BAFFLING SIGHTS IN ATHENS
This blog publishes every Monday and the next post will be Monday February 8th. You can always contact me about anything, including Bargain Online Fiction Tuition at firstname.lastname@example.org. I have won the Dylan Thomas Award for short stories, was longlisted for the Booker, and have published 10 works of fiction in all
Yesterday in the Glaros, a raucous TV quiz show was blaring away, and a brawny young contestant with a very sizeable chest, was sporting a t-shirt, the whole of its front emblazoned with a Union Jack. This barmy and quite inexplicable anglophilia of the Greeks, is impossible to get away from, even on the Isle of Kythnos where young kids often have London buses and Big Ben in place of flags. I seriously wonder why they don’t have a plate of fish and chips, a gaggle of football vandals, or the beaming face of the late Benny Hill as testaments to the totemic charisma of dear Old Blighty. All of which reminds me that it is not only images, but also English words that captivate the Greek imagination, and especially when it comes to naming fashion shops and clubs and discos. Back in December, I was walking the atmospheric backstreets near Ermou, in Athens, where I beheld a disco with a curious name. It was called SOWL and it had a neon picture of an owl next to it. So far so good, but my numb brain took some time to figure out the pun. Like a berk I was asking myself why anyone would want to go into a disco named after a bird. Bird of the night? Rakish peregrinations? Mm, but also the pejorative association of a predatory bird? Nah, too far-fetched. Wise owls? But wisdom isn’t the usual qualification you need, if you wish to do well when going in search of something specific and hopefully sensual in a discotheque.
After about twenty minutes I twigged the pun was with the word ‘soul’. But then I reflected most Greek kids won’t know the English word ‘owl’, which is nothing like the onomatopoeic Greek word koukoubagia, and even if they did, to make the lateral move of ‘sowl’ = ‘soul’ is no little tortuous, what? What I’m getting at, is that Athens entrepreneurs and shopkeepers, in their wish to be modish and a la vogue, often go over the top in naming their businesses, and at times announce with trumpets the exact opposite of what they mean. An example I gave recently was of the weddings and christenings shop in Amphitheas which the owner had called the bleakly existential ‘Illusion Events’ when they meant presumably to call it ‘Illustrious Events’.
Something else was to perplex me about a mile away, as I walked the long cobbled path from Thiseio towards the nearest Post Office, and a number of brand name shops, stylish cafes and periptero kiosks. En route there is an ancient archaeological monument, a modest affair about the size of a large and ruined outhouse, with a dark and murky interior which presumably might continue as some sort of archaic tunnelling network or other hazardous mystery. It is surrounded by railings set narrowly apart, so that no human being could get through them, but which say a tiny toy dog could wriggle through no bother. A posh elderly lady in furs, straight out of a 50’s Ealing comedy Greek style, had just unleashed her titchy little dog and was actively encouraging it to go through the railings and to do its toilet inside the grass surrounding the ruins. As a dog lover and one of those who spent years looking after a small infant, I am a virtuoso panicker and very good at envisioning catastrophes which some folk might regard as improbable. The little dog was very docile, and obediently just played and peed on the grass, sniffed at manic length, and then immediately returned to this Greek dowager, when she called for it. But what, I conjured to myself anxiously, if it should decide to explore the mysterious innards of the venerable ruin? There was an iron gate of sorts set into the railings, but it was double padlocked, and to find out who had the key might take several hours if not years. If I had owned Fifi the Shi Tzu or whatever it was, I would never have let her through those railings just in case she had been stuck there for days. In the same way some 25 years ago, when my daughter Ione was not quite 2, I used to watch in alarm young mums back in North Cumbria allowing their toddlers to race ahead on a pavement. Adjacent on the short cut road that led to the bottom end of town, there was substantial speeding traffic, bloody great vans and show off young lads in new cars. If the child had wandered onto the road, they were too far for the mother to race ahead, and avert an accident, or even a tragedy. It needs to be put on record I think that sometimes when you accuse folk of lack of imagination, it has nothing to do with arty-farty creativity, but is synonymous with lack of simple common sense when it comes to the sensible protection of children.
