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In June last year I wrote a blog entitled “Living in Limbo–A Streetside Portait” about a man who stands outside the local supermarket and sells the Augustin newspaper. He’s a refugee from Georgia and used to teach philology back home. I cannot communicate well enough with him to know why he had to leave his home. Perhaps he’s a political refugee and is reluctant to talk about it. Today he handed me a story, photocopied from an old edition of the Augustin. Since his German is very halting, I presume someone translated it for him. Whatever the case, the writer comes across as intelligent, well-read and sensitive, and the story deserves a wider audience. Hence I’ve translated it into English and posted it here. I hope you enjoy his story. I’ll simply call the writer Wassili.
The Man and the Mountain
I’m no longer a stranger here now. I feel I’m in familiar surroundings. I have many acquaintances who call me by name when they talk to me, which pleases me no end. No one knew me in those days, when an elderly man, Herr F., invited me to his villa. He was eighty years old, but still active and full of joie de vivre. His energy would have put many a younger man to shame. His villa was near Neustadt. He called the Augustin office one day to ask for ‘permission’ to take me to Neustadt. He arrived at the Augustin office in his car to pick me up at the appointed time. This was a great honour to me; such a great honour that it was embarrassing.
I remember another occasion when I felt such embarrassment; it was a very cold day. I had no gloves and I was selling newspapers. I noticed someone staring, and then approach me holding out a pair of gloves, obviously intending to give them to me. I refused, pretending I was not cold, but that was wrong. It’s normal for Austrians to look at strangers, but I only understood much later that it’s even more embarrassing to refuse warmth and gestures of goodwill.
Herr F and I drove in his car. It was an old Ford, but very well maintained. He was in high spirits. We joked and laughed a lot. He showed me his villa. Then he took me out to lunch at a restaurant in the mountains. We ate well and drank a little. Herr F was the first person in Austria who reminded me of the words of the 12th century Georgian poet Schota Rustaweli who said: Never forget the duty of friendship to a friend who shows you his heart, for all paths are open to him.
Several days passed before Herr F. came to see me again. “Wasil,” he said, laughing. “You’re Stalin. And I’m Hitler.”
“No Herr F. That’s impossible. The two of them didn’t like each other. They were enemies. We, however, like and respect each other.” Herr F. smilingly agreed. He knew who Stalin was. I’d spoken about him that day at lunch in the mountains. Stalin was Georgian, from Gori. This place is known for its delicious apples and its Stalin Museum. Many foreigners think Stalin was Russian and when they learn he was Georgian, they come to visit the museum.
I haven’t seen Herr F. for several months now. I’m now selling the Augustin at another location. I have neither his telephone number nor his address in Vienna. What do I know about this man who gave me, a stranger arrived in Vienna, such a memorable day? Who knows if he is in trouble, and if so, how I can help him? Who knows where he is now? Perhaps he’s busy and no longer remembers this simple newspaper seller.
There are perhaps many people who think like me. Perhaps the mountain also thinks so; the mountain that rises five hundred meters in front of me, and spends its time thinking. When no one comes to me to buy a newspaper for a long time, the mountain and I look at each other. I think of the time I worked in a school, with a book in one hand, und taught children Georgian language and literature. Now I’m learning to live, or rather, learning how not to be a stranger in a land where I must live.
Sometimes in autumn the mountain is covered in fog– and it seems to be thinking. Just as I do. A big mountain can think more than the small one can. People are like that. The more they think, the more the fog bothers them. I’m talking about the mountain that stands before me. There are vineyards on its flanks, but I see no one there. I wonder how anyone can produce wine on such steep slopes. Georgia too is a land of mountainous vineyards. Grapes grow there too; grapes that are nurtured like children.
In the country where I was born and grew up, one can see mountains, precursors of the Caucasus. I visited these mountains often in my childhood. I went alone, sat down somewhere under a bush, and looked down fondly at my village, loving every single settlement as far as I could see. You small Austrian alpine mountain, I think. It’s your fault that I’m homesick at the sight of you. I love you too. Even though I’ve not known you so well, I love you from a distance. There will come a time when I’m closer to you. For then, if you allow me, I’ll look on your fields and meadows from above, just as I did as a child, silently and wordlessly turning to the land I used to say: I love you, Georgia! With the greatest respect then, I would then humbly say: I love you, Austria.
See this author’s page at Amazon.com to read more of his work
To all Android users: The above 4 books are now available on Google Play. The first 20% of each book can be downloaded as a free sample. For the owner of a not-so-new smartphone (3 year-old Samsung) like myself, the text was surprisingly easy to read in both vertical and landscape modes. Downloads were almost instantaneous using a reasonably standard wi-fi connection. To access the books, select the “Entertainment” header on the Google Playstore app, and then open the category “books” to search under author or title. Hint: The entire title story of the Ironwood Poacher collection can be downloaded and read as a free sample.
