Only in Greece

AT THE END OF HIS THE COLOSSUS OF MAROUSSI, one of the best known and most read of travel books about Greece by an eminent American writer, Henry Miller appends a letter written to him by the English writer Lawrence Durrell about the antics one night on the Acropolis of George Katismbalis, the eponymous central figure of the title of Miller's book. Miller tells us the letter, which was dated August 10th, 1940, was delivered to him, back in the United States, just as he had written the last line of his book, which New Directions of New York published the following year. Miller's decision to quote the letter at the end of The Colossus in order "to round off the portrait of Katsimbalis" that he had elaborately and, by his own admission late in the book, somewhat exaggeratedly crafted throughout rather than trying to incorporate its extraordinary tale into the already completed manuscript endows this epistolary appendix with the climactic finality of the closing bars of a Beethoven symphony.

The portrait that Durrell's letter completes is one of an enormously charismatic individual of gargantuan appetites, especially for food, drink, literature and talk-usually in the form of the monologue. Besides Katsimbalis' ability to drink and talk everyone under the table, Miller believes "He could galvanize the dead with his talk," which "went on and on and on, unhurried, unruffled, inexhaustible, inextinguishable, a voice that had taken form and shape and substance, a figure that had outgrown its human form and shape and substance, a figure that had outgrown its human frame, a silhouette whose reverberations rumbled in the depths of the distant mountain sides." George Seferis, the Greek poet who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1963 and who also appears in Miller's book, had a deep and abiding friendship with Katsimbalis, and once approvingly recorded in his journals (entry for Sunday, February 21, 1960) that the English artist and stage-designer Osbert Lancaster described his friend as a "walking anecdotist, mythomaniac." In the closing scene of The Colossus of Maroussi, Seferis, in sharp contrast to both his old Greek friend and his new American one, makes his own characteristically reserved case for Katsimbalis: "he is a great fellow, Miller, there is no doubt about it: he is something extraordinary ... a human phenomenon, I should say." But we should not overlook something about George Katsimbalis that Seferis had good reason to know better than Miller did, that this grandiosely portrayed colossus was in real life esteemed as an important working man of letters, a reputation he managed to achieve without writing critical articles or books. His work as bibliographer and as one of the editors of the Ta Nea Grammata (New Letters), perhaps the most widely read and influential of Greece's literary journals in the first half of the twentieth-century, brought him as close to publication as he would come. The significance of his literary activities notwithstanding, it was through the instruments of his imposing personality and physical presence, his passionate temperament and discourse, as recorded by Miller and others that his name gained its measure of fame.

It was thus that Katsimbalis, after a night of drinking with his friends, all of them "exalted by wine and poetry," interrupted his recitation of some poem or other and shouted, " Do you want to hear the cocks of Attica, you damned moderns?" He then began to cry out Cock-a-doodle-do repeatedly and with increasing intensity, standing like a great bird near the edge of the Acropolis, flapping his coat-tails in the wind, until he had awakened, one by one, all of the cocks of Athens who, responding to him and to each other, filled the Attic night with their terrific crowing. He finally relented only after his friends, their own hysterical laughter melding into the colossal orchestration of this "Katsimbaline cockcrow in Attica," asked him to stop. Durrell dreamt about it the next two nights, he says near the letter's end, for "This was epic—a great moment and purely Katsimbalis."

I had not read Miller's book until the year after my first trip to Greece in 1957 at the age of twenty-three, so my experience there with the country and its writers lacked any prospective effects it might have brought me. But Durrell's (mock?) epical account that supplements the portrait of Katsimbalis drawn by Miller has deeply colored and shaped the form in which one special event during my six-month Greek sojourn has taken in my memory. It happened in the village of my mother's birth, Dafni, in the central Peloponnese, and its parallels with the Attic cockcrow on the Acropolis some eighteen years before have been indelibly imprinted upon the plates of its recollection. Because I am writing about that memory of what my Uncle Kostaki and I did that evening forty-five years ago, the retrospective effect of the Durrell letter upon it, which began immediately and with the suddenness of a thunderbolt after I read it in the late 1950s, has had to wait all these decades to fulfill its intertextual potential. Since none of us was there to witness it, my invitation can only approximate, not duplicate, the one the colossus of Maroussi yelled at his friends that night atop the Acropolis as their world was sinking into the darkness of World War II: "Do you want to hear about the asses of Arcadia, you damned post-moderns?"

