CATMAN MEETS BATMAN IN ISLAND GREECE

CATMAN MEETS BATMAN  IN ISLAND GREECE

Anyone who has been to major towns on the Greek mainland or on large Greek islands,  will be familiar with the numerous stray dogs. Lavrio, Athens and Kos Town, for example, are home to countless canine strays, many of them outsize, lop-eared, comical, and occasionally vicious looking. This last item is an interesting paradox. Without exception the biggest, ugliest and meanest-looking of Greek strays, are all as meek and gentle as so many cooing doves. You see massive mongrels the size of donkeys in Lavrio and bustling central Athens, all as gentle and humble as some kind of exemplary hermit or monk. They have good reason to be so meek. They need the human citizens to offer them scraps of food to stay alive, in winter especially so. There is absolutely nil evolutionary point in being surly or aggressive, so they sit there snoozing to fend off rumbling hunger pangs, looking very obliquely and politely at the plate of mezzes the Athenian or Lavriot ouzo drinker is busy knocking back. If they are lucky, they get a mouthful of loukaniko sausage or a bit of octopus or a bit of bread, and they chew it ever so studiedly and sedately, and with far more restrained  table manners than I for one could ever aspire to.

Greeks on the whole are kind to stray dogs, and will amiably let the ugly, massive creatures snooze at their feet in the city cafes. Likewise in Kos Town in warm weather the dogs lie flat out, like so many swatted outsize flies, littering almost every pavement in the historic town centre. All the gawping tourists, as they wander round the venerable Ottoman mosques, are touched and amused at the sight. Some of these indolent strays lie flat on their backs with paws luxuriously outstretched, as if life could not be more blissful. It is in fact very tempting when in Kos Hora to treat these dogs as highly idiosyncratic gurus or life coaches; to cheerfully get down there on the pavement beside them and stick your own legs in the air, and say aloud in either fervent English or Greek,

Bugger it, life is bloody good after all ( or mono mia zoi ekhoume as the legendary song goes)!

Stray cats are much less evident on the mainland. Just once, in April 2009, I saw an odd old bag lady at dead of night in a rather scary Athens backstreet, surrounded by about thirty cats. She had brought them a lavish and mushy looking feast, in a massive and dirty bin liner, and was busy doling it out as they clucked and mewed beside her ill-shod feet. No one apart from me and my warmly applauding family gave her a second glance. On the islands however, stray cats are ubiquitous, and especially in the ports where the restaurant pickings can be so rich. In summer a great  many day trippers never get beyond the port of entry, so it is a good place to take up one’s poste restante, if one is a wise  and far-seeing cat.

Greek islanders on the whole are much less tolerant of stray cats than of canine strays. In fact on a tiny island like Cycladean Kythnos, I doubt there is even a single stray dog. Any dogs who do businesslike parade the considerable length of the port,  a  bit like the watch-checking White Rabbit or in at least one case The Mad Hatter, usually have a collar on them and usually have an identifiable owner. Not so the legion of stray cats that litter the cafes and restaurants, or further afield the heaving communal rubbish skips. The indifference and occasional hostility the cats then encounter,  is probably because they are seen as dirty and unhygienic, as their desperate skip foraging leaves some of them with scabied noses and poignantly  weeping eyes.

Generally the worst they face is being pursued by small boys, stamping their feet at them as a gleeful and non-retaliatory sport. More often than not, this will happen in or near an outside cafe. If I see them doing it, I shout at the kids, and if the child is very young they often look back uncomprehending. The reason for this is very simple. If their Mum or especially their Dad is sat nearby they simply don’t seem to notice the tormenting, or if they do they absently chuckle. If the same outrage happened in the UK, the incensed parent would instantly clatter the kid and the watching world would cheeringly applaud. However I don’t have sufficient hubris nor enough rapid- fire Greek to challenge the smirking parent about their feckless puerility. It takes another tender animal lover like Australian-Greek Maria to race over and upbraid both child and parent in angry Greek. She is Greek enough and old enough at 50, to do it at the top of her bellicose  voice, and not to give a damn about their bemusement. She will then pick up the abused kitten or cat and kiss its furry head and call it Fili mou and pedi mou  to the hushed derision of some of the regulars in the Glaros or the adjacent cafes.

But this is small beer compared with other islands. In strange and isolated North Karpathos, where the feline strays are legion, one or two no-nonsense locals sometimes lay poison for them and succeed in killing innocent pet dogs as well as feral cats. We were told this by a Spanish restaurant owner, a fearless and beautiful Valencian of 55 who served Greek and Spanish cuisine to day-trippers disembarking from excursion boats. By way of revenge the Spanish  cat lover positively encouraged her animal friends, the ugliest one-eyed and one-eared strays in  the world, and outraged many locals by giving them lobster, king prawns and gourmet chorizo, just to let them know what she thought of cowardly cat assassins! Her other provocative habits were to put on passionate and heartbreaking Italian opera at eardrum-splitting volume when the villagers were having their siestas…and to conduct a flagrant and unabashed affair with a local married man, a heedless and masochistic defiance which predictably enough did not encourage the adulterous local to leave his wife and children.

