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The heartache of xenitia

A Greek migrant talks to Neos Kosmos about her first visit back to Greece as a tourist after moving to Australia

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Sofie Dimitrakopoulou on her recent trip to Greece. Photo: Supplied

I felt the warmth of Greece embracing me like a mother embraces her child
16 October 2017

For those who have never experienced the heart-wrenching feeling of leaving what they once called home to emigrate to a foreign country, it is almost impossible to comprehend, let alone relate to the Greek Pontian song Πατρίδα μ΄αραεύω σε. It was sung by Greek legendary singer Stelios Kazantzidis during the difficult times of the migration exodus of the 1950s, 60s and 70s which saw more than a million Greeks emigrating to the US, Canada and Australia, driven mainly by political and economic reasons.

The song is basically a hymn to the pain and sorrow of migration. In other words, it talks about the nostalgia of what we call xenitia.

"Going back home was just a heart-warming experience for me. I felt the warmth of Greece embracing me like a mother embraces her child," says Sofie Dimitrakopoulou who left her hometown of Peloponnisos two years ago to migrate to Australia.

While it is very hard for people to leave their homes and say goodbye to the people they love, it is even harder to find the strength and courage to start a new life all over again in a new and completely foreign place, even if they know it is likely to reward them with a better present, and maybe even a more promising future.

"When I returned to Greece, I automatically felt 'at home'. It was just a wonderful feeling to go back to the place I was born, visit my old school and meet up with the people I love and who love me unconditionally," says Sofie, who spent most of her summer in Peloponnisos and in her all-time favourite city, Athens.

"Looking at the faces of the people I love and left behind two years ago, all I could see was the pure love and affection they were feeling towards me and the genuine desire to just hold me and hear me talk about Australia and my new life there," she says. "It was a really moving and therapeutic experience that has made me think differently about distance and what it means to be away from home."

Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that what's also scary about distance is that the person that has left is always unsure whether they will be missed, or simply forgotten.

"I began to think that maybe distance doesn't ruin people's relationships after all and that being away certainly doesn't make people forget one another," adding that she considers herself blessed to have so many wonderful people around her.

The truth is, distance means so little when compared to the people in one's life that mean so much. As migrants, being distant offers people the opportunity to rethink their lives and appreciate what they don't have and what they really miss that they have left behind.

"I definitely have changed the way I view life and Greece since migrating to Australia, and I feel more Greek than ever before," admits Sofie, who fell victim to the 'crime' most immigrants commit - comparison.

"Comparing Greece with Australia and vice versa was inevitable," she says.

"There were definitely a few elements I found that, in the past, I never really paid a lot of attention to, but this time, they really stood out when comparing the two countries, such as the lack of discipline and order that is so overwhelmingly evident in Greece."

But one thing that she says really impressed her in Greece, was all the positive energy and raw ambition she saw in the eyes of young Greeks.

"Professionals in their 20s and 30s have in the last couple years taken a big step by leaving Athens permanently and going back to their villages and hometowns, exploring and discovering new ways, modern methods and exciting technologies to source local products, in order to succeed and make a living during these difficult times," she tells.

"These are young people that decided to stay and fight. They didn't run away when things turned bad and this shows the strong and determined Greek spirit. They went back to their own Ithaca and, to this day, they fight with all they have to create a better life for themselves and for their country. Our country. I must admit that the passion I saw in their eyes, the sparkle of hope, made me rethink whether I would be able to return home sooner. All I know is that I definitely would like to."

Throughout the Pontian song Πατρίδα μ΄ αραεύω σε, the lyrics keep referring to the feeling most migrants experience as the years go by and that eventually comes down to the fact that, although they themselves can define their identity, others continue to view them as foreigners, even when they return home.

"In foreign lands, I am Greek and in Greece I am a foreigner," sings Kazantzidis in his song that sends shivers down the spine of every Greek migrant who grew up away from home, listening to these lyrics which resonate and will continue to do so.

Nevertheless, for the new wave of migrants, the pain and nostalgia of xenitia hasn't really 'hit home' yet. Maybe technology plays a significant role in making people feel closer than they actually are and gives the illusion of closeness, gifting migrants with the comforting feeling that distances are not as far as they appear to be on the world map. Or maybe the young migrants feel deeply betrayed and upset towards their own country that has ultimately let them down.

"I certainly didn't feel like a ξένη (foreigner) when I went back. If anything, I felt the exact opposite of that; I had a sense of belonging," Sofie admits.

"Strangely enough, I felt more Greek than ever before, although people at home have already started calling me an Αυστραλέζα (Australian), but I must admit that my first visit back filled me with a great deal of sadness for leaving Greece and for having to visit my country as a tourist from here on."

The feelings of a migrant are always mixed. People that leave their homes are forever torn between two countries; the feelings of joy and sadness are forever mixed together. Goodbyes never get easier, but gradually get harder.

"Being torn between two countries is really hard, but if there is one thing I am most certain about it is that regardless of where I am or what I do, I always have and will continue to hold Greece close to my heart."

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Some of us have hearts like swallows. Where we are born that is always the place that is home. Those that we have loved are loved forever. Every New Year the hope is for this year to return Home. To walk softly on the roads of Home without disturbing one pebble. A breeze or the sun in the morning is to feel the embrace of home. Touching certain plants and even chewing leaves and branches to keep the feel and taste of Home in the memory forever. Home is always there waiting for an eternity. Hope of return forever close. People, loved ones, cannot always be found again. When I left Home I told my cousin to tell my friend I will be back before the next summer. We saw each other every day; we did not discuss our painful parting. Fifty years later we met at Home. We slowly walked towards each other and embraced; our combined tears wetting our faces. The warmth of our bodies becoming one again. As we did in the past we found a flat rock in the Auntie’s garden away from the others on the terrace; sat down, bodies and hands touching, and talked for four hours without laughter. A cousin’s young daughter called us for dinner just as it was becoming dark. Without another word with only the movement of the head I am told to follow the cousin’s young daughter. From the terrace I looked back to see a figure in the warm humid air walking away likes a ghost. The girl asks who that person is. I could not find the words to answer, I stood still. I finally replied, “someone who holds my heart while I am away from Home”.

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