Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
  • Home
  • About
  • Archive
  • Bio Notes
  • Bookshelf
  • Contents
  • Submit
CNF Essay
2362 words
SHJ Issue 10
Fall 2014

Boats Against the Current

by Angie Athanassiades

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

I was born in Greece, to an English mother and Greek father of Egyptian origin, forty-three years ago; four years after my sister and a month too soon. My childhood was a happy one, though I never really felt Athens was my home, as our family had no real roots there. Still, ever adaptable on the surface and brought up to believe that being different was a good thing, I never found it difficult to fit in and adopted my “difference” as part of my identity, which to a great extent it was. Part of me, however, was always elsewhere; my mother’s relatives were scattered all over the UK and my father’s were all in Egypt, having refused to leave when Nasser re-claimed the dusty land of the pharaohs in the ’50s. Perhaps because Egypt was closer than England, perhaps because it was warmer, I always summered there.


Throughout the year, my mind would wander to Egypt and I would patiently wait for the school holidays when, at last, I would be able to return again and spend time with people who really knew me, people to whom I did not need to explain my various peculiarities because they were of the same stock: my family had its own language, a mixture of Greek, French, English, and Arabic, which nobody else seemed to understand; they ate the orange peel and made marmalade out of the fruit, discussed their digestive system at length and in detail regardless of whether we had guests because it was “the most natural thing in the world”; they talked about the topic of the hour, whether it was money, sex, or death regardless of the age or sensitivities of those present. It was the ideal setting for me: I had an insatiable imagination and the stories I read in children’s books were nowhere near as thrilling as the ones recounted by my female relatives in Egypt.


From the age of six, as soon as schools closed for the summer—and in Greece they close for three full months—I would be packed off to Cairo to spend the summer with the Petridou sisters: my grandmother Layla and my two great aunts Roxanne and Nonni. And I loved it, every second of it. From the moment of arrival, when the airplane doors opened and my face was almost suffocated by Cairo’s humid air, I felt I was returning home. I cannot explain it, for I wasn’t even born there, but something about the sounds and smells of Egypt has always filled me with a sense of security and comfort. Now, to anyone who has been to Cairo airport this may be surprising, for, if anything, it is bizarre, frightening even; it is an overpowering assault on the senses. Wandering cats, swaying women clad in black with heels spilling over sandal soles, jaded-looking soldiers in whom heat and routine have turned the excitement of circumstantial power into boredom and an air of stale authority. As though designed to stun travelers into a state of submissiveness, Cairo airport sucks you in like a hot, intoxicating vortex, from which you emerge, a few hours later, having finally obtained the obligatory visa, breathless but exhilarated.


Overwhelming though they may at times be, those first few hours spent in Cairo airport are a rite of passage of sorts, an initiation. Whereas in other countries it may take you a few days to adjust to a different pace, in Cairo you are forced into it. By the time you have walked down the last stretch of airport, glass panes on either side with hundreds of amused faces staring at you, you are ready for it; at least I always was. The sounds, the smells, the colours and that tremendous, thundering pulse of a city which has been bleeding into the desert from the banks of the Nile like dye on cloth for thousands of years.

I never knew who would be collecting me, but it was always someone I knew well. Sometimes it was my grandmother, sometimes a family friend, other times a whole group of people would turn up. A few dusty, sticky hugs later we would set off through the mad traffic and head home to the lovely Zamalek, my family’s neighbourhood, and the magic would really begin.


My days were either spent wandering around Zamalek with Saad, my father’s adopted brother, who never seemed to have any real work to do, or with Frank, Roxanne’s best friend. When I was really little, Saad would put me on his shoulders and we would cycle through the market on a battered old blue bike that had no brakes. Sometimes, as we approached a fruit stall belonging to someone he knew, he would call out “banana ya, Angie!” and I would stretch out my arm and grab a bunch as we cycled past. The most exciting thing that could and often did happen on those wonderful rides through Zamalek, was to collide with a flying cockroach and end up with it tangled up in my impossibly long hair; they were the color of dates, they were enormous, and they flew at great speed, making the experience all the more frightening and exciting. These collisions left me unruffled, and I would often bear the awesome perpetrators around like a special, albeit bizarre trophy, while quite happily eating bananas or prickly pears and drinking sugarcane juice in musty cafes.


The days I spent with Frank were more sophisticated and our outings continued long after my mad bike-rides with Saad had come to an end. Frank was the first man I ever fell in love with; when I first met him he was fifty-five and I was six and instantly and irreversibly smitten. He lived in the flat above my Aunt Roxanne’s and often left her gatherings early to go and read, write, or listen to music. We hadn’t spent any time alone together that first summer until one evening, after he left to go upstairs, I decided that I had had enough of the noise and chatter and, without telling anyone where I was going, left the flat quietly, climbed the warn, marble stairs and knocked on his heavy door.

The door receded and Frank appeared. The corridor was dark, the light in his apartment a soft yellow and, as he stood framed by the casing looking down at me, almost smiling, I thought he looked like he was made of rubber letters: an O balanced on an S balanced on a topsy-turvy Y. I had asked my aunt why he always seemed to lean this way or that, and she had said something about a skiing accident, but all I could see, standing in the doorway, looking up at him, was an impish face with round watery eyes and a body that looked magically bendy.

“Can I sit with you?” I asked. “It’s very noisy downstairs.”

“Isn’t it? I thought so too,” said Frank, not looking at all surprised, and invited me in.

I did not know at the time that he almost never had people over. He showed me in as though my being there was the most natural thing in the world and poured me a cup of mint tea. He sat down next to me and, picking up the book on Nubia he had been looking at when I knocked on his door, began to show me portraits and landscapes of a culture I had only heard about and asked me what I thought of them. That is how our friendship began.