Finally here is a baffling mystery with a dignified and I would say a positive resolution to it. Later that day I was on the tram that goes between Syntagma and the coast at Glyfada. I happened to be sat opposite a striking-looking woman and the significant point is, that for those first few moments, I was looking with curiosity only at her top half. She was a large and attractive lady of about 40, with a figure my mother and mother in law would have called hefty, a fine and resonant term if ever there was, if only because when you are so described, it is a lot nicer word than ‘fat’, and for that matter ‘plump’, and certainly the truly ludicrous word ‘stout’. The reason I looked at her with curiosity was her earrings. They were massive, possibly the biggest I had ever seen, apart from some of those hanging from the ears of certain African tribal women. They were either silver or some exquisite metal alloy, and they were in concentric coils, fashioned by the designer with a kind of zestful flourish. She had dark hair and wore a lot of make-up, but subtly applied and far from garish. I would say her cosmetic taste was both defiant and assertive, just as her earrings were out to draw attention with confidence and elan. It occurred to me that being so hefty, her outsize earrings somehow niftily offset any imputation of obesity, meaning that they were a fine bit of intuitive sleight of hand.
I was just mentally congratulating her, and was even seriously tempted to lean across and say as much in Greek, for making the best of her girth, when my eyes almost as an afterthought followed down to her lower half. At first I genuinely thought I was hallucinating, as her legs appeared to me in their full and uncensored amplitude. She had a short skirt and expensive black tights and restraining myself from audibly gasping, I hastily tried to envision her clad in denims instead. Just possibly the skirt and tights were a serious mistake, as this woman’s legs were literal tree trunks, by which I mean mature and stout and plump and very fat adolescent trees, whose width took a measurable time to traverse with my gaze. Both of her huge calves might not actually have been quite the width of my torso, but they looked as if they were each the width of my torso, which is all that counts in the last event, in my opinion. I really couldn’t tear my eyes away, as worryingly I thought I was misperceiving, and I sincerely hoped for her sake that eventually my vision would accommodate to take her out of the realm of epic mythology and into ordinary human dimensions.
Anyone who has sampled the work of Rabelais (1494-1553) and read of the gigantic dimensions of Gargantua, Pantagruel and Gargamelle, will know of their titanic coordinates and their corresponding appetite for cartloads of food and drink. Almost certainly influenced by Rabelais, though no one has ever suggested it as far as I know, was Dubliner Flann O’ Brien (1911-1966) whose masterpiece At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), is full of learned satire and parodying of the ancient Irish epics. O’ Brien was that rare thing, an expert scholar of Old Irish, and one of the novel’s several narratives has a farcical skit on the story of epic and hyperbolic hero Finn MacCool, as well as Mad King Sweeney. Finn is a literal giant, as befits a great hero with ‘a backside the width of five hundred fosterlings of ewes’. The reason why bringing in backsides here is pertinent, is that again as a delayed cognitive reaction, it occurred to me amnesically as I sat on the tram, that if this woman had massive tree trunk Gargantuan legs and thighs at the front, she logically must also have, and to show my age (I’m talking about vinyl records) a flipside or a B-side. The B-side of her massive thighs must be a massive backside, a bit like Finn MacCool’s, though more aptly it would be five hundred fosterlings of baaing Greek goats in her case. But once again, I racked my puzzled brain to determine (as already I felt somehow quite protective towards her) if it would be possible to have gigantic thighs that did not logically and inevitably subtend a gigantic behind. But God love her, even if such were the case, it would make her truly freakish and alarming if she was such an anomalous and ungainly specimen.
The revelation came when the woman stood up to get off at Aigailou. If I had used my wits I’d have worked out that her suede coat would have more than covered her epic bottom, which indeed became a salutary and even hieratic mystery known only to herself, and those she loved. Her coat even concealed the very stoutest part of her Old Irish epic and truly gargantuan thighs, almost the size of Gargamelle’s. As for the woman herself, she shook her head defiantly as she walked towards the exit, and her magnificent earrings glinted in the December sun. She really couldn’t give a damn what anyone Greek or foreign thought, that was all too obvious, and I was glad for her, and thought she had shrewdly made the best of the cards she had been dealt.