The City

Merlin, the muse

Merlin, the muse

It’s been three months now that I’ve been living outside of Athens, the city I consider my home. The city, too, which I carry with me through the traveling, but this time, the stretch away has been longer, and Athens has become as much a metaphor as a reality: the city I finally cannot judge other cities apart from, without considering it too. Or in C.P. Cavafy’s words, here translated by Alicia (A.E. Stallings):

iv.  The City

 You said, “I’ll go to another land, I’ll go to another sea.

I’ll find another city.  One that is better than this.

Here my every effort is sentenced to fruitlessness,

And here my heart’s entombed, as if it were a cadaver.

How long will my mind loiter in this wasteland?  For wherever

I turn my eyes here, whatever I look upon,

I see the black wreckage of my life, all the gone

Years I frittered away, destroyed, wasted utterly.”

But you will find no other lands, no other seas discover.

This city will pursue you.  The same streets, you will follow.

You will grow old among the neighborhoods that you know now.

Among the same houses, you will turn grey.  Forever

You are coming to this city.  Do not expect another.

For you there is no ship.  There is no road for you.

For as you’ve wrecked your life in this small corner, so too

You have wrecked your life the whole world over.

It came as a surprise to realize how much I remain, or one remains, within the body of what it is which marks us most deeply, how one travels with that body. A tricky subject, Athens, given the tensions as a result of Germany’s (or Brussels’) measures regarding the Greek debt; if the conversation about Greece came up and it did, sometimes reluctantly on my part, there was always sincere interest and a sense of astonishment at the resilience of those in Greece surviving under such duress. I was generally speaking to informed people, but there were surprises when I was asked why the anarchists had not done more given “Greece’s tradition of anarchy” and this said to me by a professor at the University of Freiburg where I was teaching.  My response was that “Brussels probably won’t allow any real overthrow anyway.” To which he nodded and repeated that change would most likely have to happen from the ground up. There really are so little other possibilities and yet, speaking with a German-Greek student here, she confessed that it all seemed quiet hopeless for her generation. And then laughed that she is thinking to open a café in Freiburg that would sell Greek frappés that she says anytime she makes one – that shot of diesel caffeine – is happily received. Someone else was surprised when I said “no” to his “aren’t things getting better there, it’s been awhile.”

The quiet beauty of Freiburg is a stark contrast to Athens’ gritty energy, it’s open pain and anger and passions. I felt quite alienated initially, apart from the earnest discussions with those I worked with, it felt as if I’d landed worlds away from Athens. And then, quite by chance, I moved into a collective where the evening discussions at our communal dinners brought an entirely different perspective to my sense of the differences and similarities across culture and history. The idea of a collective has always been one I’ve been partial to, and one I’ve wanted to experience. After Greece’s economic fallout it was also a practical alternative for various groups, but mostly they were groups living outside of Athens. People like Freeandreal in Evia and initiatives in Volos, were building alternative lifestyles.

Here at Grether Ost, I live with a lawyer, two teachers, a grad student, a musician and a three-legged cat named Merlin that Martin says he watched slip from the roof some years ago and land against a pot that smashed one of its hind legs. Three-legged Merlin is an important member of the collective, and as R says, “the real owner of the place.” He hops along everywhere and despite the aggression of the four-legged cats around the house he stands his ground. Martin says when he took him to the vet his leg was immediately amputated and Merlin has since learned to accommodate himself. Merlin is an example in his magical living. The body of the group, and the body of the individual and the larger bodies of our environments are so clearly bound to each other and mutually dependent that it would seem that our livelihoods would inevitably respect these dependencies. Martin, a lawyer, just turned 60  & says that the collective is a kind of continuation of the way he felt growing up as a boy in a neighborhood in which, in his words, “we felt like it was us and the world but we were so closely connected we felt invincible.” The collective is larger than the Grether Ost building, there’s a Grether Süd and a Grether West, the buildings once part of a metal factory. There are regular assemblies and rooms have been added, a beautiful space with a sprung wood floor where dance and yoga classes are held. There’s a ceramicist, carpenter, printer, and café.  I’m told there was once a pig but animals (or ones as large as pigs) aren’t allowed in the city center. I’m renting a room where visitors sometimes stay. We take turns cooking without much of a schedule, but there’s a pattern, to the cooking and to the buying. I drink a lot of coffee so I tend to buy that, and soymilk, and orange juice, and bananas. But anything any one of us buys any one else can have, unless it’s been tagged for a meal someone is cooking. There is a steady supply of honey, bread, beans, and nuts. There’s a vegetable co-op that supplies fruits and vegetables in season.

Martin was recently told he has to have an operation because one of his heart’s valves isn’t working very well. He describes the ultrasound he was shown, how there is a red spreading. It takes him longer to do things, and I can see the tiredness in his face, but he is good-humored. He sings songs he remembers from his times in Greece, “if only I could be reborn…” … “Life is a small journey of big accidents…” he doesn’t remember who the singers are, but likes Haris Alexiou. Our talk during the evening dinner gatherings range from Wolfgang Schäuble’s ungenerous policies that have made him unpopular in Germany too, to street fairs, recipes the Baader-Meinhof group and the RAF who had organized against the fact that, among other things, high-ranking Nazi officials, like judges, were never removed from their positions after the war. I say Schäuble is despised in Greece. R says, “He’s from Swabia in the southwestern part of Germany a place known for its conservative Christian values, “work, family, church…and work again.” I say, “Maybe he needs to be initiated into a more southern European spirit.” We joke of how he might feel on an island beach. R shakes her head, “it would be lost on him..” R and the others believe he is a man “who wants nothing for himself.” It is a puzzling comment. But in keeping maybe with the Calvinistic-type views on the world he incorporates. And well, the pilgrims did finally impose their vision on a new world. I read that he was actually born in Freiburg and went to the university here. “His loyalty is to Merkel and the German economy.” I nod. “He doesn’t respect other views, or the idea that there are complications within cultures that can’t be solved with data sheets.” They agree. He is a man too marked by his body and, I think, bitter in his marking. A marking that has stunted his ability to empathize. We talk too of the German president, Joachim Gauck’s visit to Athens and the question of outstanding WWII reparations that were never fully addressed, the credit the Greek government was forced to pay the Third Reich as were all governments occupied by the Nazi.

