BOJAN MEETS POPEYE
There are no two ways about it, Bojan the handyman and my next door neighbour, is a dirty bugger. I looked out from my balcony this morning, and beheld a paint tray that he had used to emulsion my ceiling, just thrown into the grass, the white paint strewn everywhere, and polluting the Kythnos herbage. The now white mile-high weeds in the form of rampant wasteland, had never of course harmed anyone. If you did that to your neighbour back in the UK, it would be the beginning of a bloody no-holds barred war over the garden wall, an obvious act of aggressive provocation. But Bojan isn’t aggressive or provocative, he is just a plain and simple dirty bugger. As I said in an earlier piece he is a very thin Serbian of about 50, and he is a genius of a handyman, who can do absolutely anything. He is also my immediate neighbour, and can be hailed in ten seconds if I want him, surely the absolute dream conditions for a useless bastard like me, whose only practical skills are a) cooking, though I’m not even sure that is properly a practical manual skill and b) complex timed recordings on old video machines, a result of me being so crazy about World Cinema, I would do anything to tape three small hours subtitled movies in a row, from the old Artsworld or Film 4 World of blessed memory.
Here in Kythnos of course, I have no VHS machine, and even back in Cumbria the one I rented was both second hand and the last one in stock, so that the dolorous technician told me that when that one went kaput, that was it. A DVD player and recorder is going to be obligatory for the likes of you, squire, though even those, he pointed out glumly, were laughably retro nowadays. Nowadays there were these…but I walked downstairs from the telly room, as he prepared to tell me, because I didn’t really want to know about the new gizmo that made you able to download a film by simply gawking and robotic winking your left eyelid as the equivalent of a 2013 wireless mouse. 3 winks for a French movie and 5 winks for a Japanese film and 215 if it were from Uzbekistan. The specific title you did by simple telepathy, and the neat little manual in 33 languages showed you how to do this piece of truly glorious techno-pish in 5 minutes flat.
I have only been to Serbia when it was part of the former Yugoslavia. That was in 1972, with a cut-price holiday outfit called Tent Trek, that took us to Turkey by landrover via Bled and Belgrade and Nis. We barely stopped at any of those Serbian towns, and whizzing through Belgrade I saw nothing but featureless high rise flats, and in Nis only a poverty-stricken old gypsy lady leading a sorry looking mule in the pissing rain, and that was it. Bojan is from Belgrade and though he has superbly fluent Greek he has no English other than fuck, shit, naw problemma, John, and hello thar, malaka. We thus have to communicate in Greek, which possibly explains why the cat flap he recently constructed for Billy Bob and Cousin Rex, has proved to be such an idiosyncratic folly. It is my own fault and I should have done him a diagram, but then on honest reflection my graphic skills are such that he might have thought I wanted a parrot cage or a hot tub or a deep fat fryer, and believe me his handyman talents are such that he would have had a bloody good go at furnishing me with all three. I asked him in Greek to cut a small rectangular opening in the back door onto the balcony, to allow the cats in and out. My guess is Bojan definitely heard the words ‘in’ and ‘out’ but not the conjunction ‘and’. He also unconsciously reversed the two prepositions, and deftly added a handy and wholly imaginative negative, so that what he heard was ‘out but not in’.
The result is I have a pretty little ‘exit only’ on the balcony door, where it hinges back and indeed can be secured with a sweet little latch and bolt furnished by perfectionist Bojan. The only problem is that it does not work in reverse, meaning it allows the cats to go out but not to get back in, unless it is left wide open 24/7. The result is that when it heats up as it will soon, and Kythnos mosquitoes start their partying, I will be up shit creek and frankly I don’t even want to think about it. It also means the permanently open little dolls’ house door attracts visitor cats, but only one on a regular basis, thank God. It is a brown and amiable female of maybe 2 years who I have dubbed Maud, and she has a very gentle to the point of imbecilic face. She often just sits outside on the balcony gazing in through the dolls’ house door, and looks exactly like some children’s picture book all about cats that can talk, get married, have palaces, rule kingdoms, possess gold, and in her kingdom of course there no such things as inoperable sodding cat flaps.
I haven’t said enough about Bojan’s dirtiness, because aside from a gallon of white paint, he flings other things on the wasteland grass out the back. Knackered and rusted tools he no longer cares to contemplate, as they sit there redundant and therefore despised, in his massive and comprehensive tool box. Cardboard boxes wherein new and much better tools had just been acquired, and the best way of christening them, was to get them out of the stupid box and give the cardboard its just deserts by flinging it into oblivion. Also on the grass out back, he tips food he doesn’t want, and especially certain inscrutable Serbian meat stew concoctions, so that it looks as if Bojan has had a four-star shit out the back, when in fact it is just his getting bored with the tedious act of mastication. His rusty wreck of a car is parked out there too, and all but the driver’s seat is packed with tools and timber, and odd and sods of piping and bracketing. The boot is so full of the same stuff, he has had to tie it with rope to stop it all bursting out. When he drives it, the roaring exhaust can be heard from Cyprus or possibly Novya Zemlaya or Ulan Bator. There is also his Lambretta 125 which remarkably is older than its owner. Bojan at 50 was born in December 1964 but his Lambretta is of 1962 vintage meaning all of 52 years old.
