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Friday, March 12, 2004

Balkans

Lost in Transition (February 2004)


February 17. At dawn, I realize there is no electricity. I’ve learned from living in a Greek village over much of the last several years that there’s never any telling when power might be restored once it’s off, so I pull on some clothes and make coffee on a gas burner, then replace the stubs in the candleholders with new candles and fill the two oil lamps against the thought of night, turn the tap on and let water flow into what pitchers there are and then into a large pot. The water pressure is low, though there is still hot water; and it’s also yet warm inside, though outdoors the temperature hovers below freezing.

I then go to the window and look outside, to see whether the traffic lights on the corner of Third Avenue and 15th Street are working. They are. I wonder how long our building will be without power, and think: for this, I might as well be in Myloi. The village house on southern Evia, after all (unlike this apartment in Manhattan), has a wood-burning stove. Eight hours later, still without power but with Con Edison working outside to repair the main, that stove is sorely missed.

February 7. I flew directly from Athens to New York. The plane, belonging to one of the less financially beset US airlines, wasn’t packed, but it wasn’t comfortable either; although I had two seats to myself (in economy class), neither headphone port worked, the seat pockets in front of me were ripped (one badly enough to not hold anything), and legroom was negligible. We followed the sun westward for more than 11 hours, during most of which we were told to keep the shades down. Not that I could see much anyway for the curiously scratched pane, I consoled myself; and so I read, broke from reading to thumb through the tattered inflight magazines or poke at the lumpy, graying morass offered in lieu of (but as) food, read again. Stretching was forbidden, because before we reached the takeoff runway, the pilot announced that “we” — ah, that inclusive pronoun — were “going to do things differently today, given the high-alert status at JFK”: all passengers were to remain in their seats unless absolutely necessary, no more than two passengers would be allowed to congregate with (read: speak to) one another in the aisles, and all passengers were to use only those bathroom facilities closest to their seats. “Have a pleasant flight,” he added.

The hours passed, interminably. The descent into JFK brought us below the unbroken cloudcover that probably stretched to the Canadian border. Now that we’d slid the plastic shades up, we peered at Long Island’s gray ocean; Jamaica Bay was also gray, as was the city’s skyline, in hues that, oddly enough, matched the airplane’s worn, interior décor’s color scheme. I might have been eye-strained by the time we landed, but I wasn’t blind, which meant that, as soon as I exited the plane, I noticed that I was once again in what I’ve long considered to be the shoddiest airport in the world.

The way to passport control at JFK was the maze of narrow corridors I remembered well, whose peeling paint — more of it, this year — was interrupted, at least in the beginning, by unwashed windows. The ceilings didn’t have all their panels. Rectangular buckets with black plastic liners were placed here and there to catch water that leaked from above. Neither of the two escalators, which bring passengers into the airport’s bowels and passport control, was working. Passport control was full of uniformed people — more of them, it seemed, this year — in control, directing passengers into lines. I was directed, took my place behind two other people, watched the passport-control official question first the one, then the other (both had foreign passports and visas), study their documents, and electronically fingerprint them. The process was slow. When he finished with the second person, he announced that he was closed.

I moved to the next line, to its head. “I’ve already waited,” I said to the passport-control officer and to the person in the queue, who was sympathetic. “We’re not required to give notice when we shut down,” the officer said to me as he finished fingerprinting the person at his bay. “I don’t care,” I responded, and I didn’t. He threw me a look and paused before waving me toward him. When I handed him my passport — American — he passed it through the sleeve and studied the computer screen. “When did you last leave the country?” he asked.

“Eleven months ago.”

“So, what, do you live outside now?”

“I try to.”

He smirked, stamped the passport, flipped it onto the counter between us. I retrieved it and began to leave. “Don’t come back,” were his parting words.

