IT’S APRIL 21, 1971, and we are about to go fishing. Four years to the day after the colonels’ coup, and ZHTO H 21 APRILIOU 1967 is whitewashed (or picked out with specially espaliered shrubbery?) on mountainsides in Corfu and outside of Athens, but not here in Samos—not yet.
We have lived here a month or two, my husband Stavros and I. Samos is his island. But his village, Marathokampos, a town spread out over a steep hillside (to be out of reach of pirates, I was told), unmapped, gloomy, full of narrow alleyways and overhanging verandas, seemed to me ungenial. So we have rented a two-room house in Ormos, right by the sea.
Ormos, the harbor town of Marathokampos and a few kilometers downhill from the larger village, is on the southwestern coast of Samos. Looking south out the front window on a clear day, I can see other islands: tiny Samiopoula and possibly (I’m never sure) Patmos. Or is it Leros? To the east, the tall hills of central Samos block out the Turkish coast. To the west, the great gray stone mountain Kerkis looms (all mountains are stone, I suppose, but most of them take more trouble to clothe their nakedness). Here Pythagoras is supposed to have hidden on his flight west to Italy. Halfway up the mountain is a convent; the two or three elderly nuns who inhabit it “go by the Old Calendar,” as it’s said here. Women climbing up to visit them have to wear skirts. Sometimes down in Ormos after it gets dark we can see the convent’s tiny lamp shining against the black bulk of the mountain.
Marathokampos is at our backs, a little northwest of Ormos. But the persistent wind that blows right out of the north always seems to me to be coming from Russia, the Black Sea, fields of windswept wheat. A glance at the map would disabuse me of this notion, but we each have our personal geography. Mine finds the direct north-south orientation of Ormos, and the relatively straight line of this part of the southern coast, profoundly satisfying. I grew up on Riverside Drive in New York; our windows looked due west, across the river, and as winter advanced the sun moved south. Born with as poor a sense of direction as anyone I know, I’m reassured, I guess, by straight lines.
That north wind alone, I used to think and hope, made Samos—at least the south coast— inappropriate for tourism. It was such a loud wind, insistent and distracting as a person always shouting in your ear. It was cold, too, as was the Aegean that muttered and foamed not a hundred yards from our front door. There were other untouristy elements as well. Samos isn’t a stony gray island with white Cubist villages, like the Cyclades. It’s lush and green, with olive trees, grapevines (“Lift high the bowl of Samian wine!” wrote Byron), apricots, peaches, almonds, all kinds of produce. The villages with their Turkish-sounding names (Koumeika; Pagondas; Kontakeika) are, many of them, somehow as dour as Marathokampos: handsome, with their red-tiled roofs and closely clustered houses, but neither very picturesque nor inviting.
Perhaps the mere sound of an octopus being whacked made people’s mouths water, like Pavlov’s dogs at the sound of the bell.
The harbor towns, Vathy and Pythagoreion, with their open waterfronts, do relieve this introverted tendency. In his poem “Samos,” James Merrill conjures up the Vathy waterfront in early morning: “a single light / Croissant: the harbor glazed with warm pink light.” And if the Vathy waterfront is shaped like a croissant, that of Pythagoreion, also curved, gave the town its old name of Tigani, or frying pan. Anywhere in Samos, though, the miniature, toylike quality. that makes one itch to play blocks with the houses of Mykonos or Paros, Naxos or Santorini (those little arches! those flights of stairs!) is wholly lacking. It’s as if the island has the dignity but also the reticence of a self-contained adult, rather than the immediate charm of a winsome child.
Not that Stavros and I were tourists, anyway. Hadn’t I married right into the village? In 1971, Stavros’s widowed mother and his two younger sisters still lived in Marathokampos, as did one of his brothers. Another brother had jumped ship in New York in 1968; the eldest, a Jehovah’s Witness, lived in Athens. Stavros had been away from his village for years but had come back periodically, often enough so that people recognized him and called him by name. O uios tou Monimou (pronounced, in the clipped island accent, more like o uios’ t’Monim’) was one way he was identified by older people, or even identified himself.
