I am writing this by the waterfront on the island of Patmos, while I wait for a ship to return to Syros. It is that sultry hour of the afternoon, when the cicadas compete with the motrscooters to see who can make the most noise. Sitting in a cafe nursing a peach-iced tea, a modern innovation, I remembered a summer many years ago when I was in Syros and got a call from some friends who had a yacht charter business and had to go to Santorini to retrieve a small yacht that had been left there by a client. My friends were calling to invite me to join them. The yacht was called “Oneiro,” (The Dream.) It was about ten meters long, with a mainsail and two jibs, and it had been there since the charterers had to abandon her when the meltemi or trade-wind had begun to blow, and they escaped the elements by taking the steamer back to Piraeus.
Santorini is about eighty nautical miles south of Syros, and there is not often a boat to go from one to the other. As on many routes among the Aegean islands, you may have to go back to Piraeus and take another boat from there. But in this case, I was lucky and there was a boat that left Syros at nine o’ clock on a Thursday night and would get to Santorini six hours later, at three o’ clock in the morning.
I was staying in my mother’s house in Hermoupolis in Syros, in a section of the city called Vaporia which overlooks the harbor, a short distance from the church of Ayios Nikolaos. My mother had died a few years earlier, and the ownership of the house, which my mother had shared with her sister, had not been settled yet. In the meantime, the house had become a repository of all the unused furniture that had been my mother’s and my aunt’s, and there was a sprightly housekeeper named Maria who had been with the family forever, living among the furniture to keep watch over it.
From the windows of my mother’s living room, you could see the ships on the way in and out of the harbor. It was already after eight-thirty in the evening. My luggage was packed, and I waited by the windows until I could see the boat come round the point. In the remaining few minutes, as I waited, a wildly irrational idea came over me—I started unpacking my suitcase to make it lighter, while putting the things I took out into another suitcase which I could send on to Athens after me in case for some reason I should not return to Syros before returning to the U.S. While I was engaged in this sudden, alarming exercise, Maria, who was about four feet seven wearing black but with no cowl, stood at the dining room window, on the lookout for the ship.
Suddenly, it appeared, all white and gleaming in the twilight, steaming toward the harbor, as though wearing a naval uniform of its own. Suddenly, we were now very late, as though we had waited in a hotel in Far Rockaway, an extremity of Brooklyn, until our flight was called at J.F.K. A deep blast of the ship’s whistle confirmed our feeling of emergency.
I slung everything back into the first suitcase, discarding the second and nullifying the entire mad exercise, which the Greek expression might describe as making a hole in the ocean. Maria rushed out into the street, carrying on carrying my handbag and jacket, and I carried my suitcase with all my belongings of the summer on my back, like a hamale or Turkish stevedore.
Hermoupolis is a busy provincial port, composed of bright white Venetian and neo-classical houses built around the harbor. Neutral in the Greek War of Independence, Syros soon established itself as the commercial capital of Greece, and at the beginning of this century it boasted an opera house built on the model of La Scala of Milan. hermoupolis is built on two hills, and in old engravings, Syros looks like two heaps of sugar rising around an ample bowl. As you face the harbor from the sea, the right hand heap is Greek Orthodox and the left is Roman Catholic. Our house is near the top of the right hand heap, just above the old opera house, so it was a long way down to where the ship would dock.
Maria knew a short-cut, and we ducked down a flight of white marble steps and down the back lanes of the city, past people Maria knew who were heading home from work in the gloaming, amid the sounds of choir practice coming through the windows of the main hall.
I kept wanting to turn up one of the alleys toward the harbor, but Maria said, “not yet.” She beetled on ahead of me, carrying my jacket and my black shoulder bag. When we reached level ground at last, she said, “Now!” and we emerged from the quiet interior of the city with only the muffled sound of our footsteps on the street, into the absolute, utter chaos of the port.
There is nothing in the world so exciting as getting on a boat in Greece. Nothing has quite the combination of organization and disorder, of purpose and disarray, tinged with the sense of ever-present danger that while you are hurrying, carrying your luggage, the boat will leave without you, or worse still, that it will separate from the dock, while one of your feet has boarded it and the other is left behind on the dock. If you lived in Greece, you wouldn’t have to act in amateur theatricals or join the volunteer fire department to have regular excitement. You could get all the adrenaline you needed by occasionally taking a boat somewhere. Or if you wanted some excitement but not too much excitement, you could just go down and meet a boat. Many people in Syros do that in the evening for amusement. It’s cheaper than the theater and more dramatic.
Cars, trucks, and motocycles were getting off, and lines of passengers picked their way among them, carrying their luggage, including backpackers, veering and tottering with their top-heavy loads, like vagrant human SUV’s. On the quay, an opposing array of cars, trucks and motorcycles revved their engines, waiting to drive on. Two identical lines headed directly toward each other in a typical confrontation, in a contest to see which of them would blink.
Officers in white uniforms held back the boarding passengers until they were were forced to give way and the human wave moved forward. Throughout it all, the popping and spluttering of scooters and motocycles went off like fireworks.
