A (n expat) Toddler Transition Tale: Morocco to Greece
Discovering Humanitarian Spirit on the Trail of the Syrian Refugees
In the beginning, things pretty much sucked.
I first remember being cautiously handed over to my father in a partially-sterile steel box of a room two stories below ground. The dim bulb threw a depressing shadow of my father on the wall – but his outline was fantastic (!): I put my crying on pause just long enough to observe his attempts at soft movement and soothing tone – he was fooling no one: I could sense his remorse about being absent from the delivery room (banished due to maleness) as easily as I sniffed out the hysteria lurking behind the thin wall-of-noise cooing he was spitting. Anxious underpinnings were plugging his heart-shaped declaration of love and a promise of a great life – I appreciated the effort nonetheless. I accepted the rough handling from the Moroccan nurses only after being convinced of their proficiency. I was shoved onto the nipple with all the delicacy of a pipefitter, but recognized their whittled-down attempts at efficiency. You know, people doing more with less and all that.
I exited the hospital only after a near-violent standoff. My father screamed, “Who ever heard of a cash-only hospital!” and then whispered to my mother, “If I make a move, follow me without hesitation.” It was all very Bonnie and Clyde, as an early screening of my formative expat years rolled in my imagination to the soundtrack of an administrative office screaming match. I have no doubt he would have taken a swing at those security guards.
For eight months, I ingested Casablanca pollution on exhaust-level stroller rides to the markets for stinky sardines, only to return to a shitty high-rise apartment with a nutrient-depriving lack of natural lighting. I was plopped down on decorative tilework, surrounded by a castle-high prison of embroidered pillows and lavish couches. My whimpering was lost in the maddening mix of ceaselessly impatient honking and unnecessary belligerent tones washing up against all sides of my building Iike a foul moat. I wasn’t released until I was literally climbing the walls.
(One saving grace: besides all the idiosyncratic Moroccan snapping of fingers in my face, repetitive French-influenced “coucou”ing, and baffling over-concern for any pinprick of sunlight to make contact with my skin, I was treated like a fucking prince from all sides: street vendors, homeless, taxi drivers, our produce lady, local surfers on the beach, the fruit guy, janitorial staff at the school, apartment concierge, ruthless parking guardiens, my dad’s teaching colleagues, spoiled students – everyone. It must have been the novelty blue eyes.)
Finally, my complaints were heeded, and stakes thankfully pulled up. Now I was asked to endure bullshit strapped-in hard miles: car seats to strollers to airplane rides to “Kid Comfort 1” backpack torture device. All I wanna do is hoist myself up on a piece of furniture and bouncy-bouncy on my burly legs, and instead, I’m on an endless, binded nomadic tour: car ride north to Tangier, ferry to Sete, France, visit with the grandparents in Nice, transatlantic flight and back again to visit another set of elderly in Florida, long drive through France and Italy, ferry to Patras, Greece, drive to Athens, and lastly, eight more ferry hours to finally disembark “for good” (we’ll see) on Amorgos, Greece.
Listen closely now knuckleheads: for this place, I’d withstand the journey again, all the way back to the primitive treatment of my legendary body at the Ghandi Clinic. I’ve gleaned from various Chamber-of-Commerce-type literature, that I’ve landed on a small Cycladic island with less than 2,000 inhabitants. Santorini is close – I can smell the money - and Turkey can’t be far off, because my dad says he’ll be forced to go there and back every three months. The water is perfect blue, they even made a movie about it here in the 80’s: “The Big Blue” – and boy, they won’t let you forget it: countless establishments are named after it, and Le Grand Bleu Café has multiple screenings per night. I’m constantly being changed in and out of swim trunks, rash guard, and wide-brimmed hats for saltwater baths, which I love, but we could can the annoying preamble sing-song, “Noe want to swim in the blue blue?”
Ahh, but isn’t life easy here; the food grows on trees. My parents get downright giddy about a process they call “four ageing,” which involves climbing trees, bushwhacking through sharp underbrush and stealthily hopping goat fences to gather figs, grapes, pomegranate, (extremely) prickly pear, almonds, mushrooms, saffron and even snails. I’m putting my fat foot down regarding those sea urchins though; they’re nasty beasts. My dad is always marveling at their littered multitudes clinging to all the rocks where I waddle into the sea – he shakes his head at the possibility and mutters to himself about “a spiky goldmine.” I busted him googling recipes. I hope their scavenging ways are not indicative of our financial situation; I try not to dwell on how rarely either one of them go off to do any work, or rather how rarely anyone around here seems to work.
I know the “your-ohs” they do have come from working in Vissali’s Language School (which seems like a real step down from the international/American school scene, but I don’t have no say), unless they get paid for “getting brilliant,” which is when they gather a head of stem and mom disappears with paintbrush to the apothiki, dad sits at the computer, and they pace around drinking lots of coffee, smoking cigarettes and pass me back and forth rapid-fire with increasing degrees of malice. Afterwards (after what?) they verbally congratulate each other, undulate nakedity, and wash off with a swim.
