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Thursday, 31 May 2012

Assimilation (Αφομοίωση)

My friend Betty recently told me that she found travelling not so much fun these days. Before you even get on the plane, you are exhausted, after what you have to go through at the airport check-in. If you left your last destination as clean and tidy as you possibly can be when you are on the road, you often find your spirits dampened and nerves rattled when you realise that you have to remove most of your clothing and accessories at the security check-in and go through a touchy-feely session with unsmiling customs officials.

The way short-haul flights like to work these days is by economising as much as possible, so it's really cheap to book flights months in advance (when you don't really know if you will be in a position to be able to travel). If you want to take a suitcase with you, you have to pay extra money; you won't be served anything to eat or drink either - you can only have what you buy on board or from the expensive airport shops. Seat allocation goes on a first-in, first-served basis: if you line up first at the gate, you can run into the plane first and grab the best seats according to your preferences (I hate waiting in queues; we are always the last to board a plane). But if you want to be assured of a good seat, you have to pay for that as well, through some kind of speedy boarding service, which of course we never do because it adds unnecessarily to the costs of a trip. In essence, there is no guarantee that you will end up sitting together as a family: out of kindness (and not as a general rule), flight attendants may try to help out families with young children to be seated together - you can be guaranteed the last seats at the back, near the toilets and the kitchen area (we've sat here at least three times).

Thus we thought our journey would begin, from Amsterdam to Berlin via easyJet. But this is Holland, the land of perfection (despite a huge train crash in Amsterdam the day we arrived and the fall of the government one day later). When the official handling the boarding pass check-in saw my kids, she directed us to the priority boarding area. This is how we ended up sitting at the front of the aeroplane (for once). The flight was a very short one - less than 90 minutes - so the plane was small. I took a window-middle seat with my son, while my husband did the same with our daughter in the same row on the other side of the aisle.

An older-looking gentleman, not very tall, of medium-build, eventually came along and took the spare aisle seat next to me. He lifted his old-fashioned leather satchel up into the space for hand luggage. No one asked him if he was able to do this by himself, which made me feel uncomfortable, since I wondered if he really did need help. Northern Europeans tend to have a remote unemotional detached look on their faces; they never show how they really feel. The man did indeed seem to have a very severe looking face: his lips extended downwards, making a few dents next to them in the form of a sad smile, but his face was not wrinkled. Eventually, he managed to place his bag in the locker, and slowly sidled into the narrow space to take his seat.

"Please lift up your table before the flight attendant tells you," I asked my son. Like all children, he was curious as to everything in his immediate surroundings. It's not every day we get on planes. I spoke in English as I usually do when I give my children instructions. English is a good language for the use of imperatives. It is neutral and unemotional, coming off like a direct easy-to-understand message. The reason attached to speaking English in our house usually has to do with "Mother's telling us what to do". When I speak to my children in Greek, we may be telling jokes, or discussing what happened at school, or other such fun stuff.  When English is used, it's usually for something serious. These subtle distinctions are often made sub-consciously in bilingual families. They aren't always a good thing, but sometimes they help to maintain a workable system with constant language-switching.

After take-off, I took out my map of Berlin to check the route we would take to the hotel. Where was the hotel again? I decided to ask the man sitting next to me.

"Um, excuse me, do you speak English?"

"Nein," he answered. He clearly wasn't Dutch. I have yet to meet someone from Holland that does not speak English.

"Deutsch*?" I asked.

"Ja."

"Wieviel Zeit von Flughafen zu Berlin Stadt?" I asked, showing him my map. I understood that the airport was in Berlin, but the man didn't have his glasses with him, so he couldn't see my map clearly. I asked about the buses and trains from the airport to the city, but the information I got wasn't very clear, since I wasn't being very clear myself about where I wanted to go. At one point, my son asked me about something he wanted to write in his diary:

"Mama, what was the name of the city we visited yesterday in Holland?" he asked me in Greek.

"We went to the Hague," I answered, also in Greek. I turned my head round to watch the cabin crew pushing the food trolley past us.

It was at this point that the old man sitting next to me smiled. And then he did something esle that surprised me. He put his palm on my arm, and he spoke softly: "All this time we have been sitting next to each other, and we have treated each other like strangers. Neither of us has realised that we are both Greek." He spoke in perfect Greek, untainted by any accent, but with perhaps a slow and possibly clearer voice than he would have been used to speaking in had we been having this conversation in Greece.

The man explained that he had been living in Berlin for nearly sixty years, having left his hometown of Trikeri in Southern Pilio as a young man soon after the war. He was very proud of the fact that he spoke German "better than a German himself" as he told me, and although he used to visit family and friends in Volos more often in the past, now in his old age (he was 83), it was getting more difficult, even though all his sisters and brothers were still alive there. But we were travelling from Amsterdam to Berlin. What was he doing there? The answer to that turned out to be a very sad story. He had attended the funeral of one of his brothers, who had also left Greece after the war and settled there.

When we left the plane, it was hard to say good-bye to the man. But his age prevented him from walking as fast as we did; even though we were laden with luggage and were towing children, we were still too quick. "I want to run," he said, "but my legs just don't let me." We all laughed and wished him well, as he did too, waving to us in the corridor, like friends farewelling each other, knowing that they will see each other again, without being quite sure where that would be. We were all laughing, not because we thought it was funny to come across a Greek stranger on a flight from Amsterdam to Berlin, but because we did not expect this to happen. Just when we expected to find ourselves among strangers wherever we travelled, we realised that no one need be a stranger wherever they are.


* for the uninitiated, the Dutch language is called Nederlands in Dutch, while the German language is called Deutsch in German.

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