So we are leaving tomorrow. I wish we were leaving Greece tomorrow. Either that, or staying here in my Grandmother's village until the end of August, by myself. I keep thinking about the last time we were in Mytilini in August. It was horrible. Andrea has no idea how close I came to leaving her and I have no idea how close she came to leaving me. We went to her grandmother's village of Xidera, way up in the mountains on a road to nowhere. Andrea's dead grandmother used to steal things from one relative and give them as gifts to others. She was the horror of the village and apparently the other relatives have not forgotten. If they hadn't been so mean to Andrea, I would have left her there, four months pregnant, but I felt so sorry for her. After a week in Xidera with her sister Pam we were going back to Mytilini, the main city on the island of Lesvos. Xidera had been murder, not just because of the arguing and the oppressive heat, but there was no water. They would turn it on for two hours per day. Once at eight in the morning before we would wake up, and again after midnight when we had gone to sleep. If it wasn't for ouzo I don't think I would have survived. When it was time to leave the village we got a ride with her idiot cousin, an Athenian yuppie who drove like a maniac. Every time she would pass a church or a roadside shrine she would make the sign of the cross, and then fight to regain control of the car. Because she wanted to go somewhere else first, she dropped me and very pregnant Andrea a mile from the center of town with all our luggage in the scorching hot afternoon sun.
Like a couple of overloaded pack mules we made our way to the center only to find all the hotels were booked solid because of the August 15th panigiri for the Virgin Mary. There is a very holy church in the village of Agiassos that is the second most sacred place in Greece, after the church in Tinos. Andrea called her cousin Xenoula who had a house, to see if we could stay there, but she was on her way out the door and rudely blew us off. We waited at this terrible cafeneon where the degenerate owner charged us to leave our bags while we looked for a room. We walked towards the old port, I was ahead fuming, with Andrea following behind. When I looked back I realized she was crying. I suddenly felt so sorry for her I couldn't be angry anymore. I also realized that I may as well accept that it was my destiny to take care of her because there was no escaping the fact that she was the mother of my child, and we were tied together by fate. I took her to a cafe-bar in the old port and I went off by myself determined to find a room for us. I succeeded and went back to get her almost two hours later. She was eating an ice-cream and of course was angry because I had taken so long. But the room was so nice she got over it. It was in a very old house in the center and the owner was a gay interior decorator who had designed the lounges of some of the ferries. We had a nice dinner and then went home where we were attacked by thousands of mosquitoes and didn't sleep a wink. The next day we saw a boat that was leaving for Pireaus and the temptation was too much. We left the island. As we sailed beyond the tip of Lesvos, I had a few regrets about not seeing more of it and wishing I had been more flexible.
In fact we did return a year later and had a nice time, but only spent one night in Xidera and a week in her cousin's house in the main town. It was a sort of working trip because Andrea was moving the contents of her house in Plaka to her sister's house in Vatoussa. It was also during the month of May when it was much cooler. Elaine was with us too and drove me totally crazy. In the end we were at each other's throats and after that trip I was surprised she still spoke to me and even agreed to come on this trip.
Reminiscing about those two visits to Lesvos make me certain of one thing. I sure as hell don't want to go back there again in August. This trip has disaster written all over it, especially with Andrea's best friend Mary coming along. Mary is one of the least dependable people we know and to hear Andrea talk about her she could easily be her worst enemy. Plus she doesn't really like me. She tolerates me and since the maturing yoke of fatherhood befell me she has been nicer, but a few, hot, shower-less days in Xidera could easily undermine this fragile peace.
So anyway we are not gone yet. Tonight we go to the grand opening of James Crispy's art exhibit. As we walk into the bar he is sitting on a stool in a long sleeve shirt sweating profusely. He offers me a drink and I happily accept an ouzo. He then goes into a monologue about the difference between his shows in London, and those in other major cities. It's all very fascinating but I can't get over how much he is sweating. It seems like a much more interesting topic considering he is only doing this for fun, but I can't think of a subtle way to make the transition in topics. Luckily Amarandi wants me to take her out to the end of the dock to see the kids who are fishing. While we are out there we run into Crysanthos and I congratulate him on his big fish. We begin talking about my grandmother's house and the possibility of us spending a winter in Kalohori as he does. Amarandi becomes bored, wants her mother and runs back to the bar. In the meantime Jack and Sue have arrived so we all sit together and try to decide where to have dinner. Vassili the Greengrocer is trying to steer us towards Katina's but my attitude is anywhere but there. We settle on Lefteris and climb into Jack's car for the drive to Vrissi.
Having diner with the Marlowes, without Elaine is a whole new experience. We can actually carry on a conversation without being interrupted by Elaine telling us something completely irrelevant, or relating some story that she is reminded of that features the relentless Yaya Stassa, her saint of a father or one of a dozen now familiar family figures, all of them deceased. While Elaine was with us she was able to monopolize most of the speaking time, in fact you could safely say with her around there was not a moment of silence. Any interval was an invitation for a comment, complaint or observation.
