Written by Laura Alexander
Translation of the title of a book seen in the Benaki Museum:
“Portolaos, Namely book containing the seaports, the Distances between one place and another, and Other useful information for this Enterprise”
I was finally sitting down again to write after all the delicious laziness, in the dry heat where I fled the sun and moved like a sleepwalker, with things spread out so fine I only really did one thing a day, if anything. Hot hours drinking cold cappuccinos, sweet and strong with cold milk the texture of uncooked meringue, and later beer, on street corners, and then crashing to sleep naked in the heat. Crashing back into city life after a month of roughing it across the great scroll of Europe, a kind of self-hood had come back to me. Not a real self-hood of responsibilities and worries, still in the no-time of holiday, but my hitchhiker’s ghost feeling was melted away. I tried to look good, in clean clothes and the backless top I hadn’t worn all across Europe because it felt dangerous to be sexy while hitchhiking. I met people, and said goodbye to them expecting to see them again. I went to the café, and the bookshop, and the corner shop next to the cinema where the owner recognized me and spoke to me in Dutch because he’d once lived a year in Utrecht. Life was leafy and calm, easy to walk in, the streets patch-worked with graffiti and the cafes full of scruffy punks and gorgeous girls who sit with all the time in the world. At night, the open-air cinemas cast snatches of tinny dialogue in Greek or English over the walls onto the street like a football they expected to have tossed back.
Selves are formed by cities. Having discarded myself to travel through all that land between here and home I found a new self here, waiting to be slipped into like the red shoes I found waiting for me on a street corner in Paris once at two in the morning, neat and unexpected and precisely my size. In the same way, here in Athens I find a plausible version of myself, to be tried on and discarded, or to fuse so completely with all the selves I have been up till now that if I looked back in a few years it won’t be possible to make out the join, like with Paris, like with Amsterdam. Just like when you arrive in a new place, especially a city, how it feels like cognitive dissonance to remember that it was always there, that these streets were stretched out against the earth’s surface exactly as you see them now while you were still living for years before blissfully unconcerned with them, like Stephen Dedulus says, “there all the time without you: and ever shall be, world without end” – anyway just like that you have to face the fact that the person you could be here is already within you, lurking like a seed, and ever more shockingly, a seed already shaped and formed by all that’s gone before. So if I’d come here a year ago I’d have been calculating how to find a job in a bar here, how to scrape by and wait for adventure, wondering how many places would let you get along with not speaking Greek at first. Now after months of slightly fancier work I was looking at the local British Council, and cultural institutions here and whether I could possibly persuade them to hire me. So the potential self I can taste around me comes from me alone.
In Athens time was thick and golden. From one day to the next I could hardly remember what I’d been doing – the opposite of tourism. One day I dragged together enough energy to get to the Acropolis museum, bright and sleek. Another night we went to a free outdoor screening in the gardens of the French archaeological institute, and while we were watching a minor riot broke out a few blocks away. The film was a French one, with Jean-Paul Belmondo. It was subtitled in Greek so I could only follow about half the plot, which turned out not to matter as the plot was very silly and the visuals were stunning, all long slow shots of Niemeyer’s half-finished Brasilia buildings. The riot was over by the time the film was, and the restaurants were moving tables back out into the street. From the balcony of the apartment all we could see was a huge pillar of black smoke and the reflected orange light on a building about a block away. When I went down to the square to get more beer the fire was burnt out and I stood and looked for a while at the slightly smoking, twisted and blacked remains of two cars. It was the first time I’d seen a burnt out car, though in Paris I’d seen the melted tarmac remains of where two motorbikes had been burned then taken away.
Hot night under the glow of colored bulbs, speed and slowness with hours passed in drunkenness and shouting and cicadas loud as sirens fading finally silent. Endless unremembered conversations jokes and absurdities, and above all movement and heat in stillness. The taste of beer and ouzo, the dirt under the feet, the smell of the pine trees in the bar on the hill with the hill looming black and the barely payable bill. Fuck roughly when we get home, beer-drenched four-in-the-morning cunts, and wake to a sunlight so clear and strong, the pinkness of flowers and their sticky-sweet smell on the street.
I finished the last volume of Proust a few days later, sprawled topless on a rock that was digging into my thighs, with my head in a girl’s lap and a picnic of melons and bread spread out. Me and the girl I’d been living with had gone out to an island to camp. We fucked on top of my sleeping bag in the forest of night and then come back down to the stony beach to sleep. In the sunrise by the cool clear water I felt the weirdness of finishing nearly a year with one great mass of book (about a week later back in Athens I came across where Anne Carson has a character say reading Proust is like having a second unconsciousness, a formulation of words which allowed me to give a shape to my sadness). By the end of the book all the tiny hundreds of fragments of story come together, and the outcome is that you can see how over time all those little fragments do become a life.
When we took the boat back to Athens and were sitting on the top deck of the boat, some hippy kids were taking turns throwing little bits of bread up to the gulls. Following along with the speed of the boat they seemed to be stationary above the deck. Every time a gull managed to snatch a scrap out of the air the whole deck would clap and whoop. By this point the clouds had come in, and everything around was soft shades of grey, different everywhere you looked.
That tremendous observation; that there is only one world and that everything you see and read exists inside it at the same time. These are many things, and it’s difficult to put them together in anyway that feels coherent. Like Proust and his fragments of life, all these othernesses, in a way so simple it’s a cliche even to say it, come together and form the fact of all the things that are the case.