When R says “Gauck’s in Greece.” I say “who?” She laughs. “You don’t know who Gauck is?” I shake my head. She shows me the front page of the newspaper with a picture of the German president and Greece’s president Papoulias. I realize, again, how much I am mired in my city of the personal — “Forever/You are coming to this city.  Do not expect another.” I see and hear of the exchanges throughout the day. Gauck who speaks in Greek, who pays ritual homage to the memorials of Nazi occupation, who says he can’t do anything that’s not officially endorsed by Brussels. One of my students says to me that “So little is known of the Greek Nazi occupation.” I am stunned. “Really, there were so many deported Jews from Thessaloniki…” He nods, “The Poles of course, and in Spain too the issue of reparations was raised, but in Greece… I think it’s too late..” then adds, “there’s corruption here too but there’s money so it’s easier to hide.” I’m looking at him and the thought settles as I think of all the ways Greece’s recent governments have messed up, lost chances, proved themselves unable to rise to the occasions of political and economic crisis; another body that has ignored, been criminally negligent of, its dependencies. At dinner Martin says to me, “Adrianne did you notice the graffiti on the wall on this street?” I had seen the familiar bolded anarchist A with its circle that appears so regularly on surfaces in Athens. I couldn’t read the German though. And Martin tells me it says: “Order without hierarchies.”  An order of empathies, our shared food — a city that might gather our marked bodies in this wrecked world?

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Blog Tour: some notes on “My Writing Process”

Kalfopoulou-RuinThank you Linda Lappin  for the opportunity to continue The Writing Process Blog Tour. For newcomers to Linda’s work, she is the author of numerous books, most recently Signatures in Stone  a mystery novel set in Bomarzo.  Linda is an American writer who has spent most of her adult life in Italy where she teaches and writes. She is a novelist, poet, and essayist, and has been the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant, the PEN Renato Poggioli Award, the Hugh J. Luke award for the essay from Prairie Schooner, an Ippy gold medal for historical fiction, and in 2012 a Solas bronze medal award from Traveler’s Tales. “The Genius Loci: A Writer’s Guide to Capturing the Soul of Place” is forthcoming.

Here are my answers to the Blog Tour questions:

Why do I write what I do? I don’t think this is the order of the questions, but I’m starting with this one since I am posting on my blog which is intended to be a space that expresses a plurality of voices, even if this comes through quotes, or references from various media venues. I’m making an exception with this post because my book RUIN, essays in exilic life (forthcoming in September from Red Hen Press), engages with various austerity-related narratives that have also been the focus of this blog. This also relates to why I write what I do. I had not planned on keeping a blog. I think part of my resistance had to do with the fact that I’ve often thought that blogging would lessen the pressure of the urgency to write in a more disciplined, in-depth fashion. But as Greece started to fall apart financially, and friends and acquaintances to say nothing of the larger fabric of the city and those growing numbers of the unemployed and homeless, began to be affected, it seemed like a way to keep something of a lit match in the forest of chaos if only as a conversation with myself in the dark, or with those who were having similar conversations, which I guess, too, is a large part of why I write what I do.  

Another thing about these blog posts, which connects them to the essays in RUIN, is that they engage the immediacy of the moment. Many of the essays in RUIN, as with these posts, were an attempt at keeping ahead of the wave. None of them were easy to write. Since austerity, Athens has changed drastically, the metal mongers as I call them, scavenging for anything they might sell from the trash, the pawnshops everywhere, the begging in the subways of those you wouldn’t expect to be begging, the hideous signs with their flashing lights that announce “immediate cash” for gold and real estate. All of this is part of the changing body of the city that is also composed of the consequences to its human bodies. “Why do I write it?” I suppose because putting words to a page or sentences that become paragraphs and then longer pieces, is a way to make sense on the level of the sentence when even that feels challenged or hopeless. It is not an easy, or ideal, way to write; it makes the process exhausting and often very painful but it is also a way to feel like I managed, even if for a little while, to shape something shapeless.

How does my work differ from that of other writers working in the same genre? I’ll limit this answer to essay writing. I’m not sure how my work may differ, but I can say that certain writers have influenced me, the work of Lia PurpuraDavid Lazar  and Jenny Boully for example. I do think I have a particular style of putting moments together in the essay that can be (so I’ve been told) rather anarchic. I like the notion of the “braid essay”; or strands that come together in surprising ways. I work toward that, toward ways of allowing this to happen in the work. It’s the way I wrote most of the essays in RUIN. Somehow I think this is a reflection of the kinds of complexities of consciousness, even what I’d call a promiscuity of consciousness that’s the result of the information/sensation overload that we’re constantly exposed to. There’s a certain porousness in this moment which is something I try to express (it is easier for me to capture this in poems), but that simultaneity of convergences which could be viewed as a corruption of concentration is also, I think, indicative of a more general corruption of focus, of causalities, the result of late-capitalism’s excesses? The most interesting notes on the rejection letters I get are the ones that tell me “it takes too much effort to concentrate on where the essay is going,” this is a verbatim line. I took it as a compliment really, though I appreciate the danger of the car crash when there are too many intersections. But it’s that kind of working against the weave of a sort of lax causality that I want to achieve. I also think, politically speaking, it’s reductive over-simplifications that have gotten us into some of the messes we’re in.

 How does my writing process work? I don’t know that I have a “process”; I know the way I work is rather obsessive. That is I don’t have a ritual, say brushing my teeth, having my coffee, combing my hair, and then sitting to work (I think Cheever did that, and maybe Hemingway). It’s more like the reaction of someone who knows if they wait any longer the food will burn and be unrecognizable. I suppose writing is a way to keep the ghosts at bay, actually it’s a way to have less of them. The truth is writing often terrifies me. Milosz has a poem where he describes inspiration as a state of being possessed, and has a wonderful image of a tiger swishing its tail out of nowhere, but there it is, and he, the poet/writer, has to deal with it.