The labyrinthine system of local sobriquets turned out to be the window through which I first got a close look at the language that was to console, distract, and sometimes nearly engulf me during my four years in Ormos. There were a fairly limited number of common Christian names for men (every other man seemed to be named Manolis, for example), so additional means of identification were needed—but it occurs to me that this is only one explanation for the use of possessive tags that were often but not always patronymic.
Stavros’s father, for example, had had the rare and resounding first name Chrysostomos; but the father’s infant tongue (as Pip says in Great Expectations of his own pronunciation of his real name, Philip Pirrip) had apparently made this into Monimos. So that was whose, as it were, Stavros was—the son of Monimos. Whose? Yes; one way of ascertaining the identity of anyone in the village was to ask, not what his or her name was, and certainly not who he or she might be. Rather the question was pianou eisai?—whose are you? Think of Telemachus, weary of being forever spoken and thought of as the son of the hero Odysseus (oh, so that’s whose he is) when he himself cannot remember his father at all, and has to take his mother’s word for it that his identity is “son of Odysseus.” Nevertheless, this use of the possessive was to prove more flexible, and less patriarchal, than all these references to fatherhood might suggest. Within a year, my husband was spoken of as o Stavros tis Rahil—Rachel’s Stavros.
But we were going fishing. The name of the fisherman who has agreed to take us out this cool April dawn is Kostas Something-or-other. He and his wife commute, as it were, from Marathokampos down to Ormos; many fishermen do. His wife is a friend, neighbor, and contemporary of my mother-in-law. Kostas’s last name, I think I now remember, is Tsalapatanis. No matter; he’s always referred to as to goudi (the pestle; in the Samian accent, to g’di). The neuter extends itself to his name: to Kosta t’g’di. Why “pestle,” I have no idea. Is it an apt image for his stubbornness? A sexual innuendo? He was a handsome, vehement man. His wife, a stately, swarthy woman much taller than her spry, aquiline husband, is called by her own name, Stamatia, but also by a feminized version of “pestle”: i g’dina. Wives are often called in effect “Mrs. Bob,” “Mrs. David,” or whatever the husband’s first name is, but in a feminine form of the name; thus I was sometimes Kura Stavrina. Last names, I sometimes thought, were almost as unimportant as they were in antiquity. One doesn’t ask “Themistocles who?”
So Kosta the Pestle is taking us fishing. It’s cold, bright, early—we must have set out well before five in the morning, and I remember coming home and falling exhaustedly asleep by early afternoon. We went east, keeping near the coast. As I recall, the day’s catch consisted of nothing but baby sharks, each perhaps a couple of feet long. Skyllopsara, dogfish: they had skins as tough as emery boards and amazingly sharp teeth. I think the fisherman threw them over the side of the caique rather than keeping them to sell; yet surely, once skinned, they would have been as tasty as the eel-like creatures my mother-in-law used to bring home from the quay coiled in a bucket like thick silvery snakes. These were oily but good for fish soup, if you skimmed off the fish-fat and added plenty of onions, carrots, parsley, and lemon.
The quay, or limani, was where fishermen holding up battered, fish-scaly scales sold some of their catch most days, before taking the rest up, in trucks or three-wheeled vehicles, to Marathokampos and other, remoter inland villages. The cries of the fishermen and the sharp thwack of an octopus being repeatedly slapped against the great square stones of the limani
or the flat oval stones of the beach alongside (such beating tenderizes the tough octopus, which emits a lathery fluid) could be heard all over the main street of Ormos—the front street, parallel to the almost straight line of the sea. Poseidon Street, some classically minded official had named this street. One or two signs proclaimed the name, but I never heard anyone call it that, any more than one hears people speak of the Avenue of the Americas.
Perhaps the mere sound of an octopus being whacked made people’s mouths water, like Pavlov’s dogs at the sound of the bell. I loved octopus. One could hang it in the sun to get leathery and dry, then break off pieces to stew or to toast over hot coals and eat as meze with ouzo or retsina.
The coffeehouses were full of returned Odysseuses with their adventures behind them.
