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Home at Last

by on May 27, 2020 5:00 AM


I’m no Odysseus and I wandered for 10 months, not 10 years, but it was hard not to feel like the hero of my own epic journey when I turned the key to my front door last week.

We’d been away so long, I turned it the wrong way, which made for a pleasing symmetry with our first fumblings with the door of our apartment in Greece.

Here’s a last look back at our time away, the last part of which became a crazy time for us all.

August: While visiting friends in Rhinebeck, N.Y., we go to a diner for a working breakfast. When we ask our waitress for the Wi-Fi password she hands us the detachable strip from the page of a restaurant order pad. The password is “Thessaloniki.” Cue the “Twlight Zone” music. Thessaloniki is where we’re planning to spend the next nine months. Why that password? It’s the diner owner’s hometown. 

October: Why do I love Greece? We’re on the ferry that plies the waters between Thessaloniki and its beaches. Some passengers hop off at the first pier, then realize they wanted the second pier. They run back toward the ferry, hoping to get back on. I assume they’re too late: The crew has slipped the hawsers off the bollards and cast off. They have a schedule to keep. It’s extra work to reverse course, tie up again and lower the gangplank. Sorry, guys. Catch the next one. But that’s not what happens. The ferry comes back.

January: As a Jewish gentleman, I take a great interest in the tiny remnant of Thessaloniki’s once-thriving Jewish community. When I learn that Jacky Benmayor is teaching a class in Ladino – the language spoken by the Jews booted out of Spain in the 15th century – I ask to sit in. Benmayor’s class is translating a proverb: A lókas palávras, sóđras oréjas. (To crazy words, deaf ears.) It would prove to be excellent advice in the face of President Trump’s daily coronavirus press briefings. 

February: I while away the morning with my local butcher, Makis Tsironis, the kind of shopkeeper who knows all his customers by name and, seemingly, most of the passersby on the street as well. “That makes my soul,” he says of his interactions with his regulars. After my visit, Makis never fails to call out, “Ya sou, Russell!” as I pass his shop. Which makes my soul.

March: After five months of Greek lessons, I start to get the hang of reading and writing, but am tongue-tied when it comes to speaking. Case in point: I pick out the bread I want at my neighborhood bakery, then spot one off to the side that I like better. The baker explains that another customer has dibs. I mean to say, “Katalaveno” (I understand). What I actually say is, “Kapnizo” (I smoke). I realize my mistake when I’m halfway down the street.

March: The island of Skiathos is overrun in summer, but this early in the year, we have the most popular beach to ourselves. Well, not quite. The waters are patrolled by a flock of swans, including two black swans. I didn’t know black swans existed. Until the 17th century, when they were seen in Australia, they were thought not to. 

Reading about them after our encounter with them, I thought they were harbingers: A black swan, according to Nassim Nicholas Taleb as summarized by Wikipedia, and slightly paraphrased by me, is a high-profile, hard-to-predict, and rare event that is “beyond the realm of normal expectations in history, science, finance, and technology.” 

That sounded like COVID-19 to me, though Wikipedia, admirably up to date, goes on to note that Taleb considers coronavirus to be a white swan, which is to say, entirely predictable.

May: Home, I know, will quickly become just home, the taken-for-granted stage on which we enact much of our lives – and with being home will come the chores of home ownership. Specifically, the weeds await. 

Now, though, having gained entry, we stand in the doorway, taking it all in. The place looks clean and smells clean. Thank you, Scott and Cate (our renters).

Our next move is obvious: martinis on the porch. As we settle in, birds settle into the bamboo thicket in the yard and sing down the day. Eight hours later, they urge us to join them in greeting the dawn.

Kevin and Rhonda wander over in their bathrobes with “welcome home” signs. An hour later they return with a rhubarb crisp and a pint of vanilla ice cream. It is a wonderful thing to be welcomed back to the neighborhood with a rhubarb crisp. 

Not even Odysseus got that treatment. 

Another difference between me and a Greek hero: When Odysseus returned from his wanderings, he mowed down the suitors. When I returned from mine, I mowed the lawn.


A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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