There are many long established strays here in the Kythnos port. There are also those who are either stumbling, crying kittens, or sudden enigmatic arrivals, who disappear without notice and are never seen again. They are probably either run over by cars or tormented to lethal excess, most likely  by disturbed or antisocial adults. The outside possibility is that someone has decided to adopt one and take it into their home. So far I have never observed or heard of poisonings, and no one on Kythnos ever chases them away from the rubbish skips

Since I arrived here in September 2013, I have been adopted by two strays outside the Glaros Cafe. The first was a tiny grey kitten, a mere baby called Anthoula (Little Flower) who liked to bask on my belly in the sunshine and would look for scraps from whatever I was eating. I became very fond of Little Flower, but then after a month or so she vanished and I never learnt what happened to her. For a few days I felt pained and sad as I vainly waited for her to return. Meanwhile a charismatic adult white cat, about 6 years old, had taken a cautious interest in me and begun to sit on my knee. She was extraordinarily beautiful and graceful, thin, statuesque, confident and spasmodically aggressive. She had two names which marked her out as one of the truly elect, given that most Greek cats whether stray or domestic are given no names whatever. She was called Asproula which means Little Whitey, and also Riri which means nothing at all, but which is uttered to her very tenderly by any local cat lovers.

Asproula was summarily abandoned by its owner about 6 years ago when it was very tiny. Since then she has bravely fended for herself, and made the area outside the Glaros her favoured patch and market place. No one owns her, so she hasn’t been sterilised, and as a result she has been pregnant twice since I arrived here. The first litter of spring 2014, it was rumoured, was drowned by the moody  caretaker who lives in the house up the hill above the Glaros. Hence, when a second litter was born six  months later, Asproula immediately rejected both the little grey and white kittens. I had never before seen kittens totally spurned by their mother, and it was harrowing to behold. They spent their time pursuing and whining after her,  mewing pathetically, vainly trying to feed from her nipples when she sat on my knee or wandered down below. It was obvious to me her heartlessness  was just a function of her previous litter being drowned without notice or ceremony. She had been traumatised and hence was very needy, which was why clinging to my knee and being stroked and talked to, was a far more urgent affair for her than looking after her new babies. She had never been  nurtured herself, and thereafter someone executed her first children, so she brushed away these new dependent babies and hit at them brutally with her claws. To help all three of them, I regularly fed the kittens with cheese and milk when I could do it reasonably discreetly. Marianna inside the Glaros Cafe is understandably not keen on having a squabbling animal orphanage just outside the busy main door.

Soon one of Riri’s new kittens was bloodily killed by a revving stationary car as it sheltered there from the teeming autumn rain. I didn’t see it, but Chrisoula who owns the Glaros did, and she came in sobbing at the sight.  Later, when it fared up, I sat outside the cafe with Riri and her one remaining child, and she seemed pleased if anything about the missing kitten, and had even less patience for its crying, nagging sibling. I sighed and fed the surviving baby with cheese and some of my lunchtime omelette, while the lion’s share of course went to its outraged mother. A few days passed and then there was a November storm of great ferocity, torrential rain and gusting howling gale. As I passed the Glaros late that night and heading home, I saw the lone grey kitten shivering under a rain-soaked chair, and with nil sign of its charismatic and beautiful white mother. Though even if she had been there, she would have roundly ignored him, so that like some hideous paradigm out of Beckett or Franz Kafka the light at the end of the tunnel was a mirage and a contemptible one at that.

I hesitated five seconds and then picked him up and took him home. You wouldn’t leave a dog out in this downpour, I was tempted to say to him. He looked at me and mewed, and I stroked him and put him under my coat. I felt uneasy and considerably depressed, because animal lover that I am, I really did not want a new pet. I wished to be always free and to get up and with nil notice leave my house for say a break on the Isle of Syros or in Lavrio on the mainland. I wished to be a free and always liberated  agent. I did not want to battle with cat piss and cat shit yet again, or ever again. I didn’t tell my little Greek charge this of course, and when I got him home the shops were long closed, so I opened a tin of tuna for my tiny guest. Tuna in Kythnos costs twice what it does in the UK, and I actually did tell him that, not at all admonishingly, but as an interesting piece of general knowledge. He squinted at me curiously and obviously couldn’t believe his luck.

After he had wolfed down the tuna, I took a summary look at his private parts and decided he was a male. Good. I wanted a male, I wanted a little tom, I definitely didn’t want a fertile fecund female or a queen as they bizarrely call female cats! Bizarre, because if they are to be dubbed queens then the toms should be called kings, a ludicrous notion if ever there was.

But what to call him?

And it came in an instant.

Here is the accelerated not to say feverish thought process apropos the taxing business of animal nomenclature, bearing in mind that both of us, Greek kitten and new British owner, were still soaked to the bone and still shivering.

Coen Brothers, fantastic directors, genius by the gallon,  George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Jeff Bridges, John Turturro, John Goodman, Tommy Lee Jones.

George? Brad? Jeff? John? Tommy Lee?

The last one very close. Tommy Lee, Tommy Lee, Tommy Lee, Tommy Lee! Tee hee, tee hee, tee hee, Tommy Lee!

