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Bright Wall/Dark Room November 2021: Why You Want to Leave Me? by Steph Green

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    We are pleased to offer an excerpt from the November 2021 edition of the online magazine Bright Wall/Dark Room. Their theme this month is "Generations." In addition to the excerpted essay below on "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" by Steph Green, the new issue also features essays on "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," "Dune," "Titane," "Nobody's Fool," Fellini's "Satyricon," "The Real Housewives of New York City," "Mom and Dad," "The Other Side of the Wind," "Tales from Earthsea," and "Jauja."

    You can read our previous excerpts from the magazine by clicking here. To subscribe to Bright Wall/Dark Room, or look at their most recent essays, click here.


    “I’ve tried planting potatoes since you left,

    but they never grow the way they did for you.

    Now, they never grow at all;

    neither on this island or that.”

    — Daniele Nunziata, Grandfather’s Potatoes

    I stare at the small, styrofoam fig sitting on top of a mound of earth at my bappou’s grave and wonder how it got there.

    I ask my family; they don’t know either. I bend down and pick it up, its lightness betraying its artificiality, the purplish paintwork stopping just short of the base. I stare at it and stare at it, like I’m expecting it to grow a mouth and answer me. I have to assume it became detached from a nearby funeral wreath and blew over in the steady June wind, but the odds don’t seem right, especially considering the man who had been interred below 30 days prior.

    ***

    “There is a huge void in all our lives now, which will be felt especially over the summer when we can’t see him in the garden for a bumper crop of figs. Having said that, his legacy lives on with half the people in this church lucky to have a cutting from his magnificent fig tree, a symbol of his legacy.” 

    — Eulogy for Michalis Loizou, June 2021

    ***

    When a language barrier is in place between generations in a family, you have to forge a secret language to communicate with each other. A relationship becomes built on symbols. My yiayia didn’t speak English, but with her vice-like grip, love-filled looks, and toothless grin, we knew how much she loved us without the need for verbal communication. We knew it when she had a lukewarm piece of toast slathered in honey waiting for us when we got back from school, or when she would point at us with glee and say, “teacher!”—a rare English word she knew—any time we were reading a book. My bappou’s English was slightly better, but he was so hard of hearing that by the time you’d gone hoarse trying to get him to hear you, it was easier to gesticulate or mime or relay a feeling through a hand squeeze. Sometimes it felt like being in a movie. A note scribbled on a script’s margins: It’s more effective for an object to say this through symbolism than for this character to spell it out. 

    Whenever I wanted to hear my grandparents speak, I would watch My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I was five when we bought the VHS; I’m not entirely sure I grasped at first that the Portokalos family and my family were not the same. They looked the same; their accents, mannerisms, and intonations were broadly similar. They were loud, ridiculous, and frighteningly involved in each other’s lives. There was a Greek woman and WASP-y man at the center—my parents, check—a loveable yet cantankerous patriarch—yep—as well as a crazy yiayia, a wisecracking aunt, bickering cousins. They had names like Toula and Voula; my family had names like Foulla and Koulla. It made sense to my child’s brain. When I watched the film on a near-monthly basis, it was just a family reunion.

    Like any rom-com pegged to a specific ethnicity or culture, whether it’s the Jewishness of Crossing Delancey or the Italianness of Moonstruck, the comedy always needs to be somewhat rooted in an essence of reality. In My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the Greek chorus of supporting characters are perfectly pitched members of a diaspora built upon oblique eccentricity, unrelenting nosiness, and crushing love. “We see no difference between hugging,” our protagonist tells us in the film’s sequel, “and suffocation.” No scenario ever feels too far-fetched, no character too implausible. The Greekness[efn_note] I should caveat here that while I refer to myself throughout this essay as Greek, that isn’t strictly true. My family are from Cyprus, and are Greek-speaking—though a Cypriot dialect prevails—and so to refer to myself as Greek is only contributing to the narrow-minded view people have of Cypriots and our desire to be seen as distinct from our Greek or Turkish cousins. That said, I didn’t grow up with access to a mythical My Big Fat Cypriot Wedding, and while there are distinctions in our food, culture, and customs, the depiction of Greekness specific to this film isn’t different to what I have experienced, and so I feel comfortable enough with the comparisons. Now, back to the essay.[/efn_note] is tangible, textural, truthfulit is grilled into the sheftalia roasting over charcoals in the Portokaloses’ front yard and embroidered into the doilies decorating their home. 

