The longer I stay in the United States the more I realize how much things have changed since I lived here thirty-five years ago, and the more I realize too how unprepared I was to make the leap from Greece to the USA. I was used to the more relaxed pace of life in Greece. Greeks like things the way they have always been; they change slowly and only under great duress. The modernity in young people is in the trappings, not in the essence. Young people will wear the latest fashions, use computers and cell phones, listen to the latest songs and watch the latest films. But deep down they are very traditional and most, in a pinch, will defer to their parents, grandparents, and other relatives. That’s the trouble with the political system too, and their inability to deal with the current economic crisis: they are reactionary about it all. They would just as soon have it all go away so they could get on with life as it has always been, and so they keep trying to put Band-aids on the cancer, instead of going all out, uprooting and ripping out the stinking, decrepit, rotten, corrupt mess that their political and economic system has been for many years, a system that is so far behind the times that it can never hope to heal the country, and planting something new and young and thriving.
I too had got enmeshed in that feeling that things could rock along as they had been, that nothing basic ever had to change, that if we ignored all the problems eventually they would work themselves out. It’s a mindset that, once in, it is very hard to pull out of. You lose all your resolve, all your initiative, all your courage, all your zeal. It’s a sort of death, though a pleasant sort of death in a limbo of unconcern. If we wait long enough everything will get back to normal. In the meantime, our only recourse is to complain. That’s what the protesters in the major cities in Greece are up to: they are reacting to the crisis in anger, but without any solution in mind – indeed, without any clear idea that their protest will do any good whatsoever. It is more of a temper tantrum than anything else. They want to make their frustrations known. But anger management classes alone won’t solve the problems, nor will pretending they don’t exist. Clear, intelligent, original thinking is the key. The intelligence is there, to be sure; however, in the face of overwhelmingly powerful tradition, it is the originality that is lacking.
The economic crisis hit us, personally, as a family, hard. Our salaries dwindled and benefits disappeared as taxes increased. The government began sending out extra arbitrary tax bills for hundred of Euros. It was not only us, though. People all around, our neighbors and friends, were laid off right and left. Businesses closed. It got to be that as I rode a bus from the outskirts of Thessaloniki to downtown it was unusual to see any city block in which at least one or more businesses had not been forced to close and put the space up for rent. It was a disaster of major proportions.
Yet still I tarried. I had expected to retire in Greece, to spend the rest of my days there, to enjoy the incomparable summers with the clear clean bathwater-warm waters of the seas, the slower pace of life, and so on. And retire there I might have, had I been concerned only with myself and my own needs. We might have muddled by somehow.
But my sons were growing up, and I saw them trapped in this lassitude – not indifference, to be sure, but inability to see a way out of the problem. The young people are the hardest hit in Greece. There are no jobs for them, apart from positions in the businesses of family and friends, and even these businesses face bankruptcy and ruin. For my sons, there was nowhere to turn. There was nowhere to go. If they remained there they might grow up stunted, unable to realize their potential, unable to fulfill their destiny.
So I decided to rise up from my own lassitude, my own torpor, my own indifference, and move on to the United States and create a new home for them, to transplant them to a new world, a new life, a new situation in which hopefully they would be able to thrive.
To do that, though, I had to abandon my old life, my job, my home, everything we had built up for so long, leave it all behind and start fresh, with nothing. And for that I was unprepared. I didn’t realize how difficult it would be. I thought I could do it with ease, almost nonchalantly. I had traveled through many countries in the past; I had adjusted to many different cultures; I had learned languages, customs, and so on.
But truth be told, I was not ready for this. It was a shock to me. But it is not the US itself that is the problem. To the contrary, I have been, for the most part, pleasantly surprised about the way the US has changed since I used to live here. I have a better feeling about the country in general than I had back in the confusing era of the mid-70s.
No, the problem has been me. It has been hard for me to adjust to the change. “Revolution is a young man’s game,” says Dennis Hopper to Kiefer Sutherland in “Flashback”, one of my favorite movies. I’m almost sixty, and here I am starting from scratch again. I don’t want to scrape and struggle like I used to – I want to kick back and write my stories and memoirs and let the rest of the world go by.
I was talking about this via Internet video feed with my oldest son yesterday, and the subject came up of how totally unprepared I was to look for a new job. What it always boils down to is determination, of course. I wouldn’t say I was dragging my feet – I realize the necessity and I have been making the effort, but some vital ingredients have been missing, the lack of which put me at a distinct disadvantage.
First of all, I have no address. I have an e-mail address, of course, and in this day and age for many purposes it will suffice. But even the companies and businesses which do most of their hiring online ask for your home address, and all I have been able to do is provide them with the address of the hotel at which I stay. I suppose it’s a step up from living on the street, but not by much. A few nights ago I was taking a walk on the Pacific Beach boardwalk and I spotted a young man with his computer propped up on his suitcase, typing away furiously. I walked up and asked him if he’d come there to work on the great American novel, but no, it turned out he was transient and was just texting friends. He claimed he was homeless, but he had family back east, and he had a state-of-the-art computer that was much better than mine, and he had expensive-looking luggage. I recalled my own hitchhiking days when I traveled with nothing but my duffle bag slung over my shoulder. I never thought of myself as homeless back then, but in the midst of a great adventure. Be that as it may, prospective employers may not look kindly on the lack of an address.
Another thing I have lacked is a telephone. Employers always want you to have a phone number. I have been giving the phone number of the hotel, but it’s a rather old, cut-rate hotel and there are not even phones in the rooms. Prospective employers would either have to wait until I was called, or leave a message at the desk.
And the third thing I haven’t had is suitable clothes. For years I dressed more nicely, more formally, than I do now. Even when we lived in Bangladesh we would go down to a clothing bazaar in Old Town in Dhaka and find nice clothes for bargain prices. Those clothes were supposed to have been donations to be given away free to the poor, but they always found their way onto the black market. When I started out as an English teacher in Greece I used to dress in slacks, dress shirts, and leather shoes, but several years ago I decided I wanted to lessen the teacher/student gap and I began to dress more as the students dressed, in jeans and sweatshirts. The owners of the schools had no objections, so that’s what I did. Gradually the shirts and slacks drifted out of my wardrobe, until now all I have left are several pairs of jeans, a number of sweatshirts, and polo shirts for the summer. I am woefully unprepared for any sort of serious job interview. My son had a good laugh, in fact, when I explained what clothes I had brought with me. He suggested several retailers at which I might find suitable replacements.
I share this story of my inexperience and unpreparedness not to grope for sympathy but to emphasize the enormity of the change I let myself in for. I suppose I could have prepared better, had I the time, and that would have cushioned the shock. As it is, though, I made the leap and now I am dealing with the consequences. Some adjustments are easier to make than others. At least I speak the language here, and I can’t tell you what a relief that is. I haven’t lived in a country where English is the primary language for thirty-five years. Think of it. I had all but forgotten the luxury of not having a constant struggle with communication, with understanding and being understood. It’s a great relief to be able to relax in that area.
In some things adjustment will come quickly, others will take time. I am still in a rather advanced stage of culture shock. But my confidence grows, day by day, that my sons and I will be able to make a home in this new land.