Forthcoming: All 4 of the above titles coming soon to the iTunes store, plus Desert Dreams, an illustrated travel guide to the fascinating and history-laden state of Rajasthan that will be published only as an e-book on Google Play, iTunes and Kindle. Additionally, a brand new website (aviottjohn.com) designed by a young professional based in Munich, plus a subsequent post on some small steps to save the iconic Indian tiger. Follow this blog for automatic notifications of updates.
A short story deals with a tiny slice of life on a local scale but can, like a hologram, contain the big picture or illustrate universal themes. A novel does the same, but tries to give the hologram greater depth and detail. In choosing new fiction, a prospective reader looking at an unknown author can decide based on the genre: crime, thriller, romance, sci-fi, and so on. For an author who explores the world and writes stories that do not fall into any of these genres and therefore classes his work as “literary fiction”, the task of finding a readership is close to hopeless, given the number of fine writers and superb new books that appear online and in bookstores every day. It takes a certain stubborn foolishness to attempt to do this. On this count alone, I consider myself eminently qualified to be a writer of literary fiction. The rest is up to unknown readers out there to take a risk and invest some of their precious time reading a new author’s work.
I am keenly aware of this formidable entry barrier and therefore grateful to several unknown reviewers and three friends who have taken the time and trouble to write a total of (currently) fourteen four and five-star reviews of my three books on Amazon’s various sites and on Goodreads.
Napoleon Hill, in concluding his famous self-help classic “Think and Grow Rich” quotes Emerson as he states: if we are related, we have through these pages met. So to those many unknown reviewers I say, we have, through these pages met, and I am honoured to make your acquaintance. This is why I write. It is you who make the work worthwhile.
This story was begun as a fiction exploration to try and get behind the mind of a terrorist, while avoiding all the cliches of religious fundamentalism that are typically associated with it. After the first few paragraphs, the character took over and the story wrote itself. The portrait that emerges more resembles a reflection of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil;” a person almost complacently setting out to perform deeds with deadly consequences for others, a complacence compounded by the blessings of dubious spiritual leaders.
The man walked slowly, limping a little. “Walk in beauty among the flowers of His garden. The garden that you hold in trust for Him. And as you are faithful to your trust, so may you enjoy the flowers and the fruit of your labour.” He was neither religious nor contemplative, considering himself a doer rather than a thinker. But now the sun was hot and the lines came to his mind unbidden. They could have been from the great poet Rumi, a few of whose verses he had once read in a book years ago, but his friend and teacher the theologian had brushed them aside impatiently as irreligious and therefore irrelevant.
He had not been born with this defect, this impediment in his stride. In fact, he had acquired this disability only a short while ago. The sun was hot, the air still and he moved towards the glass doors set seamlessly in the concrete face of the building, knowing well the layout of its air-conditioned interior, knowing the cool darkness within.
He felt nothing as he was suddenly torn apart, his image split down the middle in two equal parts as the sliding doors opened automatically to admit him. The sweat on his face and beneath his shirt seemed to freeze the instant he stepped into the room. It was so cold inside he shivered. A nail in the leather sole of one shoe clicked softly like a record stuck in a groove as he walked across the polished marble floor towards the reception desk. Reaching into the depths of his loose and voluminous robe and the pretty girl behind the counter flinched as though she expected to see a pistol emerge from it. One could see she was an urban product, with little experience of peasants, disdainful.
She curled her lip at the wrinkled, soiled ticket he laid on the counter. She examined the ticket and seemed resentful that it was in order.
‘Have you any luggage?’ He did not answer the question, but slowly shook his head, eyes never leaving her face, drinking in every well-groomed feature, the carefully plucked eyebrows, the artfully shadowed eyes with mascaraed lids, the teasing touch of pink around her mouth, the provocatively painted slashes of her fingernails, the unfastened top button of her blue and red uniform revealing the beginning swell of her breasts. He read faint contempt in the curl of the lips and knew it was because of his clothes and their smell of sweat. Fundamental in faith, close to the earth, he was a gardener, unashamed of his dress, proud of sacred trust, determined to take the fruit of the garden that the holy book assured. The stains and the smell were of the earth, things to be proud of, proof of having done one’s duty.
He had seen this kind of reaction before, and thought he was indifferent to downcurled lips and veiled contempt. But it still got to him occasionally, as it did now. The girl sensed something dangerous and her insolent eyes, narrowed in disgust, widened momentarily in a flicker of fear. They quickly resumed their expression of boredom, but inwardly he exulted at the reaction he had produced in her. For one small second he had unleashed his carefully hidden resentment and she had flickered. She had caught a glimpse of the pride beneath the peasant exterior, seeing for an instant the real man and not a dust-covered clod.