At about six this evening I go out for my final fishing expedition of the month, perhaps the summer. Clouds have come over the mountains and the sea is dark, eerie and cold. It takes me awhile to get used to it. I'm not really feeling the thrill of the hunt. Maybe my aggression and machismo is wearing off. I only shoot at one fish on the way out, a gopa, one of many that spots me too late. Still, I miss. I'm not focused. As I swim around the bend I notice the sea is getting rough. There is one spot where the land drops straight down and I have to swim past the face of a giant underwater cliff. It's the scariest part of the trip. Sometimes I turn back. Today I keep going but as I approach the small beach I realize it's getting too rough and turn back. The closer I get to the point and the underwater cliff, the rougher it becomes and I am aware that my breathing has quickened. Though I'm not in any real danger, my unconscious mind is not convinced of this and I feel the conditioned response of fight or flight kick in. I decide on flight. Looking below, and side to side, I can see the fish are rocking back and forth with the movement of the waves. If I look above the surface the sea is white, bashing the rocks on the coast. I just swim quickly and steadily forward and try not to think about anything but my breathing. Suddenly I see the biggest skaros ever. I stop, aim and miss. He swims off, but I notice the spell is broken. The fear is gone and as I continue on, the waves become calmer. There are fish everywhere. A school of large salpa, some a foot long swim tantalizingly close. Then two tuna, hopelessly lost, go right by me. It's like paradise. I had passed through the hell of my fear and found myself in heaven, and I would have stayed there longer if I hadn't gotten stung by a jellyfish.
We meet Jack and Sue at the dock just as the lights of the ferry appear on the horizon. Jack comments on the local girls, and women in general. "They're just so nice," he says.
It sounds too simple to me and not exactly within my own realm of experience so I come up with a quick analogy.
"If you've ever taken a lifesaving course (not that I ever have) they teach you the correct way to hold someone when you are trying to save them from drowning to avoid being pulled under with them in their panic. That's how I see women. They're all afraid they're drowning and they're desperately reaching out for someone to save them. If you don't know the correct hold they drag you down with them." Jack likes my analogy and asks if he could use it in his writing. I tell him he could, but I would use it too.
We had told Katina we would be eating with her. There is a chicken with my name on it. Jack and Sue had made a secret unbreakable pact that no matter what happened tonight, they would have dinner at Lula's. When they find out that we are as immovable as they, Jack is dismayed. He tries to talk us into staying another day so we can have dinner together. I don't feel like being sad about leaving for another day. Just let me get it over with. Andrea suggests that we eat separately and then we would walk over for a drink when we finish, but I have no intention of following through with that plan. I subtly remind Jack about the previous year when we had to have our last meal at Katina's because Tom Mazarakis was calling us there to give us our hotel information. It was a heat wave in Athens and we wanted an air-conditioned luxury hotel near the Plaka. We didn't care how much it cost. Jack and Sue were entertaining a young photographer who was taking pictures of Sue doing traditional baking for an article of Jack's. They were eating at Lula's because they wanted the photographer to see the view. Even my traitorous brother David had gone with them and Andrea, Amarandi and I ate our last meal alone, waiting for the phone to ring. It's still a touchy subject evoking painful memories and I hate to bring it up, except that I can use it to get what I want. Jack winces. He and Sue excuse themselves for a conference and do not return for a very long time. When they do he announces, "We will join you at Katina's."
Katina has won again.
It doesn't seem like a last meal. I'm feeling very tired until the second or third glass of wine. The chicken is delicious and abundant and the kontosouvli even better. Niko the contractor from Egalion and his crew have returned and taken their rightful place at the small table by the door. He seems quiet and pensive as if his trip to Athens had matured him. He leaves without dancing, in fact there is no music to dance to. Our last evening is anticlimactic and what begins as a question about Jack and Sue's true feelings about their lives in Cairo, with the arrival of James Crispy, turns into a comparison of Egyptian and Moroccan cultures. It's all very interesting but not the stuff final evenings should be made of. Before I know it I'm alone at the table. Jack and Sue have gone home, taking James Crispy with them. Andrea has gone for a walk with Amarandi and never returns, probably to see her secret lover. I go home to read. I don't even stop at the bar. There is a mass of people there but I'm not in the mood to dissect the crowd and find someone to sit with.
I'm ready to go. I love it here and I could stay another month but I need a couple days in a city. I'd rather it be another city but Athens will do. By Tuesday I'll have had my fill and even Mytilini will look good to me. Kalohori will seem like paradise lost. It's taken awhile for Elaine's hysterical energy to dissipate and the three of us are just getting used to being together again and now we are leaving. But it seems like a good time. Jack and Sue have the ongoing project of their house. Jack has his writing and they are a part of the village. We are still visitors here.
Yesterday one of the old men asked me about John Colombotos. I said he was my father's first cousin and he is a professor in New York. This set off a whole discussion where it was hinted that I didn't know what I was talking about. John Colombotos owns a restaurant. There is no teacher named John Colombotos and that I was completely wrong. It made me realize that though it's true, Kalohori is a beautiful place and a fun place to spend my summers, it is still full of the same closed minded, hard headed, egotistical, know-it-all Greeks who can drive you crazy no matter how magnificent the surroundings. As long as Jack and Sue keep their language skills at a minimum, they will be happy here. They will smile and joke with their fellow villagers at a level where it is impossible to offend or be offended. Attack seems to be in the Greek nature and words are the weapons. If you choose not to use these weapons, you are considered harmless. They may talk about you and make jokes, but if you don't understand them what does it matter? Blissful ignorance. I wish I had it.
