Thursday, April 11, 2019

Either Or Both

In yesterday’s post, I shared a story from my own childhood growing up here in Athens, Greece, where I’m currently taking part in the Play On Early Childhood conference, and where I will later today have the honor of introducing Peter Gray. 

One my fondest memories of having lived here as a boy is what I think of as “taverna culture.” Our family had never been much for dining out, probably no doubt due to the fact that it can be difficult, not to mention expensive, with three children. But when we did go out during our years in Greece, it was often to a taverna where the adults could sit at a shaded table eating and drinking a while we, the children, ran about with the other children in an adjacent park or any other scrape of land, returning occasionally for a bite or a sip before heading back to the games we had cobbled together. Our parents could more or less keep an eye on us, but they were mostly engaged in their adult pursuits, leaving us to our own devices.

There is a pedestrian “high street” near my hotel that is perfectly set up for families to do this, with tavernas, coffee shops, and cafes lining both sides, while down the center is a casually maintained median of grass, trees, pavement, and fountains. And sure enough, when I walked along it on the weekend, children of all ages were everywhere, chasing, shouting, singing, hiding, startling pigeons, and playing ball games. Most of the adults, as taverna culture would dictate, could be found chatting while nursing their coffees or lingering over a glass of wine.

In this spirit, I took an afternoon a couple of days ago to nurse an espresso for a couple of hours in the shadow of the Parthenon. This was in a busy tourist area rather than the more out-of-the-way places that the taverna culture thrives, but there were still plenty of kids running around as their parents imbibed. Across the way from where I sat, a family of tourists took a table under an umbrella. There were four adults and two children, an adolescent girl and a younger boy. While the girl remained at the table, the boy began to roam, gathering stones of various sizes from the ground. He then fell to his knees and began to arrange his collection on a large brick of marble that he proceeded to use as an anvil in an attempt to break smaller stones with larger ones. For an hour he pounded rocks, chanting something to himself as he did so, perhaps counting the number of strikes it took or maybe just singing in the vein of whistling while you work. The adults ignored him, except when he would occasionally force himself into their attentions with the enthusiasm of a Eureka moment: he would show them this or that stone, obviously detailing how it had broken and what he had noticed.

His older sister, however, this girl standing on the cusp between childhood and adulthood, was less successful in ignoring him. She continually turned to keep track of her brother’s pursuits, sometimes bouncing out of her seat to stand near him, sometimes even finding a stone for him, unable to fully suppress the girl that still lived inside her. I had been about her age, 13, at the end of our family’s time in Greece, being pulled across that divide between playing with the children and sitting with the adults. No one was scolding her to stay in her seat, nor were they urging her to run off and play. This was her trying to decide where she now belonged and from where I sat the answer seemed to be either or both.

Of course, these weren’t her thoughts, but rather mine, tinged in the melancholy that often accompanies later-in-life reflections. Still, my heart went out to her as she wiggled in her seat, not  fully listening to the adult conversation nor fully engaged in the play of her brother, not knowing if she belongs in the taverna or outside it.

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