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Archive for the ‘Greece’ Category

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.

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Seeing Savina Yannatou

Last Friday we went to see Savina Yannatou, who I’ve blogged about before. She and her band Primavera en Salonico played for two nights in a small club in Nea Smyrni, and we were lucky enough to get the centre front table, right under her while she sang. When she came out for an encore at the end of the night, M., who had seen her perform before, asked her to sing a particular Greek folk song (Γιάννη μου το μαντήλι σου) that she does in Chinese style. Yannatou looked around at the band and said they didn’t have the violin they need for the song, as well as some percussion instrument whose name I didn’t catch. M. told her she had the only instrument she, or any of us, needed: her voice. So she sang it.

She did it in a high-pitch nasally voice, and the band also gave it a Chinese sound. Two things that struck me, and continue to strike me:

1. My first reaction, although there was nothing funny or humorous about the performance, was to laugh. Rather, I wanted to laugh, but managed to control it. I have read that an essential element of humour is the unexpected, and I think sometimes we laugh once this prerequisite is satisfied, even if it’s not funny. We laugh out of shock.

(I remember once, when we were 14, G. and I were singing “A Day in the Life” in the music room at school. He was at the piano, I was on the guitar, and we were taping it. After the words “Somebody spoke and I went into a dream” he and I sang the melody differently, by accident, and the result was a harmony so surprisingly good that every time we played the tape back, I would burst out laughing at the sound of it.)

2. The lyrics and fundamental melody of the Yannatou performance were familiar enough that they had all the usual evocations of time and place, all the things that could make a song — especially a familiar one — moving. But at the same time, it was foreign, a kind of music I cannot really relate to. I don’t have nearly as many of those associations, but there were just enough for me to feel that a window had opened up onto another culture, even another life. I could imagine being Chinese, that the lyrics were Chinese, and that the melody was Chinese. It was as if I were being moved by the familiarity of something which is, in fact, utterly foreign to me.

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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.

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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…)

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Christmas in Crete

It’s been a busy Christmas break. We’ve had a lot of running around, looking at furniture, and cleaning the house (which we’ve taken to calling Wuthering Heights because it’s up on a hill and is very windy), but somehow I’ve managed to type up the rest of my novel notebook, and even do some writing. So far, the document runs to 36,000 words. I’m happy with the way things are going. If only I could hold on to that feeling, bottle it up for whenever I need it.

Here are some photos I took on the way down. The winds were 7 or 8 Beaufort, and there was a possibility that we’d be stuck in the harbour till it passed. The Festos is a big ship, and we didn’t really feel anything. The waves don’t really give you a sense of how windy it was out on the deck.

On Boxing Day we went for lunch to a taverna up on a mountain in the Episkopi region, near an evergreen forest that was planted some years ago. The food was very good, and there was a fireplace in the middle of the room. I took this picture of the valley below from the balcony, where tables are set in the summer.

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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.

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Attic Light

I took a break from my work today to step out onto the balcony and take a few pictures. The sun was starting to set, it had been a cloudy day. I liked the contrast of the sky, the clouds, the buildings across the street.


I took a few in black and white to see how they’d turn out.

Later on, I was in the kitchen, making a pot of tea. I went into the living room again to change some music I was listening to, and saw an almost unnatural burst of colour in the sky. I ran to get my camera. Despite the brightness and vividness in the pictures, they’re still not as impressive as they were in real life. But then, that’s always the case.

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Meteora

I’ve been to Meteora several times over the years, but I wanted to take N. this summer because she’d never been. Before we stopped to get a room in Kalabaka, we drove up and took a look around. N. later said that this was the most impressive part of the trip.

If you look close enough at the rock, it looks like cement. The little mountains the monasteries are built on were formed by the sea, which covered the plain of Thessalia sixty million years ago.

The next day we went up to visit some of the monasteries. There were signs everywhere telling you not to take pictures, but this, I was sure, was not for religious reasons, but economic ones. They sell a lot of books and postcards up there. I turned the flash off and took as many pictures as I could. Because I did so furtively, a lot of them are blurry, since the shutter (or whatever it is digital cameras have) stays open for longer.

I don’t remember ever having gone to the monastery of St Stephanos before, which is a nunnery. In fact, I didn’t know until this summer that there was a nunnery up there. The main church inside was built in 1790, and the icons, as a result, are in much better condition than they are in other monasteries. There were actually one being painted still, and are unfinished.

N. and my parents left the church and I stayed behind to snap some more pictures. Just then, though, a nun came in. She was short and wore black-rimmed glasses, the kind all nuns seem to wear. I waited for her to leave, but she showed no signs of doing so. I held the camera behind my back and looked at two panels by the entrance. Both icons featured ladders, and they were what I wanted to photograph. I looked closely at them, waiting for her to leave. Instead she came up and asked me if I was Greek. I said I was, and she asked me from where. To keep things simple, I told her from Canada, and didn’t mentioned that I lived here.

The first icon, she told me, depicted the Heavenly Ladder of John Scholasticus or Climacus. She told me he had written a book explaining how one rises up the heavenly ladder to holiness. The icon showed angels helping along the men who were making their way up towards Christ. Several men were falling off towards a serpent-dragon, and one man had into its jaws.

(I apologise for the poor quality of the photograph, but I was rushed and the camera moved too much. You can see other examples of the subject here, here and here.)

She added, almost with embarrassment, that it was allegorical or symbolic. I suppose she wasn’t comfortable with the question of why they should suffer such damnation for failing to reach the top when they had been good enough to rise three quarters of the way.

On the other side of the door, was an icon of Jacob’s Ladder, with Jacob sleeping at the bottom.

(Again, the picture is not good. It doesn’t even show Jacob.)

The ladder, she said, symbolised the Virgin Mary, the second Eve who had come to reunite heaven and earth, which had split when the first Eve introduced original sin. There were only angels ascending this ladder.

Next she showed me the icon of the Second Coming, a particularly beautiful one on the wall behind us. On the upper left side of the river of fire were the damned being judged (notice the scales). On the right and at the top were the blessed. The river of fire led down to the jaws of another serpent-dragon. On the right near the bottom was a horizontal river and beneath them some chambers with dismembered limbs and severed heads in it. The nun told me that after the Second Coming, they would be restored, when the souls returned to their bodies.

It struck me as I looked at the medieval style of the painting that one tends to look at what it depicts as having taken place in the past, in biblical times, or at the latest in the Middle Ages, rather than something which is supposed to happen in the future. The visual arts, even with something as fantastic as Bosch, eventually lose their prophetic power.

The last icon she showed me was of St Stephanos or Charalambos, I can’t remember which, who when he knew his time had come (as it explains on the icon itself) lay down, crossed his hands on his chest, and died. It was in the middle of the day, but a star kept shining in the sky.

“Making icons is a good thing,” she said to me. “It keeps you close to God.”

On another wall there was an icon which had recently been started. It was to depict the martyrdom of St Charalambos. She took me and we left the narthex, or foyer, and went into the main part of the church, which had in the mean time filled with Italian tourists. She showed me a wooden case before the altar. She took out some keys and opened it and showed me a silver case with the saint’s head in it. At the top it seemed sealed with wax. The silver case was inside a glass case.

“Worship him,” she said [Προσκύνησέ τον]. It was an awkward moment. I don’t believe in God, but unfortunately people are sometimes offended when you don’t believe what they believe. I generally avoid confrontations and don’t feel it necessary to assert myself in such situations, although I suppose I should. To keep things simple (don’t forget that despite the interesting tour I was getting, I was looking forward eventually to having an opportunity to take some pictures), I made the cross, leaned forward and kissed the glass case.

Just then my mobile phone rang and I excused myself. It was N. I hadn’t told them anything when they left the church. I had just stayed behind, and she was wondering where I was. I told her I’d find her in a moment. I got off the phone and went back to thank the nun. She pointed out where the museum was and urged me to see it. Before I left, I snapped the pictures, which is why they didn’t turn out very well.

Other pictures:

The above photograph shows how things and people are carried over to at least one of the monasteries today, which tourists are not allowed to visit. At one point, two monks went across on it, which alarmed many tourists who were watching from below.