As long as I come here as a tourist, blending into the surroundings like Pip and Pop, everything will be fine. Once I begin making claims on the house and property, or take steps toward buying a piece of land, then I have totally entered their world and I have to accept the bad with the good. When I offered information on how Nikos could cheaply repair his boat I was told by another villager not to mess with him and his family, that they were dangerous. Maybe Kalohori is their Ponderosa. Old Christos is an evil Ben Cartwright with his ruthless sons. And yet, when I told Nikos that one of the geese on the beach had swallowed someone's fishing line, he braved the thrashing wings to remove it.
Like any village there are feuds and long brewing hatreds. For all I know there could be a vendetta between my family and another. As long as things are kept simple and friendly there's no danger of hidden hatreds boiling over. In that sense I have to agree with my father that maybe it's best to not become involved in the business of my grandmother's house. The land Kosta Monemos showed Elaine and I, had as much appeal to me as a piece of desert near Albuquerque, a personality-less bit of property just big enough to fit a small house with neighbors so close you could hear them snore, all for only twenty-five thousand dollars, without the house. But it was "clean" as they say. One man owned it and he was selling it. Nobody would come knocking demanding his one tenth of a share. No feuds begun with property perceived as stolen. You put down the money, another thirty thousand for a house, and it was yours forever, or as long as the government allows foreigners to own property, which is as long as Greece is in the European Community and must comply to their standards.
Or just save my money each year, rent an old house and come here for vacations. As Kalohori becomes more popular and houses less available, I can change my vacation time and go somewhere else for July and August. Somewhere like Alaska. I'll come here in September/October when the rofos and the octopodi are bigger, or in April/May when the fish are plentiful and inexperienced. It's hard to believe I am leaving but I will be back. The further away I am, the stronger will be the desire to return. By February it will be like a disease and I'll have to hide the photo albums and the ouzo to keep my mind on my "real life" of working in America. It's like an addiction, as Andrea often says. She wants to get over it and never feel compelled to return here. I feel the same way, usually while I'm in some tourist impacted village next to a plastic filled sea, living for my next meal. It is like an illness, I certainly agree, but as far as illnesses go it's more fun than most.
We bid a sad farewell on the dock. Andrea is in her usual pre-departure frenzy and drives us all crazy. We were going to eat at Katina's and would have had Jack and Sue not arrived in the nick of time to save us from white rice with red sauce, the only thing she had bothered to make. We went up to Lula's and had kalamarakia, fried peppers, string beans, greens, and a cheese omelet and it was better than Katina's, I was embarrassed to say after denying myself all summer. When we were finished eating Lula came to our table and said "Now that was good food." Andrea found the comment insulting. She took it as meaning we had been eating bad food at Katina's all summer. They're cousins and there are no secrets in Kalohori. We had eaten fifty meals at Katina's and at Lula's twice. No wonder she had a chip on her shoulder. But that's because she had obviously forgotten about charging us two thousand drachma to clean our fish all those years ago.
Next we had to face Katina who was almost in tears because we hadn't eaten at her place. I was able to lie and say we had gone to Jack and Sue's house for lunch, realizing I was putting myself in a vulnerable situation since Lula would surely come by to gloat about having snagged Katina's best customers. Meanwhile Katina was acting as if someone had died. I was thinking maybe Panayotis had passed away while we were happily eating lunch in Metropolis. He had been looking worse and worse lately and without Elaine to administer him there was no telling how long he would last.
So we stand in the bar running out of things to say, wishing the Flying Dolphin would arrive and we can get the whole thing over with.
"Give James Crispy a big kiss for me." Andrea tells Sue, patronizing her art teacher.
"And give his dick a little squeeze for me," I tell Jack, with a wink.
Jack has a pained expression, knowing that any such action might be misinterpreted, but he promises he will. Knowing that our final requests will be taken care of by our good friends, we feel comfortable leaving as the Flying Dolphin roars into the bay and takes us away, back to civilization. As I stand on the wing, watching the rocky shore of the Peloponessos passing, I wonder about the month I have spent in my grandmother's village. I think of the dozens of fish I had caught and eaten and the thousands who were relieved that I was finally gone. I think of the friends I have made there. Will I ever see them again? Will the Bulgarian get his house back? Will my grandmother's house be a parking-lot when I return? Will there be a neon light beckoning people to come for dinner at Katina's with an electronic sign announcing whether the night's special is chicken, kontosouvli or kokoretsi? I have a picture in my mind of hotels and beach chairs. The sacred waters of Vrissi's springs filling up swimming pools and laced with chlorine. A line of discos on the beach property that once belonged to my family. I know it sounds like a terrible exaggeration but in reality things change quickly in Greece.