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.