I sped up as I aproached the finish line. Without pausing for a goodbye, I took my back and jacket from Maria on the run, thanked her, blew her a kiss, and slipped through the scrum at the entrance to the ramp that led up to the ship.
I made my way up to first class, secured a sofa, and put my suitcase next to me, breathing heavily. I knew the drill. On Greek boats, before the present high-speed era with its airplane seats, people used to lie down wherever they could. Second class had a lot of people and a lot of cigarette smoke. First class had fewer people and not so much cigarette smoke. On a trip like this, first class would cost an extra nine hundred drachma or about ten dollars. It had sofas instead of upright chairs, and for the price of a tip, you could get a steward in a white uniform to unlock a door for you, and you could have a cabin to yourself. For a six-hour run like this one from Syros to Santorini, leaving at nine in the evening, and arriving at three in the morning, first class was the way to go.
No sooner had I taken off my shoes, stretched out, and brought out my notepad to write, but a bunch of stewards in white uniforms, who had all been eyeing me until then, approached me in a squad.
“This is the first class living room,” one of the stewards said, ”You should sit properly.”
Greek public officials like to treat you like a child—a child they are intent on insulting, as no child would like to be treated they were treating me.
“I know it’s first class,” I retorted, in Greek. “That’s why I bought a first class ticket. I want to be comfortable.”
I have come to view arguing in other languages as an opportunity for a kind of linguistic exercise, the kind you can’t otherwise get. I find this attitude has improved both my assertiveness and my use of language.
“Still you should sit properly,’ the steward said, “Look at that man. You don’t see him lying down like you.”
Disadvantageous comparison is a favorite Greek teaching technique, as in: “See the way Dimitri does his homework, neatly and carefully,” ie. not like you.
But I was not to be unfavorably compared.
“That man is watching television and he is sitting in a chair,”I retorted. “I am lying on a sofa and writing a letter.” I realized that these sentences could have come straight out of a grammar book.
“As a matter of fact, I’m not even lying down,” I went on. “I’m sitting up, against the back of the sofa, and my feet are tucked under my jacket.”
But I was talking too much. Brevity is not only the soul of wit; it is the backbone of authority.
“This is not a place for people to sleep on sofas,” the man said.
“I’m not sleeping.”
“If you want to sleep, you should get a cabin.”
“I don’t want a cabin. I don’t like to write in cabins. I like to write in public places. I am writing a letter, and I will continue to write it. Now.”
He seemed surprised by my resolve, and a moment later,when I ignored him, he was at a loss. A couple of the other white uniforms, seeing the way things were going, deserted him, pretending they had more important things to do. Without the delegstion he was supposedly speaking for, the spokesman could only pour earth upon himself.
“If you think we’re just trying to make your life difficult,” he trailed off.
I made no answer and did not wait for him to finish either, just kept my eyes on my note-pad. Magnanimous in victory, I resisted the impulse to bounce up and down on the sofa in stockinged feet, cheering. Instead, I just went on writing.
A lone couple walked past me into the adjoining bar, which had been empty fifteen minutes earlier. In a little, I heard people inside, around the corner, applauding, bravely and insistently, the way you do when you are the only people in the audience and you want to applaud. That gave me a startling discovery—the desultory saxophone I had been hearing inside was live.
There was a night-club with live music on the Syros-Santorini run, and it was right around the corner from where I was sitting, or lying. There weren’t many people there, and those that were wanted to encourage the musicians, or perhaps they were embarrassed not to applaud. Suddenly, I understood the root of the conflict between me and the white uniforms. The room was called Salon Continental. The ship’s management was trying to make it into a supper club, and here was I—an old dog learning new tricks—lying down at the entrance.
No wonder they were hassling me. After a decent interval, I drew my suitcase under the table next to me, put on my shoes and rested my feet—in my shoes—on my suitcase, out of sight. A compromise.
Why not after all? I only play the game for the exercise. I don’t need to win. Especially when I have won.
Later, when it was time to go to sleep, I moved away from the entrance. I took my shoes off and lay down opposite a woman who was curled up on another sofa with a baby lying next to her, under a blanket.
“What about her?” I thought, “She’s not sitting up and watching television. Not by a long shot.”
I slept fitfully and uncomfortably, waking up each time our arrival was announced at a new island. Then I must have gone to sleep, for I awoke in alarm to see a group of white uniforms standing over me.
“First class?” one of them said.
The vindictive buggers. They don’t forget. Not so long ago, this race beat its political opponents on the soles of the feet with lead pipes. Now they were waking me up in the middle to the night to interrogate me. About my class.
For a moment, I considered keeping my eyes shut and pretending I hadn’t heard. Then I saw they were waking the woman with the babe. They were asking for her ticket. They were collecting tickets, in the middle of the night. I showed mine and slumped back, with the ticket still clutched in my hand, as though I was a dead body and rigormortis had set in. I remained that way, in the arms of rigor until they called out “Santorini.”
My night passage was over, and I awoke to meet the “Dream.”