Friday, January 9, 2009

My Greek Education

"Why Greece?"

This was the question posed to me by Stamos, bass player to "Defile des Ames" and new friend. I urgled something about how I liked it here and I'd been learning the language and yadda yadda, but it didn't satisfy his question, so he asked it again. I think actually he had to ask three times, and finally I brought in all of the dirt.
Love, the sea, the mystical signs of the universe, and instead of reacting with skepticism he just nodded thoughtfully and winked.


Which is very Greek.

This discussion was held at a bar that is very unlikely for the 29 year-old Paige to be seen in, but those of you who remember the Doc Marten, black lipstick wearing Paige of the days when Seattle was the coolest city on the universe and Kurt Cobain was god, well, she would be very impressed. The name of the bar is 'Underworld" and most people have seen this sort of place in action movies. In this scene the hero goes straight through the throng of spike-haired, chain wearing, trench coated goths that are thrashing around to pulsing bass drum and lyrics about "death and blackness, blackness everywhere, in your hair, which is dead..."(I just made those up but I bet if you google them they're in a song played at Underworld,) through the chain fence and past the mohawked bouncer to the little door where he's going to go converse with the resident hacker or techie genius, or maybe a villain who's sitting around a table with a bunch of Chinese prostitutes...

This is that bar, and I was there looking very cute in my yellow sweater from Anthropologie and sketching these two girls who looked like carbon copies of the same theme: Morticia Adams after too many Ho-ho's. There was an excellent documentary about Alexander Crowley playing on the overhead and as I mentioned, I was there with friends. Manos DJ's here as well as the little whiskey bar, Low Profile. The crowd and the music is entirely different but doubly entertaining for me, the observer.

Stamos, Manos and I celebrated New Year's eve on top of the rock of the Acropolis. From our vantage point we could see all of the fireworks displays of the city happening at the same time. I had Tom Waits playing "Hold On' on my little iphone speakers and we had champagne and chocolates, courtesy of Stamos. We smashed our glasses on the rock, making a wish before leaving the rock and entering into the new year.

I ended up going back to the same rock the next day by way of wandering with another sort of one-day-only friend named Panagiotis. Everything was closed so we just climbed up the hill and took in the view of the squillions of concrete buildings stitched into the valley, blue mountains all around.
"We have destroyed this land," said he, squinting and frowning and using a lot of hand motions to emphasize his point.

It is interesting that this ancient city with it's temples and shrines and history is also one with unbelievable amounts of graffiti! The tradition goes way back, I believe, with what is essentially "Antonio was here" carved into some of the Doric columns by Roman sentries, and of course Lord Byron made his mark during his stay, in more ways than one. Historians would probably see it as a disgrace, all of this defacing of monuments and architecture, but sociologists might argue that this is very in keeping with Athenian tradition of anarchy and saying "FU" to the gods. The other remarkable thing about the graffiti here is how colorful and positive it is in spite of the black views most Greek citizens have of the state of their country. Every single one that I have interviewed has mentioned how they don't approve of the Greek mentality, the backwards thinking, the corrupt religion and politicians, and yet when they speak of their traditions, literature, language...this is a love cemented by blood and time.

Not knowing the language is getting to me. I feel left out of the club and a little bit stupid. For every time I congratulate myself for knowing how to say something simple, like "A little more, please," I'm baffled when someone expects me to know how to say what it is I want more of! Some mornings I spend an hour or two over breakfast with a newspaper and Panos, the owner of the hotel. I carefully read out the headlines and he corrects me on my pronunciation. If I'm feeling very ambitious I try to understand what it is that I'm reading, but when I ask what a particular word means, Panos more often than not, has to launch into ancient mythology and folkloric concepts to help me with a definition. From what I gather at this point, most Hellenic language is rooted more in stories and metaphors than direct meaning. For instance, the word that is frequently thrown around for "terrorist" in the headlines, what with the riots, is "koukoula" or hood, cowl, and very similar to the word for cocoon and kernel and anything else that is closing in or protecting something. Quite possibly this is also true of English and I have never looked at it with fresh eyes to understand the connection between roots and meanings, but what a tangled language I've chosen, and this after ten years of flirting with Spanish. I still can't order a taco without pointing to the menu!