When I arrived in early November of 1957, Greece was still in the process of recovering from the German and Italian occupation and the terrible civil war that immediately followed the withdrawal of the foreign forces. Though there were notable successes in this effort, which was even legislatively abetted, its progress was nagged by all too vivid memories of the deprivations and depredations of the ethnic experience that had ended only twelve years earlier. Yet, almost everywhere I went, I encountered a prevailing spirit of brave optimism, communal warmth, and a determination to enjoy life to the hilt. While I readily acknowledge that these are great clichés about the national Greek character, especially of that period, I will also insist upon their authenticity. Nobody I met in Greece fulfilled that character more completely or movingly—and then some—than did my Uncle Kostaki.

Konstandinos Charalambos Ananiadis (1910-1971) was the youngest of the nine children in my mother's family born in the village of Dafni, which had been located in one form or another since the ninth century of the Christian era on the site of the ancient Arcadian oak forest Soron, and named after the daughter of the nearby river god Ladon, Daphne, who escaped the amorous clutches of Apollo through her metamorphosis into a laurel tree, a myth celebrated by artists through the ages but most memorably by Ovid in hexameters and Bernini in marble. "The unforgettable Kostaki left us all with cheerful memories," reads the sentence that ends his obituary in the 10 May 1971, issue of The Voice of Kalavryta, published in the county seat to the north. For thirty years Dafni's postman, the affectionate eulogy begins, Kostaki was beloved for the inexhaustible charm, wit, and humor he delivered to his fellow villagers along with their mail. Making his rounds, he knew where the best bread and cake rolls were baking, where the most aromatic flowers bloomed, where good soup was steaming and good wine appreciated, who was expecting company, who coughed in pain, and who was cozily comfortable. All these things he kept close to his heart with sensitivity and discretion, and responded with such sympathy that he somehow seemed to have been a member of every household. But there is one sentence in the middle of this touching news story that bears a special pertinence to the narrative with the Katsimbaline resonance I will soon tell. Kostaki, the writer explains, spoke with everyone and everything, and they spoke with him, he spoke with plants, with disembodied sounds and echoes, with adults and children, with domestic animals and wild beasts in the mountains, mimicking their voices and clueing in to their ways and habits of living.

I had been in Athens for a couple of months when some cousins informed me that our Uncle Kostaki was coming from Dafni to meet me. Their slyly gleeful, knowing glances at each other only intensified my anticipation of our introduction. I was prepared for him, I thought, when he arrived at the small lobby of the Hotel Cairo City, which had been recently opened by Greeks from Egypt who had been forced out of their country by the policies of Gamal Abdal Nasser, the first president of the new Egyptian republic. As we drank our demitasses of thick, sweet coffee, he teased and tossed little insults my way in his continuous playful banter as he tested my knowledge of Greek and my temperament. His large brown, expressive eyes lit up with pleasure when it was clear I had understood his gibes and mild affronts, and when I responded in kind with idiomatic exactitude I heard for the first time his exuberant, hard-edged laugh. He approved of my smoking, of course, and was pleased to accept one of the last packs of unfiltered Camels I had brought with me. It also helped that since coming to Athens I had begun to grow a full mustache, not nearly as luxuriant as his, which he occasionally stroked with the side of his right index finger as he made a low growl deep in his throat. We moved to the bar, though it was still before noon, where I treated us to scotch on the rocks, which he pronounced a fine drink but not as good as ouzo, which we would be drinking from now on whenever we wanted something harder than wine. He then announced his plan for us: in a few days we would wire my father's younger brother in Filia, my Uncle Thanassi, who wasn't even born when my father left that village for this country in 1907, requesting that he meet us "with animals," meaning donkeys, at an appointed time and date at the bus station in the town of Mazeika at the foot of the mountain upon which Filia was set. We would visit my father's village, "to patriko chorio," first and then move on to Dafni, to honor my last name of Economou. But in every other respect, he assured me, I was an Ananiadi: "One of us!"

