I can't claim to be an expert on Greece. What I am an expert at is my own personal experiences in Greece, of which there are many.
My first trip there was in 1963 when my father got a Fulbright fellowship to teach at the University of Athens. In those days many of the streets were unpaved and shepherds still grazed their sheep in the empty lots between the occasional apartment buildings. Now there are no more sheep and no more empty lots, but Athens is an endless sea of apartment buildings.
After a year we returned to America. I was in the fifth grade and hopelessly out of sync with my classmates and friends. I didn't get back into sync until we moved back to Greece in 1968 and I started going to the American Community Schools where I met the mother of my daughter and common-law wife, Andrea Jerome, whose mother was the school nurse. I also met the people whom to this day are my closest friends even though with the exception of a few of them, live hundreds or thousands of miles apart.
I had a crush on Andrea from the 9th grade, when I became friends with her best girlfriend so I could get to know her. Andrea wore the shortest skirts in the school, had a great body and only dated guys with shoulder length hair, satin pants, played in bands, dealt drugs and were on their way to India. To Andrea, the thought of going out with a classmate was unthinkable and I had no chance. But there was some sort of unspoken bond between us. We always made eye contact and said hi when we passed in the halls.
By the time my hair grew long enough and I was taking enough drugs to even be considered as a suitable suitor, Andrea was gone. She had graduated a year early and went off with various boyfriends and family members to have adventures in Morocco, India, Afghanistan, Iran, Nepal, Ethiopia, Iceland, North Dakota and New York. I ran into her a couple of times on Mykonos and in Athens but then lost all contact with her for about ten years.
In the meantime I had moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I made several attempts to indoctrinate myself into the American system. I got jobs, played in bands, smoked pot, drank beer, tried to educate myself and made several excursions into the realm of spiritual awareness. But every time it seemed I was making progress on any of these fronts I would feel the calling, take my savings, drop everything, and find the cheapest fare to Greece, regardless of the inconveniences, and spend an overextended summer there that would sometimes last until November. Then I would come back to America, pick up the pieces of my life and begin again. Little did I know that Andrea was walking a parallel path that did not cross mine until I tracked down her sister in 1984 and got her address.
Andrea had been going back and forth and was now living in Greece, in an old house she had rented in the Plaka beneath the Acropolis. She was between boyfriends. Her previous one didn't want to come to the states with her because he would rather sit at home and watch soccer. His lack of motivation were grounds for a divorce. She had opened a little shop in the Plaka where she worked and sold her beautiful jewelry. She sent me the address and after ten years I found her. Actually she wasn't in her shop and as I was walking down the street I smiled at a Greek girl who gave me such a dirty look my immediate thought was "Jesus Christ. What a mean person!"
When I returned later to her shop I looked in and to my horror realized she was the mean girl I had seen on the street. Simultaneously she realized that I was the guy she had seen who was undressing her with his eyes as he walked by. It was the perfect new beginning to our relationship.
We went out to dinner that night at Steki to Elias, a little taverna overlooking the Athens Gas Works that specialized in paidaikia (lambchops). She was about to embark on a relationship with an archeologist named Stewart Thorne whom she had met 15 years before and had just left a note on her door that morning saying he was in town and could they get together. She knew that this was the love of her life and selfishly I tried to talk her out of it, unsuccessfully. But for the five years they were together I was the best friend who would come every summer, live in her basement and babysit for her pet owl when she and Stewart would go on trips.
I was sort of what John Sebastian calls a "pet friend." The hopeless guy that couples take under their wing and introduce him to their women friends and female relatives in the hope that he will one day hit it off with one of them and find someone to be happy with, or at least they can get rid of him for awhile.
