The Music of Greek Teaspoons
Kostas has turned 82 today, but all his friends have died so we sit with strangers in the taverna in Aegina, and make new ones. Men the color of old burns in shirts the color of the sea.
“It’s already 11,” Kostas points out, tapping on his Bulgari from Karama, “so we can drink anything.” So we skip the ouzo and order Mastika, its resin sweetness sweating down the ice in the little glasses, washing down the salted sardines and dry bread, washing everything away till you’re half drunk and men you didn’t know before 11 are kissing you on the cheeks, and there’s someone new in the group who’s making music with two spoons and half his shirt buttons are missing like everyone else’s. And Kostas, with an ancient, ageless face, is clapping.
Koutalakias, the man named after the teaspoons he makes music with, would’ve clapped too except he’s got only one hand free, and two spoons in the other. His high point was when he was hosted by the TV presenter Annita Pania, who had once with her composer husband lead the police on a chase through multiple red lights, later alleging they were listening to the song that her husband had just written, the volume so high they were unaware of the sirens. Annita, who accused the police of an attitude so improper it reminded her of the Greek Junta, and who wrote the book The Revenge of the Toilet Paper.
And Marinos, the retired policeman from Evvia, who knows everything about everyone, is shouting out my name, showing me photos of the baptism of his half-Albanian godson Nektarios, named conveniently after both Marinos’ brother and the patron saint of Aegina. The miniature bottles are piling up by now, between Christos the bus driver with his rock-star hair and Vassilis the sailor who returns to Aegina for three summer months every year, to soak his memories in Mastika and the music of teaspoons, interrupted only by the rustle of a plastic bag an old fisherman in a straw hat is taking from table to table, showing off a fish still wet from the sea at our feet.
But the Mastika has washed away our appetites, so we lie in a surprisingly cold sea under the hot sun, and discuss the man who died while making love in his bathtub. Our hunger aroused, we clamber over Kostas’ private beach thick with generations of dead seaweed to the house he built in 1999, past the olives he planted 16 years ago, and the 45-year-old pistachios he inherited. Washed with a hose, Kostas sits under a crown of old bougainvillea snaking its way over the patio, cutting a loaf of crumbling bread with a massive knife a guest made him decades ago, on a thick wooden board he bought in a German fleamarket while working on nuclear physics. And there’s feta and tomato, and when this isn’t enough we drink Mastika again. Happy birthday, Kostas.
But Kostas is already deep asleep in the cool dark of the house he built to enjoy with his family and friends when everyone was alive. And by the time he wakes up and grills his dinner outside, alone, I will be across the water in Athens, driven by Giannis the taxi driver who bought a Mercedes when everyone else buys Škodas because his wife wanted one.
George prefers his cars unbuilt, though, so he can put them together himself, repeatedly, every night in the garage he built to keep busy after retirement from law. I find him pottering around late at night around his Moke, a failure of a four-wheel-drive that was named after a donkey. George, unstoppable in his Eighties, is deeply suspicious of iPhones and people who do not smoke, and drops his cigarette stubs on the floor, surrounded by a loo without a door meant only for him and his lone employee (“Only for men!” he says), music and tools.
There were other men too, lost in the haze of Athenian afternoons. Savvas, sitting like a Jelly Buddha half molten in the heat, in the 3 square meters of his shop where everything was from a handful of houses, the most exotic of which was owned by Russian immigrants. His shop on Plateia Avissynias Monastiraki has been in the family 6 generations, each one perfecting the line he uses on tourists: “This is my art gallery.” You can buy a medallion to offer with your prayers, with the figure of a person stamped in relief, or even an arm, or a leg, depending on what you wished healed. Savvas offers a discount if you take ten at a time.
And the man who has been selling old coins from a cart in Monastiraki for 60 years and can tell you all the stories of all the men on them: Aristotle on the 5 Drachma coin, Democritus on the 10, Alexander on the 100 and several kings of Greece before the last was ousted in the Seventies. But we have talked too much, and he yells, “keep the coin, darling. I’m hungry and have to go eat my tyropita!”
I’m sipping Tentura instead, a liqueur of soft spice that has been made in Patras since the 15th century. And I’m sipping it with Vassilia, in a studio 3 stories under the street that opens into a hidden garden dominated by a massive palm tree. We should be underground, but there’s sunlight filtering through the fronds, a massive table she made out of a circular saw from a mill, and that bottle of Tentura. And in the studio a massive white desk against white walls and white shelves, and her little tools on that desk. And strung over, bits of fantasy: metal, coral, stone, leather, cloth. Things found and put together in a way only Vassilia could dream of. Bags, jewellery. Things. A curtain of white hangers dividing workspace and kitchen. Books on the shelves. Books in the loo. A see-through bookshelf that you have to slide to shut off the loo, and populate with enough books so no one can see through. Dostoevsky’s Idiot. Kafka. Camus. Old books by Nancy. Kandinsky’s thoughts on spirituality and art.
And Vassilia, in a soft dress of paisleys, talking of a problem she’s always had. “A problem of character. I’ve always been searching for something. What? Everything. A permanent lack of satisfaction, a constant urge to learn.” And you see that in her work, made up of things she has found, things looked for or things she didn’t know she was looking for.
Vassilia comes from Patras, like the Tentura, but she grew up knowing “that life was made by studying, not by hands.” So she became a lawyer, but found she didn’t want to be one any more once she started working. “But law had been my idea. Why? Because of the communication with people. This experience. You have to be a kind of psychologist to be a lawyer. Especially in Greece. Maybe psychology was the part of law I was interested in. Law itself was too academic, too stuffy.”
She’s always made things herself, with her hands. When she’d wanted a necklace she’d make one. And one day as a lawyer she’d thought of a special bag she wanted that could be tied around her waist and yet chic enough for the law office. So she made it. And she was wearing it when she walked into one of her favorite shops, and they asked her to supply them with some. They sold 7 bags in 15 days, and Vassilia made a month’s salary. And so she stopped being a lawyer and started her own studio.
And today she turns 46, but there’s no party because she doesn’t want one, or anything. “I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want to wait for something.”
And far away, over the sea, another birthday: Kostas wakes up from a deep dream after our Mastikas at the taverna, our swim in the sea, lunch under the beaugainvilleas. An age seems to have passed but it’s only been a day with him, and a few more in the city. Decades ago they poisoned his dogs and he nearly died with grief, and now, in the empty house by the sea, a ghost of a last companion: Clara the cat, now 20, who outlived her brother and many humans and still goes on, with enough energy to jump onto the table and curl up in the fruit bowl for an afternoon siesta. And Kostas, when he wakes up, half forcing her to drink a few drops of milk and swallow a bit of cat food through a mouth with no teeth. And just when you think it’s all over, Clara will look at you through eyes that barely see, and respond to a touch and a kind word. Clara, the cat who refuses to die.
Greece, July 2016
with Nancy Papathanasopoulou