A photograph of me sitting in the doorway of our little house (long hair, chin in hand, reading) shows in the foreground an octopus hanging from a clothesline. My mother says that around this time I wrote to her that my favorite lunch was octopus and fudge.
Ten years later, when I brought my second husband to see Ormos, he wanted to know what the economic base of the town was. In all my years there, this perfectly reasonable question had never occurred to me in quite so clear a form, even though it was our having gotten mixed up in that economic base that ultimately caused Stavros and me to leave Ormos. Buying a disused olive press, getting it going again, we were putting ourselves in competition with the other local presses. Apparently we never thought of this, and so the arson followed, and the indictments, and the whole nightmarish process I don’t want to describe here.
So how did people make a living in Ormos? Farming, fishing, oil, the merchant marine, I suppose I would have said vaguely, had I been asked in those days. Oh, and before the war (propolemikos, in the single elegant Greek adverb), there were tobacco and leatherworking factories in Karlovasi and Vathy, the bigger towns. There was even a hospital for lepers (leprokomeio) outside Karlovasi—I wonder whether it has now been converted into a hotel.
But mostly people farmed and, near the coast, fished. Stavros, who didn’t get as far as the sixth grade and never wore shoes till he was twelve, spent much of his childhood following his father over narrow stony trails from one plot of land to another, holding onto the donkey’s tail if it were nighttime so as not to get lost. (We used to have a photo of him aged nine, round-faced and beaming, sitting behind his father on a donkey, clasping that mysterious father, whom I never met, around the waist. The handsome father squints into the sun. He died around the time Kennedy was assassinated, if not the very same day.)
Many of the lands owned by the people of Marathokampos were quite distant from the village proper, over toward the relatively unpopulated western parts of the island, up into the foothills of Mount Kerkis. No roads fit for cars existed in this area until quite recently—a few years before the colonels, perhaps; paved roads are still scarce. Two villages halfway around the mountain seemed to me as mythically remote as if they were on the dark side of the moon: first Kallithea (a Hellenization of the Turkish-sounding Kalambaktasi) and then little Drakaioi. The road to Drakaioi, gouged from the grudging granite flank of the mountain, whose exposed rock wall is striped with a rainbow of minerals like the layers in a parfait, still seems about to crumble into the sea, which here, unlike the flat coast at Ormos, is far below the cliffs.
Economic base, economic base! The question bored me; I was, and am, more interested in nicknames, dialects, or the way the stone of the mountain turned to cold rose at dawn. Nevertheless, there was another answer, which it has taken me years to see. The economic base, the impetus and motive of our lives in Samos, Stavros’s and mine, was desire. And having reached desire, I can jettison that faraway fishing expedition with The Pestle. It wasn’t gainful employment, just a bright dawn memory from my years in a place where the best and most characteristic time seemed to be morning. I have no gift for narrative; I’m dealing in anecdote (anekdota, what hasn’t been published before), and in the luminous images that are my legacy from Ormos. And I’m looking back, trying to understand.
ONE TROUBLE WITH BEING YOUNG is that you don’t know who you are supposed to be, let alone who you are; how you are supposed to be acting, let alone feeling. My youthfulness may have been responsible in part for my finding myself at twenty-two married to a Greek peasant who had, as they said, finished fourth grade. But to turn it around: living in Samos, on an island the books say is seven football fields away from the purple Ionian coast, hardly made it easier to figure out who I was supposed to be, or even who I was. I can’t blame the language; that I learned with a speed, voracity, and curiosity I would now be incapable of mustering. It was everything: the place, the whole situation. (Yet that situation inevitably includes the culture, a word I don’t much like; and culture includes language.) It was, in relation to all these, my inaccessible young self, incredibly dependent, yet with some stubborn nub of sense, some barely accessible inkling, of who I was, or who I might become.
Stavros was as confused as I was. The fact of our marrying one another testifies to the mutuality of our befuddlement. He had expressed his sense of estrangement from the village in marrying me; his fondness for the village, and his hopes and ambitions, he had demonstrated by returning. This return may have been vaguely envisioned by both of us as a happy ending, an Odyssean nostos. I never thought this at the time, and Stavros had probably never read the Odyssey; still, the tale is a deeply ingrained one.
