Friday, 22 May 2009

Kolonaki Ladies

Kolonaki, as wikipedia will tell you, is a ‘wealthy, chic and upmarket’ neighbourhood of central Athens. A glass of scotch in a bar opposite the British Council in Kolonaki Square will cost you damn near what you would pay for a bottle in a supermarket. If you fancy a beer, there's Heineken in tiny bottles at extortionate prices, or you might go for some semi-precious imported stuff, costing an arm and a leg because it has a complicated stopper or a slice of kiwi fruit poking out of the bottle. Turn into Kapsali Street and you move away from the cafes and boutiques and into the residential area. Keep on going towards Marasli Street and the Evangelismos Hospital. Marasli is the other side of the tracks from Kolonaki Square, all fast-food outlets and shops flogging crutches, trusses and bedpans to the hospital’s squillions of visitors and out-patients. In-patients wander up and down the street in their jim-jams.

In 1995 I was forced by my poverty and improvidence to leave my much loved top floor flat in Pangrati with its big terrace and view of the Acropolis, and take a basement garçonnière just round the corner from Marasli. I had acquired a prestigious Kolonaki address but very unprestigious quarters indeed, one small room with a single bed and a desk. The French windows gave onto a whitewashed wall. There was the Borstal bathroom, bleak with worn enamel bath and hideous off-white tiles bordered in snot and bogey green. The kitchen had the proportions of a generous sarcophagus. From it, a small door opened onto a black and cobwebby space, the bottom of a dark well from which ascended the steel staircase of an internal fire escape. There were a few cockroach corpses scattered like mucky leaves. Maybe they had died of old age, or maybe they had decided to end it all, and plunged from the sixth floor. If my friend Jeni from Taiwan had ever seen the place, she’d have warned me off it. It was subterranean, damp, close to a hospital and under six storeys inhabited almost exclusively by elderly spinsters. The feng shui was therefore well dodgy, and Jeni would have prescribed any number of mirrors, wind chimes and strategically-placed calligraphies to mitigate the baleful influences. I made the place as cosy as I could with candles, posters, plants, throws and incense. Only that ghastly bathroom was beyond saving.

The spinster-women were suspicious of me at first, suspecting, horror of horrors, that I might be Albanian. Soon after I moved in, one came to see me on some pretext or other. She spoke excellent English, and having ascertained that I was not Albanian, and was in fact a teacher and trainer of teachers, she seemed satisfied. ‘I am very pleased to have met you’ she said, peering over a metaphorical lorgnette, chin held high, smiling stiffly. ‘And I am so glad that you are somebody.’ She withdrew with a gracious sideways inclination of her head, acknowledging a fellow Somebody, as Lady Bracknell might have done had Jack Worthing not screwed up by telling her all that stuff about the handbag. It seemed I had passed a test, and she must have communicated her verdict to the other ladies, because from then on they thought the sun shone out of my arse.


‘Είναι τρελή αυτή. She’s crazy, that one’ said Kyria* Fofo, who had become my biggest fan among the old ladies. She had asked me to walk her to and from the corner kiosk, and her remark was in reference to Mrs D, who lived on the third floor and who was just letting herself into our building. ‘She’s always on about people stealing millions from her.’

I did not see much of the allegedly crazy Mrs D until the summer. In August, Athens empties like a flushed toilet and everywhere was blessedly quiet. At home, I became aware of a noise, as of someone knocking on a door, repeatedly, obsessively, but couldn’t decide where it was coming from. I went up into the entrance hall and to the alcove where the concierge, if we had still had one, would have sat. Here a door led to the spooky fire escape and from within, somebody was knocking.

‘Who is it?’ I asked

‘Hello! Is anyone there? It’s me!’ An elderly, cheery female voice.

‘The door’s locked, I’ll have to find someone who’s got a key.’

‘Oh, that’s fine!’ said the voice, happily. ‘Do take your time!’

Christ knows who’s got a bloody key, I thought. Luckily I managed to cop the last remaining resident in the otherwise empty building on the day before he was going to move out for good. We opened the door and Mrs D stepped into the hall from the dank, spidery fire escape. Imagine Prunella Scales as Miss Mapp, fast forward her to the age of eighty-six and you have something like Mrs D.

‘Thank you so much, gentlemen! I’m just going down to the square. Can I get you anything? Pastries? Liqueurs?’

I had to leave the following day to teach a four week course in another town. Had Mrs D locked herself out on the fire escape a day later, she’d probably have died there.

Bloody hell. It wouldn't half have chucked up when everyone got back in September.

One autumn night my doorbell rang. Then I heard other people’s doorbells, each one ringing three times before the next one, mine, next door’s, upstairs, in rotation. I went up to the entrance hall and outside, leaning against the big wrought iron and glass door, was what I took at first to be a guitar case but was in fact Mrs D, locked out again.

‘Now, I do do the code’ she explained cheerfully as I helped her to her feet, ‘One-two-three, one-two-three, so they know it’s only me, but they’re still suspicious, you know!’

