Arkhe tou paramythiou, kalispera sas, is a traditional beginning of a Greek fairy tale. The fairy tale begins, good evening to you.
I lived in Athens, at the intersection of a prostitute and a saint. It was a neighborhood of mixed high-rises and a scattering of neoclassical houses, some boarded up while the owners waited to be offered the right price for their inheritance. The neighborhood hardware stores carried, along with screwdrivers and lengths of wire and caulking pastes, icon frames with electric lights in the shape of candles attached, so you wouldn’t have to inconvenience yourself with oil for the perpetual flame. All the neighborhood shops—the laundry, the butcher’s, the vegetable market, the TV and appliances store, the cheap dress shop and the bridal gown shop, the school supplies shop with its large-sized brightly colored picture books of Greek myths and tales of Alexander the Great—were defended by charms against the evil eye suspended over their counters. If you took the evening volta, stroll, that provides most Athenians with their exercise during the punishingly hot times of the year, certain streets gave you glimpses of Mount Hymettus, smudged with darkening violet light, like a drawing someone had started and then decided to cross out with ink.
The tiny cottage of an apartment I moved into yesterday has already begun to teach me what a different world I have come to, physically, socially, historically. It is no easy matter to find apartments with furniture and kitchen appliances here. In Greece, the tenant is supposed to supply these things. Until 1983, when the obligatory dowry—the prika—a woman brought to her husband was declared illegal, refrigerators and beds were components of the marriage agreement. And for the most part, unmarried people until fairly recently lived with their parents, and had no need for their own domestic equipment. Even now, when it is common for couples to marry later, and to live together before they do, many people I know from previous visits live in a kind of compromise between independence and family surveillance. Their parents or grandparents built family-only apartment buildings in which each child of adult age is housed on a different floor, along with members of the extended family, who wander in and out of each other’s living rooms, dandling each other’s babies, stirring each other’s pot of stifado, hoping to catch a glimpse of the man Kiki has gone out with three times in the last month.
The miniature living room of this flat is dominated by a ballroom-size chandelier, a persistent element of the middle-class Greek idea of grandeur in decoration, probably translated into homes from Orthodox churches, which usually feature monumental gilt chandeliers, their branches supporting a rain of votive offerings. There is also a glass-fronted trinket cabinet, which displays a blue and white Greek flag, some seashells, a souvenir china plate from the island of Paros, and a narghile, or hookah, the Middle Eastern water pipe. In the tiny kitchen, there is the ubiquitous dull white marble sink, and a bottle of Ajax cleanser, which promotes itself here through its claims to whiten marble. Marble is more common than wood in southern Greece, and an apartment building which takes itself at all seriously will have marble floors and steps, at least in the entrance.
A narrow balcony runs the length of the two rooms, overlooking the courtyard dotted with green trees in clay pots, an attempt at a city garden from the tenants of the ground floor. There is a balcony etiquette I will have to master, I realized yesterday, even through my jet lag. I suddenly understood the cliché about airing laundry in public, as the neighbors frankly scrutinized my lingerie and the patterns on my sheets as I hung them out to dry. The balconies are proportioned to the size of the apartment, and across the way, on a substantial balcony, a neighbor is handling her line, pins, and draped laundry with the grace and expertise of Madame Vionnet fitting a mannequin. She looks at me impassively. I know I am affording her an odd spectacle—I have never lost a freezing childhood fear of heights, and to lean out over a fatal drop to dry my laundry gives me a sudden image of the characters in North by Northwest as they scramble over Mount Rushmore with a gunman in pursuit. I have to close my eyes for each garment. A badly positioned dress drips a steady purple rain onto the balcony railing below, and a black lace bra spirals down into the courtyard when a clip pulls loose. The neighbor stares at me, and I leave the field, making a show of not clinging to the walls, disguising the symptoms of hyperventilation.
Recovering with a cup of coffee inside I hear a scratching sound from the front room; a handful of leaflets has been thrust under the door. Greek apartments, I discover, are leafleted as thickly as American college dormitory rooms. The local movie theater offers a showing of a film starring Yuppy Goldberg, as she transliterates to Greek, and a school of foreign languages offers me French, English, German, and Italian. It takes no more than a drive from the airport to realize how critical the study of foreign languages is in Greece. One of the most common neighborhood sights is the colorful signs offering the teaching of xenes glosses.