A concern: things are smooth like olive oil on feta, but I’m suffering from a recurring sensation (it’s not poopy pants). Maybe suffering is too strong. How to explain? Each morning, I wake slowly, guzzle formula and survey boat traffic in the port from my spot on the deck: fishing boats in, sailboats out, maybe a spectacular yacht snuck in while I slept. Rising sun chases ochre along the rocks and out the bay into the Med proper in a race against drenching sunlight. The water shimmers glassy clear across to the dormant string of picture-perfect restaurants and shops. I eavesdrop on the day’s plan; I’m never at odds with what I hear: a swim, a hike, “see food,” generous nap schedule – it’s bliss. My fear is when it ends, because all good things must, eh? It nags at me, another in a long line of itches, inches below the pamper line, where I can’t scratch. Dread and doom waft over me. Boom! Sippy cup hits the floor, and I’m reeling like a Greek fisherman on a “weather day” ouzo binge. It’s frozen perpetual angst for me homies; I’m two seconds from being swooped up and plopped in a car seat amidst a cluster of luggage for a neverending journey, nah mean? That shit’s on a loop! But it never seems to happen. With each passing day, I’m gaining confidence that nothing is going to happen to ruin/change this.
Well, something did happen actually. Considering the aforementioned predictable and joyfully mellow simplicity of our agenda, things got slightly more intense this week. Things ramped up after we went swimming at the scenic Mouros Beach, of the epic sea caves (it’s “slabbalicious” – their words, not mine); that’s the beach where we accidentally left our swim trunks and hats drying on a rock, and they were still there when we returned two weeks later. My parents acted like they discovered treasure, repeating with elevating enthusiasm, “That’s the kind of place this is. That’s the kind of place this is!”
Apparently, minutes after we climbed out of that bay, a boatload of lost Syrians washed up on the beach. They were probably aiming for the island of Kos, which is much closer to their Turkey launch site. Well, they sure picked a spectacular spot; if there’s a prettier place to swim on the island, show me. Would you label me dense if I wondered about their ability to extract any aesthetic pleasure on the approach?
Imagine: my parents drag me to this laid-back castaway environment, and I find myself smack-dab embroiled in the world’s biggest news story? My parents had the idea that maybe I could thin out the towering pile of onesies stacked on my crate with a donation to the baby refugees. Won’t be as fun to topple, but whatever. My dad is reading over my shoulder now, and wants me to make clear that he is way too selfish (he insisted on the italics even) to be painted as a do-gooder or humanitarian, and that every one of those outfits was generously donated to us (this was an early red flag about their finances).
Under, instead of through, the grapevine, we learned that the refugees, after being fed a free lunch at the Mouros Beach Taverna, were bedding down in the town “camping.” Next morning, armed with an emasculating bag of onesies with topical design schemes such as mustaches and eyeglasses (we’re taken advantage of, stylistically speaking, as a demographic), we plowed our shitty stroller through the loose rock run-up to the campground. My parents were excited to put their seven-word Arabic vocabulary (three years at The American Community School of Beirut) to use, and I was excited about stepping up to shorts and tee-shirts.
And we missed them. Word was that they had been shuffled onto an early ferry to Athens to begin the process of, well, I don’t really know. And I had so wanted to give…
Onesies were unpacked and stacked again, and I reflected on my first lesson in island misinformation. Serves me right for being so ambitious: here they say, “siga-siga” = “slowly-slowly.”
Almost as an afterthought, I messaged out to my peeps for confirmation on the Syrian departure, just to quiet their plight in my mind. Only to find I was burned again! They were still here, now being housed down south near Arkesini, in the Agia Paraskevi Church (try that as a leap from goo goo ga ga). I roused the folks for another mission, formalizing their commitment at the most opportune time: midway through a tall bottle of retsina to capture their resin-soaked enthusiasm and ply their liquid courage.
And again, we missed them, by a few hours. Unlike the campground, which had been cleared of Syrian existence, the church was in full remnant-mode: signs of their presence were overwhelming - I could still smell them. Long picnic tables and benches were stacked haphazardly along the long covered outdoor corridors running two sides of the church. Stuffed garbage bags were gathered around pillars. Rejected donations lay around in disarray: shoes, shirts, coats, toys (I had a looksee – I ain’t too proud to beg). I met a chick, bit of a plastic, named Barbie: I’ve read the negative press, I don’t get it, she’s a doll!
I guess it just wasn’t meant to be. This time, we cross-referenced and got reliable confirmation that the refugess had indeed slipped our well-intentioned grasp and were aboard the Blue Star on the way to the capital. These guys were shuffled around quickly, but by all accounts, treated generously, and they were privy to some beautiful spots on the island. I like to think the eye candy slightly softened their horrific transition. Maybe our donations will catch up to the needy babies if we send them on.
I can’t help but draw a parallel between the migrating Syrians and my own traumas. I puff my pacy and reflect: my life has been difficult so far: I’m rocking goofy used clothes, I got no Fisher-Price and I eat on/off the floor. Just like them, my roots have been torn out, and “home” has become an abstract concept. I wish I could have looked a baby Syrian in the eye and given her (purposefully picked pronoun) one of my extra sloppy wide-mouthed kisses, and told her things would get better, like they have for me. I swing in a hammock and stare at another beautiful sunset, at a horizon seemingly mocking me with a pink expanse of possibility. I hope they make it to Germany or wherever they are going. I hope they find a playground that will be their “regular.” Peace to all.