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Profiles of Greece
Nicholas Econopouly

October 18, 1999

Spending a lot of time lately watching men tearing up sidewalks. Really quite fascinating and typically Greek. The problem is to find a water valve, an electric cable, anything - or perhaps just to satisfy a creative impulse. A little man comes along with a pickaxe and a shovel, takes a kind of vague sighting and does some dead reckoning about where the valve might be. (He wrote by himself, of course.) After awhile he starts digging and this is where his creative impulse comes through. He never finds the valve immediately (probably doesn't want to) so he starts digging around - in a snake design, a star pattern, perhaps something of a free-form or geometric, whatever seems to please him. The digging my go for several yards, dirt piled all over, perhaps around a corner, along a curb, in toward the building, and so forth. Finally, he finds it. He makes his repair - and leaves. The next day another man comes along, fills the hole, prepares the cement (or tar, it doesn't matter.) The cement or tar is put in place, ABOUT level, maybe an inch high or an inch low - then bee-rah-zee - maybe it is the same color or the same consistency or the same kind of finish but only by accident and certainly not by deliberate plan. And the job is done. Sidewalks (in the Greek sections - not in the tourist section where they are broad, smooth and absolutely perfect) in some places are now made up almost completely of these designs - no two sidewalks are the same - you find yourself staring at the sidewalks and ignoring the buildings, trees, people. Only thing wrong with them is that women in high heels are always spraining or breaking ankles and walking on them (sidewalks) at night is quite an experience.

Fortunately, a high proportion of both roads and sidewalks in the outlying sections of Athens are unpaved.

The suit? Magnificent. Absolutely magnificent. The material, the workmanship - perfect in every respect - it is a far, far better suit than I have ever worn before. Even the lining - it is beautiful and it will never tear (like the lining in every jacket I have ever bought.) I am going to get a new suit every other month and fill the months in between with overcoats, jackets, etc. - a 10-year supply.

I heard an argument on the bus the other day that did not develop. Man getting on had his heel nicked lightly as the door was closing. Got very dramatic: "All I did was get on the bus to go home to my family and you're trying to slaughter me. Why are you trying to murder us? Why can't you let us …" and so forth, all of this directed at the ticket collector. No one seemed to notice the explosion. Then, commented the ticket collector, referring to the door: "It is only a thin and light thing." Several hands turned and eyes stared. The man who was butchered shook his head and went to his seat. We rode in silence.

A former Northport teacher spotted me walking in downtown Athens. She decided it really wasn't me, so didn't say hello. Irene Carlson. Social Studies - Northport Junior High. She taught a year in Germany and is now teaching 9th and 11th grade at the American Community School.

Matthew, Cindy, David, followed by a half dozen Greek kids, came running down the road two days ago - carrying a big basket, pretty excited. Basket filled with bones. Tailor came running over, followed by the barber, grocer, photographer, several others. Big bones - obviously a horse's or mule's - until Matthew pulled a human skull out of the pile. Maybe the kids were excited but nothing like the adults. They found the bones down by the river - consensus was that they were Greeks shot by the Germans and that the bones had been washed down by the rain (all day!) the previous day. The kids wanted to bring them up to the apartment, display them on the walls. We agreed to take them back to the river instead. That evening, David commented that he first discovered them and that they were in several white paper bags. Decided to tell the police commissioner (next door neighbor) - he theorized that the bones had been taken from a nearby cemetery by a grave robber, taken to the university hospital to be sold there - refused - so they were dumped into the river. Should there be a report, investigation? Couldn't be murder, he said. There are no criminal gangs in Greece - and murders which take place there - and they're very rare - are crimes of passion, anger - much blood, noise and commotion. (Suicides, also rare, are also very dramatic - most common seems to be slashing throat with knife - rarely poison or anything that ordinary.)

