There’s No Place Like Home?

by Maria Eliades

Maria Eliades is a Greek-American writer who lives in the New York metro area but previously lived in Istanbul, Turkey for six years. She’s written on culture, politics, and literature in Greece and Turkey for places like the The Times Literary Supplement, the Ploughshares blog, Versopolis, PRI’s The World, Gastronomica, EurasiaNet. Her essays have appeared in The Journal of Levantine Studies and The Puritan. “Leaving Istanbul,” which was published in The Puritan‘s Fall 2017 issue was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and named a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2018.

The night of the 2016 presidential election, I clutch the neck of a beer bottle. It’s nine p.m., and the results are trickling onscreen. I got up at five in the morning to work at one of the polling stations in my hometown, and I’ve been cut off from the news and anything outside our room in the town library all day. On the couch in my family’s living room, I’m surrounded by my sister’s friends, all of them theatre kids in their mid-twenties. They’re starting to get agitated and upset at the results, but I’ve seen worse. Over two years before, I’d watched the results of the 2014 parliamentary election in Turkey at a friend’s apartment. We were drinking, though we weren’t sure yet whether it would be out of depression or hope. Everyone knew the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was likely to win; they did, of course, and a year later the Kurdish-run People’s Democratic Party (HDP) crossed the 10% threshold of votes needed to enter Parliament in spite of long odds, and we had another party. There was an Armenian MP in the HDP, one of the first to be elected to the Turkish parliament in decades. For once there was hope among my leftist and minority friends. What followed in the months after the 2016 coup attempt completely dismantled all of that, but my friends carried on.

In my parents’ family room, I drink my beer, and watch the screen, and watch the American twenty-somethings. I feel myself fading out of consciousness and think, That’s it, I’m going to bed. I down the last of the beer. Nothing seems to be as nerve-biting after the night of July 15, 2016, where we drank tsíporo and stayed up until three in the morning to find out if the Turkish army would overthrow the government. I know that the results will be the same on November 8 whether I see them announced at the end of the night or reported on TV first thing the next morning, but I can’t say this to the kids around me, or to anyone but other former Istanbullus. I’ve come to learn that there’s no way for Americans who have never lived abroad to understand this, and I don’t care if it just looks like I’m old at that moment.

I wake up to Donald Trump’s victory.

I’m going to have breakfast and a cup of coffee, and then handle all of this like a rational human being, I think. In these moments amid a Facebook feed full of depression, I feel like myself. The situation, a position of defeat, is familiar. I read analyses. I read reports of people not going into work for the week in New York City, or slogging through as the days go by, and I feel how thoroughly out of step I am with everyone around me. It’s the first time I really begin to understand how much my time abroad has changed me.

Before living in Turkey, I’d never taken an interest in politics. But in Istanbul, I held parties in my sparsely-furnished two bedroom apartment in Tophane that were filled with people drinking and talking politics and philosophy and life. The balcony off of my bedroom was the space where the smokers could light up, where I, too, occasionally stepped out to get some air, while looking out onto the corner bakkal, Turkey’s version of a bodega, and the kids playing in the street.

My smoking friends would turn to me and say, “Want one?”

I’d shake my head, and they’d laugh, always surprised that I hadn’t picked up the habit that seemed to be quintessential to Istanbul. But I remember those nights well, and all the times we’d meet out at the bars around Istkilal Caddesi where we’d also talk politics. Eventually, the political polarization of the city became a spoken, unbreachable divide after the Gezi Park protests in 2013. I didn’t dare bring the demonstrations up in conversation with people I knew were against them, and when I found myself arguing against conspiracy theories, I would smack up against a nationalism that hissed at me through its fangs and said that I, as the foreigner, could never understand this place.

Compared to my family, I’d lived through much less, but compared to my American counterparts, I’d lived through much more extreme situations in Turkey …

Speaking to my liberal friends in the US in my first year back in the country, I saw hopelessness in Trump’s election. I saw tears. I saw panic. To every one of them, I said that I had hope for the situation: the US has three branches of government that can balance each other out, unlike Turkey, where even courts have been brought under the control of the current president. I’d lived through that, and my family had, too. As a part of the Greek minority in Turkey, they’d lived under the uncertainties and persecutions of the Turkish system—and eventually left for the US and Greece. Compared to my family, I’d lived through much less, but compared to my American counterparts, I’d lived through much more extreme situations in Turkey, under a president who had once done so much good for the country.

But that all seems impossible to explain to anyone I meet in the US, even my friends. It becomes clear that as a repatriate, I’m an alien in my own country. When you are a repatriate, no one is hissing at you, but your compatriots, in their failure to understand your perspective, seem to suggest that you can no longer know how things stand in your home country, that there’s no way your experiences abroad can grant you insight into internal US affairs.

