Archive for November, 2004


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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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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Another by Gatsos

After the last post, I was rummaging around and I found some translations I had done of Nikos Gatsos. This one is a poem, one of two found in the edition of Amorgos, although it is not actually a part of that poem.


In the fire of your eyes God must once have smiled
Spring must have closed her eyes like an ancient seashore’s pearl.
Now as you sleep brilliant
On the frozen fields where the vines
Became embalmed wings, marble doves
Silent children of hopeful waiting –
I wanted you to come one night like a darkened cloud
Steam of rock, hoarfrost of olive tree
Because on your chaste forehead
I too must once have seen
The snow of sheep and of lilies
But you passed through life like a tear of the sea
Like the splendour of summer and of the last rainfall of May
Even if you too were once its geranium wave
Its bitter pebble
Its small swallow in an all-deserted forest
Without a bell at dawn, without a lamp in the evening
With your warm heart returned to foreign lands
To the other seashore’s ruined teeth
To the ruined islands of the wildcherry tree and the seal.

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Goodnight, Kemal

Perhaps the greatest Greek song lyricist was Nikos Gatsos (1911-1992). In his entire life, he only published one volume of poetry, Amorgos (1943), which nevertheless was extraordinarily influential for its use of surrealism with Greek elements. The rest of his life was devoted to theatrical translations, especially of Lorca, and to writing lyrics for composers like Theodorakis, Hadjidakis, and Xarhakos. An example of his lyrics, in English translation, is “We Who Are Left“.

Thinking about what’s in store for the next four years, I remembered this song he wrote with Hadjidakis. I include the Greek lyrics as well. I have taken the translation from a Savina Yannatou CD and changed it. It is at times a strict and at times a free translation. At no time is it a very good one.

The italicised parts are spoken.

Ακούστε τώρα την ιστορία του Κεμάλ
ενός νεαρού πρίγκιπα της Ανατολής
απόγονου του Σεβάχ του Θαλασσινού
που νόμισε ότι μπορούσε ν’ αλλάξει τον κόσμο.
Αλλά πικρές οι βουλές του Αλλάχ
και σκοτεινές οι ψυχές των ανθρώπων…

Στης Ανατολής τα μέρη μια φορά κι έναν καιρό
ήταν άδειο το κεμέρι, μουχλιασμένο το νερό.
Στη Μοσούλη, στη Βασόρα, στην παλιά τη χουρμαδιά
πικραμένα κλαίνε τώρα της ερήμου τα παιδιά.
Κι ένας νέος από σόι και γενιά βασιλική
αγροικάει το μοιρολόι και τραβάει κατά κει.
Τον κοιτάν οι βεδουίνοι με ματιά λυπητερή
κι όρκο στον Αλλάχ τους δίνει πως θ’ αλλάξουν οι καιροί.

Σαν ακούσαν οι αρχόντοι του παιδιού την αφοβιά
ξεκινάν με λύκου δόντι και με λιονταριού προβιά.
Απ’ τον Τίγρη στον Ευφράτη κι απ’ τη γη στον ουρανό
κυνηγάν τον αποστάτη να τον πιάσουν ζωντανό.
Πέφτουν πάνω του τα στίφη σαν ακράτητα σκυλιά
και τον πάνε στο Χαλίφη να του βάλει τη θηλιά.
Μαύρο μέλι, μαύρο γάλα ήπιε ‘κείνο το πρωί
πριν αφήσει στην κρεμάλα τη στερνή του την πνοή.

Με δυο γέρικες καμήλες, μ’ ένα κόκκινο φαρί
στου παράδεισου τις πύλες ο προφήτης καρτερεί.
Πάνε τώρα χέρι-χέρι κι είναι γύρω συννεφιά
μα της Δαμασκού τ’ αστέρι τους κρατούσε συντροφιά.
Σ’ ένα μήνα, σ’ ένα χρόνο βλέπουν μπρος τους τον Αλλάχ
που απ’ τον ψηλό του θρόνο λέει στον άμυαλο Σεβάχ:
Νικημένο μου ξεφτέρι δεν αλλάζουν οι καιροί
με φωτιά και με μαχαίρι πάντα ο κόσμος προχωρεί.

Καληνύχτα Κεμάλ. Αυτός ο κόσμος δε θ’ αλλάξει ποτέ. Καληνύχτα…

* * * * *

Hear now the story of Kemal
A young prince from the East
A descendant of Sinbad the Sailor,
Who thought he could change the world.
But bitter is the will of Allah,
And dark the souls of men …

Once upon a time in the East,
The coffers are empty, the waters are stagnant.
In Mosul, in Basrah, under an old date-palm,
The children of the desert are bitterly crying.
A young man of ancient and royal race
Overhears their lament and goes to them.
The Bedouins look at him sadly
And he swears by Allah that things will change.

