I was standing on the balcony of my grandmother’s seventh-floor flat in Athens breathing in the air that felt like the armpit of the hottest part of the day: 2 p.m. The white tile and gray grout flooring reflected a flat pang of harsh sunlight into my eyes. The bright ground made my feet look dark and dirty. The tan lines from my sandals led from one chapped little blister to the next down the sides of my feet. People walked here so much; I should have brought different shoes.
I drew my eyes up from the unsightly state of my feet to gaze across the hills in front of me. A small yellow church sat on top of a speckled green hill in the east; its stained glass windows glinting in the sun. Below the green hills nestled the rest of the densely packed neighborhood of Petroupoli. Compact cars dotted the sidewalks like lines of colorful ants. For a city so crammed with apartments and people, it felt quiet to a point of desertion.
“Ela mésa!” my grandmother screamed from the living room. “Ela mésa, Theodora!” I slowly walked inside and stared at her, focusing all of my energy on slowing down her words with my mind.
“Kánei zésti éxo tou tóra. Kleíse tin pórta.”
“HOT-OUTSIDE. CLOSE-DOOR,” was my best guess, so I shut and latched the pristine glass doors and drew the curtains closed.
“Brávo korítsi-mou, Brávo,” she said quietly as she motioned me to sit, but as soon as I did, she began shouting again. “Oxi, oxi, oxi, sto kreváti moree!” I moved from the table to the bedroom and sat down on the twin-sized bed. “Bravo,” she said again, then quietly shut the door behind her.
Apparently, she wanted me to take a nap. I didn’t need much convincing. The doggish heat mixed with the eight-hour time difference made a heavy melody that lulled me to sleep in the first few breaths. I woke up to the smell of beef and olive oil. Still sticky from my nap, I rubbed my eyes and walked into the kitchen. My grandparents were waiting for me with stuffed bell peppers—my favorite.
We ate in silence as the sun fell, giving us a deserved break from the daytime heat. It was our last night together, yet I could hardly say a word. In a last-ditch effort to show some affection, I cleaned up the kitchen after dinner. They resisted at first, but after some grunts and sighs, they relented.
I had brushed my teeth and prepared for bed before my grandmother knocked on the door. She came in and sat down on the bed next to me. She spoke and I stared back, blankly. I told her I do not understand. She repeated herself again. I could see the frustration building in her face. I asked her to slow down. She lit up- Yes! “Slow down,” she said. Piecing together what I could, I took in the only advice my grandmother would get to give me:
In life, slow down. Don’t rush for the things you want. You are young, and there is so much time. Marriage, kids, it will all come. But don’t look for it. Don’t chase it. Don’t grow up faster than you need to.
“Katalaves?” (Do you understand?) she asked.
I nodded. In my thirty days in her home, this was the most we’d spoken. In the morning, we drove to the airport in silence. She hugged me goodbye and pinched my cheek one last time. I didn’t know if I’d see her again, but I felt an understanding between us that we’d never had before.
It’s funny how love can sometimes make up the space between languages—how watching her hands circle and stop taught me not to worry. How feeling her grab my own hands and place them over my heart taught me to love in the present. How watching her eyes reflect my confused and trying face taught me patience and understanding. And how pinching my cheek might be my first and last memory of her, like two sides of a bookend.