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Kefalonian Exile

The Lasting Emotional Aftermath of the Earthquake

1953 Kefalonia EarthquakeBecause so many people left the island after the earthquake and a large portion of them went to the USA and Canada, Kefalonia is full of Greek-Americans. You see them everywhere in all ages, shapes and sizes. Besides Greek the most likely language you will hear is English. Maybe not on the beaches, but certainly at the archaeological sites like Kastro where entire clans including kids, parents and even Yaya and Papoo try to get an historical feel for an island that had most of its history wiped out in the earthquake of 1953.

In Argostoli there was a family where the mother is Second generation Greek-American, her husband so completely American that Greece was not even on the radar until he realized that a visit to the patrida was part of the deal, and their flock of teenagers looking annoyed, as they wander from cafe to cafe looking for pancakes or anything that resembles an American breakfast.

On the ferry to Lixouri is an old Papoo. He and Yaya are bringing the two granddaughters to the village that they have not been back to since they left after the earthquake. The Papoo has tears in his eyes and seems to be in his own world, while the Yaya patiently answers the questions the little girls ask with concern. "Will there be stores in the village, Yaya?"

In the fish taverna in Alithos is a young couple, she is Greek-American and he is completely American and their relationship has turned upside down because suddenly she is in control. She knows the food, the land and the language and he knows nothing except that he is lost and totally dependent on someone he took for granted. Her Greekness was like an iceberg and he had only seen the small part that was visible back home. Suddenly she is back in Kefalonia and it can't be contained and he realizes he did not know her at all and now he needs her and does not like it. He makes no effort to hide the irritation he feels at everything she says, and she does the same.

Kefalonia statuesOutside of Argostoli we pass a store on the highway that suddenly gives me one of those ah-ha moments, that make everything clear. The store sells decorative monuments for houses. Replicas of Greek temples, caryatids, Doric columns, life sized statues of Greek gods and other figures from mythology, and other objects of tastelessness that remind me of the opening scene of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. It's the kind of stuff only a Greek American would buy for his island home, to grace his American style lawn. I don't know how many of the Kefalonians who left the island after the earthquake have returned after making their money in America, Canada and Australia, but the fact that this store exists makes me think there must be a lot of them.

How many mixed marriages (a Greek married to any non-Greek) survive the first visit back to Kefalonia? How many Greek men and women rediscover their roots and realize the person they became is not the person they are supposed to be, and look to jettison those things that now seem like barriers to finding themselves? Husband, wife, job, house, even the kids who did not grow up Greek enough due to lack of effort or indifference. What do you do when home is not where you thought it was and people you thought of as family are strangers and people you have never met before now feel like family?

It is one thing to rebuild a city that has been destroyed in an earthquake. But the wounds of exile are deeper and more complex and in some ways can never be healed.

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