The US doesn’t really seem to have a great handle on what to do with repatriates overall, in fact. My home country has the highest rates of PTSD among our military around the world, and there’s even a feeling of weakness among those of us who have been abroad who aren’t able to reconnect with our “home” country. Susan J. Matt, in Homesickness: An American History, uncovers how longing for the Old World was seen as a weakness in the first colonists, even as merging with local Native American tribes was discouraged. Beyond a resistance to allowing ourselves to miss the places we’ve come from (which seems to have been implicit in the American project of creating this country), I wonder if there’s something ingrained in the American go-it-alone, Protestant, your-destiny-is-of-your-own-making spirit that forces returnees to just deal with the messy business of repatriation on their own. If Homesickness is correct, it seems that the lack of interest in my time abroad comes from an individualism born of 20th century loyalties to state and corporation over family and tribe that has produced a paradoxical insularity that is ultimately alienating. It’s against this that I find myself struggling, pulled into memories that are as tangible as what is before me in a sound or a glimpse of something at the corner of my vision, things I know that only I am building out into the whole world I left behind.

 

I ended up in that world entirely by accident, or at least that is how it seems when I think about my life trajectory up until I arrived in Istanbul in July 2009. I am the daughter of a Greek immigrant from Turkey, and the granddaughter of immigrants from Greece. In the diasporic world that I grew up in, the odds of me living abroad in the country of my father’s birth were low, let alone doing work involved with my family’s past. But of my family, it seems that I’m the one who was fated to do this work of researching the Greeks of Istanbul in the 1950s, to write, and to study Modern Greek and Turkish for a master’s degree that helped to land me a job at the best university in Turkey. Which is how it came to pass that I spent six years in the City of Cities.

Along the way, I fell in love with Istanbul, and with a man. Slowly, my life became exactly what I wanted it to be, Istanbul planting its hooks in me just as I set down my own roots, living out a reality of being employed in work I cared about, escaping the fate I likely would have lived out in the US as one of the many ill-fated graduates of the class of 2008. But my love for the man was just as powerful as my love for the city, which was how I ended up back in the US in late 2016, even though a week and a half after the coup attempt, he’d broken our engagement. Out of shock, I left anyway.

Everything I’d built up over six years, from the job at the top university to the apartment with the panoramic Golden Horn view and garden, the friends and acquaintances from various sectors and countries of origin, I’d taken apart myself, brick by brick, for him. But that had ended, too.

A year and a half after leaving Turkey, my life looked nothing like it had before. And yet, on a black, wet Saturday night in May 2017, I was standing in a park by the feet of the Brooklyn Bridge with the man again, our old lives in Istanbul gone. The out-of-our-budget River Café glowed to our right, and behind us was a tiny lighthouse that sold ice cream and hot chocolate. We were holding each other in position of will-we-or-won’t-we-kiss. It was our second “first” date. I could feel echoes of Istanbul in that moment, Ortaköy to be exact, where the lights of the Bosphorus Bridge and the lights of the kumpir (potatoes stuffed with everything imaginable from cheese and butter to pickles, sliced olives, pickled cabbage, sliced frankfurters, corn, Russian salad, and carrots) and waffle stands made for a popular couples’ and family spot. But here, we were alone, a couple that couldn’t have been the first to see the spot as the site for a first kiss. But we didn’t have our “first” kiss here. The ghost of our real first kiss in a movie theatre and our last kiss on the dark street in our old neighbourhood in Istanbul clung to us, and it wasn’t until he saw me off to my bus in Port Authority as I headed back to my parents’ house in New Jersey that I reached out to cover over the others in the hope that, while our relationship was familiar and weighted with the past, we could make it ours again in a different shape.

 

I look to books for answers to the questions of who and how to be, and I find that most repatriated writers, especially those of the Lost Generation, seem to have dealt with what happens after their return to their home countries almost too cleanly. To repatriate is to be forced into grieving, to acknowledge and remember the past to make way for the present. But many American repatriates seem to have repudiated their expatriate lives on their return. A defensive gesture, perhaps; an accommodation to the insular world they’ve come back to, or a way of coping with the fact that most of their countrymen can’t relate to the experiences that reshaped them abroad. Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast comes to mind, but so too does the work of Henry James. Susan Winnett, in Writing Back: American Expatriates’ Narratives of Return, points out that Harold Stearns, considered to have been the catalyst for the Lost Generation’s move to Paris (he moved to the city from New York in 1921), also framed his repatriation in terms of having been gone. Stearns, she says, claims repatriation as being akin to the American ideal of immigration as a fresh start. He’s pulled down, democratized; he no longer acknowledges himself as elite or different as he once did abroad. Winnett writes:

This perspective forces him to revise—but not to rescind—his critique of American society and to acknowledge the instances in which his education and pretensions had distorted his judgment. Stearns presents himself as a prodigal son whose return from Europe—and abjection—ratifies the mandate of American democracy.