One of the essays in RUIN, “Stolen Culture”, was written over about 2 years. I kept the notes in various states of disarray, scraps in a plastic Sklavenitis supermarket bag. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t forget something I thought of maybe 6 months before as the essay kept changing. One of my close friends would periodically ask how “the shopping bag essay” was going. That essay overwhelmed me, not only because there was so much anger that I had to distill but also because the subject was so historically burdened. Marianne Boruch has an essay in the December 2013 issue of POETRY on “Melodrama” where she cites a first draft of Elizabeth Bishop’s masterpiece “of reserve,” her villanelle “One Art” as being “a very sprawling attempt,” of “Pure melodrama!” Boruch reminds us (as her son reminds her) that melodrama is “a drama carried by melo, song.” Greek again. Part of the challenge and difficulty of dealing with all the drama of writing, let alone the “melo” parts as we’d say colloquially in Greek, is being willing to let it become whatever it is going to become. Greece, or what’s happened to Greece, has taught me to respect those moments of exploded boundaries. I think that’s what some of my writing comes out of, that tension and despair that I can’t do more than put words to paper. And it never seems enough.

What am I working on now? I’m a little superstitious about talking too much about what it is I’m doing when the work is in its raw beginning stages. Not because I want to be coy, just that I’m not sure myself if it will amount to anything, plus it’s a sort of love/hate thing, trying to commit to the fact that what’s happening will keep me from running from it; a little like a beginning relationship when there’s a sense of vulnerability and confusion about how comfortable I might be with the feelings, there isn’t always the choice of control over emotion but that’s the script we’re taught, at least in the western world. I try to resign myself in these moments to the idea that I do the work so I can earn some peace of mind, no matter what the result. So the subject I’m involved with now again engages the city, or cities, mainly Athens, and it uses tango as a metaphor. I’m calling it a fiction because the voice is someone else’s, someone who (unlike me) is rather horrified by a certain lack of structure.

In terms of more scholarly stuff, I still haven’t given up on my Plath project. I’ve published some essays from that monograph-in-the-making, but haven’t sat down to work on it in a beginning-to-end sequence. I have the chapter titles though (!)… they actually help me organize my thinking, and hopefully they eventually do become chapters. When I’m having doubts about my ability to live up to a project, I play a game of tackling small parts, an article, part of a would-be-chapter, and then gradually build from that until I can say that it is no longer in my head but on the page. I am arguing that Plath is a modernist expression of Emersonian ambition, and that much of her demonization by earlier critics like her contemporary Anne Stevenson, was due to a misunderstanding of this ambition. I’ve visited her archives at Smith a few times, and have a lot of source material I now have to sit down to, taxing muse that she is.

Now I would like to introduce the writers who will be continuing this blog tour next week [Feb. 3]: Click on their names to visit their websites.

I am thrilled to introduce the next two bloggers in this tour: Kate Gale, poet, fiction writer, professor, and one of the founding editors of Red Hen Press, and David Lazar, nonfiction writer, founding editor of Hotel Amerika, professor and director of the program in nonfiction at Columbia College.

First David (alphabetically by first name), I want to say when David accepted my first essay in RUIN, “Dislocated States” for Hotel Amerika I felt a little like someone who hears their language being spoken in a foreign country: His books include Occasional Desire: Essays, from the University of Nebraska Press, The Body of Brooklyn and Truth in Nonfiction (Iowa), Michael Powell: Interviews and Conversations with M.F.K. Fisher (Mississippi), and Powder Town, a book of prose poems (Pecan Grove). Forthcoming is After Montaigne (University of Georgia Press). His essays and prose poetry have appeared widely in magazines and journals such as Black Clock, Southwest Review, Denver Quarterly, Sentence and Gulf Coast. Five of his essays have been named “Notable Essays of the Year” by Best American Essays. He has lectured widely on nonfiction and editing, and founded the Ph.D. program in nonfiction writing at Ohio University, and directed the creation of the MFA program in nonfiction at Columbia College Chicago, where he teaches. He is also the founding editor of Hotel Amerika, now in its thirteenth year. David’s website.

Kate is, among many other things, the woman whose energy and generosity of spirit I want to emulate. I am so grateful to her and the Red Hens for their support of my work. She is Managing Editor of Red Hen Press, writes for Huffington Post, and is a poet, fiction writer, editor, and librettist. Her new book, The Goldilocks Zone just been released from the University of New Mexico Press (January of 2014). Echo Light will be released from Red Mountain Press, September 2014. Here’s my favorite quote from Kate’s Q&A with Poets&Writers on the beginnings of the press:  “There was this bunch of farmyard animals, all of whom wanted to have bread. So the Little Red Hen said, “Who’s going to plant the wheat?” And they all said, “Not I! Not I!” So the Little Red Hen planted the wheat. But then she asked who was going to take care of the wheat, who’s going to harvest it? “Not I! Not I!” At the end, when she’s made the bread, she says, “Who’s going to eat the bread?” And everyone’s like, “I will!” And the Little Red Hen says, “No, I’m going to eat it myself!” [Laughs.] The story for us was a good image for getting going on something. Fortunately it didn’t keep on that way. Now we have a great staff, a great board, great shareholders, so the burden is not just on one or two people.” Kate’s website.

 

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To the Playground

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“Άστους να δούν τι έκανε τις καρδιές μας να καούν…”

(“Let them take a good look at what made our hearts burn…”) Zembetiko, Stratos (1946)

Hours before the end of a year that never let up, relentless and overwhelmed, it was a year rich in discoveries as much as pain. The image of my near-90-year-old grandmother came to mind some days ago. Before she died she had such a look of earnestness to a face that had seen and survived, among other things, war and deprivation, and violent uprootings of family. I think it stayed with me all these years as an expression of the kind of mysteries that can happen in conditions of assault to the spirit. Death always catches up but as her own life came to a close she looked toward it, paradoxically, with the face of a much younger person’s questioning expression, there was innocence and openness and humility in her voice and eyes when she said, “it all went by so fast, I didn’t have enough time to understand what happened…”

