Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Favourites’ Category

Place in Time

To feel nostalgia does not necessarily mean you want to turn away from the present or the future; it’s enough to feel that you can’t ever go back to a place where you were happy. Sometimes I think even happiness doesn’t matter, that even places where you were unhappy can call out to you, if enough time has passed. And by “place” I mean, of course, “time”.

I had been thinking about the apartment in Pagkrati, where I spent my first ten years here in Greece, how things seem to be changing so rapidly in Athens, and how my Athens seems suspended in time, now that I’m gone from it. Images come to me almost unbidden, most often moments spent in solitude: my first Christmas Eve, walking along an empty Stadiou Street, and going into one of the cinemas to see a film; walking from my apartment to the Panellinion cafe at the bottom of Mavromichali Street, determined to go in and play chess, but then merely standing outside for half an hour, too shy to go in alone with so many good players inside; deciding to watch the sun come up from Lycabettus one Easter morning.

And then, about two months ago, a message comes from J.:

Just walked past your old house. The ensuing wave of nostalgia has obliged me to take a seat in a nearby hostelry and order a large cloudy one in your honour.

I don’t drink so much ouzo any more; it’s connected in my mind with Athens and sitting around with J. Now it’s Cretan wines I prefer.

I get the sense that J. is getting ready to leave Greece and go back to England after 15 or so years. I’m sure he is already beginning to feel nostalgic for the place he is preparing to leave. And by “place” I mean, of course, “time”.

Over a week ago, I was travelling down a road I’ve come down so many times before, every summer, some Easters, even a Christmas, into the Peloponnese, down through Nemea, and the Argolid, and then Kynouria, the part of Arcadia that touches the sea. I thought about how many times I’d made this trip as a bachelor on the Athens-Leonidio bus, and now I was driving down with my wife in our car, taking our daughter along for her first time.

* * * * *

The wind is up, blowing in from the sea, as it does every day. Little E. sits in my lap, turning over a eucalyptus leaf in her hands, quietly babbling to herself. I give her sprigs of rosemary and lavender to play with too. She brings them to her lips, without putting them into her mouth. She doesn’t seem to have learned to smell deliberately yet. I take her tiny hands and sniff them, and find traces of the three scents on them. The wind ruffles her little curls. And I think to myself, I will forget this moment, all the details that give it vividness: the coolness of the sea breeze, the warmth of E.’s little body, her shoulders, the back of her neck as she looks down at the sprig. She is bombarded by sensations and colours and sounds, and she absorbs them all, so that she can one day learn that this is called a tree, that is an ant, and that other thing a chair, but she will not remember this moment in itself, because it is all just a drop in the torrent of impressions she experiences every minute of the day. But I who have become so jaded, and who in all my forty years have never sat here in this place with a warm little daughter in my arms, what excuse have I got?

I set about trying to preserve the moment. I mention it to N., I write it down, I even grab my video camera and start to record moments that I know I will forget: the leaves of the lemon tree, seen through the balcony railing, as they sway in the wind, a bee among the oleander, dried up bougainvillea petals tumbling down the road. A caique in the afternoon as a fisherman casts his net. Our beach towels hanging to dry on the railings. The chaise longue where sleep is sweetest. The sandals left outside the door. The sound of someone chopping vegetables in the kitchen, or of the little gas cooker being lit and a little spoon tapping the inside of the briki of coffee. A lemon and two oranges in a basket hanging from the latticed roof of the pergola, and the wasp that hovers near them. The spider webs in the rosemary bush.

When I return home, maybe I’ll edit the fragments of video and make a DVD that I can watch on television. Years from now I will watch it, or read these words, and be so removed from the sensations that I tried to capture, that I will be reading them, like you, for the first time, like something I never lived at all, and they will remind me not of this place where I sit now, but of some other place like it, a place like no other place I’ve ever actually been — and by ” place” I mean, of course, “time”.

Read Full Post »

Mitar’s Childhood

In my early years in Athens, the best thing about my job was that students had lessons twice a week — Mondays and Wednesdays, or Tuesdays and Thursdays — which meant that Fridays were free. All we had to do was go in for a half-hour meeting at 1.00. Raymond, the director of studies, would write the syllabus for the following week on the board and we would copy it down. Then we would all go to a nearby cafe-bar for a few beers.

(The cafe-bar, photo taken at a much later time, after we had stopped being regulars.)

Sometimes I would bring a magnetic chess set and Raymond and I would play a game or two. I always had the advantage in the opening but Raymond almost always managed to turn things around late in the middle game and win. This frustrated me so much that I took to recording the moves as we played so I could analyse them afterwards with the help of my Fritz program and see exactly where and how I had gone wrong.

One Friday the group broke up earlier than usual and I stayed behind to look over the chess game on my own. While I moved the pieces around over and over at the crucial point where I had lost the upper hand, I had the unmistakable feeling that someone was watching me.

A boy of about seven or eight years, whom I’d often seen selling little packs of tissues, was leaning against a nearby table. He often came into this cafe-bar. He had large blue eyes, and a few freckles scattered across his cheeks and his round, slightly wide nose. His short blond hair had cowlicks, and would probably be curly if he grew it long enough.

Once I looked up I thought he would ask if I wanted to buy some, but he was too busy looking at the chessboard. He approached slowly to get a closer look at the board. Did he know the game? Or was he interested simply because he knew it was a game?

In Canada I’d seen a lot of homeless people, and many of them teenagers. They came from all over the country to find work in the big city. They would sit on the sidewalk with their belongings in bags and with dogs curled up next to them. Many were kids who had probably fallen out with their parents. I often had the feeling they chose to live like this, and would some day soon enough find their way back into the world of houses and warm rooms, go back to school, or get a job.

