Tuesday, 29 September 2015

'The cold outside'

"Welcome home" said Mark over my phone "A beer at Piatsa?"

It was long before the film of Zorba the Greek, a few weeks before Easter 1957 - ours had been on April 8th (I checked on Google). Greeks held theirs on April 21 that year. I was 16. By the time my train got to Larissa, it was hours after midnight. I was half-asleep; a compartment to myself – the seventh day of a rail journey from London via Paris and Venice where I’d spent two days in an elated stupor breathing the smell of damp paving.
Abruptly the door of the compartment was slid open. A wedding guest party surrounded me, chatting, gesturing, drinking. Vexed by their thoughtless invasion of my space I signalled them to quieten down “pleease!”.
Used to exercising weight, tutored to being in authority, I probably missed an initial hint of displeasure across the carriage of this Greek train on Greek soil. I do recall their amusement. There was the offer of a drink (tsiporo?) and gestured encouragement to join in. Surrounded  by happy laughter, not mockery, I turned, irritated, towards the darkness beyond the steamed window of the train rumbling down to Athens.  There, at dawn, on a low platform, the Greek side of my family awaited with joyous greetings, and many disturbing hugs and kisses. Through a tiny window from the loo of yia-yia's flat in Kolonaki I saw the Parthenon - no longer the familiar schoolbook illustration, the real place!
Five years later I was with a friend. We’d sailed on a small boat from England drifting ahead through August heat for landfall. After a swift reach from Sicily. sunrise on the third day, the good wind abandoned our small vessel on a limpid mirror. Fifty years later the moment remains as dreamlike as at the time; glimpsing the forms of land melded to white sky and coppery sea - a way to the mainland of Greece between Cephalonia and Zakinthos into the Gulf of Patras, 170 miles from Piraeus and the city to which I’d determined to return.
I spent my first twenty five years in a fog of schooled and inherited insensibility, almost impervious to the wisdom of generous parents – English and Greek - who probably knew that, as perhaps for them, only time would tell me.
In 1968 I was with one side of my family again. They’d flown on to Greece. My dad wanted a car while we were there. Over four days I drove his small Hillman through Belgium, Germany, Austria, Italy and by ferry to Greece (Patras? Igoumenitsa?) sleeping one night in a field above the sea, a few yards from a narrow road. From Piraeus I took another ferry to join the Greek side of my family in Aegina. We returned to Athens for a day, where, with my diplomatic family, I attended a house party somewhere near Vouliagmeni, hosted by a man whose bald head I glimpsed for a few seconds, Colonel Stylianos Pattakos
It was only in Detroit, married a year later, meeting American Greeks - and Greek exiles from the Junta - that I grasped the discomforting notion of ‘sides’, of Greece as a polity, of animosities and moral positions, words and facts and opinions that left the paper-fragranced sentences of my superlative education – in one ear as others' thoughts, out of my mouth as words for conversation and essays, and out of the other ear unedited.
Though it seems so in memory, I could not have been quite that one-dimensional, except perhaps at my mother’s breast. My CV, by the time I was thirty, was enough to ease me into academia where, mostly fuddled, time did begin at last to tell and I began to listen.
It was 25 years before I came to Greece again.
Flying to Greece - Amy, Linda, Richard

Standing in the cockpit of our Airbus (full of screens and no joystick) where passengers could – pre-9/11 – still be invited for a pilot’s glimpse of the world ahead, I stood behind my family (now my second marriage), as with Linda, Richard and Amy, we flew high over the border of Greece; able to see to port the glow of Thessaloniki; ahead the greater glow of Athens; to starboard a moonlit Ionian Sea and far below, in inky blackness, clusters of tiny glittering diamonds - villages in the foothills of the Pindos.
“Children! There’s Greece”
In the dim cabin tears welled from my eyes with the delight – and the idea – of sharing ‘my’ Greece with my wife and children. I could not speak for a moment.
Met by our relative’s driver we were swept into Athens towards Kifissia. My half-Greek half-brother and his family were with us. He too hadn't been back to Greece for a long time. Shopping malls flashed by; showrooms with glistening new cars behind picture windows, furniture shops displaying stainless steel and leather, fashion boutiques, a bright neon frieze.
“Amazing!” said George “It’s a modern European city”
I was presented with a Greece that was without the strange and magical difference that had struck me and fixed itself in my memory decades earlier. Air travel had taken away distance. All seemed lit by the familiar light of common day, modern, grown-up, no longer enchantable, respecting routine, far less dumb, a man who’d returned to meet the boy who several times had left Greece seduced by something that had been other and exotic.
I noticed blemishes – ugly architecture, urban rubbish. We enjoyed our holiday immensely. I was delighted and relieved my family liked this familiar Greece as much as I - even if not as I had first seen the place - climbing up to the Acropolis together tho’ by then the inside was fenced off to tourists, strolling in the Agora, taking the train about the city, driving through great mountain ranges of the Peloponnese via Sparta and Kalamata to Pylos, picking our way through the ruined fort of Methoni crumbling battlements and sudden chasms unhindered by health and safety warnings, sipping from the Pierian spring by the Roman temple of Corinth, where we plucked fresh figs, visiting islands in the Aegean.
Life went on. My dad died long ago. My mum, who’d divorced him years before then (hence his second marriage to an Athenian and my Greek family), remained the bridge to yet another country – the past, in which I’d not lived, an unknowable land of fantasy and invention, and the landscapes of the Highlands and its clear peat waters.
River Farnack in Strathnairn with Oscar
Σα βγεις στον πηγαιμό για την Κέρκυρα να εύχεσαι νάναι μακρύς ο δρόμος...



We could talk about our separate experiences, my adventures as novel to her and hers to me.
My Greek stepmother Maria had, like this modern Greece, become part of an ordinary present, older, almost British, no longer part of the wondrous seduction of that distant land where I’d arrived by rail, sea and road so long ago.
Coming back to Greece - painted in 1970. Hung until she died above my mother's bed. Now I'm unsure where to put it.

I come aged 66 to the morning around our kitchen table in Handsworth. My beloved daughter, Amy, tells her mum she’s seen a yacht on a free mooring for sale in Corfu on ebay. I bought it, on an unwise impulse that brought Linda and I to Greece to buy a small house in the village of Ano Korakiana.
Beforehand, our very first evening in Corfu, hire car from the airport, having seen the boat and been disappointed but resigned to our purchase; considering the possibility of ‘making a list’ of things to be done, we went to an English bar on the cluttered strip-front of Ipsos, looking over the Corfu Sea to the bare mountains of Albania and Epirus. Our fellow customers were British. Notices, including our menu, were in English. In amiable company we had our first meal in Corfu – fish and chips with mushy peas; vinegar beside HP sauce. Above the bar a flat screen played desultorily watched news of the world delivered with loud familiar voices by familiar faces interspersed with pop and football. On shelves in a corner were popular paperbacks to be exchanged; below them a week-old British newspaper, headlining an event in the public life of a celebrity. We inhabited ‘modern times’.
No longer do I leave ‘here’ to arrive ‘there’, separated by poste restante mail and, in emergency, complicated phone calls by appointment. Here and there is now everywhere.
I can sample the 'other'; what is different, exotic, foreign but welcoming – what I experienced and enjoyed in Greece at 16 – I can take a cycle ride in Handsworth in my England and see and greet men and boys in djellabas leaving their mosques, women in black wearing veils over all but part of their face, Sikhs in turbans from their Gurdwaras, woolly hats in the national colours of Jamaica, dreadlocks, weave, ....

Soho Road, Handsworth

....Somalians, Eritreans, Kurds, Iraqis, Syrians escaping war and poverty in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, and, since EU enlargement, Poles, Roma from Rumania, Lithuanians, Bulgarians, Ukrainians, Turks, even Moldovans, also Christians from Vietnam, and, on our allotments, a Chinese family. On the Soho Road, a short walk from home, the few small supermarkets are outnumbered by the high street shops serving Handsworth’s bouillabaisse. Near home I overhear myriad languages and dialects, beginner’s English, Brummie accented.
Birmingham New Street


But since no-one would yet – or ever - consider Handsworth or its sibling inner suburbs encircling our city’s centre, a touristic, or even a gentrified destination unlike London's Brick Lane, here’s no threat to personal autonomy and human dignity as a result of visitors’ objectifications of local cultures; no more risk of having our encounters ‘commodified’ than in Anatolian Smyrna or 19th century Alexandria; no likelihood our place will be ‘spoiled’.
Here among my good neighbours...
On our street

...is crime, ill-health, mental illness, deprivation, disappointment, sadness and loss. Part of the population is transient, waiting, amid the wealth of successful immigrants planning to leave for new homes far from the centre. Here is village life in the city - a littered place of ill-repute where some strangers fear to visit - more so after dark - and indentured sociologists write semi-scanned policy papers for government. Where we’ve lived for forty years.
"Welcome home" said Mark over the phone to me in the village the afternoon of our arrival in Ano Korakiana.
I don’t think of Greece as a place where I have a second home, as might families of a certain prosperity and provenance. All over Handsworth are families of our imploded empire who make return visits to their natal villages – in Pakistan, Kashmir, the Punjab, the Caribbean, as also the villages and towns of Eastern Europe. We are nearer to them in our transhumance – returning home now and then.
Time to return to the pages of fairy stories? 'Once upon a time….there was a town, a little house, a great dark forest'
….I first met him in Piraeus. I wanted to take the boat for Crete and had gone down to the port. It was almost daybreak and raining. A strong sirocco was blowing the spray from the waves as far as the little café, whose glass doors were shut. The café reeked of brewing sage and human beings whose breath steamed the windows because of the cold outside....
Warsan Shire ~ 'Home'
no one leaves home unlesshome is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.
no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
pitied
no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough
the
go home blacks
refugees
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
savage
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off
or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
drown
save
be hunger
beg
forget pride
your survival is more important
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying-
leave,
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here

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