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?

About akalfopoulou

Author of three poetry collections, a book of essays, Ruin, Essays in Exilic Living, and most recently, A History of Too Much (Red Hen Press 2018).
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