But in Athens, things were different. There were a lot of beggars, but they didn’t seem to be homeless. At night they always went off somewhere and disappeared. The main difference, however, was the kind of person on the street. They almost always came from some other Balkan state. If they were Serbs they would hold up a paper icon to appeal to our Christian sense of charity, and to remind us that, unlike our other neighbours, they were our Orthodox brothers and sisters. They would also hold up a piece of cardboard on which they had written I AM SERBIAN in misspelled Greek. Or they would say how many children they had and needed to feed.

And there were the children, playing the same songs on the accordion or harmonica or looking at you sadly as they held out their packs of tissues, lighters, or key chains. People said they didn’t get to keep the money you gave them, that they worked for somebody who took everything they made. Some people had even told me they’d seen the person, waiting up the street, take the money afterwards.

(This sort of thing seems to have become a big business here in Greece. Organised business. Here in Heraklion, amputees started showing up this summer, waiting at traffic lights to come out on their crutches and ask for change. Sometimes within a kilometre you would see four or five of them, sometimes a couple at one intersection. Then, on another day, they’d all be gone. I’m not suspicious by nature, but I can’t help but feel that someone’s actually shipping them in and picking them up again afterwards.)

“I feel so sorry for the kids,” people would say. “But I don’t give them any money any more. If I could be sure they would keep it or it would go to their family, I would give it to them. What’s 50 or 100 drachmas, after all?”

I had seen this blond boy many times around Pangrati, my old neighbourhood in Athens, often with other kids. A lot of immigrant children would hang around Mesolongi Square, usually playing football. I thought of him as belonging to the area.

He came and stood next to my table and leaned on the wooden armrest. I moved the pint glass away into the centre of the table and pushed the chessboard closer to him.

“Do you know how to play?” I said.

He shrugged. Did he understand the question? The shrug made me think that the question was somehow naive.

“What would you do next?” I said.

He laughed, very quietly. Just a breath of a laugh, little more than a smile and another shrug. Perhaps he laughed at the fact that I had asked him. He picked up the bishop. Almost embarrassed, though, he put it back down, careful to set it on the same square.

“Do you know what it’s called?” I said, but then I thought he might not know it in Greek. “Do you know how it moves?” Again he shrugged. He looked up at the door suddenly, as if remembering something. I had the sense that he was going to walk away.

Sometimes you see a dog or cat that are so hungry that they’re willing, despite their fear, to approach you. That’s what it felt like with this kid.

He pointed to the board and moved his finger back and forth diagonally.

“Right,” I said. “And how about this?” I showed him the knight. He frowned. Was it because he couldn’t remember it or because he couldn’t explain it? (Try explaining how a knight moves. It’s not easy. I know of some concise descriptions, but I’ve picked them up from good chess writers.) At last he pointed again and finally spoke.

“Like this,” he said. “A seven.”

I asked him if he wanted to play, but this time I lost him. He remembered the other tables, and the bar, and slowly went off to sell his tissues. Then he was gone.

The following Friday I took my chessboard with me even though Raymond and I were not going to play. I stayed behind when everyone had left and set up the pieces. I had taken a book with me, Alekhine‘s games, and played out the some of the annotation. But my mind wasn’t really on it. The truth is that I wasn’t good enough at chess to understand his annotations.

Soon enough, the boy came. I thought I saw him look for me when he came in. Or maybe it was the look of recognition when he saw me. I nodded to him. This time he made his round of the cafe. The Argentinean woman who worked there often gave coke or even a sandwich to these kids, which made the place popular with them. He came to the table, unwrapped his sandwich and started eating. He was intrigued by the book, especially by the tiny chess fonts. I set up the pieces to the initial position and turned the board so that the white pieces were in front of him.

“Go ahead,” I said. “Let’s play.”

He frowned. Was he thinking of his first move, or was he trying to decide if he should play or not? He seemed to have reservations. I waited. Finally, he picked up the King’s pawn and moved it forward two squares.

We only played part of a game. About ten to fifteen moves into it, he got restless and left. I don’t remember if he said why he was leaving so suddenly, or if we spoke at all. I wrote down the position so that we could continue the game from where left off the next time I saw him. But he didn’t come back.

I didn’t see him again until about a year later. M. and I went for a walk down to Zappeio and there was a photography exhibit there. We walked around looking at the large black and white photos, and there he was in a group of portraits, with the same serious, guarded expression. I asked M. if she remembered him, since she often came to the cafe-bar with us, but she had no recollection of him. I looked around at all the people strolling about looking at the photos. I wanted someone there to recognise him, to know who he was, so I could tell them that I used to see him often, and had even played a little bit of chess with him.

This was all about ten years ago.

* * * * *

One day I read in the newspaper that hundreds of children had disappeared from the streets of Athens, most likely sold by the child trafficking rings that had brought them down in the first place. Did it happen all at once, or slowly, child by child? Had anyone been paying attention? “Yeah, you’re right!” people said. “I hadn’t noticed it at first, but it’s true: you don’t see them around any more.”

According to Terre des Hommes and other organisations, up to 150,000 children of immigrants have been forced into child labour in Greece, usually selling tissues and trinkets. After years of pressure, the Greek government finally started doing something about the problem, but you still see a lot of children on the street, children even younger than the blond boy whose name I never learned.