Stewart was great. He was the first new friend that I could tolerate in the last ten years. He had an interesting life as an archeologist and as an explorer of his own mind. He had the same interest in esoteric philosophies, drugs and rock & roll that I did and even though he was the one having sex with the love of my life I accepted it and never even gave it much thought. Andrea was much like a mother figure and both Stewart and I were teenagers who had never grown up. Their house in the Plaka was my base of operations that I would come back to between island trips. It was a great situation, a home away from home and every year I stayed longer and longer. I began playing guitar in the clubs that opened in October and started making a name for myself. But something would always call me back to Chapel Hill. Never as strong as the need to be in Greece, but mixed with some guilt about not seeing my family, and the insecurity of an unsteady income and no working papers and the approaching cold and rainy season, it was enough to inspire me to buy a one-way ticket back to America so I could work and earn enough money so I would not have to work in Greece. Shortly after I left, Stewart would go back to Cambridge, Mass. Andrea was always the last to leave Greece for the winter.
In 1989 a series of events transpired that though seemingly unrelated, somehow brought us together. First, Andrea on her way back to America was stopped in the airport and detained, every frequent traveler to Greece's worst nightmare. The new computers had come up with her as being wanted by the police. Her name had been mentioned in an LSD trial fifteen years before and a warrant was issued for her arrest. She was taken from the airport to the police station and then to prison where she spent Christmas. She went to trial five months later and through the efforts of her mother and Stewart she had gotten off.
That summer was the first summer I didn't go to Greece. I spent it in Boston and was joined there by Stewart who had returned to see his father who was gravely ill. Had he not come I would have gotten bored and left but he brought new life into the city and we made it our own. I finally forced myself to leave in order to save what brain cells I had left. That winter Stewart had a stroke. Andrea rushed to his side and stayed with him until he was well again. He was told if he drank any more he would die. He stopped drinking.
That year two of my best friends died. Jimmi Hatzidimitriou who had been my musical guru (he claimed I was his) suffered a brain aneurysm. I played a song I had written for him at his eulogy at CBGB's, then took his place in his band The Dots, to sing a last set in memory of him. Later Dino Nichols, probably my closest friend, died in Crete while climbing a mountain. His last word were "OH WOW!" He had a massive heart attack and died instantly.
I skipped Greece again that summer. I had a ticket but I couldn't get myself on the plane. I canceled the taxi that was going to bring me to the airport and spent weeks going over why. I suppose I was realizing that I was on an endless treadmill. I was criticizing people I knew in America who were addicted to routine and could not find the time or energy to accompany me on my European adventures. Then I came to the conclusion that I had a routine just as much as they did. Greece was more important to me than my family, my future, my career (whatever that was) and even my own spiritual aspirations. I decided to go to Montreal instead.
I had a plan. I made it up on the NY State thruway at the exact moment I decided to go to Montreal, which was coincidentally the moment I saw a sign that said Montreal. I would meet Leonard Cohen. I would give him my tape. He would be impressed with my genius and beg me to let him produce me and introduce me to the big shots in his record company. It was a good plan. I had several things going for me. First of all, he had lived in Greece on Hydra where my family used to go. We had several friends in common. Second, his girlfriend Marianne (Yes, that Marianne) had a son, Axyl, had been in love with my sister and had spent a weekend with us. OK, so that was twenty years ago. Then there was my friend Elizabeth Herring who had interviewed him the year before when he had returned to Greece for a concert and a BBC special. It was her idea that I meet him in the first place, but she told me not to give him my tape. She felt he would like me as a person but would be threatened by my songs, which she said were better then his. I decided to risk my friendship with Leonard and give him the tape, if indeed our paths did cross.
All this was going through my head as I slowed down to pick up a hitchhiker. He was from Paris and was returning to Montreal after traveling around the US. When we stopped at customs and they asked where he was staying to my surprise he answered "At ze house of Leonard Cohen." If that wasn't fate or divine intervention I don't know what is. Being American they let me right through but he was detained. He said I needn't wait but I told him that I wanted to take him to ze house of Leonard Cohen. It was a good decision and the French guy helped me find my way into the city and right to the house where we found a parking space exactly in front of it.