He looked away, no longer needing eye contact, having proved a point to himself. Exaggerating his limp, drawing attention, certain that she was looking at his retreating figure now, he could feel her gaze in the small of his back. That in itself was quite a victory, but it was only the beginning. One had to take drastic action to attract the attention of jaded sophisticates, shake them out of their self-satisfied lethargy.
Had they no eyes in their heads? Were they blind to the beauties of the garden? Did they not see its flaws, the sprouting weeds, the fading beauty? The parched earth cried out for water, depleted and needing nourishment. Once you saw the connection, it was so simple. The garden had been neglected and now the people suffered. Whose fault was it? Who was to blame for the neglect? He asked himself the questions as he had so many times and answered them with a shrug. It did not matter whose fault it was. There was no point in looking back. He had to go ahead and do what he could do; replanting, transplanting, weeding and watering. “My garden that you hold in trust for me.” Yes, he would be faithful to his trust and the thought made him raise his head and hold it high.
He sought analogies from everyday life. He was like a man working for a company, an advertising company plastering a message across the country: come, see, buy. Our product is good. He was like an advertising executive. He smiled, liking the analogy. Yes, an advertising executive of sorts and today he would open a new account, gain one more customer. But when he thought of the product he was trying to sell, the analogy failed and the smile on his lips altered subtly; a faint alteration at the corners of the mouth and the smile was humorless, menacing, a snarl.
It was a nice airport. The air conditioned interior of the large arrival hall was well lit, the shops with plenty of goods on display, the twinkling lights of the duty-free store, offering a plenitude of perfumes, tobaccos and spirits to soothe the frequent flyer. There was a coffee bar with comfortable lounge chairs and enticing smells of exotic cooking wafted from the international restaurant at the end of the hall. The smell of food made his mouth water. He had been too nervous to eat before setting out. He fished in his coat pocket and found notes of various denominations, large and small. He counted the bigger notes and looked at the flickering digital clock on a television screen above his head. An hour and a half to go, time enough to eat.
He limped diffidently into the dimly lit restaurant and no one stared. On the contrary he was totally ignored. The waiters rustled by the table he occupied, frowning with intense concentration at orders just taken or deep in thought over conversations with the cashier at the counter. He fidgeted slightly, grateful for the subdued lighting, furious at being ignored yet thankful for it. When the tall, thin waiter brushed past for the third time he held out an arm and plucked the man’s sleeve.
“I’d like to eat,” he rasped at the waiter’s coldly polite, questioning glance. The man turned wordlessly away, but the next time he passed by, placed a menu card on the table. Squinting in the semi darkness, trying to make sense of the menu, the names were all strange so he simply pointed to one of the entries at random.
“Lasagna al Forno,” said the waiter. “Only during the lunch hour, between eleven and three. It’s four o’clock now.”
“Well, what can I have?” The waiter pointed to the bottom of the card.
“Yes, I’ll have that,” he said, wondering what kind of spring rolls they were and hoping they were big enough to satisfy his hunger.
“What will you drink, sir?”
“To drink? To drink… I’ll have some tea.”
The spring rolls to his disgust were dainty little rolls that merely increased his hunger. Fortunately tea was served in a large pot and he drank several cups. There was an old-fashioned clock in a prominent corner and its analog face glinted at him, ticking a reminder that there was only half an hour for his flight. He paid and thankfully escaped from the dark interior, blinking at the brightness of the main hall. They cursorily checked his passport at the emigration desk and waved him on. Beyond were the waiting lounges where passengers gathered to board their craft. One more barrier lay between him and the lounges, five curtained booths, three for men and two for women, each occupied by a security officer of the appropriate sex. The booth’s metal detector was out of order today as he had been assured it would be. He counted the booths, third from the right and to be sure counted again, third from the left, the middle one.
Thrusting self-doubt and second thoughts aside, he boldly parted the curtain and entered this booth. Yes, this was the man, the description fitted. He looked at the security officer in the tiny booth, saw the start of recognition in the man’s eyes. Unlike him the man was pale and thin, equally tall, but clean-shaven and crisp in a well pressed uniform whose braid rasped like a file when he moved..
“Passport,’ said the officer, holding out an imperious hand. The accent betrayed good education and the faint tremor of the hand revealed nervousness. He handed over the passport. Already in those two syllables, he could detect the guard’s origins, humble as his own though well disguised. He looked at the officer’s impassive face in sympathy.
Nothing can take your origins away from you, he thought. Wherever you go, however high you rise in the ranks, you will always be branded by your speech. You will open your mouth to speak words of wisdom, but they will only hear the intonation of your words, not their meaning. And hearing the sounds, will nod their heads wisely and say, “Here is another one of those rough-necked peasants who’s forgotten his place.” Afterwards they might smile at you in friendly greeting, acknowledge you with words as one of their own. But in your heart you know you can never belong to them. You belong to us.
“Have you anything to declare?”
“What?” He could not believe the security guard’s question, his silent soliloquy interrupted.
“Are you carrying any liquids, sir? Shaving creams or after shave?”
“No. Of course not.” He realised they could be heard in the adjacent booths. “No. I’ve nothing to declare. You can search my bag,” thrusting it forward. The guard searched briefly but thoroughly, not expecting to find anything there. He looked up with troubled eyes, ritual completed. ‘You can go through now.’
The departure area was full of passengers. He mingled with the crowd and the hostess was already collecting boarding cards from those nearest the gate. She smiled professionally as he filed past and gave his card. He liked that. She had looked at him with steady brown eyes, really looked at him, seeing the sweat and the stains on his clothes, and she had not flinched. If there were more like her in the world, he thought, he would not have to do what he was going to do. She was surely one of the flowers in the garden that the holy book spoke about. He looked at the flower with possessive pride, suddenly yearning to cup its fragile beauty in his protective hands. Yes, he would do that. Later, much later, for now there was work to do.
The bus ride was short and he was in no hurry to enter the aircraft, knowing his seat was right in front of the tourist section, separated from the first class passengers by curtains, the galley and the flight attendants’ cramped work area.
When he reached his seat, he found the brown eyed girl at his side. She had noticed his limp and helped him stow the small grip in the overhead locker, making sure he fastened his seat belt before moving on to inspect the next row of seats. He was in no hurry and felt no fear at the vibrating lurch of the aircraft speeding down the runway, the sudden stillness as they left the ground, the strong sensation of his stomach pulling away from him as they climbed steeply. He felt no fear because he was concentrating on his task, thinking of what he had to do.
He waited till the aircraft had levelled off and the seatbelt signs went out. He slowly eased to his feet and the girl was solicitously at his side again, raising the arm of the seat, making room. She caught his look of gratitude and smiling touched his arm, pointing him in the direction of the toilet. He shuffled to the tiny cabin and once inside lowered his trousers and relieved himself, careful to direct the stream into the center of the bowl and not splash like a peasant. When he was finished, he lowered the seat and squatted with his right leg stretched before him. He slowly unwound the bandage and freed the dully glinting metal. He rested for a few minutes, kneading the cramped leg and restoring circulation.
He thought of the brown-eyed girl, her unflinching eyes, her ready help and friendly smile. He felt suddenly lonely. Lonely and old. If only he had someone like her, if she were on his side, young, fresh, cheerful…
He sighed. This was the problem. In carrying out divinely appointed tasks, he had left the world, mere mortals and desires of the flesh, far behind. If divine will decreed that she survive this mission, perhaps he would come down to earth for a few moments with her. But right now, he had a sacred responsibility to fulfil and no time for earthly charms.
The land is flat and stretches for miles in every direction. I take a sip of my beer and nod my head. ‘It is good beer Karl,’ I say. Karl nods and takes a big gulp of beer and the foam spreads over his lower lip and his blond moustache.
‘Yes, it is good beer,’ he nods again
The summer sun drenches our skin with light and heat just as intensely as the short, sharp shower soaked us an hour ago. Now it is gone, the shower and all traces of it. Except for the steam that rises from the ground. The ground is soft now but soon it will become hard. As hard as the bicycle saddles. Soon the saddles will also become harder and then it will be good to find another Gasthaus in the woods like this one. It is good to rest, to take our weight off the saddles. It is luxury to stretch.
In the wind the smell of the bird is strong. It is a good bird, I know. Come to Papa, I whisper to the bird. The bird does not hear, for the bird is dead. But the waiter hears. He sees the cry in my eye even if he does not hear me call to the bird. He comes to the table,and it was as if I had called to him saying, ‘Come to me, Bird.’
Or as if he were the bird and had heard the cry. But the bird did not hear. For the bird is dead. And its calling is a silent call to my nostrils. And a call to my taste buds. My taste buds answer and I feel the good saliva on my tongue. Strong and sweet at the thought of the bird. I called to it and the waiter came.
‘A beer,’ I say to the waiter. ‘A big beer for me, and one for my friend here.’ Karl nods in agreement. ‘A big beer for my friend and one for me,’ he says. He nods again at the kitchen and the scents that waft over us. ‘That smell,’ says Karl. ‘I’d know it anywhere. It is good. The smell of chicken frying. Frying in batter and bread crumbs. Frying to a golden brown in much hot oil.’
The waiter nods gravely and looks at us with respect. ‘You are right,’ he said.
I nod at him, understanding. ‘The bird is good. The bird is for me.’ I look at Karl and I raise my eyebrows at him. Karl smiles, for he understands too. ‘And one portion for my friend too,’ I say as an afterthought and we both laugh, for I have read the thought in his mind, and the thought is: the bird smells good.
It is always so with a good bird. First the smell of the cooking, and then the appetite. The appetite that has a mind of its own. The appetite that takes on the life of the dead bird and wafts on updraughts of air, breathing freedom. And Karl and I inhale the scents of this freedom and know that the bird is for us. It was a big bird and now it is a dead bird, and the bird is for us. That is the law of nature. The law that we must follow. And we follow it.
Today we will eat the bird, and today the bird is good, the big, dead bird. And Karl and I are full of the knowing of the goodness of the bird, our plates are full of the deadness of this bird. And the cooked smell of its deadness wafts up to us from our plates. I look at Karl and Karl smiles at me.
‘Skol,’ he says, for his full name is Karlsson and Karlsson is a Swede and all Swedes say Skol before they drink. I do not know why this is so, this saying of Skol, but it is so. ‘Prosit,’ I say, for we are in Austria and this is a bicycle path in the Lobau. We are on a bicycle path in this wooded area so close to the city of Vienna, not in the vast distances of Karlsson’s native country. But Karl does not think like that, so he says Skol and not Prosit.
In the Camargue, where I ride the white horses and the horses are wild, I would have said ‘Salut.’ But we are in Austria. So I say ‘Prosit.’ Karl smiles at me, chewing on the bird, and I see that he does not understand. But that is all right because Karl and I are friends. On days like these, friends will forgive each other anything, and it is good to be alive. There is the clear light of the day, the secret of the path as it winds through woods, past fields that smell of upturned earth. The river rushes close by, the Danube, the brown, forcefully flowing Danube.
You don’t see it most of the time, but you know it is there. Like a friend. Like I look down at my plate and see only the bird. And I don’t look at Karl but I know he’s there. And there is goodness in the knowing and in the eating.
Soon we are done and it is time to go on. The bird and the beer are mere memories now, like the remembrance of old friendship, like the sweet, sad song of past love. It is time to go on. The mud on the ground dries in the sun. The ground hardens under the blaze of the unforgiving sun and it is time to get into the saddle once more. It is good to know that the path goes on, and we must follow it. All the way to Passau in Germany if we care to follow it. It is a good path and our way ahead lies on it. And Karl and I are friends, and our friendship is good, and we will follow this path where it leads.
(With apologies to Hemingway. As always, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery)
It is not difficult to find hospitality mostly everywhere in Greece as long as one avoids the peak tourist seasons. Newspapers have been full of the Greek financial crisis in the past few years and ‘expert’ commentators writing about it often imply that the Greeks are shiftless and have only themselves to blame for the current situation.
Visiting Greece as a tourist, I have mostly met hard-working people; hard-working, resilient and hospitable. Some of the most enjoyable moments have been random encounters that surmounted language barriers. So instead of thinking about whom to blame for its current problems, here is a reminder of the countless spontaneous acts of hospitality and kindness that makes a visit really worthwhile; that briefly, or permanently (as in this case) changes one’s view of a people. Perhaps it is also a timely reminder that quality of life and economic prosperity do not always go hand in hand.
FAR FROM IOWA
‘Something’s got to happen today!’ It was a plea addressed to the heavens, to a Superior Being she did not really believe in. And yet, in the silence that followed she thought she heard the faint trace of an answer.
She raised her head to the blue sky in confusion and heard the wind soughing through the tall grass that grew by the roadside. The road ran straight for a distance and then began to curve its way up a hillside into a tapering point. Beyond the first low hills was a snow covered mountain. Sun and blue sky all around her, that was fine, but snow she had not expected, did not fit in with her image of sunny Greece. Crete. Big island. The Greek Navy and NATO had hogged the finest spot; the beautiful natural harbor and most of Souda Bay were off limits to tourists; clusters of sleek gray destroyers and other warships mottled the aquamarine Sea of Candia like patches of an early carcinoma. Beyond the field of grass was a grove of orange trees, late April, and the fruit almost ready for plucking. Fiona shouldered her backpack and left the road, walking through the grass, springy underfoot and accompanied by the tiny buzz and hum of hundreds of invisible insects. As she approached the orange grove, the heavy aroma of ripening fruit was overpowering, such profusion that there was no question of not taking a few. Not to be too greedy, only half a dozen, wrapping them in her scarf and then cascading into her rucksack.
The holiday was unlike anything she had anticipated, also a plethora of firsts. First time in Europe. First time away from her family. First trip alone. The first time in a country where they spoke anything but English, listening to the Cretans talk among themselves, spending hours in their cafes sipping from glasses of amber Nescafe, milkless, cold and frothy.
Maybe it was just as well that her best friend Moira could not come and had cancelled at the last minute. It was good to experience everything alone; the strangeness, the foreign-ness of Crete. Good, but a bit lonely. Walking through the mountainous parts of the island she had seen women in black riding donkeys, quaint, like extras from “Zorba the Greek,” and she half-expected to see an unshaven Anthony Quinn saunter round the corner. But the women frowned at her, as though she were trespassing on their territory. People living in isolation are bound to be hostile to strangers, she thought as she descended to the coastal plain. Besides there were not too many places to stay higher up and it got very cold at night.
In the villages by the sea, which tourism and progress had developed into noisy towns, the problem was quite different. There was too much traffic, too many discotheks and bars, hustlers’ English spoken everywhere and little flavor of being in Greece, except that the hamburgers left a lingering taste of lamb, sage and wild thyme, and the bread was unsalted and chewy. In one of the coastal towns some young German tourists accosted her, attracted by her dark curls and hook-nosed beauty, but she shook her head with the hot-tempered pride inherited from her Irish-Ojibwa forbears and left them far behind with her long limbed stride.
Now she was nearing one end of the island and, God, it was a long way to walk and she was fed up of her holiday. This was no way to enjoy Crete, slogging alone on foot, from one end of the island to the other. A beautiful island, true, but progress was simply too slow and she had only another six days left of her fifteen. Roughly half the nights spent in cheap hotels and the rest camping under the stars.
As she walked she ate one of the oranges and looked out at the sea. The road climbed now and she took a hunk of bread from her backpack and chewed slowly. To her right the sand and shingle lined beach, scrub running up to the road. To her left, a hillslope of red earth, a bunch of olive trees, leaves rattling in the breeze like ancient bones or a child’s box of sea shells.
‘Something’s got to happen today!’ Fiona repeated her morning’s plea and again it was as though somebody or something heard and laughed at her.
‘Loneliness plays strange tricks on you,’ she thought as she walked on determinedly. She heard the sound first, like the buzzing of insects when walking through the grass, only sharper, angrier, a shade metallic. Then in the distance the trail of thin blue smoke.
The man parked his Vespa, gray, almost white, covered with a fine coating of dust the color of his hair. Wearing a patched black fishermen’s jersey and white cotton shorts, sockless feet in unlaced canvas shoes, gnarled veins standing out on stringy calf muscles. Anywhere between sixty and seventy.
‘Poulose,’ he said. ‘Speak English?’
‘Of course.’ What a question!
‘You like Crete?’
‘Yes,’ she lied.
‘You like fish?’
‘Yes,’ she admitted, surprised at the question, wondering what was coming next. He beckoned economically and, to her own surprise, without thought or contention, she obeyed, climbing onto the narrow pillion. The Vespa buzzed and they soon left the road, descending by a dirt track to the sea. Around a corner of headland the unexpected sight of a tiny bay walled off from the sea by an irregular pile of granite blocks. In this tiny man-made harbor a fishing boat rode at anchor. It was the boat of Fiona’s dreams, painted blue and white, the canvas awning that covered the wheel flapping at her in friendly fashion.
To the left a two room house, little more than a brick walled shack really, but there were fetching signs of domesticity; a fresh-swept front yard bordered by flower beds filled with small yellow and purple blossoms; two tiny tan colored mongrel puppies growling over a fish’s head; laundry flapping on a sagging jerry-rigged line; grain and olives drying on a mat in the sun; a narrow bench and a table with a chopping board, kitchen knife, two aubergines and a zucchini; a toddler splashing in a pint size bathtub; two cats admiring themselves beneath geraniums in pots on the window sill; the smell of cooking from the open door of the tiny kitchen-cum-living room.
‘Athinai! Athinai!’ The man hollered through the open door, motioning Fiona to the bench in the shade. Athinai, grey haired and stout, encased in a dress of Mediterranean blue, waved and smiled at Fiona. Poulose went indoors and Fiona imagined them discussing her in incomprehensible Greek. The woman emerged with a plate of olives, a bottle of white wine and three glasses. She filled two glasses, handed one to Fiona and raised her own. ‘Is Ichian!’
‘To you!’ said Fiona and emptied her glass. It was a retsina wine and had a bitter-sour taste of pine resin. She took an olive from the dish while the woman refilled the glasses. After the olive the wine tasted much better and she sipped from the second glass with more enjoyment.
There were sounds of frying in the kitchen and after a while Poulose emerged bearing a large plate of small fish fried to a crisp in olive oil. ‘Marides! Marides!’ He pointed to the fish and took one himself.
‘Kali Oreksi,’ said Athinai, or something to that effect. Fiona took a small fried fish in her fingers and bit into it. Warm oil spurted from the fish and filled her mouth with its rich olive sweetness. The two cats temporarily abandoned one form of self interest for another and began to circle around the bench. One of them purred and rubbed itself ingratiatingly against Fiona’s shins.
‘Hoi! Hoi!’ Athinai chased the cats away with a couple of well aimed olive stones. She turned to Poulose and spoke briefly. Poulose went into the house and brought a small basket of fresh white bread. He cut five thick slices on the chopping board with the kitchen knife and handed one to Fiona. Fiona followed their example and mopped up the remaining bits of fish and olive oil with the bread. Meanwhile Athinai had finished slicing the aubergines and marrows into thin slices and disappeared into the kitchen with the chopping board. The toddler began to cry and Poulose lifted the child out of the tub, dried and dressed him in red jeans and a blue T-shirt. Fiona wiped greasy fingers on her jeans and helped Poulose with the child.
‘Grandson,’ he said proudly. Fiona smiled and nodded her pleasure.
‘What’s his name?’
‘Costas. You what name?’
‘Fiona. My name is Fiona.’
‘Fiona? Fiona. Fiona.’ He tried the name on his tongue and nodded.
‘Where from? United States?’
‘Yes. From Iowa.’
‘Iowa?’ Poulose laughed and lifted Costas in his arms. ‘Crete far from Iowa.’
‘Yes,’ said Fiona contentedly, chewing an olive and taking another sip of retsina wine. ‘Yes. Crete is very far from Iowa.’
I had never seen an opera before I came to Vienna. All I knew about opera was the quote above. This was the late 1970s and I did not then have Wikipedia to tell me that the quote is attributed to either US baseball player Yogi Berra or to sportswriter Dan Cook.
In any case, I went one evening in blithe spirits to the Staatsoper, Vienna’s State Opera, to see Puccini’s La Boheme, expecting to have an experience that I would be mildly disparaging about later. If you are in your 20’s, short of money and long on energy, then the best way to see Opera in Vienna is to buy tickets for a standing place. Tickets were 20 schillings apiece, and their purchase involved standing in a queue for a couple of hours before the performance, in addition to the duration of the piece. From the vantage point of a lowly standing place ticketee, the Staatsoper at the time was tightly ruled by a bunch of brown-uniformed despots; doorkeepers and attendants who tried to uphold the dignity of the noble house by strictly regulating us slovenly tourists and opera novices. We were duly chastened for standing in crooked lines or for, God forbid, squatting on the floor to rest aching feet.
The prime standing places are located on the ground floor, at the rear center of the hall. The first 2 or 3 rows are coveted by music students because apparently this area has the best acoustics in the house.
At last, the opera began. The curtain went up. Mad, apparently bohemian, dashing about and singing. The sets and the lighting were beautiful. I ignored the high strung voices and admired the stage effects. Visually splendid show, I thought, but rather silly.
During Acts 2 and 3, my interest in the sets began to flag, and I listened to the singing. How absurd! They sing and recite lines to each other instead of talking like normal people. My mood is impatient and I am aware of aching feet.
Act 4: More singing, people come and go. I know Rodolfo well by now and rather like some of the singers and arias except when they go into singsong mode which sounds absurd. Enter Mimi stage left. She is obviously weak and ill, but still manages to sing with vigor. I get ready to snigger, but then something unexpected happens. Absurd though the exaggerated acting on stage, I get caught up in the sweep of the music. Mimi tells Rodolfo that her love for him is her whole life. They sing powerfully together some more. Mimi dies. Unexpectedly, I have been stirred by the music and my eyes are full, aching feet forgotten.
Years later, I went to live in Puccini’s Tuscan villa in a little village called Chiatri that lies in the hills between Lucca and Viareggio; a villa that was still owned by Giacomo Puccini’s descendants.. But that is another story… This one is a tribute to Mozart and appeared in a magazine called Vienna Life.
MAD ABOUT MOZART
He was not in Vienna for nothing. He was mad about Mozart, had been from the age of six when he heard the coloratura aria from an ancient TV rendering of the Magic Flute, accompanied by flimmering images of improbably costumed singers. Captivated for ever from that moment, he listened to everything by Mozart he possibly could. Seven years later the Queen of the Night descended to his pubertal bed on a staircase of song and he felt the flood of bewildering panic that accompanied his first wet dream.
Now a young adult, he was intimately acquainted with the workings of computers, software, chips and other nonedible silicates. This newly acquired knowledge did not displace his boyhood adulation. In contrast to Mozart in his productive prime, Vienna wanted him and he gladly accepted the offer.
In Vienna, he suffered at first from a surfeit of riches. There was so much going on all the time; culture pouring out of the woodwork, so to speak, in the many theaters and concert houses. The old lady was a nodding acquaintance from the queue for the queue for first night standing tickets at the opera. They often stood shoulder to shoulder like soldiers marching into battle, waiting for standing place tickets, unsung arias in their hearts; undaunted by the large and threatening uniformed attendants of the house. The attendants eyed the waiting standees as husbands eye prospective ravishers of wives; jealously.
They stood for hours in the queue and talked about music. She knew a great deal, belonged to an old family of passionate Mozart fans. How old is old? he asked, seeking enlightenment in the old world.
‘My grandfather came here long before the world war,’ she said, and the distant ring of her voice told him that it was the unnumbered one. ‘He came into a small fortune and travelled across the continent to Vienna, having heard that some mysterious manuscripts had been discovered in the ruins of an old villa.
‘He was an expert, could perhaps decipher the scrawled signature, might from the construction of the bars and phrases of the music tell who the composer was.’ The young man was impressed and whistled softly.
‘No whistling in the queue, please,’ said the attendant.
‘What did he do for a living, your grandfather? Was he a musician?’
‘Oh, that’s a long story.’
‘Well, we’re going to be in this queue for the next three hours.’
‘You wouldn’t want to hear an old woman’s improbable tale.’
‘I’m all ears,’ he avowed.
She was strangely reluctant to begin, but the queue was long, his legs ached and he insisted, wondering what manner of skeletons lay in her family cupboard.
‘You see, grandfather wasn’t a musician, but he knew a lot about people. He felt that composers transmuted bits of their soul into music when they wrote their pieces.’
‘Rather like Einstein and relativity?’ he said brightly. ‘E=mc2. Matter becomes energy; soul becomes music.’
‘I… suppose so,’ she agreed doubtfully.
‘I’m sorry, I shouldn’t interrupt your story. Your grandfather, you were saying…’
‘Yes, my grandfather was perceptive, something of a ‘kenner’ (a connoisseur) when it came to people and their motives.’
‘Like Freud,’ he suggested. She was really annoyed.
‘They all relied on intellect rather than intuition,’ she snapped. ‘My grandfather was long dead when Freud’s “revolutionary” theories gained wide currency.’
‘I won’t interrupt again,’ he promised humbly. ‘Please go on.’
She gave him a belligerent look that made the steel rims of her spectacles glint like armour.
‘The manuscripts were discovered the year before the great war started.’
‘1913,’ he ventured.
She nodded, in approval this time. ‘Yes, 1913. The Titanic sank in 1912, the year that I was born, and the manuscript was discovered a year later. The family moved to Vienna as soon as grandfather heard the news, of course. There was a great controversy going on at the time. Whose work was it really? It was ascribed to several composers, but to relate the work to the style of any one of the major composers was extraordinarily difficult. Grandfather was allowed, with some reluctance, to see the hallowed sheets of yellowed paper; he insisted on seeing the originals. In those days there were no sophisticated chemical tests as they have now.
First of all he asked to be left completely alone with the sheets of music. They hesitated; after all, these were valuable pieces of paper and he was a stranger, there was no knowing what he might do. They finally allowed him five minutes alone with the papers.’ She went on to explain in great detail the tests he had made.
‘He held it close to his nose and breathed in the scents of the composer, traces of soul left behind on the paper. It was extraordinarily difficult, he declared later. Almost as though the music was written not by a man but by a ghost. Sweat broke out, soaking his shirt and a few drops fell on the manuscript, smudging the precious scribble.
He carefully dried the paper and then called for a piano. He wasn’t much of a musician, but he could read notes and pick out tunes, which he did. You see, he was not searching for music in the notes, but for the soul of the dead composer. When he played the first few bars, even with his inexpert playing, he knew it was music of extraordinary sweetness and purity, like all the colours of the rainbow transformed into sound, like fire and ice, snow and flame, rivers of molten lava meeting the sea, passions and great joys, everything that rages in the red-hot core of the earth and beneath the surface of human beings; everything was there in superabundance, an extraordinary smelter of sounds. It was mad, it was divine, it was frightening, the utter innocence and sheer insanity of it.
Grandfather gave a great cry and collapsed in a heap on the piano keys. They heard the discordant notes, broke open the door in great alarm and found him, pale with terror, sweat pouring off his face in a gushing fountain, like water out of the rock that Moses struck. He had fallen on the manuscript, obliterating all the notes. They spent months reconstructing the original music, relying heavily on grandfather’s photographic memory, for he was the last one to have played the music.’
The queue had been moving like an engorged python, steadily but slowly in the direction of the box office. At this point in her story, they were there. The old lady stepped smartly to the window and bought her ticket.
‘Wait, wait,’ he cried in despair. ‘You can’t go in now. I want to hear the end of the story.’
The attendant grasped him firmly by the arm. ‘You have to buy a ticket and stop blocking the kassa. And no talking inside. They’re performing Mozart today, not just anybody.’