    ***

    “My dad and my uncles, they fight over who gets to eat the lamb brain. And then my aunt Voula forks the eyeball and chases me around with it, trying to get me to eat it, 'cause it's gonna make me smart.” — Toula Portokalos, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” (2002)

    “As kids, when we cut ourselves she would wrap a slice of wet Greek bread around the wound, held in place with a piece of kitchen roll and an elastic band.” — Eulogy for Eleni Loizou, January 2020

    ***

    When you grow up in an area with a high concentration of your diaspora, you feel less isolated in the mania. The entirety of my family—grandparents, cousins, aunts, and all—lived within a three-mile radius of each other growing up. My aunt even lived on the same road as us (not quite next door, like Toula and her parents). My school was filled with fellow Greeks and Cypriots, and after school I’d go to friends’ houses for keftedes and koubebia and hunks of watermelon. On Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings, I’d go to the local Greek school. I’d visit my grandparents weekly, and spend my summers with the rest of North London on the beaches of Cyprus. At times I felt stifled, embarrassed, and fed up with being Greek. Why is everyone so loud, all the time? Why is prying an extreme sport? Why must I wear a shower cap whenever my mother is frying meatballs, lest I go to school with hair smelling like a taverna? It was easier to mock the idea of being Greek Cypriot than grapple with what being Greek Cypriot actually meant for me on a deeper, spiritual, emotional level.

    “You should be proud to be Greek!” is the mantra Gus repeats to his daughter, Toula, in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. She is similarly stifled by her family’s intensity. An unmarried 30-year-old long considered a spinster by her spiritedly childbearing family, she works as a waitress in her family’s restaurant and longs for her own life, having felt like an outsider since her childhood. In one flashback scene to her school days, where she’s a self-described “swarthy six-year-old with sideburns,” Toula is mocked for her lunch by a blond kid. “What’s that?” they ask her, disgusted. “It’s moussaka,” Toula replies. “Moose-caca?” the blonde repeats, squealing with laughter. It reminds me of when I went to university in the North of England and was soaking my lumpy kernels of trahana overnight to make soup the next day, only for my blond flatmate to ask the next day if somebody had been sick in her favorite pan. 

    Toula’s dreams are small, but noble: to learn a skill and work separately from the confines of the family restaurant. Played by Nia Vardalos, who also wrote the film’s Oscar-nominated script, Toula goes on a journey that mirrors that of traditional rom-com while effortlessly weaving in the added stumbling blocks that come with belonging to a diaspora—a sense of constantly evolving wistfulness, belonging, alienation, and loss. For every freedom that Toula receives, we see the flipside of a life led separately to her Greek heritage, whether that’s a dull meal with her fiancé’s well-meaning but plain parents, or her father’s feelings of betrayal and sadness. Despite the identity crisis at the film’s center that feels tailor-made to me, the appeal of My Big Fat Greek Wedding is universal, hence its status as the highest-grossing rom-com of all time. There’s the ridiculous yet irresistible makeover sequence (she puts in contact lenses and now she’s beautiful and noticed by men!), but we also get to see a multi-layered woman—a self-written woman—grappling with falling in love, fending off her family, and ultimately finding herself. With this arduous task on her shoulders, Vardalos pulls off a performance of moving complexity, paired with a light comedic touch and fantastic hair. 

    When Toula meets Ian, a kind and handsome English schoolteacher, he is genuinely baffled by how stressed she is about their relationship. He is fascinated by her but never fetishistic about her culture; kind and respectful, loving and supportive. The same can’t be said for how Toula’s family treats Ian: a mixture of schoolground pranks and genuine interference, invading his personal space and grilling him on his life story within seconds of meeting him. Both parties have the same amount of interest in and respect for the other—Greeks just happen to show their interest with extreme tactlessness or absurdity. I can’t explain why, but the best example of this is when Ian’s parents bake a bundt cake and Toula’s parents put a plant in its hole, because they think this is the polite thing to do. 

    Thankfully, Vardalos doesn’t resort to a storyline where Ian makes Toula choose between him or her family. The fateful day that he saunters into her workplace doesn’t signify that a man has come to save her from the gaggle of horrible, meddling Greeks. He simply helps her on her way to realizing that she doesn’t have to shed her identity to feel complete, but that realizing how to express affection will set her free.

    My Big Fat Greek Wedding is a film about realizing that a large, unwieldy, meddling family can be the best and worst thing in your life. It is also about verging-on-camp excess, genuinely dangerous amounts of spit-roasted meat, and the way ouzo makes your retinas itch. It is about realizing that your family owns part of your life, whether you asked for it or not. It is about the sacrifices people make when they love you, upheaving their entire lives at the drop of a hat to facilitate your happiness and comfort. And it’s about love: romantic, inherited, platonic, overwhelming.

