Archive for June, 2005


What is nostalgia? The feeling has haunted me for most of my life, although I can’t say I’ve had a clear understanding of its origin. In ancient Greek, nostos is a return to one’s homeland, like Odysseus’ return to Ithaca after the Trojan War. Along with the war or raid story, the nostos is one of the two classic epic plot structures. Algos is pain, so nostalgia is the longing to return, which afflicts us like a pain, like a sickness.

But return where?

I grew up with a mixed sense of where I belonged. Although I was born in Canada, I actually couldn’t speak English until I started kindergarten. I was surrounded by Greeks — relatives and friends of my parents. I remember in kindergarten using Greek words whenever I didn’t know the English one. I didn’t have a clear idea that at home I spoke a language that my Chinese friend Charlie, for example, couldn’t understand.

Gradually, though, I began to perceive myself as different in an unwelcome way. I was Greek without ever having been to Greece, or really knowing much about it. (I came here for the first time when I was nine.) More than an actual place, Greece was made up of stories my father and grandparents told me. It was the place where, at night, my father had done his homework by the light of a small lamp which consisted of a wick stuck in some cork floating in some oil. Greece was the large photograph of my grandfather’s older brother, who got sick and died during the war in Asia Minor. It was the place where my grandfather had seen some people executed and thrown into a well during the civil war. My father used to tell me the story of Odysseus kept prisoner in Polyphemus’ cave, and of his escape, but I never thought of it as having taken place a long time ago. I thought Greece was a place where Odysseus — and blind Polyphemus — still lived, perhaps with some of my more distant relatives.

What was clearer to me was what other people were like. Canadians. People who didn’t have funny-sounding names, who spoke English at home, and whose parents didn’t embarrass them by playing awful music. I wanted to be like them.

But then, the nostalgia started. The sense that something was missing. The sense that if I knew where to look, I could find what I needed to be happy.

It came to me as an image. It was a room. The walls were bare and white. The open window let in a lot of light and a cool breeze. In the corner, up against the wall, a small bed. In the centre, a large wooden table, and one or two chairs. And outside, the sea.

Where was this place? Could I find it on the map? If it had ever really existed, did it still exist now?

More than in any other poet, I found in Elytis someone who mapped out my nostalgia. I was born to have so much, he said, and nothing more. And also, I wanted the least, and they punished me with more.

I’m sitting at a table now, out on a terrace. After each sentence I write, I look up from my notebook at the same gulf which, if our Homeric geography is accurate, the ships from Argos sailed down on their way to Troy some 3,200 years ago. The sun is exactly as I want it. The wind ruffles my hair as I always wanted it to. I came a long way to sit here, just so. I wonder if I can say, as Elytis did, So, he whom I sought, I am.

The nostalgia, though, persists. Is it because I miss the Greece I discovered when I was 17, and my life changed forever? It seemed farther away from the rest of the world back then. (“I would be in exile now,” sang Phil Ochs in Ticket Home, “but everywhere’s the same.”) It must be the sense that, as the years go by, the world moves farther away from that room, and takes me with it, the world that refuses to conform with my wishes. All men have been given bad times in which to live, says Borges, and I know if I had been born in another time — those times that the compass in my heart always seems to point back to — the nostalgia would still be there.

With his singular melancholy, Elytis gave us a picture of his own paradise, which he said was made of the same materials as hell, only put together differently. (A little more charity from over there, a little less greed from over here.) I believe I have gathered together some of the materials of that particular paradise to which I journey. It is unfortunate that English does not have a verb form of nostalgia, as Greek does. If it did, it would define this journey. If you could utter its syllables, they would spell out the name of the place where the journey ends.

I am standing on the deck of a ship, leaning against the railing at the bow. The sea stretches out in every direction. The sun and wind are as they are right now. White gulls circle above, following me as I sail out. I am returning to an island where I’ve never been, where someone I’ve never met waits to welcome me home.

Ξένος εσύ, ξένος κι εγώ
δυο ξένοι, δυο αδερφοί.
Θάλασσα, γη, κι ουρανό
αν ψάξουμε μαζί
θα βρούμε, δε μπορεί,
του νόστου το νησί.

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The City

I was out having some drinks with some friends last week and one of them, David, mentioned that over the weekend he had broken up with a woman he had recently been seeing. “She said there wasn’t enough ‘chemistry’,” he said, shrugging resignedly. Chris commented that at least she’d been honest and upfront with him, to which David merely shrugged again.

“She said she just wanted to be friends,” David continued a little while later. “I said, no. Friends I don’t need. I’ve already got so many I could puke a football field full of them. If she wants to be friends, she can get in line with all the other women.”

David is good at joking about his bad luck, but this time there was quite a bit more bitterness, which is understandable.

Later on in the evening, Chris reminded David that he’d come to Greece from the States to meet European women.

“Except that Greek women aren’t European,” David said. I don’t remember what he said Greek women actually were, but clearly his experiences had left him disappointed. (Never mind what he had thought, back in the States, European women actually were like.)