Having read many medieval romances and some cultural anthropology, I knew that the sister-son relationship played a significant and incommensurable role in the education of a young man, and I was eager to reap its benefits. For the next few days he showed me around his Athens and Piraeus, where he seemed to have friends everywhere, and where he didn't he quickly corrected the situation. I have never seen anyone so directly and thoroughly make a place and the people around him into his own personal microcosm. Just as Katsimbalis devoured the subjects of his conversation with his " food and beast language," Kostaki took possession of every social venue, whether bus, coffee house, or tavern—even if it was destined to be only for a few moments—with his irresistible charm, salty humor, which wouldn't have won him a prize for political correctness these days, especially when aimed at young women, and just the right touch of self-mockery, which rarely failed to ingratiate his captive audiences. He seemed a kind of Zorba figure to me, and I took special pleasure in our companionship. After introducing me to his oldest son and daughter, who lived in the city, Kostaki sent the telegram to Filia and reserved seats for us on the morning "automotrice," a string of passenger cars drawn by a gasoline driven engine, for Tripolis, which lies as close to the heart of the Morea, the medieval name for that ancient Island of Pelops, as one can come.

I can still recall the brilliantly blue sky of that crisp middle of January day that served as the backdrop to our ride over the Corinth Canal and on into the plain of Argos. I had come this way before by car as a tourist seeking connection with something more substantial than the name Agamemnon. Like the narrator of the Seferis poem "The King of Asine," I had craved contact with a palpable past through whatever traces of antiquity history had allowed continuance and the technicians of archaeology were able to rescue from the earthy chambers of time's limbo. With my destination now significantly altered, I was no longer traveling to but through these storied places and was crossing the threshold of sensing them as part of a new and different experience in which their phenomenal exclusivity faded into a larger, more immediately apprehensible pattern of quotidian life in Greece.

In stark contrast with my gradual awareness of this process, my newly impressionable sense of time through place took an unusually dramatic turn on the last two legs of the trip. The bus ride from Tripolis to Mazeika remains forever memorable for the constantly changing conditions of the roads we traveled, ranging from poorly paved on the way out of town to a trail of wheel ruts in the hills and mountains as we neared our destination. The trip in that old bus reminded me of my bouncing hold-on-for-dear-life rides when I was a boy with my father in his pickup truck up to the remote cabin in Montana's high country that he had bought under the Homestead Act. He loved the Rocky Mountains and chose that place from the vast American expanse for his new country, I now realized for the first time viscerally, because of its physical resemblance to the country from which he had come. As our bus rumbled deeper and higher into that country, each turn off of one road on to another in our route led to a rougher and rougher ride, to which the driver, exhorted by the laughter and shouts of Kostaki and some of his other passengers, was able to devote his full attention, as with each turn the sparse to begin with other traffic became sparser and finally absent. As the road literally turned to terrain under our wheels, we stopped near a village or two to drop off passengers, where we also took our "rest stops," urinating at the edge of the forest and taking a drink from a freshwater spring flowing out of a rock face that Pausanias, ancient Greece's best-known travel writer, probably mentioned somewhere in his chapter on Arcadia in his second century A. D. Description of Greece.

By this last segment of the journey, in the midst of the almost life-like noises of the struggling engine of the bus and the violent gearing down and up by our nervous young driver as he negotiated the vertical seeming gradients of our vertiginous ascents and descents, Kostaki had engaged all of the passengers, some of whom he had met personally at some time or with whose families he had had contacts, while others who had heard of him but never met him and the handful with whom he had no ostensible connection stepped off the bus having made his ineradicable acquaintance. And when we finally stepped off the bus at its last stop in Mazeika at dusk, we were greeted by my Uncle Thanassi and my Uncle Yianni, husband of my father's older sister Marigo, standing beside the donkey and mule that would convey Kostaki and me, with our light baggage, up the mountain to Filia.

Kostaki and other relatives in Athens had forewarned me of the "primitive" conditions in and around Filia: no electricity, no indoor plumbing, not to mention no outhouses, one phone and telegraph in the lone coffeehouse. Rather than being put off by this information, I embraced it, expecting that with each step that brought me closer to Filia the farther back in time I would move, beyond even the moment at which my father walked away from family and friends half a century earlier. As Kostaki and I rode our mounts, he the donkey and I the mule, led by my uncles on foot, up the narrow, rock-strewn mountain path with the night falling fast upon us, I heard—and for a second couldn't believe my ears—a shepherdess singing to her flock somewhere below us. After three-quarters of an hour, Thanassi and Yianni, each with a flashlight in hand, drew us into the precincts of Filia, where, after leaving behind the sound of dogs barking at our approach, we began to hear the human calls and cries of my extraordinary welcome.

