At the Seashore with Medea
A Marriage Unravels in Athens
Silent, I crouched over the fetid drain. All the pipes reek in Athens, even in Kolonaki, the capital’s toniest district. This stinking city, built on olives and seawater and the tears of slaves. I trembled with hate, confusing, as always, place and the emotion encountered there.
He slunk out. Paused. Called through the diminishing crack in the doorway, “I’m sorry. I’ll love you always. But I have to go.”
I stand atop the Acropolis, watching the full moon edge over Mount Hymettus. One night each year, in August, the Greek government opens the most famous archaeological sites. Hundreds slide and jostle on the cliff’s marble, worn shiny and slick. We have no extra lights, no barriers, no safety considerations.
We have no accidents either.
Plum shadows outline the Parthenon. This buttress of land, the art upon it-defying time and Turkish detonations-are so ancient. The moon even more so, a bruised apricot. My woes, suspended briefly between the two, have no weight.
I can carry them with me, harboring a crucible of hurt. Or I can unleash them all into the sky. Scatter them like stars. Let some other fool try to knit together constellations from these pinpricks of pain.
Hooked On Octopus in Molyvos
Sometimes if you chew an octopus tentacle just so, you can loosen a sucker from its skin. You can toss it around in your mouth, as you would a Jujubee, and maybe slip your tongue into it as you would a back molar. You may bite into it hesitatingly, because you don’t like the thought of eating something akin to an orifice. It chews like the rest of the tentacle, resistant but ultimately pliant, and delicious-so delicious! – and you are relieved….
The ohtapodi that arrive by cart in front of The Captain’s Table – a typically small restaurant toward the far end of Molyvos’s modest harbor – are big even by my chef standards, with heads the size of Yukon potatoes and, held aloft, tentacles falling seventeen inches toward the ground. Like most of the octopuses found around Greece, these are mud brown, matching the sea rocks they cleverly hide between. They appear a mottled dusty purple held against the Mediterranean sky. Their eyes like glossy white marbles bulge from the sides of their heads, only slightly bigger than the biggest sucker, which are also, underneath a translucent sheath of skin, round and stark white. Each tentacle wields about seventy-five pairs of suckers, lined in symmetrical double rows and progressively shrinking in size from the octopus’ head to the straw-thin tip. Tentacles may occasionally contort like a broken bone or twist like licorice, and grow fat and thin alternately.
Like a tree’s rings, the size and shape of an octopus’ tentacles document a history of environmental change. When the cephalopod loses part of a tentacle in a mishap or fierce contest with death, it grows back like hair after chemotherapy. The regenerated part inevitably looks different and weaker. But it crisps up nicely on the grill.
A week before I left for Greece, George Files pressed an envelope fat with American dollars, photographs, and letters into my hand. “Visit my cousin,” he said. “He lives a short distance from Athens. Please give him this.” He pointed to the address scrawled on the outside of the envelope. “He doesn’t have a phone, so you’ll have to write to let him know you’re coming.” Then he taught me a few words and phrases, sounds imprinted on his childhood brain from his mother and the Greeks he’d grown up around. Yasoo. Ti kanees. Kala. Parakalo. Efharisto. Nai. Oxi. (Hello. How are you? Good. Please. Thank you. Yes. No.) The words rolled around in my mouth like some delectable but unfamiliar food, tasting of freedom and adventure.
I had been accepted to the American Field Service foreign exchange program months earlier; but my assignment to Greece and the paperwork on my host family had arrived just a few weeks before I was to leave. I couldn’t believe my luck. Though I’d been hoping for a Spanish-speaking country (the only language offered in my rural high school), Greece evoked images of crumbling relics of an ancient civilization, mythology, beaches, and quaint villages perched on sun-washed islands.
George Files, the father of one of my high school friends, was the undertaker in my small, rural Northern California hometown, a community of barely three thousand, left behind when gold fever swept the area in the mid-1800s. A first-generation American-born Greek, George possessed a genetic makeup that harkened back to the Mediterranean civilization and generations of skin made smooth, supple, and ever-so-slightly greenish brown by olive oil. Like a Greek Santa, George was round and plump with kind eyes, a button nose, and a rollicking voice that always seemed on the brink of full-belly laughter. You could more easily imagine him passing his days under a generous sun than in the parlor of the silent dead. But I can think of no one more suited to fulfill that role in my town, a place where the death of a loved one brought casseroles and jelly donuts to mourners’ doorsteps just as often as fresh-caught trout and home-grown zucchini.
