She was sipping her coffee alla Turca. Yes, she was old. But she was solid as a rock. She didn’t shake, she didn’t tremble. She kept her eyes at the sea. Her ever-seeing eyes were fixed to the crimson clouds at the sunset.
Her gaze followed the passers-by of today and the past. People she didn’t see. People she didn’t recognize. And I don’t mean people she didn’t know. She did not recognize them. Period. She turned and ordered a second coffee and additional water. That’s when I met her eyes. She looked at me, and asked many questions without uttering a single word. I saw fear, curiosity, all at once in her gaze. I spelled “gia sas”(1) with my lips. Her face lightened. A beautiful, expansive smile invaded her face. We nodded.
I found the courage to move ahead and talk to her. She had sit there at least an hour alone. I followed the waiter who brought her second coffee, and leaned towards her.
“May I sit down?”
Most valuable words I have heard in my life! As I sat in the couch beside hers. I didn’t know how to address her. I wanted to call her “giagia”(2). But I thought it to be disrespectful somehow. I asked her name. And she told me. I cannot repeat it here because she asked me to keep her name anonymous later on. And this is the story of why.
She was born in 1918. That makes her 92 now. You cannot tell this by looking at her. She looks 70. She acts a lot younger though. She’s alert and responsive to the faintest of inputs. When she was born, Smyrna was Smyrna. She does not personally remember of course. But she grow up with stories and memories. Her family had to leave their burning home in 1922. They moved to a relative’s house near Ourla, a mere 50 kilometers from Smyrna. She comes from an original Smyrnian family who can trace her roots for hundreds of years. Her father was a merchant. Who wasn’t back in these days? Surely his business was burned down in the fire.
They refused to go to Greece in the population exchange. They utilized illegal means to stay behind. But the times were harsh. It wasn’t possible to speak their mother tongue in daily deals. As most did, they turned to French as a language. Greek was being replaced by French among non-muslims of the city.
Fire and further demolitions by the government left them without a church, in fact without any essentials of a community. Harsh conditions were everywhere. Every member of the family had to work.
She was working as a maid to a Turkish hanoum. One day when she left her workplace for home, she saw an old doll laying on the pavement. She remembers. The doll had blond hair. It had silken clothes. And her eyes were blue. She was afraid to touch it. She slowly went near the doll. And checked the passersby around. The torn street was empty. But she wasn’t sure about the insides of the ruins around. She waited.
When she was sure no one was around to see her, she grabbed it, and ran away. Ran quickly until she was home. She named her “Eleni”. She asked me if I want to see her.
She had a life of someone else. She was one of the “others” all her life. She learned to walk on her toes. She never made a lot of noise. Never attracted much attention to herself. Never married. Never sang a loud song.
I ask her “what about now?”. She tells me there is no “now” now. I tell her “you’re sitting at a Greek Café, listening to Greek music. Don’t you enjoy it a little?” She answers me with a question; “Do you?”
She’s right. All is gone now. The spirit has left the city. It’s a refuge for retirees, students and come today gone tomorrow workers. And a few incidental tourists.
Turkey has changed. So did Greece. But Smyrna and her original people stayed the same. A generation of ghosts from the past. Belonging to nowhere, belonging to a place that doesn’t exist anymore. Her life had no hope at any stage. But she has a life. A life that seldom repeats itself in any geography. A life of disregarded ethnicities. Purposefully crushed lives. Lives of the bricks and stones of a 3000 years old culture.
As I let her go, I planted a small kiss to her cheek. It was a reminder that I was not alone. It was a reminder that she was not either. A community of a handful of remainders.
As she whispered: “thank you”.
She went back to the little house. The house on a little bedroom lays a little old doll called “Eleni”
ps. gia sas: Greek for “hello”
giagia: Greek for “grandma”
Above pictures were taken by the author during the interview. Since my subject refused her name or picture to be used publicly, I instead used a picture of the chair she sat without her.