Ecology in Aegean
ECOLOGY IN THE AEGEAN
My first vew of Orea was at dawn, through the port-hole of the steamer that had brought me from Athens. I had slept only fitfully during the eighteen-hour trip, and my system was still making grudging attempts to absorb the retsina I'd been drinking. Grouchy and dry-mouthed, I looked through the salt-crusted port-hole, and my fatigue disappeared immediately.
Crowned with a cross, a small domed chapel of stark white shone high on a rocky outcrop against a sky of astonishing blue. Gulls soared, spiralling, as if weightless. Rock stabbed up at space in jagged shocks of hard grey, blurred in patches by clumps of tough olive-green scrub. I sat up. Beneath a mountain, a tiny town, a handful of white houses scattered at random, gathering towards the sea-front, shining white planes chopped by dark window space, red awnings. On the port, a cafénéon with white tables, a few people waiting at the end of the boulder-built pier. The sea lapped waveless at the pebbles of a small beach, and at the water's edge, sitting on a box, a man was mending nets.
I could sense a calm unlike anything I'd ever known. Here was the real Greece, I thought, not like the Plaka, where the radios all played the same idiot song as they did in Paris, London, New York, everywhere. The island, a jewel, a stone beacon marking the place where Icarus fell to earth. I felt as if I'd arrived in paradise.
It took me five days to find a room. First I stayed in a pension a few kilometres along the coast from Agios Lukas, the port town where I'd arrived. Christos was the name of the place, and the pension was composed of two tiny houses set beneath a grove of eucalyptus trees. It as rudimentary but magical to me. I spent hours over breakfast those first few days. Nico didn't serve milk with the coffee, and I sweated over my dictionary with him one morning until I understood that the only place I could get milk was up at the convent, some miles further along the road, where five nuns kept two cows. I made the pilgrimage with a litre churn that Nico lent me. After that, most mornings, I had coffee with milk. In the evenings I ate outside, tomatoes, onions, olives, feta cheese, sometimes a small fried fish. I was pretty much vegetarian in those days, but not too strict about it. Sitting back exuding repletion, sipping retsina and watching Maria waddling with my plate back across the dirt yard towards the kitchen, shaking the scraps to the ground as she went. It was all bio-degradable of course. Life here in the fragrant shade of the eucalyptus trees was so ecologically sound, I ruminated, magnaminously overlooking the yellowing pile of fag-ends under Nico's favourite chair. We are all cells in the vast body of the biosphere, breath, vibration, nourish, exchange. Indeed. This twilight radiance. This quiet calm, this harmony. It was all so clear.
I found my room quite by accident, chatting to someone. It seemed that a Mr. Benakis was renting, just across the road from Nico's pension. I went over there immediately, and Mr. Benakis showed me the perfect room, a cool white rectangular cell just a few yards from the edge of the cliff. There was enough room for my books, a place to hang my clothes, a bed with a metal-sprung mattress, a tiny window facing North towards the mountain, and an aerated metal food cabinet hanging from the ceiling on a fine metal wire. Greek ants, I'd learned, were valiant, organised, and utterly ruthless. There was a small privy in the yard with a genuine half-moon cut through the wooden door, and a long flight of chunky rock steps down the cliff, at the foot of which a hot spring gushed from the boulders into the sea. All around there were deep rock pools of various temperatures, and Mr. Benakis assured me that very few people ever came here, even in August. Clearly, this was paradise. The money I'd brought from Paris, I calculated, would allow me to stay nine months without any problem. I settled in.
Three or four idyllic days went by. I borrowed a couple of pots and pans from Nico, bought lentils, beans and fresh vegetables in town and cooked up some of the healthiest food I'd ever eaten. It was so healthy, in fact, that I spent two days crippled with diarrhea, but this never worried me. I understood about adaptation and readjustment, I accepted purification. I rested and swam in the warm sea, did my Yoga exercises, meditated, read. The sun was generous, the air undefiled. The nights were silent. Peace was nigh.
Then one afternoon I saw that the plastic shopping bag which had been serving me as a waste bin was about full. Mostly food scraps, but also some paper, rejected scribblings, two or three yoghurt tubs, the plastic cover of a set of guitar strings, a pair of dead socks. What to do with this bag?
I went to see Mr. Benakis, who was sitting outside his front door in a string vest, spooning honey into his mouth from a large plastic tub. His ailing wife Calliope was laid out in a nearby deck chair, both fat feet dangling, stuffed like a plump white grub into a grimy pre-war undergarment. Her eyes were shut and her mouth was open. Mr. Benakis was skinny and mean-looking. I gestured with my bag, expecting him to tell me where the collection point for this sort of rubbish was, or else to explain the island sytem for the separation of organic and non-organic waste, things I hadn't thought about before. Instead he nodded intelligently, sprang to his feet, grabbed the bag from me, and indicated that I should follow him. We walked swiftly along the cliff-edge for a hundred yards or so, and then he stopped, and with a sudden decisive motion, flung the bag over the cliff.
