In Flight: Her First American
“I am happy,” the girl answered in halting Greek, her accent made even more pronounced by contrast to that of the man dropping her off. He, clearly a local, was soothing her weeping mother with his large hand on her shoulder. Maybe she’s an Albanian immigrant, I thought; Athens was full of them. They probably worked with, or for the Greek guy. I returned to my book, a mystery about a eunuch solving crimes in the Ottoman Empire.
This was back in 2007, before I got married, before I had children, when I was a graduate student who travelled often, both for fun and for my work as a freelance writer. Mostly, I wrote about Greece, where my father was born and where I lived with my family between the ages of three and seven. I’d been back to visit every summer since I was 14, now coming a few times a year to research different stories. What I loved about travel writing, and travelling in general, is that it demands that you engage in your surroundings, observe what’s happening around you. That was doubly true in Greece, where you’re not allowed to be a spectator. Especially if you speak the language, you get pulled into every parking dispute or church festival you stumble upon—and there are a lot of both. But by the end of each trip, I was exhausted from paying attention. From engaging. And from toggling back and forth between my two identities: the American in Greece, or the New Yorker missing Greece. After several weeks embedded in my sometimes homeland, I wanted to go back to New York, where I minded my own business and everyone else minded theirs.
When I boarded the flight, I recognized the woman I’d already categorized as an Albanian Leo in the window seat next to me. We ignored each other, like the best of travelling companions. I read about my crafty eunuch; she held a book that began “Learn English!”, the only words not in Arabic. So maybe she wasn’t Albanian. Not that I cared.
The flight attendant passed and the Leo asked, in Greek, if she had any painkillers, using the name of a local brand. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” the attendant said. “I’ll get someone.”
I wanted my nuked ravioli, my free mini bottle of wine, then maybe a movie I could sleep through. I didn’t want to wait for someone to come back with ibuprofen. To secure my comfort for the rest of the trip, I’d have to break my anonymity and reveal to my seatmate that we had a language in common. “She’s asking for aspirin,” I told the stewardess in English.
I got my wine, but lost my privacy. Next the Leo wanted help with her in-flight entertainment system, then with filling out the customs card. She told me she was going to Los Angeles to stay with her sister. By now any hope of keeping to myself was lost. I gave in and asked if she’d visited California before.
She laughed. “It’s my first time on a plane. I am from Iraq, and Saddam, he never let us on planes.” She and her mother had travelled overland to Kuwait, then by boat to Greece, where she worked for two years in “a newspaper factory”.
“It’s no good in Iraq,” she told me, although I hadn’t asked. “We have been at war since I was born. First with Iran, then Kuwait, America. OK, this time, America started the war, not us. But still war.”
I nodded. I’d never met an Iraqi. I thought I might want to hear just a little more.
“At least with Saddam, we had…” she switched from Greek to an English word she knew. “Security. You could walk at night. Now it is…”
“Chaos?” I supplied the Greek word.
Irreversibly sucked into her story, I asked how long she planned to stay in L.A.
Her father died during the Iran-Iraq war, she said; she’d never known him. She was moving in with her sister; her mother would join them once everything was arranged, in, maybe, four months. The sister had married an American of Iraqi descent, whose mother was from the same village as my seatmate’s uncle. The uncle had sent his old friend a video of his birthday, and when her son saw the seatmate’s sister in the home movie, he announced, “I want to marry that girl!” Letters and photos were exchanged, phone calls took place, the sister and the American met in Kuwait, married, and settled in L.A. Her brother-in-law was very nice, the Iraqi Leo said. Nice, and, now, her ticket out.
Was this the reason the uncle mailed the video? Because he hoped someone in America would notice his lovely niece? Or did he just have a vague idea of strengthening ties with a neighbour who had got out, made it to L.A? I had so many questions, I didn’t know which to ask first. Plus, it was difficult to get a word in. My seatmate not only looked like a Leo, she acted like one, too.
“Are you married?” she asked.
“But you’re so beautiful!”
I burst out laughing. At the extravagance of the statement, yes—if she thought I looked good, wait until she got to L.A. But I also laughed because I was startled to realize that, in my seatmate’s mind, marriage equalled survival and salvation, not just for a woman but for her whole family. Beauty was what a woman had to offer in return.