N. was very displeased with me for taking this picture. “Those are dead people!” she said. Well, they’ve left the door open for tourists haven’t they? I saw the photo in one of the books they themselves sell, so I’m not bothered by it. I’ve used part of the photo for the masthead photo of this blog.

Although I’m not at all religious, I love Byzantine art. This was on the ceiling of a balcony outside a church.

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Nodding on the bus

In ancient times, they had interesting notions about the body — mainly interesting because they're so different from ours.

For example, the word phren (φρην), midriff, also meant heart and mind, since the heart is obviously located in the torso, and they believed the mind was found in the heart. Later on, they believed that the personality was made up of different combinations of liquids in the body: black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm. These ideas seem very strange to us now, even if remnants of these ideas still persist. Black bile, which has never been observed in nature, was too good a metaphor to give up. It's where we get melancholia. And although we don't believe the mind is found in the midriff, we still have words like phrenetic and schizophrenia.

There seems to have been in Homeric times the belief that strength had its seat in the knees. Probably this comes from the observation that when one is terrified, the knees give way.

"Aged sir, if only, as the spirit is in your bosom,
so might your knees be also and the strength stay steady with you" (IV.313-314)

"Come then, hold up your hands to Zeus, and let go an arrow
at this strong man, whoever he may be, who does so much evil
to the Trojans, since many and great are those whose knees he has broken." (V.174-176)

This leads, no doubt, to another custom which I find the strangest in Homer: the gestures in the act of supplication. When Thetis goes to see Zeus to petition in favour of her son Achilles,

She came and sat beside him with her left hand embracing
his knees, but took him underneath the chin with her right hand
and spoke in supplication to lord Zeus son of Kronos. (I.500-502)

I imagine they held the knees in recognition of the person's (or god's) power. It's hard to imagine this, especially the part about the chin, but it survives in at least one famous vase painting.

Nessus the centaur is begging Heracles to spare him, and is reaching back to take his chin. Clearly, he has no time to hold the knees.

But what did the chin symbolise? The question is too much for me, but I notice one thing: if the person or god agreed or consented to what was being asked, they turned their chin down towards the suppliant. If they denied their request, they turned their chin away. Homer even had a verb for each gesture. The first, κατανεύω (kataneuo), meant to turn the chin down, or to nod. It meant to give assent, or to promise something. The second, ανανεύω (ananeuo), meant to refuse or make a motion of prohibition.

She spoke in prayer, but Pallas Athene turned her head from her. (VI.311)

The curious thing is that these gestures still exist among Greeks today, after so many years. When a Greek says no, he nods upwards, raising his chin. Sometimes he will also raise his eyebrows. (Sometimes, if he is lazy — which is quite often — he will only raise the eyebrows.) Often, too, this gesture is accompanied by a clicking or tsk sound.

Growing up in Canada, I never made this gesture, of course. I would shake my head from left to right, like everyone else. Here in Greece, when I do this, people often think I'm saying I didn't hear them, and repeat themselves.

A Greek professor I had in university had told us once, "What separates us from Homer? Eighty grandfathers. That's all." It seems dubious, but an amusing thought nonetheless.

* * * * *

I really shouldn't, I know, but I get really annoyed when people stand at the bus door, or even get on, and ask people where the bus is going, or what bus it is. I myself never get on a bus if I don't know where it's going, or which one it is, but some people don't have time. People look absolutely stupid when they do it: they look around with a wide-eyed look of panic and say, "Is this the 203?!"

"It's a little late to be asking now, isn't it, you moron!" I feel like saying, but I can't be bothered. Most people ignore them, but someone eventually tells them whether it is or not. If it isn't, they get off at the next stop, and try their luck with whatever other public transport vehicle happens to stop near them.

Today I was going to work, and I was seated near the back door. We came to a stop on Vasilissis Sophias Street, near the Benaki Museum. A woman came to the door when it opened and shouted, "Is this going to Syntagma?"

No bus or trolley on that street goes to Syntagma, not exactly, and anyway she was close enough to walk. But no one was answering her. When I saw the beseeching, desperate look on her face, I felt nearly overcome with weariness. How do you explain such things to people like her? All I did was raise my eyebrows. I couldn't even be bothered to raise my chin.

And I thought, a moment or two later, how far I've come.


The translations are from Richmond Lattimore's Iliad, which follows the same line breaks as the original.

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4th European Social Forum

I don’t normally go to demonstrations or marches — in fact, I hardly ever go. I went to the big march on Sunday 6 May more for research than anything else, because there’s a march like this in the novel I’m writing. I took quite a few pictures, most of which I’ve uploaded to my Flickr page.

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Last pictures from Crete…

… till next time, that is.

When I returned to Athens, I noticed that none of the photos looked good on my own computer. I thought my monitor was good, but the one I was using in Crete was much better.

I took this as a flight of pigeons began to take off. I thought they were going to hit me.

It was hard to get a good picture of all of St Minas in one shot. It’s huge. You can check out more of them here. In the larger versions you can see the same seagull sitting on top of the uppermost cross in all the pictures. It never moved. The view must have been great from up there.

This is a marble plaque in the wall of the small St Matthew’s church in the old district of Lakkos, which is being fixed up. I have a book on the area, written by an anthropologist. When you walk through it, you can see that a colourful piece of the city’s history is disappearing. And I didn’t even take any pictures of it. I’ll try again later this summer, when I visit again.

I took a lot of pictures of churches. I’ve never been particularly interested them, but you tend to see things differently through the lens of a camera.

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More photos from Crete

We went for a drive up to the foothills of Psiloritis yesterday, as far as the Nida Plateau.


(Check out the rest at Flickr.)

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Easter in Crete

I’ve been down in Crete the past week, and will be staying for another one. I’ve been taking lots of photographs. There are days when the light is so pure that it seems impossible not to take a good picture.

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Ποιότητα ΠΑΝΤΟΥ!

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No More Culture

In Greece, the word culture often has negative connotations. There are two words for it. The Greek one, politismos, which also means civilisation, and is used quite generally, expressing approval. It’s the latinate form of the word, cultura, that seems to be synonymous with pretentiousness. One gets the sense that certain aspects of culture don’t fit well on the Greek, make him feel uncomfortable. And I’m not talking about peasants or people who actually have no interest in such things. I’m talking about people who seem, at first glance, to be young intellectuals and who cultivate a stance of hip irony. There is a coolness to the stance, a populist distrust of elitism (another dirty word), and a pleasure taken in debunking what is viewed as pretentious. Certainly there’s no shortage of pretentiousness in the world, but this is an easy target, and time weeds it out anyway. The distrust I’m talking about is for culture in general. It’s as if they think no one in his right mind would listen to classical music, for example, unless he wanted to create a certain effect, make a certain impression. You see no evidence that they have understood the notion that culture, like beauty, can be difficult. Why bother? they seem to say. Who do you think you’re fooling?

One of the greatest consolations in my life is the Third Programme of the state radio. I listen to it all the time. I can spend a day or two by myself in here, with it as my only company. It’s better than anything I ever heard on the CBC back in Canada. When she comes over, N. often gives me a ribbing about it, mocking the voices of the announcers. “They sound as if they have no contact with the outside world,” she says. “They’re in a world of their own.” Often she changes it to one of her favourites, or I change it when I know she’s coming. We listen to ROCKFM or RED, and although I enjoy them too, I get no sense that anything I hear — not the music, not the announcers’ voices, not the commercials — reflects anything in the outside world, except perhaps its aspirations. I hear none of the sincerity that comforts me on the Third Programme, the very thing that to other people would seem to be pretentiousness.

A few weeks ago, N. and I went to see The Constant Gardener with a couple of friends. We enjoyed it more than any film we’d seen in a while and wanted to talk about it for quite some time afterwards. We knew the story was fictional, but we also knew that it could very easily be true. These were not just metaphors. We know how much we exploit the Third World, and nothing in the film surprised us. But it was a beautiful film that allowed us to see into the lives of the countless people who suffer so that we can have our drugs or our running shoes or whatever. A scene that has stayed with me more than any other is near the end, when a warring tribe attacks a village. Fiennes and Postlethwaite and some UN workers board a small plane to escape, and Fiennes is trying to bring along a young girl who was an assistant to Postlethwaite. The pilot, an African, tells him they can’t take her. Only UN representatives and employees can board. Fiennes tries to argue against logic: What does it matter? She’s just one girl, her family is dead, if they leave her she might die. The pilot tells him him if she’s lucky she may make it to a refugee camp. But there is nothing they can do. This goes on all the time, and they can’t save everyone. The girl, who’s been listening, knows what’s going on, and bolts from the plane before it takes off. We last see her running along the plane as it takes off, waving and smiling. It all seems to be a game to her. Look at me run! she seems to say. She smiles or even laughs, as all the other Kenyans in the film do, as if to say, If we did not smile, if we did not laugh, we would go mad. You would drive us mad.

