The next post will be either on or before Sunday March 5th
THE MAN WHO LOOKED LIKE THE MOON
Everywhere in Greece and especially on the highly accessible Cycladean as opposed to the far-flung Dodecanese islands, there are numerous Balkan ‘guest-workers’ who would either be unemployed in their impoverished homeland or depressingly unable to make a living wage. What that means is they are living in semi-permanent exile (some have been here for well over 20 years) often without their spouse and children, and back in Albania, Russia, Rumania or Bulgaria, either the wife (very rarely the husband) or the grandparents are inevitably doing all the time-consuming child care. We all know that Greece is not a wealthy country, though cruelly enough the supermarket prices here are either the same or more than in the UK, while the average wage is probably about 60% or less. The only bargains in Greek shops are economy brand wines (thank the Lord for that you can hear me hysterically hoot all the way from Kythnos) and a few Mediterranean vegetables like capsicums and aubergines (if you feel like whacking out for a decent-sized cauliflower, you will pay almost as much as a local Albanian makes in an hour). Nonetheless for those lucky enough to be employed in Tirana, Moscow, Brasov or Plovdiv, the wages there are so atrocious that Greece is a fabled place of plenty, and aside from a few cosmopolitan and home grown beggars in Athens, prominent on the metro especially, Greek poverty is largely invisible. You see it most graphically at Christmas on the TV news where e.g. a Lavrio or Patras teacher who has just lost his job and with a wife working a few hours in a shop, having failed to pay their electric bill, they are celebrating Yuletide by far from romantic candlelight and their shivering children’s festive presents, even in the reduced illumination, are scant enough to be a wretched embarrassment.
All these East European foreigners speak excellent Greek, though not a single one has ever attended language classes nor sat like me gawking at a Greek grammar, nor tried online autodidact studies ditto. I tell them frankly that I am jealous of them all, as I stumble my way through my jazz improvisation sentences, getting tenses, numbers, genders, every damn thing wrong, even though everyone can work out what I mean and nobody laughs at me, or at least not to my perspiring face. By way of light relief it helps that I know a bit of Albanian and can say mir mengesi, mir dita and naten e mire (good morning, good day and good night) and can make the Shiptars laugh hysterically with my party piece clownish rhyming plaint dua grua ( it means ‘I want a woman’, qv the piquant voglio la donna of the incontinent mental case Uncle Teo who shins up a tree and tells the whole world about his dilemma in Fellini’s 1973 autobiographical masterpiece Amarcord. And for the record, and exactly as it was, when I first arrived here in 2013, until my daughter Ione put me on a dating agency a year later, that Albanian jeremiad happened to be undeniably true).
Regular followers of these pages will know that I am notable for both lengthy preambles and gratuitous digressions, and indeed in one of my novels, I make a character announce that like bread, my meanderings and anastomosings, are the ‘staff’ as opposed to the stuff of life. However, there is a thematic thread running here, be it ever so subtle, in fact not only one thread but a mind-blowing two. A couple of months back I mentioned the true story of the likeable and placid old man from the UK city of Bath who nevertheless had a rare and catastrophic phobia when it came to tinned peas. Later in my piece of a few days ago, I started to dilate on the problem of memory, in particular my own capacity to forget some objectively unforgettable pages of Lawrence Durrell, plus the inerasable surname of Moby Dick man, Herman Melville, plus the infinitely memorable name of the capital of Slovakia, which is to be sure Bratislava. I shall now pull together those seemingly ungatherable threads and mention the incredible case of the Albanian Kythniot, Miri, a jesting and resilient Tirana man who variously labours for local builders, helps out in one of the supermarkets of the port, and uncomplainingly turns his hand to any other menial casual work that will turn a handy penny, euro, lek.
Miri is about 45, bald, muscular, moon-faced to a remarkable degree, and with his perfect Greek, is exceptionally sociable. He is married to a handsome wife Aferdita, and has two pretty daughters in their early teens who all live in Tirana and only visit here for the summer. Miri’s lunar countenance also looks outstandingly scrubbed and impossibly clean, as if he devotes at least an hour a day to making it so. The Tirana man happened to be sat in the Glaros that day, beaming like a minor asterisk as I was penning my piece about the man and the tinned peas, so that on more or less obsessive autopilot word association, I racked my brains for the Albanian for ‘pea’. This might sound laughably eccentric, but as food is one of my principal joys in life, in whichever foreign country I find myself the restaurant menus are of the highest importance. Furthermore, as most of Albania which my daughter Ione and I visited 4 years ago, is strictly monoglot (the exception is the bregdeti coastal strip opposite Corfu, including Himare and Dhermiu, which has a substantial population of ethnic Greeks) I had no option but to mug up the numerous Shqip words for fish and vegetarian cuisine, in order to satisfy yours truly the lax piscatarian and Ione the strict vegetarian.
Cauliflower in Albanian came back to me in the Glaros as lulelaker if only because it is such a clumping and bizarre word (oh yeah, Mr Ethnocentric, and you don’t think ‘coliflaher’ is a bloody weird sound to tolerant Shiptar ears?). Onion is qepe. Carrot is easy-peasy (geddit?) karote, and aubergine is patellxhan, very close to the Bulgarian term, and intelligible at that, given that both countries came under Ottoman rule for so long. And then of course, the noble and majestic little grass-coloured item, the ’pea’ which I was now busy writing about in its guise as a source of phobic terror…bugger me I could not for the life of me remember the bloody word for pea in Shqip! Hence it was I turned in confident expectation to Miri who had left Albania when he was turned 20, and had been living in various parts of Greece for the last 25 years. Bearing in mind that he went home at Christmas and often for half of summer, and that his family visited him here for the other half, there was no chance in hell that his native tongue and the simplest homeliest words therein, might have gone a little rusty.