It’s so obvious. Who, as well as being a fine and versatile film star and Coen Brothers regular, is also a musician in a touring US folk band? And the same gentleman who had nearly all his Canadian gigs cancelled after an interview in the host country, where he was reckless enough to say: ‘You know, you Canadians are a bit like mashed potatoes but without the gravy!’

And who, also, get this, little Greek kitten, is panickingly phobic of antique furniture! To my mind equivalent to being phobic of semi-colons or paper clips or Christmas trees or eggshells or liquorice allsorts?

Billy Bob Thornton!

Oriste! Ella, Billy Bob, pedhi mou!

 Soon after I started an original English ditty for this bewhiskered little  grey and white Greek infant called Billy Bob

Billy Bob, Billy Bob, Billy Bob, get a job, Billy Bob!

No chance

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BABEL AND THE CRUELTY OF NEGLECT

BABEL  AND THE CRUELTY OF NEGLECT

My daughter Ione has been with me on Kythnos all of this month, and together we have watched a lot of fine cinema from Poland, South America, Germany, and the USA.  Two nights ago it was the turn of the 2006 film Babel, directed by Alejandro Inarritu. Ione told me she had seen the film seven times, but in my case it was only the third. That said, for the last two days I have been obsessively racking my brains to work out the single most important motif in this potent and challenging  masterpiece. Which is not, I have to stress, intended as some delicate exercise in genteel film criticism. Instead it is someone like me simply asking himself, what one thing is it in this film that keeps me wholly mesmerised from start to finish?

In the end I have decided that it is not the fancy tripartite structure that animates this strange and harrowing film. Instead it is the stereoscopic  tragedy  of a universal item I will call ‘Neglect’, that offers us an uncomfortable mixture of pity and anger as we watch the film unfold. Neglect, that is, whether it  be one individual by another; one marital partner by another; one adjoining country by another; one employer and their dependent  employee; one globally powerful country and another that  for all its wishful thinking is practically powerless.

In Babel there are three conjoining,  curiously linked narratives. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett  play an unhappy American couple Richard and Susan Jones, on a luxury coach trip through Morocco as they try to get over a family tragedy. Their infant son Sam had died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and the aftermath is tearing them apart.  In a Moroccan teashop Susan enigmatically  accuses Richard of having deserted his family (they have young girl and boy twins back home with their nanny) and we never quite learn what she means by this. But soon after this accusation  something monstrous and unbelievable happens. A bullet comes through the coach and hits Susan in the armpit and chest area, and she starts bleeding  badly. The coach rapidly comes to a halt, and with a struggle she is conveyed to a nearby village,  impoverished and primitive, where they wait for help from both the Moroccan authorities and the US embassy. In both cases the delay is endless and a case of poisonous intergovernmental bureaucracy. The US authorities without any investigation routinely describe the shooting as a terrorist incident, something that their  Moroccan counterparts angrily deny.

Before the shooting, we observe a skinny and careworn Moroccan farmer living high in the nearby mountains. He has acquired a shotgun from a neighbour that he gives to his two teenage sons to shoot at jackals which are eating his sheep. The younger boy is a much better shot than his brother a couple of years older. To prove his superior prowess, he says he will hit the coach bus down below that is currently coming round the bend. Sure enough he succeeds, but it is only when his father returns from town, he realises that he has hit an American tourist, and the inaccurate rumour that his father has heard is that she is dead.

Switch now to Tokyo where a deaf-mute Japanese teenage girl  living in a luxury highrise apartment, has a poignantly unsatisfactory relationship with her wealthy father. Her mother recently committed suicide, and as well as grieving over her, she is also awakening to her body and wanting a boyfriend.  She and her deaf mute girlfriends optimistically  go to a shopping mall, and are soon approached by brash boys who take fright when they realise the girls’ embarrassing handicap. Depressed and angry, the girl boldly removes her underwear and flashes her private parts at the boys. Sure enough it changes their attitude, and later all of them, deaf girls and brash boys,  go on a hectic pill popping binge which ends in near catastrophe.

Then we realise an unexpected narrative connection. The Tokyo Dad had once been on a shooting holiday in Morocco and had been so impressed by his local guide he had given him his rifle as a present. The guide in turn had sold it to a neighbour, one of whose sons had unwittingly shot Susan Jones.

Susan by now is in a very bad way in the wretched village, and because there is no doctor the local vet is summoned. Shrieking and protesting she is held down by Richard and the Moroccan tour guide as the vet stitches up the wound minus anaesthetic. The vet has confided in Arabic to the tour guide, who lies to spare Richard’s feelings, that if he doesn’t stitch her she will swiftly bleed to death.

Meanwhile back in the USA, the Jones’s  twins are being looked after by their Mexican nanny, Amelia. In a long distance call from Morocco, Richard had initially allowed her a day off for her only son’s marriage in Mexico. However the arrangements he made have fallen through, added to which the twins’ mother has just been shot and is gravely ill. He commands Amelia to stay put and look after his children, and not go to her son’s wedding. In desperation and when she can find no other babysitter,  Amelia takes the twins with her to the Mexican wedding. The car is driven by a reckless and cynical nephew played by Gael Garcia Bernal. On the return journey, good and drunk, he accelerates away from the suspicious US border police and later abandons his aunt and the gringo kids in the waterless desert on the American side.

