both of us knew that we would do none of these, that we would not wind our way upstream along the Aliákmon River, that we would not go to the village, that we would never see that nylon suitcase again, that my father would ride into eternity in the back of Xáris’s taxi, my mother having taken him as far as she would, when I cried and said, “My god, Mom, I am so sorry,” she took my hand and looked at me, beautiful in the glow of that hour, elegant in her still-pristine gold shift, and said, “Well, Professor, what am I seeing here in your city? Pes mou.” 


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