In this year’s storms what stays with me is also paradoxical, while we gathered on the grounds of the national radio and television buildings, known as the “Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation” (ERT) after its unilateral and illegal closure on June 11 by the Samaras government; while we joined demonstrations against the Golden Dawn neo-Nazis in horror at the murder of the ANTIFA (Antifascist) rapper Pavlos Physsas, & the government’s negligence at reacting to immigrant murders by the same party; while we spoke and articulated a continuing rage toward those now- familiar names in the previous and current government who have had more than a hand in the corruption and economic rape of the country; we also lived moments of solidarity and humor and eros that were perhaps all the more acute for the fact of our vulnerability. But there was something else too, or something new, for me, which was the gradual realization that certain facts of injustice, and evil, were now concrete rather than abstract, part of a reality that was not going to change in the near future, if it would change at all. Any naïve sense of promise was radically demythesized – or as D said when she went abroad to teach, “some of the students [in her program in the UK] were returning to countries with hopes.” This was a new realization that hope, or the kinds of promises fed to us from PASOK’s inflated-dreams-on-loan, to the current government’s penchant for calling their tragedies “success stories,” proved, in Yeats’ words, that “… the center cannot hold” because the center was rotten. The center, as the man in my neighborhood who has a small frame shop said to me, is “the system,” and “what” he said so casually, “can anyone expect from a system” so flagrantly compromised. “So what if you lose your house to taxes,” he continued, “if you have the soul, you’ll build it all again.” The moments that were the most fundamental to this year were, for lack of another way to put it, moments with soul. And those moments seemed to accumulate and exist in stark contrast to the ugliness of the news with its catalog of grotesques.

Near my apartment is a playing field where the neighborhood soccer matches are held, where there’s a corner with a treadmill and some other gym equipment that was installed by the municipality. About a year and a half ago a stall of metal tiers with plastic seats was put in to replace the wooden benches that had been ripped up. The playing field is manned by someone who slurs and is probably mentally challenged, someone who smiles and while his words are not always easily understood he is always ready to help out, always says hi when I go to run at odd hours. He was shaking his head on a night when it had been pouring rain. There were maybe one or two other people there, it was late, he showed me the dwindling plastic seats on the tiers, their broken green lay strewn on the ground. “I don’t know when they come in here the hooligans but I’ve never seen them… they’ve destroyed everything.” Out of 5 tiers with about 20 seats to a tier there were just a scattering of seats that were still unbroken. It was sad and expressive of the kind of rage and frustration that was a danger to us all. “Moderation is no longer an option,” someone said at a gathering where Thanos Veremis, the Greek historian shocked me when he bluntly admitted that many, including himself, would be voting in the next election for individuals they loathed. “There’s no choice,” he elaborated, “we either stay in Europe or we’re completely lost.” I suppose, to me, this was another way of saying if we’re lost we’ll be lost with Europe as opposed to without it. But the remark brought back what it meant to be within a rotting system, a system in which a Mr. Tobouloglou, director of the PAIDON children’s hospital in Athens was caught taking 25,000 euros as a kickback; where Mr. Liapis turned in his license plates because his jeep or truck was highly taxed, only to reissue himself false plates so he could continue to use his jeep without paying the taxes; even the King and Queen are back, renting, apparently luxurious apartments built by the former Prime minister’s daughter; so the system has lost its soul, if it ever had one to begin with, or as P said “we’re witnessing the decadence of the spirit..” and then added “western.” But the danger isn’t the fact of decadence, it’s its ability to contaminate what’s still healthy. The MPs are keeping their healthy salaries at their existing levels while the air in Athens is thick with wood burning because people can’t afford gas and oil, you can taste it on humid nights, sometimes it stings, and sometimes it chokes you.

I wish I could say I have some pity for these people who seem unable to give up their flagrant lifestyles, or feel any shame for their unapologetic greed. I wish there were people in government who would take some of those stolen millions to pay off the debt, and rebuild the playgrounds. But that would assume that they had some soul. It was chilling to see the empty spaces on their metal tiers where people gather to watch the matches. There are soccer matches with adults, others with younger groups. All ages use the gym equipment, some of which has been smashed up and then replaced again. In this space people hang out in the evenings, kids ride their bikes on the dirt ground; some people just come and sit and watch whatever happens to be going on. I’ve become very fond of it and hope in this new year, and years to come that we don’t lose the soul to protect it, we would be so much poorer, and pitiless.

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ΚΑΙ ΜΕΤΑ ΘΑ ΚΑΑΘΕΣΑΙ!! Ελένη Χριστίνα Σταμοπούλου

 

 

Όταν ξεκίνησα το σχολείο, η μαμά μου μού είπε: « Τώρα παιδί μου που ξεκινάς το σχολείο θα αφοσιωθείς στο διάβασμα και όταν μεγαλώσεις και έχεις όλα τα εφόδια που χρειάζεσαι θα βρεις μια καλή δουλειά σ’ ένα γραφείο και θα κάάάθεσαι!!!» Κι εγώ σαν καλό και υπάκουο παιδί και με την προοπτική πάντα ότι θα κάααθομαι ακολούθησα τις συμβουλές της μαμάς μου.

Τελείωσα το σχολείο. Έμαθα αγγλικά, γαλλικά, ιταλικά. Πήγα και σε μια σχολή κι έμαθα και γραφομηχανή. Ο καημένος ο μπαμπάς μου δούλευε σε δυο δουλειές για να τα βγάλει πέρα και μπάλωνε τις σόλες των παπουτσιών του για να μου προσφέρει τα εφόδια που χρειαζόμουν για να έχω μία άνετη δουλειά στην οποία θα καθόοομουνα!!! Κάθε μέρα έτρεχα από το πρωί μέχρι το βράδυ, αλλά η προοπτική μιας ξεκούραστης ζωής μου έδινε κουράγιο και δύναμη να συνεχίσω.

Άρχισα να ψάχνω για δουλειά. Δεν με έπαιρναν γιατί είχα λέει πολλά προσόντα. Τελικά ένα πρωί, Αύγουστος ήτανε θαρρώ, και λίγους μήνες πριν από εκλογές, με πήραν τηλέφωνο από τον ΟΤΕ και μου είπαν πως η αίτηση μου εγκρίθηκε (αίτηση την οποία δεν είχα κάνει) και να πάω να υπογράψω σύμβαση εργασίας. Έγινα, επιτέλους, μια εργαζόμενη γυναίκα. Όταν έληξε η σύμβαση μου, βρήκα άλλη δουλειά, πάλι με μέσο , και όχι ό,τι κι ό,τι, πολιτικό παρακαλώ, σε σούπερ μάρκετ. Έβαζα χαρτάκια με τιμές στις κονσέρβες. Άρχισα να νιώθω ότι ο αγώνας ο δικός μου και των γονιών μου είχε αρχίσει πλέον να δικαιώνεται.