I was horrified. Peering over the edge, I beheld the evil heap of antique filth drooling down the cliff and into the sea. The air above this pile was heavy with fat black insects. There were other bags such as mine. I saw torn plastic sheeting, old magazines, rusting scraps of metal. Yellowing papers stirred foully in the breeze, and the surface of the Mediterranean at this particular spot was slick with greasy rainbows. It was a shock to me. I looked back at Mr. Benakis, who smacked his hands together with satisfied finality, winked at me, and marched back to the house. I was disgusted. There and then, I vowed that I would have no part of this. I had not come to Greece to poison the environment like Benakis and his ilk. I was not going to sling my rubbish over the cliff. I would make whatever efforts might be necessary to avoid adding to the problem of global pollution.
As a result, the next time my rubbish bag was full, I carefully carried it the three miles along the coast road into Agios Lukas. It was a pretty walk, winding through hard grey rocks, overlooking small pristine beaches of tawny sand, through clumps of sage and eucalyptus, past the chapel I'd seen from the boat. Sometimes I saw cormorants in one of the small bays, bobbing a few yards out to sea.
There were three or four rubbish bins in town, a fact I discovered after I used the one situated at the end of the pier. On the hillside immediately above the pier was the terrace of the town's main restaurant, and the dozen or so mostly local people eating there that evening enjoyed a grandstand view as I strode purposefully round the coast road bearing my bag of rubbish, and into Agios Lukas, where I consigned it resolutely to the bin. Some of them looked at me strangely, and there was some sniggering. I put a brave face on it, walked a little further along the harbour and sat alone, as nonchalantly as I could, at a table in front of the cafénéon. There I swallowed a solitary ouzo, gazing soulfully out to sea the while, and then, perhaps a little nippily, headed for home.
However, I knew that braving ignorance was a minor inconvenience on the path to purity. For several weeks, whatever else I might be doing, I religiously carried my detritus into town and put it tidily in the bin, although I admit I did walk rather quickly past the restaurant and seek out other, more discreet bins.
Time flowed by in a luxurious caramel stream. May became June. The wind rose, and, hooked from the sky by the summit of Orea, blew down the side of the mountain for three weeks straight. It became wearing, hundreds of occult muscles obliged to work overtime simply to keep one upright. Gulls blew about in italic disarray, trees roared, the sun powerfully shone, and life followed its peaceful course.
I worked for a while at a hotel on the road between Christos and Agios Lukas, a new and unbelievably clap-trap concrete affair which seemed to have been built to scale from a purloined Hilton brochure and no plans whatsoever. It was huge. The concrete stairs were cock-eyed. The premature blue rug on the uneven naked cement of the lobby floor was a wasteland of sand and oily footprints. There were no guests there at all. None. The owner informed me they would all be arriving in August. To prepare for this impending invasion, he had me performing such fundamental tasks as sweeping fallen pine needles off the balconies of the rooms. The wind made this task literally impossible, but he'd come round periodically and watch me hard at work anyway, practising his English by expressing satisfaction and paying me regularly every couple of days. For a while, I also helped build the in-house swimming pool with a gang of local idlers, laying terra cotta tiles and hauling buckets and bags of cement, an experience which, more than anything else, taught me a few ingenious developments on the art of skiving.
After work one day, I sat with two of them at a table in the cafénéon in Agios Lukas. We were drinking beer and talking hardly at all. It was then that I saw the dustbin man at work. It was an enchanting sight.
This was an old old man, withered and bowed, who shuffled along the road to the pier leading an old old donkey. The donkey was also withered, and bowed beneath the weight of its load. It was festooned with a large number of white plastic rubbish bags just like mine, and it shuffled along behind the master, clearly reasoning not why. The old dustbin man opened the town bin and pulled out a couple of closed white bags, which he hooked somehow by their knotted handles to the donkey's back. Then he rooted around in the bottom of the bin and pulled out a few loose pieces of rubbish, which he thrust into a large open cloth bag hanging around the donkey's neck. He then closed the bin and set off again, shuffling slowly past the cafénéon, where I sat entranced. No-one except me took the slightest notice. At the far end end of the harbour, the man and his donkey stopped again and carefully performed the same ancient ritual at the bin down there before slowly disappearing round the side of a building on a path which led out of town and into the wilderness. I experienced an alcoholic surge of emotion for the beauty of the natural order. I felt vindicated. I had participated in cleanliness. There was a donkey. It was Ecology.
The month of August was the month in which all of the emigrated sons of Orea came home. There were more of these than you might imagine. Many of them had gone to the United States, and quite a few of them had made a lot of money. Believe it or not, one man returned with his bright red cream-leather white-wall-tyred California-plated rag-top Cadillac, which was off-loaded onto the pier, driven slowly through the congregation to orgasmic cries of admiration, and then parked next to the public urinals for the duration of his stay. Apart from drive round the island and back again, there was little else he could do with it on Orea without tearing the floor out.
