I was born in 1980 to a Greek-American mother and a Greek father. My dad was among the second large wave of immigrants to come from Greece in the 1970s and 80s. Though we lived close to Oakland’s Ascension Cathedral, my family wasn’t zealously involved with the church, attending mainly on the big holidays of Easter and Christmas. Despite the absence of many of the social activities that generally define the lives of Greek-American youth, my Greekness didn’t feel foreign to me. I was brought up with a general knowledge of the history, music, mythology, cuisine, and language. We also made several summer trips back to Greece to visit extended family.
Occasionally I would meet the sons and daughters of my father’s friends and customers (my dad maintaining strong ties to the local Greek community through his electrical contracting business, appropriately named Zeus Electric) though I never grew close to any of those kids. In fact, I lost touch with most of them long before my father moved permanently back to Greece after my parents divorced when I was in high school.
Like any normal teenager, I rebelled against my roots, searching for something else with which to align myself, which ended up being, by-in-large, hip-hope culture. Perhaps I was bitter about being force-fed an ethnic identity only on my family’s terms, missing out on opportunity to forge my own sense of self.
Things changed changed as my hormones cooled and I began to mature. With early adulthood came a renewed interest in my cultural heritage. After several years hiatus, in the summer of 2003, I made a solo trip to Greece. This process of reclaiming my roots seemed to peak one afternoon in July while on a road trip with my father through the mountains of the Peloponnese. We had just finished a conversation during which we had both apologized for actions in our past contributing to our tumultuous relationship prior to my father returning to his home village. As Pink Floyd’s Darkside of the Moon emanated through the stereo, we rounded a steep, rocky curve to confront the Aegean sea like a shock of indigo below us. At that moment I felt something had been made right again, and though I am now thirty-four, it still feels as though I’m in the midst of my own Odyssey, braving the waters of lost time to reach home within the space between “Greek” and “American.” I’ve delved back into my community to renew past friendships and forge entirely new ones, and I have gone deeper into my culture’s history and language, the latter being what I am most proud of, as after years of study I have greatly improved my ability to speak Greek.
The entire process feels akin to being on an archeological dig. It is one that continues to shape the narratives I write as many of my characters, be they Greek or not, are trying to find their authentic selves while struggling to connect with others. To truly claim a sense of identity one must carve away at the surface. Down below, the roots of our stories are unearthed, and bonds are formed.
Check out an excerpt from my forthcoming novel “Wings of Wax”.
WINGS OF WAX (a novel) — Copyright 2015 Apollo Papafrangou
An abundance of food is arranged on the dining room table like an offering to the gods, far too large a meal for the three mortals seated around it. Angelo piles his plate, thinking about Yiayia’s eating habits, or lack thereof. Yiayia never eats. She may gnaw a piece of bread, savor an olive or two, nibble a bit of Feta, but that’s snacking, not eating. And each time she takes a bite and chews, chews, chews, the air grows tense. Angelo and his mother brace for the inevitable verdict that will curdle the dinner. And now that Yiayia is living with them, the curdling will come on a daily basis.
“The fish,” Yiayia says, frowning at her fork. “It’s a leetle bit dry. Who cooked it?”
And there it is. Angelo sips water, peering over the rim of his glass, eyes flicking between his mother and grandmother.
Yiayia continues to examine the bit of cod on the end of her fork as though it has impaled itself there to mock her. Then she smiles mischievously at Angelo. “Angelo eats fast. Pes mou, agori. Is it because you like the taste, or you are just very hungry?”
Despina heaves a sigh. “Jesus, Mother. I cooked the fish. Who else?”
Yiayia sets her fork down and stares glumly at the table. “I never say another word.”
Yiayia has the unabashed ability to say exactly what she feels whenever she feels it; like the time she innocently asked a family friend if the architect responsible for their extravagant new home had gone to school; or the day she told an acquaintance his wife was nice enough, though not a woman Yiayia would choose for any son of hers. Most people assume she’s being funny; though on some occasions when she does offend someone, she will usually dismiss them as being xeni, as in non-Greek (no matter if they actually are Greek) and therefore oversensitive.
If Angelo had such a power, he would enter a bar, go up to the first woman of interest and say, Y’know, how about we cut to the chase. I really just want to lay you down. He chuckles at the notion, and Yiayia glances up from her plate.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing, Yiayia. You should be eating.”
“Ah,” says Yiayia. “You gon’ get on my case, too?” She reluctantly forks another bit of fish. “Let me
tell you, Angelaki. Your father make the best fish soup!”
Ever the fisherman, whether the man’s appetite be for sex or seafood.
“We’re making nice, now?” Despina says. “Those are about the only kind words you have for him.”
“Not true! I always talk good of Tasso. After all, he come to this country a man not knowing the language beyond a few words. Within short time he was speaking English and had his contractor’s license. He want something, he go after it, make it happen. He has strong mind. Full of ingenuity. He has Greek mind. Ancient Greek mind. Brain like Aristotle, he has. Angelo has same brain, too. Anyway, Despina, you and Tasso were always more like brother and sister. It better that he’s now back to Greece. He happier there.”
Angelo considers how things have improved since his father left seven years ago; no more yelling, the house feeling twice as large.
“Angelo,” Despina says, “I was thinking you should visit your father this summer. Go to Greece. The trip would be good for you.”
How? “I don’t know, Ma.”
“Me neither,” Yiayia cuts in. “That big trip for Angelaki all by himself. What he gonna do there, anyway?”
“See the rest of his family, of course,” Despina replies.
“Bah! They can come here. Besides, I look on the news, all these riots for the economy and crook government in Greece.”
“They’re rioting against the big banks, mother. Not against common folk.”
“The media blows it out of proportion anyway,” Angelo says. “People are protesting, not rioting, Yiayia. It’s a sign of a healthy democracy when citizens take to the streets and make their voices heard.”
“Well, anyway, you too young to fly by yourself.”
“He’s twenty-four,” says Despina.
Angelo pushes a wedge of fish around with his fork. He hasn’t seen his father in seven years, and just the thought makes him shudder though he’s not sure why. “Maybe she’s right, Ma.”
“Angelo, I know you’re anxious about flying, but think of what an achievement it would be to overcome those fears.”
“You know,” Yiayia is addressing Angelo now, smiling her mischievous smile again. “In Greek, the word for ‘achievement’ and the word for ‘Greek’ is the same word.”
“That’s not true,” Angelo says.
“It sure isn’t,” Despina agrees.
“Where you people learn to speak Greek?”