As a return, our arrival in Ormos was doomed to failure. In the first place, Ormos wasn’t my home; more important, both of us were too young to be coming home. The coffeehouses were full of returned Odysseuses with their adventures behind them. All their choices had been made, and they could rest. I may well have envied them.
Stavros and I were more like Odysseus before he gets home: in quest of something, but also in retreat. Both of us had lost our fathers at seventeen, a wound I was far from being healed of. What else? Well, we were both fond of the country. We felt comfortable together, in a barricaded, us-against-the-world way. Or did we? The skeptical interrogator in me isn’t satisfied, and I can’t blame her. Well, I could say, we wanted a family, Stavros and I. Not children—I was too close to being a child myself—but each other, for a start. I never had a brother near my own age. I liked young men, wanted to live with one. Stavros and I had met, after all, because we both happened to be the guests, one might almost say the wards, of Alan Ansen, a portly polymath, expatriate American writer, and delightfully eccentric man, whose tall old house in Athens Stavros sometimes stayed in.
Alan was, I soon learned, in love with Stavros—or that’s the way I jealously put it to myself then. Alan and I were very taken by each other; and during the course of my winter in Athens I found myseIf attached to both Alan and Stavros. And Stavros—did he love us both? Or was he just innocently, or not so innocently, enamored of being loved?
I had caught my husband’s weakness for being thought a golden boy or girl; or had that trait drawn us together in the first place?
“Who loving both, glows / enhanced by all these loves,” I wrote that winter in a poem about the triangle of X, Y, and Z. But the word love obscures the issue, and desire is only a little better. It’s truer to say that Alan, Stavros and I formed a happy if peculiar family unit. What if I had never destroyed that unit by going and marrying Stavros? What if, what if?
Philip Roth’s The Counterlife, a novel which in 1970 was hardly even a gleam in its author’s eye, comes to my aid now as I try to imagine the different paths our three lives might have followed. Alan talked vaguely about marrying me and moving back to Venice, the city which he said had expelled him in the wake of a homosexual scandal (as if it were a boarding school, I always thought). Alan’s poem “Hortus Conclusus,” written this same winter, talks about his and my coming together and ends with the delicately hinted possibility of our having a child.
I adored Alan then and I still do; our friendship has endured, not surprisingly, as Stavros’s and mine has not. But I didn’t want to go to Venice with him—or rather I didn’t know what I wanted, but knew I was besotted (as indeed Alan was too) with Stavros. How much love flew around the streets of Kolonaki that winter! In the same neighborhood a few years earlier, James Merrill (a friend, in various ways, of all three of us) had written in his “Days of 1964” about Kleo, his cleaning lady,
I think now she was love. She sighed and glistened All day with it, or pain, or both. (We did not notably communicate.)
I know what he means. Did each member of our strange trio embody love for both the others?
This Athenian tangle is more fun to think about, because less lonely, than the time in Samos that followed. Because Alan and Jimmy are both still beloved friends, my season In Athens links itself effortlessly with my life now, whereas the years in Samos seem darker (despite all that sunlight); wilder, more other. I must have chosen to turn my back on Kolonaki, to link lives with Stavros instead. But what does it mean to choose? It’s almost impossible to reconstruct my motivation. It was cloudy enough at the time, goodness knows, but I didn’t want to understand it then, and I do now. Now I could say—it would be a sentimental distortion, but still sayable—that I went to Samos to become a poet. It would be less of a distortion, though still very incomplete, to say that I went to Samos to grow up. There was certainly something nurturing 1n Stavros’s nature. “I grew you up,” he said sadly four years later, “and then you left me.”
When anyone expresses astonishment at something that’s happened to me, it irks me; I’ve always known that as lives go, mine isn’t at all extraordinary. Nevertheless, for a long time (until now, in fact) I have avoided talking about my years on Samos. If people want to know about my experiences in Greece, I refer them to Slow Transparency, the book of poems which attempts, in a resolutely nonlinear way, to achieve “the wringing out of what has happened here.” (My decision to put a tantalizing reference to some of what did happen on the back of the book is one I regret in a way; still, I somehow wanted to get it off my chest, in however incomplete a fashion.)