I remember a drive I took across the United States a few years ago. From one end of the continent to another, I did not see a school for foreign languages. They were there, of course, but to be sought out. Here, though, they are ubiquitous; it is hard to walk more than a city block without seeing schools or posters advertising them, as if foreign languages were some kind of vital substance you needed constantly to replenish, a milk. In Greece, where every enterprise that involves language—publishing, entertainment, journalism, tourism—is dependent on the roughly nine million people who speak Greek, knowing one or more foreign languages is a professional necessity. Businessmen, politicians who deal with European Community officials, doctors who must keep abreast of foreign research, writers who here largely make their living on translations, all need foreign languages in order to survive. There used to be an unanswerable ironic phrase in Greek, “What says meow-meow on the roof tiles?” the equivalent of “Is the pope Catholic?” But friends tell me that it now has an answer—“A dog who is learning foreign languages.”
The evolution of Greek from the language of a world into the language of a nation has profoundly affected the country, both externally and internally. The history of ancient Greece entered the store of common knowledge as the history of modern Greece has not, and in casual conversation with Greek friends, I have frequently witnessed irritable outbursts against various English dictionaries which conspiratorially assign Latin roots to words instead of Greek. Browsing in bookstores outside Greece, I have much more easily found works on French or German or Spanish history and biography than on modern Greece. Modern Greek literature in translation seems hard to come by. The scarcity probably begins with childhood circumstance; lessons in those other languages were readily available. I wonder how it affects people here to have to add the learning of languages to other everyday necessities, and I wonder how it affects native English speakers to be in possession of the current lingua franca, a status once held by Latin, and before that, by Greek. Being able to rely on the dominance of English may affect English speakers’ ability to approach and imagine other cultures—as if they were rich children who have inherited such an enormous trust fund that they can choose whether or not to go to work.
The third leaflet offers a six-volume set of the classics of modern Greek literature. It is promised, as if it were in doubt, that the introductions by prominent Greek scholars will “reveal to us the greatness of the deeds and spirits” of the founders of the modern nation. Pictures of the gilt-edged volumes are set against the backdrop of a nineteenth-century painting, showing romantic warriors wearing the foustanella, the pleated Greek kilt, in repose among the ancient columns of the Parthenon—the classical past defended by the creators of modern Greece. The books are the collected writings of Kolokotronis, Krystallis, Valoritis, Solomos, and Makriyiannis, all men of the nineteenth century, when the Greek nation violently entered history. It occurs to me as I look at the elaborately bound books offered by the leaflet that I have never heard them mentioned in speeches by tour guides I have overheard in museums, or listened to on bus trips. The emphasis is usually on Thucydides, Aristotle, or Sappho; paradoxically, it is the history of modern Greece that seems more distant. The past which can be remembered as well as imagined, the recent past which directly produced the manners, customs, and political situation of the nation we travel to, seems almost too complex to approach.
Kolokotronis and Makriyiannis were military leaders of the Greek War of Independence of 1821 against the Ottoman Turks—these two soldiers so despised each other that the Greek campaign against the Turks nearly became a civil war as well. The engravings show both men wearing oriental turbans and the highly prized elaborate oriental mustaches. In features, costume, and expression, they could be chieftains from any Near or Middle Eastern country. They could be Afghan. They could be Syrian. They could be Turks. All six of them display the self-consciously stern, imposing jailor’s facial expression that means authority in Greece. Taki, a Greek friend of mine, shook his head once over a picture of Franklin Roosevelt that accompanied a review of a biography, and said irritatedly, “That face. I can never understand that face, that inane smile.” In the Greek vocabulary of the face, smiling does not include the nuance of power that it does in the United States. Roosevelt’s sunny optimistic smile had an air, for Americans, of invincibility, of mastery of both good and bad fortune, because to possess happiness is a kind of authority in America, barely comprehensible to Taki, who saw smiling as a kind of placation, a sign of submission, and in whose native tongue the verb “to laugh” also means “to deceive.” This different language of the face begins at passport control in each country. The Americans smile in their booths with an easy self-assurance that enjoyment cannot threaten; the Greeks scowl theatrically, implacably, since a smile is not considered an impressive facial expression, and a male face is meant above all to impress, not to charm.
