You Had to Have Been There

1 Conversation

The atoms of Democritus are still on the Greek beach. what he said to me, bubbling over with the joy of it, wanting to share the fun, waving his hands helplessly, trying between gasps of laughter to get the punch-line out...

You had to have been there. I nodded, sipped my coke, leaned against the bar. I know the problem.

Like trying to explain to a friend why Kenny Rogers' You Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me, Lucille makes my eyes glaze over with a kind of nostalgic wonder, while I hear bouzouki music in my head...yes, bouzouki music. And wonder how cold the North Sea is at Great Yarmouth this time of year.

Okay, you want the story? Here we were in our thirties, Elektra and I, lazy, shiftless, rootless things that we were, living on the cheap in the diminutive city of Xanthi, in the far north of Greece – our electricity came from Bulgaria, when it came, and thereby hangs another tale...oh, yes, where was I? Northern Greece, teaching English to equally lazy schoolchildren, for the perks of foreign living – something new every day, old surroundings, getting around in another language...okay, and cheap entertainment, and three months off in the summer to lie on beaches much nicer than the Riviera, because they had almost no tourists on them...

Our friend Paul was from Great Yarmouth. All this warm weather and warm Aegean swimming water made him feel slightly guilty. He was apparently raised on some English ethos that said that if you weren't at least halfway miserable, you were letting the side down. We did our best to cheer him up. He dutifully found things to worry about. Such as having no girlfriend. Such as a tendency to northern melancholy. Which is worrying about worrying, I suppose. Paul's life was a Woody Allen film in the making, with a working-class accent to replace the whiny Brooklynese.

The locals considered Paul a near-alcoholic, but he was no such thing. I knew better, having worked with a Yorkshireman at a previous job. Four beers a night seem excessive to the palikari who nurses one bottle all evening – and shares it with his buddy – while listening to the soul-stirring strains of rebetiki, before jumping up in a frenzy to either a) smash a few plates provided for the purpose, or b) place aforementioned empty bottle on head, pull out a clean pocket-handkerchief, and do his best Zorba imitation. (Note to the uninitiated: never join in a mixed hora. Those women wear spike heels. Spike heels and the hora do not mix. No wonder Melina Mercouri became Minister of Culture – they feared her shoes.)

Hanging out at the town swimming pool made Paul even more melancholic. First of all, we had this gorgeous oasis all to ourselves, we foreign teachers. Reason? Most Thracians didn't swim, they just splashed around. This they preferred to do at the beach. The government put in such amenities in the (vain) hope of attracting some of the one-quarter of Greece's population that insisted on living in Athens away up to the less trendy places, thereby creating a population bulwark against the hotly-anticipated invasion by Turkey. The evil Turk failed to materialise (except in the form of Fakris, who made the best charbroiled steaks in town), the Athenians stayed rooted to their smog-laden city of four million, and we had this pool all to ourselves.

With table service. Waiters brought coffee in the form of frappé for a hundred drachmas, about a dollar. They smiled. We made friends with Telly the gardener, an elderly, wiry fellow who was the only other person besides Paul to sport a Speedo in 1980s Greece. Every day Telly would stand there in his Speedo, garden hose in hand, and water the profusion of rosebushes that surrounded the pool.

The pool was the government's idea. The rosebushes were Telly's. We admired them, and he tolerated us with a lordly air.

Paul's cause for dissatisfaction at the pool was twofold: one, there were no foreign, unattached girls there, merely the English-teaching crowd. The girls in the group were, well, mostly the studious type...No, let's be honest. They were the insane type (think Monty Python), and there was some sort of class issue Elektra and I felt left out of. Besides, in courting these girls Paul would have had stiff competition from the 11-year-old boys who hung around the pool. These boys, too young for the big-stakes woo-pitching in the main square during the evening volta, came to practise the fine art of kamaki, or flirting, on these easy foreign targets. The girls encouraged this out of naughtiness.

The second reason for Paul's dissatisfaction was that he wanted to learn to dive. Because, I reckon.

Two was not a problem, Elektra insisted. She could teach him. I should have intervened, but I was too engrossed in conversation with Ahmos, the business student from Cairo who was interning at the local toilet-paper factory. His stories of being the only person within a hundred miles who knew how to operate the plastic-sealer – without which northern Greece would be deprived of one of the necessities of life until the foreman returned from holiday – blinded me to the coming agony. When I should have been frantically signalling Elektra to cease and desist from her natatutorial attempts, I was trying to convince Ahmos to get the company to change the picture on the toilet paper wrapping...pine trees, I insisted, while an accurate depiction of the raw material involved, did not get at the heart of what the customer wanted. Didn't people know you were supposed to put something soft on, like a fluffy kitten? I happened to have such a kitten...Cleopatra1 was destined for stardom, I felt sure...

And then we heard it. The splash. The arguing. The splash. The remonstrances. This went on for quite awhile.

It transpired that, while Paul wanted to learn to dive, he was reluctant to get his head under water. And that, you might say, was that. Except for the pedagogical persistence of Elektra, who kept explaining how to do it. Paul had the form down beautifully...he'd lean down, tuck his head just so, wait until he (and we) could no longer stand the tension, and...

Suddenly hold his nose, tuck his legs to his chest, and leap in, seat-first.

Elektra finally gave up, and I abandoned my advertising scheme to cheer Paul up by enlisting him in my next plan for the summer, which involved opening up synchronised swimming to a male team, it being an Olympic year. The swimming part went all right, despite the disparity in our heights, but Paul balked at the obligatory smiling. So we gave up and went to the beach the next day.

This beach was outside the village of Abdera, a short ride away by ramshackle bus. On the way, we heard Glykeria's greatest hits for the umpteenth time – Glykeria was big, and bus drivers were always sharing. We decanted ourselves onto the very pristine sands that inspired Democritus to invent the atom, and surveyed the scene with satisfaction. Grannies changed toddlers into bathing suits, some enterprising fellow showed up with a hot-dog-and-soft-drink cart, the fishermen hung their morning's catch of squid out to dry on the side wall of the taverna, and I dove into the gloriously tideless Aegean, there to float and dream for awhile.

I came back to Trouble. Delightful Trouble, but still with a capital T which didn't rhyme with her name, which was Doris.

Now, a note: I always falsify these names, even if only by a letter of two, because I somehow feel that otherwise I am telling tales out of school. Which I am. Nonetheless. The pseudonyms allow me to retain my tattered façade of reticence, okay?

But not in the case of Doris. That was her name. It could not have been otherwise for this Swedish bombshell, blonde, blue-eyed, shapely in her white tank suit, delectably curvaceous, chatting to Elektra with an insouciant smile on those ruby lips, closing long eyelashes against the sun over a deliciously freckled, snub nose. Just like her namesake's.

Because yes, lovely Doris from Stockholm was named after that other Nordic beauty, Doris Day. Elektra found everything about Doris fascinating, and was trying to make a match. Elektra's matchmaking technique has to be seen to be believed. At every conceivable opportunity she tried to draw attention back to Paul...

Who was sitting on the farthest possible corner of the straw mat, hunched over, and answering in monosyllables. I pitied him. He was obviously regretting the Speedo.

Needless to say, this did not turn into the romance of the ages. Doris exchanged confidences and addresses with Elektra, was distantly politely to Paul and myself, and took herself off to town on the noon bus, leaving me to comfort Paul with apples. And Afri-Cola from the wagon. Have you ever had Afri-Cola? Horrible stuff, but its slogan was...

You are getting impatient, I note. You are demanding Answers. You want to know...WHAT DOES ALL THIS HAVE TO DO WITH KENNY ROGERS? I shall tell you.

Back at Casa Gheorgheni – in this instance, the rented downstairs-plus-garden of a comfortable stucco dwelling – we put on some charcoal, started grilling ourselves some dinner, and commenced work on a new project: the creation of Thrace's first-ever international punk-folk band. A couple of the local kids came by to help, with bouzoukis.

While I tried to see how many macaronic verses I could come up with rhyming with 'souvlaki' (almost everything, that's a diminutive ending), Leftheris the bouzouki player started noodling around, and Paul grabbed my guitar.

Paul, of course, started playing his old favourites, the angst-laden songs of his idol. Bob Dylan. Of course, Bob Dylan.

Bob Dylan is such an easy target. My parodies went unappreciated. My rendition of Tambourine Man, which by the tone of voice alone renders the ditty ridiculous, was raising hackles.

But the pièce de résistance, as it were...Elektra's mischievous request to Leftheris. "Leftheri, sing Paul that American song you learned on the bouzouki." Leftheris, the well-brought-up young son of a military officer, agreeably tuned up his strings, and played, as we sang cheerfully along...

"You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille, with four hungry children and a crop in the field..."

Paul groaned and went off to make sure the cats hadn't stolen the souvlaki.

So you see...trying to explain why hearing that song, say, over the mall loudspeaker will send me back to my salad days, and make me smell something much better than an ol' madeleine – a charcoal-grilled stick of souvlaki – and make me feel that warm Aegean sun again, and hear friendly voices...

Well, you just had to have been there, mate.

A bouzouki.

Fact and Fiction by Dmitri Gheorgheni Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

19.07.10 Front Page

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1That summer, the BBC was broadcasting something Egyptian all over Europe, which led to the siblings Cleopatra, Sophonisbe, Veronike, and their brother Ptolemy, whom Paul, not a history buff, renamed Boris.

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