To explain was more than impossible, it was embarrassing. How wildly, how ludicrously improbable that I should ever have been the wife of an azure-eyed, strawberry-blond young man just my height (I could wear his clothes) and four years my senior, a person who was a world away from me in background, education, interests! One response to this way of putting it is that words like background, education, and interests, once they are written down, are as impossibly abstract and meaningless as economic base. “It’s not so much that words are inexact,” said Stravinsky; “they’re metaphorical.” What was the elusive reality Stavros and I were pursuing, were even perhaps clumsily enacting, by being in Ormos together?
I’ve said that our economic base was desire. Not just, not even principally, physical desire; in that department maybe it was closer to idolatry. How I looked to Stavros I can’t say (or, for that matter, how I seemed to him at all); it has taken me years to see myself. I know that the sun of Samos was hard on my fair skin; also that I was beginning to peel off layers of belated baby fat. I do remember how Stavros looked to me—or do I? His golden-brown body, his startlingly azure eyes, the proud tilt of his head, his springy upright posture may all have been mixed up for me with the color of the Aegean, or the way the strength of the sunlight glazed everything in sight with a fierce poignancy.
Desire isn’t only toward, it’s also away from. First my father’s death, then finishing college and feeling at a loss, had propelled me to Greece. Once there, I hadn’t had the courage to venture further. In a curious way, I felt at home in Athens. Alan was an anchor; but then so was Stavros. Years later, in another context, a therapist would accuse me of wanting two desserts. But who doesn’t?
To be a writer, a reader, an onlooker is to make an occupation of being marginal.
Roth’s novel gives graphic examples of counterlives, of imagined alternatives to paths taken, choices made. Bookish, learned Alan; youthful, beautiful Stavros—I wanted, I needed them both, but maybe the more exotic attracted me. Books are all about the past; an income like Alan’s has its roots there too. Free of both, Stavros signified pure energy, sheer sunlit potential.
I wonder whether most people in their early twenties feel their youth as a liability. Is being young a blankness to be filled in or gotten over, or is it a positive joy, or both? I was apprehensive (rightly!) about the future, and also nostalgic for a past I didn’t think I wanted back. The wind in Ormos howled at night as if from the steppes of Russia, and I thought of tugboats tooting on the Hudson River, or the wind rattling the windows of our Riverside Drive apartment.
Or the arrow of longing might swing around toward the future. We would walk, Stavros and I, up the beach, away from the limani and the center of town, away from any other couples who might be taking an evening stroll. It’s very hard for me to recall what we talked about—much harder than remembering a fisherman’s nickname, or a certain farmer’s tall white mule, or the way the mountain used to loom at dusk. But it seems to me that usually we talked about the future. Stavros had lots of elaborate schemes—buy this, sell that, start a business here or there—and I liked to daydream about far-off places, lives uncommitted to a single place or a single kind of work. The sunset reddened the tar-pocked stones under our feet; a star came out. The present, that meager, modest, lonely moment we were alive in, eluded us. Robert Frost, that canny old poet, says in “Carpe Diem” that the present moment, especially for the young, is “too present to imagine.”
I doubt if I was the only twenty-two-year-old, indeed the only human being of any age, who was plagued by the feeling that she ought to be happy. After all, wasn’t life in Ormos an extended if not a perpetual vacation in a beautiful and remote place? Didn’t I have all the time in the world? I was too young, apparently, to know that people need to work, that vacations have to be vacations from something. I was too young, or too cautious, to say to myself that I was bored and alienated and lonely. And these words, as I try them out now, are dry and rigid, economic bases all over again—abstract falsifications of an experience it is still hard, if not hopeless, to put words to. At that time, the point was not why I was there, or even what I made of being there. There I was. To have called myself alienated and bored might have stimulated me to try to change the environment (see how I’m suddenly talking like a sociologist?); but if Ormos stays with me now, it’s because the place affected me more than I affected it. I learned its language; it never learned mine.
