DECEMBER 21, 2014
All photographs by Stephanos Papadopoulos. All rights reserved.
LIVING IN ATHENS can be like sleeping with a complicated lover; at some point, you will wake at dawn and lie there, eyes open, not quite sure who the person sleeping beside you really is. There is no logic in this bedroom scene; there is no logic in this place I still call “home,” even though I come and go, making and breaking promises with every return.
The best things here are rarely left alone. The bad seem to hang around forever. I tried to explain this to a friend from one of those steady, heavy, functional, cold weather countries of the North. The empty field at the end of my street is now a park surrounded by pretentious and expensive cafés, I told him. The thumping music causes all the older residents to flee, the sidewalks swallowed by magically expanding walls. The olive groves and pine forests in the neighborhood are now five-story apartment blocks. When I was a kid, I say, we had a neighbor with goats; there was an old shepherd who left an angry white horse in our yard for the spring.
These images are surreal now. A white horse on a rope that chased children and broke the electrician’s jaw? An old couple who lived in a tiny cabin, drew water from a well, and raised chickens across the street? In Athens? Traditional, primarily agrarian cultures cannot survive this breakneck speed of change intact. They lose something crucial — the spirit of self-acceptance, pleasure in the present tense. Call it resignation. Call it progress, call it change — it removes a person from the moment, leaving him or her with lust for more, or, even worse, nostalgia. We are a paradox. In Greece we want our vaguely anarchic independent spirits to remain untouched. We also want to join the power-suited bureaucrats in Brussels at the table. In simpler terms, we want the policeman to maintain order, but not when we need to run a red light.
One thing that has not changed is the scaffolding on the Parthenon. Tourists visiting Athens are often disappointed that it’s there, as though they might have just missed the pre-scaffolded beauty of it all; I don’t have the heart to tell them I’ve never seen it otherwise. For as long as I can remember, that thicket of galvanized steel has nested on its architraves and pediments. The perfect metaphoric irony of the ugly tubes and turnbuckles holding up the classical model of perfection could not have been better planned. How can so much elegance coexist with such ugliness and banality?
Athens is as full of contradictions and anarchic beauty as its citizens. The last organ grinders push their time machines through streets that barely remember them; beautiful young women dressed like pole dancers cross themselves in front of churches and stoop to kiss grimy icons; an Orthodox priest with Rasputin’s beard whips out an iPhone and lights a cigarette; a hat-seller on Athinas Street stares vacantly from an empty shop. The collective breath, the expected cacophony, the fierce and surprising beauty of it all: I am stunned by its tragedy.
Broad, sweeping generalizations are annoying but, at times, serviceable. So let me say this: for the most part, Greeks are not interested in other places. Yes there are many exceptions, yes younger Greeks travel to exotic locations and even backpack around the world with Lonely Planet guides, yes I should not make such appalling subjective statements — but I insist, generally, Greeks prefer Greece. Nothing will replace the familiarity of the taverna menu, those endless baskets of bread, and the clips and elastic bands holding down wind-torn paper tablecloths, the summer holiday exodus to islands and village homes, the controlled madness of ferry boats docking and departing, the metaphysical white heat of the noonday sun, the frantic screech of cicadas in the cypress trees, the infuriating drone of a souped-up scooter on a long uphill, the postapocalyptic silence of three o’clock in August. Even Odysseus was not swayed by foreign kingdoms; he wanted “the fame and the girl and the money” — then home.
I have been guilty of these thoughts myself, wandering on a beach somewhere on the wild coast of El Salvador and thinking, “This is magnificent … but so are the cliffs of Folegandros in the Cyclades …” When I first went to St. Lucia in 1998 to visit Derek Walcott, we took a police boat out to the uninhabited Rat Island, where he explained he had hopes to build a theater and a writer’s retreat. I saw a very large, central tree that reminded me of the village squares in the northern mountains of Greece and blurted, “It looks a lot like Greece right here.” He turned to me in mock fury and yelled, “Why are you turning my island into a simile!!!!?”
What if Seferis had said, “Wherever I go, Greece hounds me,” instead of “wounds me,” with its images, its promises, its expectations both wrecked and fulfilled? There is something of the tormented or tormenting lover in this, the illogic of it all, the insane allegiance — I want to forget this dysfunctional home and betray it for the exotic unknown of other places, but it won’t let me. Sometimes, the lover loves you back so much it kills you. Keats moaned for “a beaker full of the warm south”; Greece loved Byron so much it kept his heart, literally, which is buried in Missolonghi, and sent the body home to England.
In a recent article for the Los Angeles Review of Books, I quoted an excerpt from an unpublished prose poem by Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke, one of Greece’s most important poets, which she gave me freshly handwritten from her notebook. I went back and translated the entire poem and leave you with it:
The Smiling Light
By Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke
(a prose poem)
And it’s like those tortuous loves, when sadness begins to slip through the fiery kisses. It’s as though a thousand knives go through you, encircled by a thousand wildfires. Tombs are opened in your brain, and instead of a shroud, your body is wrapped with the pages of your last handwritten love letters. Your entire being screams: Enough! No more! This story is over. Not even in a dream will I let myself embrace “him” or let his cursed gaze stride through my heart’s closed gate. It’s the end of this love-torment.
Then suddenly, in the darkness of my erotic fantasy, his smile flashes. A new horizon unfolds, the universe is lit; the earth transforms itself into a star which is nailed to the sky. And then I say, “You’re forgiven. I’m forgetting all your sins just this once again. The last time.”
“It’s the same with my country. I was born here, raised here, grew up. Everything here is difficult, uncertain, unplanned, or badly planned. “I’m leaving,” says my cosmopolitan self, “I can’t take it anymore.” And suddenly the day breaks, another door opens. Light, light everywhere from all around, in the mind and in the soul. Broad-leafed light. Greece. “I’ll stay,” I say. “I’ll stay a little longer.”
Stephanos Papadopoulos is the author of three poetry collections: The Black Sea (Sheep Meadow Press, November 2012), Hôtel-Dieu (Sheep Meadow Press, 2009), and Lost Days (Leviathan Press, UK / Rattapallax Press, NY; 2001).