Meanwhile two Tokyo detectives, one old, one young, have approached the deaf girl for some information. She assumes it is something to do with her mother’s suicide, but no, they have been contacted by the Moroccan police and are trying to trace the original owner of the gun that shot the American tourist. The serial number is on the rifle and they know that it was her father’s gun was the implement. The girl is mesmerised by the handsome young detective and eventually leaves a message for him at the police station, that he must visit her for some important new information. When he turns up at her flat, he explains he is not investigating her mother’s death, but simply the ownership of the rifle. The girl excuses herself for a moment and then returns stark naked and offers herself to him. Horrified, the young detective shouts angrily at her, and she bursts into a desperate howling grief and despair. This is a really kernel scene in the movie, for the harrowing grief would seem to be about everything that is killing her…her handicap, her loneliness, her dead mother, her sexual frustration, the gulf between her and her father, all of which are well nigh impossible to communicate to the pampered world that can hear and speak.

The US border police eventually find abandoned Amelia and the two American children. As an illegal immigrant she is summarily deported, and advised to be grateful that Richard has declined to press any criminal charges. In the meantime an American helicopter arrives in the desolate Moroccan village and whisks Susan off to a hospital where against the odds her life is saved. The Moroccan police have meanwhile traced the local hunting guide who had sold the gun to his skinny neighbour. Soon they find the suspect himself and his two sons on the run. They shoot the innocent older boy dead, and his younger brother surrenders,  demanding  that he, the culpable one, be shot by them by way of natural justice. The father wild with grief,  also surrenders.

So then. Assuming Neglect is the thing that matters most in this film, who exactly in Babel neglects who?

*Richard Jones neglects Susan Jones when he abandons her to her lonely grief over the infant Sam. Ultimately the shooting and her recovery movingly reconciles them, but it is almost as if something as drastic as that was necessary in the first place

*The Moroccan father neglects his two sons when he entrusts a lethal and unsupervised weapon to two competitive boys, who are after all mere children

*Richard summarily neglects the Mexican nanny Amelia when he tells her she cannot go to her only son’s wedding

*The Mexican nephew neglects his aunt Amelia and ruins her life when he drives off and abandons her and the children

*The US border authorities neglect to understand the truth of things. They accuse Amelia of criminal neglect because she had set off on her own to find help in the waterless desert and had left the twins behind. In fact her desperate searching for help was what had saved their lives, but she was inevitably and in contemporary sociological and existential terms, destined to be made the dispensable fall guy

*The US authorities in Morocco neglect the truth of things when they talk about an act of terrorism. It was in reality a random act by an unsupervised child entrusted with a lethal weapon. Yet the terrorism accusation from the US media persists after the child and his father have been arrested by the Moroccan police

* The mute Japanese girl is neglected by more or less the whole world, and hence the volcanic intensity of her grief in front of the young policeman. Her mother shot herself and left her with a parent who tries but cannot understand her. Her peers and notional allies, young Japanese boys, only stop neglecting her when she flashes her private parts at them. By a false extrapolation she thinks that the kindly young detective will likewise accept her if she offers herself naked. So when he swiftly rejects her, she helplessly sobs her heart out as it seems she hasn’t a single ally in the world.

I could go on with this catalogue of Neglect, but I recommend you watch the film yourself and possibly you will find another and more intriguing way of explaining its phenomenal evocative power.

The reason why I have called Neglect a kind of totemic universal, is because we have all experienced it and have all felt its grievous power. We have all known what it is like to not be heard, and we have all at times felt our incapacity to sympathetically hear another.  Like the young Japanese girl we have all at times felt we are totally alone in the world and incapable of communicating precisely what it feels like. Finally, when things turn truly grim, when we are so to speak shot and bleeding to death, those of us who are citizens of the USA or Western Europe, usually feel we are safer and more protected in the world than those who come from places like Morocco and Mexico. To that extent we pampered ones neglect the many unpampered,  because we take our safety for granted and they unfortunately do not.

THE GLAROS AND SAINT PANOS

THE GLAROS AND SAINT PANOS

The Glaros Cafe, plumb in the middle of the port,  is owned by Chrisoula who is 46, beautiful and single. Unfortunately, she doesn’t own the premises, for which she has to pay 900 euros a month, a small fortune on a tiny Greek island, which doesn’t receive many foreign tourists other than those on seasonal yachts. The other day Chrisoula said she hadn’t slept well, and when I asked why she said because of anxiety, the same old worries about the cafe and its income going round and round in her head. But she also has a frail old mother, a widow of 71 with severe arthritis, more or less housebound, who lives alone and lonely in Athens, and she inevitably frets about her. Her sister Marianna alternates shifts with Chrisoula and they couldn’t be more different. Marianna is 48, thin, and dresses like a student, with faded jeans and patterned plimsolls…she could easily be a lecturer at an art college. She wears dark glasses, has dark dyed hair, and reads an author as demanding as Nikos Kazantzakis when the cafe is quiet. But she is very vocal, not to say fearlessly the fishwife, if any of the customers start an argument. She wades in just like Chrisoula does, voice rising shrilly, and arms flailing. And of course there are always arguments, because the argument is the Greek modus vivendi. One argues, therefore one is.

