The Lady Vanishes

This is perhaps not a story of the crisis. But it may be one for the crisis.

The crazy old woman who lives across the street from me has gone missing. Lena, who lives above her, and Daniel, who lives below, swear the woman was coerced or duped into selling her apartment and is now living as a virtual prisoner in a shack in the hills of Athens. I believe them. They spent the last two weeks looking for her.

I hadn’t noticed she was gone. Now that it’s winter I don’t spend time on the terrace and the double-glazed portafinestre insulate me from the sounds of the city, including the foul-mouthed orations the old woman would deliver from her balcony. Besides, I had gotten so used to her chaotic rant of political commentary and pareunolalia that I didn’t much attention to it when I did hear it, even though she delivered it in a surprisingly loud voice for an otherwise frail woman. Her declamations were just subsumed within the white noise of the city, the basso ostinato of cars rumbling down the streets, horns honking, kids playing in the street.

It was only when the city hadn’t yet roused itself or was deserted, only in the village-like peace that settled over the city on Sunday mornings and August afternoons, that I was obliged to pay attention to her. Then I would hear her the way I did when I first moved here. It was horrifying. It wasn’t just the shock of hearing an old woman bellow in the language of the docks or bordellos. In any event her profanity was merely a condiment and not the main stuff of her muddled tirades, which mostly had to do with an assortment of whore-mongering, traitorous politicians. No, it was more the experience of witnessing a mind gone awry, the brain awash in the wrong mix of neurotransmitters and hormones, synapses short-circuited, ganglia run amok.

And more: it was the sadness of seeing a life gone to waste. If you listened carefully you would notice clues to her former life: the occasional well-pronounced French phrase, the spattering of katharevousa, a reference to a poet, the name of an elegant café. They were the signs of another life, one punctuated with parties and lovers, with books and music and travel, a life that must have met with tragedy, though no clue could be found in her ravings to the chain of events had led her from this life to one which she spent reviling Prime Ministers from a narrow balcony in a distressed city neighborhood.

Her apartment was diagonally across from mine and a floor lower. I could only see a small part of the inside of her apartment from my veranda, her kitchen, I think. She had covered every surface with sheets of newspaper. I could sometimes see her moving about in the room, a short, thin woman with long unruly ash-grey hair, dressed in a housecoat that was her daily attire. She would come out of the room onto the balcony, shuffling in very small deliberate steps as if weighted by shackles or bound to some unseen ramp, deliver her declamation and then return to her apartment. Her appearances reminded me of the figurines in the Prague Astronomical Clock, but it wasn’t Death or Vanity or Usury that twirled but the Indignation of a mad minor prophet.

Or could she have been a peculiar character from a fairy tale, the old woman in a shoe, say, though she didn’t seem to have any children, or if she did, no daughter or son ever came to visit her. I wondered how she managed to take care of things like paying bills and buying groceries. I never saw her on the street. Yannis and Lena are around during the day much more than I am, and they used to see her occasionally in the bakery or supermarket, but in the weeks leading up to her disappearance she apparently didn’t even venture the three blocks to the market. She must have been living exclusively on small cartons of juice and pre-packaged croissants she bought from the kiosk right outside her building. Had she been afraid to distance herself any further?

Her ranting used to bother me, especially in the first years of living in the neighborhood. She disturbed the temple-like calm of the perfectly minimalist space M and I had turned our 1930’s apartment into. She was the aural equivalent of a neighborhood eyesore, I thought. At first I couldn’t understand why the neighbors hadn’t done something, why they hadn’t called the police—there must be a law, I thought, about noise harassment, perhaps nothing as draconian and impossibly detailed as the Lärmschutzverordnung you’d find in a German city but something at least that prohibited people from regularly screaming and cursing on their balconies. Why didn’t they get in touch with her family and have her treated or committed or in any event just taken out of the neighborhood (a thought I’m now quite ashamed of)? I couldn’t see how they could just put up with it. Of course, it turned out that some did more that just endure the woman; one would buy her a sweater for Christmas, another would bring her back olive oil or country sausages from the village.

At some point M moved out and a problem with shoddy insulation work on the roof led to rainwater dripping from a corner in my ceiling, and a crazy old woman who shouted from her balcony didn’t seem all that important anymore.

Lena was the first to discover that Nana was gone. “I was coming into the building,” she explained later, “and I noticed someone dragging an old mattress down the stairs—he obviously didn’t live here—and I thought, who would do that?” Lena, works from home as a translator and knows everyone in the building and their comings and goings, which I suppose would include their plans for beds old and new. “I ran through the apartments one by one in my head and then I got to Nana and I realized I hadn’t heard her for a couple of days.”

She waited for the man to return to the building and followed him up the stairs as he proceeded, as she had suspected, to the old woman’s apartment, where she confronted him, demanding to know where Nana was. I don’t know how Lena got him to talk but the man eventually admitted he was clearing out the apartment for its new owner. But there was no reason in heaven Nana would sell the apartment—that much Lena was sure of. She pressed further until he gave her an address. Or rather the name a dirt road he said was at the edge of a suburb in the hills of Ymittos, one of the overnight boom towns of the 80s and 90s that flared up like a concrete rash on the bare mountainsides to the east and west of the city. “I was only there once so I don’t remember it all that well,” the man said. “The road just ends in a bunch of small houses right before the woods start. He lives in one of them. With a porch, I think. Maybe it was white.”

Lena recruited Yannis and then Nikos, who lives in my building, to help look for Nana. “I must be the crazy one,” Yannis said when Lena first told him what she wanted to do. “Looking for a woman who for three years or however long I’ve been here never let me sleep in on a Sunday morning.” But he did go look for her.

