Faith, Recklessness, and Courage (Christmas in No-Man’s Land)

Border between Greece and Bulgaria

Border between Greece and Bulgaria

There were three men against the back wall with AK-47s.  They were unshaven, unmoving, and looked as if the last time they smiled there was blood on the ground.   They glared at me and there was an even chance that I was the first American they’d ever seen.  Communism had just fallen and, since no system of law, order or enforcement had yet taken its place, these men had become all of those things.

They were guarding the ‘businessmen’ that I was meeting with in a rural village in Bulgaria, businessmen who were money changers, importers/exporters, and a rural ex-party mafia rolled into one.  I was here to sell a tractor, the first modern western tractor in the country as far as any of us knew, and though I didn’t want to be negotiating with ‘businessmen’ like these, there was no choice.  They could move large equipment; they had money; and they had protection.

I sat at a wooden table with more dollars taped to my body than most Bulgarians made in year.

On a trailer outside the restaurant was the tractor that I was hoping to sell.  I’d hired a man to guard the tractor with an AK of his own, and though he did a good job keeping kids and villagers away and preventing petty theft, he’d be no match for these guys.  But I hadn’t hired this guy just to prevent theft.  I’d also hired him specifically for this meeting, so I didn’t appear like the damn fool I probably was, bringing a load of dollars and a tractor into a remote and ungoverned part of Bulgaria.

“To meet with these men, it is the only way,” Dragomir had told me.

Dragomir was my translator and a poor honey farmer, but perhaps the most ambitious and resourceful honey farmer in all of Bulgaria.  We’d met at an agricultural fair in Thessaloniki when he approached me and asked about selling tractors in Bulgaria.  The Greek tractor market had all but collapsed and Bulgaria had just opened up, so Dragomir had not only seen the future, but a place for himself in it.

In time, that meeting had led to this one with the ‘businessmen,’ along with a mixture of faith, recklessness and courage on my part, but mostly recklessness.  For the negotiations I was conducting were a charade, because what might happen to me, my money, and my tractor if I refused any of their terms was something I wasn’t eager to discover…

Six months later, after we’d actually managed to sell a few tractors, Dragomir brought one back in the middle of a cold December.  It kept breaking down, and they didn’t have the spare parts or expertise to keep fixing it.

Dragomir and I met in the no-man’s land between the Greek and Bulgarian borders for the exchange.

I pulled the tractor onto a trailer and handed Dragomir a check for $9,000.  Then I gave him a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue with a red bow.  He handled the bottle protectively, knowing it was expensive and how much it would be worth on the other side.  I fully expected him to sell it when he returned home and enjoy the holidays in a style he might not have known before.

“Merry Christmas, Dragomir” I said.

“But I didn’t get you anything,” he replied and, before I could stop him, cracked the label on the Johnny Walker Blue, rendering it almost valueless.

“Merry Christmas to you, Mr. David.”

And there off to the side of the road in a no man’s land between Greece and Bulgaria, we drank the finest whiskey out of plastic cups, eventually joined by a Bulgarian border guard who traded part of his cheese sandwich for some whiskey of his own.

Later, as the sun was setting and we were about to return to our respective countries, Dragomir said, “Those men you met in the restaurant, Mr. David, they are dangerous men.  If this check doesn’t work and they don’t get their money, they will do bad things to me.  Very bad things.”

And as he drove away, I thought about my ever-resourceful Bulgarian friend.  His country was broken, his way of life aborted, his business associates carried AKs, and the only security he’d ever known was a cartload of honey jars.

How could he know if I could be trusted with $9,000, a small fortune in his country?  He’d seen good men sold out for less, I was sure.  And what could he know about the Greek company I worked for, or the banks I dealt with, or, as he kept calling it, “the capitalist system” overall?  So he, like me, was a mixture of faith, recklessness and courage, but mostly courage — mostly courage.

Merry Christmas once again, Dragomir, wherever you are.

My novel, published by Betimes Books in Dublin, is available here: THE LAST ISLAND

 

Living Forever on a Greek Island

Skopelos

Skopelos

After the first few weeks, I didn’t know what day it was.

By that, I don’t mean that I didn’t know if it was a Monday or a Tuesday. I didn’t know if it was a Monday or a Saturday. The only day I ever knew that summer was Sunday, which was marked by church bells and the voices of the psaltes (singers) in the nearby churches.

