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.
Last night, after four days of being sick and in the house, Silvana and I went out. We left at the time that I usually go to bed and headed towards Torino, over an hour away. Ten minutes into the car and I was already nodding off, so when we stopped for gas, I ordered a tiny cup of coffee (I do this about once a year when I absolutely need to stay awake), plopped a whole Lindt chocolate ball in the middle and stirred it into syrup. This did the trick, and I was able to enjoy a grown up evening.
Silvana being in love with Morocco, we first found ourselves in a small, exotic yet elegant second story living room where people were finishing meals served on round hammered metal trays while a wonderful Moroccan musician played his heart out. Next to him was a life size video of a nude woman with very, very long hair, standing strangely still. There must have been some significance. After a month in Pisciotta, I felt the height of sophistication, even though my wool hat and heavy boots might have disagreed. Having arrived on the tail end of the concert, we didn't get to hear much nor dance, but I did love the Moroccan rendition of Holy Night.
The concert over, we headed back out into the frozen streets in search of our next adventure.
It wasn't long before my guide had us walk through another strange and tantalizing door. Nowhere near as fancy, it now felt as though we were into some secret underground place. Think Fight Club. Turns out we were in the old royal stables, a beautiful old funky place which the city of Torino had been wanting to turn into a shopping mall until artists and musicians took it over and transformed it in a place for drum circles, performances and late night jams. It was cold, it was raw, it was awesome. Musicians after musicians arrived, the sound evolved, grew and took over our brains. The energy was contagious. By the time we left, around midnight, I think they were just getting warmed up.
We got home at 1 am.
Tonight, we put up the Christmas tree. Then we dressed in warm layers and walked down to the café for a cup of hot chocolate. Then we watched Miami Vice in Italian. Got up for toast and tea. Silvana cooked some veggies while I wrestled with my email hack.
Nothing spectacular, just two women hanging out in their socks in the middle of winter. Two women who did not know the other one existed, a short few weeks ago.
I needed this. I needed this easy girl time. I needed to put up a Christmas tree.
I am so grateful.
As much as I enjoy travel days, I have to say that the trip from Annecy to Asti was a challenge. Three trains were involved, and the middle one was one hour late, leading to a domino effect. Also, it just stopped running for about 45 minutes, “because of the snow.” About half way through the trip, I started to feel ill and my nose would not turn itself off, while my brain went into fog mode. I finally got onto the last train, sank into my seat and closed my eyes - only to realize half an hour later that I was on the wrong train.
I got out at the next stop - interestingly enough a town called Bra - contacted my Workaway host Silvana to let her know that I would be late, and found out that I had to go back to Torino to take the correct train. And buy a new ticket. With the cash I didn’t have. And the local ATM out of order. And my warm hat on its way to somewhere else on the last train. I suspected that there was something funny lurking about being in Bra and having left my Hat on the train, but I felt too sick to connect with it.
I arrived in Asti around 6 pm, just in time to collapse into my new home.
Silvana was, and is, lovely. Her home is a large and modernly renovated old house lathered in warm oranges and buttery yellows. She just got back from Morocco (well, her feet did, I am not so sure about her heart) and there was this instant recognition thing going on. She cooked us a lovely meal and I headed to my fluffy dark orange bed, feeling like a terrible guest.
Yesterday, while she was at work, I managed to clean her kitchen a bit before going back to bed for most of the day. We were supposed to go out last night, but there was no way I could even walk out of the house. She brought me Italian medicine, Kleenexes and tried to put me at ease by telling me how she had been sick for three days (plus one in the hospital) at her last Workaway stay, in Morocco, and how much her hosts had cared for her. “I am just giving back what was given to me,” she says.
Here I am. In her beautiful home, with full access to whatever food I may want, as well as her company when she gets home. My contribution: make her life easier and maybe give her a bit of inspiration.
This morning, as I was dusting the living room and filling the dishwasher, I was marveling at how crazy good it feels to be taking care of someone’s home so that they may come back from work and feel some ease, feel as though there is less for them to carry. I love, love, love that. And I look forward to being 100% energized in order to do more of it.
At the same time, I suspect that I may have gotten sick at exactly the right place.
Here’s to giving and receiving, losing hats and borrowing new ones, flowing with travel days and taking care of each other’s lives.
And I absolutely want to get my immune system strengthened before I head down to Lesvos in January.
SCARED OF THE SACRED