Max Ernst, Portrait of an Ancestor
Language

Stuck in a Rite of Passage

Living in a foreign country can sometimes feel like one protracted rite of passage that never really reaches the desired climax. Where you’re terminally stuck in that betwixt and between stage that follows the period of isolation and precedes the (re)incorporation into the family, community or body politic. This cultural coitus reservatus is re-enacted on countless occasions but perhaps nowhere more markedly than on those feast days in which the community celebrates itself in food, song, dance and ritual. Like Easter. I can learn the words to the song and the steps to the dance but it’s all in the head. The feeling is just not there. There’s too much mediation, too much self-consciousness, too little history.

This getting-stuck business is not, of course, the fault of my hosts or my ex-lover’s family or my friends. If anything, they’re eager to welcome me into the fold despite the amusement my faux pas and bungled Greek might occasion. I have never felt I was being made fun of. Perhaps I was teased a few times, mostly by being presented with delicacies like batter-fried calf’s brains (this was in the days before mad-cow scare). But I’m sure this was just good-natured fun. My father, who married into my mother’s very Neapolitan family, had similar stories to tell about his being accepted into the clan (one had to do with live eels in a bathtub).

I can manage a decent syrtaki and the brains weren’t half bad but trust me, you cannot feign a liking for a dish like the Greek Easter standard, kokoretsi: chunks of heart, liver, spleen and lungs which are wrapped in a coil of lamb’s intestines and then roasted on a spit. Kokoretsi is definitely a dish you have to grow up with. It’s the foreigner’s litmus test for Greek-ness.

I was telling my friend Georgia, who by the way doesn’t eat kokoretsi (but of course being Greek she doesn’t have to), about my father and the eels and how that reminded me of some of the “initiation scenes” in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. She screwed up her face as if she had just bitten into a morsel of lung. It turned out that she, like many of my other Greek friends, hated the movie. This struck me as worth pursuing. We usually agreed about movies. We even missed the same scenes in The Wrestler as we burrowed into each other’s chest during the more violent moments of the movie.

Georgia thought the Wedding a tasteless caricature of the importance that Greeks place on the family, the role of food in social and communal bonding, and the significance of the cultural legacy of ancient Greece in the identity of Greeks today. The film, she said, exaggerated national pride into stereotypes of chauvinism and parochialism. It was ridiculous, she said. Which struck me as an odd criticism for a comedy, the whole point of comedy being, as Aristotle said, the pursuit of the ridiculous.

She took affront at the father’s silly penchant for tracing the etymology of words like “miller” and “kimono” to their putative Greek roots. Though she had also told me with pride about a speech their former Prime Minister Xenophon Zolotas once delivered in English in which practically every word save prepositions and articles were of Greek origin. Actually there were two talks, but I’m being pedantic. I looked up the speeches. They didn’t really sound very English: “I emphasize my eulogy to the philoxenous autochtons of this cosmopolitan metropolis and my encomium to you, Kyrie, and the stenographers.” It was nice of Zolotas to remember the stenographers, though. I imagine they almost never get thanked publicly.

She also found far-fetched the father’s fondness for Windex as a cure-all for everything from psoriasis to poison ivy, as his daughter confides to her fiancé. She was right there. Despite the plethora of specialized gels, powders and solutions for all sorts of cleaning jobs from removing calk from faucets to scouring kitchen sinks, Greeks still swear by bleach, not Windex. I once witnessed a friend’s mother adding a couple of tablespoons of bleach to a sink filled with water to wash the romaine lettuce for a salad. Thank God I wasn’t around when she was cleaning the lamb’s intestines for the kokoretsi. Cleaning intestines is a Herculean task (you can guess which one), considering that my ex-lover’s mother, like every other self-respecting Greek housewife, would only use the fresh entrails of a Greek lamb in this dish; I don’t know how she was sure the lamb was Greek but she knew how to spot the difference between fresh intestines and the once-frozen thawed-out guts that unscrupulous butchers would pass off for fresh. Fresh intestines always contain remnants of the lamb’s last supper.

Georgia’s dismissal of My Big Fat Greek Wedding doesn’t mean she has no sense of humor. She does, of course. In his Essay on the Meaning of the Comic Henri Bergson makes the point that humor relies on a certain emotional distance to work. “It seems as though the comic could not produce its disturbing effect unless it fell, so to say, on the surface of a soul that is thoroughly calm and unruffled.” As soon as we start caring about what the comic character is saying or doing, we can no longer laugh. Georgia couldn’t be indifferent, I could. Perhaps my unruffled appreciation of the humor of Wedding was the flip side of my aversion to kokoretsi.

But there’s no going back. I thought Mambo Italiano, Émile Gaudreault’s delightful coming-out film about a young Italian-Canadian and his closeted (and also Italian-Canadian) policeman and of course their Italian-Canadian parents, was absolutely hilarious. It could’ve been subtitled, My Big Gay Italian Wedding. One could say it caricatured the importance that Italians place on the family, the role of food in social and communal bonding, and the significance of the cultural legacy of Italy…

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Image: Max Ernst, Portrait of an Ancestor

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