When they learn of the young man’s fearlessness,
The rulers set off with wolf-like teeth and a lion’s mane.
From the Tigris to the Euphrates, in heaven and on earth,
They pursue the renegade to catch him alive.
They pounce on him like uncontrollable hounds,
And take him to the caliph to put the noose around his neck.
Black honey, black milk he drank that morning
Before breathing his last on the gallows.

With two aged camels and a red steed,
At the gates of heaven the prophet awaits.
They walk together among the clouds
With the star of Damascus to keep them company.
After a month, after a year, they find Allah
Who, from his high throne, tells foolish Sinbad:
‘O my vanquished upstart, things never change;
Fire and knives are the only things men know.’*

Goodnight, Kemal. The world will never change. Goodnight…

* * * * *When Manos Hadjidakis was living in New York, during the coup of 67-74, he recorded an English version of this song, which actually predates the Greek one, with the New York Rock & Roll Ensemble. It’s rather silly, and a waste of a beautiful melody, although it’s a good album.

*The original says “Only with fire and with knives does the world proceed.”

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Too melancholy for words

Anything I could say has already been more eloquently expressed here.

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One more coincidence

For a while last year I kept seeing a Greek theatre actor named Dimitris Katalifos in various parts of Athens. I had recently seen him in an excellent production of Glengarry Glen Ross, playing the role of Shel Levene. He has also played the title role in Cavafy and has a part in the recent Scorcese production Brides.

One night I was waiting to use an ATM near my house and the person in front of me was taking his time. I remembered recently having been using an ATM to deposit some money and an impatient man came up behind me and asked, “Are you being served?” His question was so strange and rude that I merely turned and frowned at him a second before going back to what I had been doing.

Now that I was waiting to use the machine, I wondered what it would be like to speak rudely to somone and then be embarrassed when they turned out to be someone famous. Or rather, I imagined some impatient idiot being rude and then apologising to the famous person. For an instant, I idly let my imagination run with the idea, and I imagined that the person would turn around and turn out to be Dimitris Katalifos.

The man in front of me finished his transaction. When he turned around, it was Katalifos.

From behind he had seemed utterly nondescript, so if in fact he had reminded me of Katalifos, it could only have been unconscious. I later learnt that he lives a couple of blocks from that bank in my neighbourhood. Still, the timing was very odd, and I still feel I had no direct reason to have chosen him as an example of a famous person, except for the fact that I had been seeing him lately.

Three images of Katalifos doing Beckett

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I recently read Oracle Night and I've been dipping into The Art of Hunger lately. Since I'm on a Paul Auster kick at the moment, I'll write about another coincidence. Or rather, a series of coincidences.

One day a couple of years ago, I was browsing around in the big Eleftheroudakis bookshop, near the English books. I was looking at Greek literature in translation, no more than glancing at the spines of the books. One of the ones that particularly caught my eye was Father Dancing by Nikos Papandreou. His father the long-time Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou taught at Harvard in the sixties and seventies, and his children were brought up in the States and Canada until his return to Greece in 1974. Father Dancing, I believe, was written in English first, and then translated by the author into Greek, a method which Panos Karnezis uses as well.

Nikos Papandreou

A moment later, as I was leaving, I saw two men come in, speaking English. One of them seemed very familiar to me. He spoke with an American accent. I thought at first he was some actor. Then I realised that it was none other than Nikos Papandreou. I went back and peeked at his author photo just to be sure.

At the time, a novel called Poor Margot had just been published by Soti Triantafyllou, who has also lived in the States and who translates from English and French. She had written Poor Margot in English but had decided to get someone else to translate it into Greek for her. I thought this was rather strange, and I wondered if she had published it in the US first. When I left Eleftheroudakis, I was walking along Akadimias and decided to pop into the Patakis bookshop to look at Poor Margot and see if it had been published in English first.

Soti Triantafyllou (This photo is marked, but it's the nicest one of her available.)

Certainly my train of thought had led from Papandreou to Triantafyllou, for obvious reasons. It turned out that it hadn't been published in English.

As I was leaving the bookshop, my caught a new book with Melina Mercouri on the cover, although the book wasn't exclusively about her.

I went next to a little cafe-bar on Solonos and opened up my notebook to do some writing. Within minutes, Soti Triantafyllou came in and asked to put up a little poster of Poor Margot on the wall with the other posters.

I had looked at two books, and shortly afterwards had seen the authors, in the space of an hour. It occurred to me that if Melina Mercouri were still alive, I'd probably see her somewhere too.


That night, I went to see The Man Who Wasn't There. A few minutes after I had sat down, who should come in and sit down in the row in front of me? Of course. Jules Dassin, director and husband of Melina Mercouri.

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