Thursday, August 13, 2009

Aesthetics 101

We'd been relaxing on the island of Samos for some days, after our whirlwind tour of the Turkish Aegean coast. Samos is inexpressibly beautiful - mountainous and, for a Greek island, botanically luxuriant. We'd hired a little Fiat, and I learned to drive on the wrong side of the road (although the TP malevolently reminded me that I've done that on more than one occasion in Australia.) Driving a left-hand drive vehicle is a doddle, really - the only thing of importance to remember is that the gear-stick is operated by one's right hand. Several times I'd fumbled for it with my left, succeeding only in opening the driver's door and almost casting myself out of the car. One benefit of this is that I managed to elicit screams of horror from the usually unflappable Titanium Princess, and one should always be thankful for small mercies.

Our hosts at the Emily Hotel in Vathy, the island's major town, were Emily herself and her ex-husband Kari (don't ask.) They were most gracious in their welcome, although Kari resembled a more genial Basil Fawlty, and seemed unconcerned that there weren't too many guests in his establishment. He would prepare wonderful breakfasts, then sit us down in a garden patio, where bougainvillia competed with orange trees and other flowering shrubs planted by our hosts many years before, and regale us with stories of ancient Samos and its obvious importance to the evolution of civilisation as we know it. It was, after all, the birthplace of Pythagoras and Aristarchus the astronomer - for Kari, the two most important figures in history. He and Emily were two old troopers - funny, charming and knowledgeable, and would bring us glasses of wine or beer without suggestion after we'd arrived back from a hard day's slogging around the island. 

We'd used the tiny Fiat to thoroughly explore the island, and what a treat Samos was. The little port town, eponymously named Pythagoreia, combined tradition and ancient history; the ruins of the Ionian acropolis at Herion, and the temple of Hera, with its fifty-five marble columns, all in ruins now, out-doing the Athens Parthenon in size, scope and astonishing gravitas; the tiny mountain villages, with cultures and traditions all their own - yes, Samos was a place the traveller would immediately choose as a return destination.

We were booked on a fast ferry to Paros, but as it was the day when the European Parliamentary elections were on, the entire island, including the shipping companies, decided to close down for the day with the Greek equivalent of "Fuck it - let's party." Any excuse, and I could readily understand why so many citizens of the oldest democracy in the world had decided to relocate to one of the newest, and good for them. Talk about cross-cultural equivalencies - I can just imagine Theo jumping off the ship in Sydney in the middle of January, looking around at people deliberately doing nothing but enjoying themselves, and shouting "Effie! This is the place for us!"

And so, the following day, we trooped into the shipping-company's office at the port, where a very friendly and very out-there gay guy organised a re-booking for us. He was a lovely man, who, looking at my reasonably drab green t-shirt said "I love your blouse. You must come back later and sell it to me." Hey - it was the first pick-up line I'd had directed at me in about thirty years - don't knock it.

The ferry-master must have decided that a "fast" ferry meant exactly that, and we were no more than five centimetres out of the harbour when he put his foot to the floor. Our first stop was another port on Samos, Ag. Dimitrios, and we came barrelling into the harbour at top speed. Fuck, I thought, standing up on the top deck, this is a several-thousand tonne vehicle. I hope he knows what he's doing. It seemed that the ferry was on a course designed to stop us, eventually, about two hundred yards up the main street of the town, but at the last moment our captain executed a perfect handbrake turn and reversed up to the dock with just the gentlest thud of metal against concrete. I knew I was in good hands, and returned to the bar to consume about thirty retsinas in a row, just to be on the safe side.

About four hours later we arrived in Paros. Somehow I managed to man-handle our bags off the ship, and stagger about four hundred metres along the quay-side, the Titanium Princess keeping up a constant monologue on the dangers of drinking at sea, or drinking, period, until we arrived at the Hotel Paros.

We got to the desk, and I stood there, swaying slightly (well, I was still to re-acquire my land-legs; after all, I'd been at sea for four and a half hours), while the manager of the hotel eyed us up and down, then rushed around from behind the desk, grabbed the Titanium Princess in a bear hug, and shouted enthusiastically in a distinctly American accent "Christine, Christine! Where have you been, darling? I was expecting you yesterday! What's happened, my poor love!"

Well, it was news to me that the TP had visited Paros on her last solo European excursion, and further news that she'd been conducting an affair with a hotel manager, and an American one, to boot. I was just about to offer some advice like "Hey Chuck, or Brad, whoever you are, I don't mind you groping my wife, but could you carry these bags up to my room and get me a beer, first?", but then realised that Dimitrisgouros (or something like that - he was of Greek parentage, and his name was utterly unpronounceable) was simply one of those hoteliers who had been to a hospitality school where the idea of "service" included acting as though he and any guest of the opposite sex had been sharing intimacies for twenty years.

