The Neighbors

I don’t remember hitting the ground.  Or even the wipeout itself.  In my dazed state, I didn’t realize that I was in a motorcycle accident or why I was bleeding and being held down by three men shouting in Greek.  I was so confused that I didn’t even question the situation.  Instead, I felt a peaceful acceptance, and I relaxed, allowing the men to hold me stationary as my left eye filled with blood and gravel imprinted my skin.   The faces bobbing in and out of my vision so far above wore bearded grimaces of concern, though I didn’t register it as such.  I only remember simple tranquility as I discovered my inner voice temporarily disabled.  No thoughts of ‘what’s coming next,’ or ‘am I alright?’ or even ‘what happened?’  There was only screaming people and blood.

Normally, I would have emptied my own bedpan, or even better, gone to the toilet.  However, in my incapacity I was rendered immobile; my health in the hands of an obscure island hospital belonging to a failing nation.  So as I drifted between states of dreamless sleep and groggy consciousness, I woke to a familiar sight on the nightstand next to my face–a spray bottle with the top chopped off, incrementally filling with my own dark urine.  During the four day hospital stay, it became my friend and confidant, a putrid yellow beacon, a lighthouse warning me to stay still.  And if I forgot to ask for water, I didn’t have to worry about begging the nurse to empty it so often.  The health care, like the rest of the country, was pragmatic:  Keep the patient alive with as little effort as possible.

Over the next two weeks, I watched my entire mission dissolve.  I came to the Greek island of Ikaria to isolate myself, to freeze life like I would pause a video game, to take a break from worldly engagement and find some mythological something.  I figured that I could kill many birds at once by visiting the paradisiacal island of my ancestors.  Seaside cliffs, windmills, warm bread, belly-laughter and a strong religious inclination.  It had to be the promised land.  I imagined nightly ceremonies, unquestioned altruism-perhaps even a barter system, romantic evenings under the stars with wine and souvlaki.  When people asked what I was doing there, I told them I was “working on writing projects.” In reality, I was searching for an idea of completion.  I guess it was a vision quest or a walkabout.  At least in my mind.  And in my whimsical dreaming brain, I never envisioned that quest leaving me utterly dependent upon anyone, let alone people I’d never met.

It wasn’t until I was discharged from the hospital, into the warm care of my distant cousin Leonidas, that I began to understand Ikaria and what I was doing there.  The Greeks are a proud people still riding the momentum of ancient philosophers and buzzwords like ‘democracy.’  The country remains mostly homogenous and tradition is very much a behavioral barometer, with hospitality sitting atop the pantheon.   For nearly six weeks I was dodging commitments to my extended family and neighbors, reneging on dinner promises, ignoring phone calls, rushing conversations.  Before the concussion, I thought I had goals.  I was waiting for a click or maybe Poseidon to rise from the sea and shed clarity on my life.  Once I figured everything out, then I could take in the culture.

After the concussion, I could only graciously forget about my imagined shortcomings and accept the abundance of compassion which enveloped me.  Stranded in an obscure corner of the Aegean, I surrendered.

Dinner at Leo’s house was never less than exquisite.  His wife Vasso, a petite but feisty woman in her late seventies, spent the mornings silently stooped over the stove, tending to the afternoon meal with the eyes of a devotee.  Any attempt at conversation was quickly rebuked; a weathered, toothy smile, and her head again orients to the food, revealing the tight silver curls atop her skull.  While she cooked, I would usually philosophize with Leonidas at the kitchen table.  A priest of the local Orthodox church, Leo is a mountainous character, a true embodiment of his name.  While not abnormally tall, his body is naturally thick and solid, bulging belly the result of age and fine food.  If the all-black robe and cap don’t give away his status as religious mediator, the angled white beard dangling from his chin certainly does.  The intensity burning in his translucent green eyes betray an indomitable spirit that I came to understand as uniquely Greek.  Watching his sausage fingers grasp individual peanuts from a center tray never failed to intrigue me; blunt instruments performing artisan’s work.

“Kristopher.  What you must understand…your word…that is your character.”

His voice is soft, but it carries a subtle boom–a deep, confident rumble.

I nod, rubbing the stitches in my left temple, pondering the depth concealed behind the broken English.

“God. It is possible that he is a movement, not a, how do you say, a still object?

“A noun?”

“That’s alright.  I do not know, the bible, sometimes it just does not make sense to me, Kristopher.  Science has shown us many things.”

I’m shocked to hear metaphysical doubts, despite agreeing with him.  I wonder whether a priest is allowed to question the book he interprets publicly.  Before I can respond, Leonidas continues waxing, changing the subject as I soon discover he is prone to do.

