Could it be the plains? The uncultivated high mountains? Could it be its golden sun? Or its bright stars? No, I'm not under some patriotic verve, nor am I speaking to myself because of the things happening these days. I look around me and I see a country with half of its inhabitants ready to riot and the other half on the verge of an aphasic paralysis. And I couldn't be more sincere, there are times when despair really gets a tight grip on me.
If a foreigner asked me "what is your country", I would have difficulties in answering. I would certainly tell him about our glorious past, the definitions and ideas of our ancient forefathers. I would also talk about our today's deadlocks -we should be sincere to this person visiting us from so far away- our shamelessness and our impotence of working as a group, of communicating in a civilized manner and of working systematically. In order for him to understand, I would walk him around the center of Athens, so that he can tune in to the city's rhythms. I would get him up to Acropolis -a place universally important- so that he can eavesdrop to the essence of the past.
Eventually I would take him to this museum. One, which is not very known to the people, but still is exceptionally valuable. I brought you here today, so that we can visit it together; because it encases a cultural wealth and a trust that formed today's identity and which, I fear, is one of the few benchmarks, an anchor we can use to hold our ship steady whilst in the tempest. In here I find the ingredients of my own country. One by one.
Yes, you understood well from the figures. They are from the "Theatro Skion", the shadow theatre. These ones were made by Spatharis! "What worries me and what saves me, is that I'm dreaming like Karagiozis" - from a 1975 Dionysis Savvopoulos song.
When I was young, I tied a bedsheet between two armchairs, I squatted behind it and set up shows like Karagiozis the baker, Karagiozis the astronaut, Karagiozis the celebrity (I always liked to think high of myself as an infant) and others like that. My country does possess the cunningness of Karagiozis, his pride, his relaxed mood, his inexhaustible appetite for useless philosophizing. It also possesses the poverty and the shanty and the stagnation.
One could say, it's because of its ottoman older period. And what about its byzantine older-than-that period.
The ochras, the browns and the reds. In the colors of the byzantine art -which I recently started to appreciate and understand- I am detecting the watertights of our thought. Its most powerful and moral bonds.
And in the paintings of Fotis Kontoglou, who takes the motive and slams it over to the other side. Discussing issues that extend over the asphyxiating religious content. Odysseus meeting himself at Ithaca. My country is nostalgia and self-awareness.
My country is the everyday life of the "kafenion", the coffeehouse. Where we meet and communicate. Where we gossip and argue over political matters. Where we constantly disagree. But also, where we drink our coffee.
As the great Cypriot Adamantios Diamantis painted it.
Even though I am a city-child, I've met with this indolence of the coffeeshop. The "polla-vary" strong coffee, the cigarette and the "begleri", the string of beads. The dice clattering down in the cellar. And this ageless sloth of an unapprehended halt.
The one recorded in Harisiadis photographs. This is 1956. At the Zaharatos coffeeshop. On Omonia Square. You're young, you didn't catch up with it.
Look how different life in the Capital was in 1955. "Fun, Money and Love" at the Kotopouli Theatre. Hotel Pantheon and "Kolynos" toothpaste.
Since then the city image has change a lot. Transform it to concrete, said Karamanlis, and it was transformed. The whole country. It could have been done elseways, however. You can see it on the Pikionis drawings. In his multilateral works, his visionary architecture. My country is the simplicity of white surfaces exposed to warm light.
Where are we now, you will complain. What is this place that contains Karagiozis and Pikionis and Kontoglou and Kontopoulos (aren't the lemons above actually smelling of lemon scent?), you will be asking.
We are now at the Benaki Museum, in the section dedicated to Greek Artists of the 20th Century. It is situated in a 3-storey bulding on Kriezotou Str. -right in the center of Athens, two leaps from Syntagma Square- and it's a donation of painter Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas. Oh yes, it's his house. His studio. Alas, today it is much more than that. Whatever you see in here, that's me. That is you, too.
Photos of the past, the sculptures, the paintings. Sailing with the red, sentimental boat of Kontopoulos. Imagine it streaming over the blue waters of the Aegean; can't you smell the sea? Isn't your memory filled with emotions? However, let's leave the colors aside and let me take you to something more cynical, but also very powerful.
Around 2:30 in the afternoon of July 21st, 1928, he visited the seaside coffeeshop "Ouranios Kipos" (Heavenly Garden) at the Vrysssoula location, where he ordered and drank a "vissinada" (sour cherry juice). The coffeeshop owner was really surprised by the startling tip of 75 drachmas, when the juice cost only 5. Two hours later, Kostas Karyotakis put a Pieper-Bayard 9mm revolver on his heart and committed suicide at the age of 32. He left a hand-written note explaining the reasons for his action. Which concludes to the following postscript:
"And, to change the tone: I advise those who can swim to tie a stone on their necks, should they try to commit suicide in the sea. All night and for ten hours I was battered by the waves. I drank much water but, every now and again and without me understanding how, my mouth would surface. Perhaps some time, given the opportunity, I shall write down the impressions of a drowning man."
