Saturday, January 8, 2011
Invariably, during January, we enjoy here a run of several consecutive days of unseasonably clear, calm, sunny weather which the Greeks call Alkionides Meres (Αλκυονιδες ημερες); Halcyon days. Alkioni is greek for Kingfisher and myth has it that these birds build their nests on the sea where during a week or so of calm warm weather in January their fledgelings are raised. I know neither where Kingfishers build their nests, but I doubt that it is on the sea; nor do I know when they lay their eggs or raise their young but I do know that during most Januarys since I have been here I have enjoyed a week or so of very pleasant spring weather. Myth or reality, truth or lies, as long as the sun keeps shining, why worry?
Friday, January 7, 2011
Here in Greece birthdays are not generally celebrated. Name days are. Your name day is the day dedicated to the saint after whom you were named; no Orthodox Greek, and there are few that are not, has a forename other than that of a saint. Today, according to the Greek Orthodox calendar, is St John’s day; my name day. Not being Greek I am not bound to celebrate, but my greek friends will expect it of me and, despite having celebrated my birthday, western style, but two days ago my chums among the ex-pat community will think it churlish of me to deny them an another excuse for a night out. I suppose, in consideration of the expectations of all these good folk, I must yet again sacrifice, solely for their sake, my annual post-birthday resolution to put away childish things.
Altruism is not always easy - but it can be sometimes!
Yesterday, 6th January, was a public holiday here to observe the Greek Orthodox celebration of Epiphany. The celebration requires that the faithful go to church to receive a Styrofoam cup filled with water that has been blessed by a priest. At places near to the sea an extraordinary ritual requires a priest in full regalia to hurl a crucifix, tethered for safety to a long ribbon, into the sea. Nonetheless, the crucifix is then followed into the sea by numbers of local youths who plunge in to recover it. These events draw substantial crowds and, I imagine, not a little revenue into the coffers of the church. But, as with so many ‘Christian’ rituals, I fail to see what this “Epiphany” (From the Greek word “Epiphaneia” meaning “Manifestation”) has to do with the admirable teachings of Jesus Christ.
Again, as with most “Christian” rituals, Epiphany predates the birth of Jesus Christ and all that has happened in his name since. That water is elemental, and therefore precious to the existence of everything on earth, has been known for many millennia; accordingly, throughout those millennia, deities to water have been worshipped.
I did not go to any of these little shows yesterday, I went for a stroll instead, but I have been to plenty in the past and wondered about how and why the ritual has developed into its present form, wondered also about the timelessness of it, about how old might the sound of the sea lapping onto sand have been when mankind first chose to ritualise the giving of thanks for water.
Monday, January 3, 2011
The challenge of writing the story of my walk across the Peloponnese last autumn is proving to be a greater trial than I had anticipated. Describing the route I followed, places visited and the scenery through which I strolled presented few difficulties, but finding words to describe the sensations the journey stirred in me, particularly those engendered by my fellow ramblers, is presenting many. Most of all I am having difficulty trying to communicate how I related to my fellow strollers. Throughout the walk we remained, superficially at least, a harmonious group. There were, inevitably, differences of opinion about many things all of which were always resolved equitably. My great difficulty has been to express the effects of these differences had on me without giving a quite fallacious impression of my being at loggerheads with my fellows throughout our time together!
To a large extent my difficulties are, I believe, a direct result of my being who I am. My father died in 1993, my mother six months ago, but their influence over me did not die with them. Much of it will, I expect, remain with me for the rest of my life. Because they were decent loving parents they inured in me of showing, at all times, consideration for others. Such an excellent job did they make of doing so that, well into my seventh decade, I am yet inhibited from unreasonably upsetting third parties and struggle to explain in writing my differences of opinion and disappointments in ways that are unambiguously congenial. At other times and in other ways it is easy for me to carelessly repudiate parental tutelage but my written words silently point, like Dickens’ ghost of Christmas future, accusingly back at me.
In writing this post I can but bring to mind Old Lark’s , “This be the Verse”. I do not in fact subscribe to the substance of Larkin’s verse much preferring Adrian Mitchell’s rephrasing of it:
They tuck you up, your mum and dad
They read you Peter Rabbit, too.
They give you all the treats they had
And add some extra, just for you.
Man hands on happiness to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
So love your parents all you can
And have some cheerful kids yourself
However, when struggling to express what I feel while protecting the sensibilities of others it is Larkin’s original I recall rather than Mitchell’s rephrasing!
Sunday, January 2, 2011
I stole the following story from the BBC online magazine after having my attention drawn to it by a friend.
One act of kindness that befell British writer Bernard Hare in 1982 changed him profoundly. Then a student living just north of London, he tells the story to inspire troubled young people to help deal with their disrupted lives.
The police called at my student hovel early evening, but I didn't answer as I thought they'd come to evict me. I hadn't paid my rent in months.
But then I got to thinking: my mum hadn't been too good and what if it was something about her?
We had no phone in the hovel and mobiles hadn't been invented yet, so I had to nip down the phone box.
I rang home to Leeds to find my mother was in hospital and not expected to survive the night. "Get home, son," my dad said.
I got to the railway station to find I'd missed the last train. A train was going as far as Peterborough, but I would miss the connecting Leeds train by twenty minutes.
I bought a ticket home and got on anyway. I was a struggling student and didn't have the money for a taxi the whole way, but I had a screwdriver in my pocket and my bunch of skeleton keys.
I was so desperate to get home that I planned to nick a car in Peterborough, hitch hike, steal some money, something, anything. I just knew from my dad's tone of voice that my mother was going to die that night and I intended to get home if it killed me.
"Tickets, please," I heard, as I stared blankly out of the window at the passing darkness. I fumbled for my ticket and gave it to the guard when he approached. He stamped it, but then just stood there looking at me. I'd been crying, had red eyes and must have looked a fright.
"You okay?" he asked.
"Course I'm okay," I said. "Why wouldn't I be? And what's it got to do with you in any case?"
"You look awful," he said. "Is there anything I can do?"
"You could get lost and mind your own business," I said. "That'd be a big help." I wasn't in the mood for talking.
He was only a little bloke and he must have read the danger signals in my body language and tone of voice, but he sat down opposite me anyway and continued to engage me.
"If there's a problem, I'm here to help. That's what I'm paid for."
I was a big bloke in my prime, so I thought for a second about physically sending him on his way, but somehow it didn't seem appropriate. He wasn't really doing much wrong. I was going through all the stages of grief at once: denial, anger, guilt, withdrawal, everything but acceptance. I was a bubbling cauldron of emotion and he had placed himself in my line of fire.
The only other thing I could think of to get rid of him was to tell him my story.
"Look, my mum's in hospital, dying, she won't survive the night, I'm going to miss the connection to Leeds at Peterborough, I'm not sure how I'm going to get home.
"It's tonight or never, I won't get another chance, I'm a bit upset, I don't really feel like talking, I'd be grateful if you'd leave me alone. Okay?"
"Okay," he said, finally getting up. "Sorry to hear that, son. I'll leave you alone then. Hope you make it home in time." Then he wandered off down the carriage back the way he came.
I continued to look out of the window at the dark. Ten minutes later, he was back at the side of my table. Oh no, I thought, here we go again. This time I really am going to rag him down the train.
He touched my arm. "Listen, when we get to Peterborough, shoot straight over to Platform One as quick as you like. The Leeds train'll be there."
I looked at him dumbfounded. It wasn't really registering. "Come again," I said, stupidly. "What do you mean? Is it late, or something?"
"No, it isn't late," he said, defensively, as if he really cared whether trains were late or not. "No, I've just radioed Peterborough. They're going to hold the train up for you. As soon as you get on, it goes.
"Everyone will be complaining about how late it is, but let's not worry about that on this occasion. You'll get home and that's the main thing. Good luck and God bless."
Then he was off down the train again. "Tickets, please. Any more tickets now?"
I suddenly realised what a top-class, fully-fledged doilem I was and chased him down the train. I wanted to give him all the money from my wallet, my driver's licence, my keys, but I knew he would be offended.
I caught him up and grabbed his arm. "Oh, er, I just wanted to…" I was suddenly speechless. "I, rem…"
"It's okay," he said. "Not a problem." He had a warm smile on his face and true compassion in his eyes. He was a good man for its own sake and required nothing in return.
"I wish I had some way to thank you," I said. "I appreciate what you've done."
"Not a problem," he said again. "If you feel the need to thank me, the next time you see someone in trouble, you help them out. That will pay me back amply.
"Tell them to pay you back the same way and soon the world will be a better place."
I was at my mother's side when she died in the early hours of the morning. Even now, I can't think of her without remembering the Good Conductor on that late-night train to Peterborough and, to this day, I won't hear a bad word said about British Rail.
My meeting with the Good Conductor changed me from a selfish, potentially violent hedonist into a decent human being, but it took time.
"I've paid him back a thousand times since then," I tell the young people I work with, "and I'll keep on doing so till the day I die. You don't owe me nothing. Nothing at all."
"And if you think you do, I'd give you the same advice the Good Conductor gave me. Pass it down the line.