The group of men in conventional nineteenth-century European dress are men of letters. Solomos, whose poem to freedom was set as the national anthem, is considered the national poet. He and General Makriyiannis share a quality that makes them not only eminent personalities in the struggle to found the Greek nation, but symbols of it. Solomos, the bastard son of a Greek maidservant and an Italian count who lived on the Ionian island of Zakinthos, is the symbol of the Greece created out of the embrace of European and Greek cultures. Makriyiannis, who said that Greece and Europe could never learn each other’s dances, and who was instrumental in bringing about the fall of the Bavarian king who had been dispatched to rule over the new nation, is the symbol of the Greece created out of the rejection of Europe. That simultaneous rejection and embrace of Europe shifts and collides still, like tectonic plates, under the surface of the country.
Makriyiannis and Solomos had another common quality which established them as symbols of modern Greece: their relation to Greek. Solomos, who was educated in Italian and had a child’s imprint of the simple Greek of his mother, had virtually to teach himself Greek in order to write poetry in the language. Makriyiannis was semiliterate, and had to learn to write Greek as an adult in order to record his memoirs. In their rebirth as Greeks, they were seen as proofs of “the Greek miracle,” resurrected. And in this nation, which sees itself as the true birthplace of Christianity, and whose national history is seen as a reenactment of the life of Christ, so that the Greek national holiday is deliberately celebrated on the day of the annunciation of Mary’s pregnancy, resurrection is an idea with an erotic power over the national imagination, invoked, yearned for, caressed, an image as present in pop songs as it is on church walls. Yesterday, riding in a taxi, I caught a line on the radio through the chaos of Athens traffic: “And if you cut me in half, I’ll love twice as much.”
Most non-Greeks, in my experience, have never heard of these men. I hadn’t myself until the first time I came here, and felt the eerie sensation of disorientation I recognized from my childhood; I had grown up without knowing my parents, although intensely aware of their existence in my own body, made out of elements of theirs. So I knew something about beings who are powerfully present without being visible to others, and I knew something about lost worlds, even though my lost world was the past, and the lost world of Greece was the present. Greece, too, was preoccupied with questions of origins, however different the configuration. Having to use my imagination to understand the impact of tragically real events had made me aware of imagination’s enormous force—for good and evil—in every aspect of our lives, even in realms supposedly free of it, in law, science, and politics, in history and economics, in learning and ignoring, in describing and in lying, in crime and in love. In Greece I saw a nation both tormented and exalted by imagination.
The doorbell rings, and I answer it a little uncertainly, not knowing quite how cautious to be. Standing outside is a small, sturdy woman with carefully architected gray curls. She is holding a tray of some unrecognizable cookies, and is dressed in a flowered smock. The entire floor smells like a swimming pool, thanks to the heavily chlorinated cleansers popular in Greek households. “Welcome to Greece,” she says, “I am Kyria Maro. If you have any questions, knock at my door. I am a friend of your landlady’s, so if you cannot reach her for some reason you can come to me. Any questions at all. And,” she adds in grandmotherly tones, as if she were imparting some domestic golden rule about doing the dishes or the frugal use of electricity, “you know, Macedonia is Greek.” She hands me the china plate and tells me to return it whenever it should happen that I have the time, and clacks down the hall in her slippers.
I look down at the plate—I have never seen any confections in these shapes before, and I can’t anticipate the flavor of any of them. There is one in quadrants, like a pastry kite, another like a ridged sausage, another like a piece of fried lace. I might as well be living on the moon. It seems I will need a new body in order to live here, that the demands of a new country begin as demands on the body. I feel the weight and alienness of the food, the light, this world where a day has a different geography, and a life moves through time and space differently. I feel the tug of Greek words as a change in the force of gravity, and as the plate of pastries in my hand posits a different conception of appetite than I know, and a different conception of pleasure, I begin to understand that this language will perceive the body, and the world itself, differently from my own. This is the moment when travel is felt most absolutely, when time and space and history and emotion exert a force on the body, and the distances you are traveling inside are as great as the distance you have traveled outside.
