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
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.")
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
Stone Greek Language Courses