They argue about things like ferry prices from Lavrio, tourist promotion and the lack of it (try googling some of the Kythnos websites, to find cafes and domatias which when you click refuse to tell you anything) the price of petrol, the inflated prices in Kythnos supermarkets. Most of the customers are men in their fifties and sixties, and when they argue they regularly shout and bawl, but neither Chrisoula nor Marianna are intimidated by that, and you can hear them ascending the deafening scales of anger, passion and salivation. I really wish I had enough colloquial Greek to get stuck in there myself, to start bawling and ranting about the prices in the Kythnos supermarkets. Lavazza coffee, 4 euros (it costs half that in the UK), a box of juice, 2 euros (half that again in the UK), Greek yoghurt made in Greece, actually  dearer in Greece than in a British Tesco or the Coop! As for the hardware and electrical shops in Dhryopida, a very basic but giant CD player with a handle costs 90 euros, probably three times what you would pay in a UK Curry’s. A blanket from Horio, a nice one admittedly, but not made of gossamer or lambswool cost me 80 euros, at least three times the price of a British Marks and Spencers.

Chrisoula has lovely long hair which is densely curled, and the stylish arrangement must have cost her a ransom in Athens. She usually wears tight black jeans, a trim black sweater and splendid black boots, which set her back three hundred euros in the capital five years ago. Marianna is skinny as a lath, but Chrisoula is ample-figured with a handsome, eloquent bust, and a beautiful pair of swaying hips. She has a soprano voice which can become squeaky when she is in a passion, or is about to laugh. Chrisoula has about ten words of English and does wonders with them. She can say ‘Sit down, John’, ‘Thank you, John’, and ‘Today, me, here, now, for you, John, cook kolokythia keftedes (zucchini fritters)’. I eat there often because it is so cheap, and I find it touching that Chrisoula is so zealous about my diet, trying to get me to have lettuce salad (‘vitamin, John!’) and ‘protein, John!’ in the form of fava (delicious split pea puree) to augment my favoured standby of cheese omelette and chips. I once foolishly asked Chrisoula for coffee, lemonade and ouzo all at once, as I felt the intense need for all three simultaneously. Amazed, she ticked me off loudly, and said ‘Mi (No!)John, not mix, bad mix, bad boy!’ When she puts the food down, she always says, ‘Mam, John, mam, mam!’, and if I don’t start shovelling it down immediately, she starts reproving me, ‘Bad boy, John, mam mam! Mam! Mam mam!’

At first baffled, eventually I worked out mam means more or less ‘yum-yum’ and is how Greek mothers talk to their babies, when they are trying to coax them to eat. Initially though I thought she was literally playing at being my Mam/Mum, and referring to herself as such. When I explained to her and Marianna that in the north of England ‘mam’ means Greek  ‘mama’, they were both incredulous and intrigued. But regularly all the guys in the Glaros fling themselves about in great mirth, at the wondrous spectacle of squeaky and sensuous Chrisoula fiercely urging on the Englishman over his plate of food, and they all cry, ‘Mam, John, mam, mam, John!’

Panos is Marianna’s husband, and, at 47 he is a year younger than his wife, a year older than his sister in law. He is short, squat and mischievous looking, a bit like a friendly and charismatic beast, a bit like a Mutant Ninja Turtle, a bit like the very naughtiest seven year old boy in a very deprived primary school, viewed forty years on. There is no actual snot on his wispy, faint moustache, but there ought to be. He doesn’t speak his Greek, he snorts and snores it. That slurred speech and handsome saturnine face, somehow suggest he is a rough neck, but the truth is a good bit more complicated. He is always on the go on his motorbike for Marianna, running errands at the supermarket, or buying fish from the harbour, or gathering horta greens from the mountains. Otherwise he is back at their smallholding at Flabouria, seeing to the horse, goats, dogs, cats, and the vast garden and its vegetables. The trouble is that when he’s not running errands or back at home, he sits around in the port chatting at considerable length to his many pals, which somehow makes him seem irretrievably idle. This irritates Marianna, and she often dresses him down loudly in the Glaros. Panos sits there, listens patiently and reflectively, and talks back always gently, though certainly not at all submissively.

Another thing in his moral favour, is that he is kind to those who it is hard to be kind to. On the lesser scale, he is nice to the dumpy little bird-eyed woman Sotiria who has just moved to Kythnos from Soufli on the mainland. Soufli in Thrace borders with Turkey and Bulgaria, and it’s not that long ago that tourists needed a permit to travel there. Sotiria is divorced and has one son who works in Sofia, Bulgaria. She herself once lived in Sofia, and she speaks fluent Bulgarian, and I can guess exactly what she would monologue about ad infinitum in that sonorous Slavic tongue. She is probably in her early fifties, but always seems like a fusspot octogenarian, rather than a decade my junior. That is because she is always in an anxious, imploring state about all things domestic, how they stand now, and how fearfully they may manifest themselves in the future. A month ago she moved into the apartment below mine in bustling style, installing lots of smart new furniture, her own heating system, and she even prevailed on someone somehow to get rid of all the rubbish on the common ground adjacent to her back door. She had two Rumanian lads in their thirties doing all the lifting and heaving and handyman jobs, and she supervised and bossed the life out of them with a shrill and piercing Soufli  accent. She pronounces ekhi (‘he has’) as ‘etchy’ or even ‘itchy’ which is exactly how I feel when she corners me to orate about her worries concerning the heating, lighting, plumbing and the revma (electricity) for which Greeks are billed once a month, and which includes the hefty council tax to boot.