Bojan’s tragedy is that he is permanently skint, or rather than he only has substantial money in the summer, when Athenian weekenders solicit his handyman skills to work on their sumptuous villas strewn all over the island. During winter he lives on almost nothing, and has the habit of sleeping much of the day, just to cope with being penniless and the boredom that that entails. He gets beer on credit in the Glaros and I buy him one every time I see him there. As I am always needing things done, I also give him regular work, and pay him on the spot at well over the going rate. That is partly because I like him, but also if you pay generously you get any sensible tradesman rushing back at the speed of light to work for you. His other tragedy and I have no solid evidence for this, other than shrewd commonsensical inference, is that he has a serious drink problem. Someone told me he buys draught tsipuro grape brandy from one of the supermarkets, and according to them gets through a litre a day. I doubt the gargantuan quantity, but I acknowledge that many a day he is unshaven, puffy-eyed, grubby, malodorous at a close distance, and looks plain ill. But then I think I would look ill and have a bad drink problem, if I had all of Bojan’s woes. He has many chronic anxieties to contend with, one being that he has paid no rent since November and the landlady Krystalia is harrying him to get out. Worse still, her highly unpleasant son Kostas aged 40, who by dint of his permanent quizzical and misanthropic frown, looks like a grave digger with toothache, he too has been contributing by ringing up Bojan and threatening to knock his head in if doesn’t fuck off by the end of the month. It is all bluster of course, for not even Kostas who claims to be best buddies with the Hora police, would dare to play the Kythnos Rachman. Kostas owns the local butcher’s shop, and most strikingly you never ever see him walking through the village, but going everywhere by car, even if it only a matter of a hundred yards. What you do observe, as he walks the five yards from shop to car, is that his eyes are peering left and right in search of possible enemies or an invisible attack. That said, he owns another three shops scattered all over the island, plus the very biggest gated mansion in Loutra. The same butcher also owns an enviable property in Kolonaki, the Mayfair of Athens, and true to form, as a wealthy man, he is the most miserly bugger on earth. He never ever lets anyone off with 10 cents short on their brizola chops, and keeps on asking them for it until eventually he gets it flung on the zinc counter with a take my blood while you’re at it, malaka malaka to boot.
Despite floundering in an ocean of insuperable troubles, Bojan often demonstrates a recklessly insouciant flamboyance. One sign of this is his inordinately garish woollens, an example being a dazzling polychromatic sweater, that makes one think of the musical Joseph And The Amazing Technicolour Dream Coat. Bojan is very strong and wiry, as witnessed by the ferocious pulling and pushing he has to do with some of his plumbing work. But he is also outlandishly skinny and quite short, and the psychedelic dream coat swamps him like a tent, as well as emblazoning him like an unshaven monarch. Combined with his baseball cap and his ever burning cigarette, he looks as if he runs a dubious Belgrade night club, or even a downtown Serbian brothel which is as colourful and blinding in its profusion of women and bawdiness, as its owner is in his incredible and crazy sweater.
In reality Bojan has been divorced for fifteen years, and his wife is back in Belgrade and remarried. His 25 year-old son lives in Novi Sad, while his 20 year-old daughter is in Corfu working as a barmaid. Bojan’s very old mother is currently seriously ill in hospital in Belgrade, and both grandkids have already rushed to her bedside. Their seemingly feckless Dad, being rank penniless, cannot even afford the 70 euro bus fare.
That same Dad is at his most revelatory in the height of summer, when he wears khaki shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt. It is enough to take your breath away. He is just so incredibly and comically skinny, like an emaciated Serbian Popeye, or even more like a Belgrade Olive Oyl, who putting gender to one side and to abandon the simile, hasn’t had a shave for three days. I have never anywhere in the world, apart from India forty years ago, seen such a preposterously stick-thin individual. It is so striking I expect everyone in the Glaros to start making jokes about pea sticks, but none of them bats an eyelid, and they cheerfully yasu Bojan as if he is nothing out of the ordinary, neither today nor last week, nor when they first met him 15 years ago. Even sardonic Marianna and jesting Chrisoula who run the Glaros, are not struck by the sight of the famished and fabled spinach guzzler, here incarnate before their very eyes. Come to think of it, neither do they ever remark upon his polychromatic and truly crazy dream coat. That is how it should be of course, but given that Greeks are unarguably the most candid people on earth, it still leaves me considerably baffled.