People take for granted things—a flush toilet, a telephone, the conversation of friends—that in certain circumstances can be a luxury. For at least the first two years in Ormos, I didn’t miss such comforts enough to mind. The lavish spread of time signified superfluity; balancing this was a pinched quality, a closeness to the bone. The bed we slept in, for example, was unbelievably uncomfortable: in place of a spring, splintery boards were laid over the metal frame. In the fall and spring as well as winter, the weather was often very cold, and people huddled over their mangalia, little charcoal braziers that looked pretty, with their red glow, that failed to warm you unless you practically sat on them, and that could kill you with the carbon monoxide they emitted. At night the wind seemed to howl louder, and the tideless sea hammered away at the beach. Sometimes Stavros would be up in Marathokampos, talking to the men in the various coffee houses about the olive press he had just bought. At such times I often felt utterly deserted, stranded at the end of the world, and I would weep with desolation. But in the morning, under the big brilliant sky, I liked living at the end of Poseidon Street, the edge of the island, the end of the world. I liked sitting in our doorway cracking almonds fresh and fragrant from one of the trees halfway between Marathokampos and Ormos, pausing every other almond to gaze absently out to sea. I liked harvesting okra in the garden we planted one year, and drinking retsina on hot summer nights or tiny glasses of koniak on cold winter ones, treating people and being treated. I liked swimming out to the prewar limani, whose stones had been shattered, I was told, by bombs. I even liked taking ticks out from between our dog’s toes.
I didn’t want to go back to the world—not yet. It had no place for me—hadn’t I seen to that? Wearing a blue smock and plastic sandals, I sold vegetables from our first garden one June—at six in the morning, I recall. People in the village loved me—at least some of them said they did. (It was to become clear later how much they also resented us.) I had caught my husband’s weakness for being thought a golden boy or girl; or had that trait drawn us together in the first place?
THE RACHEL HADAS WHO had grown up in New York, gone to Radcliffe, and written poems was in eclipse. And yet, because bookish people are in eclipse by temperament anyway, that self wasn’t really so far out of reach. The trouble was that I myself wasn’t sure she was there. Or rather, I was only intermittently sure, on the occasions when I got out my rusting Olympia portable and pecked away. Once, as I was writing, the young wife (even younger than I) of a cousin of Stavros’s stood at my shoulder, staring at the paper slowly moving through my typewriter as if it were magic.
A novel I’ve read only recently, though in fact it was published before I lived in Ormos, is Anthony Powell’s The Soldier’s Art, one of the war volumes of his enormous Dance to the Music of Time. Serving in the army, the hero, Nick Jenkins (in civilian life a novelist and critic) becomes reconciled to his comrades’ knowing that he is “a reader”: “I no longer attempted to conceal the habit, with all its undesirable implications. At least admitting to it put one in a recognizably odd category of persons from whom less need be expected than the normal run.”
The situations aren’t exactly analogous, to be sure. Jenkins is caught up in a war that has wrenched everyone loose from his home, job, usual outlook on life, whereas my life in Ormos, as Tristan says about the love potion in Tristan, I had brewed myself. Nevertheless, I now find it oddly reassuring to read these words. They shed a retroactive light on the uneasy sense I had in those days of being between worlds. The ironic thing is that as a foreigner who, though she did learn the language, was for a long time largely restricted to the role of listener, I already belonged to “a recognizably odd category of person, from whom less need be expected than the normal run.”
The prolonged performance of the years in the village is brightly lit for me.
Odder still, I was a woman. Not only that, but a blond who wore shorts or bathing suits and also talked with the men in coffeehouses. Not only that, but an agnostic American whose Jewish name made people assume I was Israeli, while her hair proclaimed her indubitably Scandinavian. Not only that, but the wealthy [sic] wife of an oddly blond, un-Greek-looking man (born, I realized, in 1944, during the German occupation) who came from one of the poorest of Marathokampos’s many poor families. Whether less or more was expected of me, I was certainly recognizably odd.