Και, επιτέλους, μετά από ένα χρόνο βρήκα δουλειά γραφείου, κανονική,  οκτάωρη, μόνη μου, χωρίς μέσον. Επιτέλους θα κάααθομαι!!!!!!!!Αμ δε!!! Παντρεύτηκα! Έγινα μία εργαζόμενη, γυναίκα και σύζυγος. Γιατί εξάλλου να κάααθομαι μόνη μου; Να έχω και παρέα. Βέβαια, μετά τη δουλειά, είχα να μαγειρέψω, να συγυρίσω, να σιδερώσω, να, να, να……. Ήμουν πια μια εργαζόμενη γυναίκα, σύζυγος και νοικοκυρά. Άρχισα να αποκτώ διαστροφές και να μου αρέσουν οι διαφημίσεις… Ιδιαίτερα εκείνη της χαρωπής νοικοκυράς, που με μαλλί κομμωτηρίου τραγουδούσε ευτυχισμένη: «είμαι κεφάτη, ψωνίζω στου Βερόπουλου». Αποφασίζω να δω από κοντά τι ποτίζει τις νοικοκυρές ο Βερόπουλος και είναι τόσο ευτυχισμένες και πάω. Τίποτα δεν τις ποτίζει, δυστυχώς, ο διαφημιστής μάλλον παίρνει ληγμένα ναρκωτικά. Νιώθω, τελικά, πως ο Βερόπουλος με κοροϊδεύει κατάμουτρα και κόβω τις διαφημίσεις.

Μετά ήρθαν τα παιδάκια μου, γερά να’ ναι, και άρχισα να παριστάνω τον άνθρωπο λάστιχο. Έτρεχα στη δουλειά, στο σχολείο, στο σπίτι, στα φροντιστήρια, στις διάφορες δραστηριότητες. Ήμουν πια μια εργαζόμενη γυναίκα, σύζυγος, μητέρα και νοικοκυρά, ενίοτε δε και νοσοκόμα, παρακαλώ! Ξαφνικά, άρχισα να ζηλεύω τα αδέσποτα της γειτονιάς μου, την ξέγνοιαστη σκυλίσια τους ζωή. Τελικά ανακάλυψα πως το καθισιό είχε αναβληθεί για τη σύνταξη. Υπομονή.

Τα παιδιά μου όμως μεγάλωσαν και άρχισαν να φροντίζουν τον εαυτό τους μόνα τους κι έτσι απέκτησα ελεύθερο χρόνο. Είπα να κάνω κάτι για μένα και έγινα φοιτήτρια. Κατάφερα να τελειώσω και τη σχολή και έγινα μια εργαζόμενη γυναίκα, σύζυγος, μητέρα, νοικοκυρά, νοσοκόμα και τελειόφοιτη, παρακαλώ!!!

Και μετά ήρθε η οικονομική κρίση και το κράτος φρόντισε για μένα. Να’ ναι καλά αυτός ο άγιος άνθρωπος που μας έβαλε στο ΔΝΤ. Ο Θεός να μας κόβει χρόνια και να του δίνει μέρες.

Πρώτα- πρώτα, έχασα τη δουλειά μου και, επιτέλους, η συμβουλή της μητέρας μου έπιασε τόπο. Τώρα δεν χρειάζεται να ξυπνώ πρωί-πρωί. Δεν με νοιάζει αν έχουν απεργίες τα λεωφορεία, τα τρόλεϊ ή τα ταξί, αν έχουν πορείες, αν, αν, αν….  Η μόνη μου έγνοια είναι να πηγαίνω κάθε τρεις μήνες στον ΟΑΕΔ να ανανεώνω το καρτελάκι ανεργίας. Τώρα πια είμαι μια άνεργη γυναίκα, σύζυγος, μητέρα, νοικοκυρά και τελειόφοιτη παρακαλώ!!!!

Επίσης, λόγω κρίσης, αρχίσαμε να πηγαίνουμε στο σούπερ μάρκετ όλο και πιο σπάνια κι έτσι τα περισσότερα απογεύματά μου είναι πια ελεύθερα. Με την αύξηση στη τιμή του ρεύματος, κόψαμε και το πολύ μαγείρεμα, και το σίδερο και το πλύσιμο. Και με την αύξηση της τιμής του πετρελαίου, αρχίσαμε να τρέχουμε και μέσα στο σπίτι για να ζεσταθούμε κι έτσι γυμναζόμαστε κιόλας. Κι επειδή στη πολυκατοικία μας το ζεστό νερό το έχουμε από το boiler, αραιώσαμε με τον άντρα μου και το σεξ, γιατί κανείς από τους δύο μας δεν αντέχει το παγωμένο νερό. Επίσης, αρχίσαμε να σκεφτόμαστε να έχουμε πιο στενές σχέσεις με τα υπόλοιπα ζευγάρια της πολυκατοικίας μας μήπως και ζεσταθούμε καλύτερα.

Και όσο αφορά εκείνη τη ριμάδα τη σύνταξη, δεν βλέπω να την παίρνω κι ας έχω δουλέψει όχι για μια ζωή αλλά για δέκα. Αλλά δεν έχω παράπονο, γιατί τώρα πια κάααθομαι!!!!!!!!!!

Και όσο αφορά το σπίτι μας, που με τόσο κόπο πληρώσαμε για να αποκτήσουμε, οσονούπω θα μας το πάρει η εφορία ή καμιά τράπεζα και θα το δώσει για ένα κομμάτι ψωμί σε κανένα ξένο, μάλλον Γερμανό, για να έρθει να ζήσει κι αυτός το μύθο του στην Ελλάδα. Και τότε να δείτε ΠΟΥ ΘΑ ΚΑΑΑΘΟΜΑΙ!!!