Stearns goes on to compare his time in Paris to a dream that couldn’t go on forever, as if it is the distraction from “real life” in the United States.

Perhaps that attitude has been my problem all along in trying to reconcile myself with my return. I’ve been told I must be happy to be home, where I’m safe, and that I’ll have such great stories to tell my grandchildren someday—which all fits into a white, non-ethnic, patriarchal narrative of the temporary sojourn or Grand Tour, in which one encounters the foreign from a distance but never stays long enough to establish a real connection or sympathy with the place. And then in coming back, too, I struggle with seeming “just like everyone else.”

My expatriation was in its own way a repatriation, and my return is thus more complicated.

In returning, part of me has bought into this idea of the temporary trip abroad as a rite of passage or youthful lark, even though the idea doesn’t fit my personal narrative. My story is that of an ethnic American who went abroad to understand herself, make her way in the world, and come into herself through another form of homecoming

My expatriation was in its own way a repatriation, and my return is thus more complicated. I belong and I don’t belong in Greece and Turkey, places that are in my blood, but where I didn’t grow up. Living abroad in my twenties to understand myself couldn’t be more American, but it is also an intrinsically diasporic journey. I had to leave the assumed Western European and Western Christian dominant culture of the United States to find the space to know and embody myself. I had to live among my family’s ghosts to reclaim parts of my family’s narrative that had been lost in translation or in the things inevitably left behind in a move.

What Stearns and James experienced overseas bear the trappings of Western European Americans who went abroad to affirm and measure the American way, a path modelled by globetrotters like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Fenimore Cooper, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, or Mark Twain. As for Henry James, Winnett says that his early novels mostly concern “American travelers confronting Europe’s ‘traditions, glamour, polish, and culture’”—an encounter that is true still for someone who is solely a “white” American with no traces of an ethnic claim to the world, or a claim that is long forgotten. While I was shaped by their world and by American values, I was never going to be exactly like those men in my expatriation, let alone my repatriation.

I try again and again to pin down the experience of repatriation while living through the supposed steps—the honeymoon phase where you’re in love with your home country, the crisis where you freak out about everything that’s different and have no idea who you are any more, the recovery where you start to rebalance yourself, and the adjustment where you accept being back and adapt—but if there was a honeymoon, it was brief, and I feel I’ve been stuck in the crisis step for far longer. All of it feels like a lie, like those who have created these steps never truly experienced them, or that they smoothed the experience into a coherent and ostensibly comforting chart that promises recovery—which must be how I sound to everyone when I say everything’s going to be okay in the daily insanity of the 45th presidency.

My repatriation was never going to match that of the expat on assignment overseas or of those white men who shaped US politics and culture. Perhaps it was always going to be fractured and difficult to pin down because there is no ready-made spot for me to step into, or because the roughness of the experience was what it was meant to be, and in my own relative youth, like that of my country, the disruption of expatriation has freaked me out. In that way, my own anxieties match the initial paralysis, now frenzy, of American liberals.

 

A month before our second “first” date, a message in a Facebook group propelled me and my then-ex back into contact. In an email, he tells me, “Life’s too short to be coy”—a motto I adopted years ago from a literature professor whose full, black beard and stature reminded me of Hagrid. He tells me that he’s deeply sorry for how he handled the breakup. He tells me that he wants to be with me, that he wants to keep the promise he made to me over a year ago, and that he still loves me. The love hadn’t gone away, he writes, and he doesn’t know if there’s any room for him in my heart, but there’s tons of room for me in his. It goes on like this, that he wants us to do the work to figure this out together. He wants to meet and talk.

“Please know the conversation wouldn’t be should we or shouldn’t we do this,” he writes. He’s in, he says, and I can take my time in responding.

When I do respond, it’s because the love I had for him never went away, either, and by May 2017, we’ve started dating again, dating in a way that we never had in our heady beginning. Our relationship had begun as a long-distance, intense exchange of letters over email and phone calls that were more intimate and sped up than they would have been had we done the usual dinner and a movie and then a drink (our preferred way of doing things so that we could talk about the film afterwards). We’d shared not one, but three apartments together. We’d done the domestic tasks of chores and cleaning up before and after a party together. We’d even had a cat together. Our books had mingled on the shelves, his hulking photography volumes steady answers to my double-stacked piles of paperbacks that threatened to dislodge with one more book stuck in the back.

We’d done all of that, and then we had our second first date, a first step in remaking what was in the next, and better version of us, a slow process of doing and undoing as we look at everything that went into our breakup to be able to change. Very slowly, we do.