They spent two weeks shuttling back and forth to this enclave of poverty in the hills of Athens and talked to enough people there to eventually find the house of the old man who bought Nana’s apartment. He wouldn’t talk, of course, but some of his neighbors did and Lena and the guys would eventually learn three things: Nana had been in love with the man after they had met many, many years ago while working in some state agency. The house had been bought in the name of someone else. And no one could or would say where Nana was staying now.

Taken together, these three facts made for a very sinister story. Lena swore that Nana was probably being held a prisoner in one of the shacks in the woods. Nikos thought it might be worse. “Now with the crisis, you never know. People have been killed for less than the price of an apartment.” In any event they thought there was enough to go to the police, which they did, but wound up getting shuffled from one precinct to another, the duty officers of each station invariably claiming it wasn’t their jurisdiction. They finally landed at the headquarters of the financial crimes unit, where the officer who took their statement told them, “Well you seem awfully interested in this woman and her apartment. Now why would that be? What are you after?”

Since there was no relative to make a complaint, the only way to get the police interested was to collect signatures from concerned neighbors. Which is where we are now. But we’re not confident that Nana will be found.


In his prescient essay, Pour une pensée du Sud, philosopher Edgar Morin makes a distinction between what he calls the two faces of humanism. There is the Cartesian 0ne in which humanity is a force that seeks to dominate and control Nature. It is a humanity governed by “the logic of efficacy and predictability, a logic calculated, measured and ever more highly specialized.” And then there is the other face of humanism, “the one which recognizes the value and dignity of all human beings, whoever and wherever they may be,” a humanism marked by solidarity and the logic of “better not more”. It is this other humanism, a Southern humanism with roots in Classical Antiquity and the Renaissance that Morin says we must not only embrace but also champion.

Lena and Yannis and Nikos, who spent weeks looking for the old woman, battling an indifferent if not hostile bureaucracy and who are now gathering signatures to start an inquiry; the mother of the artist who lives in a ground floor studio across the street who used to bring Nana a gift of spoon sweets or (new) items of clothing whenever she visited her son; the neighbors who would greet the old woman from the street below as she wished them a good day (she had her moments of lucidity)—all these people exhibited in their relations with this crazy old woman precisely this other, universalist humanism. While certainly not a characteristic of Greeks only, much less of all Greeks for that matter, it is a way of being that most here would immediately recognize as their own.

The discourse of the crisis has often focused on our failings. We learn ever more details of the scandalous waste and vested interests of an almost criminally ineffective and bloated public sector. We are reminded again and again—rightly so, I think—of the need to reform the state mechanism, to excise corruption, to ensure that the privileged who haven’t shared in the burden of righting this country now pay their share. We are made profoundly and infuriatingly aware of the extent of graft, the utter lack of accountability and fear of taking initiative which is so endemic to the public sector and which Lena and her friends experienced at the series of police stations they were passed off on. We read ever more stories of the pervasiveness of tax evasion, of dermatologists with offices in the highest rent districts of city who declare less income than a primary school teacher. We are reminded of our own collusion in this miasma of interlocking net of self-interest, our willingness to pass along an envelope of cash to the surgeon in the public hospital, our reluctance to ask for a receipt from the plumber who services our solar heater and the tutor who gives math lessons to our children. We are reminded of our responsibility in perpetuating a system of clientelism, special interests and opportunism that was in large part responsible for the current crisis.

Yes, we need to hear this, particularly given our tendency to accord blame everywhere and at everyone—corrupt politicians, inept political leadership, thieving businessmen, foreign corporations, big banks, the troika and, most recently,Germany—except ourselves.

Yes, we could benefit from a heightened sense of duty toward the public good, a stronger recognition that society, together with the laws that regulate it, is not something imposed from without or above but something that we create and benefit from (which is not to say that a particular society is in itself necessarily just or that we all contribute equally to shaping it).

But we also need to hear other voices, ones that bear witness to the values of a culture that endures despite the gross consumerism fueled by the false prosperity of the last decades. Voices that tell unassuming stories of solidarity and caring, stories of a profound humanism that remains at the core of Greek culture.

Morin writes:

In the end, the logic of the North is blind to realities of the South, which it considers backward, archaic, indolent. The Northern way of thinking was made to deal with technical, practical, quantifiable problems of organization, in other words, with the prose of life. But human life is more than prose. Prose is what we do out of obligation or constraint… Prose enables us to survive. But to live means to live poetically, that is, in communion, in love, in self-realization, in joy—at the verge of ecstasy… As prose has come to invade ever more of our lives, is it not the mission of Southern thought to help us recall the essential character of the poetry of living?

We need the prose. But we also need to recall the poetry.

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3 Responses to The Lady Vanishes

  1. clware13 says:

    What a chilling story, beautifully told, and the commentary on the two faces of humanism is so appropriate. The state of affairs in Greece is not merely the larger one of politics and technocrats and a broken system. More importantly, it is the smaller focus, the individual life, and our communal life that we must examine and share. Thanks.

    • adrianne says:

      I love the Morin quote Steve weaves in… thanks to all the conversations am suddenly getting a crash course in thinkers I had not been introduced to before.

    • sxchristopher says:

      Thanks for the comments.
      I like the notion of the smaller focus. I get so overwhelmed at times when I contemplate the vast extent of change that needs to happen in this country—rather, that we need to bring about (no place for the agentless passive in the discourse of crisis)—but less so when I see opportunities in my immediate community for change. Must have something to do with the vitality of volition, as Adrienne noted in her recent post.

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