Over the years, I tried to write a story about him. I made him Serbian and called him Mitar, a name I picked up from a friend years ago in Canada. I filled pages in notebooks about him, about his story. In all of the notes, he is at an intersection, at a crossroads; a change is coming, and it’s the future. I don’t know what’s going to happen to him next because I’ve never written beyond that point. I don’t know how the story ends. Everything is frozen, like the image of him that I saw at Zappeio long after he had disappeared.

All I have is my own image of him, of his interest in the game of chess and desire to play, but his hesitation, his fear of opening up, or perhaps his sense that, despite his youth, the desire to play was pointless, as if he had already learned that what the rest of us call childhood was nothing more than a delicate myth, which for him had long since shattered into a thousand little pieces.

Read Full Post »

Allen: behind the mirror

Lately I’ve been thinking about Allen, my friend for 15 years before we lost touch. I’ve been thinking about much he changed over those 15 years, till he became something I could no longer relate to, and I’ve been thinking about how little I ever really knew him.

I met Allen in 1982, when we were both twelve. He was in my class in grade seven, which for me was the happiest year of all my public schooling. We both belonged to a small circle of friends, but I was better friends with a couple of other guys than I was with Allen. I don’t think he had very much patience for me; I probably struck him as a wide-eyed naive kid. He was more sophisticated than me. You could tell as soon as you saw him that he was different.

He was chubby and had longish hair. He wore a green jacket, much like an army jacket, somewhat in the mod style, and it had a greasy stain in one pocket where he’d put his pack of fish and chips. (They were still wrapped in newspaper in those days.) And he always wore t-shirts with the Beatles or the Sex Pistols or Marilyn Monroe or the cast of Leave It To Beaver on it. He was, as I’ve written elsewhere, precocious. He read adult literature and underground comics and wrote poetry and could speak intelligently about such things. That was the year Glenn Gould died. Gould had grown up just around the corner from our school, and when our teacher told us about him, he asked if any of us knew who he was. Only Allen did. He even had some of his records.

But he was odd, as well. He would wobble his one knee back and forth when he stood so that his whole body seemed to jiggle, and when he spoke, his sentences trailed off into a cross between an indolent mirthless laugh and a nervous mumble, even if there wasn’t anything even remotely funny in what he’d said. His vocabulary was advanced and often formal, especially with scatological humour. When asked about the grease stain on his jacket, he’d say it was a urine stain. He found proper words like “urine” and “excrement” much funnier than “piss” and “shit”, when most 12-year-olds didn’t even know what excrement was. It was as if by using these words he was deflating the dignity of the adult world and exposing the pathetic farcical nature that lay beneath the surface of it. I think he found the word “buttocks” the funniest word of all.

His strangeness could have an edge to it. The year before I met him, while he was still in grade six, he had belonged to the recorder club at school. (I still can’t picture Allen playing the recorder.) The club was supposed to perform for parents one night, and Allen didn’t want to. His teachers and his mother forced him to. So he got his revenge. When they were finished performing, he opened up his shirt and displayed a swastika that he had painted on the t-shirt underneath. His mother, understandably mortified, ran up and pulled him off the stage, trying also to pull the t-shirt off him.

Many of his friends were grown-ups. That doesn’t seem so strange now, but it did at the time, although I admired him for it, and liked the adults he knew. Allen was mature enough to hold interesting conversations with them, although I now suspect they were humouring him a little. The two friends that I’d met owned used bookshops, and one of these men, I later learned, was the son of one of Canada’s most famous poets.

The details escape me now, but gradually we became friends. In those years, I was a Beatles fan to the point of obsession, so when I saw the various Beatles t-shirts he wore I must have looked upon him as a kindred spirit. But as I said, that first year, we weren’t that close. I always felt he was mocking me a little. He was simply older than me in intellectual development.

I wanted to be a comic book artist at the time, and that was our first joint interest. He introduced me to good artists. Although I could draw quite well, it had never occurred to me to think of one artist as better than another. Allen collected artists though, not just superheroes. Through him I discovered the work of artists like Neil Adams, Frank Franzetta, Frank Miller, Robert Crumb, and Chester Brown (an Ontario artist whose self-published comics Allen collected). He read Zippy comics, Cerebus, Raw, The Freak Brothers. He had the Maus series in the original installments.

His record collection was interesting, too. If I try to remember randomly some of them, Miles Davis’s Round About Midnight comes to mind, or a couple of Richard and Mimi Farina records, or a red see-through record of Ginsberg reading “Howl” and other poems on the Fantasy label. He had a couple of Lenny Bruce records from the same label.

The first time I went to visit him at his house, I went to look at his comics, which he kept in mylar envelopes in acid-free boxes. (That was the first time I’d heard of acid-free paper, or even that normal paper had acid in it.) We sat around in his large spacious room and listened to music and talked while I also looked at the books on his shelves. His bed was just a mattress on the floor. He burned incense on a brick. He had a good stereo, too, and put on All Things Must Pass, an album I liked and wanted to get, although I never got round to hearing it again for another 23 years.

Some time towards the end of grade seven, I was riding the Queen Street streetcar with Allen and I — arbitrarily, it seems — decided to start collecting books like him. It seems strange to think that it was the object itself that drew me first, and not its content. (The desire to write came soon afterwards.) I announced the sudden decision to him and asked him to give me some recommendations to get me started. This was later in the day, leaning on a fence across the street from my house. I wrote down a list of authors he came up with on the spot: Kerouac, Burroughs, Orwell, Huxley, Joyce, Camus — a seemingly random selection of 20th century literature. And slowly I started spending my allowance on used books. And what’s strange, now that I think back on it, for a long time I would call him and tell him what I’d bought, reporting how my shelves were slowly filling up. It was as if I were an apprentice reporting to his master. Years later, when I was in university and my collection had long since surpassed his, whenever he’d come to my house, he’d casually look over my books, and if he saw something he hadn’t seen before, he’d take it out and leaf through it, often even asking, “When you did you get this?”

