SMILE AND NOD
BY LIZ FONTAINE
There were seventeen birdhouses lining the edge of a sharp bend in the mountain road. I counted them myself. Tony didn’t think highly of my referring to them as "birdhouses," but that’s what they looked like: little, brightly painted birdhouses with ornate doors on the front. Actually, they were memorial markers erected by families at the places in the road where fatal accidents had occurred.
The way our bus ride from Athens to Trikala was going, I wondered if I would prefer a yellow birdhouse or the traditional white one. I could imagine the letter they would send to my parents. It would read:
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Fontaine,
We here in Greece are saddened to inform you of the untimely death of your daughter, Elizabeth. Less than twenty-four hours after her arrival in Greece, Elizabeth was killed in a tragic accident. The bus she was traveling in through the mountains of Greece took a sharp corner too wide, left the road, crashed and banged down the side of the mountain to explode into flames. To your comfort, we believe she was killed instantly. Terribly sorry.
P.S. We built her a little yellow birdhouse at the crash site as a memorial.
The letter would be in Greek, and my poor mother and father wouldn’t have anyone to translate it for them.
I couldn’t have read the letter either, and that was one of the reasons I was on that bus in Greece. Besides wanting to see the country and meet my boyfriend Tony’s family, I wanted to put my one year of college-level Greek to the test. After all, the best way to teach a kid to swim is to just toss him in the pool and hope for the best. Greece was to be my pool, and my first swimming lesson was in Trikala, where we would be staying with Tony’s cousin Vagelli and his wife, Litsa.
I anticipated there would be times during our trip when I would not have Tony by my side to translate everything and I would have to fend for myself, but I didn’t expect the first time to come so soon after our arrival at Litsa and Vagelli’s house. Not long after I dragged my bags up the front stairs and into the house, I found myself out on the front porch with Litsa, alone. Although I’d been pleased with my previous performances during introductions ¾ when Tony made sure to give me only enough time to parrot my rehearsed, one-word responses to anything any Greek could possible greet me with¾ I had an anxious feeling this would not go as well. I wanted to practice more of the Greek I had learned, and I wanted to impress Tony’s family, but I didn’t want to make a fool of myself and embarrass Tony. Mustering all the courage I could, I went over to Litsa, took a deep breath, and mounted the diving board to take the plunge.
I drowned. The Greek words and phrases streamed out of Litsa’s mouth, floated beautifully toward me, smacked violently into my forehead and fell, dying and useless, at my feet. Litsa’s language made her words a mystery to me, but my actions made my thoughts clear to Litsa. Imagine a small animal running in front of an oncoming car only to glance up into the bright beams of the headlights at the last moment. The look on that poor animal’s face was exactly the look I gave Litsa as she finished her sentence. The awkward silence that followed left the poor animal begging to be run down and put out of its misery.
Litsa broke the silence. "My English is not so good, and I make many mistakes…but I will try for you, and then maybe you will feel better to try Greek yourself." The warmth of her words, made more colorful by the nuances of her native Greek and the understanding I could see in her bright smile, wiped the panic from my mind and from my face.
"How was your trip here?" Litsa asked me, and for a moment, her kindness fueled my courage and I started to respond in Greek.
"My trip was good."
Anxiety and panic suffocated my meager courage, and, defeated, I responded in English. The conversation continued in this manner, my brain fighting a battle between Greek and English, but English always won. By the time Tony returned to the porch to pick up the conversation in Greek, I was so exhausted by my inner struggles that I didn’t speak again until dinner.
The only difference between dinner that first night and every dinner to follow was the entire family showed up that first night to welcome their American guests. I secretly mused that it wasn’t news of visitors that had attracted all those people, but the homey smell of freshly baked bread wafting through the house. Litsa’s little dining room was so filled with food and family that the table was extended out onto the porch and any interaction between the inside family and the outside family meant negotiating the white curtains of the porch doors.
Greek food is so good that Greeks refrain from all conversation until after the meal. One’s appreciation of the food is expressed with a full mouth and the occasional chomping noises. This was a language I had used all my life. The horiatiki salad, with crumbly feta cheese and crisp vegetables; the full-flavored pastitsio, with layers of noodles and cheese; and the freshly baked bread, with homemade olive oil, made this primitive grunting language all too easy to understand. All I had to do to get my point across was keep my mouth full and smile and nod occasionally. I learned all the important Greek words that evening; all the names of the foods I liked.
Conversation exploded after dinner. It was as if the family needed to make up for all the conversation they missed while we enjoyed the meal. Thea-Litsa wanted to know how our trip had been. Cousin Vera wanted to know how school was going at home. Vagelli wanted to know where we planned to visit while in Trikala. Tony answered them all and I sat there quietly, nodding in agreement with whatever Tony happened to be saying. I could follow the conversation easily enough, picking out the words I knew here and there and making educated guesses as to what was being said. What do you think of Greece? How are your mother and father?
Not taking an active role in the conversation, I allowed my mind to wander toward things I could more easily comprehend. The sweet, syrupy smell of the night-blooming jasmine that grew on the porch, the way everyone’s faces looked in the light of the dying day, the grain in the wood of the table where we sat. Every so often I reminded myself to pay attention to the conversation, but trying to understand was becoming tiresome and the warm, thick, jasmine-scented air was making it all too difficult to stay awake.
My ears pricked up, my heart started doing jumping jacks in my chest, my throat tied itself in a knot, and all brain functions ceased. Someone was asking me a question, and I hadn’t been paying attention. I did all I could do to respond, given my current state. I grinned like an idiot, turned to Tony, and gave him the ‘I have no idea what’s going on’ look. Barely holding back an amused chuckle, Tony answered the question for me, and I was left to my jasmine, not to be brought into the conversation again that night.
