Adrianne Kalfopoulou is the author of the poetry collections, "Wild Greens", and "Passion Maps", both from Red Hen Press. She
has also published two chapbooks, and a memoir, "Broken Greek". Her essays and reviews have appeared in various journals
including Hotel Amerika, Room Magazine, Valparaiso Poetry Review and www.mediterranean.nu. She won the 2009 non-fiction
prize from Room Magazine, and currently teaches literature and general education courses at Hellenic American University in
Athens, Greece. Some of Adrianne's work can be found at: www.adriannekalfopoulou.com
Gift-giving as Exilic Baggage
I always think about what I am going to bring back to people when I leave the country, which for me is Greece, and find
myself spending long minutes mulling over the duty-free cigarillos in modish packets of trendy colors in the Gatwick airport.
There are also the butter biscuits in round pastel tins, hard to come by, or not available in Athens, where I’ve been living.
For my boyfriend, who loves whiskey, I mull over the ads of whiskies cured in cherry casks as the polite young man at the
till directs me to brands with a smoky after-taste, or a bourbon tang. I wonder what this visceral need to bring a gift (but
not just any gift) to friends and relatives means to me as I brave the shame of being looked upon as provincial, an out-of-
towner crudely consuming everything hard to come by in their own culture.
I am in Edinburgh to teach a summer course and find myself walking up and down South Clark street thinking whiskey,
jams, books from Blackwell’s, instead of student papers, handouts, and assignments. Ian Rankin’s newest novel for my
mother, a skirt from the corner Indian shop for my daughter, something from the line-up of whiskies for my guy, though
this will be harder to bring back since there is now a 20 pound weight limit and thanks to the newest terrorist bomb
invention we can no longer carry on liquids. I sit listening with the students and other tutors to lecturers in their shorts or
jeans and T-shirts (one eating a carrot through a talk on Beckett), who flamboyantly or not-so-flamboyantly, lead us down
labyrinths of ideas; the talk on Alasdair Gray’s LANARK especially seductive, full of alinear Blakeian paradoxes, phrases like “I
started making maps when I was small showing place, resources, where the enemy and where love lay. I did not know time
adds to land.” Like Dorothy on the yellow brick road expecting to be led home, I follow these talks on lapsed ideals of failed
romanticism, the catastrophe of European modernity, Paul Muldoon’s doubleness of historical moments, and keep scribbling
notes of what I’d like to buy. I hear someone say we are now living the moment of the postmodern, at a crossroad between
desire and the self’s many-splintered presences.
One of the self’s many-splintered presences is me absurdly refusing to spend 2 pounds to get my laundry done (hand
washing underwear and thin tops in the dorm sink, then hanging them discreetly from the window ledge). I use the saved
pounds to mail out the Rankin novel to my mother, and add it to my drinking tab as I sit with other tutors and students
having a pint in the bar at Pollack Halls. Yet each day, after tutorials and seminars, I go back to the room and think of what
small things I am going to bring back to whom, what sale items I’ll afford for myself. My colleagues all live in the city, they go
back to their own washing machines, and bedrooms. It occurs to me that this gift-giving obsession has something to do
with not being in familiar surroundings, a need to bridge the chill of finding oneself, splintered or not, without context, in a
room I consciously domesticate: buy soap, a nail file, scissors to cut the price tags off the GAP baby clothes I just bought
for my godson. I hear the sound of gulls through the open window; see the blue span of Scottish sky, the air feels and
smells like December in Greece. Here, mid-August, the stores are already displaying ‘Back-to-School’ racks of shoes and
clothing. I go downstairs to buy a phone card from the reception desk. Today’s lecture was on the post-modern condition:
“Caffeine-free diet coke” says the lecturer “is the perfect symbol of post-modernity, it has nothing in it of its original
essence.” This absence of original essence threatens disaporic subjects; far flung immigrants send packages home from
across continents, boxes of medicine, clothing, canned foods, to let those they’ve left know they are still there, connected,
though oceans and countries apart.
I’ve come to Edinburgh for a month, though it’s my third year working in the summer program, and though I’ll be going
back to Greece shortly, I feel this same need to reinforce contact with friends I hardly see when I’m in Athens. Yet as the
lecturer points out, contact is suddenly more available to us, even if only in virtual forms; we carry our cell phones,
blackberries, check or send emails, our lives dependent on these communications.