Just graduated and eighteen years old that summer of 1979, I wanted out. Away from the minutia of small-town life, where a trip to the grocery store for a forgotten item could take an hour, trapped in the produce section by a neighbor’s long-winded description of every ministration to her diabetic cat. I felt as if I’d grown up in a petri dish, every movement observed and recorded, from what I did at high school (I had my own father as a math and science teacher) to my meandering around town with my friends in my family’s dented 1957 VW Beetle, garishly painted with red and white zebra stripes years earlier by my hippy cousins. That summer, my high school girlfriends were exchanging their boyfriends’ letter jackets for diamond rings and misty visions of happily ever after, or partying in the woods in the backs of pickup trucks, drinking canned beer and watching boys hold tobacco-spitting contests. None of that held any appeal for me. The story of my life was about to be written, and I wanted it to contain the world! Greece seemed a perfect place to begin.
Kostas and the Deep Sea
Katarina flitted between the bar and the sound system, where she donned headphones to queue up the next tape. She had changed into red leather pants and a silver halter top. A large gold cross hung down between her breasts. In the far corner, a group of young men snickered into their beers, avoiding my gaze. “These local boys cannot speak English,” Katarina said. “But they are sweet. I think they are a little afraid of you.”
I told her about the boat strike. Her face lit up. “Wonderful! You can stay here and help me,” she said. “I need another deejay.”
After that, it was like I had always been there.
Kostas examined his beer. “You know, we have so many tourists coming to visit our islands. Germans, French, Swedish. The people from the northern countries, they work so hard. All year long, they just work.” His looked up at the evening sky, shaking his head. “And then, they come here, for one week each year, and sit on the beach all day, and drink too much, and their white skin is burned because they are not accustomed to sun. Then they go home and go back to more work.”
I thought he must feel resentful about these tourists invading his island, and impatient with me for asking him such silly questions, but he didn’t look angry. He just looked sad. Then he looked me in the eyes for the first time, with an intensity that caught me off guard. “That is not a good life, Sarah. This is a good life. This is all I want: Fishing, eating with my friends. It is simple, but it is good. You know?”
View from the Bartop
The music was deafening Greek stuff. I later found out this type of music was called skiladika, which means, literally, ‘dog music’. Skiladika is the oompapa music of the near east. The night wore on and everyone got drunk. The music became more and more dramatic and occasionally, someone would rise from his chair, drink in hand, and start swaying, spinning and stomping in place. His cronies would all jump up from their seats, get down on one knee in a circle around him, and clap in time to the music. The dancer would continue to sway, spin and stomp theatrically, waving outstretched arms in the air, and at the climax of the song, smash his glass down to the floor. His friends would cry, “Opa!”
Fantastic! I always loved breaking glasses! I wanted to try! But first I needed to learn how to dance like a Greek. The only dance I knew was the white man’s two step with a shoulder bob thrown in here and there, adding little leaps and claps if the music really spoke to me. This Greek stuff was different; it came from the hips and the belly.
Every night I put on my dress and went to the bar at around 10 PM. Invariably, the whole bar rose and cheered upon my arrival. The adulation was marvelous. During the day, as I walked down the street, men who were not sitting with their wives at the time would call out, “Ela re, Katherina! Pama na fama!” (Hey! Katherina! Come and eat!”) Of course, I didn’t know what they were saying back then and just assumed it was something flattering, so I gave them a big flirty showgirl’s grin and continued to strut along like a movie star.
Cycling in Greece
To ride with Friends of the Bicycle is to experience siga siga in full force. Translated as “slowly,” my sense of the phrase is that it even connotes a disdain for all things fast. On a Friends outing, the goal of getting from Point A to the evening’s camp site at Point B is secondary to indulging in ceaseless distractions en route. We linger for twenty minutes to watch a fellow rider chase and catch a fat garter-type snake with his bare hands. Forty-five minutes are spent poking around a deep cave using our detachable bike lights for illumination. A good one to two hour afternoon nap is de rigueur.
Through the Friends I met Giorgos Altyparmakis, an iconoclastic cyclist and consummate bike mechanic whose family has operated a bicycle repair shop for over forty years. Giorgos is in his sixties, looks forty-five, and has the biking energy of a twenty-year-old. He has a peculiar fondness for cycling maniacal hours, starting early in the morning and pedaling until eleven or midnight with one or two twenty minute breaks. Few Friends cycle with him when he sets the itinerary, but I regularly ride with Giorgos. As if hypnotized, I somehow keep pace with him.
On my first outing with Giorgos before I knew his style, I grew concerned when we continued to cycle in the lykofos (translated as dusk, lykofos literally means “wolf light”). I became alarmed when darkness arrived. Soon enough, however, I recognized that with a full moon and no cars for miles on a navigable dirt road, this outrageous activity was not only do-able but wildly fun. Giorgos and most Friends are committed night riders and I readily joined their ranks. We take note when the moon is full and plan our rides around the panselinos (Greek for “full moon¨). What better place for lunar gazing than in the land where this practice was cultivated as a science millennia ago by our pagan ancestors?