Recently she had me cornered in the Glaros, not her usual feeding ground, and she wouldn’t let me read my book. She had just finished terrorising Chrisoula with alarming new facts about rents, council tax and electric bills, in a way that had propelled hard-up Chrisoula into combative spluttering. Then Panos suddenly entered the Glaros, and Soufli woman instantly collared him with her monetary concerns. Instead of running for the door, Panos patiently sat himself down and amiably allowed her to drown him with her worries. I looked at him intently for some time and wondered where it was he got such friendly, tolerant kindness from, and why such as me, the impatient pampered foreigner, had so little of it at his disposal.

More dramatically, a couple of nights ago, Panos came into the Glaros with the village tragedy, or rather, one of its more glaring tragedies. He is a young man of about thirty who is grotesquely overweight, wretchedly doped-looking, and who exudes an intense and depthless melancholy. As soon as he opens his mouth and grunts his words, it is obvious he is on some very heavy medication and has some serious psychiatric condition. He has a very handsome face, and if it weren’t for the weight problem, and the fact he wears loose shorts even in December, and thus looks like an obese overgrown schoolboy, he might seem more or less normal. He spends his days either listlessly helping his uncle on a smallholding, or whizzing around the port on his scooter in a pointless, obsessional circuit. Because strong medication and alcohol don’t mix, his uncle has instructed all the cafes not to serve him with beer, but somehow he managed to wangle one in the Glaros a week ago. He stood right by the counter, which no one else ever does, drank straight from the bottle, and drained it, I would say, in less than two seconds, maybe one. If I had tried that, I would have immediately choked to death, as simple as that. Then he abruptly left the Glaros and vanished  in no particular direction, any one as good as any other, this miserable handsome giant on his minuscule battered old scooter.

But two nights ago, Panos gently led the same man into the Glaros, as if the pair of them were long established mates, and pointed him towards a rear table. He sat down opposite the obese giant and took out the tavli (backgammon)board and soon the pair of them were playing a rapid and animated game. Animated? The drugged, hopeless thirty-year-old, was laughing and grinning at his tavli prowess, and exclaiming at every amateur move that Panos made. Nobody but myself seemed to notice any of this; they were either glued to the telly, or their bumper puzzle books, or their noisy arguments about football or fish or electric bills. But here was a living corpse suddenly released from his hideous pharmacological prison, and he was laughing and shouting like any other thirty year old Greek playing  tavli. And it occurred to me. Why doesn’t he go off his crippling medication, and just sit playing tavli all day long? Why not? Plenty of Greeks do that anyway, especially the retired and the unemployed and the half employed. Who knows, within weeks he may be cured of his distress, and be able to get back into a decent sort of existence again? Meanwhile a kind, unselfish homely animal-cum-saint called Panos, who slurs his Greek to comical inaudibility, is helping him along the way when no other bugger is doing anything like the same practical service.

To put things in perspective, one Sunday morning in the Glaros I asked Marianna where Panos was, and instead of saying the Flabouria smallholding, she said he was at the Orthodox church in Dhryopida. I was incredulous at first, almost amused. Nobody could look less like a churchgoer, and I simply couldn’t imagine hulking Panos inside a place of worship. If I pictured him praying, I saw him unintelligibly mumbling his words to God. And then, I inevitably recalled that the purest prayer does not consist of words anyway. Instead, it is an outpouring of sound in which the openness of heart and the vulnerability of the soul before the presence of the Holy One, is gradually made manifest…

After the tragic giant had left the tavli board and scootered off back to his cruel stagnation, it was time for Panos to have his supper. He placed a vast plateful of aromatic pasta before him, and sat at the empty tavli table with his back to his wife, who was reading a genius called Kazantzakis. Before he ate, he crossed himself quickly and humbly and gratefully. Panos was, I realised, an exotic animal and also a turtle, and also a mischievous little seven year old, and he was also an amateur saint and didn’t even know it. He was nothing short of Agios Panos, which means that he was also Saint Panos. And I for one was unreasonably jealous.

MAD GREEK DICTIONARIES AND PORKY PIG

MAD  GREEK DICTIONARIES AND PORKY PIG

I had never known the editors of language dictionaries to be practical jokers, until I bought the English-Greek Greek-English Dictionary  published in Athens by Mikhailis Sidheri in 1996. His compilers Angelos Tsakinakas and Joanna Niemczuk have keladhima as their only word for ‘song’, and psofio as their only word for ‘dead’. Everyone here on the island of Kythnos looked much bemused when I used these terms, as the former only applies to birdsong, and the latter to dead, often rotting animals. Given I am a widower, and was trying to say my beloved wife died five years ago of cancer, these things matter. The correct word for ‘dead’ in the case of a human is pethane, and a song from a human is a tragoudhi. In effect I was accusing handsome Chrisoula the owner of my virtual second home, the Glaros Cafe, of emitting a fruity warbling or a chirruping instead of singing a nice little song.