I got sick on our way to the mountain village of Pertoulli, a high mountain town with quaint houses and cheerful patches of wildflowers. The narrow, winding roads of the Greek mountains that had scared me on our trip to Trikala were now making me sick to my stomach. I wanted to look out the car window and see the mountains bathed in sunshine and clouds, but watching the world whip by from such a height made my head spin. To make matters worse, the hot, relentless sun beat down on me and, try as I might, I couldn’t shove my head deep enough between the door and the car’s seat to hide from it. It was either get out of the car soon or deliberately suffocate myself to escape the sun and the spinning. Tony¾ sitting in the front seat while I was in the back¾ was too far away to translate English to Greek for me. If only I could have remembered how to say, "Please open the window."
I must have looked as sick as I felt because by the time we were seated at a café in Pertoulli, Tony, Litsa, Vagelli, and cousin Vera were discussing my sorry state. I could tell they were talking about me because they kept casting worried glances in my direction through the drinking glasses on the table. I just sat silently, trying to keep my place in the vertical plane and not pass out. I met anxious eyes with meek simpers until Tony broke out of their conversation to ask me, "Are you all right?"
Not wanting to be a further annoyance to my hosts, I replied, "I’m fine," which became, "Einai entaxi," as Tony translated it to the others. "Einai entaxi," was apparently not what they wanted to hear, for their brows further furrowed and their looks of concern intensified. I tried to look more joyful, and my inside voice said, "Eimai kala," or "I am good," but outside I remained silent and my real voice said nothing.
As the light, crisp mountain air cleared my head and cooled my skin, I regained my cheery demeanor and healthy glow, but the concerned glances remained. On our return trip to Trikala, I enjoyed the landscape and took pictures out the window. I was silenced now not by my lack of language, but by the blue mountains rising sharply above the earth, scoring the burning sky and hiding the setting sun.
I stepped out of the car that evening feeling rejuvenated and elated by all I had seen that day. The car ride up to Pertoulli and the episode at the café were all but a memory to me. It wasn’t until I began to prepare for bed that I found the others had not so easily forgotten.
"Kalinihta," or "goodnight," Vagelli said, with a note of concern in his voice.
"Eimai kala" (I am good), my inner voice said, but on the outside I smiled for Vagelli and nodded my head. A look of worry crept across Vagelli’s face as he turned to retire to his room.
My guilty, cowardly thoughts were interrupted only once that evening. "Vagelli tells me he thinks you’re not having a good time with them here in Greece," Tony told me.
I tossed and turned miserably that night, still fighting the battle between Greek and English. I vowed that the following day¾ our last day with Litsa and Vagelli¾ I would break my silence and say all the things I should have been saying all week. As I drifted off into a restless sleep, I silently rehearsed all I would say: Mou arese (I liked it), etan poli oraia (it was very beautiful), efharisto para poli (thank you very much)…
It wasn’t sunny inside the bus station, but I had my sunglasses on anyway. I wanted to hide my tears from Tony’s family. I was sad that we were leaving Trikala, but leaving wasn’t the reason I cried. These were tears of shame and guilt. All morning. I failed to force myself to speak to Litsa and Vagelli. Now we were in the cramped, dirty bus station, surrounded by a jumble of family and strangers, and time was running out.
Tony was disgusted with me and that made me more miserable. He didn’t like to see me blubbering in public, especially about something I had the power to fix. "If you want to say something in Greek, just say it. I know you can," he kept telling me.
But Litsa and Vagelli were nowhere to be seen. They had dropped us off, along with our bags, while they went to park the car. Tony had said his thanks and goodbyes, but I only smiled and nodded in agreement. Now I couldn’t find Litsa or Vagelli and people were beginning to board the bus. Hurrying around the congested station, my heavy suitcases in tow, I frantically searched for them. There were other family members, faces I remembered from dinner that first night, but I wanted to talk to Litsa and Vagelli. I couldn’t leave without thanking them myself.
More tears welled up in my eyes, which made it impossible to see anything through my sunglasses. I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Tony. "We have to get on the bus now, or we’re going to miss it," he said, beginning to guide me toward the bus. I resisted, still searching the crowd. Where were they?
My eyes found them just before we boarded. Ignoring the shame I felt for being so worked up in public, I removed my sunglasses and bared my red, swollen eyes. I looked directly at Litsa and said, as clearly as I could manage though my tears, "Efharisto para poli." Thank you very much.
"You’re welcome," Litsa replied in English, a smile brightening her face. I smiled too and boarded the bus.
We chose a seat on the right side of the bus, still in view of Tony’s family. I waved and a small sea of familiar faces beamed back at me: Vera, Thea-Litsa, Uncle Vasilli, Uncle Vaios, Litsa and Vagelli. Suddenly an idea flashed behind my eyes. I held my index finger up to the small crowd, asking them to wait as I began rummaging through one of my bags. I found a notebook and some paper and began scribbling in large Greek symbols, "Tha mou leipete para poli." I will miss you all very much. I held my makeshift sign to the bus window for my little audience to see. The family began elbowing each other, pointing to my sign, and grinning back at me. I continued waving and as the bus began to pull out of the station, I met Litsa and Vagelli’s eyes for the last time. Warm smiles graced their faces, and tears welled up in their eyes. Touched, I wiped the tears from my own eyes. "Yia sas," I mouthed. Goodbye.
As we started to bump down the narrow road that would take us back to Athens, Tony turned to me and said, "I’m really going to miss them too."
I smiled contentedly and nodded. Then, folding my hand into his, I turned my head to the window and let the warm sunshine dry the rest of my tears.