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Archive for November 25th, 2004

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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