Athens, Barcelona, and the Civilization of it All

April 4, 2008 at 4:43 pm (Politics, Travel) (, , , , , , , , , , )

“Come on, they’re not gonna step on you! Zebra crossings are sacred here!”

“Absolutely not,” I retorted. Madmen. Maybe in England they don’t run you over, but a speeding Spaniard? My mad friends tugged at my unwilling hand and lo! the speeding Spaniard slowed to a perfect stop. Not a wheel over the sacred white lines. They all did so. All week! Was this because it was Easter? Which they don’t even celebrate in Catalonia anymore – I was assured of this by all of the South Americans I met – but, perhaps, an innate feeling of piety and goodwill remains nonetheless? Ha. Fat chance. The definitely un-Christian gleam in the Vueling Check-in Girl’s eyes as she demanded 16 euros because I was 2 kilos over the limit (BItchBitchBITCH! I breathing-exercised) killed that thought.

A real Greek would have brought his carefully chosen Monestir de Tallat merlot over her head, (It is our Right as the Cradle of Democracy and/or Civilization to bring as much shit from foreign lands as we can carry… often buying an extra suitcase in the process) but I am an emasculated, overly polite, faux-EuroAmerican, resigned to being conned and bullshitted and saying Thank You Very Much…

So, the only rebellion I managed was to make her repeat everything she said in English. Now, you may not think this is much, but she fumed as I (who had previously conversed pleasantly in ItaloSpanish with her) kept saying, “What? Where? What?” with an idiotic cow’s gaze. Take that, you crypto-Teutonic bitch! Retaliation came swiftly. I was punished by 3 hours of turbulence.

Angrily certain that the baggage compartment was being flooded by the litres of Iberian wine being brought over, I sulked, pushing my chair as far back in the lap of the unfortunate gentleman behind me as it would go. Leg room is not a Spanish word. Neither is belly room. No wonder there were no Americans on board. The bottles, I knew, were being broken on purpose by the pilot; he was most certainly in on it all. No doubt he is banging the small-eyed Prussian behind the check-in counter.

It is all a conspiracy at the expense of our highly developed Greek consumer culture. You came, paid handsomely for the fun our city has to offer – now really pay for having vastly superior olive oil. Sneaky little buggers. Didn’t see that one coming. I actively enjoyed hunting down the edgy boutique I knew must exist somewhere in Raval. Most victoriously did I lay down my euros when I discovered it. Funiculars, museums, and restaurants did not satisfy my lust for purse-drainage. I needed Stuff. There is Stuff everywhere in Barcelona. Traveler, you have been warned. They have lots of Stuff and they are very civilized. (Quite unlike the Parisians. Cue gnashing of teeth at the recollection of Isle S. Louis’s devil-in-a-cheese-seller’s-guise.)

I constantly marveled at how civilized the Spanish (or, Catalans, more precisely) were. They have solved their transportation problems so efficiently that they were even left with a budget surplus. And thought, what should we do with it? Put it in our pockets? Give some to our mistress for a pied a terre in the Barri Gothic? Keep it for The Party? A yacht, perhaps? (All perfectly natural ideas to a Greek.) Nope.

They did this:

Feeling like i was in Sweden, I watched, amazed, as a bus went by. It was normal, yet not quite. It had plush chairs with armrests, little tables, and large, living room lamps. It looked like a posh bar on wheels. My friends explained that it was a normal bus; you simply pay a little extra for that added comfort. Mostly used by senior citizens. Cruelly unaware of their masterplan for all tourists, (especially those blessed with better olive trees) I was enthralled, entertaining the idea that perhaps I, also, deserve to live in a civilized city. Do I not have the right to cruise Panepistimiou Avenue in an armchair?

After never being run over once, I figured it’s because they’re northern Spaniards, they must have a little more Saxon blood in them than is Mediterraneanly acceptable. I became sure of this when, in even the most underground bars, the music was abruptly shut off and every light in the place was turned on at 3am precisely. The first time this happened, I was ready to flee, certain the police were on to us. Later, I cursed the UK flashbacks (ding-dong – last drinks – please leave the premises) this caused me. I waited to join in a drunken backlash with the rest of the customers. In vain.

These indefatigable Catalans had even changed the driving persona of my friend. One year in civilization, and he was driving like your grandmother. When he gave me his car to play with he was nervy, urging me to stay on the right and to not cut people off. This, from the man who taught me to run red lights and u-turn wherever I wished!

I felt like a third-world citizen, whose friends had moved on to running water and I was still lugging buckets from the well. The day before I arrived in Barcelona , upmarket Athenian salons and restaurants were being berated by their clients for not having thought of buying a generator. Tightly-lipped maitre d’ apologized profusely instead of screaming, “How the fuck could I have imagined the (government-owned) electricity company would strike for weeks and cut our power at regular intervals??”

Panic and hate prevailed on our traffic light-less streets. Hunching forward, hand on the gears, I assumed battle pose and dexterously avoided destroying my vehicle, leaving my unlucky co-citizens to cry and sue over their own scattered debris.

We don’t have night buses or enough asphalt to fit us all with our 4 cars per family, we are destroying what is left of clean rivers and forests, our fake fast internet chucks us offline at whim, inflation, government MIA, and so on and on and so on, and “po-tee-weet!”, sings the bird in slaughter-house 5; the only news fit to print in the months of December and January were the failed suicide attempt of the portly secretary of of the Ministry of Culture and his saucy DVD.