I must stress — and this is no exaggeration — that in those early years, Allen was my mentor, even though he was several months younger than me.

In grade eight (1983-1984), the small group of friends broke up a little in that we were in different classes. Only Allen was in my class, and this is how we became better friends. Grade eight was a very different year, at least for me. It was the beginning of a series of unhappy years at school. Peer pressure is always a problem when you’re a teenager, but I think those years, the Ralph Lauren years, were particularly conformist, not to mention expensive for our parents. (It’s no wonder that the image of Alex P. Keaton or the girls from Heathers come to mind as icons of that time.) For me those years were a tight-rope walk: I didn’t really want to be a part of it, but I didn’t want to draw attention to myself; I wanted to belong and be popular, but I didn’t want to jump through hoops to be so. Allen did even less to belong, and paid for it dearly.

I don’t know why someone who never made any effort to belong should have suffered because his peers were not accepting him. Maybe something else was happening, which I never understood or even caught a glimpse of. At any rate, Allen became stranger and stranger as the year wore on. I don’t want to go into detail, but I’ll say that I was often embarrassed, sometimes even disgusted by his behaviour. One thing I will mention, which is not so strange, is that he refused to cut his hair. In the end I think he waited a year and a half before he got it cut. Although it wasn’t dirty, it just hung down. He could have tied it back or something, as so many men do now, but the way he did nothing with it made it seem like an act of rebellion, a deliberate act of negligence.

At this point, just as we were becoming better friends, I grew alienated from him, which no doubt must have made things worse.

In September 1984 we entered high school, which turned out to be a bigger, more intense version of the junior high school we’d just attended for two years. Whatever problems we’d had there also became bigger and more intense. I kept up my balancing act for the next couple of years, eventually leaving to go to another high school for the last two years when I could take it no more. Allen did not last even the first term of grade nine. He dropped out and refused to go back. His mother, a teacher, with whom he lived, was understanding and willing to wait till he found his way. His father, with whom he spent most weekends, had less patience and insisted he see a psychologist. He also wouldn’t let Allen watch Rumble Fish, one of his favourite films at the time, because he was convinced that it had encouraged him to be rebellious.

When the second term started Allen found his way. He enrolled in an alternative school with students who hadn’t fit into mainstream schools. It was at this time that we really began to be best friends; now that we weren’t in the same school together, no amount of strangeness on his part could embarrass me socially. The school he went to had a lot of interesting, eccentric and charismatic teachers and students, and I wanted very much to join him. My parents, however, wouldn’t let me because they didn’t trust it academically. In a few short years, a lot of the interesting characters who went to the school graduated or just left and it began to fill up with spoiled rich kids, probably because the school had become fashionable.

Allen cut his hair and started to dress differently, in a way more in tune with the times. (The way he dressed when he was twelve would become fashionable over a decade later.) In many ways, the people who had mocked him and found him odd two or three years earlier had caught up to him and could relate to him now. He became popular, started going to parties and clubs.

I had always kept a certain distance from everyone, seeing most of them only during school. But in 1987, the year I visited Greece, the year I found the Rimbaud pictures and my life changed, I withdrew completely from the circle on whose periphery I’d always been, and changed high schools. I never told Allen that he had to choose between me and the others, and never thought of things in those terms, but somehow he started to get tired of them too.

After 1987, something strange began to happen, although it took me some time to realise it.

I began to discover Greek music and literature and wanted to move to Greece. Allen shared these interests with me and also planned to move to Greece. I think he craved a feeling of rootedness, of tradition. Then he started to dress like me. The reason I didn’t notice this at first was because it was so gradual. For example, I remember looking at some photos of James Dean and thinking that I’d like an overcoat like the one he was wearing. We went down to the vintage clothing stores in Kensington Market and I found one that was a bit too big for me. Allen saw one and bought it too, even though he hadn’t been planning to. When we left, we put them on. My mother saw us coming up the street, dressed in these long black coats. “You look like a couple of pallbearers,” she said.

In the summer of 1988, Allen went to Greece too. Then, in September, when he got back, he transferred to the high school I had changed to, and it was only then, when someone pointed it out to me, that I realised he was becoming me. I didn’t dress unusually, but I did dress somewhat unlike people my age. I dressed like an older person then (nowadays I look younger than I really am), in a tweed jacket. And so did Allen. My mother, amused by all this, would often say, “If you shit purple, so will he.”

I suddenly got embarrassed by him at school again, and kept my distance from him for a while. I remember the day this girl I knew was commenting on all of this as we were walking down the hall. “I’ve created a monster,” I said as we turned the corner. Just then Allen was standing in front of me. I don’t know if he understood what I had been talking about.

He must have realised the transfer had not been a good idea, and soon he changed schools again. After that things were all right again. He slowly started at least to dress less like me.

Allen had been with me during those feverishly formative years between 1987 and 1990, during the Rimbaud fascination, the discovery of Greece and Greek culture, and he shared in all my enthusiasms. He took them on too. I had become the writer, not he. I was now introducing books to him. Slowly, our roles had reversed. I had become the mentor.

I wonder if my passions were too much for him. Something happened to him during those years. He lost something, his brilliance and his originality. A flame went out.

I graduated from high school with mediocre marks, but spent a year upgrading them, and just managed to get into university. Allen, who had always and effortlessly done well in school, also got admitted to university. We both started at the same time.

