The Taste of Coming Home

An ancient olive tree beside the road

Like many Greeks, I come from a family steeped in olive oil. My grandmother’s family tended olives in a small village near Kalamata, the city in southern Greece famous for its olive of the same name.

When my grandparents moved to Athens at the end of the 1930s, they arrived just in time for World War II and a total economic collapse. Paying their rent with canisters of olive oil from my grandmother’s groves, they used the fruit of my ancestors’ roots as liquid currency, barely keeping my father’s family alive through national famine and war.

Perhaps because of that, I have a deep respect for the olive. It has kept my ancestors alive and nourished them for centuries - and it is one of the reasons my father survived his childhood and much later made his way to north America, where he met my mother.

But I was not raised like most Greek-Americans. (Forget everything you’ve seen in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.") I did not have a large extended family, nor were we part of a Greek-American community where I grew up. I was not raised to speak Greek and my father, being an atheist, did not celebrate any of the Orthodox festivals. I did not go to Greek school, nor did I know the modern history of my father's homeland.

Instead, Greece was a private place for my father, a piece of his history that he did not often share with me. Growing up, I was aware of his deep love for Greek and Byzantine history, but I was not told stories about his personal history - all of that I learned later, as an adult.

Nevertheless I long — I pine, all my days
to travel home and see the dawn of my return.
— Homer's Odyssey v. 219-220 (tr. Robert Fagles)

My father had come, alone, to the USA at the age of 28, leaving Greece in the wake of a military coup, escaping the junta that followed. And in his attempt to assimilate to the United States and avoid the painful memories of his childhood (which included poverty, foreign occupation, and civil war), Greece became a distant place – somewhere “over there” where things of great importance had once happened.

I think that for those reasons, my father did not actively locate himself – or me, for that matter – in Greece's history or culture. Instead, my sense of “Greekness” was largely self-discovered during sporadic summer visits to Greece with my non-Greek mother. She would take me alone to Athens, where she would try to facilitate a connection to my roots.

I think she could sense that I didn’t feel like I belonged in the USA - an imposter on stolen land - a foreigner whose body was half-tied to the Mediterranean. But I never felt quite “Greek enough” either, unable to speak the language, unable to connect with the culture.

And yet I did feel a connection with the Mediterranean landscape. Fragrant with wild oregano and sage, covered in groves of olive and fig, something about the land smelled - and tasted - familiar. Coming to Greece felt like sitting down to a home-cooked meal: my body felt nourished by the land.

Nostimon Imar

In Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus uses the phrase nostimon imar to express the "day of his return" - his homecoming. Today, when something is delicious, modern Greeks use the word nostimo, meaning "tasty." This word shares its root with the verb nostalgo, which means to feel nostalgia - the painful longing for home that Odysseus felt. So in the Greek language, the experience of coming home is tightly connected with the familiar flavors of the soil: the herbs, fruits, and vegetables that grow from one's homeland.

But regardless of my affinity for the Greek landscape, and its familiar flavors, I spent many years circumambulating this place. I was wandering around the USA and northern Europe, flirting with the idea of putting roots in the ground, but not thinking Greece would be where they eventually planted. I think I was doing what so many young people do - trying to differentiate myself from my father and the dreams he had for me (which were really just unrealized dreams he had for himself). And it never occurred to me that Greece would be where I would eventually move to build a home.

Before my father died, I remember him admitting to me that he wasn't sure where he belonged anymore, where home was for him. At 73 years old, he'd spent most of his life in the USA; he didn't feel Greek, but he didn't feel American, either.

I think part of my move to Greece in 2015 was a way of (re)turning to my roots and to my father - to try to locate him somewhere in the land, in history, and in me. I now find myself in a similar position to my father at the end of his life: I am still not "Greek enough" to fit in here, and I am not "American enough" to identify with other expats, either.

But this land still tastes like home and I have found my own dreams taking root here. Every day I awake to the taste of my homecoming - the essence of belonging to this land. It has a rich and nourishing flavor - full of sea spray, pungent herbs, and of course, the familiar taste of olives.