The first time I heard about Salonique, I was probably around seven years old. My grandfather was teaching me how to play Backgammon and telling me that one day, he would take me to Salonique, the far away land where he grew up, the place where our family had immigrated as refugees in the early 1500s, once Spain had decided to prosecute the Jews.
Salonique sounded both familiar and unreachable, and the closest I would get to its essence was on Sundays, when my family had lunch at a friend’s Greek restaurant, in Paris. There I would savor dish after dish, each one making my cells dance in recognition and pleasure. My mom would smile at my delight and would say: “ça, c’est l’atavisme.” - that’s atavism.
My grandpa died and I moved to the United States. Greece seemed further and further away and Salonique more and more of a myth. When I was pregnant with my first baby, my dad shipped me tubs of Tarama, as I fiercely craved it. I named my third child Costa and gave him my grandpa’s last name as a middle name.
But I had enough work trying to navigate being both French and American (or really, neither), as well as painfully missing my own country, without complicating things with a whiff of Greekness. I guess there is a hierarchy to these things, and our inner wisdom knows how much our hearts and life can take.
Two years ago, France came back to me unexpectedly as my son decided to move there. I had not been home for sixteen years when I stepped off the plane for his birthday in April of 2015. It was powerful, it was rich, it was extraordinary and it was also strangely normal. Now, several trips and Europeans retreats later, I feel as though this wound has healed and my DNA is much happier. I feel as though France is always only a plane away, the way it always was, except that along the way, I had forgotten.
So, of course, it would make sense that Salonique would come calling.
It started out pretty quietly, my son and I talking about going there some time.
Then there was the day when my phone rang in the middle of a street market in France, just as my eyes landed on a box stamped “Thessaloniki.” Costa was just calling to say hi.
My grandpa is gone and Salonique has become Thessaloniki. What used to be the world’s largest Jewish cemetery in the world is now the location of a big university (you may want to read this last part again). I have forgotten how to play backgammon. And I sure don’t speak a word of Greek, and even less Ladino, which is what my family used to speak.
And yet, as I get ready to get on a plane tomorrow morning to fulfill a promise made forty six years ago, my cells are stirring inside of me and I am feeling strangely emotional.
Costa will meet me the next day and together on this Christmas week, we will walk the streets where my grandpa used to walk. And many others before him.
Many others who left their countries because it was no longer safe to be there. Many others who chose to risk their lives by leaving rather than risk their souls by staying in a place where their god was forbidden.
And because life is so round, after ten days there, I will make my way to Lesvos and have the privilege of giving what I can to thousands of refugees who are doing the same thing today.
May our holidays be precious and may our cells be happy with the room we make in our lives and hearts for all the stories that have made us ... us. May we feel whole and strong and rich from the knowing of those who are part of us. May we love them, thank them and may we allow their story be part of ours.
And may we also treasure the ones that will come after us, from us, and weave their beautiful yarn with ours so that a richer, kinder tapestry may grow.
SCARED OF THE SACRED