February 19. It strikes me that, in Greece, I’d forgotten two of the three R’s: rudeness, rage, Republicans. Rudeness was the one I hadn’t forgotten. Greeks are, in some ways, notoriously rude — this, according to Greek friends as well as common civil sense. They never, for instance, queue for anything (barging is more their style — into buses, onto trains, at grocery-store counters, in banks). They’re apt to walk into you on the streets and sidewalks, or pinch your elbow or arm as they pass you by. Their atrocious driving manners reflect both a lack of skill and any acknowledgment that there might be someone else on the road. If you dial a wrong number, the response is always an emphatic, curt “Lathos!” (Wrong!) as the person hangs up. Entering or leaving a store before or after someone else is usually annoying, for its door is most often slammed in your face. Waiters are often surly, taxi drivers ill-mannered (and speed demons), and both are famous for a lack of personal hygiene that defies reason or explanation. None of these things are ever meant, however, to be taken personally.

I’ve always thought New York (read: Manhattan) got an undeservedly bad rap for rudeness. I’ve changed my mind. Still smarting from the passport-control officer’s nasty (and very personal) remark, I found myself with friends and my husband, Peter, several evenings later on an East Village corner, hailing a cab that was emptying its passengers half a block away. As we waited, three people from what seemed nowhere cut us off and ran for the taxi, whose driver — aware, as we were, of urban protocol — refused them and headed toward us. One of the rebuffed three headed for us as well. As we began to get into the cab, he pointed a finger at each of us individually, then at the cab driver, and screamed: “Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you! And fuck you!”

The next day, in an uncrowded movie theater, I sat down and placed my jacket on the seat beside me, to hold it for Peter. Before he arrived, a couple sauntered into the aisle, walked past the half-dozen seats between me and its end, then halted and stared at my jacket. “This seat is taken,” I explained. “You’re a creep!” the man exploded, then turned to his companion and exclaimed: “What a fucking creep!” “Why doesn’t she move?” his companion whined, before looking at me and adding: “Creep!”

They left. I tried not to think of them, or the cab experience, or the passport-control officer, during the film, Touching the Void, which recounts Joe Simpson and Simon Yates’s harrowing encounter with disaster and near-death while mountaineering in the Peruvian Andes in 1985. The film, in other words, is based on a true story — and it is not, I repeat, not a comedy. The audience, however, thought otherwise, snickering through some of the most humiliating, painful scenes: Simpson — thought to be dead, several days without food or water, and with a broken leg — sucking moisture from a muddy hole, after surviving a horrific fall, dragging himself out of a crevasse, down the mountain, over a glacier, and through a moraine; Simpson telling of soiling himself; Simpson, finally — not knowing where he is, in the dead of night and near death — realizing that the stench he smells is that of the base camp’s latrine, in which he has collapsed. That really had the audience in stitches.

Rude, is all I can think. The word, according to Merriam Webster, can mean “lacking in social refinement”; it also “implies ignorance of or indifference to good form”; and “may suggest intentional discourtesy.” A secondary definition is “ignorant, unlearned.” Indifference to (civil) form and intentional discourtesy hit closer to home. It’s difficult to imagine that people have become, quite simply, profoundly stupid; and if it’s more insidious to think that rudeness is an act of will or — almost the same thing — unconcern, so be it. Worst of all, I find myself reflecting, rudeness might just be the mask of rage.

February 8. George W. Bush was enraged during his interview on Meet the Press when he was questioned about his tour of duty (or lack thereof) with the National Guard. He became almost apoplectic, reddened under his makeup; I patiently waited for him to froth at the mouth. He settled down instead, managing to find some reserve of self-control after a few moments, and went back to proudly repeating over and again that he is a “war president.” The terrorists-terrorists-terrorists are still everywhere-everywhere-everywhere, but for Saddam Hussein, who in American hands has disappeared-disappeared-disappeared.

February 20. Neocon Republicans thrive on rage, one of the reactions to what is now called “9/11,” and fuel it by making Americans — and New Yorkers, certainly — feel like sitting ducks. No one of sound mind wants to be reminded, on a constant basis, that she or he is a target; the Bush administration now continually reminds everyone that they might be targets. I, for one, am tired of being a target of an irresponsible government: security alerts without any information as to where or when, never mind how, an attack might occur does nothing but make me deeply edgy. New Yorkers, it occurs to me, might now be the edgiest people in the US (contrary to popular image). Perhaps that’s why they all seem to wear their rage on their sleeves.