This wasn’t a completely new idea to me. The Iraqi wasn’t even the first woman I’d met who left a war-torn country on a visa earned by a relative’s special skill—making someone fall in love at first sight. My father had a friend who fled Greece as a refugee child, like himself, then made money in the produce business before he returned in the 1960s with a Polaroid camera he used to woo the village beauty. She looked at the machine and decided that this man, who had the power to instantaneously capture everyone’s image, was the type she wanted to follow, even if it meant leaving home. But she soon brought her sister and mother to join them in Pennsylvania, so home came to her.
I thought of a close friend’s mother, who married an American soldier in Vietnam in 1972 and drove out of the country sitting next to him, with her two teenage brothers hiding in the trunk. Her own mother sat next to her, holding the baby who became my friend’s older brother, pretending she was the one married to my friend’s dad and that young woman at her side was a daughter from a previous marriage, coming along to help out at home. Several other relatives later joined them in the U.S. My friend’s parents seem to have one of the happiest marriages I’ve seen, and are still travelling the world together, going on adventures. For the Greek couple with the instant camera, marriage proved more complicated. But they’re still together, and the woman is the one who learns how to use every new machine and technology that comes along, leading them into the future.
But my friend’s mom and the Polaroid princess were both of my parents’ generation, not mine; they were both young at a time that seems hazy and far off enough to serve as the setting of a fable in which beautiful maidens were charmed by magic or power. What startled me into shocked laughter was that this same scenario was happening even in the present. My seatmate’s sister was probably my age, or younger, and still her salvation depended on leveraging her beauty into marriage and escape from war.
When I’d heard these stories as a child, I was always interested in the chosen woman, the star of the fable. But sitting next to the sister of the girl in the video, I thought, for the first time, how lucky such women’s relatives were that their beauty was matched by their intellect in dreaming up creative ways to get their loved ones to join them in a country that can be as suspicious of immigrants as most men are of in-laws. Not to mention the women’s strength in insisting, however sweetly, that their family members be welcomed in their new home as well this new country.
My seatmate smiled back at me, glad she had amused me with her compliment. Thinking of the plethora of choices in my life. I considered explaining to her that New York was full of women far more attractive than I, who were neither married nor in need of saving. But I wasn’t sure we had the vocabulary in common, and there was already so much for her to take in. And for me, too.
We stuck to specifics and told each other our names and ages: I was Eleni, 32, and she was Donia, 26. As we approached New York she looked out her window and, having learned my name, used it frequently.
“Eleni, I am seeing America for the first time.”
“Eleni, there is an ocean in New York and it looks like a big one.”
“Eleni, you will help me find my next flight, won’t you?”
I remembered landing at JFK after 9/11, when new mobile phone regulations had come into effect while I was away. I answered a call from my mother and a female customs officer said, “If you don’t put down that phone I’m going to knock it out of your hand.”
I didn’t want people like that agent to be Donia’s first Americans. I told her we’d have to go through separate customs lines, but I would wait for her in baggage claim to make sure she made her connection and got onto her next flight.
By the luggage carrousel, I waited 15 minutes, then half an hour, then 45 minutes. Donia never came. My impatience turned to fear. I asked a porter to take me to immigration, imagining screaming guards sending her back to Greece, or even Iraq. But when I spotted Donia through an open door, she was sitting in a chair, smiling as she had on the plane. An officer told me she’d be out in a few minutes.
I waited with her bags, the only two left unclaimed. Finally Donia ran over, looked at her huge suitcases and said, “How am I going to carry these?” A porter came and asked me to translate; he could take her bags through customs, then back through security, and make sure she boarded her flight, but she would have to pay for the service. He was softly spoken, with a South Asian accent, and large, dark eyes. He seemed like someone who might be nice to people who didn’t speak English. I asked Donia if she had any dollars.
I explained the arrangement. She hugged me again and said in Greek, “The cross, or whatever is in Heaven, helped me by putting you next to me on this important day.”
I told her I hoped her future would be beautiful. Then I left her in the protection of that man, her first American, and walked out into the frigid city air, alone.
Eleni Gage is a Contributing Writer for Panorama.
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