Friday, October 8, 2010

Greek America in "Unexpected" Places (GRAMUP 1)

They keep appearing in rather unexpected sources: An American poet’s memoir of his experiences in Greece; a Greek novelist’s autobiographical writing; a British literature professor’s account of life in Athens. I refer to stories about people and events related to Greek America: A narrative of how an immigrant becomes wealthy, the experience of an American wife living in a Greek village, a Greek American who starts a new life in Greece, adoption practices among Greek Americans.

These discoveries take place during “spare-time” reading, challenging my research habits and assumptions. I wouldn’t have normally turned to a memoir of a British professor, say, to locate a Greek American tall tale; I would have first and foremost sought for it in folkloric sources. Yet, to my delight, it popped up in a story told by a British classics teacher to a British professor, all this in the port of Aegina. These are the treasures that “random” reading may reward to a researcher.

We shouldn’t be surprised, however. As immigration and ethnic routes inextricably sustain complex networks connecting Greece with places beyond its borders, narratives unfolding in Greece are bound to frequently include transnational dimensions. This directs us to contemplate the following: One could read Greek as well as American texts with an aim to draw out the transnational aspects of Greek worlds. Once the archive is processed in this manner one could imagine the production of new mappings of how people, ideas, and material goods circulate across borders, transnationally.

I will start reporting these dimensions for greater visibility. (In fact my earlier blog entry on Henry Miller has been an initial step on this kind of reporting.) In this manner, this blog may offer yet another unexpected source for locating Greek American research material.

Here is an entry:

A Greek American Tall Tale

“It was Gerald [Thompson, a British classics teacher] who told me the history of Bessie's. It has its beginnings in New York. There, at the very end of the nineteenth century, a Greek immigrant, let's call him Yannis, read in his newspaper that a family of Greek extraction was looking for someone to accompany the coffin of a relative back to Greece for burial in native ground. Naturally, the successful applicant, in order to deal with local officials and their requirements, would have to speak good Greek and be conversant with Greek burial customs, and he could expect to be well paid for his work. He would also receive a free return steamship ticket to New York. Yannis applied, was accepted, and set sail with his unusual cargo. As the boat neared its destination, Yannis for some reason decided to take a peek inside the coffin. Surprise, surprise. There was no body. There was, however, a box which, when prised open, proved to contain gold bars and jewellery. By the time the ship docked at Piraeus the gold and jewels had become part of our man's property. He then made for Aegina, though why is not revealed, where he used the money to build a hotel in the middle of the island, conveniently near the temple of Afaia, so that the visitors who came from far and near to wander about the place would have somewhere to lay their weary bones. His mother, who was put in charge of the hotel, was called Bessie, and before long the hotel itself was called Bessie's. Unfortunately, the visitors did not come in sufficient numbers and after a few years the hotel was converted into a sanatorium for TB sufferers, to whom it could be recommended because of the clear piney air, and because surrounding herds of goats guaranteed plentiful supplies of milk which was then held to be essential to the successful treatment of TB. But not wanting to give up on the hotel business, Yannis opened another establishment down on the waterfront, once more taking his mother's name – presumably to throw off the scent anyone from the outsmarted new york set who might have come looking for him” (154–155).

Lucas, John. 2007. 92 Acharnon Street. London Eland.

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