Sunday, September 23, 2012

Notes from Greek class

One afternoon along a colorfully desolate stretch of road I saw a familiar red and yellow sign.  A Shell gasoline station.  As I had a Shell credit card I thought this would be a handy opportunity to top off the tank and preserve my dwindling reserve of cash.  I chatted with the operator as he filled the tank.  This was early enough in my time in Greece that I was still hopeful that, with enough practice, I might actually get good at the language.  When he was finished I handed him my credit card, which he looked at oddly at first, but apparently decided that, since I had my name on such an official-looking a card, I must be with the Company, and so he took me on a tour of the station to show me how clean and orderly everything was under his stewardship.  As it became clear to me that he had no idea that he was supposed to give me free gasoline just because I showed him the card  --  indeed, what kind of businessman would that have made him out to be  --  I paid for my gasoline, congratulated him on all that he had accomplished and drove away as he waved and beamed with satisfaction. 
Lest you think this too odd a story, it took place thirty years ago, before credit cards became ubiquitous.  Today, I have no doubt, every booted Cretan goatherd takes VISA and Mastercard.


An old Greek man, so fat as to be pyramidal.  Round and broad at the waist, tapering to a small head: a conical pyramid.  He reminds me of solid geometry and a classroom long ago with windows open on a fall day and I imagine him intersected by planes.

Children playing along the harbor.  It would make a nice photo, spontaneous and unposed.  I looked off in the distance, pretending to be unaware of them, and fish my camera out of my bag and make my settings, ready to swing around for a wonderful natural shot.  When I do I find the children standing in a line, from shortest to tallest, looking at me, smiling.  I frown and they laugh.  I am clearly out of my league.

In the taverna one evening I noticed a party of men who had come in from working on a fishing boat.  Two of them are young  --  about 15 or 16, I would guess  --  but the older men treated them  --  and they behaved  --  as mature, well-behaved equals, at least so far as I could observe.  I have also noticed even younger boys working with men, and how the older men treated them with affection and did not patronize them. 
I found it curious that in so masculine a culture as Greece, that there would be no hazing of young males to "toughen them up", but what appeared more like a considerate nurturing.  I had first thought this might simply be the better-behaved culture of the islands, where people have to get along together, but then I remembered that I have seen the same thing in Athens, one time when they were unloading a truck and then another time at a restaurant in the Plaka.   I would hesitate to generalize from these few observations of a another culture where behavior may not mean what I think it means, but I thought it interesting and I rather liked it.
Or perhaps it was that the young men came from a culture that made them hard-working and serious and the older men around them took pleasure in this affirmation of their own values and whatever conflicts there may have been between the generations, it did not play out here.

One of the reasons I traveled was to see what others found to be a good life, and I may have just glimpsed a part of it.

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