At Kay’s Bar on India Street, Allyson, Tom, Raj and I meet up for drinks. We haven’t seen each other for a year, and in Raj’
s case it’s been two since we all worked in the program that first summer. A grainy black and white photograph hangs
above one of the tables and shows the tiny building that’s now the bar; some decades ago it was a liquor warehouse.
Everything in the photograph looks depressed, and the black and white tones only add to the gritty look of the streets and
buildings. Now India Street is expensive; Allyson and Tom who came to Edinburgh from Arizona talk about their luck at
getting the apartment when they did. Edinburgh has become pricy; banks and other multinational companies have set up
headquarters on George and Princes streets. Raj came back from India to take a part time job at the University. Both he
and Allyson did their doctorates in the English department, and have made Edinburgh their home. I bring them pistachios
and Greek olives from Athens.
As the days pass, my loneliness takes on the sounds around me, of the American high school theater groups for example,
who have come for the Edinburgh fringe festival, filling up the cafeteria and bar area, and spreading through the
dormitories. Raj and Allyson treat their occasional meals in the cafeteria, and visits to the dorms, like an outing. Like me
they’ve come for the program, but unlike me they go back to lives in close proximity to this one; I am guessing they are
more familiar with all that’s happening in the city. Allyson says her young daughter has started to talk with a Scots accent,
“not green Mum, grrreeen,” she insists, and Allyson laughs, imitating her. One of the younger tutors is from Aberdeen,
makes a joke about the Pope drinking whiskey every night, “It’s why they carry him on a seat everywhere.” Raj explains
India’s allure for corporations, says it’s becoming gradually controlled by multinational companies because the culture
teaches “extreme competence and extreme obedience.” I say that’s happening everywhere. He says the case in India is
particular, “You have a post-colonial educational system that teaches competence and a caste system that teaches
obedience, so you’ve got exactly what corporations are after.” Raj adds, ‘They’re not going to be producing any Chomskys
or Gandhis with that combination.”
I hate the cafeteria food except for the boiled mushrooms and baked tomatoes at breakfast. My body’s in shock from the
sudden onslaught of fat, sausages and cheese-smothered dishes of cauliflower and broccoli; but the weather is cool and we
all walk to the morning lectures; it takes anywhere from twelve to fifteen minutes to get to the David Hume Tower from
Pollock Halls, so I think our bodies must need the extra energy. I always pass Peckhams and get a coffee. It’s a gourmet
shop with the perfect dose of caffeine in their lattes. I stare at rows of luscious jams, the organic ones on the top shelf,
Cherry drinks on another, and spices like fresh coriander impossible to find in Athens for sale near the counter. I think of all
that I enjoy in Edinburgh like scones and Strongbow cider, how we drink pints of it with Arthur’s Seat looming above us in
the near distance when we sit on the terrace of the Centro bar; the aquamarine of the Scottish hills as intoxicating as the
drinks in those last-of-the-white-nights evenings. In Greece Strongbow cider comes bottled in one of the supermarkets,
but never has the same effect. In Athens it’s “just” exotic, special for its having traveled. In Scotland I appreciate the cider
completely, the way I might enjoy ouzo in the midst of a summer island afternoon.
The white nights of Scottish whiskies or the Greek island ouzos have geographical locations that inspire specific desires.
There are beautiful hand-carved rings a woman sells in a stall outside the museum on Princes Street; she tells me she
makes them herself when she’s in Africa. I then find myself going into a BOOTS pharmacy, the banality of toiletries intrigue
me in ways they never do when I’m in Athens – the pumice stone comes in a plastic zip lock bag I could use for carrying
change, needles or safety pins. Then I go to the Indian shop again where I pick up a carved wooden hair clip for one of my
daughter’s friends; there are necklaces woven out of dyed yarns. One is a deep burgundy, the color of nail polish, the #17 I
happily found in BOOTS. I was looking for a bottle of the same High Gloss color I bought last year.
It is the end of the program, and one of the more mature students, a woman from Spain who came on a scholarship, reads
her poem at the farewell party. She speaks of her gratitude, rhymes the lines, and refers to Edwin Morgan’s poetry,
someone she had never heard of until she came to Edinburgh. She talks of how the city embraced her, taught her that it
was never too late to live her life for herself. The poem ends with her making her way back to Spain, the life that did not
allow her to feel like she was in fact living it, but here, she says, she learned how to own it.