I have some basic household staples to buy and a bank account to set up before I meet some friends in central Athens for lunch. It takes deep breaths and resolution to get myself down the three flights of stairs onto the neighborhood streets. The first month in a new country is an exhausting one; every object, every face, every incident comes at you the size of faces on a giant screen. You are exhausted from paying attention, and even sleep is sleepless, because the magnified days, the fifty-foot words, the towering new conventions insist their way into your dreams, too.
Athens is a city that brims with people, but it can often seem like a city no one lives in; it has a haunted quality. All the unseen worlds of the past, classical, medieval, Ottoman (of which there are few reminders left, except in the language, because the Greeks so hate the evidence), surround you, above and beneath. The underworld is always present, the world of the dead. And the jumble of houses, the abandoned nineteenth-century mansions in odd corners, the tiny houses that were built at the turn of the century by villagers and look exactly like village houses, the white-washed boxes built for refugees from Asia Minor in the 1920s, now overshadowed by large apartment buildings on either side like grownups holding the hands of a child about to cross the street, give Athens the feeling that everyone here is both himself and his own ghost.
It seems almost impolite, somehow tactless, to notice how unlike any other neighborhood streets in any other country these are. I pass two or three icon stores in the space of six or eight blocks, hung with rows of sullen female saints, dead-eyed male saints, looking as if they are at the last moment of control before an explosion of anger. The more expensive images have ornate frames or silvered-over clothes. Women buy them and women tend them, lighting oil flames in front of them, burning incense, and misting them with holy water as if they were sacred house plants. I never actually saw a man buy one, not during the year I spent in Greece; and I often remembered, as I walked by these stores, that during the two periods of fierce Byzantine iconoclasm, both times the defense of icon worship was sponsored by women, the empresses Theodora and Irene. There is something disturbing about all those blank, pent-up-looking faces that demands propitiation, like a child’s desperate attempts to please a remote, miser-able parent. And there is something poignant, too, as if they are only so alike because they need to be rescued into individuality, they need the mercy of tending, one reason little girls play with dolls.
I walk past yet another icon shop, past those bitter faces imprisoned in their silver cells. I look for a moment past the street of Phryne, beyond a small green square, to the street of Agios Fanourios, the revealer, patron saint of illumination, who finds lost objects and gives glimpses of the future. He is also famous for having had such a monstrous mother that on his name day, one formulaic prayer runs: “God pardon the mother of Agios Fanourios.”
At my intersection, Phryne, the prostitute, was a courtesan in the fourth century BC, the lover of the sculptor Praxiteles, and the model for what seems to have been the first monumental statue of the female nude. She was also the only woman in antiquity to have won a lawsuit with her own eloquent breasts. When she was about to be condemned by the Athenian court for immoral conduct, she pulled her dress from her shoulders down to her waist in front of the judges, who, transfixed, ruled in her favor. In a world where speech and thought were neither the rights nor the privileges of women, Phryne found a way to pose philosophical questions with her body. “Are you immoral?” she asked the judges. “Is desire immoral? What is immorality?”
This story may or may not be true. And all we know of the looks of this standard of female beauty in the Greek and Roman worlds is our dream of them. We only know the lost Aphrodite of Knidos from Roman copies and images on coins, made by artists who probably never saw the original statue, and certainly never saw the woman. In any case, the statue was rejected by the islanders of Kos who commissioned it; they considered its nakedness immoral.
Intersecting the street of Phryne, forming a rough cross with it, flecked with small shops, is the street of Fanourios, a saint who was satisfied that as a Christian he had found the answer to Phryne’s questions. Following the consequences of his logic, he submitted himself to the sacred suicide of virginity and martyrdom, instead of the profane suicide of sexuality. Greek polytheists were not “pagan,” in the licentious interpretation of the word given by their religious rivals. An old Greek word for pagan is ethnikos, which is synonymous with “national,” as in the national flag. I didn’t know you were ethnikos, says a Christian to a polytheist in one of Cavafy’s poems.