I can't say how many people, relatives and friends, were awaiting my arrival, the first of the family in America to visit the village, in front of my Uncle Thanassi's house. The celebration of this "homecoming," to which Kostaki had brought me, defies a whole and definitive accounting. My memories comprise a swirling process of introductions, tearful embraces and kisses, plates of olives, cheese, tumblers of wine, wedges of bread, and lambs' brains with lemon juice, which I ate for the first time, overcoming a finicky moment, to honor its server and the creature whose life had been sacrificed for the occasion. Music and dancing materialized suddenly and when I accepted the handkerchief in my left hand to take up the lead in a spirited circle dance, I was sprayed by several women in response to an aunt's command "Spit him!" to turn away the evil eye put upon me by someone's proud and loudly exclaimed observation, "Look at him dance!" Whether it actually happened or not, I think I remember hearing the Kostaki laugh cutting through the sounds that enclosed this unforgettable apotropaic instant.

I don't know why I was surprised to discover the considerable extent of Kostaki's intimacy with the Filia side of the family; after all, my parents were married in Montana, where they met, in 1928, and relatives from Filia and Dafni had met with each other on more than one occasion during the intervening years, having been deprived of the customary big getting together when a young man returned to Greece to find his bride. Kostaki clearly enjoyed the outcome of his plan to bring me to my father's people first and the day after our arrival in Filia asked Thanassi to take him to Dafni the next day, letting him ride the Missouri Mule my father had ordered and had shipped to his brother a few years before. This mule, which my Uncle Thanassi and I nicknamed the "patrioti," (countryman), had crossed the ocean and disembarked at the port of Patras on the northwest corner of the Peloponnese, where he was picked up by his new owner and taken back to the village. Now Kostaki would ride him, with Thanassi walking alongside, halter in hand, just as I would about a week later when it was time for me to move on to my mother's village. Just before his departure, he took me aside and quietly delivered an admonition, using the only phrase in English he ever used with me, to be very careful with the girls to whom I would be introduced: "no fok bizness," unless I wanted to find myself in a dangerously tight spot out of which marriage was the only permissible exit. "Knifepoint wedding" was a phrase that came to mind privately as I assured him that I had no intention of undertaking any such business ventures, and I hugged and kissed him farewell.

Our reunion in Dafni was quiet by comparison with our arrival in Filia, after my ride on patrioti under the careful guidance of Uncle Thanassi down to and across the plain that separated the two villages. During the journey we encountered several groups of men and women working their fields who eyed us warily. Thanassi greeted them with a raised hand and the formulaic " Yia-chara" (health and joy to you) with no let up in our pace. Most of them eventually responded in kind as we passed. As we traveled south towards the Arcadian Mountains, Dafni finally came into view, beautifully, if not spectacularly, set upon a gradually rising slope. We proceeded up to the central marketplace, overlooked by the two-story house in which my mother and all her siblings had been born. Kostaki, who had inherited it, now lived there with his wife, my good aunt Demetra, and their three youngest children, all of whom stood behind the balcony railing and greeted us. After some refreshments, Thanassi insisted upon returning to Filia while he still had some daylight, and after his emotional leave-taking my sojourn in the maternal home and town under the genius of Kostaki began.

He made sure I met all of the extended family, went to Sunday services, a baptism, a wedding, and a funeral at the Church of the Holy Trinity, to whose parish the Ananiadi belonged. I met the priest, and the chief of police, and drank coffee with them; rode in a friend's car with him to see the Ladon River Dam and the consequent lake behind it. Kostaki escorted me up to the top of the village to see the Church of St. Charalambos and to visit a woman who had been my mother's best playmate. The whole time he regaled me with stories about our family, the years of occupation and the civil war, and almost every evening took me to his favorite tavern where we spent an hour or two before going home for dinner, which my aunt, having fed the children and put them to bed, always had laid out on the table for us. In the tavern Kostaki ruled, leading the singing, teasing and taunting some of the company while egging on others to take the floor and make fools of themselves. He was truly the unquestioned master of our revels, and I took comfort in knowing that my imminent absence would not change a thing about his captainship.