I will go back too, and leave Raj and Allyson behind, the clutch of students I’ve become familiar with as we sat through our
tutorials under Arthur’s Seat, and talked of their poems and stories. Sweet Molly from Ohio who calls herself a country girl
but isn’t, who told me about the cute rich guy who came to visit one of the other students in the program, who could
afford to fly over from the States for his friend’s birthday. And when the girls, including Molly, asked the friend why he had
not offered to buy them a round of drinks, he said “because none of you are pretty enough.” I made a face, murmuring
“What a prick.” Molly said she didn’t see the point in saying anything, and left. Molly who tells me she’s going to go on to
the highlands on her own, and spend a week there before heading back to Ohio. Then there’s Jane. There’s always a Jane.
No matter what you do or say, the Janes never feel you have given enough; those I’ve met are usually mature, demanding,
and bravely idiosyncratic. Last year’s Jane went religiously to the gym early every morning; she was determined to write her
novel about a girl of color who comes to work as a servant: she gets lost at the Paddington station, survives her despair,
and finally, over a lifetime, achieves a kind of survival. The voice was wooden and forced, “with too much of an agenda” I’d
explained. This year’s Jane is a teacher from somewhere in the American south who announced several times to the class
that she’d earned her doctorate, that her husband was, or is, the smartest person she has ever known. She periodically
slipped in pages of work-in-progress for me to make comments on though I explained everyone had a page limit, and
everyone had to have a chance to read their work to the class. Sometimes the tension was palpable as I tried to coax the
shyer students, and tame the fiercer ones. I could feel the odd guilt-by-association for a few of my students’ roads not
taken; the Janes that made the Mollys so refreshing. Molly tells me how much she loves Shakespeare. She tells me her
parents are farmers in Ohio, talks about the state university she attends, its reputation for being a party place, and how
she transferred because there wasn’t much to do on weekends besides party and get drunk. Now she goes to the
university’s branch in Columbus. She initially applied to go to China, but the study abroad program was cancelled.
We have come together from so many different corners. I came, initially, because I needed the work, plus it was an
opportunity to see Edinburgh during the summer festival and meet new people. Allyson, Tom, Raj, Sophie (who I met this
year). Yet I’m the only one of this year’s tutors leaving the city I came to visit. As I pack, I keeping thinking I have to keep
under the twenty-pound weight limit that Easy Jet is so strict about. I start thinking of what I’m going to leave behind, the
umbrella I bought for two pounds? The tube of body scrub, a face lotion in a heavy glass jar? I’m trimming tiny grams. It’s
the books, my boyfriend’s whiskey (finally got the cherry-cask brand), GAP clothes on sale (two pairs of pants and three
shirts, plus some baby clothes). Sometime after midnight I’m satisfied I’ve cleared the small dorm room, managed to fit in
the gifts, put several of the books in my carry-on.
The airport is crowded. Salesmen and women are hawking perfumes, 3 for 15 pounds, PIMS and wines and Malt whiskies are
on display. I’m crestfallen to see the whiskey I bought my boyfriend is 39.77 pounds at the airport; I’d paid 52 on Princes
Street. Books. Biscuits. Celebrities’ lives plastered in camera-brushed perfection over the glossies. The students were
mumbling about their baggage weight last night at the farewell party, wondering if they had managed to put all their things
into their one bag. The sun is out today, not always a given in Scotland, and in the airport shuttle bus I listen to an
American couple; the woman repeating, “That was exciting,” “That was so exciting, next year we’ll see more.” Her husband,
or partner, stayed strangely non-responsive. I am anxious about my possible overweight, and stare at rows of brick
buildings, the closed pubs and cafés. I have kept 15 pounds in cash, hoping it will cover the extra weight in luggage.
At the Easy Jet counter I’m told I’m 4 pounds over the allowance, “That will be 24 pounds for the overweight baggage” says
the woman. I tell the Easy Jet employee I think that’s expensive, 5 pounds per pound. She nods, “if you have any room in
your carryon…” I tell her I already have 6 books in my carryon. “It’s the terms you’ve agreed to,” she says, not unfriendly. I
nod, ask if I’ll have to pay again at Gatwick. She says “Yes” since I have to check-in again. I say last year, coming back from
the same program in Edinburgh, the gentleman at the counter at Gatwick let me know that he wasn’t going charge me since
I had already paid out of Edinburgh. She gives me a receipt for the 24 pounds.