Whereas I flourished and enjoyed myself, Allen drifted with no sense of purpose and dropped out in the first term, early enough to get a partial refund from his tuition fees. He decided to try again the following year, 1991-1992, but the same thing happened, only more quickly. And that was the beginning of the end for him.

University had a powerful effect on me. It matured me intellectually. Allen and I were still best friends, listening to music together or watching films, but I couldn’t share what I was experiencing in university. He lost interest in books and could barely read any more. He’d start books and abandon them. He wasn’t interested in getting a good job; he worked in a teleresearch firm, and would save up enough money to float through periods of chosen unemployment. If I remember correctly, somewhere around 1992 or 1993 he went to Greece again. Although he never said so, I think he may have been disappointed somehow. His passion may have cooled, but he had nothing to replace it with, nothing to move on to. He still listened to Greek music, read Greek poetry, but somewhat half-heartedly.

He became lazy, without any direction or ambition or motivation. He’d sprawl out on the couch and watch TV all day. He got fatter. And he developed the annoying habit of yawning loudly at least once or twice a minute.

His mother sold their house around this time, and he had to move out. He rented a room from one of the adult friends he’d had back when he was twelve. Eventually, his mother agreed to let him move back in with her in her new house.

At some point in 1996 I found I couldn’t relate to him any more. I saw less and less of him. He depressed me and the yawning got on my nerves. In January 1997, on the night before I left to come to Greece, I called him to say goodbye. It had been weeks, perhaps even months, since we had last spoken.

I wrote to him when I got here, but he would barely respond. His letters were short notes written in block letters. When they stopped coming, I wrote to him and said that if he didn’t write to me as well, I doubted our friendship would be able to survive. (This was still two or three years before I went online, and I don’t think Allen has ever done so.) I decided that as his friend for all these years, I would be honest with him and tell him it was time he’d got his act together. His reply was brief:

DEAR TOM

I’M SORRY BUT I AM UNABLE TO RESPOND TO YOUR LETTER AT THIS TIME.

And that was it. He did actually try to write once more, a few months later, saying that he would now “BE ABLE” to write more often, though he didn’t explain why he was able to now, or what had prevented him before. The rest of the short letter was nothing more than brief notes about impersonal news and inconsequential information. The only thing I remember is his mentioning that John Fowles had recently visited Canada and was depressed by its lack of wildflowers.

I never heard from him again. I probably only wrote back once myself. In December 2000, when I returned to Canada for the first time since I’d left, I didn’t even call him. I didn’t have his mother’s new number. I ran into his younger brother one day and he told me nothing had changed: Allen just lay around on the couch “collecting static”. He gave me their number, and said, “You’ll probably have to leave a message first. He’s developed a habit of not answering. He just looks at the call display and waits to hear the message.” Hearing that put me off the idea completely. I visited again in 2003 and 2004, and still couldn’t call. By that time, too much time had passed.

Although Allen and I spent a lot of time together, we weren’t really close. We were the kind of friends who could sit around for long periods of time in silence, each doing his own thing, and I really enjoyed that. We were comfortable with that. But we never really confided in each other. As a result, I often wonder now, was something bothering him all those years? Something that had caused problems for him when he had dropped out and wouldn’t get his hair cut? I can only guess now. After all these years, Allen is a mystery to me.

* * * * *

Last year, I began exchanging emails with Paul, another friend from those early years in the eighties. We were reminiscing and I mentioned Allen. Paul started to tell me his view of Allen from the years 1987-1988, and how he had decided to keep his distance from Allen too.

A get-together at my house with A.S. and his girlfriend. Allen was so drunk, walking around my street in the middle of the night spinning his underwear over his head – that terrible naked appearance only a man can have – shirt on, socks on and nothing else.

Another time, it was New Year’s Eve. After this incident I wasn’t hanging around him much anymore. It felt like a dividing line for some reason. That could be because I am looking back at it. I have not thought about these things in years.

Anyway, it was a New Years party at Matt’s house and I invited Allen to it. I had just begun to hang out with a new group of people in the dramatic arts program, and was getting involved in that program more and more. Allen had this huge glass jug of either homemade wine or the very cheap stuff. The glass jug was huge. Like a jug from a hillbilly band…

Anyway, Allen was being his usual anti-social self and was drinking and spewing off things that I’m sure he thought were cryptic and Morrisonesque. They weren’t. I remember trying to get him involved in conversations – trying to get him talking to girls etc. At a certain point he became so loaded that he started pouring this cheap red wine over all of the girls’ heads. Not the boys. I found that strange at the time, but now I tend to think that he wasn’t so loaded that he couldn’t figure out that he would have gotten his ass kicked if he had. There were all different types of people at this party – dramies [i.e. people from the drama department], jocks, M.J. and all of her friends, older, big jocks.

He was stumbling around leaning on girls and trying to pour wine over their heads. They were all dressed up as well, seeing that it was New Years. He was wrecking their clothes. I look back on this and see that some of these kids had summer jobs and weekend jobs and bought their clothes – you know, worked for them. I think Matt kicked him out… but I can’t be sure of that. I am pretty sure that I got him home or he stayed at my place.

That was it, really. But I was trying to make a good impression and he fucked it up. People would ask me about it for months after. What’s wrong with your loser friend etc. I always felt a little sorry for Allen, but that was it for me. Allen had a way of really annoying the hell out of me. You know, pushing things too far. And after that – I may have hung around with him, but I was pretty much through.

Then the next year – we totally lost touch.

Did Allen experience any trauma in his childhood? I don’t want to speculate – maybe not. But if this whole double way of behaving and his ultimate 15-year couch-nap tells me that there is more going on than just a lazy poet.

