One day in 2000 I was in Athens, Greece, watching a very young, lovely-looking couple on CNN International. The tv was on mute and all I could read was the caption “Dem Junior Senator Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle Obama”. They were both stunningly young, radiantly connected to each other, emanating a quality of emotion and intellect that spoke to another dimension. I was stunned—after years of being a political journalist, of coming to know politicians intimately, cynicism was a reflex—this couple looked like real people. Really in love. Really wanting to change the world. And they survived a senatorial campaign and made it through, idealism intact? This was nothing short of a miracle. I amped up the TV’s volume, and listened to the junior senator’s interview. It was an epiphany. After that I knew: if this man ever managed to become President of the US, he could change America, and the world.
Days turned into months, then years, as they are prone to when you are still young enough to feel limitless.
The world changed. My homeland, Greece, went into devolution.
At an age of settling-down and having babies, I abandoned all I knew and with astonishing equanimity and poise borne of ignorance and naivete, came to New York, telling myself and everyone else, the timeless immigrant tale: it’s just for a bit; I’ll be back.
As I fell deeper and deeper in love with America, my need to stay here and become part of it, grew and intensified. I thought of only this as I worked, walked endlessly through the night, wrote, cooked. I was entirely alone and the silence in me and around me allowed me to slowly understand of that living breathing creature that I came to know as my America: not so much a mosaic or tapestry like they call it, but a living breathing unity of so many different and multiple parts, even if sometimes jarring with one another. And you could either love and relinquish yourself to it, not so much a reduction, as an addition and evolution, like turning into a butterfly…or hate it—like ISIS does, like isolated haters like the Tsarnaevs or Dylan Roof do, because they cannot understand, let alone love, what they cannot contaminate.
As my love affair with America evolved and deepened, so did my knowledge of it. Every night I spent countless hours poring over books and sites chronicling its history, literature, zeitgeists. Its victories, problems, dreams. Yet as much as I loved it, it still felt wondrously foreign to me. I realised that assimilation is not an exclusively cerebral and pragmatic process.
So I tried to feel like an American. For a long time I didn’t “get it”. One day, I read a piece in the NYTimes about the parents of the 250 students and 11 teachers who died in the Sewol Ferry disaster. “‘Acceptance’ and ‘healing’ are not in our vocabulary” one parent said” trying to explain why they could not “move on” from the tragedy. That’s when I realised what my problem was. I had been lost in translation. The vocabulary of American emotion and thought hinges on movement, evolution. Whereas I come from Greece, a place where the quality and intensity of light is so blinding that if you are not careful, common sense can become subsumed in a haze of shallowness that only an ancient people are capable of. Words are just words. They do not need to conjure worlds; the worlds of Homer, Pythagoras, Dionysos, Sophocles, Plato, Thucydides are so effortlessly and powerfully alive in Greece, they stifle any other words, turning them into wordiness.
Things are different here in the US. Style is substance. Intelligence honed by velocity can generate genius yet lack heft. Emotions can be intense but transient.
“GIVE ME A CHIA SMOOTHIE!” becomes a matter of life and death—and not just for the characters Lena Dunham portrays. Even dogs here become unsettlingly intense when parted even for moments from their “companions”. Two days ago a tall, WASP-y man, in his late thirties, with a nervous tic in his right eye and an overall Sheldon ("Big Bang Theory") manical nerd demeanor to him, passed by me walking his dog. The dog sniffed me. I patted him, asking the man his dog's name. He reluctantly answered (“Jeddi”) staring suspiciously at me as if relinquishing a social security number to a stranger. We parted ways.
This vignette would not have become a homily on intensity had the dog not subsequently escaped his leash and followed me to the subway. The man freaked out, accusing me of showing too much affection to his dog and "spoiling him”. I retorted: "Who am I? The Pied Piper of Dogs?” A minor kerfuffle ensued. A Bagladeshi outdoor vendor intervened to save my honor (the vendor adores me; as a vegan and too broke to buy from supermarkets, I’m his best client), the dog barked and flounced his tail jubilantly. It all ended unexpectedly well. I suppose it’s better that way: we all love dogs easily because we don’t fear to love them unconditionally.
Sometimes, I feel I have become like a deracinated tree I see on my walks in Central Park, somewhere between the theater and the lake. It’s old and wrinkled, with a knob in the middle of its trunk, like a wounded Cyclopean eye. Its roots are mostly exposed; they have broken the soil, broken even the sidewalk’s granite, rising upwards, in an endeavor to go where? How? How can it be?
Most of the time I live between lives. In this old, old city of New York, I pass by street houses with their separate “Service” and “Resident” entrances; their doormen; the etiquette, norms, rules, invisible divides and glass walls; the rungs of the endless ladder to heaven (or a place so absolute the concepts of heaven and hell become one.)
It’s a world where most people do their whim when they can. They collect, then discard stamps. Yachts. Toy soldiers. Diamonds. Perfectly engineered and neutered golden Labs. Twitter followers. People. It’s a world of stultifying silences and light words, words that mean nothing to one while binding the other tightly, with vagueness.
As I walk the city, filaments of my life intersect, interact with the filaments of lives of others. A 50year old woman from Vermont, a hoarder, lives in the rent-controlled attic of the walkup next door. The alcoholic paramour of a bigamist (he visits her from San Francisco every second week, mid-week) lives on the other side of the street, in a modest apartment. A divorced man who misses his daughter lives in the basement. Some nights, he doesn’t draw the curtains. I glimpse him Facetiming, his back resting on a huge Hello Kitty stuffed creature.
I become friends with an old, old man, a second world war veteran and civil rights activist. “I’m the male, Jewish Rosa Parks!” he proudly crows to me and his doorman. A once powerful man, he is the father of a currently powerful man who is married to the daughter of a still powerful, old, old man. Yet my old man is always alone.
What is the emotional vocabulary for this? I still don’t know.
The other day, searching for mustard at a drugstore, a blond woman, my age, who was being hounded by a little girl, bumped into me. Dressed like an iconic 1950s American housewife, an Alice band crowning a face that spoke of confusion and embarassment, it was evident the woman was foreign. “I—” she began, unable to deliver the generic sorry, so sorry we all throw at each other, regardless who is to blame.
“Oh. My. God. So. Sorry” the little girl, a blonder, cuter version of her mother, intoned, smiling at me only with her mouth. Turning to her mother, her eyes sizzled. “Don’t speak hebrew here!” she hissed. “English. Only English. We are American now. You have to assimilate.” She made the word sound sinuous like a snake.
At the High Line, people speed-walk, speed-talk about real estate, apps, markets and mothers. Yet all, regardless of age, gender, origin, stop in front of the graffitti on one of the edifices adjacent to the Line Park. It is a huge spray-painting of Einstein, bursting with color. “The answer is love” says the caption. It unites us all, in hope. For the big things, no assimilation is required.