We went in and walked upstairs. It was like a flop house. Beer cans all over. Sleeping bags and people crashed out. Newspapers piled high, dirty dishes in the sink and little if any furniture. "This is how the great poet Leonard Cohen lives? This is beyond bohemian," I said to myself. I asked my friend "Is Leonard Cohen a junkie?" It turned out this was not his house and that he lived in the house next door and this house was being used for his daughter's friends to crash out in. Anyway he wasn't home and I didn't feel like sitting around waiting for him when there was a whole new city to explore.
I called my stepbrother and his girlfriend who met me and we wandered around before we went to their favorite Greek restaurant. As we were leaving I asked the owner if he knew any people from my grandmothers little village of Kalotrelochoro. He pointed to another Greek restaurant right across the street. "Sure. Those people are." I walked across the street and was asking the waiter when a woman came up to me. "Don't I know you from Kalotrelochoro?" Her name was Marina and we had met a few years before in the village. She introduced me to a table full of Kalotrelochorootis and gave me her phone number. I spent the summer hanging out with a group of young people from my grandmothers village.
After dinner I got directions to my stepbrother's house and went back to retrieve my car. Right next to it, sitting on the front steps of his house, was Leonard Cohen, smoking a cigarette and enjoying the evening air. I introduced myself and named our common acquaintances to give myself some credibility. He invited me to sit down and we talked about our lives in Greece and what was to become of us with the many changes in the air. He was leaving Montreal he said. Quebec was certain to separate from Canada and unfortunately he didn't speak French. I was stunned.
"How can you not speak French? You're Leonard Cohen! You wrote 'The Partisan'."
We talked about where we would like to live. I invited him to Chapel Hill. "It's fun. There are smart, hip people. It's not too pretentious. You could produce alternative bands."
"It's a thought," he said as he easily brushed it aside. "I really hate LA. though. But my apartment faces east and west. The sun rises though one large window and sets through the other."
"Yeah, but that doesn't seem to be a very good reason to live in LA. I bet you could find that just about anywhere." I momentarily forgot that I was talking to a poet.
He invited me for a walk to the Samos Bakery to get some bread. We continued talking about his house in Greece, his music, his production, his this, his that. When we got back to his door he didn't invite me in for an ouzo and I was too shy to suggest it. But I did ask if I could bring him a tape. He said that would be fine. I left in a state of exhilaration. My musical career had suddenly been kicked into gear. I could hardly sleep that night.
The next day after using my stepbrother's system to put together a musical compilation of my songs that I hoped would appeal to him, I drove back to the house of Leonard Cohen. I knocked on the door and he invited me into the foyer. "I'd ask you to stay," he smiled "but I'm entertaining some guests and then I have to get ready to take my daughter back to college." I told him I just wanted to drop off my tape and gave it to him. He took it between his hands and gave it an Buddhist style blessing, bowing his head in reverence.
I never heard from him again.
That's not entirely the end of the story. A few days later I walked into a deli and sat down to have a bagel. I looked in the mirror and there in the booth behind me was Leonard Cohen and his family and what looked like his agent, lawyer or spiritual advisor.
"Oh shit!" I thought. "He's going to think that I'm a crazed fan stalking him."
I ate my bagel with my head buried in the basket so he wouldn't see me and blow my chances for stardom. How ironic that here I was in a Jewish deli, hiding from Leonard Cohen, the person that I had come to Montreal to meet. How many other people have been in this situation? He left the deli before I did and if he noticed me or not I have no way of knowing.
So I spent that summer in Montreal with my young archeologist buddy Steve, who was also a friend of Stewart and Andrea's. I left my stepbrother's and stayed at Steve's since it was closer to the downtown action and he was a little more fun to hang out with. I started playing at a bar called Hell's Kitchen. One night between songs a girl came up to me and asked if her friend could play during my break. Her friend was Jan Michael Vincent. I didn't know who that was. I had heard the name but associated it with the black detective on Miami vice. I couldn't have been more wrong.