I do think he had an aura of something different around him – but I really just think he was sick. And he never wrote anything from what I remember and he never really did anything. Never had girlfriends, etc. Just very sad. Very little living experience.

When I expressed amazement at how differently he acted around Paul, Paul wrote back:

It makes more sense in light of what has come to pass – that the real Allen was the drunk, incoherent, attention-seeking guy and maybe the fake Allen was the one you knew. Who the hell knows. See that was the last Allen I knew and then I hear what ends up happening to him and I am not at all surprised.

* * * * *

I met Allen twenty-five years ago. I last saw him ten or eleven years ago. In my mind, though, he lives in a place frozen in time, a place of arrested development. I want to break the silence, find his mother’s latest address and send a letter, or call, but it would be awkward. If I was in Toronto I’d be scared to see him. How has the past decade been to him? How obese will he be? How much will he have aged? If Allen had become nothing more than a reflection of those around him, what would I behold now? Would I recognise him at all?

Read Full Post »

A Handful of Rain

I’ve been thinking about the rain a lot lately. I’ve always liked it it. I like listening to it fall, especially when there’s a tree outside the window and you can hear it patter on the leaves. I know of no other sound I would rather go to sleep to. One of the things I miss about Canada is how it could sometimes rain for over 24 hours. You could go to sleep to it and in the middle of the night it would still be there when you woke up. It would still be there in the morning too. It was great if you didn’t have anywhere to go.

But I like walking in it without an umbrella. I bought a pair of good waterproof boots about a month ago. I like when the rain gets into my coat, yet not enough to reach the clothes underneath.

When I was a child the sound of somebody taking a shower would make me feel sleepy. There’s something womb-like about being in a room with all that water outside.

I love all those water scenes in Tarkovsky’s films, especially the one in Nostalghia when Gortchakov lies down on the bed in his hotel room and the rain begins to fall outside. You watch it stream down the decaying wall outside the window, collect on the sill, and spill onto the floor.

I think about how our children and grandchildren will value rain a great deal more than most of us do. N. and I are moving to Crete, which scientists predict will soon become a desert. Scientists have been predicting lately that all or most of the Mediterranean will become desert. It doesn’t surprise me, but it does sadden me. Greece is already a dry place, where vegetation seems to struggle to grow. But this struggle always seemed eternal to me. I wanted to think it would always be that way. I wanted it to stay eternal.

I went out for a short walk in the rain tonight. I wore a hat to keep my head dry. I only needed to go out and get a few things at a shop a couple of blocks away, but I wanted to keep walking for hours. I wanted to get drenched. I wanted to carry some of it home in my hands and put it on the table or on one of the bookshelves. I want to lie down and sleep with the window open and not care if the papers and notebooks on my desk get wet. I want to sleep for a long time to that sound and have my dream enter the room, like Gortchakov’s dog, which came and lay at the foot of his hotel bed. In my dream I am 17 or 18 again, walking along Queen Street again late on a Sunday night, in the rain, as far as the old Fox Theatre to see the poster behind the glass, with all the films that are playing that month. Behind the doors the lobby is empty and dark except for the weak yellowish light behind the snack bar. I am young still, with the illusion that I am old already, instead of old already, with illusion that I am still young. I walk back home, past the closed shops, each as dark as the lobby of the empty Fox Theatre, as dark as only memories and dreams are. I am impatient to be older, to start my real life, far from there, in a place where there is heart-breaking light on mountain and sea, and nothing my young mind could ever imagine as a desert.

Read Full Post »

Hearing what we want to hear

In the beginning of The Conversation, a couple are walking around in a large square, and their conversation is being recorded by a surveillance team. The central character, played by Gene Hackman, hears the man say, “He’d kill us if he got the chance.” He, like the viewers, is sure that the emphasis was on the word “kill” (which was probably how you read it), but at the end of the film, through a bit of cheating in the sound editing, we realise that what the man had really said was, “He’d kill us if he got the chance.”

The first time you see the film you aren’t sure if your memory isn’t playing tricks on you. Were you wrong in assuming that he said, “He’d kill us if he got the chance”, or did they re-record the words? (If you watch it on video or DVD, you go back and check, but the film was made in early seventies, before people could do such things.) You wonder if the context actually affects how you hear it. If so, who’s to say that the second time you’re hearing it correctly? The first time I saw it, it seemed like a subversive joke.

Not long after I met C. and fell in love with her, she decided for a number of reasons that we shouldn’t see each other any more. She could see where things were heading, even if I had not openly expressed my feelings for her yet, and the feelings were reciprocated to some extent. But things were complicated, for a number of reasons, some of which wouldn’t be apparent till years later. So she decided the best thing would be for us not to see each other, not even as friends. I was a very determined young man, and very much in love, and I was shattered by her decision. It made no sense. It was illogical. It simply could not be. Later that day, she agreed to see me again, to hear me out.

I poured my heart out to her, more than I’d ever done before. I was still an effusive teenager, and a lot of what I had to tell her wasn’t really relevant. I simply needed to open up and reveal myself and tell her I loved her.

When I had told her, she sat stunned. “But you don’t know me,” she said, and I asked her how that could be. She shrugged, and I could see that I had won. She took me into her arms and told me she could see more of me.

I clung to those words for months, even though I saw her very rarely for almost a year afterwards, while she finished her Master’s. I gave her the time and space she needed, or thought she needed, and I waited, remembering her words as if they had been a promise.