You understood correctly, this is the revolver, with which Karyotakis killed himself. Above it is the note that he left to us.
The police at that time took the photograph of the corpse, that shows him in his suit, with his head leaning on his straw hat and with the gun in his hand.
My country is always ready to commit suicide. With or without probable cause.
"The ships hoot now that dusk falls on Piraeus,
hoot and hoot, but no capstan moves,
no chain gleams wet in the vanishing light,
the captain stands like a stone in white and gold.
Wherever I travel Greece wounds me,
curtains of mountains, archipelagos, naked granite..."
In this way, despirited and melancholically I look at my country through the verses of Seferis. Yes, what you have seen is the first Nobel Prize ever awarded to a Greek. There's also this one.
In the next showcase, his eye-glasses and his pipe. His manuscripts. With the tidyness and the calligraphy of a deeply sophisticated man.
Let me take you somewhere else! Paxinou and Minotis. The ancient tragedy that defined the constants around which global fiction has tangled.
The looks, the bodies and the stones.
A note from Vittorio Gassman to Katina Paxinou. Miss you all very much. Hope to see you soon. Best love. Above, a telegram from Rome. With a proposal for a role in a movie. Signed, Dino De Laurentiis.
My country is also international. It regards many. And in many ways.
There is the fabulous Mary Aroni. From Clytemnestra to "Pasta Flora". This is my country. It can be serious, it can also be light-hearted.
There are also the paints of Zoggolopoulos. His still-lifes. The fruit and the kitchen utensils.
The vases with the flowers and the old clock. The one that ticked in his house.
The local markets, the grocery shops. The fruit and the vegetable. What shall we cook for tomorrow? Should I make some potatoes and zucchinis or stuffed tomatoes?
Fighting fills the pages of my country's history. With hands raised. With slogans and ideologies and claims. But also with illusions and entrenchments. As well as with eternally burning hatred.
And with love. There, in the vast blue of its islands. In the vast beauty of your eyes.
"I love you, can you hear me?
I'm crying, how else, since people love each other
I'm crying for the years that will come without us
and I'm singing for the others that have passed, if they are true."
In the verses of Odysseas Elytis I am surrendering, for they will define my emotions. Here, in the showcase in front of you is the second Nobel Prize. The erotic, the passionate, the one to cheer the Sovereign Sun.
My country is fatal. The one of Kavafis. And different. It steps on many times and on many places, in Alexandria, in Smyrna, in Constantinople. But even beyond these, it's the truth, I'm telling you, wherever I go, I have met it.
Even in Arizona. In Athens, in 1947. Photograph again by Harisiadis.
It is a great burden to be a Greek. Your identity carries a wealth of colors, sounds, senses and ideas that surpass this land and dissect bitterness, joy, nostalgia and hope. Namely the ingredients of life itself. The ones that have been discussed for thousands of years on this place.
Am I finished? No, I have more to tell you and to show you from this museum. Tomorrow.
Until then, play some Bithikotsis!
* This text was originally written in Greek three days ago. Yesterday, I received an email from Thomas Athanassiou, saying how deeply he was touched by these words and sending me the english translation of the whole text! At first I was surprised -receiving your post translated by a complete stranger is -to say the least- unexpected. Then i was moved. And I felt extremely honored and thrilled by this lovely gesture. So the least I can do is to share with all of you Thomas' translation.
Thomas, you may now share this text (your text) with your english-speaking friends as you wish. I really hope it will help them understand you better and love you more.
*Αυτό το κείμενο γράφτηκε πριν τρεις μέρες στα ελληνικά. Εχθές, έλαβα ένα email από το Θωμά Αθανασίου, στο οποίο έλεγε πόσο τον συγκίνησαν αυτά τα λόγια και μου επισύναπτε την αγγλική μετάφραση ολόκληρου του κειμένου. Αρχικά, σάστισα -το να λάβεις την ανάρτησή σου μεταφρασμένη από έναν άγνωστο προς εσένα άνθρωπο είναι αναπάντεχη έκπληξη. Ύστερα συγκινήθηκα. Και θεώρησα εξαιρετικά τιμητική την υπέροχη αυτή χειρονομία. Το λιγότερο που μπορώ να κάμω λοιπόν είναι να μοιραστώ με όλους εσάς τη μετάφραση του Θωμά.
Θωμά, τώρα μπορείς να μοιραστείς κι εσύ αυτό το κείμενο (το δικό σου κείμενο) με τους αγγλόφωνους φίλους σου, όπως ακριβώς μου είπες ότι επιθυμείς. Πραγματικά ελπίζω να τους βοηθήσει να σε καταλάβουν περισσότερο και να σε αγαπήσουν βαθύτερα.