It occurred to me then that David and Chris are in similar situations in at least one respect. They speak very little Greek. One of them has even lived here for at least ten years. On the other hand, Rob, the third friend there that night, has learnt the language quite well.

Rob is often homesick, in ways and at times he says he can’t quite explain. Like most foreigners living here, he often gets sick of it and annoyed with the natives. But he’s also told me he knows he has to adapt. He says when he goes back to England, he sometimes embarrasses old friends with Mediterranean displays of affection. He says he can’t expect people back there to be any other way than how they are, and if someone went to England and complained he’d tell them, “If you don’t like it, you know where the airport is.” This sort of self-knowledge makes it easier for him to get by here.

But the most important thing is, apart from his easy-going nature, he’s done a good job of learning the language. He’s had long-lasting relationships with Greeks, and he has Greek as well as ex-pat friends. He even likes Greek music now, which he didn’t always use to.

Somewhere in The Alexandria Quartet, probably in Justine, Lawrence Durrell talks about about how fascinating and wonderful a city becomes when you’re in love with one of its inhabitants. This is a kind of emotional projection, which can just as easily turn a city into an intolerable hell-hole when you’re alone and isolated and you don’t understand what’s going on around you.

I don’t know about David, but Chris will tell you he’s tried, he’s given the place a shot, he came here with an open mind, and that it was his experiences here that ruined it for him, having to ride crowded buses with smelly peasants who are rude and even hostile to him. There are days, he says, when he can feel the rage like a pressure on his chest.

But can someone really say they’ve given the place a shot and have come with an open mind or heart, if after at least a decade they have barely learnt the language everyone else is speaking? How can you even begin to approach understanding other people?

When David said that Greek women weren’t European, Chris followed his lead and made a joke. I immediately thought of N., so far from Athens that night, and wondered if she would have been insulted by what they’d said. I felt so fortunate to have her and knew that all the hard work we put into the relationship always proves worth it in the end.

And this is what occurred to me as we sat there. David and Chris don’t seem to realise how much hard work they would be for the Greek woman, European or otherwise, who chose to go out with them. She would have to speak English well enough to go through all the usual courting rituals and games, and then to deal with all the problems you have in a relationship and which can only be solved by clear and open communication. Unless she had rejected such things, she would have to find a way to make the culture and way of life here easier for them to understand, should she in fact be able to overcome their bitterness and decade-long resistance to it. In short, she would have to cross more than half of the cultural gap that separates them, in her own country.

I’m sure they’ve never actually thought of it in these terms. Perhaps they’d even deny it. But I see no indication that they expect any less from a woman. After all, it’s what they’ve been expecting from the country all these years.

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A New Anatomy of Melancholy

I found a new blog today, A New Anatomy of Melancholy, although it’s not so new. It goes back to 2003, although there aren’t nearly as many entries as I’d like.

Back in April of 2003, David Lettvin, the blogger wrote this as part of what can be seen as a statement of policy:

I am tired and I am sad. I look at politics and I see children playing “king of the castle.” I look at religion and I think of Aesop’s fable of the dog in the manger. I am weary of those who know they are right, and I can find no trace of those who know that they may not be.

I am disturbed at the ease with which people stop thinking in order to follow a leader. I am disgusted by the cant of art critics who praise for fear that condemnation will show that they know nothing of their subject.

Discussion has been abolished in favor of certainty. There is no conversation, there is no thought. The new mantra is, “if you do not think as I do, you are wrong.” I have no problem with those who are passionate about their ideas. I am disheartened by those who think that there should be no opposition.

It is so easy to think that you are the only one who knows the truth. It is even easier to think that the person you idealize is the only one who knows it. Blind faith allows no argument. It is too easy to take refuge in the evangelical argument, “If you do not believe as I have been told to, you are damned.”

I place the blame on the complexities of modern society. There is so much to know, so much to understand. Blind faith removes the complexity. It is too easy to dismiss other world views. It is too hard to think for ones self. It is so easy to discard logic. Logic is messy, faith is easy.

(There is no permalink to this one.)

He’s also written some very funny variations of songs from West Side Story, such as this one, to the tune of “Officer Krupke”:

Dear Private Lynndie England,
You gotta understand,
Our faith will not be shattered
Nor vanish on command.
Our mothers all are wailing,
Our fathers all are dead.
Golly Allah, shot right through the head!
Gee whiz, Private England, we’re very upset;
Your country blocked the food and meds we needed to get.
We ain’t no Al Qaeda,
We’re misunderstood.
But still on our head there is a hood. There’s a hood!

Or this one, to the tune of “Maria”:

Scalia …
I just met a judge named Scalia.
And suddenly I find
The Bill of Rights’ not signed
For me.
Say it loud and it sounds like braying,
Say it soft and you’d better be praying.
He’ll keep me from straying
Scaliaaaaaah …

Go check him out.

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Step back, suckah!

My friend Alice in Nova Scotia wrote me to tell me about having watched “Pimp My Ride” once on television. Her description of it was so funny that I asked her if I could post some of it.

