For 33 years, we lived on a street laced with neighbors who we also considered friends. Virtually all of them were educated, curious, resourceful – and desperately addicted to Greek culture and tradition. They channeled their fix through me, an ordinary guy who held the distinction of being the only Greek-American in the neighborhood, possibly in the entire Zip code.
Being a good listener and someone who lends a sympathetic ear, I guess, only intensified their desire to live vicariously. They dream of sunning themselves on a beach in Hydra, skulking around St. John’s cave on Patmos, or immersing themselves in the Olive Museum in Sparta. All simply by unwinding in my living room.
Since branding ourselves as the couple with an open-door policy, it’s typical for friends to show up, stand in the foyer, and then ring the doorbell. Frankly, it can be disconcerting, especially when you’re looking forward to hunkering down in your easy chair for the evening, only to spot a needy looking friend standing there quietly. (This obsession is really ramped up on Halloween night, but that’s fodder for a future column.)
But things have changed. Recently, my wife and I, who is also of Greek heritage, decided that it was time to put the roomy house on the market, downsizing and de-cluttering our way into what we hope are simpler days spent in a condo. We were of an age to make this lifestyle alteration. A lot stemmed from the orthopedic problems we are saddled with. The dozen steps leading upstairs to the bedrooms and another dozen leading down to the laundry room made it something of a no-brainer.
When I broke the news to neighbors whom I also count as friends, I was met with some interesting reactions. I had expected they would all extend their best wishes for taking this bold step. Instead, here’s a sampling of what I juggled:
“No, you’re not!” exclaimed one man, whose marriage nearly broke up after his wife, in the throes of a mental breakdown, called her boss at 3 in the morning. Then she sprayed WD-40 in her mouth.
“You can’t. Every time I drop in, you’ve got fried diples on your coffee table. And you’ve heard my life story a thousand times.”
“I am mesmerized by the exquisite icons you have sprinkled your living-room walls with,” glowed another. “The worry beads. Oh, yes, the crowns you and your wife wore at your wedding are totally unique.”
Each complaint I hear, I come back with a lukewarm, not-so-convincing answer: “We’re moving 9 miles that way. Twenty minutes, tops. Fifteen if you take the Interstate.”
I admit I’ve had more than a few sleepless nights over this. Am I abandoning these folks, many of whom I met when we all had hair and two more inches of height? Why move now? Why not just continue to age in place like everyone else on the street is doing?
“If you believe you are missing out on something by not staying here, you’re not,” rhapsodized my sage wife, who has a knack for clarifying, for synthesizing given narratives. “Because one way or another, remember, they will eventually be former residents as well.”
“You’re leaving me high and dry,” muttered another. “Where will I go for Easter lamb dinner? I’ve never tried making it. Plus, you’re the only Greek I know.”
Talk about singling me out as if I were an extinct species, maybe an ancient rock on loan from the Archeological Museum of Thessaloniki.
The feedback that stands out above all the rest, however, came from our very own next-door neighbor. We ran into each other in the spice aisle at the grocery store. I mustered the courage to break the news of our impending departure.
Pivoting, she threw her arms around me. Tears welled up. I felt like I had gone missing on Mount Everest before a search party found my lifeless body buried in a snow pack.
“You’re not going. You just can’t,” she shouted. “You’re a charter member of our exclusive little street gang.” Then, right on cue, she couldn’t resist playing the gratuitous Greek card: “Easter at your house is the stuff of legend. The red eggs baked in the center of the bread. The candles you guys carry home after the midnight church service. The demitasse of Turkish coffee I adore.”
“Uh, Greek coffee,” I correct her, before reminding her that I will be twenty minutes away, fifteen via the Interstate.
A few days later, I met at McDonald’s for a senior coffee with Tom, the most cerebral of the group. After I told him we were moving, he launched into a diatribe about the Odyssey and whether the super hero, Odysseus, regretted reuniting with wife Penelope. “Not when he could have taken that temptress Calypso as his bride. But he moved on.”
I love those words. It’s time for that in our lives. They pack the comforting aroma of a pot of avgolemono soup simmering on lazy weekend afternoons while the Greek program crackles over the radio, and stories of the bold plan sketched out by my penniless grandparents who glimpsed New York harbor, circa 1905.
I get that my neurotic neighbors are uneasy about being deprived of their fascination with all things Greek. But they need to chill. The moveable feast, festooned with Kalamata olives, alluring icons, and matching crowns that still mean fidelity is now 20 minutes that way. Fifteen on the Interstate.
We’re expecting you.