 

 

 

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The Way the Rain Came Down

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“Night after night, summer and winter, the torment of storms, the arrow-like stillness of fine weather, held their court without interference… only gigantic chaos streaked with lighting could have been heard tumbling and tossing, as the winds and waves disported themselves like the amorphous bulks of leviathans whose brows are pierced by no light of reason…”

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

 

The way the rain came down mixed in with sorrow. The way the sounds in the middle of the night turned into an exhaustion of lament, dreams that hung on in the waking half-sleep of the rain’s on-going. It continued, the night or day or evening or early morning weave of November into December. There was always news. The news of it all, the news that would not leave us without reprieve, relentless, the forebodings, the incessant whispers of despair, the way shreds and pieces of it caught into conversations, now familiar refrains, realizations, the sheer body of rain part of the not-so-quiet downpour. The metro stops often closed for no real reason, one of the things this government thinks demonstrates its control, that it is cleaning up the mess it continues, trying to convince (itself most of all) that there is some changing shape to the crisis, and still the rain comes down and we no longer have the kinds of gatherings and demonstrations of a year or two ago, as the humidity and sorrow bloats, as we still speak of what might be done, the dampness seeps in a weary bystander, a dogged hurt blisters the silence; the stubbornness of this mood, the ongoing rhythm of a torrent where there are still dreams. I had one of the wine he had given me, that I had given it to friends who found it too thick, like the pain in these days, not watered down as the saying goes, despite the rain in the currents of wind; the drowning sounds. “Demotion” she said, sitting on a bar stool, “we’re in a space of demotion” despite the anarchy of currents. Or because of them; stilled in shock.  “We’ve lost any ability to hold onto a center,” certainly it is that center that “the center cannot hold” and whether or not “anarchy is loosed upon the world” is still to be seen, but here there’s a habitation. “Why don’t you inhabit the space,” she said still on the bar stool, and irritated that I had taken out a pen to write down something from our conversation, telling me it was “cannibalistic” and I looked up, and wrote it down anyway: “the foreseeable future is bad,” she said, and I wrote, and now am not sure what I found so special about the line unless there was something after that that I didn’t write because she was upset, and I was saying that it is a movement, to write, a habitation of its own; something which resists the “demotion” she described; since to write is to place the self in the vortex of something that threatens to scatter more than that self, something beyond us, as its been with the rain these days and the constant winds that keep unhinging doors and loosened shutters, gathering whatever its currents gather, this shapelessness of feeling, this yearning; (or I yearn) to shape what might have meaning, that is a inhabitation; cannibalistic, maybe, this desperation to manage this inhabitation? But desire has no map: it will forge its own path, even when obstructed it still twists a way, even if it becomes “αμορφο” (amorpho) the Greek word for shapeless that I think of as a root too, lexical and otherwise, a threat to “μορφωση “(morphosi) which means knowledge or education that promises to shape the distortions, the “παραμορσωση” (distortion) of shapeless thinking when desire remains unmapped; unless (like Whitman) there is a self that stands integral in the midst of such dismantling, himself a spore of agency, so unlike the likes of, say, the quietly devastated Bartleby.  Desire, shapeless as rain but like the rain, a pulse. She heard “αγαπη” (“love”) murmured on the street, and turned, it was what he called her when he visited from Romania, addressing her in the Greek he loved to speak, but she saw, instead, the cripple who was begging for a handout, and she shivered, and realized how much she missed him in this cold that was among other things rain-filled and pained. N was weeping in class, and I couldn’t help but think November (not April) is “the cruelest month” this season of increasing dark, this month in which the Greek prime minister proved his stupidity yet again, his ruthlessness too, as he went into the building that housed the public radio station with riot police and forced out those who had been broadcasting there without pay or help for the past 6 months. Then too there had been rain when the government shut it down without so much as a warning. Illegal like so much done in the name of legality and he said (addressing a group of Harvard graduates in Greece – apparently his son is applying there this year): “it was a necessary legal measure to clear away the remnants of the past,” adding that “Democracy is not afraid of the truth, and is neither afraid of the censures of the remnants of the past…”; there was rain again on that November day rain while the city itself would not respond with any nostalgia for the remnants of its democracy, made as it is, the city, of mortar and devastation, a city he does not inhabit in his own blind and ruthless desire, believing like others before him in his legitimacy, his legality. What to ask of the city, or what to suggest when it has become the energy of everything he and those like him have refused to inhabit, what we might want to abate, to grasp some piece of, to hold onto in the torrent. You can’t keep up the way the rain keeps up and keeps you up, soaking the blankets of the exposed in the city in the streets (one asked if I would buy him something, I nodded, and he hesitated, and said potatoes, and meant fries, and I nodded again, and then he said, and maybe something else so when I brought him a souvlaki and told him that was what it was he said, did you remember the potatoes too?) — what of our becoming part of the night’s sheen, skins in the soaked heaviness of proximity to the abyss, intimate, the words are always intimate in the ongoing hitting rhythm of lament please I’d like to have your attention for a few seconds please I appreciate anything you can give I am not in good health I have cancer and four children the conditions we live in are terrible they showed my family on television take a look at this paper thank you thank you for anything and if you have nothing thank you anyway stay in good health god bless be well always be well I’m here only because I have to be I’m not a beggar I’m a Greek citizen I’m here because I’m a pensioner without a pension and have no one don’t abandon me don’t throw me into the streets don’t throw your own into the streets, thank you for buying a pen thank you and be well…

 

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Denial

On the secret seashore

white like a pigeon

we thirsted at noon:

but the water was brackish.

“ΑΡΝΗΣΗ” (“Denial”), George Seferis

trans. Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard

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I’ve been thinking of this post ever since I heard the policewoman’s statement about the scene of Pavlos Physsas’ murder. It was on the radio and I was on my way to the metro. I could so easily not have heard it. So much seems to happen “by chance” these days. The accumulated stress makes it a challenge to keep concentrated. Then the reprieves, like these sun-washed fall days, make our ventures away from it all somehow necessary. I once read that Simone de Beauvoir and JP Sartre spent large amounts of time going to the movies during the Nazi Occupation of Paris. They received some major criticism for sitting in cinemas while others were fighting guerilla warfares – I wonder what they saw when all was censored, horribly romantic melodramas, propagandistic clips of an Aryan empire? It probably didn’t matter, the pall and weight of their world perhaps impossible to distance themselves from except in such absurd and overt perversions of their present.