I get a text message from Maria, one of the students in the program and a friend, who is returning to Athens on another
flight. She says she needs an extra suitcase. Lufthansa won’t let her on with the overweight of the one suitcase she has
squeezed 3 bottles of whiskey into, 12 paperbacks, some clothes she bought, and 3 Plexiglas Warhol prints she bought
from the Warhol exhibit. I remember her charging the bottles on her credit card as I was considering which whiskey to finally
buy. She was happily imagining her whiskey-connoisseur friends enjoying the rare Scottish malts in Athens, far from the
distilleries that produced them. The next text message says no shops sell suitcases at the Edinburgh airport; Maria’s
stuffed the bottles into her carryon bag and checked that in, on top of paying 70 pounds in overweight baggage. She adds,
“They’ll be totally crushed. Fuck them.” I send a message that makes no sense, something about the airlines and
corporations taking advantage of everyone’s paranoia; I am hoping she hasn’t gone through the 70 pounds on her credit
card, and the 70 pounds in overweight luggage, for nothing.
I keep passing duty-free shops selling all kinds of malts, jams, biscuits. Accessorize still has their bathing suits out despite
the Back-to-school ads; everything’s nicely displayed, aimed at attracting the casual shopper. I almost succumb to buying
another malt whiskey advertised for its “perfect match” with cigars. Then realize there’s no physical way I’m going to
squeeze in, or force, a whiskey bottle amidst the 6 paperbacks in my carryon. I think of Claire Colebrook’s lecture, her
reference to rampant consumerism as an act of mastering what’s mastering us: our appetites directed to the “so much of
it” consumed despite the debt, and the paradoxical fact of owning the position of owing, of fulfilling (affirming?) those
manufactured desires and appetites. “Did You Know You Can Fly with Everything You Buy?” an anonymous speaker
announces over the airport PA system. Colebrook’s theorizing had found its context. I was furious, thinking of Maria’s
whiskey bottles in their cardboard cylinder boxes shattered under the weight of all the other bags full of everything we
couldn’t fly with, other people’s bottles and gifts and possessions. Then the patronizing addition to the ad, as if the ad
experts had predicted the reaction of consumers like me: “You Can Buy As Much As You Like And We’ll Look After It Till You
Come Back.” I remembered the Sri Lankan family I saw at Kennedy airport after a Christmas visit to the States; the huge
sacks of duck-taped belongings, stacked precariously on top of each other. They were being deported with no option for
returning. They stood shell shocked, a group of 6 or 8 people, 2 elderly women and 3 young children, speechless, their
elbows slumped over the counter as one of the men in the group spoke to an airline teller in low modulated sentences. It
was upsetting to watch, the family with their obviously too-quickly packed things, too poor or ill-prepared to put their
belongings into bags that would protect them.
On the flight to Gatwick, for that hour or so, I’m thinking of what kind of luck I’m going to have with the Easy Jet teller
there. My credit card is already burdened and it’s not going to be until the end of September before I see another paycheck.
At Gatwick I take my bags to Departures, find a red-haired woman at a counter and ask when the Easy Jet check-in for the
flight to Athens will start. She says I can check-in since its 2 hours before flight time. I notice the freckles sprinkled around
her nose and cheeks like powered cinnamon, her somewhat bland expression when I give her my ticket with the 24 pounds
receipt for the overweight. After I put the bag on the scale, she says matter-of-factly, “You’re overweight.” I tell her I know,
and try to sound neutral.
“I was told that perhaps the overweight charge might be waived since I just paid it in Edinburgh.” She seems to pause,
looking at the receipt. “There was a gentleman last year,” I continue, that didn’t make me pay a second time…I’ve just come
from the book festival in Edinburgh, and I’m a teacher…I always seem to come back with too many books.” She takes her
time, then nods, says she’ll make a call to her manager. Now I’m tense. The manager of course says I have to pay. Another
24 pounds, a total of 48 pounds for my overweight gifts, not quite Maria’s 70, but a debt I didn’t expect to have. I feel
myself getting angry; feel like the cinnamon-freckled woman is being deliberately indifferent. I tell her she might have been
more understanding, since “48 pounds is obviously a lot of money for anyone traveling on a budget airline.” I begin to cry.
She becomes defensive, says she did me a favor by calling her manager, and did I want her to put her job on the line? I
answer that calling her manager was stupid. After all did she know any managers who did anything but follow policy when
consulted by their staff on a policy issue, let alone being asked this question over the phone? “Are you suggesting that we
don’t follow our policies?” Her cinnamon freckles had spread into an even blush over her nose and cheeks.