One morning I was studying over my "Speak Greek!" cheap-n-easy phrase book for tourists, trying to learn some adjectives I could use for expressing myself. I learned the word for "pretty" is "O-morfos," and that the word for "ugly" is "A-skimos." I learned the word for "terrible" is "fove-ROS" but could not find the word for something that would be the opposite of terrible. Something more than "Kala" (good) something really really great. So I asked Jasmine as she breezed by,
"What would the word be for something really really great? Something awesome?"
She looked down at my notepad where I was writing these words and pointed to "fove-ROS."
"Neh, that one. That means "really good."
"But that's not right, the book says it means terrible!"
"And that's what you get from learning a language from your books!" and left.

So the book is out. Panos has paired me up with two of the figures in his world that need to learn English and we spend maybe an hour a day each trying to communicate. One is a small, quiet guy named Takis. We usually meet at the coffee shop down the street where he hangs out and plays computerized poker. He actually owns another coffee shop near the university but for some reason he's always at this one. He's fluent in French but never paid much attention to English, and so we spend a lot of time staring blankly at each other, lacking even the words for "What is the word for..."
The other is an employee, a cleaner and cook at the hotel, named Rula. She's brassy and hot and is the reason I know a lot of bad words. She chooses to spend our conversations finding out about my sex life and telling me gossip about the "gang" that is the group of men in Panos's social circle, who on occasion invites me to a two hour long lunch of keftathakia (meatballs) patatas (potatas) bread, zucchini, wine, apples and bananas fried with ouzo and mastik, fava beans, octopus...
And there is the other love of the Greeks. They can spend the entire two hours slamming their government (and everyone else's for that matter) and I can't help but wonder how the attitude of the whole country would shift if they chose instead to talk about how incredible their food tasted, how much they love their wine, what they want to eat tomorrow or what they might have tasted today if they had not stuffed themselves like little "tiropitas" (cheese pies.) If they ran out of adjectives they could switch to metaphors, talking of food as the fruit of unrealized potential, all encompassed in one word with a lot of consonants. Probably "K."

"The good thing about Greece: Men pay."
This was actually from a Greek girl named Nelly as I tried to pay for a drink and her boyfriend insisted on paying for the both of us. It's a welcome change of culture, but I try not to take advantage of it too often as the food here is sort of ridiculous in cost. Fortunately for me the street food is equilateral in fantastictitude in economic sense, taste, and availability. For under three euro I have many many dining choices. My favorites are the aforementioned tiropites, from a bakery down the street, and souvlaki from a stand around the corner. A teensie-weensie taverna that is passed up by most tourists for it's size and sparse decor has chickpea and lemon soup served with feta in oil and a giant piece of brown bread for five euro. Damn the noveau-riche hippies for making salads so trendy and thereby so outrageously expensive because every once and a while I think that if I don't find some green I'm going to wither and die, but the Greeks have one of the longest life expectancies in Europe, so I'm not going to worry about it just now.

And who knows, maybe I will find one of these Greek boyfriends that insists on paying for my fifteen euro salad. I read once about a woman who started accepting every offer she got for a date because she was so tired of being single. She kept a chronicle and made it into a book because some of the results were so entertaining. One time she was invited to go riding around with an ice cream man in his truck, for instance. Unfortunately I cannot do the same because the propositions here seem to be a little more involved. A street performer from Congo, named "Filo" invited me to come and live with him. A waiter at a taverna suggested I marry him, and an older gentleman at the next table waited until he left to say that marriage wasn't necessary. Perhaps I would just like to escort him to dinner and the occasional movie? Life would be very convenient if it weren't for all of those pesky morals and solid upbringing. Don't worry mom, I may have failed algebra, but I mastered the art of the diplomatic response as well as a cat-like agility in getting away from a hungry dog. All the same, you better keep those prayers coming.

I love my little hotel house. I'm including some photos so everyone can see how beautiful and cozy it is, as well as some pictures of Jasmine and Rula. I've been so blessed with matriarchal characters throughout my life, women who exude strength and wisdom. In the past they have come in the form of my mother, my godmother, my enchilada lunch-partner, my belly-dancing instructor/coffee guru. These are the two in my life right now, granting me with daily lessons in how to stay in love with life. Sometimes in Greek, laced with bits of colorful profanity, because why not?