Jan Michael Vincent, famous for starring in movies like Macon County Line was roaring drunk. He introduced himself with liquor breath and told me in a heavy redneck voice about Bakersfield, California and about being from "the other side of the tracks." He then got up and sang the most racist bunch of songs that anyone had ever heard. I don't know if he wrote them or that's what they sing in Bakersfield but the Canadian audience seemed to dig it more than they did my soulful tunes that question life, love and the existence of a higher meaning. He thanked me and left with his entourage. Sure enough an hour later some black guys come in "looking for the redneck folk singer who was singing about niggers." The bartender told them that it was some guy from the audience and he had already left and then doubly assured them that it wasn't me, as they looked me up and down deciding whether to believe him and leave or kick the shit out of me just in case I was the guy. I didn't play there much after that.
In September Steve and I had two goals. We were going to see the Expos play the New York Mets and we were going to convince Andrea to come and visit us for a couple days. Three days before the Mets were to come to Montreal part of the stadium collapsed and the Expos played the rest of their season on the road. With Andrea we fared better. We picked her up at the airport and we spent a few days wandering around the city before I drove her back to Boston. That was when she told me that it was over between her and Stewart. We spent a week together as friends and then I went back to North Carolina. We became lovers over the phone. Two weeks later I was back in Boston with her. I drove home with my car full of her belongings and my mind full of doubts.
My English Sheep dog friend Byron had accompanied me on this journey that would change my life and now we both wondered what we had gotten ourselves into. Andrea was now in San Francisco visiting her friend Venetia but before she had left Byron had chewed up and eaten her glasses. He had never chewed anything in his life but that was little consolation to Andrea who screamed like a madwoman at him and revealed a side to her I didn't know existed. Perhaps a bit of foreshadowing, I thought fearfully as Byron raised his eyebrows to me as if to say "are you sure this is what you want?" I wasn't sure. I was less sure as I took a blind Andrea to the airport and watched her plane fly off just as a huge nor'easter walloped the city of Boston and made both Byron and I wonder what the hell we were doing there. Beau's mother spelled it out. "This woman is hungry. Be careful or she will catch you. She will become pregnant and you will never be rid of her."
The storm that hit Boston was The Perfect Storm, (Yes, that Perfect Storm) and because I didn't watch TV or listen to the radio all I knew was that it was raining really hard and I could not leave until Andrea's father came to bring the stuff Andrea had stored at his house so I could cram it all in my little BMW 2002 and bring it down to North Carolina. He finally showed up and we stuffed the car so full that Byron spent the entire trip staring at me, his eyes saying "Fine mess you got us into this time Barrett."
We made it to Providence, Rhode Island and took the ferry to Greenport. There must have been 10 people on the boat in the roughest seas I had ever been on. I spent the time writing a postcard to Andrea, trying to express my doubts about the relationship and letting her know that maybe this was not such a good idea, oblivious to the fact that I was on a ship sailing rough seas in the remnants of a storm of historical proportions, with my car lashed to the deck to keep it from crashing into the other cars, filled with all of Andrea's belongings. When I arrived in Long Island and got to my sister's house there was no electricity and trees down everywhere. "What the hell is going on?" I asked.
"We had a hurricane here," my sister said.
I mailed the postcard to Andrea that I had written on the ferry the very next day. Miraculously she never received it. A month later I was meeting her train in Durham. She moved into my mother's house with me and the battle began.
Andrea hated North Carolina. Too provincial. She didn't believe that there actually were some culturally stimulating things going on or that the Chinese restaurants might be OK. She hated my mother's house and it didn't take her long before she began hating me for getting her into this mess. She said that falling in love with me was the biggest mistake of her life. I felt the same. I wondered how on earth I would get out of this one. I'd made enemies of a lot of girlfriends in my life, but this would be someone I had known for twenty years. She was sleeping until noon and spending hours on the phone with her mother. She wanted to be out of there as much as I wanted her out, if not more. I felt like I had betrayed my friend Stewart and I started feeling like the person who comes between the couple of destiny, whose actual purpose is to bring them closer together. I thought of all my ex-girlfriends who went back to their previous boyfriends after a couple weeks with me. "I'm sorry Matt. You made me realize how much I love Bill." Translation: You showed me what a jerk men can be and now I appreciate Bill more. I saw the same scenario developing with Andrea and it didn't surprise me when she told me she was going back to Boston to finalize things with Stewart. She still had some unresolved issues. It seemed to me like Andrea was going for the escape hatch and I was more than happy to drive her to the airport.