It began to piss with rain and the electricity conked. I had to help Mrs D up to her flat, hoping she had her keys about her somewhere. In the dark it wasn’t hard to locate her door, because from beneath it there always wafted a smell like that of the pachyderm house at Whipsnade. Ping! Sudden connection: earlier in the week I had found a newspaper parcel of human shit, complete with used sheets of pink bogroll, stuffed into the concierge’s alcove. As you would expect, it chuffed a bit. It was the same aroma as emanated from Mrs D’s flat, into which we now got. She hadn’t locked it after all.

‘Have you got some candles?’ I asked.

‘Oh, yes, lots, in the kitchen!’

The kitchen floor was covered with shards of glass from the broken door, and that roach infested hell-hole of a fire escape gaped blackly. I asked how the glass in the door had smashed, and got something about 'μου πήραν εκατομμύρια, they took millions off me', but nothing about who they were and when they had robbed her, if indeed they ever had. After a few moments of crunching about in the dark on shattered glass, I found the cupboard. Mrs D was right about the candles. She had lots. Boxes and boxes and boxes of them. She could have opened a shop. I fished one out and tried to find the living room.

‘What's that? Is that the bathroom?’

‘I’ve already been’

Too bloody right you have, darling. Probably as well I can’t see a hand in front of my face.

‘Will you be OK?’ I asked, lighting a candle in the sitting room. Family photos everywhere. Where were they all?

‘I’ll just go to sleep. Ο θεός μαζί σας, κύριε! God be with you, sir!’

I left, at first relieved to get away, then questioning the wisdom of leaving a dotty old lady alone with a lighted candle. Fortunately, she must have slept as she said she would, and we all survived the night.

Soon after, they came to take her away. Now, probably most of those ladies are gone. If not yet dead, they will be too frail to live alone, and will have been put away in homes. They bitched endlessly about one another, but they were united in worrying constantly about the transient population of the basement flats, male and foreign, therefore doubly foreign. They were genuinely scared of the two friendly Albanian lads who lived next door to me. I was only ‘somebody’ because I was not Albanian, and they would have disapproved utterly of my fascination with Albania and its language and its open, upfront, hospitable people. Anyway, I hope they are all as happy as they can be, and let me hereby apologise for tricking them into thinking me ‘somebody’. For fuck’s sake.


*Kyria is ‘Mrs’ but in Greek it can be used with a person’s first name, thus combining familiarity with respect in a way we cannot in English. This does not mitigate my contempt for the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis.


Bo said...

That was a sad tale, as beautifully written as ever.

vilges suola said...

Thank you! Very glad you liked it.

Fionnchú said...

Great piece as was that on Jeni-- you have a knack for characterization of eccentrics. You combine accuracy with humanity. Not that you or I or even "Bo" would ever fit such a category!. Did you ever read Lloyd Jones' off-kilter novel-travelogue from the mid-90s, about Albania? (By the way, thanks for adding my blog to your [bog-?]roll.)

vilges suola said...

Hi Fionnchu, many thanks for the kind words. I added your blog out of admiration for your excellent book reviews. I bought Steven Bachelor on Buddhism after I read you. Wish I could read the Irish bits as well! I have not read the book you mention - must look for it. Albania fascinates me, especially that 'private' language - a mixture of native Albanian, Latin, Greek and Turkish vocab with an idiosyncratic but still very indo-european grammar, hardly known by anyone other than its 3 million or so native speakers.

I think 'accurate human eccentrics' would not be a bad category to belong to - AHE Pride Now!

Please tell me how to pronounce 'Fionnchu'some time.

Fionnchú said...

Well, Fionn= fair-one, a derivation related to my birth surname, and chú= hound/ warrior, the Irish ending of my adopted surname. He was a seventh-century obscure saint. It's pretty much "f[y]eown-c(h)oo" lacking any IPA transliteration! There you have some Irish; my blog posts in my halting Gaeilge are always followed by equally stilted English that tries to keep to a more literal sense of the original, as weekly practice!

I think you'll find Batchelor's book fascinating, and you'd like Lloyd Jones' take on Albania too. Any novels or books on Albania you recommend? All I can think of is Ismail Kadare, whom I have never read.

By the way, speaking of language fans, next time I see my Greek-American (parents from Ikaros) dentist, I will tell him about your blog! He's raised his children with their mother, also first-generation Greek-American; the kids grew up speaking Greek with her and English with him!

vilges suola said...

Thanks for the info! I'll look out for the book about Albania - I don't know any others, unfortunately, only the one chapter Paul Theroux devotes to it in 'The Pillars of Hercules'.

I hope the dentist is not a believer in the superiority of Greek to the rest of the world's languages. To people of that persuasion what I say here is blasphemy!

anidifranco said...

Funny how similar countries and people are. I could easily recall a few similar instances were I was treated the same way in England. You see, in that case, I was the foreigner. And the old ladies and old men and youngsters even that regarded me as a foreigner knew me quite well. Mind you, one of them was even my boyfriend at the time. He kept reminding me that I am a guest in his country.

vilges suola said...

Yes, you remain an outsider no matter how long you stay. Also, I never wanted NOT to be an outsider. I feel marginal even now I'm back in my own country.


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