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Eleni-Melina Petratos


Melina PetratosA Child Counts the Stars
By Eleni-Melina Petratos

The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren,
and to do good is my religion.
                                                 Thomas Paine

My journey began many years ago in the corners of a forgotten veranda on evenings filled with geranium aromas and an engulfing darkness that was interrupted by successive falling stars and sparks of existentialism. I grew up in a small village in the Southern part of Greece.



Photos of my village called Demonia in Southern Greece. The name drives from the ancient Laecedemonia


Less than 800 “citizens” but for me it was the universe, infinite and wondrous, a homogenous soothing oasis. Like every self -respecting 10 year old girl I was madly infatuated with my elementary teacher and I would stare at him in pure adulation as he talked of the glory of the Greeks. Homer, Heracles, Theseus all great Greek men--there were a few women also but for the most part they were demented, like Hera putting out curses on other women or like Medea and her deranged infanticide slaughter

Subway station in Athens Greece.2001


That was our beloved Greece, all heroes and philosophers, green valleys and crystal blue waters. As for the rest of the world, India China, Russia, their heroes and villains, were to remain weird shaped drawings on a large map hanging on the wall in the classroom, only to be marked in our consciousness through the end of a shiny stick when my adored teacher would point to them momentarily.

The wondrous childhood years were disrupted with my family’s immigration to America. Why do people from all around the world immigrate to America? The reasons are numerous; political oppression in their own countries, economic inequities and social injustices. As imperfect as the USA may be, the conditions for a life journey that produces opportunities to lessen the above hardships are still and will hopefully, always be available. My family’s flee from my country was because of political oppression. I was young to understand the full implications but I remember the images and emotions.
It was in that a small town in Southern Greece on a warm night in April that I saw my father crying for the first time in my life, on a balcony of a small house with tin flowerpots of geraniums that filled the space with aromatic sweetness. It was the year 1972 and I was about 10 years old, not old enough to explain or even understand my father’s tears the only I thing I did was to engrave the moment in my memory for ever. Months later we immigrated to America.

It was years later sitting in our living room in a neighborhood in New York City on a Tuesday evening in November of 1976 that I saw tears in my father’s eyes for the second time in my life. This time I was 14 years old and as the old memory rushed in front of me in all its pictorial glory, I had to ask why was he crying today as he had that April night in Greece. His answer was forthcoming with both a sad and a triumphant gleam in his eyes “because that April night was the fifth year anniversary of the Junta in Greece, a fascist regime that had suppressed my freedom as a human being and had stripped me of any civil right such as the right to vote. Today I’m crying because I just voted for the next President of the US and my heart is full of joy and pride and because I realize that the freedom that many take for granted was a gift for me that I will never abuse or devaluate.”


My father second from the right, with his buddies in Greece circa 1960

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This incident was the simple fact that America was responsible for my father’s participation in something so wonderfully monumental that gave him something my revered Greece had taken away: his dignity. I was excited, for the first time I felt grateful for my new country and I even started to dream that I belonged--actual dreams, where my English would be flawless without that reprehensible Greek heavy accent . Since everything was going so well in my dreams I became daring. I started picking up books of American authors, John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” would make me into a militant communist for the duration of the reading, Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea”, would make me an aficionado of the outdoors and all the seven seas. My assimilating aspirations were short lived as that same year I started High School and my experience all those years severed my already fragile relationship with America. They were years of ridicule, pain, anguish and alienation. I don’t know if I looked different, but I did dress differently--my mother’s austere supervision every morning left no room for rebellion. However, I was certain I felt the same as the rest of my classmates, until one day this girl who would always look at me with a smile (I was so proud of that smile, she was after all a very popular girl) came up to me and asked me if I “would please sit at the back of the classroom with all the other immigrants.” I turned scarlet red and realized with an immediacy that pained me physically that I was an outsider, a despised foreigner. Was that girl simply mean-spirited or had my own insecurities morphed into a hauteur that bred provocation?


Long Island City

My High School In Long Island City, Queens, circa 1980.

It took me many years to realize that my excursion into the foray of Americanism had many short comings. After leaving Greece, I had gone back every year since then, I had only Greek friends in New York and my only contact with other people American, Italian, African-American, Indian, or Hispanic was only on a superficial level. I would see them in the hallways in school, I would exchange a few mandatory comments in class, and after that I was back in my comfort zone. The sad truth is that I had lost interest in school –yes partly because of the adversity I was faced with but mostly because I had in my own way refused to become the “world citizen” that I was expecting all others to be I had changed two continents, I had attended schools with diversity unrivaled in many parts of the world and I was still an outsider. Why was I unable to assimilate successfully? Years later when I decided to go to college I knew I was once again by default an “other”, a non-traditional student. But this time I was wiser, I was not yearning for mere inclusion I wanted to include. I was able to devour all the lessons from my sociology class about the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the struggle of the Chicano movement and I cheered them for all their triumphs and I lamented for all their agony and while attempting through a critical lens to criticize. My history professor, made me admire Thomas Jefferson and learn to respect and criticize the constitution of my old nemesis, America. My Philosophy professor was able to convince me even reluctantly that Eastern and African philosophers were as profound as the Greeks.

What I have learned is that diversity and freedom are synonymous and that America is the epicenter of both my contributions to my new country will be realized and implemented through education. My ultimate goal is to be with the United Nations in a capacity that will allow me to work with not-for profit organizations and thus apply my contribution to world changes and betterment. I will not dare propose that I have knowledge as how a better world order can be achieved without first looking into my own principles and limitations as they pertain to the comprehension of the myriad nuances that surround the socioeconomic structures of governments, nations and their functionality. I can only hope that by making changes in my microcosmic sphere, along with others I can contribute to changing the status quo of inequality and criminal neglect that permeates our global community. In the end, the journey is not just a trophy to lay at the hub of a destination but the essence of purposeful struggle. The poet Cavafy, a Greek who lived in the Diaspora all his life, says it so much better.


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When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the angry Poseidon -- do not fear them:
You will never find such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not set them up before you.

Pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many, when,
with such pleasure, with such joy
you will enter ports seen for the first time;
stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
visit many Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from scholars.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
and to anchor at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.
She has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what Ithacas mean.

Constantine P. Cavafy (1911)

My destination to my Ithaca, I hope, will be a call to unite what is noble and decent from both my cultural backgrounds for the good of all. Without forsaking one to be able to fully embrace the other and to enrich our American tapestry.

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