As the 737 tips its wings across the dusty spine of the Pindus Mountains and banks to starboard on its approach to Eleftherios Venizelos airport, the eternal hills of Athens come into view. They lie like a woman behind a soiled mosquito net; the horizon, dirt-coloured mounds of thighs, ragged shoreline, like fingers, dangling over the mainland edge, into the cobalt sea. Here and there you catch a glimpse of glittery apartment windows and cars on the tangle of streets, smoke on the meandering coils of tarry tresses.
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The antiqued Tarzan in the tangerine Speedo has his package arranged just so and when he strikes a pose on the patio with one leg cocked at the knee in front of the other, his remarkably sinewy ass doesn’t jiggle a bit. I’m the only one looking, though. I know because no one has their head turned his way but me. Might be a regular performance, but not to me! I’ve got on dark glasses and I’m just a surreptitious Ferengi observer. Along with the aviator shades tucked high up on his forehead, he’s wearing a broad silver cuff on his left wrist. The red stone in the centre glitters in the punishing Saronic Gulf sun as he raises a sweating glass of retsina to his lips. He flips rock-star hair the colour of cigarette ash away from his cheeks and tucks his ribby Salvador Dali body into a canvas chair, picking up a bookmarked paperback, scanning the surrounding beach for nubiles. But it’s weeks after the end of season and they’ve all gone away – most likely back to nursing school or daddy.
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I’d heard that Greek men preferred sheep (you always grill the one you love?).
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We order Greek salad from Stella every day for lunch, and it’s glorious. Ruby chunks of tomatoes juicy with sunlight, cucumbers thick with the flavor of growing on vines in the ground under the relentless Peloponnesian sun, fat slices of red onion – sometimes marinated, sometimes not – topped off with a slab of feta cheese, the smoothest, creamiest feta cheese (no smell of goat or wet wool here) that turns out to Bulgarian rather than Greek (who knew?), a sprinkle of oregano plucked from the garden and a healthy douse of olive oil. No lettuce. Never lettuce, Stella says with horror.
We sop up what’s left in the bottom like desert-island survivors, using the heels of our bread and scouring the bowls clean. It feels like eating a party, it’s so exuberantly delicious.
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The taxi driver skids to a stop in a spray of gravel. He’s right on time. He heaves Leif’s bag into the trunk of the Mercedes, then my backpack, but my Samsonite is this side of too wide and too tall, but he jams it in on its side and straps the trunk lid shut with an arm’s length of tired bungee cord.
He opens our doors, then hops behind the wheel, tossing the buckle end of his seatbelt into the centre console. “Safety,” he says with a grin and guns the sedan north past our favourite gyros restaurant, in a direction we’ve not explored yet. The car picks up speed as he ascends into the dusty hills. It seems the ‘slow’ sign – blue circle rimmed with red – is a mere suggestion, and he tugs the steering wheel from left to right, not bothering to downshift, his thumb working the buttons on one of his cell phones. At 70 km an hour, he’s muttering a lot, wrenching around scooters going the speed limit.
The olive trees lining the side of the scantily paved goat track-road begin to blur. Just before each hairpin curve is a cluster of tidy houses tucked back from the road. The foreheads of the hills are creased into frowns. Up close we see they are miles and miles of neat dry fences made with fist-sized rocks – the Greek are obviously skilled masons with lots of time on their hands. Of course there are ruins everywhere you look, with new dwellings constructed on the foundations of old. To dig a foundation and unearth a clay shard or scrap of ancient bronze compels a full archeological survey, so ancient walls jut from the sides of modern houses like stony cowlicks. On the sides of the road, small shrines sit atop posts, miniature houses painted white and blue or rusting away; inside, faded photos of the departed behind grimy glass, huddle alongside a pair of little oil lamps, a handful of dusty plastic flowers and a pile of rosary beads.
Dear Lord, he’s careening into an S-turn, uphill, passing a woman in a business suit driving a red scooter at 80 clicks, even though it’s a double-yellow line and there’s a sheer drop on the left hand side and a grainy unforgiving-looking shoulder of stone on the right. He jerks back into his lane as a blaring rattletrap loaded with brown plastic barrels of olives roars by in a blur of stinking dust. I now understand the need for the prayer beads swinging wildly from the rear-view mirror, the rabbit’s foot suction-cupped to the dashboard.
There’s a school bus in front so he has to slow to 60 and I can actually see the scenery again. To the right, high up on a rocky hill spotted with clumps of scrub oleander, right near the top, no trails in sight, is an impossible handful of tiny stone dwellings, roofless. Who lived there, when and why? Surely even sheep would have had more sense than to scramble up that ochre-coloured scree or graze cant-legged with a spectacular view of Aegina Town.
We’ve passed the bus but our driver jams on the brakes as he exits the next long curve. The picto-sign attached to the white stone fence says ‘dead end’. How appropriate, as it fronts a field of urns full of olive branches and fresh flowers and white stone crosses in tight formation. A quick left through a small neighbourhood, then a procession of grocery stores and warehouses – we must be close to town. Ah, it’s market day. Old men with cigarettes drooping from indentations on the sides of their mouths perch on plastic chairs by bins of onions and braided garlic; matrons with shopping bags hanging from their scooter handles curve through the crowds to get a closer look at those red-orange carrots, the fresh-dug potatoes. A trim woman in a green sweater piles up figs on a counter by the dock, offering slivers of samples. She sips from a tall plastic cup of frappe. Farther along the street in the quay-side tavernas hang lines of glistening octopus drying like pulpy laundry. Our driver wheels past boats loaded with boxes of just-caught silvery fish curved into commas of rigor. He curses sotto voce in Greek – the language may be foreign but the cadence is universally familiar (something rude about someone’s mother or maybe their heritage, I think).