No one will be allowed to forget “9/11,” at least not this year. I use the word “forget” because it long ago became apparent that, at least in the States, no one was going to be allowed to try to understand it as something other than a ratification of a certain agenda. Because of “9/11,” Iraq (where there are no WMDs) has been occupied, individual rights have daily become the objects of debate (and infringement), and the Department of “Homeland Security” is now soaking up the funds legally mandated to Social Security. And in a few months, knee-jerk patriotism will reign supreme at a Republican convention that will be held in Manhattan, in a city in which half the black male population and a quarter of the white male population is now unemployed (these statistics, during what is touted as an economic recovery, literally mirror those of the Great Depression). The convention’s end date, later than any I remember over the course of my life, is — what else? — 9/11. Cynicism, I fear, no longer astounds.

“Ground Zero” — that’s what the site where the World Trade Center once stood is called, by all media, by everyone — is constantly in the news. Pools will stand in the footprints of the towers: water is soothing, after all, and “healing” is an endless demand. In Myloi, healing has to do with the corporeal: animals that have injured themselves or been savaged by foxes or dogs, people who have cut or bruised themselves or who have bronchial ailments, heal, oftentimes with the help of veterinarians and doctors. Healing in New York has nothing to do with the body and everything to do with psychobabble; victimization seems to have become the key to life. Descartes, roll over: I hurt, therefore I am.

Hurt, too, can be forgotten — given time — but the mechanisms of reinforcement disallow such here. Fifteen cultural organizations, culled from 113 institutions, were just selected as the finalists for what will become a “performing arts center” or “interpretive museum” at Ground Zero. The center or museum’s charge will be to “describe” the attacks on the World Trade Center. But what is there to describe, never mind interpret? We all saw what happened, and most of us even know why.

February 16. Astounding, variety: I try to imagine the sheer tonnage of goods in Manhattan. In Myloi, there’s not even a store; in Karystos, the closest town, the shops are mostly small, and mostly carry the same things. And their hours are inconstant: we are on Greek time, which means that all shops close for the midday meal (with the exception of the two supermarkets that are hardly super) at 1:30 every afternoon, but for Wednesdays, when they close at 3:00; they reopen at 6:00 for a few hours, and on Wednesdays don’t reopen at all. And there’s no such thing as Sunday shopping. Which is all to say that I’m astounded every time I return to New York that I don’t have to wonder what time or even what day it is: everything is for sale, all the time.

I find a very green extra virgin olive oil, from Beirut, in an Indian food-and-spice shop. The owner tells me that Beirut olive oil is the best, followed by Greek, then Italian. I haven’t bought olive oil in years; in Myloi, the villagers are generous with theirs, and their trees bear more than they can use during any given year. That might not be the case in the future, however; this winter’s two snowstorms shattered many trees. Of the eight extraordinarily beautiful, and old, olive trees in the garden of my house, only one lost no branches. When Panayis, my landlord, finally came to survey the destruction, we stood at the patio’s edge and looked at the broken trees; and though he’s a man not given to emotion, the expression on his face was devastating. He said nothing for a while, then asked without looking at me: Do you know how long it takes an olive tree to grow, to be the way these were?

I do. He and I will both be in our graves before these trees reach the breadth and height we will only recall for the rest of our lives. It is a sobering, humbling, thought.

February 9. The stones at the Brooklyn Bridge’s base halt me, despite the cold, because they are a marvel: huge, symmetrical, and stalwart against the East River’s treacherous currents, these stones put in place over a century ago are an engineering feat that still astonishes. I stop jogging and stand, stare at their cut, their placement, their size; this, staring at stones, envelopes me in the familiar, for I do a lot of it in the world I’ve left behind. Stone is, after all, what southern Evia has in abundance: it was the stuff of ancient terracing and temples and, later, churches and castles and mosques; it was hewn, carved, and hauled everywhere. All of southern Evia’s footroads were once inlaid with it and, not so long ago, every home, like the Myloi house, was built — thickly — with it. Stones, I’ve come to understand, reveal things in the way they are carved, placed, abutted, as does the mortar or lack thereof between them, for quarrying and engineering change over the centuries. Even the size of stones — in foundations, in walls — is sometimes revelatory; the larger the cut, so the theory goes on southern Evia, the older the structure.

