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Immigration Ain’t for Sissies

Amazingly, it’s been over two months since my marriage.  Time is flying by.  Life with Stelios is wonderful but not without complication and challenge.  That’s life, yeah?  In the last two months, I’ve discovered on a very personal level that immigration ain’t for sissies.  The challenge is twofold:  the personal adjustment to living in a new culture and place, which I’ll cover in this post and the bureaucratic obstacles which I’ll cover in the next.

 

Deciding to Live in Greece

 

Living in the United States has become increasingly difficult for me for several reasons and it’s no secret that the United States is sadly less welcoming to foreigners than it once was.  Despite the considerable hardships Greece is facing, including high unemployment, after weighing quality-of-life factors, Stelios and I concluded that life would probably be better for us in Greece.

 

Big decision made.

 

So now I can officially say that I’m immigrating – a verb as slow-moving as cold molasses – an action that could easily continue for ten years and requires so much patience and stamina.  So far, it’s been like a spiritual practice to let go of what I can’t control.  And that’s a lot.  For the first time since childhood, other people (now bureaucrats) have control over my fate.  For the free-spirited wanderer, that’s scary stuff.

 

Immigration ain't for sissies

A plastic globe I found on the beach outside Molyvos.

 

Despite the considerable amount of time I’ve spent in Greece over the last four years, the experience of traveling in Greece as opposed to living in Greece is the difference between enjoying a scenic boat ride on a calm lake versus a deep dive in murky ocean waters teeming with dolphins and sharks.  The two realities are very different.  A traveler has a love affair that is short and sweet without having to hassle with the nitty-gritty dark underbelly that exists in all countries. To decide to permanently move to a new country is a commitment as large as a marriage itself;  a promise to stick it out through thick and thin with a new chosen home, to compromise, and to embrace the good and recognize and accept the parts you can not change.

 

Admittedly, my choice to immigrate to the country of my choice at the time of my choosing puts me in the category of “privileged people”.  I, unlike most refugees and immigrants here in Greece, am not fleeing war or poverty.  I come from a “good” country (in the eyes of bureaucrats) and have the support of my husband and family and friends.  And still, leaving my home country behind for another is painful with defined and abstract losses.  That’s just part of the deal with all new beginnings.

 

“All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.” – Anatole France

 

Adjusting to a New Life

 

I’ve tried to write this post for weeks, unable to produce a finished result, largely because my outlook changes so vastly from day to day.  Some days I’m blissful about living here and other days I despair and am tearing my hair out in frustration.

 

Adjustment difficulty is not atypical of the immigrant experience.  Millions have come before me in far more difficult circumstances and millions will follow.  The past couple months have given me a deeper understanding and appreciation of the trials of the process and highlighted to me the areas in which my personality is as rigid as a steel bar.  Better I learn to bend instead of break.

 

Immigration ain't for sissies

I finally have a “room with a view” and plenty of time to wonder how I got here and what I’m going to do next.

 

I’ve spent most of my life feeling like I’m living in a dream.  Lately, this feeling has been amplified a thousandfold. There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t find myself asking “How did I get here?”.  Due to my inability to understand or read Greek, I exist in a kind of bubble, observing and floating about but unable to understand so many basic things.  Without context clues and with new culture rules so much around me seems to happen magically — people appear who were expected by everyone but me, church bells ring at odd hours for unknown reasons, I overhear loud conversations and can’t tell if the particpants are fighting, happy or just passionately Greek, mail appears but I don’t know where it came from, people depart the bus and get on another but I heard no such instructions, government offices are visited and I don’t know what the office does, why I am there or why the office workers are yelling at me (turns out, they yell at everyone, but more on that later) and on and on.

 

I don’t remember being a baby but surely this must be what it was like; to be in constant observation without any understanding or anticipation of what’s coming next, striving constantly to make sense of things while trying to get your needs met and survive.

 

From what I’ve been told, this transformation might also be similar to that of a new parent – life has totally changed and things that were once very important parts of my identity are no longer.  Priorities have shifted, and one hangs in a murky lake of confusion with feelings that vacillate from moment to moment from profound ebullience to profound despair and back again in any five minutes. All the while, trying to hang on.  After a while, constant change becomes the norm.  And one must surrender to that.

 

As a small example, writing thank you notes is something American Laura has always considered mandatory.  After our wedding, Laura, the thank-you-note-writer, felt it was high-priority to write thirty people thanking them for their gifts and attendance.  Unable to read the sentiment of the pre-made cards in the store, American Laura decided to make handmade cards. Then she consulted about the proper spelling of so many names that were unfamiliar to her. Then she consulted Google translate and handwrote each message in Greek with the Greek alphabet.  And then, because nobody has an address, each card had to be hand-delivered.  This process, which would have taken me two hours in the United States, was an insanely-stressful full-time job because I was insisting that I do things as I had always done. The funny/not so funny part is that later I discovered that this gesture was considered a bit weird because Greeks don’t write thank you cards for wedding gifts — a simple “thank you” on the wedding day is enough!  What seemed so important to me was not important at all in Greece.  This is just one example of hundreds where everything I know no longer works and trying to cling to my old traditions is an exercise in futility.

 

“In times of rapid change, experience could be your worst enemy.” – J. Paul Getty

 

Making thank you cards was an exercise in futility.

Making thank you cards was an exercise in futility.

 

I have got to change or go crazy crazier.  My pick.

 

The adjustment to a new culture with new practices and systems is intense and complex and there is no way around that.

 

So, I guess I’ll be growing.  Ug!

 

“Transformation isn’t sweet and bright. It’s a dark and murky and painful pushing.” – Victoria Erickson

 

Growing is a great thing, even if I deny it when I can’t figure out how to hang a picture on stone walls or how to make a meal when I don’t have any familiar ingredients, or how to get the mail when we don’t have an address or how to sleep when a lamb keeps jumping in the bed, or how to buy obscure things when there is no Amazon or Target, or how to milk a sheep, or how to pay taxes as a Greek resident, or how to answer the phone, get a simple copy made, get a driver’s license, open windows with wooden shutters, how to use an oven with no markings on the dials, or how to read Greek, write Greek, understand Greek, and FIVE-MAJILLION other things I don’t know how to do.  Suddenly, in this new country, I have become incompetent in countless ways.  Hello, humility!

 

Evidently, in this fairy tale, no fairy-godmother is coming to help and it’s my work to do.  I know that eventually all these mysteries will get worked out.  In the meantime, every day by sundown I’m totally enervated, my mind scrambled with new information and feverishly constructing new neural pathways.  As the Greeks frequently say: “sega, sega” meaning “slowly, slowly” meant to encourage and remind that progress is happening even if it’s at a snail’s pace.

 

So, sega, sega, friends.  I’m a lobster shedding its shell to grow into a larger one.  I’m soft and vulnerable for the moment but will be better off later.  I’m immigrating.  And immigration is not for sissies.

 

6 Comments

  1. “In times of rapid change, experience could be your worst enemy.” – J. Paul Getty

    I love your writing and this quote. Well done.

    • Thanks, Erik. I appreciate that.

  2. Your writing is beautiful and passionate…humorous too! Dang, girl! You are LIVING life! Sega! Sega! Or in Italian, lentemente! My mantra!

    • Thanks, Karen. I’ll add “lentemente” to my mantras for patience. I’ve said “porca miseria” a few times thanks to your Mom’s influence. xo

  3. You have beautifully captured much of what I too experienced living in (as opposed to visiting) France. It is absolutely a different thing and, as you say, deeply challenging. I too developed a great respect for immigrants and all they go through even in the best of circumstances. Well done!

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