It is the summer of 2011, and I am at an outdoor café in Psiri with my cousin Eleni, graffiti encrusting the buttery bricks of the little square’s adjacent exterior walls.
Eleni is astonished that I would come all the way to Greece just to find out about my family, my “roots,” the Americanism now universally understood.
She says, “You do this to find out who you are, yes?”
“Yes,” I tell her. “To some extent.”
I want to say “it’s complicated,” but can’t be sure that the idiom will be understood.
She is not deterred. “Do you think that it is in your blood, this Greek family?”
A few days later another cousin, Sisi, presses me further.
“Why do you do this family history? What do you get from it? Is it something personal?”
Sisi thinks that because my background is so convoluted – Greek, English, Polish (she doesn’t understand that Poland’s Jews could not think of themselves “Polish” another difficult-to-explain turn of language), I lack the rootedness felt so innately among, for instance, Greeks. And she thinks this is true as well of many Americans who “return” to Greece with blood and soil on their itineraries.
As a high school senior, I read Thomas Mann’s novella Tonio Kröger whose protagonist is born of a German father and a mother “from overseas,” he an embodiment of bourgeois dignity and practicality, she of scarcely-buried creative passion.
Mann does not explicitly propose that national character is an inherited trait. But the initial success of Tonio Kröger depended in part on European readers who instantly understood Tonio to be a chimera, a self divided between north and south, and between head and heart. Upon such a child, Mann suggests, falls the burden of integrating a divided self. In the end, Tonio makes himself fully whole when, having lived in the south, he returns to his hometown in the north and reflects upon his dual heritage.
California is a long way from Europe, and I have never felt myself divided in ways comprehensible to early 20th century novels.
Yet, talking with Eleni and Sisi, Tonio Kröger leapt to mind, though I hadn’t read it in decades. Gently interrogated by my distant cousins, I thought that maybe Mann does have something to say about Americans, and about our obsession with gluing branches onto family trees.