It’s only eight o’clock in the morning but the banks and kafenions are open. Men (and a handful of women tolerated at separate tables) sit in groups facing the street, like it’s a stage (and with that cacophony of colour and noise, it is theatre!), prolonging their carafaki ouzo with unfiltered cigarettes and arguments about politics or last night’s football.
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It feels like I’ve awakened in some hideous land of harpies. Okay, so it’s only 41 Euros a night plus breakfast – but this? I crawl out from under the thin sheets and peek out through the drapes. There’s a squad of weary-eyed black-clad women with tied-back graying buns and flat shoes milling about the courtyard of our hotel calling back and forth, laughing, gesturing as they get ready to pile into a shiny clunker and drive to the church on the hill. Their voices are at a frequency better suited to being heard by dogs and children. The cacophony is worse than a schoolyard – more like a barnyard. What do they find to talk about all the time? I know they’re all related because they’re always around the hotel, berating their desk-clerk relative when they’re not watching dubbed American soaps at high volume. They see each other every hour of every day. They don’t read the newspaper or books. When they sit, their hands are idle in their laps. Damn it, you’d think they’d be more contemplative on the Sabbath, keep fucking quiet on a Sunday morning, with the sun just barely up.
I put on my bathrobe and wander out onto our balcony. One spies me and starts shrieking a question in Greek. I press a finger to my lips and say Anglika – then katalaveno – Anglika. English – I don’t understand you – English, but the old bitch is so loud my ears vibrate. The others are laughing at our exchange like it’s high comedy. The witches of MacBeth had nothing on these shrews. Even the younger ones, distinguished by their upswept still-dark hair, seem hard-faced, as if they’re preparing to be angry and disappointed. Shouldn’t they all be in church already praying for something? If it was late afternoon, I’d think they were all drunk. I slam the wooden door shut and crawl back into bed thinking, I’m beginning to understand why the men stayed away at war. No wonder so many ancient Greeks killed their mothers and exiled their sisters.
There’s an ebb in the noise, a few giggles. Ah, there must be a man around. The women’s voices soften and then there’s an explosion of laughter. A second male voice rises from under the awning. I recognize that it’s Costas, the smooth-talking baker from down the street. Now the two men are talking/yelling and I catch the word ‘Manchester’ – ah, it’s about last night’s football. Aside from some sharp-faced Apollonia with Cleopatra eyes rattling off the news on the CNN feed from Turkey, and the quartet of fat talking heads on Greek TV, that’s all the men watch, channel-surfing from match to match with the fervor of junkies trying to find a usable vein. I’d be soccer-mad too, if life was so uneventful, so much the same from hour to hour every day. I smell cigarette smoke, harsh and dry in the soft morning air and recognize the brand smoked by Stavros, the old man whose daughter owns the hotel. Second hand smoke – more like 242nd hand smoke – is ubiquitous, except in church and nursery schools. The Marlborough man may have cashed in his own chips, but those red and white boxes are everywhere.
Where are the rest of the men, anyway? Haven’t seen any pretty Greek boys. Or ugly ones, for that matter. We’ve seen only a few between the ages of 20 and 50 and they look broken-down in some way. They can’t all be fishermen or travelling salesmen. Of course, there are the priests with scraggly grey ponytails. They stride down the street in their black flowerpot hats and swirling robes, wives dutifully following behind lugging the bags of groceries, but they don’t pay attention even when the street curs nip at their heels. Women run the bakeries, the jewellery stores, the restaurants, the bars.
There’s an old man with a tanned ball of a head who sits on a stool outside Helen’s Shop for most of the day, grinning at passersby, waving at the racks of discounted postcards and offering ‘bus teekets’. He looks to be about 80, but he’s sharp and has a wicked grin. He lives in a big house on the hill overlooking the bay, so business must be good during tourist season. One day we succumbed and stopped to pick up some cards to send back to the kids. The sale rack offered mainly faded, curled-up touristy scenes but the price was right so we bought half a dozen. Leif went off to pay (the old man wrote the total down on his hand with a ball-point pen and did the math to make change) and I moved on to the higher-value merchandise. For only .30 more, I could have selected from some of the vilest photos I’ve ever seen outside of a police evidence locker.
In one, a young woman smiles from under a bouffant brown hairdo, tanned legs spread wide, a silver padlock dangling from her labia below a neatly trimmed landing strip; an older gent with tired eyes busies himself between the thighs of a faceless woman, her dark bush arranged so that it looked like he was wearing her as a mustache; badly rendered copies of amphora depict grinning athletes, their oversized phalluses curved like scimitars, romping with equally naked horse-hung mates, some of whom were being mouthed by sinewy young men balanced like tripods on knees and massive organs. Is this what Euripides and Socrates did in their ‘down’ time? What was it called before the term ‘daisy-chain’ was invented? On another rack, pouty hairless men and breasty, red-lipped women, their eyes as energized as pistachio shells, stare into the cameraman’s lens from under Donnie and Marie hairdos, captured in positions I’d not have thought humanly possible except in Cirque de Soleil. But then again, they were young and doing it for money and, perhaps, a ‘career’.
If I turn to my right, there’s a rack of icon reproductions, glass hyperthyroidic blue and white eyes on strings that are good luck symbols and prayer beads. This is truly a country of contradictions!