“We live a simple life here.  The island is small.  The neighbors, we all know each other.  But that does not mean there are no problems.  We have many problems.  Maybe you cannot see, but the corruption is here, just as it is everywhere.”

I nod again.  The statement answers-or begins to-a question I had long pondered and which brought me, however unconsciously, to Greece.  Is there a better life to be found in the tiny obscure communities that somehow still exist across the planet?  Should we believe in the whispy idealism that glorifies the simple and unknown over the complex and visible?

“Kristopher.  How are you feeling?  Is your head okay? Can I get you something to drink?”

After taking inventory I look at Leonidas, his eyes penetrating yet compassionate, and give him a thumbs up and a smile.  I’ve known this couple for less than twenty four hours and not only have they opened their house to me indefinitely, they’ve also gone to extreme lengths to ensure my comfort, offering food and conversation and wisdom.  While I often feel I’m imposing, Leonidas senses my withdrawal and repeatedly assures me that he is happy to have me as a guest.  I’m blown away.

“I think I’m starting to feel pretty good, Leo.  No more motorcycles for me though.  But anyway, I just want to thank you again for…”

“Kristopher.  Do not mention it anymore.  We are happily having you around.” He knocks his fist against the table, accentuating the point.

I bow my head, offering a Greek thanks.

“Efkaristo.”

Before I can ask more questions, Vasso arrives at the table with a plate of steaming sweet potatoes, thick slices of goat meat, buttered asparagus, and a bowl of vibrant homegrown salad topped with squares of feta .  For now, the conversation is over.  The one thing Leonidas values over philosophizing is food, and Vasso would never let her confections be experienced cold.

After spending ten lazy days with Leonidis and Vasso in similar fashion, I returned to my residence, the house of my great grandmother’s childhood.  It’s a simple structure–one story, gleaming white stucco with light blue trim in the Greek tradition–perched between the jutting razor back of grey cliffs that divide the island down the middle, and the crystalline aqua of the Aegean Sea.  Pulled back from the water just twenty feet, the Kalivi faces East and provides a window seat for the vertigo-inducing sunrise each morning.  From the courtyard, a few islands are visible on the horizon at the point where the Earth curves and water becomes light blue infinity.  Occasionally a fishing boat sputters past in no particular hurry.  Each morning blends into the next, the silent volcano of color erupting outside my window in a way never to be seen again.  The perfect aesthetic for getting back into my work.  I’m on the beach, sitting on a rock and staring out at the island of Patmos–the fabled land of St. John’s exile and Revelation (or schizophrenic break-you decide) listening to the tame lapping of sea against boulder-fortified shoreline when a gravely voice explodes from across the road, jarring me from my trance.

“Kristosssss!”

I’m not sure whether to hide or emerge.  I know full well what showing my face means.  It means the next three hours, eating pasticcio until nauseous, drinking wine until sleepy, and accomplishing approximately nothing for the second day running.  In response to my complaints, people back home never fail to ask the obvious “why don’t you just turn down the invitation?”  “It’s not that simple,” I reply.  “You haven’t heard these invitations.”

Makki yells again, the bellow of a hungry Greek anxious for bread and company.

“Kristos!  Where you being?!  Krisssst!”

I could hide down here on the beach.  There’s a water drainage, plenty of human-sized rocks, thorny shrubs; shit, I could even go swimming.  But something in my body won’t let that happen.  It’s not guilty obligation, it’s something worse.  It’s the shame of knowing, somewhere deep down, that in resisting this invitation I am denying the best part of my trip and the most unique opportunity I’ve ever had.  While my thinking mind usually disagrees, the wisdom of my body understands that frantically recording my rambling thoughts takes a distant second place to the lived experience of getting day drunk with the neighbors.  I remember my surrender.  Responsibility be damned, I’m going to talk politic with Makki.

The food, oh the food, is undeniably Greek but styled in the way only Riri can pull off.  Obscured by cigarette smoke, she watches for my reaction with a face folded by time and nicotine.  I take a self-conscious bite and nod to her.

“Delicious as always, Riri.  I mean, damn.  This really is amazing.”  The complements flow through me as the taste penetrates deeper.  “Riri, wow.  What is this?  Can you teach me to make this?”

She responds with predictable modesty and a deeply satisfied smile.

“Oh.  Thank you.  Efkaristo.  Hehe, thees deesh is Maki’s favorite. I teach you.”

Makki, seated at the head of the table, offers a salute with his fork in affirmation between bites.  Nothing more.  Time is precious.

The next three hours bleed together at the rate of one brimming glass of homemade red wine per half hour.  Makki ensures it.  Greek news drones in the background and steals my hosts’ attention anytime the language barrier and alcohol get the better of us.  I wait expectantly for the holler I sense coming.  I’ve long known that there’s nothing good on the news, but in Greece and Makki’s house especially, the powdered anchors deliver verdicts of the overtly despicable.