The Greek polytheists regarded the body with their own kind of mystical puritanism, believing that each sexual act diminished in some degree the vital force of the partners, and even shortened their lives. Their ideal was a highly stylized and controlled kind of sexual contact, in which the “passive” partner was always to some degree humiliated, and which looks from the scenes on vase paintings to have been really very dull. Perhaps it is no accident that the body of myths assembled, invented, reinvented, and anthologized from a variety of sources by the ancient Greeks is one of the least erotic of the world’s mythologies, rivaled perhaps only by the mythology of the ancient Israelites. The source of sexual tension in ancient Greek myth is not so much the drive to the ecstasy of consummation, as uncertainty whether either or both partners will survive the sexual act. This thread runs through all the stories of the young men and women who are killed after lovemaking with each other or the gods; through all the stories of rape, a sexual act in which there is always an implicit threat of murder; and on a global scale, through the Iliad, in which generations and nations die because Helen and Paris lay down together.
I realize now how much being on the courtyard side of the building shields me from the noise of the streets. Athens streets are substantially noisier to my ear than New York’s, because of the ubiquitous motorcycles and from the incessant gear-shifting here, where nobody drives automatic.
I am on my way to the laiki agora, the farmers’ market, held on different days of the week in different neighborhoods throughout the city. The traffic is anarchic, and walking here requires acute scouting attention. Cars simply drive over curbs; motorcycles wanting to pass weave through the pedestrians on the sidewalks; and often cars are parked directly on the sidewalks, further narrowing the slim margin of safety separating pedestrians from the onslaught. Traffic is worse today because there is a bus strike—the conservative Mitsotakis government and the bus drivers’ union are struggling over the government’s attempt to privatize the buses. There are hints that the trolleys and taxis will soon strike in sympathy. Walking everywhere doesn’t trouble me, since I am used to some five miles a day, but I wonder what it will do to elderly people like Kyria Maro if they have heavy groceries or errands downtown.
A red light halts me at the periptero, one of the kiosks for newspapers, aspirin, batteries, and the cold drinks that are crucial in the southern Greek summer, when thirst is felt more violently than hunger. I am caught in a crossfire of stares: a motorcyclist has turned his face away from the lights toward me and is staring with dedicated attention, while the periptero man has me covered from the other side. It is very hard to get used to, but there is no social prohibition against frank, assessing, concentrated staring, and my first pervasive sensation in Greece is of those eyes—the stares of the coffee-drinking shopkeepers, the gazing icons, the tin and glass eyes dangling from key chains and rearview mirrors and hung over doors as protection against harm from living eyes.
The periptero man waves me over. “You just move here?” he asks, framed by newspapers hanging over his head like national flags from wooden poles. There are the Everydays, the Afternoons, the Newses, the Free Presses, the Uprootings, as some of the dizzying range of Greek newspapers, journals usually openly affiliated with political parties, are called. There is Estia, named after the goddess of the hearth, which in the nineteenth century serialized many of the first modern Greek novelists, and is now one of the most vitriolic of right-wing papers, referring to Bosnia-Herzegovina as a “Turkish protectorate.” There are the magazines named as if they were philosophical categories: Images, It Is, She, Woman, One, and the Greek satirical paper The Mouse.
“Yes, I’m here for a year,” I answer, aware of the constantly shifting passage through Athens of diaspora Greeks, students, tourists, international scholars, and EC employees. I choose a carton of strawberry juice from the kiosk refrigerator. Except for certain wines and cold mountain water, I have never drunk anything as perfect as Greek fruit juices, each as distinct in timbre and character as the instruments of an orchestra.
“And you’re Greek?” the peripteras asks.
“No,” I say.
“But you speak Greek?”
“Yes, but I still talk a lot of ardzi, bourdzi, and loulas,” I say, using a Greek phrase for nonsense that amuses people when they hear it, a phrase that plays with the idea of being fluent in nonsense.
“So how much a week do you have to live on?” he asks.