    ***

    “Our Yiayia and Bappou took the fearless decision to travel to London, by boat and by train, with their 5 year old son in 1955 to build a better life. They had no safety net when they arrived. No home waiting for them to move into, no job to start. Through sheer courage, persistence and hard work they built a life for themselves, and for us, in this foreign land.” — Eulogy for Eleni Loizou, January 2020

    “Toula, I come to this country with eight dollars in my pocket. To make all this for you." — Gus Portokalos, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” (2002)

    *** 

    While my friends and I struggled to perfect the Greek spoken by our grandparents, we communicated in our own language: My Big Fat Greek Wedding quotes. When someone was tired: “Sit down, yiayia!” When someone ordered a vegetarian dish at a restaurant: “You don’t eat no meat?!” Whenever one of us complained of a pain: “Put some Windex on it.” Or if we were ever acting selfish, or ungrateful: “When I was your age, we didn't have food!” 

    Movies offer a universality in a diaspora. While we share feelings of loss—the identity we lose at birth from being neither here nor there, and the identity our parents and grandparents lost when they emigrated—films help us collectively reclaim something. Films stay the same as time passes, and there’s a comfort in that; far from stagnant, though, they remain living things to re-approach and revisit, a continuous dialogue that can mean more after an event in your life. My Big Fat Greek Wedding is my pixelated sounding board; it helps me work through my fractured identity and grief when words fail to do the job. 

    While My Big Fat Greek Wedding was released when I was five, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 landed in cinemas when I was 19 and starting to grow out of my “being Greek Cypriot is annoying” phase. Reviews said that it was pummelling a dead horse, stuffed like a vine leaf with in-jokes so parochially catered to Greeks and/or fans of the first film that its eccentricities were impenetrable. Of course, I loved it. Not only did it echo my own evolving feelings and maturing attitude to the whole Diaspora Thing, but it made me think intergenerationally; specifically, about my mother’s relationship with my grandparents.

    In the film, a now middle-aged Toula is struggling to take care of her aging father; the doctor’s appointments are endless, and the passing of time is only exacerbating Gus’s curmudgeonly demeanor. Understandably, the lessons she learned at the end of the first film are temporarily lost as the burden grows, her patience wears thin, and her marriage suffers. While not a perfect film, the sequel is steadfastly attuned to the constantly changing appreciation we have for our heritage and identity. One pivotal moment for Toula happens after Gus has a fall in the bath and needs to go to hospital, and she has a confrontation with the Karen-y neighbors making snarky comments about the family and the chaos they cause. “Such a weird family,” one says. The other nods in stuck-up agreement: “Odd people.” The look in Toula’s eyes when she hears this speaks volumes; every resentment she had been feeling towards her father melts away in a moment of fierce devotion. “That’s my dad going into that ambulance,” Toula says, her voice quivering in disbelief, sadness, and fury. There are small ways to assert your dignity and show your dedication to your family, a dedication that is boundless and ferocious when you are Greek.

    When my bappou was in a care home this summer, my mother was ordered to go home in his final hours; she was effectively being asked to leave him to die alone. This was as per COVID regulations, despite my mother following rigorous protocols involving full PPE and negative tests. When she refused to leave, they threatened to call the police; unfazed, she and my aunt remained by his side for 20 hours until he drew his last breath. When I watch My Big Fat Greek Wedding and its sequel, I’m reminded that my family will do anything and everything to protect and defend me. It doesn’t matter if I’m 94, crotchety, addled or ill. This is an inherited love and dedication, because their parents, too, would have done the same. “My family is big and loud, but they're my family,” Toula says at the end of the first film. “And wherever I go, whatever I do...they will always be there.” It’s said with an edge of tongue-in-cheek warning, but mainly as a comforting, affirming fact.

    ***

    “His opinionated advice didn’t extend to just family matters. Given that he was a chef, he was quite vocal about family cooking, never holding back suggestions whether they were warranted or not.” 

    — Eulogy for Michael Loizou, June 2021

    “That family is like a piece of toast. No honey, no jam, just dry. My daughter is going to marry lan Miller...a ξένο[efn_note]foreigner[/efn_note]! A ξένο with a toast family!” 