If I had been able to see myself then, not in a niche carved out of gender or nationality or religion, but in my true temperamental environment, that of books, then I might have felt, if no less odd, at least less vertiginously poised between lives. For to be a writer, a reader, an onlooker is to make an occupation of being marginal. But if I didn’t know who or what I was, how could the villagers be expected to know?
I may not have known yet that I would be a writer, but I must have realized that I was, had always been, a reader. I think now of that snapshot of me reading away behind the octopus on the clothesline; I think of the books (not many, but enough) I managed to read during those years. When after a while people began to compliment the quality of my Greek by asking whether I wasn’t perhaps beginning to forget English, my blood ran cold. I needn’t have worried. Reading Middlemarch and Ariel and The Prelude, reading (wonderful gifts from my sister) omnibuses of Dashiell Hammett and Ross MacDonald kept my English in pretty fair shape, thank you.
As for the role of onlooker, that is one I played, and knew myself to be playing, at the long, slow performance that constituted each day in Ormos. I must have been conscious even then of the theatrical quality that permeated the place, since “the blue proscenium of sea” turns up in a poem I wrote in 1972. As often happens, though, the metaphor was the tip of an iceberg most of which remained concealed for years.
An Athenian acquaintance of mine used later to insist that every conversation between the old men or the black-clad old women of any Greek village contains the stuff of tragedy. If the people of Ormos were as good as a chorus, I was their audience. l was an alert bystander, but at a double remove. There was the gap, first, of language. To be a spectator at the performance of Ormos during my early months there must have been like seeing a foreign film without subtitles. Not quite, though; there was no time when I didn’t understand at least a little of what was being said, and that little steadily increased.
More overwhelming, both as enhancer and distorter, is the way the lapse of time has affected my sense of the things I witnessed. Consider, for example, the alarms and excursions associated with the periodic irruptions of our ancient landlord and his even more ancient wife into Stavros’s and my lives. This elderly pair lived next door to us; in fact our relatively modern house was a structure they had added onto their much more ancient dwelling, which resembled a series of tumbledown sheds more than a house.
He was called Pappagallos, so she was Pappagallina. He-parrot and she-parrot: both nicknames ftted. Tiny, shrill, in her eighties, she had probably been beautiful once, with her straight features and hot black eyes. She shuffled about in strange homemade-looking shoes (perhaps a man’s heelless leather slippers), with a white scarf covering her white hair. She was often agitated by something; even her avid curiosity had a quality of agitation. A few years younger than she, and a bit taller, though still very short, old Pappagallos had cloudy but also shrewd-looking blue eyes and a long, rheumy nose. He wore a skull cap and also shuffled around in slippers; coughing and wheezing, he smoked pieces of cigarettes in an ancient holder, and his wife scolded him if she caught him at it.
Since their health was precarious and their house one of the most remote in the village, the Pappagalli were naturally glad to have two young people move in next door. “God sent you,” Eirini (Pappagallina’s first name) used to say. Stavros was indeed very neighborly, cheerfully going next door in the middle of the night if one of the old people felt ill, or fetching one of Pappagallos’s relatives (he had two sisters in the town) if the old man thought he was dying. “We love you like our own children,” old Yorgos would say solemnly (in fact their only child, an adopted daughter, was a problematic character and also lived far away, in Vathy). Eirini would come in and out of our house—the door was usually open—now wafting incense in front of an icon, now bestowing copious blessings on Stavros’s and my deceased fathers. “God rest your father hilia Savata, a thousand Sabbaths,” she would intone.
Was it because I wanted to be alone with my husband (not an easy wish to gratify if you live in a Greek village) that I resented the proximity of Pappagallos and Pappagallina, the way they felt free to barge in at any hour? I was shy, my Greek was feeble, they were hard of hearing, and their speech was highly flavored and almost incomprehensibly dialectic, full of rhyming proverbs or aphorisms about when to plant a garden or what the full moon means. I wish I could now remember more of what they said. But I do remember them better than I remember what it felt like to live with Stavros. Moreover, from the safe distance of nearly twenty years (both the Pappagalli, God rest them lots of Saturdays, are surely dead by now), I enjoy their company. I like their sentiments, and I especially like the expression of those sentiments. “God sent you” and “a thousand Saturdays [or Sabbaths]” are samples of Eirini’s pious way of putting things. Another one, when she was listening to me speak English one day, was ‘‘Why did God make so many languages?” She didn’t like to take any of the village taxis down from Marathokampos to Ormos: “With your feet, you’re surer,” she used to say.