Right on schedule.

“Malaka!”  Makki pounds the table and waves his other hand, also clutching a cigarette, at the television.  Riri simply shakes her head and clicks her tongue.

“What’s the problem?” I ask, knowing that whatever Makki is pissed about, he’s probably right.

“Bullsheet man.  Nehhhh.  A whole bunch of bull sheet.”

I nod, but I’m too intoxicated to entice him into more.  He rants about the Greek political situation at every meal.  I intuit that it’s more of the same, corrupt officials selling out an already bankrupt nation.

He stares at his plate, glasses hanging off his large Greek nose, frowning in contemplation.  After the economic downturn, Makki’s pension was cut, and then cut again.  The news carries rumors of another possible scale back.  A lifetime of hard work aboard cargo ships earned him an unrivaled front-porch view of the Hellenic seaside as retirement bounty; now the economic irresponsibility of a select few threatens to take it all.

His somber mood doesn’t last long however.  It never does.  After gulping down a particularly juicy chunk of feta, Makki turns to me with a stretched grin and asks for the fiftieth time if I’ve found a Greek girlfriend yet.  I laugh and respond in the negative with the usual asterisk of hopefully soon.  Satisfied, he lifts his glass and offers a Greek cheers.    “Eeseeiya!”

To me, it sounds similar to what people say back home before an immanent blackout: See ya.

If ever there was a culture that enjoys a more justified siesta than the Greeks, I don’t know of them.  Lunch isn’t over until the bottomless pitcher is drained.  I wake around sunset, a new guilt blooming within my motionless body.  Once again, I feel the “mission” falling away, my future in jeopardy, bread lines and heroin.  I peel myself from under the covers and stumble into the small living room that has become my impromptu office.  My computer stares at me with puppy dog eyes; my kindle slouched on the edge of the table, pouting over being ignored.  Or maybe I’m the one pining.  Or maybe I’m still drunk.  I light some candles and burn an incense stick before sitting down with my lonely friends, and prepare to push out some constipated thoughts.  Then a knock.

An impulsive drive to violence flashes in my mind, but I repress it expertly.  There are candles burning, after all.  I gulp for oxygen and turn to the door, opening it with my best attempt at a smile.  It’s my other immediate neighbor Liz, a Greek Kiwi, transplanted via marriage to Ikaria twenty years earlier.  She often comes by to talk about books in her native English.  She’s been on the island a long time and it’s clear that my paradise is her purgatory.

“Hiya Kris!” She exclaims in her usual chipper New Zealand accent.  “I hope I’m not bothering ya?”

“No.  No, that’s alright.  Want to come in?” I say, actually meaning it.  Liz nods and steps through the doorway, opting to lean her squat frame against the wall.

“You can sit down,” I offer.  She shakes her head.  She’s flustered, her tone is rushed as if she’s been jogging.

“Nah I’m a’right Kris.  I just stopped by to say hello and check in, see how everything was going.  Your Yia yia told me to keep an eye on ya.  Everything going okay?  How’s your head? Are you eating healthy?”

The questions rip bullet holes through my foggy brain as I try to answer them at once.  I settle on an all-encompassing “yes”.  Smile, hold the smile.  Something about the American baseline still activates in my mind when I try to figure out how to respond to unrequited kindness.  A weird suspicion.  Nobody really cares when they ask these questions right?  Liz sees right through me.  And not only that, she calls me out.

“Hehe.  A little sleepy are we?  I hope I didn’t wake you.  You look terrible.”

I smile at the blast of honesty.  The statement would be met with active aggression back home.  My brain begins to catch up, my heart starts to open.  Soon, we’re discussing the island, and our thoughts about it.  Liz, for the first time, admits to me just how badly she wants to leave.

“Kris, I just want to be with everybody else.  You know, the rest of the world.” she says, her voice whining.  “This place is a dream come true until you actually have to live here.  The whole island…it’s like a high school.  The cliques and the backstabbing…”  She trails off, stifling a burst of truth that discomforts us both.  I nod.

“So it’s bad here eh?”

“It’s worse than I ever experienced back home.  Some of the women here, my god, they are just so catty.”

I don’t know how to reply with anything other than my own experience.

“Liz, I love it here.  It’s hard to argue with this beauty.  And the solitude…” I pause at the irony.  “I just feel so, I don’t know, connected or something.”

“Kris, you can have it!  I’ll trade ya!”  Liz says, laughing.  “Talk to me once you’re here another couple years.”

We stare out the window in silence, wondering whose idea of the greener grass is more accurate.  I’m not satisfied.  While my ideas of the utopia obscura have  been shattered, I’m not ready to give up.

