The next post will be on or before Thursday 7th March
THE MAN WHO LET IT ALL HANG OUTT
I was once told that there is an exotic rodent somewhere in Asia, who performs a type of spring cleaning (other sunny, not to say inane anthropomorphic terms, would be ‘downsizing’, ‘rationalising’, ‘decluttering’) by shoving what they regard as superfluous stuff out of their burrow and letting it accumulate immediately outside. Believe me, the same rodent would get on like a house on fire with Bojan the Serbian handyman, who lives a few doors down from me, and the two of them could swap notes for hours about what to classify as decadent surplus and what as integral essential. In the space of a few months, Bojan, who comes from Belgrade, and is divorced with a married daughter living back in Serbia, has lined up immediately outside his spartan one room Kythnos bedsit, for the whole world to see and marvel at, the following beguiling objects:-
-a newish but sadly defunct washing machine, inside of which was visible for a while, a single grubby white trainer. The shoe soon disappeared, and up until this morning it had a bright red and empty Lay’s salt-flavoured crisp/patatakia packet relaxing within its innards. This morning instead of the crisp packet, it had a scraggy stray cat gawking phlegmatically out as it sheltered from the rain
-leaning against the washing machine, a massive bag of solidified cement, which would break my back if I tried to lift it, and might even strain the wiry and fearless sinews of short and very skinny Bojan
-symmetrically opposite the washing machine, a lovely pair of pristine blue designer trainers, which can only have been rejected because they don’t fit Bojan, and indeed seem to be designed either for a child or for a petite woman. There is no mystery to this, as Bojan’s destitution evokes pity in plenty around him, and he is always receiving things like costly denims from kindly island folk, keen to give away what suddenly doesn’t fit them, meaning what alas would go three times round Bojan’s meagre hips and as a rule, wholly invisible arse. More touchingly, the old widow opposite, Tasoula, aware that Bojan isn’t looking after himself, gives him surplus doppio food she has cooked, and as very often he doesn’t come to the door but is prostrate inside with tsipuro brandy, she simply hangs the foil-wrapped stuffed peppers or brisola chops or bean fasoladha on the doorknob inside a carrier bag, so that all he has to do is wake up to this fairytale surprise, and dozily heat it up on his ancient Baby Belling.
“Ti na kanoume?” he mutters stoically, and with only the tiniest trace of self-pity, each time I see him. “But what can I do? What is to be done?”
I’ve given some examples of his mesmerising drift towards personal entropy, but just to add that next to the discarded footwear is a glinting motor out of someone’s abandoned car, and in front of that two dilapidated small motorbikes, one a Honda 70 that he sometimes with a purple-faced struggle gets to work, for as it was made in 1966 it is older than Bojan who at 52 was born in 1967, contemporaneous with the coup by the Greek Fascist Junta, that is. The glossier, smirking youth of a machine that sits beside it, hails from the late non-Fascist 1970s and is a Honda 90, but Bojan is working on that, it goes only fitfully, and he manages a kind of all or nothing mobility by cursing at and cajoling both of them until one of the two finally relents and submits to his desperation. The point is, as a jobbing handyman he has to have transport, as some of the building work is 10 kilometres away, and the only reliable supplier to the building trade is a 20-minute journey, all of it a steep uphill. Three years ago, Bojan actually possessed a rusted 1962 saloon car, with the boot and back seat and passenger seat full of his tools and random junk, a patient but tuberculous vehicle which coughed its way everywhere with an exhaust that seemed to play Bach’s Toccata and Fugue as it hiccupped along to wherever the job might be. In those days Bojan lived somewhere rather smarter, in a proper one bedroom flat with a monthly rent of 250, and then two cruel misfortunes happened together. His car finally died on him with as they say zilch compression from the engine, and his irate landlady kicked him out for six months unpaid rent. His solution was to fuse the 2 tragedies and over the summer of 2016 he lived and slept among the wrenches and oil cans and giant spanners in his car, and whatever scant work he acquired he reached by his put-put Honda 70 that was a year his senior, and which could no doubt remember exactly what Greek Fascism was like.