But then there are the omissions. They give no Greek words for absolute essentials like  ‘sometimes’ or ‘somebody’,  but do give the words for ‘impeccant’, ‘popinjay’, ‘allocution,’ ‘bedabble’ (is there such a word?) ‘ceraceous’, ‘slanding’(eh? No it’s not a misprint for ‘slanting’ as they have a separate word stravos for that). And, forgive me, but it leaps out a mile at the bottom of p129, they also have the word for ‘cunt’ (mouni in case you ever need it). If I were an impeccant popinjay given to slanding allocution, I would be laughing with this mini-volume retailing at 9 euros a few years ago.

I came to Kythnos in September 2013 to start a new life, and new it has become I assure you. My wife of thirty years, Annie, died at the age of fifty-four on December 4th 2009 and our big North Cumbrian farmhouse became a lonely kind of sarcophagus for the three and a half years that followed. My daughter Ione was a student in Leeds, and then had a couple of jobs there before relocating to beautiful Wroclaw in Poland as a TEFL teacher. Later she was teaching English to adults in Brussels, and making thirty euros an hour, which is over twice the hourly rate of the secondary school teachers in Kythnos. At thirteen euros an hour, they get about the same as a Cumbrian gardener or cleaner. I am a novelist and a fiction teacher, and I have also started a fiction school here in Kythnos in the Cyclades. I hadn’t written a word after Annie died, but once I got to Kythnos I completed a novel in three weeks, working eight hours a day seven days a week, and enjoying every minute of it. Without trying to sound too coy, the novel wrote itself and I only did the typing. I don’t mean pace Kingsley Amis in his dotage, that I am the passive quasi-mystical conduit for something lying out there in the ether(the only thing I am a conduit for is retsina wine to which I am extremely partial). What I mean is that the novel had been storing itself up for I would say about forty years(I am 64) and for whatever reason a few days of being on idyllic Kythnos allowed it to let itself come flying out.

I use the word ‘idyllic’ carefully. I often tell friends back home that this place is paradise, and I mean that too. I also say every day is like Christmas  Day and again there is no hyperbole. I instance the drive from the Hora capital (Kythnos Town) to the old capital Dhryopida aka Horio (The Village) where you have the islands of Serifos and Kea down below to your left. Of an early morning and late evening, an enormous solid pillar of golden sunlight spreads hallucinatorily all the way from Serifos to Kalo Livadhi on Kythnos. It looks as if you could easily walk or ride by horseback along that pillar between the two islands if you wanted. Tears to the eyes is the least of it, you feel as if you are there at the Birth of Time or you are there in the Odyssey, and that Homer is still alive and kicking somewhere.

Then there is Dhryopida itself, one of the handsomest villages on earth. Its old part Galatas, across the dry river bed, is the equal of anywhere in Tuscany, but with only a handful of families, is virtually deserted. No one knows any English in Dhryopida, not even a dozen words, so I am obliged to improve my Greek or flounder. If I had no Greek at all it would be hopeless. The old men who drink coffee and argue and talk unbelievable smut on the plateia, have a made a special friend of me. I am variously John, Johnny, John Boy, Mr John and Johnny Be Good. They vigorously condemn almost everyone they know as a malaka (wanker), but it is also confusingly a term of tender affection between mates, including old women, young women, priests and foreigners like Mr John. The day an old man of eighty-five called me a malaka, I knew I had made it at last. The same old guy offered to get me a mikri gyneika if I wanted one. You can probably guess that gyneika is ‘woman’, and in my ignorance I thought mikri could only mean ‘little’. I thought he was offering to solicit a midget on my behalf, until it was explained to me that mikri along with nea can also mean ‘young’. I explained I had someone I cared for back home in England, and bought him a coffee by way of thanks for his concern at my sexual and emotional well being.

The next day he stopped me and gave me a dozen eggs covered in henshit from his allotment. He made no more mention of any mikri gyneika ,  so perhaps, I thought, he had just been showing off for the fun of it. But no, as an open friend of Horio’s immigrant Albanians, Russians and Rumanians,  I can see him as an amiable procurer, and I’m even convinced that hens’ eggs might play a part in these transactions. More to the point though, sometimes he wears a dazzlingly vivid electric blue cardigan with very shiny buttons. That together with his rakish pork pie hat resoundingly emphasise that he has sex on the brain at eighty-five, because no one could wear a blindingly blue, shiny-buttoned cardigan like that unless they were all glands and thought about nothing but women from dawn till dusk.