“I’m suggesting you don’t have any ability to take initiative when policy may not make all the sense in the world…and if it
wasn’t for all the damn paranoia…” I didn’t get any further because her mouth clamped into a clearly pissed-off look as she
announced she was calling her manager to report a passenger harassing her. I pulled off my heavy 24 pound bag from the
scale, and began to roll it quickly away, my heart pounding, thinking faster than I was walking that I had made a mess, that
I was now going to be arrested by some airport security officer who would be following every policy in the manual. I realized
I was looking for an ATM, at least to have the cash handy if there was still a chance to pay the charge and check-in for my
flight. I am terrified the cinnamon-freckled teller has me tagged and now I won’t be allowed to check-in. I eventually walk
the whole floor, make my way back to another Easy Jet check-in line, when I realize I have to hurry because time’s running
out. There’s a father and daughter in front of me comfortably chatting. I find myself smiling, desperate to be considered
“Like anyone else”; my eye catches a security guard at the desk of the check-in desk I’m in line for. He’s wearing one of
those fluorescent orange jackets, has a word with the teller who nods and (I’m almost positive) looks my way. He gives the
guard a commiserating smile. I keep listening to the father-daughter conversation in front of me; they’re discussing
someone who is waiting for them, and I feel like a prisoner who yearns to be a part of the banalities of ordinary life again as
they listen to someone’s dinner plans. I almost can’t stand the tension. Perhaps the teller has been given instructions not
to check me in from the management or will require that I report to someone.
I’m finally standing at the counter, hand over my ticket and passport, half expect the teller to apologetically tell me I will
have to take my ticket and passport to so and so. “I’m a bit overweight” I begin cautiously. He smiles and nods, looks tired.
Checks the scale and says “4 pounds overweight.” I ask if I can pay in cash; he nods again and says I’ll have to go across
the room to another desk to pay the overweight, but won’t have to wait in line again to get my ticket. “It gets expensive,” I
He nods again, says “Yes, I know,” hesitates, looks me in the eye and adds, “I’m being monitored.” I vaguely nod, suddenly
grateful for the empathy that breaks through the pat answers, cross the room to the payment desk, and see the daughter
of the father-daughter couple in line too. The Easy Jet woman behind the desk is chatting with an elderly couple; the woman
looks travel-weary and resigned. The Easy Jet employee seems to be taking her time. I’m getting anxious about making the
flight. There is also the line to get through at security where we take off our shoes, declare we aren’t carrying anything
dangerous, have our bags opened and rummaged through, have any liquids confiscated.
The daughter of the father-daughter couple looks at me and smiles, “You’re overweight too?” I nod, tell her 4 pounds. She
says they’re 2 pounds over. I tell her this is the second time this morning I’m paying, say I’d just paid 24 pounds out of
Edinburgh a couple of hours ago. She looks genuinely surprised. “That’s so unfair!” she blurts; I shake my head relieved to
hear the indignation, and remember Sophie’s “Enforced emotional cruelty.” I wrote down the phrase during our chat at the
book festival in Charlotte Square. Sophie talked of the requirements in schools now, of the fact that teachers had to get
permission from parents or guardians for everything. The saddest part of it was when young kids cried in school and
needed comforting, but could not be properly comforted because teachers were not allowed to touch them. I find this
difficult to believe as I come from a culture where people are always pushed against one another in crowded spaces, where
the idea of privacy is almost nonexistent; in Athens we are always bodies touching or almost touching. Sophie and I
compare our separate worlds. Sophie says it would be unheard of in Scotland for a public service administrator to inquire
into anything other than the question at hand, the idea of asking for background information just for the sake of asking, to
get to know someone more personally, would be considered inappropriate.
“The problem in the UK” she says, “is that everyone’s worried about being legally vulnerable…”
“For helping out a kid?”
Sophie is describing a scene in a school playground, a child who has scraped her knees. “The teacher will take her to the
infirmary or the office, ask her to sit in a chair and be patient, keep the door open, and call the parent.”
Sophie half smiles, “You can’t do anything before you call the parent or guardian. You can’t even put your arm around the
child.” Sophie shakes her head again, “Everything’s become potential abuse. Now I’m shaking my head.
“And people wonder where all the violence comes from…”
“It will take someone counter-suing for enforced emotional cruelty” Sophie says. I hand over the money for the overweight
baggage. The teller thanks me for having the exact change. I run back to the other side to get my ticket thinking of the
gentleman at the counter last year who had waived the second payment, that sweet, sweet man I thought, wherever you
are, bless you.