Book Review: To Hellas and Back

I picked up To Hellas and Back: My Modern-Day Greek Tragedy by Lana Penrose at my local Borders.  Ive been a fan of travel writing for about five years now, and as an expat am particularly interested in stories from that point of view.  However, I believe that I likely picked this book up on a day when I was fairly down on Singapore, desperate to find someone who had it worse.

Lana, as it turns out, had it far worse than me.

A self described Australian Party Girl who works in the music industry, Lana has no real idea what she’s in for when her boyfriend is offered the job of running an Athenian radio station for a year.  He is Greek by ethnicity (Aussie by upbringing) and can speak Greek.  Lana is neither Greek, nor does she speak it.  Unlike Singapore, where I at least (mostly) share a common language…that means she’s fairly out of luck when they arrive.

As I read her descriptions of the isolation, the ironing she takes up to kill time (she is not allowed to work due to immigration restrictions), the desire to try to put a good face on things for her partner…I ached for her.  I understood what those feelings were like, and where her pain was coming from.  I felt guilty for all the bouts of homesickness I’d battled…I at least had a child to keep my busy, a (sort of) common language, and far more options to stay in contact with my friends back home (her time in Greece was the early 2000’s, before Facebook and Skype became so common).  She tries to learn Greek, but in 4 years never really is able to make progress.

It isn’t really all that surprising that eventually, she has a nervous breakdown from the stress.  Therapy and finding a fabulous gay friend make all the difference in the world.  For a while.  Because no matter how fabulous your friend…he can’t fix that you don’t speak the language, or understand the culture.

I actually told her “NO” when she recounts the tale of her boyfriend proposing marriage.  Of her agreement to stay in on Greece longer.

As her husband acclimates and begins to disappear into his “Greekness,” the reader can see the sword of Damocles hanging over their marriage.  It’s actively painful to share with her the experience of getting an email from him that says “if I knew you’d have so much trouble in Greece, I would’ve broken up with you before I left instead of taking you with me.”  From her husband.  By email.  Which, is not to say that as an outsider, might not have been the right call.

As the reader, you watch her plunge into the depths of denial as she tries everything she can to save her marriage, clinging on long past when her husband tells her he doesn’t love her anymore.  Past when she prays and hears “it’s time to let go.”  Past separate bedrooms.  Past separate lives co-existing in the same apartment.

Finally, you sigh with relief when she finally throws in the towel on her marriage and on Greece.

For me, the most elusive character to understand is her boyfriend/husband Dion.  On one hand, he is a genuinely great guy–he does everything he can to help her through the breakdown, and tries to introduce her to his friend’s wives/girlfriends.  But he is also largely absent…which as an expat wife, I understand is often par for the course.  My own story features Ravi heavily…but in Singapore he’s less defined within the context of “my story” than he was in the the US.  I can’t blame him for integrating or being happy in Greece…he has tremendous professional success and makes friends.  He speaks the language and he becomes more Greek with each day.  What was most difficult for me to understand was his lack of action…he did tell her he didn’t love her anymore, but he never started divorce proceedings (which may have something to do with the difficulties of international divorce when you live in another country).

In the end though, it’s a brave tale of failed integration.

I’m glad I didn’t read it before we moved here…it would’ve scared me shitless.  Reading it now (after it languishing on the shelf for months) with almost 9 months abroad under my belt, I have a much different take on it than I would have a year ago.

If you want to test your marriage…move abroad.  Your marriage will either splinter or you’ll come out stronger.  Ours certainly took its fair share of blows, and even now can be buffeted by the strain of living in a foreign culture.  Being an expat wife can often be isolating, and even when you make a circle of friends, that circle is always in a state of flux.  People move, people visit their home country for a month(s) at a time.  You get visitors and your local friends take a very distant second place on your social calendar.  Before you know it, it’s been two months since you’ve seen someone.

In many ways, I think I was extremely lucky to have Elanor.  Because I had a small child, I felt compelled to leave the house.  Because I have a small child, I have entree into mommy groups…and while that’s been a mixed bag of results, it does give you an instant connection beyond culture.  If, like Lana, I was alone, I would have been far more introverted, and most likely had more trouble.

This is not to say in any way that I think I’ve fully integrated.  Singapore and I are often at odds…a push-me, pull-you of customs, food I wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole, and differences that are just off enough that you feel like they shouldn’t be a big deal.  I do want to move home to the US eventually.

I’m lucky, in that my partner still feels a desire to go back to our home country.  If he, like Dion, ever said that he couldn’t imagine leaving Singapore/Greece…I might be just as paralyzed, just as desperate to find a way to make it work.  Or, as it eventually did in Lana’s case, it might mean my marriage.  It’s a dilemma along the lines of children…there is NO compromise point, especially when the two countries are on opposite sides of the globe.

I think I was expecting a far more breezy read…that the “greek tragedy” was  a tongue-in-cheek, rather than literal “tragedy.”  It made me think about how “lucky” I am, even when days are rough.

Perspective…it has value.

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3 Responses to Book Review: To Hellas and Back

  1. bookjunkie says:

    Oh no I just heard about how you are in hospital with a swollen ankle on twitter…glad it’s not broken but hope you’re feeling better.

    The story you related sounds fascinating. I don’t think I would ever have the guts to move abroad even though when I was younger I dreamt about it. I would miss my family too much. I think it’s really brave to pick up and start anew in a strange land. I admire people who do this but I think it’s one of the hardest things you could do. It must give you a whole new perspective on everything and broaden your horizons but there is a cost I guess.

  2. Kate says:

    I’m an American expat (and Bostonian!) currently in Australia, but I’ve been stalking your blog for some time as it looks like my husband and I will be moving to Singapore to start the expat process anew. This is by choice, though if you’d told me a year into our stint here that we’d opt to stay abroad one day longer than we’d initially planned, I would have died laughing.

    Anyway, I really like this post and agree with so many of your sentiments. Being an expat wife (“trailing spouse” in technical terms, apparently) has been one of the greatest challenges of my life, and I only overcame it when I got a job of my own and felt like I’d finally created an identity here for myself. Reading this review of a book that seems totally terrifying and sad compels me to recommend one that I read in the midst of a tough time here, Julia Child’s “My Life in France.” Obviously she was a remarkable woman, but she really didn’t come into her own until she moved to a country where she didn’t know the language and was simply trying to fill her days. If you haven’t read it, it’s definitely a much lighter and positive read!

    Thanks again for your thoughtful posts, I really enjoy them!

  3. Kirsten says:

    When I moved to New Zealand alone I was spared the culture shock because I was already a pretty (or perhaps, very) Westernised teenager anyway. I spoke fluent English (I was even told that I spoke better English than some Kiwis) and I already watched the same films and listened to the same music so even though I did miss home occasionally I didn’t actually need much time to adjust beyond figuring out where everything was!

    I’m sure it’ll be a completely, completely different experience to move to a country where I have to learn a whole new language to adapt. I can’t wait to try it out (and if I keep on with this long-distance relationship of mine I probably will eventually, like in 2012, before the world ends) and see how I will respond to it.

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