One of our friends, C., did not enjoy the film. She had not been in the best of spirits and had had to be cajoled into coming out by our other friend, M. Standing outside the cinema, we were trying to decide where we could go for drinks, but she said she was going home. She didn’t feel like staying out any longer. The film had clearly upset her. M. apologised for dragging her out to see it. C. assured her that, on the contrary, she’d enjoyed the film.

But on Monday, at work, she said she didn’t want to see another film like that. “It was very good,” she said, “but next time, no culture, please.”

Which struck me, of course, as an odd thing to say. What catch-all phrase has culture become, at least for her? Anything that makes you think, presumably. Anything that reflects unpleasant realities about the world outside. Anything that tries to make you look at your part in the collective guilt.

It reminds me of when the garbage begins to pile up in our streets because it isn’t being collected. You smell the stuff and wonder how long the damned garbage men are going to be on strike. Then you learn that they’re not on strike, but that the people who live in the poor suburb of Ano Liosia, where the landfill site is, have blocked the way and are not allowing the garbage trucks to enter because life has become unbearable for them. You try not to breathe as you go past the overflowing bins on your street and try not to imagine what it must be like out in Ano Liosia. You only want someone to clear it all away, to make the problem of where all this garbage is going to go vanish again. You feel sympathy for the residents of Ano Liosia, but, really, enough is enough.

And then you learn that 170,000 tons of sludge will be taken far away where we won’t have to to deal with it again. To Sudan. To be used as fertiliser, even though its use for that purpose is prohibited here.

How’s that for sweetness and light?

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A Smyrna Journal

A friend of mine in Toronto has brought to my attention the case of Ragip Zarakolu, a publisher in Turkey who is facing three different trials for publishing books which insult the memory Kemal Ataturk, or criticise Turkey’s record against the Kurds and Armenians. This is nothing new for Zarakolu; he’s been getting into trouble for this sort of thing since 1970. And of course, this sort of thing has been in the news a lot lately, especially with regards to Orhan Pamuk, and Turkey’s efforts to enter the European Union. But what interested me is this:

Dora Sakayan has published — or edited, rather — the journal of her grandfather, Garabed Hatcherian, a doctor from Smyrna who managed to escape during the catastrophe of 1922. He spent some time in Mytilene and then settled in Salonica, but began his account of what happened in August and September of 1922 almost immediately afterwards. All this is well enough documented, but this book seems to be a welcome addition:

The names of places and people in the journal are so accurately documented, and the chronological descriptions of the unfolding political and military events so vividly detailed, that one is tempted to believe that each entry of the journal was made either concurrently with, or immediately following each event. Considering the difficult circumstances, however, this hypothesis is almost certainly excluded. A brief Postscript section supports the idea that the main part (Aug. 28 – Sept. 24) was written within days of the events, evidently upon arrival in Mitilini. There, as a survivor, Dr. Hatcherian probably felt the compelling urge to testify; moreover, he must have felt the need to analyze the events intellectually. As for the Epilogue and the final copy of the journal, it was completed in Salonika. This is confirmed by the date and place inscribed below Dr. Hatcherian’s signature under the manuscript: June 1, 1923, Salonika (p.52). The meticulous care the author provided for the manuscript is strong proof that he was aware of how crucial it was to preserve the story for posterity, and to record the details as soon as possible.

Has anyone heard of this book yet? I haven’t seen it anywhere here, although it has been translated into Greek. (It was published in Montreal though.)


PS (06 December 05)
I’ve been contacted by Lilith Ohannessian, the distributor of the book in English, Greek, Armenian and Spanish. Those wishing to order the book can contact her at lilithohan@hotmail.com

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ΥΓ

Ένα μελαγχολικό υστερόγραφο.

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Nostalgia

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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Βράδυ Παρασκευή, πηγαίναμε με τη Ν. να φάμε στη Φωκίωνος Νέγρη, κι όπως περνάγαμε τη Σπετσών, θυμήθηκα ότι το σπίτι του Νίκου Γκάτσου βρισκόταν εκεί, στο 101. Την έπεισα να πάμε λίγο πιο πάνω να το δω. Μικρό προσκύνημα, ας πούμε.

Τα παλιά τα σπίτια τα κλεισμένα
πάντα κρύβουν κάτι και για μένα,
πράγματα γνωστά, πράγματα πιστά,
πράγματα ζεστά κι αγαπημένα,
πράγματα γνώστα, πράγματα πιστά,
πράγματα ζεστά, λησμονημένα.

Μονοκατοικία είναι, μιά απ’ τις λίγες που έχουν απομείνει στην Κυψέλη. Το βρήκα όμως εντελώς εγκαταλειμένο, με graffiti σ’ ένα τοίχο, στη γωνιά ένα κάδο για μπάζα, και τσουβάλια με γύψο στο πεζοδρόμιο. Η πόρτα ήταν κλεισμένη με λουκέτο κι αλυσίδα περασμένη απ’ το σπασμένο παράθυρο. Όπως πλησιάζαμε, η Ν. έκανε πίσω.

“Πήγαινε εσύ,” μου είπε. “Εγώ δε πλησιάζω.”

Έμοιαζε να είχε γίνει κάποτε κατάληψη. Μέσα βρομούσε από σκατά, και η μπόχα έφτανε μέχρι το δρόμο. Όποιος τό ‘χε χρησιμοποιήσει δεν άντεξε πια κι έφυγε. Κοίταξα γρήγορα να δω τουλάχιστον αν υπήρχε ακόμα τ’ όνομά του στο κουδούνι, αλλά ούτε κουδούνι δεν υπήρχε.

Νύχτα των Παθών που βγαίναν τ’ άστρα
σώπαινει του κήπου η κουκουβάγια,
κι άπ’ τις γειτονιές μυροφόρες νιές
ράντιζαν το πέλαγο με βάγια,
κι άπ’ τις γειτονιές μυροφόρες νιές
άναβαν λαμπάδες στα μουράγια.

Ο Γκάτσος πέθανε το 1992, αν θυμάμαι καλά. Δε θα φανταζόμουν ποτέ ότι θα μπορούσε να ρημάξει τόσο γρήγορα ένα σπίτι. Θά ‘λεγες ήταν εγκαταλειμένο εδώ και τριάντα χρόνια.

Χρόνε νυχτοπούλι παγερό
κόβεις με μαχαίρι τον καιρό,
γρήγορα πετάς, πίσω δε κοιτάς
τον απάνω κόσμο το μεγάλο.
Χρόνε παραμύθι λαμπερό,
σμίγεις τη φωτιά με το νερό,
γρήγορα περνάς, πίσω δε γυρνάς,
πίκρα μας κερνάς και τίποτ’ άλλο.

“Δε καταλαβαίνω,” της είπα της Ν. “Η Αγαθή Δημητρούκα [σύντροφος του Γκάτσου] πρέπει να ήταν κληρονόμος του. Γιατί ν’ αφήσει το σπίτι έτσι;”

“Ποιός ξέρει,” μου είπε. “Μπορεί να το άφησε αλλού και δεν έχουν λεφτά να το διατηρήσουν.”

Είδα όνειρο αυτή τη νύχτα ότι βρέθηκα πάλι μπροστά στο σπίτι, και στο πεζοδρόμιο βρήκα τρεις πλάκες χάλκινες, αυτές που λένε ότι ο τάδε έμενε εδώ. Η Δημητρούκα στεκόταν δίπλα, κι εγώ τις πήρα και τις έκρυψα κάτω απ’ το μπουφάν μου.

Προσκύνημα αν θέλω να κάνω τώρα, θα πρέπει να παω στο νεκροταφείο της Ασέας, στην Αρκαδία, ν’ ανάψω κάνα κερί.


Ένα απ’ τα αγαπημένα μου τραγούδια του Γκάτσου, από το τελευταίο του δίσκο, που έκανε με τον Ξαρχάκο, Τα Κατά Μάρκον.

Ο ΧΟΡΟΣ ΤΩΝ ΚΥΚΛΑΔΩΝ
Σκοτεινό το τραγούδι που θα πω
τα συντρίμμια του τόπου μου πατώ.
Χαμένα αδέρφια μου, ίσκιοι λαβωμένοι
χαμένη Ελλάδα, παντού σ’ αναζητώ.

Των Κυκλάδων σταμάτησε ο χορός
πετρωμένο το κύμα κι ο καιρός.
Πάνω απ’ τις μνήμες μάρμαρα σπασμένα
πάνω απ’ τις στέγες ο άνεμος σκληρός.

Παγερέ του αιώνα μου βοριά
πού τα πήγες τ’ αφτέρουγα παιδιά;
Τα πήρε ο ύπνος σε άχραντη πατρίδα
τα πήρε η νύχτα στη μαύρη της καρδιά.

Της ζωής ποιός γνωρίζει το σκοπό.
Το σκουλήκι τσακίζει τον καρπό.
Χαμένα αδέρφια, δείχτε μου ένα δρόμο
χαμένη Ελλάδα, την πόρτα σου χτυπώ.


Ξέρεις τα σπίτια πεισματώνουν εύκολα, σαν τα γυμνώσεις.


Υ.Γ. (12 Οκτ. 05)
Πέρασα τη Κύριακή πάλι απ’ τη Σπετσών, ημέρα αυτή τη φορά, και είπα να περάσω πάλι να το δω το σπίτι, αλλά δε το βρήκα. Δεν υπάρχει πια. Μόνο ένα άδειο οικόπεδο. Ήθελα να γυρίσω ξανά να το φωτογραφίσω, αλλά δε πρόλαβα.

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Μπήκα μες στο παρεκκλήσι, άναψα ένα κερί. Παρόλο που δεν είμαι καθόλου θρήσκος, έκανα όπως είδα να κάνουν όλοι οι άλλοι. Έκανα το σταυρό μου, έσκυψα και φίλησα το φέρετρο και μετά την εικόνα. Από σεβασμό για τους συγγενείς που κάθονταν δίπλα. Ήθελα να μείνω λίγο, αλλά ντράπηκα.

Έξω στη γωνία, από το εστιατόριο “Ιθάκη” ακουγόταν σιγά σιγά το “Δόξα τω Θεώ”.

* * * * *

Από μικρό παιδί είχα στενή προσωπική σχέση με τον Γρηγόρη Μπιθικώτση. Μόλις τριών ετών άκουγα τη μουσική του. Ήρθε ένας ανηψιός της γιαγιάς μου στον Καναδά μετανάστης. Μέχρι να βρει δουλειά και σπίτι, έμενε μαζί με τη γιαγιά και τον παππού. Τα χρόνια εκείνα δούλευε κι η μάνα μου και το πρωί μ’ άφηναν εκεί, να με φυλάει η γιαγιά. Μου σύστησαν τον ανηψιό – λεγόταν Γρηγόρης.

“Μπιθικώτσης;” είπα εγώ.

Γέλασαν και μου είπαν ναι. Και βέβαια δεν υπήρχε λόγος να το αμφιβάλλω. Έτσι για ένα διάστημα στα παιδικά μου χρόνια ζούσα δίπλα στον Γρηγόρη Μπιθικώτση. Τραγουδούσαμε μαζί το “Ρολόι-Κομπολόι”, κι όταν φτάναμε στο

να μετράω τους καημούς
και τους αναστεναγμούς

αναστέναζα κι εγώ.

* * * * *

Το 1987 ανακάλυψα ξανά την ελληνική μουσική, που είχα χρόνια ξεχάσει, και ξαναβρήκα τον Γρηγόρη. Σιγά σιγά, ανακάλυψα ξανά και την Ελλάδα και τη πρώτη μου γλώσσα, αν και δεν ήταν πια η μητρική μου. Έμαθα τον Ελύτη, τον Σεφέρη, τον Γκάτσο, τον Ρίτσο, τον Παπαδόπουλο, και άλλους ποιητές. Αποφάσισα και να γυρίσω στη χώρα που άφησε ο πατέρας μου στα δέκα του χρόνια. (Η μάνα μου, ελληνίδα κι αυτή, γεννήθηκε στον Καναδά.)

Μια μέρα σ’ ένα δισκοπωλείο στην ελληνική συνοικία του Τορόντο βρήκα ένα βίντεο με τη συναυλία που έδωσε το 1983 ο Γρηγόρης σαν αποχαιρετισμό. Διήθυνε ο Σταύρος Ξαρχάκος στο Ολυμπιακό Στάδιο. Η φωνή του είχε πέσει, είχε χάσει τη δύναμή της. Λυπήθηκα.

* * * * *

Το Νοέμβρη του 1991 έμαθα ότι ερχόταν στο Τορόντο να τραγουδήσει για μερικές βραδιές σ’ ένα καινούργιο μαγαζί. Είπα να παω να τον δω. Δε μ’ ένοιαζε πως δεν τραγουδούσε πια όπως παλιά. Ήθελα να πω ότι μια φορά στη ζωή μου τον είδα και τον άκουσα.

Ο πατέρας μου κάπως κατάφερε τη τελευταία στιγμή να μας βρει τραπέζι μπροστά στην πίστα. Τη στιγμή που βγήκε ο Γρηγόρης μετακομίσαμε όλοι μας στο άλλο τραπέζι. Μας φέραν τα πιάτα και τα κρασιά από εκεί που καθόμασταν πριν.

Εκείνη τη βραδιά, όμως, έγινε το απίστευτο. Βγήκε ο Μπιθικώτσης, και ίσως επειδή ήταν ο χώρος κλειστός και αρκετά μικρός, τραγούδησε πολύ ωραία. Εμείς τα χάσαμε. Τρελαθήκαμε. Μετά από κάθε τραγούδι χειροκροτούσαμε όρθιοι. Μας κοίταζε και μας ευχαριστούσε.

Κάποια στιγμή, όταν κάποιος φώναξε μια παραγγελία, σήκωσε τους ώμους του λίγο, έδειξε το λαιμό του σαν να λέει, “Δε μου βγαίνει πια.”

Όταν τελείωσε και κατέβηκε, τραβήξαμε μια φωτογραφία μαζί του εγώ με τους γονείς μου. Μετά ανέβηκα στη πίστα και πήρα το ποτήρι του σαν ενθύμιο. Το έχω ακόμα, και τη φωτογραφία.

* * * * *

Την Πέμπτη άκουγα την εκπομπή “Ποτέ απ’ τη ποταμιά δε λείπει η πρασινάδα” στο τρίτο πρόγραμμα, και παίζανε τη θρυλική συναυλία στο Κεντρικόν που έγινε το 1961. Δε πίστευα στα αυτιά μου. Δεν ήξερα ότι είχε ηχογραφηθεί.

(Κατά σύμπτωση, την Πέμπτη πέθανε, το απόγευμα, ίσως την ώρα της εκπομπής.)

Ο ίδιος διηγείται:

Όλα αυτά έγιναν στις 18 Μάρτη 1961, ημέρα Δευτέρα. Ο Χιώτης με τη Μαίρη Λίντα και ο Καζαντζίδης με τη Μαρινέλλα είχαν μεγαλύτερο θάρρος από μένα. Για τη συναυλία στο Κεντρικόν, κάναμε πρόβες στην πλατεία Κολοκτρώνη, πίσω από το άγαλμα. Όσο κάναμε πρόβες και μέχρι να φθάσει εκείνη η πολυπόθητη Δευτέρα για να δώσουμε τη συναυλία, εμένα δεν μ’ έπιανε ο ύπνος. Δεν μπορούσα να κλείσω μάτι. Πήγαινα στο μαγαζί, τραγουδούσα το βράδυ, πήγαινα την ημέρα κι έκανα πρόβες για τη συναυλία, έγραφαν οι εφημερίδες, έλεγαν τα ραδιόφωνα κι εγώ κόντευα να πεθάνω από την αγωνία μου. Είχα ήδη ένα τρακ, ένα σοκ, όπως θέλετε πάρτε το.Μέσα μου, κάτι μου έλεγε να μην πάω στη συναυλία. Όχι γιατί θα συμμετείχαν μαζί μου ο Χιώτης, η Λίντα, ο Καζαντζίδης και η Μαρινέλλα, αλλά μου είχε κολλήσει έτσι. Έλεγα πώς θα θυμηθώ τα λόγια, πώς θα μου έρθει η μελωδία που θα είμαι ανάμεσα στην κρατική ορχήστρα που θα διευθύνει ο Μίκης, που θα είναι ο Μάνος Χατζιδάκις, αυτός ο μεγάλος Χατζιδάκις, με το τραγούδι “Είμαι αητός χωρίς φτερά”. Ο “Αητός” ήταν καινούργιο τραγούδι. Την πρώτη εκτέλεσή του θα την έκανα με την κρατική ορχήστρα και διεύθυνση Μίκη Θεοδωράκη στο Κεντρικόν.

Τελικά, εκεί που κάναμε πρόβες – πρόβες κάναμε και σ’ ένα καφενείο δίπλα στο Μουσείο – ο Μανόλης Χιώτης με τον Στέλιο Καζαντζίδη αποφάσισαν να στρίψουν ένα νόμισμα. Αν ερχόταν κορόνα, θα έμπαιναν μπροστά στη διαφήμιση ο Μανόλης Χιώτης με τη Μαίρη Λίντα, αν ερχόταν γράμματα θα έμπαιναν τα ονόματα του Στέλιου Καζαντζίδη και της Μαρινέλλας. Εγώ, έτσι κι αλλιώς, ήμουν τρίτος. Αυτό που απασχολούσε, όμως, ήταν το τρακ που είχα. Τελικά, μια εβδομάδα πριν, δημοσιεύτηκε στις εφημερίδες ότι τη Δευτέρα θα πραγματοποιηθεί η μεγάλη συναυλία του Μίκη Θεοδωράκη με τον “Επιτάφιο” στο Κεντρικόν. Στο πιάνο ο Μάνος Χατζιδάκις. Τραγουδούν: Μανόλης Χιώτης-Μαίρη Λίντα, Στέλιος Καζαντζίδης-Μαρινέλλα και ο Γρηγόρης Μπιθικώτσης. Τι θα γίνει τώρα μέχρι να έρθει η Δευτέρα; Μέρες και νύχτες περνούσαν βασανιστικές. Τετάρτη, Πέμπτη, Παρασκευή, Σάββατο, Κυριακή. Από τα ξημερώματα της Δευτέρας, έτρεμα από αϋπνία και αγωνία. Όταν σουρούπωσε, πήγα κι εγώ στο Κεντρικόν. Μπήκα κρυφά από την πίσω πόρτα στα καμαρίνια. Είχα ιδρώσει.

Αρχίζει η συναυλία. Παίζει ένα σόλο ο Χιώτης με την κρατική ορχήστρα που διήθυνε ο Θεοδωράκης. Έπαιξε τη “Μαργαρίτα-Μαργαρώ”. Όταν τέλειωσε αυτό, έπεσε πολύ χειροκρότημα, γιατί ο κόσμος ήταν πάρα πολύς. Ο Χιώτης έχει να πει 5-6 τραγούδια με τη Μαίρη Λίντα. Εγώ ψάχνω να βρω τον Καζαντζίδη και τον ανακαλύπτω να κάθεται κάτω από τη σκηνή. “Γιατί είσαι εδώ, Στέλιο;” τον ρωτάω. “Για ν’ ακούσω καλύτερα” μου απαντάει. Του ξαναλέω: “Φάλτσο δεν έπαιξε λιγάκι ο Μανόλης Χιώτης τη ‘Μαργαρίτα-Μαργαρώ’ με το μπουζούκι;” “Ναι” μου λέει “δεν πειράζει, δεν βαριέσαι… Χιώτης είναι αυτός.” Τον είδα και τον Στέλιο κάπως τρακαρισμένο και του λέω: “Τι έχεις; Τρακ;” Μου λέει: “Όχι. Γιατί, εσύ τι έχεις; Τρακ;” Του λέω: “Ναι, ρε γαμώτο. Δεν θέλω να τραγουδήσω.” “Δεν γίνεται” μου λέει. “Δεν ντρέπεσαι που δεν θέλεις να τραγουδήσεις; Θα τραγουδήσεις και θα τα πεις ωραία. Μήπως πρώτη φορά θα τραγουδήσεις μπροστά σε κοινό, μπροστά σε κόσμο;” Το θέατρο ήταν γεμάτο. Στις πρώτες θέσεις κάθονταν υπουργοί της τότε κυβέρνησης Καραμανλή και ο Γεώργιος Παπανδρέου, αρχηγός της Ένωσης Κέντρου, και βουλευτές της Αριστεράς. Τελειώνει ο Μανόλης Χιώτης. Το χειροκρότημα ήταν ασταμάτατο. Η Μαίρη Λίντα τα ερμήνευσε πολύ ωραία τα τραγούδια της.

Ήρθε μετά η σειρά του Στέλιου Καζαντζίδη. Ανέβηκε ο Στέλιος στη σκηνή και τραγούδησε το “Βράχο βράχο τον καημό μου”, το “Σαββατόβραδο”, το “‘Εχω μια αγάπη” και άλλα τραγούδια του Θεοδωράκη. Αποθέωση, χειροκροτήματα. Κι ύστερα η δική μου σειρά. Έπρεπε να βγω να τραγουδήσω, αλλά ένιωθα ράκος. Είχα πάθει μεγάλο τρακ. Βγήκα έξω κι άρχισαν να μου ρίχνουν λουλουδάκια, που τα είχαν κάτω από τα καθίσματα του θεάτρου. Τα λουλούδια, εκείνη τη στιγμή, ήταν κάτι εντελώς καινούργιο για τα δεδομένα της λαϊκής μουσικής με τον Μίκη Θεοδωράκη. Σκέφθηκα ότι έπρεπε να πω το “Είμαι αητός χωρίς φτερά” του Χατζιδάκι. Και άρχισαν πάλι να μου πετούν λουλούδια. Με πλημμύρισαν μέχρι το λαιμό. Γέμισαν όλη τη σκηνή και την ορχήστρα με λουλούδια. Είχα μεγάλη χαρά εκείνη την ώρα. Μέχρι να μαζέψουν τα λουλούδια μέσα σε δυο τρία λεπτά, εγώ ετοιμαζόμουν για να ξεκινήσω. Και άρχισα να τραγουδώ. Ο Μίκης σηκώνει τα χέρια ψηλά κι εγώ έβγαλα τα πρώτα λόγια από το “Ροδόσταμο”:

Στον άλλο κόσμο που θα πας,
κοίτα μη γίνεις σύννεφο…

Η ορχήστρα παίζει. Έχει δώσει σήμα ο Μίκης κουνώντας τα χέρια του: πουμ, παμ, πουμ, παμ, πουμ, παμ. Εγώ δε μπαίνω στο τραγούδι. Κάποια φορά, μπαίνω και λέω: “Στον ά…” Σταμάτησα. Έχασα τα λόγια μου και λέω: “Με συγχωρείτε, έχω τρακ, δεν μπορώ να συνεχίσω”. Χειροκροτήματα, κακό. Ιδρωμένος, γύρισα πίσω στο καμαρίνι. Ωστόσο, το πρόγραμμα συνεχίστηκε, αφού ο Μίκης Θεοδωράκης είπε ο ίδιος τα τραγούδια που επρόκειτο να τραγουδήσω εγώ.

Στο μεταξύ, μέσα στα καμαρίνια ήταν αρκετοί ηθοποιοί: Χορν, Βουγιουκλάκη, Αλεξανδράκης, Κοντού και η Ειρήνη Παπά. Μου λέει ο Αλεξανδράκης: “‘Ακου να δεις, κι εγώ έχω πάθει αυτό το τρακ”. Ανοίγει σπιρτόκουτο και είχε μέσα κάτι χάπια. Πήρα ένα, ήπια κι ένα ποτήρι και συνήλθα, μου πέρασε το τρακ.* Όταν ο Μίκης τελείωσε τα τραγούδια, ανέβηκα και πάλι στη σκηνή. Πρώτα πρώτα, είπα τον “Αητό” του Χατζιδάκι. Χειροκροτήματα και λουλούδια. Είπα ολόκληρο το πρόγραμμά μου, τη “Μαργαρίτα-Μαργαρώ” και τον “Επιτάφιο” του Γιάννη Ρίτσου.

Στην πραγματικότητα, κατάφερε να πει τη πρώτη στροφή ολόκληρη. Έτρεμε όμως η φωνή του. Παρολαυτά, ήταν γλυκειά όπως πάντα.

* * * * *

Τρεις φορές τον είδα – στον Καναδά, σε μια πλατεία του Ζωγράφου που τραγούδησε μια βραδιά με το γιο του, και στο αφιέρωμα που έγινε το 2002 στο Στάδιο Ειρήνης και Φιλίας.

Στο τέλος της συναυλίας ανέβηκε στη σκηνή. Του ζητήσανε να πει ένα τραγούδι απ’ το Άξιον Εστί. Ξεκίνησε η ορχήστρα. Πήρε το μικρόφωνο αλλά είπε, “Θέλω να πώ το ‘Βοτανικό’ μου!’ Είπε μια στροφή, η φωνή του ήταν αδύναμη, κι εγώ δάκρυσα. Όχι από λύπη αυτή τη φορά, αλλά από χαρά – τη χαρά που μοιραστήκαμε όλοι μας, και που ένιωθε ο ίδιος, που τιμήθηκε έτσι στα ογδόντα του. Και δάκρυσα ειδικά όταν τον είδα να δίνει το μικρόφωνο στον διπλανό του και να αρχίζει να χορεύει ένα ζεϊμπέκικο, άψογα, με τόση λεβεντιά που θά ‘λεγες ήταν ακόμα πενήντα χρόνια νεότερος.

Αντίο, Γρηγόρη.

___________________________________

*Όπως είπε ο Αλεξανδράκης, αλλά και ο ίδιος ο Μπιθικώτσης στο παρελθόν, το “χάπι” δεν ήταν παρά ένα ψίχουλο ψωμί. Ένα placebo.

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Spring arrives

Before we left to go down to the house, we called our neighbour to ask about the condition of the water. Back in September, some construction workers who had opened up the water pipes in the street to connect them to a house had gone home without closing them or covering them. That night, there was a heavy rainfall, which carried mud and pebbles into the hole they had dug, and into the pipes. Eventually the problem was addressed (I don’t say fixed), although the water pressure was low. The neighbours assured us that only a couple of days before, they had turned on our hose to water our garden.

When we got there, however, and turned on the taps, there wasn’t a drop. Since they had watered the garden, the pipes had clogged again.

Fortunately, the neighbours had used a hose to connect to the house behind them, so we had enough water for emergencies there. I’d go next door with buckets whenever we needed some. It was annoying at first, and we were considering returning the next morning, but soon enough we got used to it.

And the next day, the regular tenants made us feel welcome.

Ήλθ’, ήλθε χελιδών,
καλάς ώρας άγουσα,
καλούς ενιαυτούς,
επί γαστέρα λευκά,
επί νώτα μέλαινα.

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The Great Exodus (March version)

Like most Athenians, we’re going away for the long weekend. Not only will there be no internet connection, but the telephone at the house has been disconnected for most of the year to save money on phone bills.

This is the view from our balcony. In the distance is the road going south to Leonidio.

Also from the balcony. In the distance you might be able to make out the island of Spetses.

Same view, sunrise.

I don’t know whose house this is, but I liked the white curtain flying out the balcony window.

The balcony again. Even in Arcadia, it seems, there are traces of melancholy.

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A walk through Kaisariani

Two or three years ago I went for a walk through Kaisariani with my camera. I wanted to preserve some images before they’re gone.

In 1922, when the refugees came from Asia Minor, one of the places where they settled in Athens was in Kaisariani. Housing projects like these were set up for them here and in other areas.


People still live in some of these apartments. Kaisariani saw a lot of action during the civil war, and most of the holes in the walls were made by bullets. Many people want to preserve the buildings for historical reasons.


A few days ago I was standing at the 224 bus stop, which is just to the left of the trees in the distance. Across the street from the bus stop used to be a building like these, with the same kind of bullet holes. It’s been torn down and will be replaced by a new building a few storeys taller than the ones in the distance.


An abandoned house in one of the narrow streets.


I took this one through the broken window of one of the abandoned homes. There was nothing in the room but some old rags thrown in a corner.


People were still living in the upper floor, where the shutters are more freshly painted to the far right and left. (Only the room at the corner seems uninhabited.) They would enter through a courtyard to the right and go up some stairs.


You get the sense while walking down the streets that you’re in a different time, in Athens as it was thirty to forty years ago.


An old cafe.


I took this picture because I liked the drug store and the old sign. At the time I wasn’t aware of the fact that there was a journalist, novelist, and documentary maker of the same name, Stelios Kouloglou. Maybe it’s a coincidence, or maybe his grandfather came over from Asia Minor and set up this shop.


Some of the houses of course are still lived in, with little gardens, and basil growing in small tin cans. The residents are usually old Greeks, or poor immigrants.


You can see the apartment buildings going up in the background.


I imagine it won’t be long before what few of these homes are left will be torn down for more apartment buildings.

When I get a job (which had better be soon) I’m going to get a digital camera and go back.

* * * * *

“There were Cypriots here, Lebanese, Armenians, Alexandrians, the island Greeks, the northern Greeks, the old men and women of the epic separation, their children, grandchildren, the Greeks of Smyrna and Constantinople. Their true home was to the spacious east, the dream, the great idea. Everywhere the pressure of remembrance. The black memory of civil war, children starving. Through the mountains we see it in the lean faces of men in flyspeck villages, stubble on their jaws. They sit beneath the meter on the cafe wall. There’s a bleakness in their gazing, an unrest. How many dead in your village? Sisters, brothers. The women walk past with donkeys carrying bricks. There were times when I thought Athens was a denial of Greece, literally a paving over of this blood memory, the faces gazing out of stony landscapes. As the city grew it would consume the bitter history around it until nothing was left but gray streets, the six-storey buildings with laundry flying from the rooftops. Then I realised the city itself was an invention of people from lost places, people forcibly resettled, fleeing war and massacre and each other, hungry, needing jobs. They were exiled home, to Athens, which spread toward the sea and over the lesser hills out into the Attic plain, direction-seeking. A compass rose of memory.”

Don DeLillo, The Names.

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Μιά μέρα μου τηλεφώνησε ο Μαλαμόπουλος. Ένας επιχειρηματίας, που είχε μιά από τις καλύτερες ταβέρνες της Αθήνας. Την “Εμπατή”. Με δυό τζάκια, με φλοκάτες και χαλιά. Με ρώτησε αν ήθελα να δουλέψω στην ταβέρνα του. Δέχτηκα και κλείσαμε μια συνάντηση για την άλλη μέρα στη Φωκίωνος Νέγρη, σ’ένα ουζερί, για να μιλήσουμε σχετικά με τη δουλειά.

Το σπίτι μας ήταν δέκα λεπτά με τα πόδια πιο πάνω από τη Φωκίωνος Νέγρη. Την άλλη μέρα, καθώς κατέβαινα για τη συνάντησή μας, σκεφτόμουν τι να του ζητήσω για μεροκάματο. Συνήθως έπαιρνα σαν πιανίστας διακόσιες δραχμές τότε, παρόλο που είχα κι ένα μικρό όνομα σαν συνθέτης. Έλεγα λοιπόν να του ζητήσω 250 δραχμές, γιατί και οι απαιτήσεις της δουλειάς ήταν περισσότερες σε μια τέτοια ταβέρνα, αλλά και κάτι ακόμα. Με τις συμφωνίες για το μεροκάματο δεν τα κατάφερνα, ντρεπόμουν και όλο ριγμένος ήμουν.

Έτσι έφτασα στο ουζερί, με την απόφαση να διεκδικήσω ένα καλό μεροκάματο. Καθήσαμε και ο Ηλίας παράγγειλε ούζο και μεζεδάκια. Ήταν μεσημεράκι κι αρχίσαμε να συζητάμε. Λέγαμε πόσους μουσικούς θά ‘παιρνα ακόμα, πόσους τραγουδιστές κτλ.

Μέσα σε μιά ώρα, και καθώς ήμουν αμάθητος με το ποτό, το ούζο με χτύπησε κατευθείαν στο κεφάλι. Έπι πλέον μού ‘φερε και μιά ευεξία και, καθώς πλησίαζε η ώρα για την αμοιβή μου, εγώ από μέσα μου ανέβαζε το ποσόν. Έλεγα, θα του ζητήσω 300 δραχμές. Σε λίγο η ευεξία μου ανέβηκε πιο πολύ, κι εγώ ανέβασα πάλι το ποσό. Θα του πω 350 δραχμές κι ό,τι βρέξει ας κατεβάσει. Στο κάτω-κάτω, μιά ζωή όλο ριγμένος θά ‘μαι;

Έτσι, όταν ήρθε η ώρα που με ρώτησε για την αμοιβή μου, πήρα μιά βαθιά ανάσα και του είπα. “Η αμοιβή μου, Ηλία, είναι τετρακόσιες δραχμές”. “Εντάξει, Σταύρο”, μου είπε και δώσαμε τα χέρια.

Εκείνη τη μέρα είχαμε γιορτή με την Αιμιλία. Τέτοιο μεροκάματο ούτε στον ύπνο μου το είδα.

Σε δέκα μέρες κάναμε έναρξη με επιτυχία και μετά από ένα μήνα έπρεπε να κλείσεις μιά βδομάδα πιο μπροστά, για να βρεις τραπέζι.

Ήταν και η εποχή που κυκλοφορούσε το “Εικοσιένα”.

Πέρασαν δυό-τρεις μήνες και μιά μέρα συνάντησα έναν τραγουδιστή που δούλευε σ’ένα από τα καλά μαγαζιά, σαν δεύτερο όνομα. Καθώς μιλούσαμε, κάποια στιγμή μου λέει: “Τη μέρα που έκλεισες στην ‘Εμπατή’, το βράδυ πέρασε ο Ηλίας από το μαγαζί μας και, πάνω στην κουβέντα, μας είπε, ‘Έκλεισα τον Κουγιουμτζή, αλλά, αν ξέρετε, με ποσό;’ Εμείς απαντήσαμε περίπου. Κανένα χιλιάρικο; ‘Ρε σεις, με τετρακόσιες δραχμές τον έκλεισα’, μας είπε, τρίβοντας τα χέρια του χαρούμενος”. Τότε κατάλαβα πως με τα οικονομικά ήμουν μανούλα. Γι’ αυτό θα σας πω ακόμα ένα παρόμοιο περιστατικό, που είναι πολύ αστείο.

Ένα βράδυ, μου λέει ο Ηλίας. Ήταν Μάιος και σε καμιά εβδομάδα τελείωνε η χειμερινή σαιζόν. “Σταύρο, ένας φίλος μου, πολύ καλό παιδί, πατριωτάκι σου, έχει ένα καλοκαιρινό μαγαζί στη Θεσσαλονίκη και θά ‘θελε να κάνεις εκεί κάθε Κυριακή μια συναυλία, τι λες;” Δε θέλω, ρε Ηλία, του είπα. Θέλω να κάτσω να γράψω. Και περισσότερο για να ξεμπερδέψω παρά για να πάω, του είπα ένα υπερβολικό ποσό. Εκτός, του λέω, αν δίνει πέντε χιλιάδες για κάθε συναυλία, έ τότε πάω. “Τι λες, ρε μαλάκα,” μου λέει ο Ηλίας, “αυτός με παρακάλεσε να σε πείσω να δεχτείς με δέκα χιλιάδες και συ μου μιλάς για πέντε;” Ρε γαμώτο, είπα από μέσα μου, δεν μπορώ να τα βγάλω πέρα μ’αυτούς τους ανθρώπους.

* * * * *

Άφησα τα παλιά και του είπα: “Μάρκο, γεράσαμε.” Ήταν κάπως συνεσταλμένος, γιατί με περνούσε για ανώτερό του, όπως σας είπα. Τώρα μάλιστα που έγραφα και τραγούδια, σαν να με ντρεπόταν λιγάκι. Όταν όμως είδε τη δική μου φιλική διάθεση, σιγά-σιγά άλλαξε κι αυτός διάθεση. Άρχισε να μου μιλάει για διάφορα. Δούλευε σ’ένα καμπαρέ στο Βαρδάμι, μου είπε. Η γυναίκα του τον είχε χωρίσει. Ύστερα άρχισε να μου λέει για τα τραγούδια μου, ποια του αρέσουν και ποια δεν του αρέσουν. Ιδιαίτερα αγαπούσε το “Κάπου Νυχτώνει”. Αφού είπαμε κι άλλα πολλά, πριν χωρίσουμε μου έκανε πάλι, όπως παλιά, μιά ερώτηση. “Άραγες πονάει η ψυχή, όταν βγαίνει;” “Πού να ξέρω, ρε Μάρκο,” του είπα, και σέ λίγο χωρίσαμε. Τις προάλλες, τον είδα στον ύπνο μου. Με κοίταξε αμίλητος. Τώρα, Μάρκο, εσύ πρέπει να ξέρεις αν πονάει η ψυχή, όταν βγαίνει.

από Ανοιχτά Παράθυρα με Κλειστά Παντζούρια του Σταύρου Κουγιουμτζή, εκδόσεις ΕΝΤΕΥΚΤΗΡΙΟΥ

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There's been an interesting story circulating the Greek blogs the past couple of days, and I was going to write about it here in English, but I've discovered that Academia Nervosa and Histologion have already done a fine job of it, so I'll direct you to them in a minute.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Greek (un)reality, let me give you a brief introduction.

Nothing in Russian literature and Kafka can compare with the absurdities of Greek bureaucracy. To give you an example, I once saw a documentary about a guy who, in the 1970s, had invented a car that ran — albeit somewhat slowly — on hydrogen. He lived on Paros or Naxos, and it was perfect for life on the island. He went to the government for support and there the whole thing ran aground because in Greece you're taxed on your car, based on the size of the motor. (They figure you're lying about your income, so they'll get you on something else.) Since this car didn't have a motor, or at least not the same kind as other cars, the government refused to go any further because they didn't know how to tax it. The entrepreneur ended up selling about 700 models of his car to England for experiments, though apparently nothing ever came of it there either.

The dream for many people in Greece is to get a job in the public sector. Civil servants are more difficult to fire than tenured professors, so they can sit on their asses all day, drink coffee, dangle cigarettes from their lips as they stamp papers right underneath a no smoking sign, and be as rude and incommunicative as they want — all with total impunity. The pay isn't always great, but they retire early and get a good pension.

These positions are usually obtained through an uncle, whose best friend's dentist plays cards with a guy who went to school with some Member of Parliament, and the positions are an easy way for politicians to get votes and to fill the public sector with "their people".

When the conservative New Democracy party was elected last year for the first time in twenty years (with the exception of a three-year term in the early 1990s, and a brief minority government in 1989) they began, of course, to plant "their people". Since you can't fire supporters of the other, socialist, party, the most you can do is transfer them to some God-forsaken corner of the country, or some island without running water. Also, a few children of newly-elected officials had managed to get transferred from universities in places like Crete to the central campus in Athens, closer to mumsie and daddy. At least one official had to resign when this came out.

Recently, a sculptor named Dimitrios Fotiou put up a satirical webpage which offered to find people good positions in the civil service, or to get them favourable transfers.

Now, for the rest of this unbelievable story, check out Academia Nervosa and Histologion. (The latter also provides links to English-language coverage of this story in the Greek media.)

Postscript
This sort of over-reaction reminds me of when, a few years ago, the government passed a law to prohibit gambling video games in cafes and such. For some reason, internet chess servers came under this law, which made Greece the laughing stock of chess players the world over. Histologion also provides a BBC link about this.

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Of philology, bisexuals and camels

A lot has been said, at least in these parts, about some dumbass lawyers' threat to sue Warner Bros for implying that Alexander was bisexual, but I want to touch on a broader issue, and in a rather circuitous way.

In my second year at university, at a dinner party held at my Medieval Literature professor's house, a couple of fellow students and I were talking over drinks about the course we had just completed. I said that I had enjoyed it, but that I was planning to concentrate more on Renaissance Literature.

"I don't like the Renaissance," said the one classmate, holding her glass in a refined manner. "It's too self-conscious." (I've learnt that she now teaches at some Ivy League college.)

The other classmate, seizing upon the theatre-crowd jargon, added with a smile: "Yeah. And over-produced."

Despite the pretentiousness, there is some accuracy to the first charge. While the medievals did not think of themselves as living in a Middle Age, the humanists who came after did, however, think of themselves as being part of a Renaissance, and in fact, gave us the term themselves. The term "Renaissance" is actually falling out of favour, for it betrays an oversimplification of both the era in question, and the one that preceded it.

Whenever we refer to the cultural movement that began in Italy in the beginning of the fourteenth century as the Renaissance, we imply that it was a rebirth of classical learning after a long period of cultural and intellectual dormancy. This is to ignore, however, that the medievals themselves studied, albeit to a lesser extent, the classics of Rome and Greece – the latter only in Latin translation, of course – and it is also to ignore the extent to which the humanists in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries reinterpreted the classics themselves. They say that the humanists of the Renaissance attempted to Christianise the classics, but the medievals did this as well: the Aeneid was seen as an allegory in which Aeneas' journey to Latium represented the journey of the soul to the promised land. And with the help of Aquinas, the philosophy of Aristotle was interpreted to conform with Christian theology.

The main difference between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance lies in the way each era looked at the past as history. The medievals felt themselves to be direct descendants of ancient Rome, and to be part of its traditions. A common feature of medieval literature that deals with antiquity, such as Sir Orfeo and Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, to name two English examples, was the tendency to portray ancient Greece and Rome as if they were the recent past, and unknowingly give them medieval characteristics. In the early fourteenth century, however, they began to look upon antiquity as historically distinct from the more recent past, and from the present.

It's this new historical approach that chiefly characterises the Renaissance, when the attempt was first made to understand the achievements of classical Rome, and then to emulate it in the present.

It started with Petrarch, who neglected the usual medieval education of the day and studied the classics of Roman antiquity on his own. He was the first to look back on classical antiquity with a view to resurrecting it. With him we first get the notion of antiquity as the peak in civilisation, which ended with the decline of the Middle Ages, as well as the hope that its glory could be achieved again in a Christianised form. Petrarch concerned himself almost exclusively with classical literature, and spent much time on his travels searching for manuscripts to copy down.

By the middle of the fifteenth century, the first printing presses with movable metal type were in use. This meant that authoritative texts were established, which would arrest the slow corruption of manuscripts through faulty copying. It also meant that all of Europe could refer to a single edition, against which comparisons could be made until a more reliable version of the text could be established. This gave birth to a philology that sought to establish the historical accuracy of a text, which in turn led to a more critical historical approach.

The results were significant and palpable. Lorenzo Valla was instrumental in re-establishing classical Latin, which had long since been replaced by its more vernacular medieval form, and he used his knowledge of the language and its etymologies not only to explain the institutions of antiquity, but also to upset the foundations of the present order. His Profession of the Religious discussed the true meaning of religious terms and demonstrated that the medieval sects were corrupting not only the language, but the terms of religion. Greater repercussions followed his Falsely-Believed and Forged Donation of Constantine, which used philology to prove that the Donation of Constantine was a forgery. A historical knowledge of Latin permitted Valla to argue that the document could not have been written any earlier than the eighth century AD. (For example, it uses a word for serf, which would not have existed in Constantine's time, since neither did serfs.) This undermined the Pope's attempt to increase his temporal power, and encouraged King Alphonso of Naples, to whom Valla was secretary, to attack the papal states.

From the humanists' historical approach to the classics, and from their efforts to invent the Renaissance, there emerged the principles of the modern notion of history as a study in itself. They began to see, as the medievals had not, that in order to understand a historical period, we must first recognise its distinctness from ours.

What am I getting at?

Greece is the only country that does not (generally) accept the pronunciation of Greek and Latin as put forward by Erasmus. A classicist here is aware of the pronunciation, and some probably believe that it's as historically accurate as possible, but it's not taught. Classical Greek is pronounced the same as Modern Greek.

When you consider how much the pronunciation of English as we find it in Chaucer has changed, you have to acknowledge that a similar change could occur over, say, 2,000 years.

But they don't.

Seferis once said that Erasmus' pronunciation was probably the correct one, but that using it implied a lack of continuity, as if it were a different language. I don't see how this can be true. No one thinks of Chaucer as anything but English simply because the words sound different. Nevertheless, Greeks are sensitive to the possibility that their heritage will be appropriated. When I was at the University of Toronto, the Classics Department voted to move the Modern Greek faculty out into another faculty, or to make it a faculty in itself. (I can't remember which.) My Modern Greek professor told me that one of his colleagues, a British professor of Classics, had wanted to vote no, but had been subtly threatened that he wouldn't get tenure, or something like that.

The change was not so significant, but I never understood why the Department thought it necessary.

It has always amazed me how little Greece offers the rest of the world in terms of classical scholarship. One could argue that it's because Greek scholars write in a language that very few people know, but that's not true. The younger ones all know English, and get their articles translated into whatever language is necessary for them to get published.

A few years ago, I was telling a class of mine that the main reason they found English a difficult language to learn is because of its enormous vocabulary. I tell all my students this, and despite the fact that I'm fluent in both languages, while they're just learning English, they argue that I'm wrong. They can't bear to hear that another language is "richer" than Greek. When I tell them that there is no real measure of this wealth, they don't listen. They tell me that there are so many Greek words in English, but this has nothing to do with it. Let's say telephone is a Greek word, and let's ignore for a moment that it may in fact have been coined by a Scotsman in Canada. The word exists in both languages, and so the count is still equal. Most Greek words in English existed in English before entering the Greek language. The apparatus itself was already in use in some countries before the word was first used in Greek.

One student argued that Greek was not an Indoeuropean language. I asked him if he was studying linguistics, and how he had come to know so much that he could disagree with his own professors. Of course, he wasn't studying linguistics, but he had read a book that proved it. He asked me if I wanted to borrow it. "Not really," I said.

He brought me some photocopied pages anyway. I took them home and read them. The ignorance in those pages was sad. The author argued that it was absurd to claim, for example, that the word psephus (ψήφος), which means "vote", could have an Indoeuropean root, because the civilisations it supposedly descended from did not have a democracy. But the word, even in Greek, meant "stone" first, since they were used to cast votes. Now, surely all civilisations could be expected to have a word for that?

I didn't study linguistics, and can't even claim to be a dilettante in the field, but this was astonishing. Wasn't there an editor involved in the publication of this book?

The response to Oliver Stone's portrayal of Alexander as bisexual has been embarrassing. Perhaps we can't expect lawyers and reporters to know much about ancient Greece, but they should do their homework if they're going to criticise someone's work.

Anyone willing to make the effort will find more books than he has time to read that discuss sexuality in ancient Greece. I won't bother going into it. Arrian, Plutarch and Curtius describe Alexander's relationship with Hephaestion in such a way that indicates they expected their readers to understand what the nature of it was.

This response makes the feeble claim that Alexander could not have had such inclinations because the historian Arrian wrote that "Not even to me does it seem possible that he turned out to be unlike any other human being without divine intervention." (Additional proof is that Plutarch said Alexander was a philosopher. Nevertheless, an extant couplet written by Plato describes his bliss while kissing another male.)

Alexander was not bisexual because he was "unlike any other human being"? This of course does not answer the question of what "any other human being" is like.

In "The Argentine Writer and Tradition" Borges wrote

Gibbon observes that in the Arabian book par excellence, in the Koran, there are no camels; I believe if there were any doubt as to the authenticity of the Koran, this absence of camels would be sufficient to prove it is an Arabian work. It was written by Mohammed, and Mohammed, as an Arab, had no reason to know that camels were especially Arabian; for him they were a part of reality, he had no reason to emphasise them; on the other hand, the first thing a falsifier, a tourist, an Arab nationalist would do is have a surfeit of camels, caravans of camels, on every page; But Mohammed, as an Arab, was unconcerned: he knew he could be an Arab without camels.

When it comes to ancient texts and bisexuality, we can simply take it for granted.

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Anti-Rant

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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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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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.

ELEGY

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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