But then doubt began to set in, and one day it occurred to me that she might not actually have meant that she could see me more often, but that now that I had opened up and revealed so much of myself to her, I was more clearly visible to her. I can see more of you. It seemed like such a strange thing to say to somebody, and I began to think she can’t have meant either possibility. Surely a person would have phrased both sentiments differently. There might even have been a third meaning, which I could not determine. Had I ever understood her at all?

The more I thought about them, the more her words changed. I tried to remember the tone of her voice, the expression on her face. I searched for clues, but each time I revisited the scene, it would be a little different. And now, when I recall it, so many years later, the only things that present themselves when I try to remember are the couch she sat on across from my chair, the coffee table between us, the darkness outside the window, the framed print of Monet’s waterlilies on the wall. She and I are not there at all — just two manikins that would probably resemble us if I could see their faces, if their faces didn’t melt away every time I tried to look at them.

Read Full Post »

Lakkos

When I go to the centre of Iraklio, I like walking through Lakkos, a poor area just inside the city walls by the Bethlehem Gate, by the Kommeno Bendeni area. The gate is actually seldom referred to by its name; people just call it Kommeno Bendeni. During the Ottoman Occupation it was also known as the Dark Gate (Σκοτεινή Πύλη), or Karanlik Kapi in Turkish. The traditional centre of Iraklio is a large fort or citadel, and the walls are still up.

Lakkos was traditionally a red-light district and a neighbourhood for refugees from Asia Minor, at least in the early twentieth century. N. gave me a book about the area written by someone she knows, and it has some pictures too. I haven’t read it yet. I can only imagine what the area was like even ten years ago, perhaps even five years ago. A lot of the low houses are being torn down and apartment buildings being put up in their place.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

If there is a single reason why I’m living in Greece today, it may be because, about 120 years ago, next to a river in Ethiopia, a shutter opened in a camera for a fraction of a second and allowed the light to reach some film.

I don’t remember how I discovered Arthur Rimbaud. I do remember that I bought the New Directions Season in Hell and later gave it to a friend before I could read it. I ended up buying another one, the well-thumbed copy I still have. That was about twenty years ago, when I was sixteen.

As an adolescent I was ripe for Rimbaud, except that I didn’t take drugs. I agreed with the principle of the derangement of the senses, or at least supported a metaphorical derangement of the imagination. Rimbaud himself renounced it in A Season in Hell, so I saw no reason to experiment with drugs just because he had (seemingly) advocated it.

Of course, when you’re sixteen, it’s hard not to become captivated by someone who had supposedly changed the face of literature at your age. I pored over A Season in Hell and Illuminations and Henry Miller’s Time of the Assassins (the worst example of self-aggrandisement ever published, but I liked it anyway). I wanted Enid Starkie’s biography of Rimbaud, but for copyright reasons the book wasn’t available in Canada. A neighbour of ours had a sister in Ohio, and I sent her the money to order it and mail it to me. I read it so much that the glued binding cracked and entire sections of the book came loose.

Before I got the biography, though, I had one of the strangest experiences in my life, the only one I could really call mystical, although there was nothing religious or spiritual about it.

One of the things I found fascinating about Rimbaud was how, at the age of nineteen, or more likely twenty-one, he turned his back on literature forever and went to Africa to strike it rich. There were letters home to his mother and sister, but no one else in France ever saw him again. He disappeared. He walked into the heart of darkness and didn’t emerge till it had eaten him up inside. I was fascinated by the idea of an unrecorded, unwitnessed life (in this case the nearly unrecorded life, since there were the letters, and the accounts of those who knew him and worked with him in Africa), a life in which one did not care if any evidence of one’s existence was left behind or not. I imagined the lives of people like Verlaine, through whose lives Rimbaud had passed so tumultuously, how he had left such a mark on them before he vanished and became an unreal memory and two collections of poetry.

One day I was in Letters, the bookshop owned and operated by Nicky Drumbolis, and I bought the edition of Rimbaud’s complete works translated by Wallace Fowlie. When he saw that I was interested in Rimbaud, Nicky showed me some small French editions he had found in some bargain bins at a book fair. One of them was a biography, and was full of photographs and facsimiles of manuscript pages and drawings Rimbaud had made, and which others had made of him. I was spellbound by the wealth of material. And then, I turned a page and saw that there were two photographs of Rimbaud in his thirties in Africa. Before this, I had only seen pictures of the adolescent.

In one he was standing by a railing, possibly on a balcony, and in the other he was next to a river, his foot upon a rock and his hand resting on his knee. (I have searched online for the latter, but can’t find it. There is, however, another photograph that seems to be from the same time.) In the first photograph there were blotches on it, which I imagined to be spatterings of mud. In the second photograph his facial features were barely visible, but his skin looked as dark as tough leather.

I can barely describe what happened to me as I stood in the bookshop looking at those two photographs, which, by some miracle, had found their way out of Africa so that I, a century later, could see them. The fact that these had been taken at all was miraculous enough, but this was too much.

When I left the shop I walked along Queen Street, and everywhere I looked I saw traces of the nineteenth century: crumbling bricks on a wall by an empty lot; a faded, peeling sign over an abandoned storefront; upstairs, a dingy shade pulled down behind a grimy window. All around me was the romantic squalor of the big city. I felt as if I could walk into one of those rooms somewhere and find, as if hiding all these years, some Rimbaud or Verlaine, dressed in rags and shuffling yellowed papers with poems written in blue-black ink, poems that would be consigned forever to oblivion. It was like seeing ghosts everywhere. I felt partly in the twentieth century and partly in the nineteenth. All around the city, rooms held secret, unwitnessed lives, eternal and timeless. (I remember a line from a poem I had written around that time: “miraculous Mozarts anonymous among us”.)