“Liz, everyone here is so nice.  That’s…I think that’s the thing I love about it.  The hospitality–you have been so great to me.  This doesn’t exist back home.” I stutter, trying to get to the essence of my feelings.

“Well, that is something I love about Greek culture actually.” She concedes.  “It’s what brought me here.  But the Greeks, Kris.  They all want someone else to take care of things.  Have you noticed all the trash?  This island is stunning,  and people just throw their garbage on the side of the road and expect someone else to pick it up!”

Now it’s my turn to concede.  The garbage lining the streets of Ikaria is a glaring insult to the ideals the Greeks claim to hold themselves to.  Liz continues, arms spinning whirlpools in the air.

“Nobody pays their taxes because they don’t believe in the politicians, and so the government has to close more schools and hospitals and…you know what it’s like in the hospital here, and the way they treat the tourists, as if they have some bone to pick with their primary income source…  I donno Kris.  I really don’t know who has it better.”

We’re both stumped, but I don’t want Liz to go.  I enjoy talking to her, though I don’t do much work.  I just listen to the escaping pressure of freshly corked champagne, thoughts bubbling over the brim of stultified subconscious.  We move to more sociable banter for a few minutes before Liz makes moves to depart. We wrap up and she leaves me with a hug and a cheerful “kalinichta!”

“Good night Liz.”

As I sit back down at the table, I see my own reflection in the black mirror of the window.  Night has thoroughly fallen. I’m exhausted and cheerful.  Almost as if I enjoy talking to people.  Almost as if I don’t need to stress so much.  The Greeks really are getting to me.  I finish the night with stunted pecks across neglected keyboard and turn in early with the promise of tomorrow being a new day.

I wake up to a deep sense of cosmic perfection.  Any alternative conclusion seems to dissolve in the fiery insistence of sun reflected sea.  Contemplating my next move, to write or not to write or to wander into the slow motion fray of the Ikarian wake-up routine, I sip my coffee and watch the world spin.  My mind quiets involuntarily.  Maybe it’s residual concussion.  I sit on the shoreline until my coffee is gone and I have to pee.  My legs are begging for a wander and I reckon I’d be foolish not to oblige.  I don a hat and backpack and take to the streets.

The walk is familiar, but on this morning, fresh as the first time.  I take it all in at once, the garbage border a mere frame for the bigger picture.  I keep to the right edge, closest to the water, road overhanging Aegean-treacherous for driving but magical for walking.  My feet mould to the holes of the neglected concrete and I stare at the pastel liquid stretching around the distant horizon like a cupped claw.  Walks are perfect vehicles for reassessment.  Or reassessment of the establishment of assessment.  Or looking at pretty things.

My anxious legs carry me to the outskirts of town, passing by the hollowed shells of abandoned bars and directly following, upgraded estates built from outside investment.  Men stand in small groups smoking cigarettes, occasionally laughing. Elderly women waddle, patient expressions adorning their drooping, wrinkled faces.  I don’t know where they are going.  Or myself, I realize.  Just meandering into town with the rest of these island dwellers, to the smattering of shops and restaurants that make up an unknown blip on a very detailed map.  There’s a plant store that I really like, and a photo shop that carries some supplies I might need.  I can sit at a cafe and blend in with my brown curly hair and observe the viscous goings-on of a people with nowhere to be.  No doubt I will hear tidbits of gossip or complaint, talk of political apocalypse, funny money changing palms–though I won’t understand.  In that way, I have an objective seat from which to observe; body language and vocal tone my only navigation instruments.  Mostly, I’ll be immersed in smiles and milky glasses of Ouzo and the sour burning of Marlboro.  I’m only oblivious if I start to think.  A smile appears on my face, as if from everywhere and nowhere simultaneously, and I chuckle at the idea that I didn’t put it there.  I suppose it’s a good sign.  I’ll just keep walking and keep smiling and fade into the motion of another Ikarian day.

 

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What I’ve seen on my rounds is that if you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to reflect at the end of a life, then love is revealed as the great currency. It’s the thing. The treasury. It’s what mattered. Few gloat on a business success, or property portfolio at that point, how they royally screwed someone over.

How well did I love?, who did I love?, and how was love central to the life that I made for myself? And I have to say, sometimes folks don’t like the insights they receive at that latest of moments.

But if we’re reading this, than anything is possible. It is. The doorway to mercy is still open.

When the lots are counted, when we are gathered in, we will find that it was love that mattered. Love expressed, given, received, fought for. So for those of us fighting right now, I say; keep going. As a culture, as an individual, believe in the full life that is your bequeathed inheritance, not the subterranean half-life that terror and impoverished minded bullies will try and spike your wine with. You are too good for that. Remember Rilke: “wherever I am folded there I am a lie”

–Martin Shaw

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