Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Bludger (Κοπρίτης)

There are only two things that you cannot ever change about your life: you cannot change the place where you were born, and you cannot change the people who raised you. 

Boxing Day - as I still call it from my days down under - was quite uneventful in our house. There are no post-Christmas sales to go to in Crete - it's still Christmas mode for us - and even if there were any sales, there is very little money to spend on them. After the rich Christmas Day meal in the mountain, the next day's meal seemed quite subdued - stewed chickpeas with rice. Beans have always been considered poor man's food, but I've been cooking up a pot of beans since before I got married, every single week to be precise, so I don't see it as much of a change to be cooking them now during an economic crisis.

Chickpea stew with home-made chapati

In the evening, I visited some more relatives, the ones I didn't manage to see on Christmas Day. These are people that have unintentionally ended up alone in life for certain reasons. They are comforted by the sight of younger people, and I know that they wait expectantly for me and my family to turn up some time. We have never made it a custom to see them on a certain day at a certain time within the Christmas period, which makes the visit all the more enjoyable. It removes the dysfunctional aspect of visiting family during festive periods. We never know where we will find them either. They may be at home or at the village cafe, or in a field or on their way to any of the aforementioend. They never let us go without feeding us either. "Just a little mezedaki," they say to us, while we watch the table filling up with different plates piled with a variety of appetising dishes. Just as well we ate beans, I thought to myself, after tucking into tender pork stewed with peppers, a plate of souvlaki hors d'oeuvres, another of thick cut French fries sprinkled with oregano and a basket of freshly baked bread grilled over the charcoal. As I am their only close next of kin living on the island, I will admit to being very much pampered by them.

This year, we caught up with my uncle in the village cafe - the plates just kept coming; Uncle does not take 'no' for an answer...
When we came home, the phone was ringing, so I had to make a little dash to pick it up. 

"Παρακαλώ," I answered, puffing a little, in the customary neutral Greek phone greeting.

"Hi Maria!" I heard a not so familiar voice booming across to me. It had a clear NZ accent, but it did not sound like anyone I was expecting to see at this time of year in my hometown. Even though I have spoken to this person only by phone abotu three or four times(including this one) in the last 20 years, I knew who it was, and I knew that Bob (to pick a nice neutral common name) would not have much time to chat to me, because he had more important people to talk to.

Although I like surprises, I knew that this surprise would turn out to be hiding an αγγαρεία. Bob is some kind of NZ film producer who I'd had dealings with while I was still in NZ, when he had first been attracted to Crete's magic after interviewing a NZ veteran about his time here during the Battle of Crete. Since then, he'd fallen in love with the island and had come a few times to record various local people's histories. I had spoken to Bob at various times during my life in Greece, because Bob asked me for translation help here and there (he doesn't speak any Greek); however, he always managed to get the help he wanted through other means, and so, even though he had asked for my help and arranged a time when we would meet up, we never actually did so. To put it bluntly, Bob didn't need me, because he had already bludged off others.

The problem with my relationship with Bob is that he was a well known figure to the dysfunctional members of my close relatives. They thought the world of Bob. Bob came to talk to them, he asked them questions, he made them feel quite, well, you know, important, which made them think of Bob as some kind of important person himself. Every time Bob came, I would hear about it from them: "Bob came to visit us yesterday! Have you seen him?" Until my parents died, I felt a family-bound duty to remain on talking terms with them because, as most people with dysfunctional family members know very well, they can be a pain in the butt when you don't go with their flow. At the same time, I was often treated as the filling in the sandwich by them, because the Greek side didn't get on with the NZ side of the family. I would often be used as the go-between by both sides when they weren't on talking terms. I was, in effect, being used as a spy. There couldn't have been a more perfect one, simultaneously an insider and outsider, and constantly in awe of them, always seeking their approval, never wanting them to suffer in their self-created misery.

So I'd smile and look pleased, and tell them how lucky they were to see Bob who loved them so much and never forgot them, and they'd tell me all about the things they told him (how they survived the war, what heroic acts they performed, how lucky they were to survive it, and so on, ad nauseum), and the people they took him to see in the village (which made those people important too). Then they'd tell me about the feast they had put on for him ("we slaughtered our fattest hen and made pilafi"), and what a shame I didn't know about it to come along ("but he said you knew he was here, Maria"). This went on for many years, until my relatives got quite old and very sick, and they could no longer entertain Bob themselves. So Bob did what any other bludger would do: he looked around for others to take their place. Finally, he found some use for me after all, as I discovered about eighteen months ago in the height of summer, when, again, he had called me completely out of the blue to ask for help in the translation of more local people's war memories (foreign researchers tend to have a fixation on "the war", spurring on the Greek historians to keep writing about it as if nothing significant ever happened since then, and indirectly blaming the war for everything bad that's happening to Greece now).

 Probably the most well-known image of the Battle of Crete.

I could see that Bob really did need my help now that his cronies were not in a position to help him any longer. But just seconds before I was about to answer to his request, he decided to tell me, in the form of a prudent afterthought, that he had not yet been "paid" for the "research" he was doing, and was living off his credit card until the sponsors' funds came through. Although I already thought Bob was a bludger, he immediately went down a notch in my mind by thinking that I would actually asked to be paid if I accompanied him to a cafe to talk to a little old lady (a relative of my relatives who I've never had anything to do with). Greeks don't charge people for talking to them about their life, as anyone who has spoken to old Greek people would know. They just want to be heard. It had been a long long time ago that I was last asked how much I charge an hour as a researcher's assistant. But Bob was probably talking to me as one New Zealander to another. He clearly did not want to pay me for my time (a totally Western concept), but thought it wise to explain himself (with the credit-card story). At the same time, I had not even put it in my mind to charge for my time doing what came naturally to me, showing just how Greek I'd become (I would have charged at least 50 dollars an hour to do this in NZ); were I to insist on translation charges of this nature in Greece, I would be called an αεριτζή (= "air-blower"). In fact, I would have used it as a learning experience, and might have even blogged about it. Coincidentally, I did tell Bob that I have blog: "Oh, do you? That's nice." Nice. Everything is nice where he comes from, and even if it isn't, you still say it's nice so as not to offend, even if you feel offended yourself by whatever it is that you pretended was nice.

During that phone call eighteen months ago, I explained to Bob that I was on leave from work for the next week and would be able to meet up with him then. He said he'd call me when he was back in Hania so that we could arrange a suitable time to meet up.

"Aren't you in Hania now?" I asked in a surprised tone.

"Yes," he answered, "but I'm off to Paleohora for a couple of days just to squeeze a bit of a holiday into my work schedule."

grammeno greenhouses paleohora hania chania
Summertime in Paleohora

"Good on you, mate," I cheered him on, not mentioning the credit card problem. "Enjoy the Cretan sunshine!" And why not? He would never be able to get so much of it back in NZ as he was getting now. As it turned out, he must have been enjoying himself a great deal, because those 'couple of days' turned into a 'couple of weeks'. When Bob phoned me again, he was speaking a mile a minute because he didn't have enough units on his mobile phone. But I was back at work and I couldn't help him out. (And I will admit, at that point, I did not want to.) He did sound a little surprised that I was not as forthcoming to please him as I was the last time he had spoken to me, as if we had shaken hands and closed a deal with a gentleman's agreement, but we did not have time to discuss much because the phone line was disconnected. He had used up his last pre-paid cell phone unit; I knew I wouldn't hear from him again.

Getting back to Boxing Day, when I heard Bob's voice on the phone, I knew what to expect. "It's Christmas and you're not on holiday, Maria?" Bob was clearly mixing up Greek Christmas (middle of winter) with antipodean New Zealand Christmas (middle of summer). He obviously didn't know that Christmas in Greece is a family-centred holiday, and he also seemed to  be ignoring a significant fact: the country is in recession. He then continued with a bit of a spiel about the weather: "It's rather damp and miserable, isn't it?" he whined. "Feels a bit like being in Wellington."

Wintertime in Hania - note the outdoor heaters.

"Yes, it does," I meowed back. "It's winter, but that's what's it's like here in winter." Bob laughed. He possibly realised that he had shat a brick. Tourists don't have any idea it could be like this in Crete. They think of the island as a Mediterranean summer resort. If they had come to Crete at this particular Christmas time, they wouldn't even see any decorative lights on the electricity posts like other years (something to do with austerity measures, combined with feuds about who was to be paid to do the job - great savings were made over this one).

No sooner had we greeted each other than Bob came straight to the point: could I help him interview the same little old lady he had wanted to interview 18 months earlier? Boy, did I feel bad! Had I helped him interview her so many months ago, he would have got his job done and possibly not be bothering me now.

"Sorry, Bob," I lied, because I did not feel sorry at all, "but as you know, my relatives in the village have died, and I really don't have anything to do with that village at all now." This was very true: the last time I visited the village was for the memorial services of my relatives - my aunt and uncle died within six weeks of each other, so the services were held together.

The last time I saw this village was over a year ago - I like to keep this image of it in my mind, rather than other ones that remind me of my dysfunctional family.

But there was another reason why I didn't want to go back to the village: I've had my share of dysfunctional family. Now that my parents are no longer alive and I am not bound to family honour, I do not feel the need to maintain one-sided friendships. The well known adage that you choose your friends and not your family remains valid to this day, but in Greece, there is a certain truth in the statement that you may not be able to choose your family, but you can choose which family to keep company with. And in Greece, you can still find family that will treat you like you are their best friends. When these people see you, they will not think about the property feuds that divide them with other family members, or the different economic positions that you are in: in your face, they will recall their most beloved family members, as if you are a living reminder of them. They will not make any demands from you and even though you may see them on random occasions, with no prior arrangement, they will welcome you with open arms and give you the greatest gift in life: their love. And when they don't see you for a long time, they will not be thinking: "Oh, she's forgotten us now"; instead, they will make an attempt to track you down to see if you are all right.

Bob fully grasped the message that this arrangement between us was quite 'over'. His tone softened and he asked me if we could get together for a coffee one day while he's here, somewhere in the town, at a cafe perhaps, since we never actually got to meet up in the past twenty years that he has been calling me.

"Sure," I said, "but not a cafe, because I can't afford the petrol any more." I felt I had to return Bob back to the real world; he was still living in 'Creta Paradise'. "When you come back from Paleohora, why don't you come on over to my house and meet the family - my husband has plenty of stories to tell you of the kind that will fill in the gaps in your research," I assured him. Bob was surprised that I invited him to my private home; from what I remember of my time in the land of the Long White Cloud, Kiwis don't provide hospitality to strangers in their homes at the first instance - for a start, who pays for the food and drinks there? A cafe would be more convenient - we could each pay our own way, couldn't we?

I am now waiting for Bob to call me back for that drink, which I implicitly offered to host. I wonder if there will be a story to tell after that episode - if it ever takes place.

If you liked this post, you might like to read about other people's dysfunctional family members, whose idiosyncrasies become even more pronounced during a traditional Christmas lunch.

PS: Bob won't be reading this. And if he does, I don't really care, because he isn't family.

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