I said in Greek, our only effective lingua franca. “What’s the Albanian word for pea, Miri? I mean for vizelia or for arakas.”
In Greek there are unusually, and perhaps significantly, two words for the shy little green chap, just possibly arakas being the more popular. Not that that statistical nicety made a mite of difference in what was to follow.
Miri looked at me amazed, as if I’d asked for blushful details of any sordid sexual peculiarities he might possess. He gasped and blurted out, “You what?”
I repeated my innocent little query and told him I was writing something that involved the vegetable arakas/vizelia , and that just for my own satisfaction I would like to know the Shqip word for that small and singular marvel. Once I had known it well enough, but it was now four years since I had mugged up Albanian and sadly I’d forgotten it.
Miri gaped at me as if I might be certifiably cracked, though the truth of the matter was that I had brought him face to face with something extraordinary, indeed personally shameful. He sat and ruminated and sucked his jaw, and looked ever so slightly less radiantly lunar. After about 5 minutes and after my fourth importunate request for his services as a mobile dictionary, he shrugged his shoulders and said that he just couldn’t remember.
“Eh? You what? I echoed back, incredulous.
In fact I burst out laughing at his ridiculous confession, and give him his due he smiled a little sheepishly. Though before long and disgracefully the absurdest excuses came pouring out. He hadn’t lived in his homeland for 25 years, he protested, so it was no surprise the bloody stupid word for a bloody stupid little pipsqueak of a boring little vegetable had slipped his by now thoroughly Greek mind.
I frowned majestically and accepted the epistemological challenge, confronting him with some severe Anglo-Saxon logic.
My first leering objection. He was all of 20 before he left Tirana, and if for example at 20 I myself had left the UK and had gone to Stuttgart to work, and had had to speak German for the next 25 years, there was no way in hell, nor under the sun, nor in Miri’s case the moon (he didn’t get that, needless to add) that I would have forgotten the English word for pea. If so, it was just as likely I’d have surreally mislaid the English term for sex, piss, chocolate, fart, hiccup, love or hip flask or passport. Had Miri then, I asked him witheringly, and he blushed and tittered his confusion, also forgotten the crucial Shiptar words for fuck, power drill, lager, variety show, backside (prapanice if you ever need it) and unleaded petrol?
Furthermore, I parried pitilessly. Miri went home regularly to Tirana and I knew for a fact from the times I’d seen him in the Kythnos restaurants, he was a rapacious souvlaki guzzler and just as often a brisola pork chops man. As sure as daylight back in the bosom of his Shiptar family he was bound to have a plateful of patates tiganites chips and a handsome side dish of peas to go with the chop! So what the hell did he say by way of culinary identification to baffled Aferdita at the groaning lunchtable? Take it easy with the bloody wassacallem, love, oy, oy, that’s more than enough of those inscrutable and unnameable damn green feller-me-lads! And to his bonny and giggling daughters, would he cheerfully admonish, eat up those sadly without an identity grass-coloured blighters will you, you two, or you won’t get any choc souffle for pud, you little bounders!
Alas, no amount of my jovial ridicule helped his pitiful memory, and not only could he not recall the word, he wasn’t even interested in the challenge, and soon rose to go and buy himself a bloody old Greek soccer paper (you traitor, why not an Albanian football gazette I taunted him). So while I was the mature and responsible English type who went into a deserving anguish for forgetting the surname of the Moby Dick author, here was this blasé Tirana guy who didn’t give a monkey’s shite that he couldn’t remember the native word for a childhood staple…
And yes,such irony, that as much as a week later, I dozily apprehended that with everything online these days, there might well be a free English-Albanian dictionary to be found there. As indeed there was, and more than one in fact. There, would you believe and in 2 seconds flat, I discovered that the Albanian word for pea is bizele. Damn near the identical word as the Greek vizelia, that is. The consonants ‘b’ and ‘v’ are interchangeable of course, as witness the Bengali language, for the word Bengal itself as we know it qua West Bengal and Calcutta, and East Bengal aka Bangladesh, comes from the ancient Indian kingdom of Vanga.
I bumped into Miri a few days later in the Mini Market, where he looked so radiantly moonlike, I was tempted to ask him when was going to have his next eclipse, whether it be full or partial. After a brief and bantering exchange, I opted to smugly inform him that the Albanian for pea, bizele,was almost the same as the Greek, and that that made it even more deplorable that he couldn’t recall the simple and silly little word. But then just as I was gloating so mercilessly over his sievelike brain (and he was over 20 years my junior after all) it occurred to me and with reflex mounting panic, that I had left my laptop on the wall next to the harbour in order to set about feeding my bosom and loyal friends, meaning approximately 20 clamorous and cajoling stray cats. Who knows but some deviant horrible kid I had shouted at for tormenting the same cats might pick it up and just as a joke throw it in the sea? Fuck me I blurted as I turned on my heel, I had forgotten my bloody lifeline, the thing that connected me to home and to my art and to my love and to my life, and just now exactly like lunar, beaming, Tirana man Miri, I couldn’t give a shit what the Albanian word for pea was.