Monday, 20 February 2012

The way we were: Greek man in London (Έλληνας στο Λονδίνο)

"Like a fish out of water": a foreign-born Greek woman describing her husband to me on his first trip abroad.

The cold weather ripped through his body. Every now and then, a gust of wind whipped his face, freezing all their unexposed parts. Timoleon had lost sensation of his nose and had started breathing through his mouth. It had not felt so cold in the airport corridors; the difference in the temperature at the train platform shocked his senses. He had felt this kind of cold before, when he was trekking through the Lefka Ori, during a hunting expedition, but he was well wrapped up then, and he expected it at any rate due to the altitude. At any rate, the cold at such heights was stable - there was no sudden changes in the temperature. Here, one minute he was in the warmth of an artificially heated environment, but the next he found himself exposed to all the elements. His gloves, hats and scarf were packed at the bottom of the suitcase. He wouldn't be able to get them out until he got to Nektarios' house. The children's excitement rendered them unable to feel the cold. He watched them gazing wondrously at the train tracks, waiting to see the train as it came into view.

"I thought the place would be busier," he remarked to his wife who had just arrived from the cashier with their tickets."It must be quieter because it's Sunday."

"We're not in London yet," his wife replied. "This place is just a pit stop."

"I thought you said we aren't going into the centre of the city."

"We're not." Explanations seemed inadequate at this moment. This was a big new world for him, and he was about to discover it for himself.

The train arrived on time. The last time Timoleon had travelled on a train was more than three decades ago, on what felt like a slow dull journey through the Peloponnese, along with a few hundred cadets, all new bootcamp recruits. After finishing his military service, he never saw a train again. This train reminded did not remind him of his previous train journeys. It aroused a child-like excitement in him, the same as the one he could see his children experiencing; their joy was contagious as they began to board the carriage. He spotted some empty seats behind a glass door.

"No, not there," his wife shook shook her head, moving the suitcases into the corridor. He had opened a door to an empty compartment, but hadn't noticed the sign: "FIRST CLASS". At least this time there was plenty of leg room, even in the second class carriage. As the train left, the tracks gave way to an open view of a flat-pan countryside. Empty fields below a dull grey sky, small settlements popping into view at regular intervals, and rows and rows of uniform housing. These images were not new in his mind; he had seen them all before, but not in real life.

The train stopped at various stations along the route, dropping off a few passengers, with only a trickle boarding. The image that he had in his mind of London had still not emerged. Where are the masses? he wondered. At the same time, he could picture people sitting in the warmth and comfort of their homes, which all looked like picturesque maisonettes. Who would want to be out and about on a day like this, he assured himself. As the door of the carriage opened, the freezing air reminded him of why being indoors felt goodat this time.

The neat and tidy picture of uniform scenery suddenly gave way to a brown-green mess, blotted with colourful spots of fabric scraps and papers flapping in the wind or lying on the ground. Although it passed by his eyes very quickly - he would have missed it if he coughed - it was enough to remind him of Roma housing located by Greek motorways. In this case, though, the travellers and their trucks were missing from the detritus. He could hear his children singing the Polar Express song.

"What on earth was that?" he said, turning to his wife.  His wife proceeded to explain the idea of allotments to him. "People want to tend a garden, but due to lack of space in urban areas, they don't have space around their own homes, so they ask their local councils to provide them with a piece of land in a public area." The whole idea sounded romantic. There was only one problem: in this climate, it would take a miracle for anything to grow.

It was a little after the allotments that the open spaces and greenery became scarcer, and the natural landscape was replaced by buildings and long rows of terraced houses stretching for miles. His image of London was finally approaching.

"Our station's next," his wife chimed. "Remember," she continued in a warning tone, "there'll be people coming on and off the train, so we've got to watch out for the children and there's the suitcases to carry off..." She always used a serious sound to her voice when giving explanations, advice and any sort of instructions and directions. It made him feel a little sheepish listening to her, because she made it sound like he was in dome sort of imminent danger if he did not follow her advice to the T. She had already gotten off her seat, and the train had only just begun moving again. He presumed that it was a part of her Anglo-Saxon upbringing that she could not shake off, no matter how long she had been living in Greece.

The train entered a covered track as it began to slow down. To Timoleon's great surprise - and horror when he realised that this was their station - the platform was crowded. It felt like high summer season at the airport, multiplied by a hundred. The name of the station was now clearly in view: "Welcome to Clapham Junction: Britain's busiest railway station." His wife was already by the door dragging one suitcase in one hand and a child in the other. He followed suit.

A flood of images bombarded his bewildered eyes: the melee of people, the many shades of their faces, the quick pace of the crowd, the robotic actions of a mob expertly trained in the art of exiting and boarding a train carriage, the gong sounds coming from the intercom, the foreign languages flying through the air, the narrow concrete underpasses; presented altogether, they induced instant panic attacks on his mind. These were the images he carried around in his head when he thought of London. All that was missing to complete the picture was Big Ben. Where was Nektarios in this jumble? How were they to find him?

"He told us where he'd be," she assured assured him, speaking as quickly as she was walking, all the while holding on tightly to the baggage assigned to her, child included. "Platform three," she said, pointing to somehting in the air that Timoleon could not see. His wife led the way. Even though she claimed never to have come here before, she seemed to glide through the mess with ease; not only could she find what she wanted, but it was exactly where she expected it to be. The next minute, she was hugging Nektarios, who had appeared out of nowhere. After a very exchange of greetings, he turned round, indicating with a gesture for them to follow.

As they made their way to the station exit, Timoleon suddenly realised that most people around him were dressed up in green clothing. One person was even wearing a green wig.  He could only think of Greek politics and football, even though he knew that it was highly unlikely that he had landed among ΠΑΣΟΚ or ΠΑΟ supporters. He was feeling rather lost among the masses, like a fish out of water, as if the world had suddenly been tipped upside down. The cars were on the wrong side of the road, the drivers were in the wrong side of the cars, the signs were all foreign. He spotted a LIDL supermarket, its characteristic blue and yellow sign brightening up the greyness. He took comfort in finding something familiar amidst the sea of strange people and buildings, new faces and landscape, ground as yet untrodden by him which he was about to cover. It was Sunday, it was freezing, and he was in the middle of one of the busiest cities in the world, making his way through a crowded thoroughfare plotted with structures reminiscent of Dickens' stories standing side-by-side and criss-crossed with traffic. If he were at home right this minute, he'd be rising from a midday nap, and making his way to the armchair to watch TV in the comfort of a heated house.

supermarketAll of a sudden, the high street disappeared, and a sense of quiet hung in the air. As quickly as they had been mixing among the multitudes, they had left them for a cosier and more genteel environment. They had rounded a corner full of rows of two-story houses, looking like carbon copies of each other save the paint work. Saloon vehicles lined each side of the street, which seemed completely deserted, as they were the only ones walking down the road. A few steps down away was a supermarket: "Open 24 hours" read the sign in the parking area. They're probably all in there doing their shopping, Timoleon thought to himself. 

*** *** ***

On becoming familiar with the novel habits of the western world, given the right conditions, the newcomer's rate of catching up with the new pace of life often is exponential, while his previous life is sometimes remembered as a bad dream.

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