THOSE WHO OWN YOUR HOUSE AND SOUL
There was an extremely violent shouting match in the Glaros yesterday, which as I have said previously, is par for the course when it comes to card games and tavli arguments, but in this case it was nothing to do with idle diversion. A middle aged woman with a face like a peevish puffin, who is never ever seen in the Glaros, decided to confront Bojan the handyman in his lair. This definitely showed a certain blithe recklessness, as she must have known she had no allies among the male regulars, all of whom are fond of Bojan the talented artisan, even if he is a Serb and not a Greek. Sotiria is a querulous and squawky voiced gossip of 58, who is also my landlady and previously she had come nagging me for what she is not due. In Bojan’s case, with work drying up, he could not pay her his 150 a month, so eventually departed the tiny flat close to mine, and started sleeping in his car with 4 months’ rent unpaid. Yesterday she also discovered that he had run up an electric bill of 400 euros. Evidently this was the last straw, so she came squawking and beseeching at him to pay the electric bill at least, and this greatly amused the regulars, for how can someone sleeping in a car disburse 400 euros for long vanished and long forgotten electricity? Bojan smirked rather than laughed in her face, and also smirked when she shrieked and babbled her indignation for the whole of the port to enjoy.
Sotiria is 7 years younger than me, but I always think of her as something like a shrill, humourless and cranky aunt. When she came wheedling for money for my electricity, I told her curtly that we had had an agreement, a symbasi. Moreover the agreement had also been witnessed in the Paradisos by the owner, who had seen us shake on it, and being an anglophone Corfiot, had acted as translator for the toughest and knottiest bits of Greek. Sotiria has not a single word of English, yet saves face by telling me glumly and diagnostically that my Greek is very bad. The deal was that I paid all the repairs, and she paid all the bills, and now she was trying to renege on it. Anyone but her, if only out of self-interest, would have paid for the repairs on her own house, and no Greek or Albanian would have whacked out 350 for my old and worn apartment, even with bills included. I told her also that only 4 year-olds and criminals renege on agreements, where hands have been shaken. She smiled and let it all bounce off her. I would have had to address her eye to eye as a thief, a kleftis, to make any impression, though even then bare-faced as she was, I would have had to add a dozen epithets either side of the word thief, including blood-sucking leech and heathen Turk and who knows what else to pierce her unpierceable hide.
I definitely pay her well over the odds at 350 euros a month. This is more than selfless on my part, as paying for all the maintenance, means I pay yet another person over the odds (that ought to be my nickname Over The Odds, or alternatively Bank of Kyrio John) in the form of Bojan, when the shower goes kaput, or the Heath Robinson metal washing line on my balcony collapses. Tell Sotiria about some major repair needed, and she blinks like a pensive seabird, and nods her non- acquiescence in the form of yes, very interesting, or rather no, not interesting at all, and she changes the subject with all the glibness of the chronic self-seeker, and stalwart self-protector. There is something essentially Greek about this particular type of flagrant wheedling, and unabashed acquisitive temperament. Of course you get the same kind of thing worldwide, the UK included, but at least in good old Blighty, and outside of Dickens’ novels, there would be some attempt to hide one’s graspingness. In Britain one does not like to be thought of as an avaricious, immoral toad, even if one is, but in Greece they do not bother to hide their flaws, or should we say in some cases their running sores. It is a kind of Malthusian survival mechanism, possibly related to Greek history, one of extreme poverty and foreign domination by and large. In such circumstances there is no point in being subtle, considered, soft-hearted, and accommodating, and seeing the other competitor’s point of view. You fight for survival, even if in Sotiria’s case, she is said to be rolling in it, as are her daughter, son in law, and all the rest of her monied and ever acquisitive and imperial clan.
I have missed one crucial factor here. Because it makes so little impression on me, I have almost forgotten that in the ocean of selfishness which she inhabits, she feels duty bound now and again to temper all her greedy taking with a symbolic bit of giving. On those occasions when she sits back and reflects that she has a steady tenant, who pays his exorbitant foreigner’s rent on time, and doesn’t hassle her for repairs, she evidently feels duty bound to do another specifically Greek thing. You reward an acknowledged favour with a gift. This strikes me as an attitude more Middle Eastern than European, a sort of genteel variation on baksheesh reciprocity, or even the kind of barter quid pro quo mentality of the Hindu caste system. It might have its roots in the Turkish occupation, or go back even earlier, but I imagine the one doing the favour, has always expected to receive the gift in return, otherwise the favour might well cease. In the 2 years she has been my landlady, she has twice brought a massive quantity of home cooked biscuits, and has smiled all her matronly largesse, as if she to say she is a tender Mum and a caring sister as well as a landlady. She also brought me at Christmas what I regarded as a kind of dirt cheap fairground candle, the kind of thing back home you would get in Poundstretcher at Yuletide. But a Greek expert assured me it was pure beeswax, a symbol of extreme holiness, and a costly object if ever there was. In both cases I gave away the biscuits and the candle, as I could not square her apparent kindness with her overwhelming selfishness, and it would have made no sense to relax one’s vigilance in the warmth of her sudden and transient warm-heartedness. The biscuits would have frozen in my mouth, and if her candle had been burning in my flat at Christmas it would have spoiled my Christmas. It is a cliché but Timeo Danaos dona ferentes, ‘I fear the Greeks bringing gifts’.
The final manifestation of her lavishly charitable soul, was last summer when she presented me with something phenomenally ugly, and even with a kind of nightmarish psychedelic appearance. It was a blindingly red cactus plant with unpleasant yellow buds, but I didn’t know that at the time. I didn’t know what the hell it was, and thought it might even have been a toy or an ornament. She donated it in public with much ostentatious charm, and passers-by must have thought what a simply divinely sweet landlady, or is she not simply another saint aka Agia Sotiria ? Once she had gone, I did what anyone else with my ignorance would have done. I reached out and touched it, and immediately its horrible prickles stung like a thousand adders! It was a psychedelic cactus, that if I’d put it in my flat would have given me psychotropic nightmares, and if I’d been fool enough to amnesically touch it again, it would have needed a doctor to take out the painful spikes. It occurred to me immediately that this gewgaw was a perfect symbol for Sotiria my landlady. Garish, gaudy, punitive, stinging, nightmarish, and tragicomically absurd. I found a remote rubbish skip, en route to a swim at Martinakia, and coating it in 2 thick carrier bags I cast it into the depths.