an abundance of lovely stray cats
but no dogs that from afar resemble small women in fur coats who’ve fallen down drunk
Love notes from Siel is a weekly newsletter from Siel, who used to live in Los Angeles but is currently traveling around. If you love the notes, subscribe for free.
Dear friend —
My tour guide in Athens was Vasilis, a hale man in his sixties who greeted me jovially, his wide smile revealing shy little teeth, all slanted to the right. This was at the metro station for the Acropolis, hot and busy in the middle of the day.
“I have done a little bit of research on you,” he said, by which he meant he’d looked up my Instagram account. “You are a person of the letters!”
Vasilis told me he was a photographer, he’d known that was his calling since he was a child. He said he loved his work, that for him it wasn’t really a job, he loved it so much. He asked if it was the same for me, with writing.
“It’s great when I’m writing my own stuff,” I said, “but for money, I have to write other things I don’t really care about.”
“I understand,” he said. “But for me, even if I am taking pictures of pots and pans in a studio, I enjoy it at a certain level, because I am doing what I’m meant to do. By the way,” he added, “it is not easy taking pictures of pots and pans. They reflect everything!”
We walked down Dionysiou Areopagitou, a lively pedestrian street with a view of the Acropolis on one side, imposing neoclassical houses on the other. “This is where the very rich people live,” Vasilis told me. I expressed surprise that the rich would want to live in the middle of a loud touristy area, but Vasilis pointed out that the residents couldn’t hear the tourists, their doors and walls were thick, made of stone and marble and iron, he pointed out that there were no windows streetside, instead the houses had private open courtyards in the back, plus their rooftops overlooked the Acropolis, that’s where they threw their fancy parties. Even the few apartment complexes on that street housed only the rich, he told me, and not the merely rich but the rich with famous, historical names, the descendants of the generals of past wars.
We walked toward the Acropolis Museum, the modern building that housed antiquities from the Acropolis (those at the actual Acropolis are replicas) to protect them from further damage. I pointed to a sign in Greek, asking what it said.
“The Acropolis Museum.” Vasilis laughed. “It’s all Greek to you, eh?”
He really knew a lot of English expressions. “Do most Greek people speak English as well as you do?” I asked, and he told me they did, English was one of the required second languages in school, maybe some older people couldn’t, but if a younger Greek person didn’t speak English, there was something wrong with them, they were uneducated.
This opinion was reinforced by Nikolas, another guide I met on a tour of Cape Sounio. “Let me think of how to say this politely,” he said at lunch, after translating our order into Greek for the waiter. “This waiter, he cannot speak English because he did not pay attention in school.”
The Athenians I met generally did speak English at a conversational level or better, which made me despair a bit about our educational system in the U.S., where, sure, language classes are required, but fluency is far from expected. The only Greek words I learned during my stay were yamas and opa — but I did learn quite a lot more about Greece and its history through books and conversations —
Outline by Rachel Cusk (Picador, 2016)
“Lethally intelligent,” The New York Times calls this book, which is about as un-plot-driven a novel as you can get because its plot is essentially this: A British woman travels to Athens to teach a creative writing class, and during her trip, chats with people. These chats, however, are acerbic, sharp, and insightful character portraits of the irresistible variety. There’s the Greek man, thrice married, who owns a boat he likes to show off to strangers. There’s the suddenly-famous feminist author who’s exceedingly picky about her diet. There’s the fragile ex-owner of a publishing house who seems at any moment about to have an emotional breakdown.
Outline is the first (and best IMHO) of Rachel’s trilogy. I read it back when it came out but picked it up again recently to reread what she’d said about Athens. In the novel she describes a city full of stray yet well-cared-for dogs, dogs with plush pelts taking naps in the middle of the streets, dogs that from afar resemble small women in fur coats who’ve fallen down drunk. Sadly these dogs seem to have disappeared, at least from the central part of Athens where there are still plenty of dogs, but all attached to owners. There are still an abundance of lovely stray cats though —
Dinner with Persephone by Patricia Storace (Vintage, 1997)
“Here the initial glance is harsh, probing, prolonged; a smile has to be earned, there is no assumption that just your existence can be valued by a smile. There may be no reason to smile at your existence.” So warns American poet Patricia, whose memoir recounts a year she spent in Greece back in the 90s. I’d picked up this book in hopes of learning about Greek culture before arriving in Athens — though instead of charming me as I’d hoped, it frightened me.
Why? Patricia describes getting harassed — a lot. I don’t think that’s what she’d have called her experience then — in fact in the text she glosses over everything with a laugh and a shrug and an extended literary metaphor — but it’s what it would be called now. A large man chases her through a bookstore, demanding a kiss on the lips. A bank officer laughs gratuitously while licking her passport photo. Was this the world I’d be entering? What was I thinking, traveling alone to a country of no smiles and rampant harassment?
Thankfully things are different now. Athens is cleaner and more cosmopolitan today — thanks to the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, which dramatically transformed the city for the better from what I’ve been told. It’s true that the people here smile less than they do in Los Angeles — but then again, isn’t that true of pretty much any place?
The Secret Sister by Fotini Tsalikoglou (Europa Editions, 2015)
Jonathan is a sad and troubled man on a plane from New York to Athens. During the flight he has a deep conversation with his sister who — appears to be imaginary? The entire novel, in fact, takes place on the plane, which is to say nothing much happens here aside from Jonathan’s mental recounting of his family history.
That story in brief: During the Greco-Turkish War, Jonathan’s parents fled to the U.S. — but this move ended up leading to some seriously bad things happening in the family. Namely, multiple suicides — which explains why the sister is not a physical presence but a ghostly cerebral one. Honestly, the passive structure of this book didn’t work for me, but reading it did teach me a bit about Greece’s history, which is long, tortuous, violent, and often depressing — albeit looking brighter today!
Once a month, I share book recommendations. Shape it by recommending a read!
Three links you might love:
Why so many Greek antiquities aren’t in Greece. “Greece has been robbed since the Persian Wars,” says one expert in this New York Times article about the antiquities that were stolen by the German forces during WWII. Museums ranging from The Getty to The British Museum count stolen Greek antiquities among their holdings.
The six forces that fuel friendships. Julie Beck boils down what she learned after a series of 100 interviews with friends about their friendships. “Connection can come from anywhere, at any time, if both parties are open to it.”
The Great Substack Story Challenge. Thirteen writers are writing a story, exquisite corpse style. To be honest I couldn’t get past the first chapter — it’s not the kind of writing I’m into — but I admire the idea and spirit —