We see things the way we want to see them and the way we've been equipped to see them. Greece is such a fantastic kaleidoscope of so many things, so different from what we'd ever previously experienced, that our senses are constantly being awakened - and we pick and choose and mull over those things that seem to fit into whatever we brought into the experience. Is this kind of an experience possible in more familiar settings? The excitement must certainly be there, somewhere that our senses don't quite reach (the Greeks seem to have achieved this kind of thing in the fourth and fifth century B.C:)

I saw an encounter between an owl and a Greek a few days ago. Both played their roles to perfection. Very funny. I saw the owl a few days earlier on a perch in front of a bird shop in Athens. A huge owl - it stood about two feet tall with huge staring eyes. My first reaction was that it wasn't real - so I did what most Americans do in such a situation: watched the owl carefully for a few seconds to see a sign of life. It moved and the problem was solved (learned later it is an African owl). A few days later rode by the shop (slowly - suburban traffic had poured into the city) in a bus. I noticed a man walking down the sidewalk at a brisk pace. He spied the owl - changed direction without wasting a motion and walked up to the owl. Greeks are very frank, blunt. ("Glad to know your Mrs. Econopouly. Does your husband treat you well?" or "Glad to meet you Mr. Econopouly. How much do they pay you? Did you vote for Kennedy?") He did what most respectable Greeks would do - he poked the owl in the chest. And the owl did what owls to best - it looked startled, the most startled-looking owl I ever saw. It ruffled its feathers, swiveled its neck - and the man had his answer. The whole thing happened in what seemed like a fraction of a second.

Tame birds have it great in Greece but wild birds have an exceedingly short life span. Very rarely see one. The Greeks eat them - according to a man on Syros, birds were the most important reason so many Greeks survived the war. It is not unusual to see four or five boys following a sparrow-type bird - setting bait for it and catching it with a kind of glue made of honey and three or four other ingredients. It's not a meal but it is a nice little snack. (It takes about 15 - 20 sparrows to feed a man.) Attitude about birds completely different from ours - birds are not only food on the wing but they are noisy, messy - a nuisance - not really very nice to have around. Some villagers will even make it a point to hunt for the nests of birds that are hanging around the house, destroy them and break the eggs.

Greeks don't like cats, either, or dogs - they have them but for utilitarian purposes. And it isn't "Kitty" or "Rover" to them - its "the cat" or "the dog". Same holds true for "the donkey." "Hospitals for dogs and cats in America? You're kidding! You ARE rich! But why spend your money on dumb animals? The dog is allowed to COME INTO the house? WHY? Your dogs have NAMES? Aren't you afraid the children will catch a disease from the dog (or cat)? They're not clean, you know. WHAT? The dog sleeps in the children's bedroom? Shame! Shame!"

But they love children - absolutely nutty over them - anybody's, as long as they're children - anywhere. They fuss over them, clean them, strangers come over and talk to them - the child says something and any Greek within earshot is alert, listening, encouraging it to say more - and maybe teasing it a little. They're pretty appalled at our American kids running around the park without an adult with them constantly. ("Americans just don't like children - not as much as Greeks, anyhow. It's a wonder American children survive. Their mothers allow them to eat whatever they want. We sometimes take an hour to feed - i.e., coax, plead with, scold, etc. - our children.")

Do-it-yourself: The other day a belt on the toilet seat came loose. I asked the concierge in or our apartment for pliers to tighten it. He was aghast, flatly refused, insisted this was the responsibility of the plumber ("a poor man should not be deprived of his livelihood.") This attitude about the repairman is strong in Athens and it is probably even stronger in the rural areas. Peasants will go through a winter with a broken window waiting for the repairman from one of the larger towns to come to repair it. It is the craftsman who must repair the wall, roof on the house or outdoor oven -- "do-it-yourself" is at most a rarity.

In recent years it has been government policy to try to break this down. People living in rural areas are urged to assume personal and community responsibility for repairing roads, sinking walls, laying water pipes. (The other morning we heard a radio program for children on this subject. It was about a boy named Theodorus who moved to a village from the city (highly unlikely). An automobile got stuck in the mud. The driver asked Theodorus to run to the nearest town, hire a tow truck. Enter Theodorus' father, who rounded up some villagers and all together (get the point?) pulled the car out of the mud. "Gee, Dad!" said Theodurus, "if working together we can get a car out of the mud …" And the community, having learned the lesson well, built a new road, brought in water and electricity and so on, and so forth.) The problem is one of the changing attitude and this is never easy. The Greek's love of tradition -- and the fact that he is hardly group-oriented in solving most of his problems -- makes matters that much more difficult.

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