The next post will be on or before Saturday 1st July
TOO MUCH PEPPER, MAN
These days if you are a Manhattan call girl or similar, there’s surely a fair chance you will have a decorous Facebook page and Linked In account to advertise your professional services and competitive or exclusive rates. However they do things rather differently in the more dilapidated backstreets of Kypseli, Athens, where 2 days ago I beheld a scrawled message on a grubby wall: ANGELA (HER PHONE NUMBER) FUCK 10 EUROS MASSAGE. It was as you see in Roman script not Greek and the f-word, one of the few linguistic universals (along with ‘OK’, ‘Number 1’and ‘No Problem’) did not need translation nor did the word massage. It wasn’t clear whether the latter was to be included as preliminary to the former, and if it was not, it was not priced. I felt a fair amount of pity as I read this economy advert, thinking that the woman was selling herself for so little, economic crisis notwithstanding, the price of a cheap breakfast plus a cheap lunch with cheap wine to keep her going perhaps. Then I was doubly confounded when I got back to Kythnos as Maria of the Paradisos Cafe hazarded that it might simply be a malicious message written by some Athenian trying to embarrass and humiliate someone not a prostitute against whom they had an active grudge. Though I doubt that somehow. If it had been a Greek trying to embarrass a Greek it would surely have been in Greek not English and it would certainly have been in Greek script not in Roman.
Further down the road and for light relief was an exotic looking shop full of wigs and hair strands and costly gels and creams, called FATTY’S COSMETIC PLACE. The proprietor was visible through the window and she was a very handsome Middle Eastern looking lady of about 50 who was not at all portly. Like many an Athenian she would use English not understanding its meaning or its intended allusion so that you had a classic example of an attempt at sophistication intended to win custom but which ought to have induced the very opposite. ‘Fatty’ in English is of course nearly always pejorative or at best is patronisingly affectionate. The lady inside the cosmetics shop could only have thought it a sonorous abbreviation for her likely name of Fatima or the Moroccan variant Fatoma, and I seriously wondered for a whole 2 minutes if I should go in and warn her against her well-meant but notionally disastrous marketing ploy. For had they understood what the English word ‘fatty’ meant surely the subconscious message to any Greek going in there was that they themselves would end up fat, bloated and obese by cosmetic association.
That same evening there was a third example of brazen public declaration in the form of a cheerful young Greek lad of about 17 waltzing down a busy pedestrianised street in Metaksourgeio with his didactic message for the astonished world. As they say in West Cumbria, he had a grin like a bag of chips, as well as a smart white t-shirt, on which in English it read LOVE IS PAIN, which almost at once made me think of the 1st Noble Truth of Buddhism, namely ‘All is Woe’, or in Pali, Sabbam dukkam.
Where to start with the ironies? He looked as if he had never known any pain in his life, unless perhaps it were to be short of cigarettes at the end of the week and he was required to badger his Mum into a sub or perhaps I mean a stub. Assuming he had ever been in love with a young girl, which seemed to me only a remote possibility given the artlessly egotistical spring and bounce in his step, his notion of romantic pain would be if she ever waxed peevish about the amount of time he spent on Playstation. Once again, I felt the urge to go across and accost someone and in this case his gnomic message with what I think is one of the finest short poems ever written, the Blason d’Amour
Love is in Latin writ Amor
It spelleth Death to Mortal Man
And Mortal Pain that goeth before
And Mourning, Pain and Grieving Sore
For Time doth not return again
Not that I subscribe to that most dolorous if beautiful sentiment, much less to the young lad’s minatory t-shirt. As far as I’m concerned love isn’t pain at all, or at least it does not need to be. For to parody a Zen koan, love is what you find at the end of the supermarket checkout on a late Friday night when suddenly your eyes cross and you find yourself to your amazement winking at the woman you have been timidly fancying for the last 5 years and bugger me she goes even better and winks back hilariously at you and actually clicks her tongue like a waggish lady Hottentot.
After the t shirt came the fish taverna. It was my last night in Athens and I decided I would treat myself to some expensive fresh fish and I could see a tempting menu of red mullet, swordfish, sea bass, sea bream and the like. The place boasted that it had been going since 1962 when the proprietor who looked about my age would be 11 or 12, so that we can assume it must once have been his Dad’s place. He was a rather odd-looking man this peer of mine. He was very pale and with sparse curly hair and a look of quiet exasperation crossed with saturnine incomprehension of all things that came within his dazed purview. He kept going inside to listlessly harangue a blond good-looking woman of mid-twenties with thick red lipstick who could only have been his daughter. She impressed me very much as she was totally unmoved by his castigations, and kept on smoking cigarette after cigarette with a look not of distraction but of nothing whatever. She didn’t look as if she was waiting for anyone, she didn’t look as if she was likely to aid Dad in his business by ad hoc waitressing or indeed ad hoc anything for she was not a one to vainly go ad to any conceivable hoc. She didn’t look pissed off, nor did she look anything as animated as happy, rather she looked as if she existed and nothing more and did not find that reducedness depressing nor a cause of endless self examination. She also looked as if she had no grand ambitions whatever, not even the most modest and inconsequential of personal plans, not even for the next imponderable 50 years much less the next stony and immovable half hour.
Outside and by way of a surreal antithesis, another old lad in his mid 60s with oddly quiffed and disarrayed hair and with an extremely morose and puzzled countenance was sat at a table opposite me, staring earnestly into space. He ordered no food nor did he look as if he wished to be served any drink nor did the proprietor solicit his custom nor even look in his direction. Instead he just sat staring at his hands as if wondering why they were there, and he did this for the whole of the time I was eating my posh fish dinner. Meanwhile I ordered melanouri, a very tasty type of sea bream which was done well enough though with at least a pint of olive oil which not even I could mop up with the entire loaf of bread the pale-faced proprietor gave me. It was the accessories that did for me though, as I wanted chips with my bream and my white-faced peer refused those and with nil accommodating expression said it was patates sto fourno or nothing. That meant potatoes baked in the oven with lemon juice and oregano which is nice enough if done well, and I do genuinely believe in his favour that the proprietor did probably make his as good as anyone else’s. However, before he plonked it on the table he decided to add his own favourite embellishment, and this happened to be ground and pungent black pepper. But alas he added so incontinently his adored condiment that it looked like it had been sprinkled with tropical bird shit, and when I tasted the potatoes all I could savour was burning pepper, and the lemon and the oregano fought fruitlessly to make their presence felt.
However, being so English I was unable to leave the patates untouched, which was what I would have liked had I had the proper sense of truly European self-assertion. I forced down about half of it and downed about a litre of water, and I even gave him a one euro tip when really he the frustrated father of a bone idle daughter should have been paying me for that pointless insult with his incendiary black pepper.