Old Pappagallos’s expressions were saltier, but I can unfortunately recall only one. Stavros or I asked him whether his wife knew how to read. That it was a silly question is amply implied in his answer, the English version of which seems loquacious at seven words. “Diavasei mia porta?”—“Does a door know how to read?”
Then there was the village idiot, called o Yorgos t’Mark’; or George the son of Mark. Markos, as he was also called (village names are nothing if not confusing), used to stay with us from time to time; at other times he would sleep on the beach, or on the church steps. He was a genuine small-town crazy, muttering to himself, carrying around loops of string or old pieces of fishnet. He was harmless, though, and he, like the Pappagalli (or, come to think of it, like the heroine of the film David and Lisa), often seemed to talk in rhyme. “Tris elies kai mia domata, / Agapo mia mavromata,” or “Three olives and a tomato, / I love a black-eyed girl.” (Like any poetry, this couplet loses its lilt in translation.) Or “Tha pao stin Krete, tha piaso grippi”—“I’ll go to Crete and catch the grippe.” Or was it “Stin Kriti tha pas, grippi na pias”— You’ll go to Crete and catch the grippe”? “I’ll go to Crete,” my sister-in-law Marigo, a deadpan type, said to Markos one day. “Are you going too?”
Other memorable types came and went: a gypsy-like aunt or cousin of Stavros, ragged and proud as a Wordsworthian beggar, who, like the Pappagalli, always irritated me at the time, but who interests me at this distance, in my equivocal role of onlooker. This woman had a beautiful granddaughter called Ariadne, but her own name escapes me.
WHY, IN MY MEMORIES of Ormos, is it nearly always morning? In classical times Greek tragedy was performed in daylight, starting at dawn and ending before the sun went down. Similarly, the prolonged performance of the years in the village is brightly lit for me: the harbor frieze, bright blue and rust-colored (reddish caiques, tanned faces and bodies, and bright blue eyes of fishermen); the wheatfield behind our house rich yellow; the olives silvery gray; the figs soft green; the calm sea a pool of contrasts, from black bands of seaweed to pale green opacities to the deep aquamarine of the open sea or the pearly vanishing point of the southern horizon.
Sometimes I think that these colors stand out so brightly because the years in Ormos were the memorable morning of my life, a time when I was empty of impressions, ready to be inscribed. But what does that notion make of childhood, girlhood, college? Were the years before Ormos a dark before the dawn?
Nonsense. Yet if it’s dishonest to call Ormos a dawning, it’s an equally sentimental extreme to see it as a darkness, a cul-de-sac. What persists, and what I acknowledge, is the urge to locate the place and my years there on an inner map. I think what’s mapped is time as well as space. Thoreau says in a famous passage in Walden that “Morning is when it is dawn in me.” By the time we’ve finished the paragraph, we’re giddy with his tropes, convinced that it is never truly morning—not for Thoreau, despite what he had just said; not for anyone, certainly not ourselves. “I never met a man who was truly awake. How could I look him in the face?”
One way to make sense of that passage, and of my past, is to say that when I lived in Ormos it was morning outside me, but not inside. The people were mostly old, but the place seemed to glisten with newness. Surrounded by old age, Stavros and I felt young, and we liked it that way. At the same time, I was still mourning for the loss of my father, and living with my face turned away from my own nature. Behind me was loss, ahead of me were questions, around me was (I’ll use the word) a culture whose half-legible features were enchanting but alien. When I left the village, and soon after that the marriage, it was not like emerging from a cocoon; neither was it like leaving paradise behind. Both images have tempted me, and both are false. What’s true is that adult life was beginning.
Rachel Hadas is an American poet, essayist, and current Board of Governors Professor of English at Rutgers University—Newark.
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