Once the churches quieted, that day unraveled like every other day, until again, on some seemingly distant and arbitrary morning, the psaltes would be heard and I would know it was Sunday again.

My wife and I were in the process of moving from Massachusetts to California. We’d rented our condo in Boston in May and planned to start looking for a place in San Diego at the beginning of September. In the meantime, we were living on Skopelos Island, swimming, eating olives, drinking hima (fresh barrel wine) and helping the last of some ancient nuns maintain a crumbling monastery.

Life on the island was relatively cheap, and the rent from our condo in Boston was kicking off enough money to more than support us. We realized towards the end of that unbroken summer that we could stay another year or decade as easily as another day.

“You could write that novel,” my wife suggested, “and I could keep volunteering at the monastery and we could just… stay.”

The predictable objections echoed in our minds. We were young, educated, and suitably ambitious. How could we consider throwing away another season, or year, or decade of our lives? The idea seemed indulgent and wasteful. There was, after all, so much to be done.

At least, that was the thinking in the part of our minds still rooted in the ever-measuring world we’d left, where the only conception of time was linear and limited.

As J.M. Coetzee put it in ‘Waiting for the Barbarians:’ “Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end.”

This ‘time of history’ is indispensable to empires, because it’s necessary for quantification, in order to measure acquisition and accumulation.

Beach on Skopelos

Beach on Skopelos

But on the island, the time was circular and charitable and expansive. The days and seasons did not deplete; they renewed. The past and future existed but were as far apart as memory and dreams. In between, there was the sea, the sun, the olives, and the wine, and they were endless.

Another Greek island, Ikaria, was the subject of a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, because of the extraordinarily long and healthy lives enjoyed by its residents. The article, entitled ‘The Island Where People Forget to Die,’ cites lifestyle, community, and diet as the reasons why. While all those things certainly contribute to health and longevity, I think the real reason is something else entirely, something much simpler, if less evident.

It’s because time on Ikaria, like it was that summer on Skopelos, is circular and charitable and expansive. And where the days renew, so accordingly, does life itself.

As for us, we departed at the end of that season and returned to the tick-tocking world. It seemed to have only gotten faster in the time we’d been away — and has gotten faster since. We intend to circle back before it runs itself out.

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That novel, which was inspired by that timeless summer on the island, was eventually written and is available here: The Last Island.

Oedipus Wrecks the Shoreline: The Coastal Development Proposal in Greece

Greek Island

“If your age could understand, children,
Full many counsels I could give.”

Greek tragedies play out like no others, as if to remind us of the work of their ancient masters. As there once was a plague in Sophocles’ Thebes, there is now a plague upon the Greek economy.

One proposal to address the current economic problems – easing restrictions on coastal development – is eerily reminiscent of one of those early tragedies, Oedipus Rex, about the king who kills his father, sleeps with his mother and then prefers to blind himself than see what he has wrought.

“Aye, and a flood of ills thou guessest not
Shall be set upon thyself and thy children…”

This coastal development proposal, now in the Greek legislature, would do four things:

  1. Lift all restrictions on beach concessions and sunbeds.

    It will be a free for all. If one concessionaire doesn’t occupy an entire beach, another one will move in. This virtually ensures a ‘carpeting effect’ where every beach will soon be covered with lounges, bars and trinket shops. Walking space, sunning space, indeed, any space will be in short supply.

  2. Facilitate commercial construction on beaches.

    Once the current restrictions are lifted, applications for permanent constructions are certain to increase dramatically (pun intended), in part to simply occupy beach space before another does. This streamlines the process for getting those applications approved, hastening the ‘carpeting effect.’

  3. Allow businesses to pay fines to legalize illegal development.

    Illegal constructions are rampant on some islands. This portion of the proposal not only rewards those previously illegal developments by legalizing them, but encourages future illegal/legal developments.

  4. Ban the right of public access to the beaches.

    Without a way to get to the beach, the path to it may become the most valuable asset. The astute will find a way to ‘block’ the beaches and either charge the public admission or the businesses on the beach a fee to let potential customers in.

“O Man, beware, and look toward the end of things that be,
The last of sights, the last of days… “

Many of us who treasure this immemorial country — its history, its culture, its majesty, its people – feel compelled to speak out. Even if Greece is not our homeland, we have been touched by that country in such a way that there is a part of it within us, and we feel an obligation to voice our concerns, if only that.

“What were mine eyes to me,
When naught to be seen was good?”