“Enough for horta, greens, at the laiki,” I say, and catch the light to cross.
“Well, buy your newspapers here,” he calls after me, “and you can practice your Greek too. Here we speak Greek for absolutely nothing. Even though it is an expensive language to speak.”
Just beyond, a shop window offers a new line of wedding and baptism invitations, all embossed with a gold Star of Vergina, the symbol marking some of the grave treasures of Philip of Macedonia, Alexander the Great’s father. The stalls of the laiki are hung with the most beautiful fruits and vegetables I’ve ever seen: olives in many colors, grapes so real they make fancy grocers’ bunches seem like Victorian wax ornaments, eggplants that are the royal porphyry that was the exclusive color of the Byzantine imperial family, branches of bay leaves that are called Daphne here, after the nymph who metamorphosed into the laurel tree to escape being raped by Apollo. “Wherever I go and wherever I stay,” wrote the novelist Kazantzakis, “I grasp between my teeth, like a bay laurel leaf, Greece.”
The sellers shout for the shoppers’ attention. “Aromata kai khromata,” perfumes and colors, says one, scooping up handfuls of ruby-colored cherries. He gives me one to sample and enjoys my response. The fruit has something more than flavor; it evolves—it has drama. “It’s the sun,” he says. “We get more sun than any other country in Europe, and it concentrates all the sugars in the fruits and vegetables. And we pick them ripe, just before we sell them.” The only other place I find with fruits and vegetables to equal this brilliance, when I travel there at the end of my year here, is Turkey.
I pass a stall with barrels of grains that are collectively called here demetriaka, after the Greek goddess Demeter, as we call them cereals, after the Roman goddess Ceres, a subtle reminder of complicated historical fissures and parallels.The Western world is called the Western world because it descends from the western Roman Empire, while Greece belonged to the eastern Roman Empire of Byzantium. The polarity of the relations between the two and the cultural dominance of one over the other are rarely as clear in their contrasts as they are often presented. These empires seemed not so much to face each other like black and white champions across a chessboard as to be enmeshed dynamically together, more a spiral than a chessboard, in a cultural struggle that could never be fully resolved or completely clarified, because each side was so marked by the characteristics of the other it had taken on. Each side at times confronted the other in opposition, but at others adopted the more insidious method of incorporating its rival, like two actors competing for the same role. It was even common in the second century for Romans and Greeks to see each other’s alphabets in their sleep. The interpreter who recorded these dreams remarks, “If a Roman learns the Greek alphabet or a Greek learns the Roman alphabet, the former will take to Greek pursuits, the latter to Roman. Many Romans, moreover, have married Greek wives, and many Greeks, Roman wives, after having this dream.” Elite Roman children had Greek nurses, and Greek literature and decorative arts had something like the prestige and elegance of French for nineteenth-century Russians or Persian for the Ottoman Turks.
I remember having dinner with a teacher who worked at one of the most prestigious Greek prep schools, who told me her high school class had flatly refused to read Virgil’s Aeneid. Greek high school students have a reputation for being ungovernable; I heard teachers’ stories of classes who, en masse, refused exams, and of idle weeks passing while students went on strike, attending school but doing no schoolwork, in the service of various causes. These particular students held it as dogma that the Aeneid was a cheap imitation of Homer, responding with a popular Platonism, present in both the ancient Greek preoccupation with sculpture and the modern Greek preoccupation with icons, that insisted there was one ideal original, and the rest of the genre was increasingly false and bloodless.
“It’s as if they accused Chopin of being a cheap imitation of Beethoven, without of course having heard him,” the teacher said to me frustratedly. They were unable to see Virgil’s poem as a radical reinterpretation of the epic and the epic hero. It was an ironic thing to hear, since the borders of influence were so permeable—the Byzantine Empire, which evolved into an empire dominated by Greeks, was founded by a Latin-speaking Roman, now one of the important saints of the Greek church, and the language of this empire, later to become Greek, was originally Latin, and remained Latin for an ample number of centuries. Besides, the Greeks called themselves, well into the twentieth century, Romans, and their word for quintessential Greekness had been Romiosyni, Romanness.This historical vertigo had been brought home to me by the title of a modern short story which described a quintessential Greek Orthodox Easter. The title of the story was “Romaic Easter.” Through the strange spiral of this history, the Greeks evolved into their conquerors.
