Sunday, April 3, 2016

Love and Perception

I recently re-watched the movie, Shirley Valentine and laughed as hard as if it were the first time. The 40-something-year-old British housewife gets fed up with her life and takes a holiday on an island in Greece with a friend. She meets a Greek cafe owner who is in the habit of. . . let's say, romantically-enhancing the holiday of women tourists. It reminds me of the tourist village of Parga, in Epirus Greece.

Years ago, while I was visiting my husband, Nick's, village with the kids and he'd had to stay behind in the U.S., I often spent the day in Parga. It was a short bus ride and a world apart from the little mountain village. The local-male-Greek & female-tourist connection was alive and well, back then. Maybe it still is and I'm just too old to know about it--kind of the same way I think that people don't go out to clubs anymore. But anyway, back then, I was privy to a few awkward attempts by the local males. I watched with intrigue as they tried to communicate with some of the tourists. And I also had one opportunity to practice my newly acquired and very inadequate Greek:  "Don't you see she wears a ring? She's married! Shame on you!" I think that's what I'd said. It's hard to know. The expression on his face could have been interpreted in many ways.

Nowadays Parga is much bigger and more of  a bustling tourist destination. Occasionally Nick and I witness a few female travelers looking for local Greek men and vice versa.

We recently sat in a cafe and watched the carefully executed dance unfold. Our ability to understand the broken English, made it as comical as the scenes in Shirley Valentine.

But back in the late 1960s when Parga was barely known to outsiders, and Nick was a budding adolescent, there existed this---let's call it culture of hospitality. Nick sometimes tells a story about the first American girls he ever met. They were in Parga and he was hanging out with his friends, spending days with those young women on the beach and evenings with them in discos. One of his friends served as the translator.

"You live in paradise," the self-appointed leader of the girls told the young Greeks. And Nick thought her insane. After all she was from America! And this so-called piece of paradise felt more like a prison cell at that age. But it's all about perception, isn't it?

People's perceptions of any particular place can be as varied as the individuals who visit there. We relate to the world through our experiences and acquired knowledge which, if severely limited, can have disappointing results.  I've had many opportunities to witness this in my position as a teacher of immigrant children in a New York suburb. When a new student from another country who had known he was coming to New York brings with him the movie-driven expectations of what New York supposedly means, the disappointment is great because he really ends up far from the excitement of New York City in our little corner of suburbia. It's very much like some of the secondary characters in Shirley Valentine.

"The travel agent said we'd like it here," an Englishman says with disgust as he overlooks the quaint bay of a quiet Greek village. Like the new immigrant students to our school, those tourists, are disappointed by unmet expectations. They are looking for England on the tiny Greek Island and cannot see its real beauty. Their limited internal world kept them from seeing the external.

I, myself, for the first several years of visiting Nick's village, Margariti, in the rural mountains of Northern Epirus believed I was seeing Greece. To me, there was nothing else. The lack of running water, absence of modern amenities, few roads or communication signals---well, that's just how it was. Greece. I had no idea of the diversity that really existed outside of that area.

This warped perception can be so misleading when one is bent on seeing the world through such blinders. It's an idea that propelled some of the scenes in my first novel, Your Own Kind. Below is an example where a father and his son have two completely different perceptions of the same small Greek village.

George's perception of Greece comes from a failed marriage with a Greek woman and a brief visit to her village, whereas his son holds onto a fading memory of that same village which is more utopia-like:

         "Listen," George said quietly, "I get it. I suck as a father. But I know what you're going through. It's hard to uh--well, the pain is um--" Andreas let his father struggle for a few more seconds.
        "Yeah. You do suck," he said, "and if you know it, why did you take me from my mother?"
        "You don't remember that place," George said. Andreas' words were a direct hit to an open wound. "You're my son. I couldn't leave you there. I wanted you to have a better life."
        "Yeah? Good job. It's been great."
        It was easy for Andreas to romanticize the life he hadn't known, the vague memory in the village and the doting mother, Madonna herself, and other people, lots of them who he'd built into his own reality of the past--all of them loving him. A place of sun and trees with a house--a home!
        He knew his mother's voice. They'd spoken over the years on the telephone. But her face was faded. He wasn't sure anymore if he was remembering her or the photo of the wedding that he'd seen in Uncle Minos' house. He knew that she had come back to East End and tried to live there again. He didn't remember it but he knew about it because George had told him a thousand times, as he told him then again in the car as they drove. 

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