Last weekend I met a friend I hadn’t seen for a while for coffee. It was another gorgeous day with people out in cafés. A passerby might be hard put to see signs of the country’s despair on a morning like that. The graffiti crowded surfaces of often stunning artwork and the now-familiar signatures of voices like “Βασανίζομαι” (suffering) and “FOLA” (poison) are reminders, as are the begging homeless. But in the square where we had coffee there were also people laughing, balloons being sold, pigeons being fed, lovers kissing. My friend had just bought Patrick Morrissey’s Autobiography; it got us talking about individuals and outspoken lives, how it seemed like it would be harder and harder to be just that as social networks were being used to surveillance behavior. He had mentioned that in the UK there were millions going off Facebook that had started a bizarre counter-inquiry into “Why wouldn’t you have a FB account…” It sounded far-fetched, but then again so much does these days. We got ourselves imagining a next breed of human kind that he named “Homo-Econ” a descendant of “Homo-Faber,” driven by production and concrete measurable outcomes. There would be few opportunities for spontaneous behavior, and if pigeons were being fed and lovers kissing they would be on plasma screens as images of our past. Public spaces, particularly in western cities, are increasingly spaces where kinds of behavior we might still take for granted are monitored or prohibited. The sign at the entrance of Washington Square Park for example has a list of all you can’t do, after it tells you, “This is your park” though one that prohibits “bike riding” and “feeding squirrels” among other things.  

When “all of us as we know ourselves to be die out” my friend went on, in our places will be “people who will take all these forms of interventions and control for granted.” It was not unimaginable; Bradbury, Orwell, and Huxley had already described that world. The thing is what is outrageous to some to others is being denied, maybe as a way to survive? Though the joke is on us since survival, or survival as tied to certain basic values, is also about the ability to think independently and take initiatives.

The policewoman on that September night that Pavlos Physsas was murdered decided on her own accord to follow the skirmish that had broken out on a street in Keratsini. She reported the fact that she and others on duty had been told of the skirmish where some 30 people were in a street fight. As they approached men on motorbikes called out to them as “colleagues,” saying “it’s been taken care of, there’s no need to get involved. The fight’s over.” She said the group had broken up, and those with her left when she noticed there was still shouting from one of the streets. She went toward it on her own, down “a dark side street,” as she described it. All she could see were two bodies fighting. As she approached one of the men moved away from the other, the person she was going to arrest seemed to have been the more energetic; it was Physsas who had just been stabbed. He managed to shout, “Grab him he’s stabbed me!” It was only because of Physsas’ ability to point out his murderer that the policewoman arrested him as he was getting into his car. “We don’t use knives,” she said when she took him into custody. Physsas died some hours later.  What is stunning about the story is that he could have died without anyone having known the culprit, or culprits. We may have all suspected but there would have been no evidence without the policewoman’s eyewitness account had she not taken the initiative to continue down the street after her colleagues left. Finally, it took Physsas’ murder for the government to do anything about the violence of the Golden Dawn party and their criminality.

As the country lives its tragic dismantling, set adrift and seemingly protected by none, least of all its so-called saviors which includes its governing bodies whose sole aim seems to be to keep itself from being implicated in the drama of its own making, these human moments are all the more resonant for what they express of individual integrity and responsibility. Sometimes I think people like that policewoman represent the few who are not in denial of our circumstance, with enough courage to do her job despite its costs. It’s more than we can say for the government, and the larger realities of late capitalism’s dead-ends. Yanis Varoufakis continues to post on the continued cartography of our economic demise, and while people aren’t “shooting the messenger,” they are for the most part ignoring the message.

What is moving to me in our coming-apartness is the humanity that is still human, that we are not (not all of us) ignoring each other in our vulnerability (again excepting members of government). Someone walked by a café where someone had left a plate of food (meatballs) half eaten; he stopped and picked one off the plate. The owner packaged the meal and gave it to him. When I make some Xeroxes I am short of a euro, and have to break a 20-euro bill, and am told to give it to him when I come by again. But when I do give the euro a little later the owner smiles as if I’m giving him something he never expected. I generally leave a 10 or 20-cent tip when I get coffee in the morning, and one morning Martha, the young woman who makes the coffee offers me a sandwich she says is on her. I’m surprised and she says, “You always leave me a tip.” I find these gestures almost overwhelming because they recognize our mutual dependencies in a time when those dependencies are being denied by people who could do something about the situation on the level of policy. Late capitalism’s brute indifferences to individual lives, that they are individual lives and not simply numbers to crunch or behavior to surveillance remain signs of life in a landscape of death; maybe de Beauvoir and Sartre needed to escape their world of death in those darkened cinema spaces, maybe they found opportunities for subversive conversations, a pretense at life as they hoped it might be again one day?

 

 

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Economies of Suffering

“‘A starving person sheds a large portion of his weight in the first few weeks. As death approaches, the rate of weight diminution declines to zero,” says [Yanis]Varoufakis dryly.’”

“Can Greece’s Rescue Plan Succeed?” John Psaropoulos, for Al JAZEERA

“Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,/ Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams/”

“Sunday Morning” Wallace Stevens

 One of the first things I read the week I am back in Athens after being on Patmos for part of August is the statistics on rising suicides:

“Greece’s suicide rate has doubled since 2009 public health officials have warned, ahead of this year’s world suicide prevention day on Tuesday 10 September. According to official data, 1,245 Greeks took their own lives from 2009 to 2011, the public health directorate of Central Macedonia said in Thessaloniki…”

There had been a suicide on the island, a man in his 40s. And while still on Patmos, as I was getting groceries someone mentioned Michalis Aslanis’ earlier in the day. Aslanis, a well-known Greek fashion designer, known too for his genial demeanor and generosity in an industry that generally has little of either, had taken an overdose of pills. Apparently the person or persons he had given significant sums of money to, to pay his property taxes, had stolen it. He’d made a statement that he was “destroyed” about a week before his death. Both incidents were unexpected and reached me in the midst of what had been a summer of distances from the harsher realities of austerity. How successfully can anyone distance themselves really when what we carry is always a part of what we leave? Suicides have in common the certainty of a journey that will never return you to what you left. Strange though, the way the proximity of death changes the texture of life; the sensation of what is happening around you, or outside of you, collapses into what is happening in you. There is an inherent collectivity to the fact of grief. Greek and Shakespearean tragedies end with their different versions of catharsis leaving us feeling oddly connected, even elevated, in recognition of our shared fallibilities?