Meanwhile, a slightly discombobulated, and thoroughly flattered, Titanium Princess was breathlessly explaining the reasons for our delay. With Dimitri's help we got to our room, and I explored a well-stocked refrigerator while the TP, for some inexplicable reason, adorned herself for the first time since I'd met her with face-paint and bright red lipstick. (Just kidding - she flopped on the bed and resumed reading Pride and Prejudice.)

The Parians are the world's greatest, and most enthusiastic, stone wall builders. It is only a small island, but Paros simply teems with the things. Big ones, little ones, walls of houses, churches, taberna; walls to delineate paddocks, to retain banks of earth, to terrace olive groves, and walls for no discernible purpose at all, that wind for hundreds of metres over hills, along ridge-lines, and parade right down to the sea. Dry-stone walls, mortared ones, capped walls, walls decorated with icons, inlaid with equilateral triangles; walls made of quartz, shale, sandstone, volcanic rocks of every variety - the Greeks of Paros simply adore the very word "wall". 

I'm convinced the natives of Paros build walls for fun. In fact, I'll bet they knock down perfectly good ones just so they can get a kick out of replacing them with something even more beautiful to look at. Every field, paddock, house-lot and road is perimetered by one, and each one is not just a utilitiarian division, but a work of art in itself. And, where you find an open area which, unbelievably, has seemingly been forgotten by these muralistic obsessives, you will almost certainly find several huge piles of stone, just waiting to be skilfully manipulated into place. "Hey, Nick - there's a fuckin' paddock here without a wall!" "Shit, Con, ring the cops. Then get a few truckloads of rock in - this is a disgrace!"

I jest, but the Parian walls provided an intimation of something else that was going on in this part of the world. It crystallised for me as we sat at the taberna at the front of our hotel one night (traveller's tip: the Hotel Paros is fronted by one of the best restaurants in all of Greece - to say the food is merely delicious is tantamount to defamation), and, as we were waiting for our meal, and looking across the bay at an idyllic Paroikia sunset, I noticed the manager's son, a bloke in his late twenties, fussing about to my left. I looked over to find him hanging a glass bowl of rose water by some delicate chains to one of the lintels; when that was done, he gently placed half a dozen floating candles within and lit them. The whole time his friend, who seemed to spend most of the day drinking coffee at the restaurant, but who had no apparent employment status there apart from resident philosopher, was encouraging him with words of advice about the orientation of the bowl, etc. Eventually, they both walked out onto the road, turned around, and had a lengthy conversation about their masterpiece. Satisfied that it was just right, they came back in, sat down, and gazed appreciatively at this newest addition to the restaurant's already extensive range of decorative ornamentation.

I realised, suddenly, that the Parians are just aesthetes - for them, life is not about competition, accumulation, or consumption; it is about beauty. They love living within a beautiful environment, and they abide no distinction between craftwork and high art. It is all the same to them - their wonderful natural surroundings are simply enhanced and highlighted by their stone walls, their blue and whitewashed buildings, and their humble frescoes and decorations. These are enough for life to be complete.

Armed with this epiphany, I turned to the man to congratulate him. Waxing lyrical, I explained how refreshing it was to come to a place where capitalism was yet to pervert the souls of men; where art was the province of the people, and finished by pointing to the rose-bowl and saying "And I see now why you get so much enjoyment out of the construction of such a simple, yet beautiful, little thing."

He listened impassively to this somewhat tipsy monologue, and when I'd finished, leant over and said conspiratorially, "And it sucks in stupid fucking tourists like buggery."


Vaal said...

Wow, Laurie, you really bring your trip to life with your extremely funny prose. Makes me wish I had seen a lot more of the Mediterranean and Europe!

Great last line, you just like me spitting coffee at my monitor, don't you? LOL

Steve Zara said...

It is such a great pleasure to read your stories. From what you have told me, I can't wait until you start on Germany!

Very best to you and "TP"!


Brian said...

Laurie. Welcome back down under. As always, you write brilliantly.

Off topic, but are you going to next years Atheist get together in Melbourne?

Brian said...

Hi Laurie, here's the website for the convention. I think it's sometime in the middle of March.

Brian said...

phil said...

Poeple who go on long holidays and brag about it incessantly really shit me to tears.

Do you catch my drift ;-)

Laurie said...

It's called "writing", Phil! ;0

phil said...

Possible responses:

"Well, it's certainly not literature."

"All very well, can you just keep it to yourself?"

The one about thanking a teacher, etc etc etc ad inf naus.

"Right you are then." (This one is particularly humorous, imho).

On to the next instalment.