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.