The news of the death on Patmos traveled quickly, it is a community of villages after all, but I heard the heavy tolling of the church bells as D and I were on our way to the sea. “Someone’s died,” I said which immediately changed the look on her face. D is from the city. “Do you hear the bells? They toll at that slow pace when someone dies.” Then we saw a young man pass on a motorcycle in black, and as we walked further down the road two women were coming out of their house with looks of stunned sadness, one calling to someone else to hurry up because the service had started. It was several days later that I found out who the man was who had hung himself, the brother of a woman I knew from one of the villages. I called her to give her my condolences but she could hardly speak, “it’s an impossible weight,” she said in Greek. “How am I supposed to carry this?” He had a family, someone who worked quite literally from dawn to dusk, he had hurt his back and thought he would not be able to keep providing for his family, his manhood was at stake, or this is what I gathered. “Life is a wave that never stops hitting you,” my friend said.

As a suicide the Orthodox church might have chosen not to bury the man with a service, but this was not the case, a sense of collective empathy for the suffering of those closest to the man was shared. While there is the stigma of suicide (which the man’s sister, in her grief, kept repeating with the question ‘why did he do this to us?’), the pain was respected by the community, including the church. I don’t know if it was the general pall of these deaths (Aslanis’ a week later, again discussed in the grocery stores and cafés), but just off the ship in Pireaus I notice a homeless man holed up in the crevice of a broken wall opposite of where the ship docked. Then, next to the metro station as I get the subway home, there’s a flashing sign that advertises “70¢ frappé + hotdog,” less than a euro for something to eat with coffee.

Island life has its redemptions; the beauty of the island for one, the sea (especially). The nights I fell asleep on the beach everything felt somehow manageable, or “placed” — no matter our many discussions on the crisis, and the repeated “what is waiting for us?” like a refrain — there were (not to sound cliché) the stars, quite literally. Like chandeliers in the night sky they made the facts, or realities, less oppressive. We swam the breaking lace of froth under moonlight, we talked, swam again, the sea’s currents like a tough muscle of purpose unlocking all the caged feelings of the city. Beauty does distance or frame death, the kind of death at least which feels unredeemed when people are disconnected, when the homeless and desperate on the streets in the city reflect the breakdown of any ability for the collective to save them.

I got an email from a friend who briefly quoted the Wallace Stevens line from “Sunday Morning”; death being “the mother of beauty”; he added, “I’d like to think beauty is the mother of beauty.” I suppose this was the feeling I carried with me from the island until the facts of the city tore into that reverie. Most horrifically was the murder of the 34 year-old rap musician and anti-fascist activist Pavlos Physsas by a Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn member last Tuesday night. The organized murder brought to light the chilling fact that the government has tolerated this group’s infiltrations into various organs of society. I use the noun deliberately, as we are indeed contaminated. The fact that this group is responsible for the ongoing harassment and violence to immigrants, that the police keep turning a blind eye, has escalated to the murder of Pavlos Physsas, an outspoken anti-fascist. Golden Dawn has denied involvement, but the murderer quite frankly pointed out he did this as a “political act.” Thanks to the paralysis and corruption of more of our organs, this group has steadily gained a following. They lambast the various politicians and ministers who have shirked putting people in jail for tax evasion, for covering their own dirty tracks, for not protecting “the Greeks”… and so on. Of course, the reluctance and dysfunction of the governing bodies to in fact clean up their mess, has created fertile ground for extremist groups such as these to belt out their racist and reductive diatribes. The “economics of suffering” has an implicit bias regarding which group or groups are singled out to “pay the price” in very concrete ways. The murder of Pavlos Physsas makes clear that the government has not felt itself connected to any economy outside that of its immediate economic priorities; which demonstrates its indifference to the suffering of its people. The servile and unquestioning manner in which both this government, and the previous one, has allowed the troika to define the terms of austerity is indicative. Death is the mother of beauty when death demonstrates our kinship, unredeemed it expresses darker realities like suicide and murder.

Recently a friend who has three children told me that the third child of families is now taxed. I called my accountant to ask if this was really the case. She said yes, that people’s taxes are gauged according to the size of one’s homes/apartments and families. Two years ago, families with a third child or more were given extra stipends from the government, a way to encourage population growth, as Greece has had one of the lowest birth rates in Europe. My friend said, “haven’t you heard the slogan? We can turn in our license plates if we can’t pay the taxes on our cars, but where are we going to turn in the third child?” I didn’t know what to say. I thought, of course of the brilliant sage of past, and his modest proposal (the title too of the Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis’ suggestions for resolving the euro crisis at http://yanisvaroufakis.eu/2013/07/15/new-a-modest-proposal).

Swift’s scathing 1729 satire, A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick is shockingly relevant to the current crisis. This line, among others, that “proposes” the “eating” of one’s children as a solution to Ireland’s famine is resonant:  “I grant this food may be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for Landlords, who as they have already devoured most of the Parents, seem to have the best Title to the Children.” In the endless summer conversations about the crisis, one person suggested that Germany and the Eurozone players are trying to bring wages down to a level to compete with China. “It’s a delusion,” he said, “but they’re trying to make us competitive with China.” Like Chronos who ate his children.

Some days after Physsas’s murder I went with my daughter to see the “Adespotes Skyles,” first showing of “Βαλς των βρώμικων δρόμων” (Waltz of the Dirty Streets, http://www.culturenow.gr/5354/adespotes-skules-sti-skini), it was their first show of the season. It was in Exharxia, an area known for its gatherings of leftist and anarchic groups. The MAT police had turned up for whatever reason. They seem to spread themselves like cockroaches clinging to street corners. The “Skyles” have a skit where they chant lines from the Greek National Anthem, that is Dionysios Solomos’ poem “Hymn to Liberty” written in 1823: “Σὲ γνωρίζω ἀπὸ τὴν κόψι/Τοῦ σπαθιοῦ/τὴν τρομερή,/ Σὲ γνωρίζω ἀπὸ τὴν ὄψι,/ Ποὺ μὲ βιὰ μετράει τὴν γῆ.” “I recognize you by the blade of your sword/your incredible sword/ I recognize you by the violence that measures/cuts the earth…” (my very loose translation). Physsas was stabbed to death. The “Skyles” paused here to give emphasis to the Greek words for “blade” and “cut,” adding “scars”… repeating the word in Greek over and over, “oulesoules.. until in their softer, lilting tones, it started to sound like a lullaby.

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Photo credit: John Psaropoulos (Keratsini: a pawnshop on the street where Pavlos Physsas was murdered)

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