I was flicking through the channels and there was this show. Ridiculous! It’s very boring, really, although there are some interesting characters who actually customize people’s cars. Guys with gold teeth and good MexiCali accents. The one I saw had a young woman with a crappy car and a disabled grandma; they lived together, she took care of her grandma, so I bet that’s probably a factor. Schlocky stuff. The funniest scene involved the woman opening the door for her grandma – they’d changed the door from a regular side opener to one that lifted like a wing. And then the two of them riding along with the massive stereo system playing rap music, grandma sitting there with her purse on her lap, looking stunned but still smiling. The alarm system was customized to play Xzibit’s voice saying “Step back, sucker, this is a warning from Xzibit!”

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Pimp My Life!

After reading the comment to my previous post left by Kostas (my first fan!) I checked out the two blogs he mentions, ManifestoGR and Fufurasu. I’ve put both of them on my Bloglines list.

Fufurasu has one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on a blog. Back in December he posted about an MTV programme I’ve never heard about (not surprising, since I don’t have a TV) called Pimp My Ride, hosted by a rapper called Xzibit. I know there are shows which renovate and refurnish people’s houses. They’re basically long advertisements for the furniture companies. I saw one in Canada last Christmas. My mother and sister love the show. I think there’s even been one like it here in Greece. Well, this MTV show is the same sort of thing, except that they fix up your car.

Orestes at Fufurasu describes in a typical blog post watching the show for the first time, and describes the programme. Interesting, but nothing unusual. Sometimes we write about a film we’ve seen, or a book we’ve read. That sort of thing.

Then something weird happened. People started flocking to his blog, thinking it was MTV and begging for him to pimp their ride. As I write this, there are 99 comments. Most of them are people in the States (who sometimes leave their names and addresses!), but there some from the UK, one from South Africa, Algeria, and Russia. Someone even wants their boat pimped.

It’s funny to see Orestes try to tell them it’s not MTV:

Uhm. I should mention that I am not Xzibit, nor am I affiliated in any way with MTV, or involved in the production of the show. I just watch it from time to time. This is just my personal site, kids.Uhm. I should mention that I am not Xzibit, nor am I affiliated in any way with MTV, or involved in the production of the show. I just watch it from time to time. This is just my personal site, kids.

And when they still don’t listen:

Oh dear.

And finally:

Uhm… uh, you know…

Oh, what’s the use. Carry on.

Sometimes other people try to talk some sense and explain that this is not the place they’re looking for, but people keep on leaving messages, sometimes with desperate urgency:

Please pimp my fiancés ride. He is a wonderful guy that has been trying to progress in life and is constantly faced with obstacles. Adrian went of to school and paid $2,000 for a Toyota Celica 91’ which ended up being a piece of crap. He invested about $800 in it and it still broke down. He lost his job because he couldn’t get to work. He decided to just go for a cheap Toyota Camry 88’. Which has turned into another nightmare.I’m deaf. I’m just tired of being struggling with my money. My job don’t pay me well. I owe my girlfriend a lot of money. I have OLD truck. It’s 1989 Chevy S10 2D 4×4. I don’t know how long it will go last. When I saw Pimp My Ride on MTV. I have been keep myself saying that I NEED them to pimp my ride so badly. I want to stop worrying about losing car with no money in one day. I don’t want to ask my girlfriend for borrow her money ever again! PLEASE…DO ME A FAVOR, MY FRIEND. PIMP MY FRIGGING RIDE.THANK YOU. PEACE Y’ALL!

There’s a lot of anguished soul-bearing:

Dear Xzibit I am a 13 year old living in imbarisment. Because I have to ride in my dads old *** car. It is a 1991 lincin towns car. It is the same age as meHe evens spends more money fixing his car then buying me clothes. . If you come see the seats are all worn out and the color is old and plan (the color is sivlir).All of my friends makes fun of me when they see my dads car drive by. Please MTV can you pimp my dads ride.I have a prgnet 16 yr old dauter I have to now rid on the bus to get back and forth to work and alwas seem to be late every time .other than that I have three other children another girl and two other boys the girls love puting on lip gloss in the mirur, the boys love playing video games but I guss I can’t affurd eny of that not even to fix my car. so pleas pimp my rid

Please Please Please help me and Pimp up my ride, I am 14 years old and one of the most embarrassed kids in our area, as my dad is in love with his Ford Mondeo even though it is falling apart. Most of the other kids around here show up in new cars and my dad can’t afford a new one and i don’t think he would change it even if he could afford a new car, but it is in definate need of an Xzibit showdown. So how about taken the Pimp my Ride on tour to the UK, my dad is still quite cool but his ride lets him and me down in a massive way. I plead with you help me be cool by getting my Dad to look cool.

I remember in Wings of Desire how the angels would put their hands on people’s shoulders, and you could hear them worrying about things — their loved ones, their hopes and fears and despair. In one scene, one of the angels goes to the library in Berlin and you can hear hundreds of people thinking, so many voices that it sounds like a huge machine.

Perhaps in time people will go to Fufurasu to confess and be comforted. I imagine people all over the world, lying awake at night, praying, worrying, not knowing who to turn to, where to get help, all of them murmuring, Pimp my ride … pimp my ride … please pimp my ride …

Check it out here.

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