It requires a daily column and a bottle of raki to rue the woes of this land, but still. I can drive any way I damn please, and I’ve got the best raw material in food in the world. Ok, the divine mango is to be found only in Egypt; but that is not strange at all, for they are as uncivilized as we, and more so, for their fruits are the equivalent of celestial harps playing in heaven…. but I digress. It is a proven fact that the more civilized a nation is, the less tasty is their food. The question really is: how much “civilization” am I willing to take? How much privacy and individuality shall I trade for Comfort? Can’t I have my cake and eat it, too?

But, to put some things in perspective, Miss Landmine 2008 of Angola (dream job, “anything”) surely cannot feel my fake existential angst; she has the real deal. Hopping like a lunatic on her one remaining leg, she cackles, juggling her tomatoes and watching our national obsession of obstructing pension plan reform at all and any cost.

“H gh 8a tremei, o ilios anatelei!!” is belted out by 15-year-old supporters of PaSok in the metro; a lively debate between two grannies ensues. I curse at not having my camera on me as I leave, smiling.

Advertisements

Permalink Leave a Comment

Late Night Malarkey: Musings upon a Counterfeit Coin

February 27, 2008 at 4:24 pm (Movies, Travel, Uncategorized) (, , )

How is it that some movies, no matter how cheesy they are, reduce you to a sniveling wreck?

I mean, the I Love You portrait?? Please!! It doesn’t get any cheesier than that. So, after realizing I may be the only person on the planet to have disliked Sweeney Todd, (and feeling rather self-righteous about it… ready to go out naked with a sandwich board and and a bell if that’s what it takes…WAKE UP!! -ding-dong, ding dong- THE END IS NIGH!!) I found myself feeling rather weepy watching The Counterfeit Coin (H Kalpiki Lira, 1955, Greece).

Four simple stories, a few classic characters (the starving painter, the sweet orphan, the stingy rich landlord, etc.) and ta-da!! I felt guilty for every time that I haven’t given the thousands of beggar children their coin; felt like a total witch, in fact, for every time that I turned on my windshield wipers after firmly saying, “No, no, thank you, NO.”

Sniff. (sip.)

How can I be so cruel? And how can I laugh at Elli Labeti’s fluttering, “Sagapw,” while at the same being incredibly, unreasonably moved? (down.)

Perhaps it’s because the movie is in black and white.

Ah. Nostalgia. Ain’t nothing like it.

You may have had no friends in elementary school, been teased mercilessly about your name and reading habits, but thinking about it now?? Such a lovely, unspoilt childhood I had, you say. So pretty. Wish I could go back. Flutter your eyelids.

Knowing you can’t go back just makes it all the more painfully beautiful.

Even better than the nostalgia you feel for your own memories, is the nostalgia you feel for an era that you never experienced in the first place. Gone with the Wind made a fortune out of that. As did the Swinging Sixties and Roaring Twenties. Were they even close to our “memories” of them? Probably not. But just an inkling that they may have been so, seeing a sign of their existence gives you a gripping physical sensation.

Sitting in Groppi’s Cafe in Cairo made me want to swoon. And for what? A few small tables, ripped chairs, and a general musty decadence (not the fun kind) all around. No famous ice cream in sight. But there I was. Sipping my asir lamoun where countless pashas, dames and People of Importance have sat and plotted. Yet, in the incredibly dirty sand surrounding the Pyramids – arguably, a far more magical and historical place – all I wanted to do was take a pot shot with an AK-47.

All those tourists (as if I wasn’t one of them) just ruined the atmosphere. Let alone the outrageous prices at the Cataract Hotel in Aswan. Let me live out my Agatha Christie fantasy in peace, damn it! (By the way, Abu Simbel?? Much more impressive in the movie, she says, fleeing the stones being wielded by rabid archaeologists, and directed at her curly head. What can I say? The prayer mark on our guide’s forehead fascinated me much more than the umpteenth Ramses statue before me.)

Where was I? (slurp.)

Nostalgia is a personal thing. Too fragile to be placed out in the open. It works best at 2am when you’re all alone on the couch drinking homemade liquer, watching a black and white movie and snuffling like a snufflupagus.

And the Counterfeit Coin? Film it now, and be laughed out of the theater. Try and revamp it? Somehow, the little orphan girl selling pirated CDs just doesn’t do the same thing to me. If it isn’t far removed from your own reality you don’t even notice it. Booooooooring! But a few years down the line, we’ll wistfully recall a time where Africans fresh off the boat peddled CDs (What are seedeez, auntie? Oh, honey, i forget how young you are! In my day….) and DVDs in every cafe in the city. We’ll sigh with the same nostalgia that we do when gazing at the unrecognizable city of 1955, whose inhabitants never gave a second glance. Who can blame them? It was just there. It still is, isn’t it??

Here’s to cheezy old movies! (chug.) And to cherished moments that were never really special until they disappeared!! And to humankind’s ability to mull over lost time for centuries, ignoring the current time that they are currently losing, and losing even more time in the process!!

At this crucial point in my non-existent argument the bottle has been emptied of its contents.

So I must bid you adieu. To you, and you, and you in the back.

Au revoir.

P.S. in 50 years will I be singing along, deep in the throes of nostalgia, I’ll fiiiiiiiiiiind you Jooooooaaaaaaaaaannaaa in a gravelly smoking old lady’s voice?!

Permalink Leave a Comment