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Archive for November, 2004

Anti-Rant

Yesterday, on my way to work again, I was crossing Vassileos Konstantinou, the street which, further down, goes past the ancient stadium. The only approaching traffic was a small truck signalling a left-hand turn. As I was further up the street, after the intersection, I decided it was safe to jaywalk. But the driver decided that, in fact, he wasn’t interested in turning left, and kept going straight, and kept signalling left the whole time.

When I reached the other side of the street, I saw the shattered remains of a tail-light on the curb.

Due to this comment by Dr Zen, I merely chuckled this time. My usual good mood had returned, partly due to his response. And I felt the need to write about why I actually love living in Greece.

It’s true that drivers here are inconsiderate and dangerous. It’s not a question of culture; people die because of this behaviour. They know it’s a problem. They just don’t address it properly. I saw a commercial once that showed some elegantly dressed people at a dinner party standing around a table, picking at hors d’oeuvres and drinking red wine. A man comes along and nudges a woman out of his way to get at the caviar, causing her to spill her wine on the person next to her. Then another woman trips someone to beat him to some pate. The commercial was about being more considerate on the road.

I must also add that Athens is a large, overcrowded, chaotic city, and sensible people are often too tired to care any more.

And they do expect good manners from people. Taxi drivers are almost universally despised here, because they are, with very few exceptions, obnoxious cheats. (One of the exceptions explained to me that they’re not properly unionised, and they get the wrong kind of people.) I know people who boycott taxis as often as they can because they don’t want to give them a single cent.

To give you an example: I took my parents to the airport a few years ago, and when the driver who had picked me up realised I lived here, he promptly asked another driver at an intersection to continue taking me. The second driver explained that he had gone back to the airport to pick up a tourist he could more easily cheat.

But the main reason I like living here is precisely because people are not as polite as they are in Canada. Politeness, for me, implies a certain cold hostility, a way to avoid conflict and misunderstanding by keeping people at a distance. In Canada, I never knew quite how to act. People seemed uptight. Greeks don’t care. They don’t have such misunderstandings. If you do or say the wrong thing, it’s quickly forgotten. I feel freer and more welcome here.

I find them much warmer. Despite the machismo and homophobia prevalent among men, good friends will kiss each other on the cheek when they meet. It took me a while to get used to that.

Basically, like the good Dr, I believe that “wallowing in stupidity and working it out on the hoof will always make more appeal than having to remember which knife cuts which meat and which key opens which social door.”

None of the politeness of Canadians would ever make me want to go back to live there.

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Regret

Sometimes, when we stopped in the doorway of a room, one of us entering, the other leaving, we would step into each other’s arms, as if it were a chance meeting and we didn’t live together in such a small house. Other times, in the twilight of late afternoon, lying next to each other in bed near the window with the half-closed shutters, she would turn and face me, staring expectantly, both of us rendered silent by the unspeakable. At such times I wanted to bend towards her and tenderly press my lips upon her eyelids. I knew she would close them and offer them to me with same trust and wonder that made her stare speechlessly at me for so long. But an old superstition that to kiss the eyes presages farewell would halt me, and afraid that I would lose her, I forbade myself this pleasure.

So I searched for other parts of her to kiss. Perhaps the cupped palm of her hand. The slope where her neck met her shoulder, or further up, below the ear. Her high forehead, untroubled as she slept. Maybe along her side, from her breasts down to her waist. There must have been many such kisses, but in my memory they are all eclipsed by the two I could never allow myself to give her.

Likewise I have forgotten all the things we said to each other, and remember only what was left unsaid. If there are words which hasten us to our last goodbye, I have never learned what they are. I was not so careful with my words as I was with my kisses.

I lost her nonetheless, despite my precautions. The doorways, the half-closed shutters, the dim afternoon light, everything is as it was then, only more so now that she is gone. I search among it all for the words I may have said when silence was more fitting, for the silences I should have broken, and I remember her eyes, the eyes I never kissed.

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The Last Page

He has a book with countless pages, beautiful sheets of transparent rice paper, the kind once used to protect frontispieces from yellowing. They are so delicate that each one tears off when he turns it. He is meant to write or draw on them, but for now he only likes to feel them between his fingers, to look at their virginal blankness. When each leaf is torn, it gives him the same pleasure he had as a child when he would violate a field of freshly fallen snow with his footprints.

In time, a fault in the grain begins to appear. It’s a fraint streak that runs across the page. He strains his eyes, but he can’t make out what it is. He’s not even sure if it’s really there, but gradually it becomes more clearly defined, compromising the purity of the pages and his enjoyment of them.

Eventually he realises that it’s a line of words, although he can only distinguish the shapes of them. He tries to concentrate on the paper, but the emerging shapes distract him. By now he turns the pages automatically, without pleasure, thinking only of what is written up ahead.

It’s a message. Even before he reaches it he can see through the pages clearly enough to read it. He tries not to. He doesn’t want to reach it, but he can’t stop.

At last he comes to it. He doesn’t know who’s written it. Perhaps he himself has. He reads it again and again. He wants to cover it, make it invisible again, but all the other pages are gone, torn off. It’s the only page left.

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The Collective Solipsism

The time has come for my first rant here.