For decades the sire of the wonder and ways of Greece, the Aegean Sea, has been dying, the lush and lively bottom slowly browning into an underwater desert. This is a tragedy, but many of us fear that the death of the father sea may be only the start.

For the consequences of this proposal would be that anything that touches the sea – the islands and coasts and beaches – will be desecrated, and that any and all of the virginal shoreline will be defiled.

This is a palpable fear for those who love Greece, who love the sea and the islands. And should this proposal become law, the day may come when, like Sophocles’ tragic hero-king, many of us will prefer to remove our sight than behold what has become.

Here’s one xenos among many hoping that the shoreline can be saved.

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All quotes above are from Oedipus Rex by Sophocles.

You can sign a petition to stop this proposed legislation here: Change.org.

My novel, which is set on an unspoiled Greek fishing island facing the challenges of modernity and economic hardship, is available here: The Last Island.

The Sacred and the Desecrated

The Rockies, Greece & Ireland

The Rockies, Greece & Ireland

One evening, while cruising the wine-dark sea off Psathura, a deserted island in Northern Greece, I thought that an epiphany was at hand.  This may have had something to do with the heat and the ouzo, however, because that epiphany proved as evanescent as the breeze and remained unknown.

What happened in Psathura isn’t unique though, this sort of encounter with the world’s majesty that transcends the everyday and seems sublime.  It’s happened to me at other times as well: in the Rocky Mountains, and on the Sea of Cortez, and upon the wavering greens of Western Ireland.  It’s occurred on bicycles and horses and surf boards.

It’s likely to have happened to everyone who chances upon this post.

I thought of these encounters when I heard this quote from the Kentucky poet Wendell Berry: “There are no sacred and unsacred places; there are only sacred and desecrated places.”

Those few words have changed my way of thinking.  Like our innocence, every place we encounter is indeed sacred unless proven otherwise, and we trespass upon the sanctified daily.  It’s a humbling, lifting and affirming way of passing through the world.

And I’m beginning to think that was the epiphany that hung in the breeze off Psathura.

You can buy ‘THE LAST ISLAND’ here.

Sunday Morning Comin’ Down (in Greece)

On a Sunday morning in the large amphitheater of my Greek Island village, the male voices of the psaltis from three distinct churches could be heard concurrently.  In the Carnegie Hall-like acoustics of the village, their unamplified chants arrived at nearly the same tone and volume to the house, located high on the village curve.  The effect, however, made the timeless medieval melodies discordant and jarring.

But there were rewards for the patient xenos eavesdropping from above.  If you listened long enough, there came times when the trinity of chanted prayers harmonized unexpectedly and melded into something more sublime and beautiful than any single one of them could have been.

And I thought, there it is in a song: the history of this island, a place where fishermen, cooks, wives, builders and farmers lived together for 5,000 years, sometimes in competition, sometimes in harmony, but almost always in an unenforced and organic equality.  They ate and drank with each other, bought and sold from each other, and married each other.  Their lives were limited, perhaps, but contentedly circumscribed.**  But that was before the European Union and, later, Hollywood discovered the island, before the drachma became the Euro, before the new port and trawl nets and so many pale tourists with fat pockets.

There aren’t enough fish anymore; the few small fishing boats that remain are largely ornamental.  Successful tavernas swallow their less sophisticated rivals, bringing in food and even fish — fish! — from the outside.  Rooms that were once rented by local families have given way to hotels.  In short, the interdependence of the villagers is gone.  A few grow rich, while others, having lost their livelihoods, go to work for them.  It is what we in the restless West understand as the way of the world — almost without thinking about it.  And it is what many call progress — again, almost without thinking about it.

I’ve been coming every summer for over 20 years and have seen the changes in snapshots.  The hope is that one day the tide will, somehow, rise in the tide-less Aegean and lift all boats — but so far that isn’t the case.

So far, the changes have made the villagers like those discordant psaltis on Sunday mornings.  They compete with each other in way they didn’t have to previously, knowing that in the future there will be a few amplified winners and many more losers.  And the not-so-small miracle of the resounding harmony that was this island for 5,000 years will be lost forever.

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** I suppose I could be accused here of romanticizing village life from a safe distance — but I take my lead from two novelists, Leo Tolstoy and Nikos Kazantzakis, who both concluded that the so-called simple villager lives a full life and knows all one ever needs  to know.

You can buy ‘THE LAST ISLAND’ here.

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