    — Gus Portokalos, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” (2002)

    ***

    When my yiayia passed away in January 2020, the grief was exacerbated by what felt like the loss of my identity. I came to realize that not only did I not really feel either Cypriot or English—a dilemma that brought its own existential quandaries—but that my grandmother, with her cackle and sole brown tooth and the handbag she carried around inside a plastic carrier bag, symbolized the unique madness of growing up in a hyper-specific diaspora, a North London suburb crammed full of people just like you. She was the yiayia in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, trespassing on a neighbor’s lawn, sleeping with a knife under her pillow. Now that she was gone, and my aging bappou was likely soon to follow her, where on earth was the reference point for my identity? 

    As the family patriarch, Gus, known for his impassioned speeches about Greek etymology and the all-powerful usages of Windex, Michael Constantine embodied the quintessential Greek man. While pig-headed, old-fashioned, protective, and arrogant, his gruff exterior concealed an interior of Aegean-honey sweetness; he reminded me of my own bappou, whose love and affection for us was intense, as was his tendency to be blunt or rude. They were both stubborn men who were willing to die on the silliest of hills rather than be proven wrong, and had a real heft and presence, too—each with magnificently bushy brows that could be seen from space. Gus became an iconic movie father because of a bounty of one-liners written by Vardalos, but he delivered them with such masterful comic timing and an astute ability to garner sympathy that the role became the film’s most beloved and quotable phenomenon. When both my bappou and Michael Constantine passed away at 94 this summer, I didn't expect to feel such a double whammy of grief; I felt like my real and fictional family had truly crumbled around me. Although Vardalos’s script invites us to laugh at Gus’s repeated arrogant assertion of “I am the head of this house!,” when you are the one who brought your family to a new country, the loss of that patriarch hurts; when the base of a pyramid of cards is knocked, everything built on top of it falls, too.

    Svetlana Boym, an academic known for her work on memory and nostalgia, wrote in The Future of Nostalgia: “first wave immigrants are often notoriously unsentimental, leaving the search for roots to their children and grandchildren”—something I’ve found to be viscerally true. I spent the COVID-19 lockdown trying to figure out my position with this newfound diasporic angst. I attended online lectures about the meaning of identity within the Greek diaspora. I cooked my way through Georgina Hayden’s Taverna with painstaking, steadfast gusto. I browsed eBay for cheap Theo Angelopoulos boxsets. I made Spotify playlists titled “Greek bangers” and tried to remember the names of songs we used to dance the kalamatianos to at weddings. Each odd little attempt to reconcile disparate parts of myself wasn't entirely futile, but I was searching in the wrong place. 

    I didn’t need to force new connections; all I needed to do was watch My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and, instantly, I was soothed. 

    ***

    There’s a scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the night before the titular wedding, where Toula is in her bedroom and her yiayia enters with a box of old photographs and trinkets. The piece of music accompanying the scene—fittingly, considering the theme of this month’s issue—is titled “Generations.” With a wrinkled finger, she taps at the objects, and then she taps at herself. She lifts out a crown of flowers—stefania, my namesake, worn by Greek and Cypriot women on their wedding day—and places it on her granddaughter’s head. Toula is touched and speechless by the gesture. It symbolizes a beautiful thing for a child of a diaspora: love and memory articulated through inherited objects and wordless gestures. It never fails to move me to tears. 

    As I write this, my grandparents’ house—the place where I spent so much of my childhood—is up for sale. When I imagine another family sitting in their garden and eating from my bappou’s fig tree, a lump grows at the base of my throat. It symbolizes the end for me, more so than their passing: the last physical reminder of their existence, their smell still embedded into the carpet. I think of Daniele’s poem that I opened this essay with: the way food doesn’t taste the same after a loved one passes, a sensory loss that externalizes your grief. But while I can’t eat those gorgeous, green-skinned figs anymore, I have this little styrofoam fig that found its way to me, my own Proustian madeleine I can clutch in my palm, an oddly serendipitous aide-mémoire. 

    A film’s reception can change over the years, and my relationship with My Big Fat Greek Wedding is ever-evolving; it waxes and wanes with the rhythms of my grief and my memories. It might mean something new to me in a few years, revealing a startling truth or touching comparison in a throwaway line or look. Nia Vardalos recently announced that she has finished writing a third film in the series, and so perhaps soon I’ll have a new manual masquerading as a rom-com to help me work through the loss of my grandparents. And whenever I’m struggling to connect to my heritage, I know I have the first two films to connect the dots—to remind me that my family is always the most important thing, and that I’ll never have to shoulder a burden alone.




    Original: https://www.rogerebert.com/features/bright-walldark-room-november-2021-why-you-want-to-leave-me-by-steph-green
    By: The Editors
    Posted: November 22, 2021, 4:00 pm

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