One thing I admire more than most is that dying breed,  the autodidact. My taxi driver Kostas who left school at sixteen and is an ordinary guy in every aspect,  is a remarkable example of the genus. Some days he has no fares at all, and he sits in the Glaros sipping coffee and reading. But he doesn’t read any old thing. In one week alone I saw him read a hefty tome on Greek history, a translation of Hamlet, and a study in Greek of Plato. When he saw me reading Chekov he wanted to know all about him, and he also wanted to know what I thought of TS Eliot. Kostas is forty with two small boys and an attractive wife who is a nurse, of whom more later. Sat next to Kostas, by contrast, was a man in his sixties, who migrated here from Athens twenty years ago, and is a puzzle magazine addict. I have seen him spend three or four hours doing the crosswords and teasers, oblivious to all around him. The other day his reading  matter had changed, and he was devouring with great relish a comic detailing the adventures of Porky Pig. I was baffled on two scores. Firstly, to do puzzles and crosswords, you need a certain amount of brain power, you can’t afford to be backward or dozy. Back in the UK, any adult not mentally deficient, would sooner be seen dead than reading the adventures of Porky Pig. The second cause of bafflement was that I had seen another man recently doing the same thing, reading Porky Pig in public and among his adult friends. It was on the boat to Lavrio, he was about seventy, bespectacled and intelligent looking. Like the puzzle book addict he wasn’t just reading Porky Pig, he was devouring his adventures as if it were a work by Shakespeare or Plato or Nikos Kazantzakis, not a comic about a cartoon pig. In conversation with his friends he was humorous and alert, and the only striking thing about him was that he was wearing a vast neck brace. For a second I imagined his doctor telling  him, it won’t be easy wearing this neck brace, Manolis, and if you start to feel depressed by it, read a bit of Porky Pig to cheer yourself up! In the case of the Glaros puzzle addict, one give away was he was minutely moving his lips as he read the comic. But that again I found inexplicable. If you have literacy problems, how can you possibly do puzzles and brain teasers for hour after hour?

To get back to Kostas’s wife, who is a nurse in the Dhryopida health centre. I have recently developed a Vitamin B12 deficiency, and need regular three monthly shots to stop me becoming anaemic. My first shot in North Cumbria, in July 2013, was in the arm, and was a bit painful. When I squeaked at the pain, my Cumbrian doctor, a good-looking and spiky-haired woman about five feet tall, weighing six stones at a guess, snapped at me, Oh, don’t be such a baby, John! She had just returned from a trekking holiday in a dangerous part of Eritrea, and was clearly afraid of nothing, so I resisted the temptation to snap back at her. At the Horio health centre, I held out my arm to Kostas’s wife, also very  good looking, but a far gentler type than my North Cumbrian doctor. She shook her head and indicated the injection would be in the backside. I groaned as she asked me to lie face down on the adjacent table. The injection followed, it was direct into the muscle, and it hurt like buggery. The arm injection had been painful but this was ow, yow, wow stuff. The pain lasted maybe two minutes but it felt like two hours, and I made the appropriate Billy Bunter ejaculations. Kostas’s wife didn’t tell me I was a baby, but smiled sympathetically. I returned limping to seventy-year-old Stamatis’s internet cafe and explained to him why I was limping. He laughed long and loud and soon had told everyone in Dhryopida that Kostas’s wife had seen John’s backside and given it a painful injection! The next day the bawdy old men in the plateia knew all about the infamous injection, and suggested the roles should have been reversed with me injecting Kostas’s wife, but not with Vitamin B12, tee hee! In the taxi back to Merihas, I had to explain to Kostas why I couldn’t sit comfortably and about his wife’s role in the affair. The autodidact laughed very heartily and went ow, yow,wow as if he had read Billy Bunter in Greek twenty five years ago. Before long the whole of the Glaros knew about Kostas’s wife seeing John’s backside(kollo) and they were all, waitresses included, clutching their behinds and going ow,yow,wow!  The next day everyone in the port knew about me and my sore kollo, and they were all doing Frank Richards’ ejaculations and all clutching their rear ends. Far from being embarrassed, I felt as if I was giving everyone a good laugh, and it felt almost as good as when the old guy in Dhryopida had called me a malaka, a wanker.

Finally some harmless wordplay. Chrisoula who owns the Glaros is 46, single, has long, beautiful hair and is very attractive. We flirt with each other in a charming way, and with her ten words of English she does very well indeed as a bilingual wit. When we realised we both lived near the village Mini Market, we decided she was Mini/Minnie Mouse and I therefore must be Mickey Mouse. I also call her Dama Chrisoula (Lady Chrisoula), Vassilisa Chrisoula (Queen Chrisoula), and, in English, Lady Chrisoula. At which she insists, no, she is more like Lady Gaga, if not indeed plain Gaga (‘gaga’ I was delighted to learn means the same in Greek as in English). She has also christened me Catman as opposed to Batman, as I have been adopted by a kitten I have named Anthoula (Little Flower). When I sit outside in the hot sunshine, Anthoula pesters me for scraps of food, and likes to go to sleep on my chest. Chrisoula’s sister Marianna, who works in the Kavos, calls  Anthoula, ‘Skatoula’ which means Little Shite. I don’t think she means it, because in her smallholding at nearby Flabouria, she has a horse, several goats, two dogs and two cats. Thin and graceful Marianna, aged 48, always calls me John Boy, and I call her Lady Marianna, and the name definitely suits her.