The Cities

A Narrative Essay

By Chariklia Martalas

I can hear Johannesburg breathe at night. The hum of the cars travelling in her veins while her heart beats, an exhalation of moving stillness. Lights flickering so we know she is dreaming. What does it mean to find a home in the living breathing entity of a city? What does it mean to fall in love with the pavements and the glassed buildings? There is a place within the passages of connected spaces that I crawl into. A space that moves with me as my ordinary melts into the walls of Johannesburg. How to explain where this all began? The beginning that existed before a girl was born in a Johannesburg hospital.

Maybe I was destined to find sanctuary in a city. It seemed to be the way of my family. Tracing my roots back to Athens I needed to feel it for myself. I needed to feel the past echo. How can you know who you are if you don’t know where you came from? And so I left my present. My grandmother on the phone telling me that I was returning for her mother, that all she wanted was to come back to Athens. Her spirit is with you, my grandmother said, you doing what she dreamed because she could never forget. And so the weight of the immigrant’s journey was placed on my shoulders. Could I find a home in a city that may not want me? Greek in name and meagre substance, the language was like hard cinder wood blocks on my tongue. Greek seemed easier so far away, but how would Athens view me? It had to be a kind of home, it had to welcome me.

But I had a weapon- it was the stories of home. These stories an identifier so Athens could recognize me as a child of her own. My great-grandmother, Panorea, working in a shop on Metropoli street, a hat shop that was owned by her brother, milliners in 1920s Athens, giving to a cosmopolitan population. Chariklia, the woman I am named after, my great grandmother’s sister, the fierce independent who kept the family together, a dressmaker in Syntagma. Chariklia going from house to house with her cloth and needles to make dresses for her clients. Feet on the pavements to find her keep. And I could feel them with me. Walking on Metropoli street I imagined the day that my great grandfather would see Panorea in the shop, as beautiful as ever, and ask her to be his wife. I imagined her last day in the shop before she left for Kimberley, to a world she could scarcely imagine. Here was a street that was home but I still continued to walk Athens. A street wasn’t home enough for me. Putting feet upon ground over and over again to feel as if I belonged to the city as a whole. And I thought of Chariklia, did her feet trace the same pathways? Was she calling me into the bones of the Athens?

And I came to realize that Athens was beginning to love me. Or at least I was falling in love with her. The coffee shops always filled, the kiosks in every corner packed with cigarettes and sweets, the slipperiness of the marble and the bright lights at 3am glistening on classical columns. Maybe I was hers because I so desperately wanted to be hers. Maybe I could call her home because I dreamed that Athens could be. My life dripping into her gutters to be swallowed by her lungs. I understood why people are drawn to cities. They are the perfect places of those that have limbo identities. Those that can’t identify with a country, a thought, a community. Maybe that is why I also love Johannesburg, she allowed me to be in all my identity confusion. She allowed me to exist within the pains of growing up and not really knowing who I was, who I wanted to be. Athens was my home because all I needed was to give myself over to her. And I did, with my tears and my shouts and the remembrance of my past. I was born to belong to her even though I live miles and miles away. Johannesburg was calling to me but I told her to wait. I was not quite finished gazing at the sea from the tram.

But I needed to go home to Johannesburg. I was frightened because what if the doorways closed after I left Athens? What if the stories I had only granted me a single entrance? Would Chariklia and Panorea come with me or would they be stuck like ghosts in a single space? I couldn’t lose them. I had come to need them- asking for guidance, asking them to know that I could never forget them. Would the memories of place be enough to call Athens home? I did miss Johannesburg. I did miss homes I had found within a home, Kitcheners, Wits, 29 River Street. I was also scared Johannesburg might reject me now that I had so easily fallen into the arms of another. And so I hoped, I prayed that I could have two homes, both past and present. I knew both cities hadn’t fully opened up to me yet and that it would take time. And so all I could do was wonder what the possibilities could be for my homes. How would the passages take shape as I changed? How would I build myself into the fabric of those cities? And so I told myself that it was enough to say I belonged to them. Athens and Johannesburg loved me just because I wished to be part of them. And I am part of them. All I could ask was that Chariklia and Panorea would not become lost in the same limbo I found myself in.

I came back to Johannesburg. Feeling my heart swell as I landed amidst the city’s lighted constellations. Immediately coming back to the ordinary of the present that I became lost in the routine. Athens was as distant as the past. There was something though, it fluttered in the lining of my belly- a feeling that Johannesburg had something new to offer me within the familiarity. I took a taxi to the Carlton centre, to see Johannesburg unfurl itself to me from the skies. There gazing from up high I was overwhelmed, seeing the crisscrossing of the streets, the swirl of the traffic and washing lines on roofs. I now knew the feeling, I had brought Chariklia and Panorea back with me. I had fetched them from the past. I could feel them stand next to me. Johannesburg’s spaces connected beyond its boundaries, to a city across the Mediterranean. Come, I whispered to them, come, look upon your new home. They peered out the dirty Carlton windows and smiled. I nodded my head. I know, I said, it really is beautiful.