You are the sea, and I your castaway.
On a humid summer afternoon in 1976, a few months before my ninth birthday, my mother emerged from her bedroom, walked to the garden of our house in Argentina and unfolded a large piece of cardboard on which she had meticulously outlined the conjugation of irregular verbs in the Greek language. It was her way of letting us know that she was leaving my father and moving to the Greek islands.
That same summer, my parents gave my sister, my two brothers and me a choice. We could either stay with my father in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, or follow my mother to the island of Rodos (known elsewhere as Rhodes), where she was planning to rent a house and become a piano teacher.
At the time, I felt that Greece and the Mediterranean had an irresistibly exotic aura about them. Rodos seemed like the obvious choice to me, the youngest of the family. Besides, who would want to stay with my father? He was a short, choleric little bald man who spent hardly any time at home. Once, he had slapped my sister, then kicked her when she fell to the ground. It was an image I had never been able to forget. I was shocked when my siblings told me they had decided to stay with him.
A few weeks later, I found myself in a schoolyard, surrounded by a crowd of smiling Greek kids whose language I didn’t speak. The classes (history of the Byzantine Empire and European geography, to name two) felt excruciatingly boring, since I couldn‘t understand a word of what the teachers were saying. Frightened to death by the whole experience, I wrote home asking my father to get me out of the island as soon as he could. Somehow, he never did.
I ended up spending eight years in Rodos. And to this day, my feelings about the experience are contradictory. I can only say that I hated those eight years with the same passion that I loved them. There was no middle ground. It was, at all times, a combination of extremes.
It took me a couple of years, but eventually I learned the language. I had a stack of comic books in Greek that I was trying to read, week after week, without success. One Friday night, I picked one of them up and, miraculously, was able to understand the entire thing. I spent all that weekend reading. On Monday, I went back to school and found myself speaking Greek fluently. It was bizarre, almost like a dream.
Around that time, I started to realize that there was a strange, ethereal beauty about the Greek language, with its harsh sounds, ancient alphabet, wealth of vocabulary and the way it lent itself to an acid humor. School was a bit of a challenge. When I was 12, a teacher by the name of Mrs. Fotara made us read The Iliad. The following year we tackled The Odyssey. It was sensuous and savage and intoxicating, as thoroughly unforgettable as the first time you make love.
I was 17 when I left Greece, and I felt like someone who’d been given back his freedom after spending years in jail. I didn‘t tell anybody I was leaving, not even my closest friends. I just disappeared . . . vanished as if I’d never been there in the first place, with the conscious decision never to spend even a single moment reminiscing about my days in Rodos.
Ironically, Greece and the Greek language have haunted me since then, even here in Glendale, where I live with my wife and daughter. Sometimes I‘ll be telling them a story, and, for a brief moment while I’m searching for the right expression, a Greek word will unexpectedly come to my mind. I always smile when that happens, because the word, no matter how accurate, is completely useless to me at that moment. But it will usually stay with me for the rest of the day, and at night its sound will resonate in my head just before I fall asleep.
The Greek language is essential to the music of Angelique Ionatos, a singer-songwriter from Greece who lives and records in Paris. Ionatos left her homeland at age 15, when her father decided that he had had enough of the dictatorship that plagued Greece during the early ‘70s. Her father, Ionatos emphasizes over the phone in perfect Greek, wasn’t involved in politics. He was just a free spirit.
At first, Ionatos was happy to leave and experience ”something new.“ Soon enough, however, she was overwhelmed by nostalgia. Then she started reading the works of some remarkable poets: Constantine Cavafy, Odysseus Elytis, Yannis Ritsos. In a way, Ionatos theorizes, she had to leave in order to rediscover her culture and fall in love with it. ”It was the nostalgia that inhabited me that brought me closer to poetry,“ she says.
On her latest album, the moody, cinematic D‘Un Bleu Tres Noir, Ionatos explores, once again, the words of Cavafy and Elytis, turning them into melancholy songs with the help of an austere acoustic ensemble that includes guitar, violin, bass, clarinet and a plaintive bandoneon (an accordionlike instrument used predominantly in tango music). Ionatos also finds inspiration in the lyrics of Arleta, whom one might call the Greek equivalent of Joni Mitchell, an outstanding singer-songwriter virtually unknown outside of her country. Arleta has a way with the Greek language, and when Ionatos sings, ”Thalassa esiKai ego o navagos souStin angalia sou pethaino kai zo“ (You are the seaAnd I your castawayIn your arms I live and die), you can feel Ionatos’ own yearning for the homeland she left behind.
Listening to D‘Un Bleu Tres Noir, with its scattered moments of melodramatic fury and bitter contemplation, I thought about the kind of fleeting, insignificant memories that still hurt so much when they are remembered. I saw the snow-covered mountains of Turkey, which I would glimpse whenever the school bus made an abrupt turn on the northern tip of Rodos. I smelled the greasy cheese pies an old, toothless lady would sell in the schoolyard. I remembered the stuffed two-headed goat displayed with pride at the island’s aquarium, the one that, in later years, was taken away because it was ”too intense a spectacle for the youngsters of Rodos.“ I saw the face of Koula, a pretty classmate with big, dark eyes who died of cancer when we were both 12. I heard the bells of the Orthodox church on the narrow working-class street where I used to live. I touched the soft fur of a scrawny black cat who would come to my yard looking for the bits of sesame bread dipped in oil I‘d leave for him on empty cans of sardines. Finally, I saw the silhouette of the slim, tall neighborhood girl, the one with the proud smile and the thick eyebrows, the one for whom I’d stand for hours in front of my window, waiting for her to walk by so that I could pretend that I was just standing there, as if by chance, and our eyes just happened to meet.
The thing is, you don‘t need to understand Greek in order to appreciate the darkness in Ionatos’ music. It‘s like the blues, really — even if you don’t pay attention to the words, the message is loud and clear. Same with Ionatos. Her voice is stormy and unpredictable, her music solemn and hypnotic. Her ferocious sense of drama leaves you feeling light and airy.