So it was on the evening before my departure from Dafni, in accordance with Kostaki's plan, for the town of Kalavryta, where I would visit my mother's youngest sister and her family and eventually return on my own to Athens, that we spent a longer time than usual in the tavern in order for me to say my good-byes properly and for Kostaki to show off the elegant leather covered Ronson cigarette lighter from New York which I had just given him, being aware of his having had his eye on it since the first time he saw me flip its top and flick its wick in the Hotel Cairo City. Though we were surely not as drunk as Katsimbalis and friends were made out to be in Durrell's account to Miller, when we stepped out into the cool night air to walk home we had both entered that blissful, inspired state of wine induced consciousness wherein the world around us seemed to welcome, indeed, desirously await our every gesture.

We hadn't walked more than a minute or two when Kostaki paused in front of a house with two donkeys tethered to a rail beside it, the equivalent, I thought to myself with amusement, of the two car driveway or garage. Leaning his head towards his right shoulder and gazing into their eyes, he said, "Good evening, gentlemen." Then he looked at me, who had throughout my stay demonstrated for him my repertory of animal imitations cultivated as a boy growing up in Montana, and asked, "Can you do this?" Suddenly, out of his face, not just his throat and mouth, there came a magnificent series of brays—" nggouah, nggaaH, nggouAH, ngGGAA, NGOUAAHG!" If I were to write " hee haw" here, it would be just as inadequate in its pathetic onomatopoetic effect as Durrell's feeble, unavoidable "Cock-a-doodle-do" for what must have been Katsimbalis' wild and free mimetic crowing on the Acropolis in its triumphant resonance over the polite Greek barnyard equivalent " Ki-ki-ki-ri-ki-ki." Accepting my uncle's challenge, I began to imitate his imitation, which in no time became as good as his, which was good enough for the two gentlemen Pelopon-asses, whose antiphony spurred us on in our brief, intense transformations. Like wildfire spreading unchecked, the braying we had sparked moved from house to house throughout the neighborhood and we all, man and ass, kept at it until we heard it extend to the very edges of Dafni, engulfing it in its glorious cacophony. Luckily for us, Apollo must have been far away that night, perhaps visiting his temple in Delphi or the tiny Aegean island of his birthplace, Delos, or he surely would have punished us for our presumption. I cannot speak for Kostaki, who I believe had done this before, but at that moment I felt I was on top of Mount Olympus. As we continued homewards on the empty streets upon which the wintry silence had once again descended, we encountered an old woman, garbed in black, carrying a bundle of firewood on her back. Muttering "Kostaki," she offered us our only public reproof by raising and waving her right hand, palm out, up and down in the gestured idiom of Greek for "spank-spank." We also heard from my Aunt Demetra before she served us our delicious farewell supper, for which little Andrea, Alexandra, and Stathi had been allowed to stay up.

The next day I made a gift to Kostaki's household of my copy of the huge, omnium-gatherum of an anthology, edited by Apostolidis, of Greek poetry from the middle of the 18th century to the present, for which he had asked me, unlike the Ronson lighter, which he had only hoped for. He had told me with an air of self-irony that during the World War II occupation he had smoked, not read, an entire copy of a translation of the French author Romain Rolland's Jean Christophe, since he was reduced to rolling his own and cigarette paper was scarce. I warned him not to smoke this book, too, as I handed it to him, which made him laugh, though his eyes like mine were watery.

Years after I had read The Colossus of Maroussi and returned to Greece, I met in Athens with my accomplished cousin Alexandra, the skinny high-spirited little girl during my stay in Dafni, and we talked about her late father and my uncle and the time of my visit in 1957. She made a point of thanking me for the copy of the Apostolidis anthology, which, she added with a bright smile, her father only occasionally opened, while she had read every poem in it.

I would like to dedicate this essay to its first audience: Vassilis Lambropoulos, Artemis Leontis, and the students in her Travels to Greece course at the University of Michigan during the winter term of 2003. I also thank Stavros Deligiorgis for his suggestions of ways to improve this work. G.E.

"Only in Greece" was published in Mondo Greco, 10, Fall 2003.