The Byzantine emperors, though, in the eastern empire, were the emperors of the crossroads—not only did the Byzantines have to claim to Rome that they were the real Romans, but they had to declare to their rivals in the Middle East—the Persians, the Jews, the Arabs, and the Turks—that they were the Roman Empire. Partaking of the cultures of both the West and the East, but fully integrated with neither, Byzantium was a transvestite empire, partly both but also neither, the Empire of the Crossroads, whose preoccupation with dual natures of all kinds, from its man-gods to Diyenis Akritas, its own epic hero, the biracial knight of the border, is its most ineradicable legacy to modern Greece. Diyenis (of two races) Akritas, the medieval Greek hero, son of an Arab chieftain and an aristocratic Greek lady, was to have been the subject of the second part of Kazantzakis’s The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel.
A boy calls for customers to riffle through his stock of used CDs—the one in his right hand has a picture of one of the finest current pop singers, and I go closer to read the title: Our National Loneliness.
I wander past stalls selling utensils of the worst possible design, waste bins with lids that don’t fit, plastic colanders that would melt on contact with boiling water, cheap clothes in punitively ugly prints. I can’t find the simplest glass mixing bowl, only greasy plastic, so I turn back, changing my plan for the eggplant and olives—in any case, the genius of the flavors will overcome the limitations of the cook, like a person thrust from private life into fame. My marketing is snatched from my arms suddenly by a wiry, sixtyish man, whose eyes behind his old-fashioned glasses are brown like weak coffee, and anxious. He shoves a hand under my elbow and pulls me toward the street. “You must come with me, you must come with me,” he says urgently. My thoughts are of fire, riot police, terrorists. “What is happening?”
“Hurry,” he says, “hurry up. I want to have coffee with you.” A struggle ensues over my packages, which I win, thanks to my new height. Having stepped through the mirror to this country, I find that I am no longer small as I was in the United States, but have become magically taller than doctor.”
“But I am perfectly healthy.” I escape down a side street past a grim-looking restaurant full of men reading newspapers and eating hot food. It is a genre of restaurant you find tucked away in city neighborhoods, patronized by old bachelor and widower habitués, with no wives or mothers to cook for them. The men settle at their separate tables as if they were distinct worlds, eating in silence, in a kind of public solitary confinement.
Another person calls to me, this time a girl in blue jeans standing on the corner beside a stack of books piled on an upended crate. “Do you need a new one?” she asks.
“What are they?” I slow down, shift my packages, and climb toward her. Athens is all ascent and descent, like San Francisco, and readjusting your balance is what walking is about as much as covering distance. She holds up a volume and flips the pages. “Dream books. Oneirokrites.”
Actually, I did bring one. But it was written in the second century, the Oneirokritika, a handbook of dreams collected by a professional dream interpreter named Artemidorus, who traveled in Greek cities, and recorded and classified the dreams people told him in order to make a manual of the art of dream interpretation for his son. It is a social history of shocking intimacy, a study of the unconscious lives of people of another world, trying to divine the future through their dreams, while we, so far away, try to divine the past. The Oneirokritika was translated into Arabic in 873, and was an inspiration for the great dream book of Ad-Dinawari, published in 1006; in the West, it must have been an inspiration for Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams.
“I do have one,” I say, “but it’s old.”
“You are foreign?” she asks, and I nod. “How long have you lived here?”
“Then you will need a new one.You will have new dreams here.”