I was sad watching her go but after a couple days it was like a cloud had been lifted. I was no longer fighting a psychic battle with her or myself. I felt a release of stress and with it a return of my creative impulses. I began writing again and playing guitar. I began to reorganize my life. I assumed it was over between Andrea and I. While having dinner at the bar in Crooks Corner I met a girl named Laura whom I hit it off with quite naturally. We talked and joked and laughed. We had fun. I told her about Andrea and me. Laura and I behaved like friends but in the back of my mind I was thinking "girlfriend" when the inevitable happened and Andrea and Stewart got back together.
But things were not going well in Boston. Stewart was hostile and screamed about her betrayal. Had he been understanding and calm, Andrea would have been his again. Instead she was terrified and counted the days until she would leave. In the end they did not even speak to each other. She arrived back in North Carolina during the ACC Tournament. A bad omen. Carolina had just won. I wanted to go downtown and celebrate with the fans but Andrea had to tell me something. I didn't want to hear it, whatever it was I thought it could wait until I was in a less celebratory mood but she was persistent.
"I want you to sit down," she told me. I was ready for goodbye. What I got was a big hello to the rest of my life. Andrea was going to have a baby. It was a good thing that I was sitting because I did not have that far to fall when all my muscles gave up their will to live. I lay on my bed looking at the ceiling. "My life is over." I said.
My life didn't end. Though it was a struggle, Andrea and I stuck together. I still had secret hopes for some terrible miracle and when she began bleeding one day we thought it was all over for the baby. I was feeling a mixture of sadness and relief as I sat in the waiting room while she was with the doctor. When she called me in I expected to hear that she had miscarried. Instead I was shown a screen with a little creature swimming around, oblivious to the people who were watching it in wonder and awe. "That's our baby." Andrea said.
That night I put everything into focus. I was the most self-centered person on the planet until that point. I was hoping for a miscarriage so I could go back to my own shallow and decadent way of life. I was wishing ill upon this small creature within Andrea's belly. This little person was waiting to be born, not realizing that it had an enemy that wished it dead. I cried at the thought. From that moment on I was a changed man. That was when I became a father.
There was still the small matter of the birth, and of course we had decided to go to Greece for the summer. Andrea had a rough first trimester and the thought of the oncoming North Carolina humidity was more than she could bear, so looking as if she would give birth any moment we spent the summer in Greece. When we returned she stayed at her mother's while I went back to North Carolina to earn money for our new family.
After careful study Andrea had decided upon the Bradley Method of childbirth and every other Thursday I would drive the five hundred miles to our class. Two weeks before the due date I moved up to New Jersey to help Andrea wait for the baby. Then my sister had a car accident. Her whole family was rushed to the hospital and placed in intensive care with head injuries and broken bodies. I got ready to go back to Chapel Hill to be with them. They were all in serious condition and neither us nor the doctors knew who would live or die. The next day Andrea went into labor. It lasted fifty-three hours and ended in an emergency cesarean. I witnessed the birth of my daughter Amarandi. From that moment on Andrea and I had more than Greece as our common bond. We had a new person to introduce into the world. We had a common purpose and Amarandi became the basis of our relationship. Strangely enough we decided to inflict on her the same curse that we had. She has inherited the same confused sense of identity that we and many other Greek/Americans have. A life of loving a place that you sometimes can't stand. A relationship with a country that in many ways mirrors interpersonal relationships, full of conflict, disappointment, love, respect, disgust and just about any other emotion you can think of.
So this is the story of that relationship and of some crazy people in a crazy place. It's about a place changing so quickly that people's heads are spinning and it's about people trying to simplify their lives and get away from these changes at least for a little while. It's the story of a wild summer in Greece and a few summers that preceded it.
And it's a story about spearfishing.