Bojan’s rent is now a bargain 150, for he resides in a single room with a curtained off kitchen and a partitioned toilet, and any time I have stood at his door I have beheld a surreal and very impressive clutter, reminiscent of the ancient Steptoe and Son rag and bone man comedy from the BBC. Even so, I initially racked my brains as to how on earth he could pay even that meagre rent. Competent as he is in all DIY fields, meaning he is a skilled electrician, plumber, joiner, gardener, builder, painter and decorator, Bojan gets almost no work in the winter and spring, and not even much at the height of summer. He can only manage his peppercorn rent because the landlord owns property all over the island, and Bojan offers him payment in kind by regular maintenance. The trouble is the landlord demands a great deal of work to pay off the rent, so that it pans out about 3 euros an hour, even less than jobbing Albanian labourers are paid, those who usually make 60 euros in cash for a 12 hour day….
“Ti na kanoume? But what can I do?”
Then, should he be in a mordant and eloquent mood, Bojan lists his sorrows, which are almost on a par with Job’s. He has currently no money whatever in his pockets, because he has no proper work other than his landlord’s payment in kind. His wi-fi has been cut off for non-payment, and one of Bojan’s small but abiding joys is putting up jokey, even saucily rude Facebook posts (women with comically outsize breasts and backsides, underneath which he writes a lubricious not unsexist caption) and of course he can’t use any café wi-fi, as he cannot afford to buy a drink anywhere. Then to cap all, at only 52, he is afflicted with incipient arthritis, because of decades of toiling outside in bad weather. The island doctor had told him to take regular exercise to help matters, so that up to four times a day like a penniless prisoner on supervised release, he will parade up and down the sea front for the sake of his back which of course is essential for him to lie on when prostrate with Greek brandy.
At his poorest, Bojan is inevitably marooned inside his room all day, and he nurses himself with copious draught tsipuro, which tastes very much like his native slivovic,a kind of Slavonic raki that instead of being made of grapes, is made out of plums. At this point, one might grotesquely reflect that the Belgrade man keeps on shoving random objects outside of his poky bedsit, just to show the world that he is still alive in the formal and minimal sense, and that it is indeed possible for someone to survive and be alive without any money whatever….
Which is of course not true. No one, unless they are an incarcerated prisoner, can survive on nil income, and yet, and this is the perennial and insoluble miracle, Bojan has been living on more or less nothing for all the 5 years I’ve known him. Like most East Europeans and Greeks, he smokes like a chimney, and is never without cigarettes and often they are packet Marlboros, rarely humble roll ups. His draught booze he gets in a plastic litre bottle from a supermarket, but even draught raki isn’t free. His rent does not include electricity and water, yet every night I notice there is a light in his room, and it is not candlelight, so he must have paid his bill somehow. For a long time I thought he was being subbed by his Belgrade daughter, but then one day when he was miraculously in funds he told me he had to wire her some urgent money, as not only was her husband, the charmingly named Ratko, addicted to slivovic but worse than that was a crazy gambler, and Zara had no money to feed Bojan’s 2 little grandchildren, so had turned to her old Dad who lived in Greece for lifesaving help. Then, once, as delicately as I could, I asked him if he managed to get any credit from the local shops, but he snorted and said only one of the port supermarkets would give him occasional electrical work, but would pay him only in shop goods, not with cash.
Bojan added, with a quaint solemnity: “You can’t pay your wi-fi bill with a tin of fucking tuna. Can you, eh?”
He looked at me then for a long and scrutinising moment, as if I might provide some kind of answer. As it happened I gave him all the DIY work I could, if only because my own practical skills were on a par with Homer Simpson’s, with whom I have long felt an enormous fraternal solidarity. And isn’t it very odd, I asked myself once, that I happen to have an important role model who was not in fact a person but a cartoon drawing?
He went on furiously, “You can’t pay your phone bill with a dozen fucking eggs? Can you, eh?”
It was the first time ever I had seen him looking truly angry at the treacherous and heartless human race, as opposed to intractable physical objects like car engines or recalcitrant stopcocks.
I said quickly, “No. No, you can’t.”
Then I racked my brains to think of some DIY job I didn’t really need, and right enough the inspiration quickly came, and Bojan followed me home at once, and we chatted emphatically about landlords and landladies and shop prices, and the fact that a feeble 5 euro note bought you almost nothing worth having these days…