After all these years, it is difficult for me to recapture and convey what I felt then and what private and personal atmosphere I carried around with me. I had become unstuck from my time, and I experienced a riot of the imagination. It was also a very isolating experience: no one else was privy to it. And it lasted for years.

I became very interested in old photographs, and especially the clothes people wore in them. For some reason, I often found myself focussing on the lapels in them. I started wearing tweed jackets and old overcoats I had bought in the vintage clothing shops in Kensington Market. Old barbershops and the smell of talcum powder, for some reason, were also particularly evocative for me.

Looking back on that time, I realise that those were the years when my iron was the hottest, when I had the greatest potential for becoming. I romanticised hardship, and I believe still that I could have endured a great deal of it. I sometimes think I could have done anything — written an epic, joined the Foreign Legion, got a tattoo.

Then, in the summer of 1987, while I was still deep in this sense of timelessness, I came to Greece for the summer by myself. I had been looking forward to it for months before, and felt I was visiting another time, and not just another place. I had been looking forward to the heat, too, which had figured so much in Rimbaud’s poetry and letters (“Women nurse those fierce invalids, home from hot countries.”).

That summer I came across the Greek version of the Georges Moustaki song “Le Meteque”, and I was convinced that it had been written about Rimbaud.

Σαν σύννεφο απ’ τον καιρό, μονάχο μεσ’ τον ουρανό
πήρα παιδί τους δρόμους.
Περπάτησα όλη τη γη μ’ ένα τραγούδι στην καρδιά
και τη βροχή στους ώμους.
Μ’ αυτά τα χέρια σαν φτερά που δεν εγνώρισαν χαρά
πάλεψα με το κύμα
κι είχα βαθιά μου μια πληγή, αγάπη που δε βρήκε γη,
χαμένη μεσ’ το κρίμα.

Με πρόσωπο τόσο πικρό, από τον ήλιο τον σκληρό,
χάθηκα μεσ’ τη νύχτα,
κι ο έρωτας με πήγε εκεί πού ‘χα στα χείλη το φιλί
μα συντροφιά δεν είχα.
Με την καρδιά μου μια πληγή, περπάτησα σ’ αυτή τη γη
που είχα να τη ζήσω,
μα μου τα πήρανε μαζί, τ’ όνειρο και την αυγή
και φεύγω πριν αρχίσω.

Σαν σύννεφο απ’ τον καιρό, μονάχο μεσ’ τον ουρανό,
θά ‘ρθω ξανά κοντά σου,
μέσα σε κείνη τη βροχή που σ’ άφησα κάποιο πρωί
κι έχασα τη ζωή μου.
Θά ‘ρθω ξανά απ’ τα παλιά, σαν το πουλί απ’ το νοτιά
την πόρτα να χτυπήσω.
Θά ‘ναι μια άνοιξη πικρή, όλα θ’ ανοίγουνε στη γη
κι απ’ την αρχή θ’ αρχίσω.

Δημήτρης Χριστοδούλου

This is a loose translation, which does not pretend to be poetic:

Like a cloud alone in the sky, as a child I took to the roads. I walked the whole earth with a song in my heart and the rain on my shoulders. With these hands like wings that never felt joy I fought against the waves, and deep inside me was a wound, a love which never took root, lost in shame.

With a face made harsh by the fierce sun, I vanished into the night, and love took me to where I had a kiss ready on my lips, but I was all alone. With my heart a wound, I walked that piece of earth that it was my fate to walk, but they took away both my dream and the dawn, and I left again before I could begin.

Like a cloud alone in the sky, I will come to you again, in that same rain where I left you one morning, and my life was over. I will return from the past like a bird from the south to knock on your door. It will be a bitter spring, everything will be opening up on the earth, and from the beginning I will begin again.

Dimitris Christodoulou

The song captured all the melancholy (although perhaps melancholy is not a strong enough word) of Rimbaud’s story. It captured all the disillusionment, the sense of having lost everything that you held dear. Of course, it was the story any emigrant who was living in disappointment and was planning to return, but to me, back then, it was only Rimbaud. He never really returned, of course, but there’s nothing in the song that says the speaker will never return either.

(It is perhaps obvious to point out that in performance art, and in shorter literary works that can be read over again — I’m thinking about declarative lyric poetry — that future tenses repeatedly remain future tenses, but it needs to be pointed out because some writers can take advantage of the fact that if you return to the work twenty years later, the speaker will still be telling you about what he’s going to do any day now.)

This gave the song the same timeless, old-fashioned quality, the timelessness that had coloured everything around me after I saw the photographs in Letters.

When I came to Greece in 1987, it was only a few months after I saw the photographs, and when I arrived, I heard the song. The song was about a return that never occurs, about the unfulfilled desire to return, and I felt as if I was returning to a place where I’d never been before, as I have tried to describe before. Greece has changed a lot since then, so that it no longer resembles the Greece of my febrile imagination of that time, but by the time I moved here in 1997, I had already invested so much of myself into this place that its changes made no difference. A major part of my sense of identity had become inextricably linked with leaving one place and never arriving in another.


PS While searching for photographs to include in this post, I came across one that was recently discovered by Claude Jeancolas. Rimbaud must be the one standing on the far left. It was taken in 1882 at Sheikh-Uthman, near Aden.


PPS Frankie the C. noted in the comments that a copy of A Season in Hell, signed by Rimbaud, was sold for over $600,000. He has sent me the picture of the cover. Strangely, Rimbaud’s name seems to have been scratched out. It must have been Verlaine’s jealous wife.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »