Paleochora from the Hills
Scenes from Crete
Ranbir Singh Sidhu
About the Writer
Ranbir Singh Sidhu’s first novel, Deep Singh Blue, will be published by Unnamed Press and HarperCollins India in 2016. He is the author of the story collection Good Indian Girls, and is winner of a Pushcart Prize and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship. His stories have appeared in Conjunctions, The Georgia Review, Fence, Zyzzyva, The Missouri Review, Other Voices, The Happy Hypocrite, The Literary Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Barcelona Review, Word Riot and other journals and anthologies.
The conversation turns to cockroaches, which Francine has a mortal fear of. When earlier she walked into the kitchen of the bar Anna and Yeorgos had just signed a lease on, she let out an almighty shriek. Dead cockroaches everywhere. The place had sat empty for two years, so no wonder. There were more in the bathrooms. We swap cockroach stories, and Yeorgos recalls one from when he was living in Thessaloniki. He was a young man, he says, sitting lost in his apartment smoking dope and drinking beer all day.
One day his stereo bust, an old, boxy seventies hi-fi system which he’d had for as long as he could remember. He carried it to the local repair shop, where piles of televisions, radios, anything electrical, all in pieces, rose behind the old wooden counter. The owner said to come back in two days. When Yeorgos did, the man met him with a fusillade of abuse. Yeorgos had destroyed his company, everything was ruined, all his customers were gone and he’d never get them back. Yeorgos had no idea what he’d done.
“It was your fucking stereo,” the owner said. “As soon as I opened it up, thousands of baby cockroaches burst out. There went everywhere, crawled into everything, there was nothing I could do to stop them. They’ve infested this whole place, there’s no way to get them out.” He waved a hand around the shop, and said, “All this stuff, it’s all garbage now because of you. My business is fucked.”
Yeorgos drinks his beer. “How was I supposed to know?” he says. “No one told me cockroaches like warm places. And he was right, they were everywhere.” He shrugs, “At least now I know.”
George Sells His Wife
George says one time he was in Tunisia with his wife, driving around the desert when he got into conversation with a local trader.
We are sitting outside at one of the old café tables Yeorgos bought for his new bar, which still isn’t open, and waiting for the electricians to show up. They’re going to wire in the new lights. The old ones, when the place was some techno-chill out joint, looked fit to sport a serial killer’s bathroom.
“So the man says to me,” George says, “that he wants to buy my wife. My wife isn’t for sale, but that doesn’t seem to matter to him. He talks and he talks, and keeps asking me how much I want for my wife. She’ll be treated well, he says, no worries, like a real princess. I tell him again, she’s not for sale. This goes on for a long time, and finally he says that he will give me one hundred camels, right there and then, for my wife. I could take them home straightaway. My wife is bored by this conversation, and the man hardly ever looks at her, certainly doesn’t speak to her. This is a conversation between men, you understand, she’s just the property. He keeps talking about the hundred camels. He’ll tie them one to each other and I can lead them all home by the nose. So finally, I shrug, okay, I say, take my wife for one hundred camels. He shakes my hand, and really thinks this is going to happen, when I tell him there is one condition. What is that, he asks, and I say that first he must bring all the camels to my home in Crete. Only then can he take my wife.”
George takes a long drink from his coffee, which is in a styrofoam cup.
“Of course,” he adds, “I knew if I took the camels from him then, I would not have been able too keep them. Someone would have robbed me before I got them to the coast.”
Katerina’s Sister Gets Married
A couple days have passed since Katerina’s sister got married when she shows up to clean the apartment.
“How was the wedding?” I ask.
“The best kind,” Katerina says. “I don’t remember a thing. Someone said they carried me out. It was eight in the morning. Everyone is happy, no one remembers anything. That is how we know it was good.”
Stones In My Passway
I download some old Delta blues tracks onto Yeorgos’s computer to add to the music library for the bar. The first one plays. It’s Robert Johnson singing “Stones in my Passway.” That voice out of another time cracks through the speakers.
Yeorgos nods happily. “Ah, nigger music of the South,” he says appreciatively.
I don’t wait for him to finish his sentence. “We don’t say that word,” I shoot back.
He looks at me through drunk, bemused eyes. “Huh? Black?” Then he halfway laughs, “Nigger? Black? This black music of the South?” He thinks about all this for a long minute as he listens to the song, and finally he asks, “Is this guy from Mississippi?”
“He is,” I say.
“Then we are all from Mississippi.”
Learning Greek (1)
Nafsika decides to take it on herself to teach me Greek. We plan to meet once a week, in an outdoor café in the square in Splantzia. The first time I arrive, hoping to get some studying in an hour early, I find Yeorgos sitting under a tree at a café table with a tall beer in front of him. He calls me over and soon I’m drinking with him, having forgotten about Nafsika and her Greek lessons.
When she arrives, she joins us under the tree in the warm summer weather and soon she and Yeorgos are chattering away, swapping gossip. I catch a word here and there, but little else. I am constantly amazed at the ability of Greeks to talk and talk. Conversation simply erupts, and as someone who often finds it difficult to say the simplest remarks, I’m jealous of this ability. It also makes plain the hurdle the Greek language poses. To gain any fluency, a speaker needs to converse with some degree of ease, and to converse you need to talk at a very high level to find traction if you hope to improve your skills. I can’t even do the former, and the latter strikes me as years away.
After half an hour, Nafsika and I find our own table — but the beer, the warm air, the general lassitude of a summer afternoon in Greece, it all conspires to make me a useless student that day. We chat about her search for a job and her research plans for her graduate work. I’m always more comfortable talking about other people than I am about myself. We make some stabs at the days of the week and the months, the seasons, and so on. The sun sinks and mosquitos start to buzz and Nafsika, for all her efforts, has made no dent in my scant knowledge of Greek.
Paleochora from the Hills
Kostas who lives in Paleochora has been drinking steadily all afternoon. Each time he stands to fish his car keys out of his pocket and leave, Yeorgos puts a hand on his shoulder and says, “You leave now? Why you leave now? Stay, have another beer.” Another beer shows up, and soon several more, along with bottles of tsikoudia.
He turns to me, breaking away from Greek, and says, “We are talking about Paleochora,” indicating himself and Yeorgos. “It is a very special place. You know it as soon as you arrive. It’s in the air. It’s one of those spiritual places, but without monks. None of that business. You feel close to the spirit of the earth there, as if you are part of the universe.” He drinks from his beer, invites me to come stay. “I play music in the local band sometimes. But you must come and see it for yourself. And the only place to properly see it is from the hills. When you are driving down, there is the beach and the town and the water, and if it is the morning, the mist. And all you have to do is look and you know you have come to a place like no other.” He finishes his beer and says, ruminatively, “This is Paleochora.”
He stands, says his goodbyes, and fishes for his keys and heads for his car, swaying drunkenly along the narrow alley. It is a 70 kilometer drive along treacherous mountain switchbacks from here to Paleochora.
When he is gone, Yeorgos turns to me and says, “He was lying. We weren’t talking about Paleochora. We were talking about pussy.”
How Yeorgos Wants to Die (1)
The late afternoon sun gives a golden shimmer to the old Venetian stone and Yeorgos sits outside drinking a beer.
“I want to die in Japan,” he says. “It is the one place I have always wanted to go. And I will, soon. I’ll save up my money and go there and die. And do you know how I will do it. I will hire two of the best little whores in all of Tokyo and make them dress like schoolgirls. I love those Japanese schoolgirls.” He takes a long drink and ponders. “For one whole week I will drink and fuck, fuck and drink, with those two Japanese whores in their little schoolgirl costumes. That is how I will die, fucking a Japanese whore.”
“Okay,” he adds, warming to the subject, “not two, it will be ten. Ten Japanese whores dressed like schoolgirls. Or twenty. All of us drunk and fucking. That is the only proper way for a man to die.”
Fixing a Bust Headlamp
Every one of Katerina’s mopeds has been stolen, or every one but the last, which this time was the cheapest her dad could find. If it was going to get stolen anyhow, he saw no reason to spend the extra money.
One night, she’s as drunk as she’s ever been, hardly able to walk, and riding the moped home. The headlamp is bust and she can’t see a thing, but she doesn’t much care. She’s twenty-five and Greek. What’s going to happen? This time the cops pull her over for the broken light, and also notice she can barely stand. “I just had a little to drink,” she tells the cops, “nothing much. I must have forgotten to turn the light on.”
Somehow she charms her way out of a ticket for the DUI, but still has to drive away with the cops watching. She waves, starts the motor, and fishes her cell phone out of her pocket and holds it over the busted headlamp.
“I held the cell phone there the whole drive back,” she grins. “It looked like a real light, especially from behind. But the best thing was this, I could still roll a cigarette and light it while I was driving with the stupid cell phone in my other hand.
I put on one of Bob Dylan’s bootleg albums, the outtakes from his 1970 release Self Portrait, and the track “Alberta #3” starts playing.
Yeorgos nods his head and listens. “This makes me want to fuck a small cow,” he says. “Not a large cow, or a medium cow, but a small cow.”
Vagelis laughs. “I always knew you were not from Thessaloniki, but from some village in the north.”
“I am from the north,” Yeorgos says, “but that’s got nothing to do with me wanting to fuck a small cow.” He makes a motion with his hands and hips, as if he’s holding onto the cow’s backside. “Small and firm and warm,” he says, and closes his eyes and mock fucks the bar.
Learning Greek (2)
Nafsika believes that only by plunging into the heart of the language, into its thorniest brambles, will I actually learn any Greek. So rather than starting with basic sentences about how to go to the bakery or how to say goodnight, she has me reciting adjectival tense endings — though usually she reads them off at a rapidifre pace and makes me listen. I wonder if she thinks that the sheer force of her voice will imbed the bullet-like words in my cranium.
When she asks me to recite them back to her, and from memory, I fail miserably. She gives me a look as if I have let down not only myself, but all my people, and all the many countries I have come from.
“Romain is a much better student than you,” she informs me. Romain, as I learn later, has been lving in Crete for five years while I have been here for only two months — and his Greek is not much better than my own.
We soldier on, undaunted, and my further failure to learn to conjugate the various personal pronouns leads Nafsika to develop a new method.
“We will start today with the big ideas,” she says when she greets me at the café. “No more of this silly stuff with grammar and the days of the week. What you need is the real lifeblood of Greek, its ideas and its passions.”
“Alilegii,” she says, “means solidarity, while agape means love and eleuthuria means freedom.” Soon she is writing a long list for me to learn. Happiness, sadness, health, justice, equality, eroticism, kindness, gentleness, beauty, ugliness.
I recite a few. “Dekeosini,” I say, and, “erotas.”
For once, she is happy with my progress.
“There is one word you must know,” George who owns a jewelery store on Zambeliou tells me one night. “It is this: aftognossia.”
He writes it down for me in Greek.
We have been talking about India, which he visited several times when working on cargo ships. He spent a month in a small town near Seurat where the mayor came out and greeted the sailors. “It was one of the happiest months of my life,” he said, and we make airy plans one day to visit India together.
“What does it mean?” I ask about the word.
“Self-knowledge,” he says, “but more than that. I can’t say it in English. It is a larger word, you understand, it means many things, and has hidden meanings, but it is a word you must know, no matter what.”
“Self-knowledge,” I nod, drunkenly. I am drunk, George is drunk, and it’s midnight on Saturday so probaly all of Crete is drunk.
I say it in Greek, “Aftognossia,” as if I am saying a password that opens a door to a secret realm.
How Yeorgos Wants to Die (2)
“I will make a sign,” Yeorgos says, “a respectable-looking sign, and nail it here, behind the bar.”
He points to the base of the Venetian stone arch which stretches across the center of the bar.
“On it I will write, Church For Alcoholics. Just that,” and repeats melodically, “Church For Alcoholics.”
He pours us both a glass of tsikoudia and we toast.
“So that when the alcoholics come,” he says, “they will know this is the place for them. And one night, when all the alcoholics are here, I don’t know, maybe two or three in the morning, I will be standing behind the bar having my drink and that is when it will happen. I will have a heart attack and just fall. Right here. I will fall behind the bar and everyone will be so drunk no one will even see me fall. That is how I will die. A true alcoholic’s death, behind my own bar.”
He adds, “If there is a God, he will make it happen. And if there isn’t, fuck him.”