Today as I was walking down my street, I was sort of hit by a car.

I came to a corner, and this young guy drove past. When he had passed, I started to cross, but he suddenly and quickly began to go in reverse. I didn’t have enough time to stop and step back. I put my hand out on the hatchback and leapt forward. I can’t remember to what extent the car made contact. I only remember that the tips of my fingers hurt, and that he hit my leg, right on the ankle. If I hadn’t reacted so quickly, I would have ended up under the car.

In an instant I was on the sidewalk. I turned to the guy and said, “Are you crazy?” He merely looked at me. Perhaps he didn’t understand what had happened. His window was rolled up, so he couldn’t hear me.

I continued down the street, feeling jittery. It was the closest I had ever come to a real accident. As I walked, the guy in the car passed again, and I realised he was looking for a place to park his car. This time I was on the driver’s side, where the window was down. He didn’t look at me, and I said nothing.

When the adrenaline wore off, the anger kicked in. The guy hadn’t even asked if I was all right. Now I wanted to pound his face in.

And it reminded me of how dangerous certain kinds of acculturation can be. Greece has the highest death rate per kilometer of road in Europe. One reason is that it’s easy to bribe someone to get your license. Examiners expect to be bribed, so that if you don’t, they’ll fail you on something ridiculous. This could be fixed by cracking down on them and making sure people learnt how to drive properly.

The other problem, however, is much more serious, and harder to deal with.

Greek individualism and belief in personal freedom are not cliches. They’re a euphemism. The truth is that, as civilians, they are largely inconsiderate, reckless, and ignorant. When you observe them as pedestrians, it’s no wonder they’re so dangerous behind the wheel.

When walking down a narrow sidewalk — as most sidewalks in Athens are — it is very rare that you will see someone make way for you. They just plough ahead, knowing that you’re the one who’s going to step aside. Sometimes they’ll stand in the middle of the sidewalk talking, not caring at all that they’re blocking the way for others.

When I was young, my mother told me that in Greece, the last one in the line is the first one on the bus, and I thought it was funny. Now it annoys the hell out of me. Nowhere does this rudeness reveal itself more than when Greeks are on public transport.

They crowd around the doors of buses, pushing to get on before anyone can get off. When they get on, they stand near the door, even though there’s room in the middle of the bus, so that it becomes impossible for more people to get on. And why do they do this? Because they don’t want to miss their stop. (I’m assuming some people have actually thought about it, but most people seem to get on and stop, not concerned in the least if there’s anyone behind them.) And why is there a chance they might miss their stop? Obviously because there’s so many people crowding around the door.

In fastfood restaurants, when someone has ordered at the cash register, he doesn’t step out of the way to let the person behind him place an order. He stands right there so that you have to order over his shoulder.

In my first or second year here, I had a conversation with a friend of mine about this. He was annoyed at having to live in a city where everybody seemed to go around believing he was the only person who existed. Those were my Greek salad days, so I just laughed and called it the collective solipsism.

I still laugh, most of the time. But sometimes I get pissed off. When I see somebody coming towards me on the sidewalk, I don’t always move out of the way. I walk off the bus into people who don’t let me by, as if they didn’t exist. As the years go by, I become more and more like them.

(And just to be clear on one thing. Although I say Greeks are largely inconsiderate, reckless, and ignorant as civilians, I don’t subscribe to any notion of racial characteristics. I’m Greek, after all. But I was raised in Canada, where people learn to be polite. Even the Greeks there.)

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Ron Sexsmith

Earlier I wrote about meeting Ron Sexsmith. One of the reasons I decided to follow him and catch up to him was that on his first record he says, at the beginning of one of his songs, “Is it rolling? Oh, OK. Sorry.” He says it in one of the most unassuming voices that I knew he’d be approachable. He used the same voice when we spoke.

My friend Alice, who lives in Luneburg Nova Scotia, wrote to tell me about seeing him in concert, probably in Halifax.

We went to see Ron Sexsmith play and he was great!
Really good show, songs spanned a long time, great
backup band. It was a real treat. He looks like a
giant baby, and he says “Thank you!” in a high quick
voice, sort of like a muppet. This all adds to his
charm. Some chick named Sarah Slean opened for him,
and she was a bit of a drag. Sort of torch-songy and
head-rolling, a bit like Kate Bush with more guitars.
Nice voice though, and other people seemed to really
like her schtick (saying things like, oh what a sweet
town, maybe I’ll move here, yadda yadda).

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Uneasy Rider

About a year ago, I came across a site that hosted photos and writing by some “Elena” who liked to ride her motorcycle through the empty streets of Chernobyl.

Today I came across a thread that pretty much settles it that she was lying about a lot of things. Nevertheless, the pictures are still great to look at, even if one or two of them are a bit set up.

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A Downright Moron

“When a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental — men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack, or count himself lost. His one aim is to disarm suspicion, to arouse confidence in his orthodoxy, to avoid challenge. If he is a man of convictions, of enthusiasm, or self-respect, it is cruelly hard…

“The larger the mob, the harder the test. In small areas, before small electorates, a first rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even a mob with him by the force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second or third hand, and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.

“The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

—H.L. Mencken, The Baltimore Evening Sun, July 26, 1920

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