I was told I don’t talk about my Greek side much, and I realized the person was right. I guess it might be because most of my readers are Burundians, and I talk about subjects they might identify with a bit more. Yet, I do have a Greek side; I ain’t light skin, ok? I am mixed. The funny part is that some people conveniently forget, don’t see, or don’t know I am Greek. It is funny. Then again, it isn’t written on my forehead, so I cannot blame most people for not knowing.
Once upon a time, someone asked me if I identified as Greek, and I immediately told them I don’t identify as Greek; I AM GREEK! The verb “identify” doesn’t even apply to my Greek side. I am Greek. It’s that simple to me. It may not be simple for the rest of the world. And on that subject, the rest of the world, has got no valuable input whatsoever. In life, you cannot allow, ever, anyone to put their own biases and value on you. That is one of the many things I can never compromise on, the same way those who have Burundian parents do not identify as Burundians, right? They simply are Burundians. I know you get it.
I am Greek. My appearance may not be typically Greek, meaning white with a visible tan, or a last name that ends in “-is” or “-os”. I grew up in Greece until I was 6, went back every summer until I was 18. Then I moved to Canada, and I have been going every year or every 2 years back to Greece, my home country. Yes, it is home. I still have family and friends there. Greek is the first language I ever spoke, and I learned Kirundi at 6. The rest of the languages are simply bonuses.
My parents met in 1976 and have been together ever since. They had two boys, who are men today. At home, we speak Greek, to this day. It isn’t an obligation; it is just the way it is. My grandparents, God bless their hearts, were literally awesome. They welcomed my dark-skinned father and treated him like their own son. My father even got to meet my mother’s grandfather and I got to play football as a toddler with my great-grandfather, I remember that experience vividly, and it was awesome.
Every summer, my brother and I would spend 2 months at my grandparents’ farm. They hail from Retsiana, an extremely remote village in the northwestern part of Greece. It was a small village, and still is, and all the inhabitants knew us. Moreover, they treated us with the utmost respect and love. All my cousins, aunts and uncles were and still are amazing people, who didn’t care about color. Ultimately, they saw the humanity in people, beyond their skin tone, and I know that helped me love my Greek side to death. I bet if some reactions had been racist or condescending, I might not have been attached to my home country as much as I am today.
My grandparents were literally extraordinary people. My grandfather was the kindest person I have ever met. Loving, caring but kind of silent as any man born in the 1920s. People to this day tell me I look like him. If I ever become half the man he was, I would die happy. He would read a lot, collected maps, especially of Africa to better know as much as he could about Burundi, my other home country. A God-fearing man, he would go to church every Sunday. My grandmother was a case; she was energetic, verbose, always doing something, running left, and right, never resting. She was crazy but in a fun way. She would take care of her goats, sheep, rabbits, chickens, and other domesticated animals. She would make bread, cheese, bathe us, cook for us, take care of us, and teach us how to look after animals. One of my fondest memories of her, a woman born in the 1930s, was to see the pride and joy in her posture and words when she walked around holding her mixed grandkids’ hands. She was awesome. My grandparents were one of the many tremendous reasons why my childhood was awesome.
My grandmother even came to Burundi once, in 1990 and got to meet the Burundian side of the family. My grandfather, on the other hand, he was always reluctant to get on a plane, and he never got to Burundi. A little reminder: given their birth in the early part of the 20th century, they both got to live through World War II. One day, they even saw the Nazis go through their village. Thankfully, those bastards didn’t hurt anybody, and both my grandparents were unharmed. However, they both would talk about hiding in the woods and watching the long and terrifying column of Nazis going through their village. They would talk about it as if it had happened the day before. I could sense the trauma because the Nazis’ reputation preceded them, and we all know how cruel they were to those they occupied.
One day, out of curiosity, I asked my grandfather if he ever had a problem to see his daughter being married to a black man. His answer was a true testament to the man he was. I remember his answer: “Freeman, when I met your father, I just saw a nice, kind, smiling soul. It was the first time I was in the presence of a black man, but his nature and heart spoke volumes, more than his skin color ever could. And your mother seemed so in love with him that I only asked if he treated her well, and she smiled and said yes. That was all I needed. And to this day, your father is an extremely great man and I love him.” I am paraphrasing a bit, but you get the essence of my grandfather’s thoughts and heart.
Just remembering this conversation, between a 12-year-old Freeman and my grandfather, whose name was Theodore, which means “Gift from God”, brings tears to my eyes. I have a million tales I could tell about our interactions, their kisses, hugs and kindness towards my brother and I. They used to take us to school when my parents were busy working, and they needed help. They would come to Athens and help my parents out. They would buy us stuff to make us happy. My grandma would save money all year long, from her pension, which wasn’t much, and she would give us the money every summer, so we could buy stuff as kids and teenagers. They would welcome us every summer with the same excitement, joy, and happiness. They would do anything to make us feel at home. They didn’t have money or any other type of assets; they were peasants, even if I hate this condescending word that displays how classism is still alive and well. My grandfather wanted to become a doctor, but his family didn’t have any money, and he became a mason instead. My grandmother quit school to help her family make a living. They were married for more than 70 years. I remember receiving letters from grandmother, and we would read them in Burundi and be impatient to go see her and him. I miss them, terribly. What a gift they were.
The Greek side has so many people in it. There is my mom’s younger brother, my only uncle whom I love to death because he is funny, crazy, fun, and loves life. He loves us just as much. He would drive us to the village and come pick us up the day before we left for Burundi. It was a 5-hour drive one way that he would do without complaining and always with a smile. There is a myriad of cousins who still care about us, who love us and cherish us to this day. I got to live fully my Greek side, and I still do. It is a blessing to have two home countries, two cultures, two sets of traditions, two languages, two cuisines, two skin tones, two places to call home.
That was part one of my Greek side. I got so much more to say. But the most amazing Greek thing of all, is my mother or as I call her, “the white African Queen” or “the light skin Burundian Queen”, or simply “Mama”. She is the reason I am Greek. She is the reason I have embraced and loved my Greek side. She is the reason for so many things. And my dad… He is Greek too now, and he was always telling me, “You are 100% Greek and 100% Burundian. You will belong to the two worlds, and you will do so willingly and with ease.” And the result is there; my brother and I are Greeks and will always be. My parents bought us Greek books, they brought Greek movies which are hilarious, and they made sure we went to Greece to reconnect with our roots and our grandparents even when things weren’t easy financially.
So…I am sure you get it when I get defensive or when I laugh off when someone questions my Greek side. There is an idiot who told me, not long ago, “you don’t speak Greek! Prove it!”. As if I got something to prove to a dude I don’t fucking know and don’t even care about. It was as if he had said, “dance, monkey.” and I ain’t his monkey. So, I smiled and ignored his dumb request.
There will be more stories about my Greek side, that’s for sure!
Just one man’s opinion and Greek side.
Now smile and go on with your day!