That was true, so I count out the drachmas, and slip the book into my string bag next to a kilo of white peaches. I pass another jewelry store—there is a remarkably dense concentration, maybe five within a space of nine blocks or so, in this modest middle-class neighborhood—thinking of a story about the great Greek poet George Seferis, who on a summer’s visit to an island, I think in the 1970s, encountered a woman holding a jar of honey in one hand and a tattered book in the other. “Take my honey, my boy,” she said, “and when you get back to Athens, send me a new dream book, this one is worn to pieces.” The importance of these oneirokrites was mentioned by an Oxbridge classicist named Lawson, who visited here around the turn of the century and wrote a book examining the survival of pre-Christian practices in the contemporary Greece he visited, a study which is also a travel book of great charm. Lawson’s book is in many ways as much an experience of traveling in an Edwardian gentleman’s England as it is of traveling in Greece, as all travel books are as much retracings as they are journeys forward, explorations too of the country left behind, which may be just as unknown as the territory ahead.
I have a personal affection for Lawson, for his both sympathetic and independent imagination and his gently satirical turn of mind. I like him for confessing to seeing a nymph in an olive grove near Sparta: “Had I possessed an initial faith in the existence of nymphs and in the danger of looking upon them, so lifelike was the apparition that I might have sworn as firmly as did my guide that it was a nymph we had seen, and might have required as strong a dose as he at the next inn to restore my nerves.” Later, on the island of Mitilini, I would hear an earthy Greek rhyme recorded by Lawson about a superstition of the bad effects Christian priests have on virility, warning that “if you see a priest on the road, hang on to your balls.” With endearing Edwardian discretion, Lawson had rendered it into Latin: Si per viam sacerdoti occures, testiculos tuos teneto. And I remember just now that Lawson had often seen advertisements in Athenian newspapers for new editions of some Megas Oneirokritis, or “Great Dream Interpreter,” the same title as the book I had just bought. “In isolated homesteads,” he wrote, “to which the Bible has never found its way, I have several times seen a grimy tattered copy of such a book preserved among the most precious possessions of the family, and honored with a place on the shelf where stood the icon of the household’s patron-saint and whence hung his holy lamp.”
I just have time to put down my shopping and run for the downtown trolley on the neighborhood’s main wide avenue, dodging the underworld of stray Athenian cats. A moving van is parked outside of one of the apartment buildings, stacks of cardboard containers resting on a dolly next to it, and two sweaty black-haired men approaching it carrying a dining table. The word “Metaphors” is painted on both sides of the van in brilliant blue. Here it means transportation. I will never be able to use the word again without the image of a meaning heaved onto the back like household furniture to be carried to its new residence.
The trolley is of Russian manufacture and populated with women on their way to the city center for errands and shopping. It runs past the small neighborhood park, a glowing oasis that smells like a herbalist’s. Drosia, I heard someone murmur from a bench under one of the trees yesterday, the Greek word for dew, for freshness and cool, a word that like a trembling molecule is set into the Greek notion of erotic desire. It is extraordinary to realize out of what local materials and experiences large ideas are made—that the dream of a desired body, the imagination of an embrace, is shaped here by the searing merciless heat and stone that irritated Cicero; here the word freighted with the greatest weight of longing is dipsa, thirst, and in love poems lovers drink the dew from each other’s lips, and are refreshed in each other’s arms as if dew fell on them. I felt my whole body undertake the translation, yesterday, the new sense of what longing and desire might be, when I stood inside the park in a dense pool of wavering emerald shadows, where the darkness was not nocturnal but fertile. Leaving the street to find this was like kissing someone you have waited to kiss for a long time.
Most of the ladies cross themselves three times as they pass a church, built in the cruciform Byzantine way, with a dome whose Pantokrator, the image of Christ the ruler of everything, can be imagined from outside without entering. It is an odd fact that except for details regarding particular saints, you know from outside the pattern of decoration in an Orthodox church; in my New York neighborhood, there are Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, and Jewish temples, but I couldn’t guess at their interiors without peering in.
I have a copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on my lap, which I brought with me, along with Artemidorus’ Oneirokritika, Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, a cookbook of Claudia Roden’s, and a few others. But the barrage of new sights from the window makes it hard for me to concentrate on anything else. Huckleberry Finn is suddenly lifted out of my hands and examined by a stout middle-aged lady wearing brown support hose and an arsenal of jewelry. She puts it back into my hands with neither prelude nor farewell, and communicates her finding to her seat partner. “Galliki glossa,” she says firmly, “French,” gesturing toward me. “A French girl.”
October 3, 1996