 

To be a repatriate is to be reminded that, for better and for worse, nothing is permanent. It reaffirms what all expatriates who stay abroad learn in order to survive: that life and the self are always in flux, that we must be okay with change. But to be a repatriate is also to be reminded that we don’t have to accept the world around us as the permanent or right one. This is what I think about when confronted by the state of American politics after my return—not that it is easy, not that it doesn’t take an effort. Repatriation is an act of choosing, even in grief, to carry on with the new self in a strange but familiar country, and to pick oneself up even after the collapse of one’s previously known reality.

In this neighbourhood of New York, where my father’s family first settled when they arrived in the US, and where my mother’s family also eventually settled, I have established new routines.

There are days when I remember my life in Istanbul with grief, but there are others when I know that I and others like me are made by our other lives, and that what we lived is an unseen undercurrent in everything we see and do. We go forward, always forward, in seeking a trace of what we had in our current lives. Sometimes we take steps back into those lives with others who understand them.

On a grey fall day in Astoria, I wake up to a wave of nostalgia. I’m in the apartment I’ve been sharing with three roommates since I managed to find full-time work. It’s sunny outside, or so it seems from the light filtered through the paper shade over my window, but that feeling, that clenching, tender feeling around my heart, is still there.

In this neighbourhood of New York, where my father’s family first settled when they arrived in the US, and where my mother’s family also eventually settled, I’ve established new routines. I shop at the giant fruit and vegetable market that reminds me of the manav I went to in Kurtuluş. I walk to cafes to write before work in the morning, and sometimes on the weekends as well when I feel too trapped in my own apartment to write alone. I very quickly grow to love my roommate’s affectionate and talkative cat, even though her fur comes off in clumps when I pet her, and take to spotting the three tomcats who climb into our backyard. My ex, now my boyfriend, lives just a fifteen-minute walk away.

But on that fall morning, I longed to be somewhere else. I wanted to wait for the bus to the Şişhane metro stop and walk along the path to Boğaziçi University’s campus as the Bosphorus unfurled into view below, my path impeded by cats lolling in the sun.

I step outside to head to work, and the sky is Istanbul grey. Light rain wets the sidewalk.

The mood I woke up with feels justified, and it’s in that grey, lightly raining mist that Istanbul swells in me. I feel that I need to walk downhill quickly to catch the ferry to Kadıköy. The tangibility of the docks, and the water lapping up and over the pier as a row of amateur fishermen cast their lines is strong, as strong as it was when I first returned to the US, in the first shock of seeing green outside my parents’ kitchen window, to the feeling after Trump’s election that I’d been through this all before, that the cast of Turkish politics had followed me home.

My longing for the city crescendos with the desire to have a cup of tea in one of those bulb-shaped, clear tea glasses with a simit, a circular bread rolled in sesame seeds and glazed with molasses while sitting at the top deck of the ferry, staring at the Bosphorus through one of those scratched, rounded windows. In my mind I’m there, watching the seagulls and the water and the heat rise from my cup, the day outside damp and grey in the way that I always loved.

But in this grey November day in New York, I take my huzun with me to work, not knowing what to do with it. So I carry it, and accept that this grief over a city and a life I loved more than I could know may always be with me. Our pasts are not illusions, and the fact that we remember them means that we will find our way back to them, even if our lives and ourselves after are forever altered.

I message my boyfriend to tell him about the huzun and the longing for tea. It’s a month after Ara Güler, an Istanbul-born Armenian photographer whose black and white photos of the city from the 1950s not only shaped my own understanding and visual sense of the time period, but so embodied the city for others that he was dubbed “The Eye of Istanbul.” My boyfriend has sent me a New Yorker article where Güler describes waiting for a cat in Istanbul to pass by for an hour and a half just for the perfect composition.

“God damn that cat!” Güler exclaims, and I laugh, despite my mood, and tell my boyfriend that I’m feeling nostalgic.

“Is that good or bad,” he asks.

“Not sure,” I write back. “Woke up that way. And now the rain makes me want to board a ferry at Karaköy just to stare at the water while drinking tea and eating simit.”

“I hear that,” he writes, and I know that he does, and with that slight comfort, I begin my day in New York.

 


Maria Eliades is a Greek-American writer who lives in the New York metro area but previously lived in Istanbul, Turkey for six years. She’s written on culture, politics, and literature in Greece and Turkey for places like the The Times Literary Supplement, the Ploughshares blog, Versopolis, PRI’s The World, Gastronomica, EurasiaNet. Her essays have appeared in The Journal of Levantine Studies and The Puritan. “Leaving Istanbul,” which was published in The Puritan‘s Fall 2017 issue was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and named a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2018.

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