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form The Furies (The Athens News)

The Politics of Boundary-blur

AFTER living in Greece for almost 20 years I am still fascinated by the resilience
of boundaries, how they are negotiated, ignored, and re-invented to accord with the
demands of the moment. After a sabbatical leave in the United States, where it's
assumed that rules are there to be obeyed, these instances of cultural boundary-blur
became all the more intriguing.
What looks like chaos to the Western eye, after time assumes its own precarious order. Late for the airport - as the taxi driver paid the toll, the toll-worker, recognising him, wanted to know if he knew the score of the previous night !s soccer game; I was audibly sighing in that heavy second when
the driver quickly said "Friend, I'm in a rush." But in the time it took the toll person
to return the change, the taxi driver gave him the score.
That personal touch, space squeezed out of the crushed necessities of overwhelmed
psyches, speaks volumes about a culture which manages and insists on the personal
no matter how intrusive, irrelevant or obstructive the exchanges might seem to an
outsider conditioned to abide by the terms of cold law.
In line at the supermarket in my neighbourhood the woman behind me, her
cart at my hip, was placing her things on the counter before I had finished putting mine
down; when I suggested she wait, she answered quickly, "you might take an hour."
"I'm still in front, " I answered, but she was nonplussed as she continued to pile her
things up.
It occurs to me that remaining foreign, xeni or xenos, has to do with the inability
to make a certain leap from what the rules demand to taking an initiative to change
them. And crossing the boundaries of expected or official behaviour works both
ways. I am xeni when a taxi driver manages to convince the court judge that I am at fault
for his having hit me as he left a parked position with no blinker lights. But when I
explain that I am a single parent and having my licence taken away for a month would
make life near impossible, the judge makes amends: my licence is confiscated for 15
days, and he suggests I choose the time, Easter, for example, when I won't have to
shuttle my daughter to school.
The sense of the other, or (an)other, is never forgotten; as poet Anne Carson said,
being "up against something so other that it bounces you out of yourself to a place
where, nonetheless, you are still in yourself is a kind of Dionysian ecstasy.
The assumption that one made emotional and physical room for the other, or demanded it, was what I initially understood as paraxeno (overly strange, or overly Other). At the checkout of the local
grocery store, the cashier, chewing on sesame breadsticks, keeps us waiting as she
offers one to the woman working the cheese counter, then offers one to the first person
in line. Even stranger, as I stand in a Marinopoulos Beauty Shop checking out
the prices of eye shadows, I spot a saleswoman actually wearing a facial mask.
I try to act like I didn't see, but she smiles, nodding as she tissues off the cream, telling
me it works wonders and would I like a sample.
In the US, where more often than not machines gave directions and automated
response systems connected you to yet more automated recordings, I felt truly and
viscerally paraxeni; the possibilities of communication were sadly restricted to
categorised spaces and boundaries that rarely allowed for negotiation, let alone
leaping across boundaries.
So on my return to Greece, I was happy to answer an elderly woman in the
pharmacy who stared at me as I bought my cough syrup, and demanded, almost in an
accusatory tone, " Where did you get that coat?" I was happy to listen to the man who
came over to fix my washing machine, coaxing the jammed door latch like it was a
lover. "E/a agape mou, ela, (come on my dear, come on), " he murmured, shifting his
knee under the door to lift it up and loosen the latch. I was happy to be back in the land
where Dionysus stretched his legs, and smiled when they touched you.


© 2006 Adrianne Kalfopoulou, Author. All Rights Reserved
akalf@hol.gr