Throughout the years, he would come round to collect me from my grandmother’s flat in the mornings and together we would walk along the banks of the Nile. He would talk to me about books and music, Raymond Roussel and Zinca Milanov, his favourite opera singer, how when he had met her, he had wanted to touch her, feel her pulse, for surely, she could not be human, her voice was ethereal. On wonderfully magical sprees of decadence we would go to the Metro cinema in the early afternoon and, after wading through layers of discarded pumpkinseed shells, would sit in the tired-looking red velvet seats and watch old classics, The Barefoot Contessa, Suddenly Last Summer, often staying for a second showing. We would emerge from the darkness hours later like sleepwalkers, and blinded by the indefatigable Egyptian sun, would walk to Groppi, one of Cairo’s oldest and smokiest coffee shops, to drink sweet black tea and eat palmiers and almond cakes flavored with rose water. We would talk until dusk, and then, encouraged by the coolness of the evening, would make our way back home.


When I say “home”, I use the term quite loosely. There were two homes to which I could go. The first was my grandmother’s which, like her, was quite normal and conventional. I usually only went there to sleep. The second home, the one where I spent most of my evenings, was that of my great aunt’s, Roxanne. Of the three sisters, Roxanne was the most eccentric. Disowned by my rich great-grandfather for eloping with a man who was to become the leader of the communist party of Egypt, Roxanne enjoyed a life of intellectual and social abundance. Her infamous marriage left her burdened with tragedy but surrounded by love and respect: her husband, Shuhdi, was tortured to death in a Cairo prison in 1960, leaving her widowed with a two-year-old daughter, but surrounded by a circle of adoring friends. These people—political activists, poets, writers, artists, and leftover Europeans—were always in Roxanne’s beautiful flat on the banks of the Nile, a flat whose door was always open and whose smoke-filled rooms were alive with discussions, arguments, and the mesmerizing music of Om Kalthoum, Verdi and Mahler.


Most evenings, I would walk up the stairs towards the enormous wooden door, heady with the intoxicating romance of it all. Drawn by the familiar sound of voices and laughter floating out of the flat through the humid air, I would leave the city behind for a few hours and enter a world alive with incredible stories of days past, stories that took place in homes long abandoned in an Egypt that was exciting, terrible, but always beautiful.


It was to this Egypt that I returned ten years ago to bid farewell to Frank and to the country I had known and loved so well. The Petridou sisters and their brilliant entourage had all long departed. In a way it was quite fitting that it should be Frank who would be waiting for me; he had always said he would be the last one to leave, one way or another. On the surface the city was quite altered, of course, and Frank and I much older. But sitting in his room in the American Hospital, with its duck-egg walls and dusty harem light, it was as if only one more winter had passed. We had sweet black tea with rose water almond cakes and talked about books and music. When Frank drifted off for a while, I closed my eyes and, listening through the silence, I realized the past had gently joined us, conjured by our words and memories that lingered in the air; I heard the laughter of people I had thought had been silenced forever and saw faces that for years had been blurred. When Frank woke up, he thought I was Zinca Milanov and touched me to feel my heart beat.


Walking away from that hospital room is the hardest thing I have ever done; for years I had been busy living what I thought of as “real life” and had failed to realize that year by year, my other life had been slipping irretrievably out of reach. Leaving Frank’s side for the last time I felt bare, stripped of context. I had walked into that room as the child that had left Egypt not knowing it would be too late when I finally returned, and was walking out a shattered adult, crushed by the sense of loss I had brought upon myself. He made it easier, of course. When the time came for me to leave, he gave me paper and pen and made me write a list of all the things he wanted me to bring when I returned: Darjeeling First Flush, Shortbread biscuits, Beethoven’s String Quartets and Rilke’s Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge. He knew I didn’t want to say goodbye and spoke of things I wanted to hear.


I remembered a time years earlier, when I was around nine years old. Frank and I were sitting on the roof of the old house in Athens. It was the only summer he would spend in Greece and I cannot remember why I wasn’t in Cairo. It was evening, and, though the air was cool, the tiles were still emanating heat. We were laughing because we kept having to move our bottoms around because we were getting too hot, but we liked the quiet, the distance, and didn’t want to leave.

“If you were younger and I was older, if it was another time, would you have fallen in love with me?” I asked him.

“Oh yes, definitely,” he said emphatically and I loved him, there and then, for being brave enough to say, so simply, what I wanted to hear.


Many years have passed since then, but there are moments when I feel the sense of loss as acutely as ever. It’s triggered by the simplest things: a tin of Darjeeling First Flush, the scent of rose water, smoke-filled rooms. But I learned to cherish the generosity and love of people much older than me, and am privileged to have met many more, who have shared their stories and their memories, have let me see the light in their eyes as they have remembered their past, teaching me, unwittingly, that what has been loved can never be lost, so long as it is shared.


SHJ Issue 10
Fall 2014

Angie Athanassiades

hails from Greece, England, and Egypt. She attended Greek school and has a BA in English Literature & Politics (University of York) and an MA in Life Writing (University of East Anglia). Ms. Athanassiades writes creative nonfiction about people, nature, and time, how its passage affects perception and the material and notional nature of things. She is currently writing essays on belonging and displacement, and on women from ancient Greek mythology and drama.

One of her short works received a favourable review in TLS: The Times Literary Supplement. In addition, KYSO Flash published in its debut issue in October 2014 two of her essays, and nominated one of them for a Pushcart Prize.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury