Sunday, September 30, 2012

Madness at Sea

I was on my way to a small island that a Danish lady had told me about.  She had described it as paradisical, but she was a beautiful young woman and I suspected that a great deal of the world is paradisical when you are a beautiful young woman, but I, who am none of those things, was going anyway.
The last several days had been particularly tiring and I had not slept well the night before and had to be up from bed early, before the breakfast room was open, to get to Piraeus to catch the boat to the island.  I felt slightly unwell and I was looking forward to napping on the deck in the fresh spring air with my sleeping bag wrapped around me like a down comforter.  Then a young man with a boombox sat down near me and put in a tape and turned on the music.

Fortunately, his initial selections were traditional Greek music so that even though it might have been louder than I might have cared for, there was some hope that with focused meditation it might, like time in a dentist’s chair, be endurable, as the layout of the boat was such that there was no place I could comfortably nap that was beyond the reach of his music.  So I drew on my inner resources and watched some blonde teenage girls and tried to ignore what was going on two meters from my left ear.

As I was going to a very small island, the voyage was a milk run, a slow progression from one tiny island to another.  At Syros, loukoumi-sellers came on board selling their absurdly sweet confection.  One of them told me the island was famous throughout all Greece for its loukoumi.  I thought perhaps the loukoumi would settle my stomach from the coffee I had drunk at Piraeus, but it did not.

The traditional Greek music gave way to modern music: harsh, edgy, unfamiliar and unpleasant.  Probably the sort of music they play in the elevators in hell when the car is stuck between floors.

I was by this time so stressed by want of sleep and the noise of the boombox and my general feeling of unwellness that talking to the loukoumi-seller had seemed an anchor to reality and when he left my mind began to entertain unsettled thoughts.

The young man with the boombox asked if the music bothered me.  I answered that I liked the Greek music, but not the other.  He nodded understandingly, but made no change to his music.  I thought my reply was quite calm, coming as it did from someone who had been quietly calculating the plusses and minuses of seizing his pestilential machine and throwing it overboard.  

There would be an awful fuss, of course, but physical violence would be unlikely.  After a great deal of yelling, most of which I wouldn’t understand, I would eventually offer to pay for his drowned apparatus, which he would either accept or indignantly refuse.  It would take about thirty minutes for everything to play out, and then my journey could continue in peaceful quiet and I could curl up in my down sleeping bag and go to sleep and wake up rested and healthy when we reached my island.  It was a completely mad scheme, but I was not thinking clearly and of course I did no such thing.  And this was fortunate as it turned out that the young man was going to the same island as I and would find a room for me there, invite me to a party and generally prove to be a fine fellow.  I later wondered if he would get a chuckle if I told him what I had been considering to do with his tape deck, but I decided it would be just as well if I didn’t mention it.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

a day that did not begin well

It was the day after the May Day demonstration on Naxos and whatever mellow feelings might have lingered from the Communist rally were chased away by the noise of unmufflered motorcycles in the narrow streets of the port.   They further compounded their offense by being dirty, chipped and dinged.  Have these people no pride in their machines?  One respects pride in effort, however misplaced we may think its object, but these bikes seemed to be nothing but poorly-maintained noise-makers.  I prayed to Apollo Far-shooter that he shower his darts into the camp of the loud-motorcycled Achaïans.

Beautiful as the island might be, the port was getting on my nerves.  In addition to the loud motorcycles, there was the constant yelling that seemed to accompany even the simplest activity (I am sure some would call it "liveliness").  That morning a taverna owner kicked a stray kitten down the street as if it were a soccer ball, oblivious to the shocked reactions of his customers.  There was the debris casually thrown into the clear water of the harbor and the swarms of unbarbered backpackers.  Even fishermen flailing live octopi against the stone wharf, which I once thought merely colorful, now appalled me.  For about seven dollars I rented a small motor scooter, intending to escape into the countryside.
But my plan failed.  The motor scooter was as loud as the motorcycles that had irritated me in the town and I found myself riding through a beautiful rural countryside wrapped in an unescapable cloud of noise.  My mere presence desecrated the country around me.  After a half-hour I returned the scooter.  The fellow asked if I wanted my money back, but I said it was my problem, not his.  Some days are like that, but fortunately the day wasn’t over yet.

Walking back from the bike rental I came to the small square and saw a familiar face.  It was Hanne.  I don’t think I have mentioned her before, though she figures in my story and I will tell about her sometime, but at the moment I was just delighted to see her, totally beautiful Hanne.
She had just arrived on a ferry and had a few hours before she would have to leave again and so we sat at a table in the square and talked and I was delighted to be in her company.  We must have made a fine spectacle sitting there, as some older Greek men at a table across the square sent over a bottle of wine and toasted us, or perhaps they were only toasting totally beautiful Hanne.
Then the time came for her boat to leave and we walked down to the pier and said good-bye again.  It was evening and as I turned back toward the town the lights were coming on and another day had ended well.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Notes from Greek class

One afternoon along a colorfully desolate stretch of road I saw a familiar red and yellow sign.  A Shell gasoline station.  As I had a Shell credit card I thought this would be a handy opportunity to top off the tank and preserve my dwindling reserve of cash.  I chatted with the operator as he filled the tank.  This was early enough in my time in Greece that I was still hopeful that, with enough practice, I might actually get good at the language.  When he was finished I handed him my credit card, which he looked at oddly at first, but apparently decided that, since I had my name on such an official-looking a card, I must be with the Company, and so he took me on a tour of the station to show me how clean and orderly everything was under his stewardship.  As it became clear to me that he had no idea that he was supposed to give me free gasoline just because I showed him the card  --  indeed, what kind of businessman would that have made him out to be  --  I paid for my gasoline, congratulated him on all that he had accomplished and drove away as he waved and beamed with satisfaction. 
Lest you think this too odd a story, it took place thirty years ago, before credit cards became ubiquitous.  Today, I have no doubt, every booted Cretan goatherd takes VISA and Mastercard.


An old Greek man, so fat as to be pyramidal.  Round and broad at the waist, tapering to a small head: a conical pyramid.  He reminds me of solid geometry and a classroom long ago with windows open on a fall day and I imagine him intersected by planes.

Children playing along the harbor.  It would make a nice photo, spontaneous and unposed.  I looked off in the distance, pretending to be unaware of them, and fish my camera out of my bag and make my settings, ready to swing around for a wonderful natural shot.  When I do I find the children standing in a line, from shortest to tallest, looking at me, smiling.  I frown and they laugh.  I am clearly out of my league.

In the taverna one evening I noticed a party of men who had come in from working on a fishing boat.  Two of them are young  --  about 15 or 16, I would guess  --  but the older men treated them  --  and they behaved  --  as mature, well-behaved equals, at least so far as I could observe.  I have also noticed even younger boys working with men, and how the older men treated them with affection and did not patronize them. 
I found it curious that in so masculine a culture as Greece, that there would be no hazing of young males to "toughen them up", but what appeared more like a considerate nurturing.  I had first thought this might simply be the better-behaved culture of the islands, where people have to get along together, but then I remembered that I have seen the same thing in Athens, one time when they were unloading a truck and then another time at a restaurant in the Plaka.   I would hesitate to generalize from these few observations of a another culture where behavior may not mean what I think it means, but I thought it interesting and I rather liked it.
Or perhaps it was that the young men came from a culture that made them hard-working and serious and the older men around them took pleasure in this affirmation of their own values and whatever conflicts there may have been between the generations, it did not play out here.

One of the reasons I traveled was to see what others found to be a good life, and I may have just glimpsed a part of it.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Old Books

Off on a late-morning walk in Athens.  Down a street of old buildings and uninteresting stops I noticed, down a few steps below street level, a used book store.  I wandered down the steps and through the door and found myself in a long basement room with a few narrow aisles, passageway-like, between floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and bins and tables overflowing with old books.  The windows to the street well were obscured by piles of books, loose and in pasteboard cartons, and at noon on a sunny day the light from the opened door penetrated only a little ways into the shop and beyond that the one or two other customers moved about in the dim light of a few, small overhead bulbs.  There was dust everywhere and dark places where I would hesitate to stick my hand.  It was exactly my idea of what an old book store ought to be.

My delight was scarcely affected by the realization that almost none of their books seemed to be in a language I could read.  They were, however, satisfactorily old and I am quite capable of appreciating a book for the promise of what it holds and the pleasure of its dignified company without actually reading it.  I have quite a few such books on my shelves already, as do, I am sure, many others.  

I was perfectly happy looking through old books that I neither could read nor had any intention of buying, content to thumb through the pages sniffing their antique mustiness and hoping that perhaps something of interest might have been left between the pages by a previous owner.  A treasure map would be fine, though I would be quite happy with an obsolete candy wrapper.

After an hour or so of wasted time well spent, I found Lamport’s 1876 monograph, Numismatic Anecdotes of the Medieval Kings of Crete, printed in Greek, but with a fine bunch of line drawings of medieval coins that I had never seen before and probably never will see outside of a museum cabinet. 

The old fellow running the shop of course carried on as if he were selling me one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, but in the end I paid what I thought a trivial price for a little treasure and he probably closed the shop early to take the family out for dinner.

[I don't have the book at hand at the moment, but I notice some odd variants of the spelling of the author's name and wonder if there might have been a problem in transliterating his name and the curiously-named "Lamport" is actually George Lambert, an English numismatist of the period who wrote on Cretan coins.]

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

a cold Sunday in Athens

On a cold Sunday morning I was sitting in the breakfast room of my hotel in Athens and thinking of sunny Crete and warm sands along the shore of the Lybian Sea.  “Kriti poli krio imera,” said the breakfast room lady, discouragingly.  “Crete is very cold today.”   She was listening to the radio.  It was one of those rare and happy instances where what was said did not exceed my limited grasp of the language.  So I put Crete out of my mind and dressed warmly and went out to see what Athens was like on a cold Sunday morning. 

I went wandering around the older part of the city, the Plaka, and bought some old coins from a shop in a crowded lane with a huge iron caldron full of obsolete coins.  I got my hands dirty with verdigris digging through them.  It rained while I was there and a man on a motorcycle came roaring through the crowd which effortlessly parted to make way for him and then closed back behind him as if he had never passed through.  

My hotel was on Athenai Street, which runs down from Omonia Square to intersect Ermou Street, which comes down from Syntagma.  The two streets come together at the church of Monastiraki where, on Sundays, is held the Athens Flea Market.

I love junk shops and foreign junk is so much more interesting than our domestic stuff.  In addition to the little shops around the neighborhood there are on Flea Market Sunday stalls and street vendors who have come from around the country for the day.   

Perhaps I was in a mood for militaria that day, but among all the oddments and archaic bric-a-brac I seemed to notice a lot of stuff left over from the war.  There was a machine gun on a tripod, though not all its parts seemed to be there; a handy thing to have, I suppose, if you are restoring one at home and need odd parts.   There were Wehrmacht badges and Nazi medals  --  "Germany, Old Years," the signs said  --  almost all of them poorly-made fakes, as if they thought their buyers didn’t really care.  I found a couple of British submachine guns that might have been used by the Resistance: a Sten that seemed to fall apart in my hands and a Lanchester, a gun I had seen only in old war movies.  The Lanchester was largely intact and would have made a fine relic, but I could foresee nothing but bother if I tried to bring it back through customs and even carrying it around as I traveled through Greece would probably attract attention.

In a cave-like room in the back of a shop I detected a familiar odor and traced it to an antique brass tray of Turkish design sitting on the floor under a table; it was filled with what appeared to be antique kitty litter.    

I had more traveling around Greece to do so I didn’t buy much that day and aside from a piece of antique copperware I picked up nothing that couldn’t fit in my pocket.  I planned to come back again before I left Greece and buy something wonderful, but things came up and it is the nature of flea markets that when you come back, the thing you wanted will have been sold.  You shop in the same flea market but once.

In Monastiraki I found the Café Abyssinia, named apparently for its Square rather than any Ethiopian association.  A little place with large glass windows, crowded and noisy, the conversation a cosmopolitan mix of French and English and German and Greek.   I bought a coffee for the fellow playing an accordion.  “Those were the Days”, “Midnight in Moscow”, “Russian Sailors’ Dance”, “Dark Eyes”.  I imagined him a soulful Russian exile pining for the birch forests and broad rivers of his northern home.  Perhaps even a gypsy.  And why should I ask him and risk discovering that the truth is not as romantic as I imagined it?  I spent about two hours there over a long lunch. 

Café Abyssinia is still in business.  I found it on the web, looking much more prosperous and sophisticated than I remember it.  But that seems the case with so many of those places.  Greece has prospered since those days and I hope they can hold on to it.