The Brooklyn Bridge is not so old, but its base reminds me of Filagra’s stone walls. Filagra is a peak overlooking the Aegean, on the other side of southern Evia; friends and I drove to Yiannitsi, the village nearest to it, one day in early January, because none of us had ever climbed it and all of us had heard that its ruins were Frankish. We parked in Yiannitsi, then trekked a few kilometers down to the beach below, which spans the gorge that separates Filagra from Yiannitsi’s mountainside. The going wasn’t rough until we reached sea level, where a swollen river forced us to climb along a cliff before dropping onto the beach, where we walked the shore’s length and then stripped off boots and pants to ford the freezing riverflow before beginning our ascent to Filagra’s summit. A few hours later, we were standing on the remains of what we all recognized as anything but Frankish walls. If the Franks had been there, they’d simply appropriated what had already existed — and what existed, what exists today, makes the Brooklyn Bridge’s base stones look like child’s play.

“Mycenaean,” Wendy — the archeologist among us — murmured; and though none of us could be sure of that, none of us had seen such walls except at Mycenae (and these walls, at places eight feet thick, dwarfed those). We stood on what we thought had been signal towers, imagining the blazes that must have burned along Greece’s coast after Troy’s fall, and perhaps at Filagra as well — for from Filagra, Kimi (Evia’s midpoint promontory) is visible in one direction and southern Evia’s outmost reach (Kavodoro) in the other. We wandered about the walls and never reached their ends, for we hadn’t time enough; we vowed to return.

Winter intervened, as winter does on southern Evia. Time intervened, too, and then distance. Helicopters fly low over the Brooklyn Bridge and patrol boats navigate the waters. Filagra will be there when I return: it has been there for thousands of years, and it is a place that is nowhere. The fate of the Brooklyn Bridge, with its marvelous stones that prod me to reminisce about a place I now consider my home, is not as certain.

February 29. The four Democratic candidates vying for primacy on Super Tuesday were interviewed on CBS this morning. Dan Rather’s first question was about their individual “spirituality.” I think I am losing my mind, because I’m suddenly nostalgic for Greek journalists, Greek news. Greek journalists and Greek news are hard to take — and occasionally downright appalling. But there is a level of political discourse in the country that renders nonsense as nonsense, which means that at no time during Greece’s pre-election period has such a question been asked of Giôrgos Papandreou or Kôstas Karamanlês, one of whom will be the country’s next prime minister in a few days.

I throw on my jogging clothes: avoidance might, I tell myself as I leave the apartment, save me. At the first corner outside, I’m confronted by Mayor Bloomberg’s new crosswalk signs. The flashing Walk/Don’t Walk has been replaced, since I was last here, with icons of a white figure halted in stride and its alternate, a red, open-palmed hand: no one any longer needs to be literate to cross a street in the country’s cultural capital.

That hand, however, reminds me of a mountza, the curse Greeks do not lightly throw at one another. Hands, like spit, are powerful in the world I now hail from. A mountza is a terrible thing of great valence, so much so that Greece finally enacted a law prohibiting anyone from throwing a mountza at anyone else while driving. Within friendship and family circles, people sometimes throw mountzas in jest (my mother-in-law is the best double-handed mountza-thrower I’ve ever met, known to place one hand over the other and throw two at once, equivalent not only to placing a curse on the recipient but on their house as well); however, to throw a mountza not in jest and at a stranger is tantamount to wreaking devastation throughout time on that person. It’s not like giving someone the finger, which has a temporal immediacy; as a matter of fact, the mountza has no equivalent in American culture. It is, purely and simply, a hex.

I’m confronted by simulated mountzas at every street crossing. The operative word, I tell myself, is “simulated.” There’s not a soul behind them. And not one on southern Evia, either, where there aren’t any traffic lights, or crosswalks, and where I’ll return.

Melanie Wallace is a novelist and frequent contributor to greekworks.com. Her latest novel, The Housekeeper, was published by MacAdam/Cage in April.
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