To be ten years old and living in a foreign country is a blessing. It allows one to broaden the mind at an impressionable age. To be a Military Brat and used to moving constantly is to understand that you are an Ambassador to the World, and to live the rest of your life with that understanding.
From the ages of eight to eleven, I lived on the island of Crete, Greece. My father was stationed at Iraklion Air Station – a staff sergeant between the port city, Iraklion and the sea-side town, Hersonissos, where we lived for a year before moving on base. These were the mid-70s, and America had just celebrated the bi-centennial. We were black Americans at that, stared at wherever we went. Whether it be the ruins of Knossos palace where the ghost of the Minotaur lurked, cobblestoned villages high on Mount Edna or outdoor Markets in the bustling towns and cities, the reaction was the same: smiles, stares and friendly greetings, because black Americans were an anomaly back then, rarely seen by foreigners outside of the United States. We enjoyed a freedom of expression and action that has not been lost upon me and has formed the person that I am today. I lived each day in a state of wonder, exploring my surroundings with other American children.
I remember one Greek family quite well. A husband, his wife and their son, Monoli. They lived a few houses down from us, in the town of Hersonissos. Behind our house lay a few more old houses and an olive grove that marked the end of town. Past the grove, the island rose precipitously into the sky. I remember it as a wall of green, crisscrossed by slate-gray roads and the alabaster veneer of tiny walls, climbing the mountainous slope.
From the roof of our apartment, I could see the blue-purple waters of the Mediterranean sea. The houses were of different designs, but conforming to a type that might be called tropical, being painted a uniform white and stylistically box-like. The buildings were separated by narrow streets that, in those years, held more donkey and scooter traffic than automobiles.
Each morning my sister, Maya, and I would catch the American bus to school with the other Brats, always a wild bunch, given to loud expression and unruly solidarity. The dramas of childhood were no different for us than with other kids, even though we were being raised in a foreign country. Our play was no different from normal American childrens, unless you count speaking non-native languages and playing on exotic beaches, valleys and mountainsides as unusual. Past the 8th Grade, the Brats were sent to the mainland to Zaragoza, Spain to live in dormitories and attend school.
Each afternoon, we would get off the bus down on the main street through town and walk up the hill; me, Maya, and a few other children who lived near us. Monoli would be out front every day, running around, pretending he was riding a scooter. He spoke no English, but he and I would smile at each other and play in the same vicinity, although we never really played together. There was something of a rivalry between the Greek kids and the American kids. Our little gangs would throw dirt clods and chase each other through the back streets, cursing the best we knew how, with us Americans using the Greek words for shut up and other terms that we thought were curse words, but probably werent.
There was one house in particular, a small, gray-boarded shack with dirty, dark windows that we were particularly afraid of. It was the house of the Octopus Man. I dont recall why we called him that, or why we were afraid of his house, since I dont remember ever seeing him. But we did used to sneak up to the window and peer cautiously within then run, screaming away to gather in small groups, whispering about what we had seen inside.
Monolis family was friendly with my own. His mother spoke a little English, and got along well with my mother. I dont ever remember our fathers ever speaking, but then, fathers dont run households; mothers do. For 6 months, we lived on that hill in Greece, overlooking the sea before the relationship between our families progressed to the point where we were invited into their home. I was very excited by this and remember being quite impatient on the eve of our visit.
With my parents leading the way, we marched to Monolis door. His mother answered with a beautiful smile, ushering us in. Their house wasnt so different from our own, although they owned theirs and lived in both the upper and lower apartments, while we lived only in the upper apartment of our building.
The smell was wondrous, but before I could determine its source, Monoli took my hand and pulled me back to his room, where he enthusiastically began showing me Greek comic books, in black and white. We were having a great time, so I was very surprised when my father came to the room, not 15 minutes later, to tell me it was time to go.
As we walked back to the front door, Monolis parents were in the hall with my mother and sister, their expressions anxious. I took this time to look around, and in the room immediately to my right, there was a table, laid out with all kinds of food. I could see what I later learned was calamari, cooked squid, and snails, and other steaming, scrumptious dishes. There was so much food, the table was piled high with it. I wanted to eat, wanted to try the snails and the other unfamiliar food, but, at the time, I remember thinking that we must not be invited to dinner, because we were apparently leaving without getting to eat. I remember being disappointed, but leaving with my family, never to return again.
After that, Monoli didnt smile at me anymore. His face would drop and he would get quiet when I walked by, or his mother would call him into the house. I never saw my mother speak to his again, either. Being so young, I had no conception of social mores and what happened when they were broken. It wasnt until many years later that I found out we had left their house without eating because my parents didnt recognize the food and felt uncomfortable, leaving despite our hosts protestations. My parents hadnt realized that we had been invited to dinner, but when they found out, rather than sit down to eat they had decided to leave.
We had broken a social code, a human code, and, thereafter, were shunned by that family. I knew something had happened, something that had disturbed some somnolent archetype, provoking an automatic response that was primal in nature. But those were undercurrents that I would only become aware of as an adult, remembering.
At the same time, I learned that it was possible to form bonds with people from different countries despite the fact that we didnt speak the same language. To be an American, an Ambassador to the World from the Greatest Country in the World, was imprinted upon us, reinforced every day by the Pledge of Allegiance at school, and at 1200 hours and 1700 hours, when the Star Spangled Banner and God Bless America would play on the base-wide intercom and all traffic would still in nationalistic reverence.
I would put that prescient knowledge into practice years later when I became a soldier, stationed in Germany, living with and loving people with whom I had little in common other than a shared sense of humanity, potential and a love of art, music and dancing.
I sometimes wonder how Monolis life has turned out. And when I think of that little island and the two years that we lived there, my heart warms, in synch with the tropical sun and the crashing of frothy, emerald waves upon oil-dotted, white sands.
Maya visited Crete again some years ago and told me that the island had changed; become more touristy, with hotels and dirt replacing older homes and open spaces filled with the distinctive, ochre grass. The magical, tree-sheltered brooks and seemingly ancient courtyards that embellish my recollections may still exist, but the echo of our lives on that distant island is long gone, as is the official, American presence. But the olive groves, craggy, cliff-side highways and ancient trees still recede from the coast up into the highlands, where the crass visitation of ogling sight-seers is much less intrusive or destructive to native life.
Someday I hope to return to Crete with my children, so they can perhaps glimpse some echo of my distant and unusual past in the excitement of my expressions and memories. I firmly believe that we can only know who we are by reconciling ourselves with who we have been. By projecting the best of now and then into the future and who we want to become.