These rich middle-aged expatriates came equipped with gold rings and chains and svelte American wives, impeccable bejewelled young ladies with Barbie beach kits and gimlet eyes. A couple of them dallied away their boredom with chunky island boatmen while their tubby providers dozed after lunch. I know this only because they chose to dally in the hot springs beneath my house, so much so that I took to swimming elsewhere, round the coast a careful two miles past the Benakis rubbish tip.
One Sunday afternoon in the middle of August, there was a big party in Agios Lukas. Probably everyone on the island had been preparing for it for weeks, but to me, with my willfully exiled life-style and ever-rudimentary Greek, it seemed to spring up all of a sudden. I arrived in town after lunch to discover bunting and balloons and, in place of the tables of the cafénéon, a small stage where a band was busy rehearsing. Accordion, electric bouzouki, Fender Precision, alto sax and a set of shit-house drums. The leader was the sax player, and he looked exactly like all other ageing Teddy boys, right down to the Confederate boot-lace tie, thin mustache, sideboards and greasy quiff. He played much of the time with a cigarette in the corner of his mouth. The band were drinking ouzo and laughed a lot. Clearly, a good time was preparing to be had. I got myself a beer.
Things started cranking up around five o'clock, people began dancing, one of the restaurants started cooking outside, distributing free stuff on skewers, and everywhere was cheap beer, ouzo, laughter, and joyous noise. After a while, the Athens steamer was spotted arriving from afar, and this apparition was roundly cheered. As it drew closer, the boat began to add to the festivities by hooting repeatedly. The crowd on the harbour responded to these signals more and more vigourously, and it became apparent to me that we were waiting for something.
By the time the boat docked, the party was going full tilt. There were a couple of people who looked as if they might have known better - an inhibited lady teacher from California who had once cornered me on the subject of Rod McKuen, now howling outrageously - and some others for whom it made no difference. One of these was Stavros, a member of the gang of skivers I'd been working with up at the hotel. He and I were drinking beer, talking rubbish, and cheering rather inanely from time to time. A crowd of agitated people came off the boat, gathered on the pier and then turned and stared back at the boat. The noise abated.
There was a definite hush. And then, suspended from a crane, lifted into the air from the deck of the boat, swinging slowly out above the pier, came a large and shining new dustbin lorry painted a violent pastel green. Its chrome fittings gleamed, and its six huge tyres were all shiny black. The hush gave way to a little awed cheering, followed by an outburst of some really throaty exultation. The band struck up, twanging joyously as the lorry was off-loaded, settling onto the pier. Then, with a showman's presence, the truck's donator strode down the gangplank, climbed into the cab, started the engine with a cough of diesel smoke, and drove it onto the harbour. There was much noise. The band played madly on. The driver stopped the truck in front of the stage, switched off the engine, and climbed from the cab to be swallowed by a crowd of admirers.
"Is Nick," explained Stavros, stretching his English to the limit. This I had already gathered from the turbulent forty-strong crowd, who, ten yards away, milled around Orea's benefactor shouting "Nick!"
Stavros and I stayed put, watching as the crowd slowly disengaged and turned its attention to the truck. Nick headed for the bar, which is where we were.
As he arrived, he delivered some rapid-fire Greek which had Stavros and the barman laughing straight away. Not to be left out, I said:
"Hey!" said Nick. "Where ya from?"
"England," I said.
"No good," said Nick, fast. "English fockin faggots."
"Not all of us," I shot back with a certain amount of Heineken poise.
He liked that, laughed loudly and slapped me on the shoulder. A chatter of Greek, and the barman handed me two cool cans of beer.
"Boat," said Nick. "You drink boat."
I finished the one I'd got, and started on one of Nick's. Even under the awning, it was hot. Not that I needed an excuse.
"Clevelan," said Nick, drinking from his can, looking around. "I been in fockin Clevelan since I was fifteen. Work my fockin ass off. All day, all night, all weeken, I work Chrismas, Easter, alla fockin time. Twenny-five years I work. Don' eat, don' sleep, don' watch tellavision, don' hardly fock too much, don' do nothin. I fockin work, dat's it. Bust my ass. I make a fockin fortune. Too much money. Pain in the ass. I get nervous, can't sleep. My family say Nick, slow down. OK. I slow down, go to night-clubs, find a skinny wife, stop workin, take her to Miami. Third day on da beach, unbelievable, I get a fockin heart attack. Lissen, dey offer you a heart attack, you say no. You don't wan it, OK, it hurts too fockin much. OK, so now I'm a sick man. My wife, she din wanna marry no cripple, turns evil, screams at me, leaves, Jew lawyer, divorce, steal my money, bust my balls. Me in the hospital, stare at da fockin ceiling. Bad time. So, anyway, I get a little better, doctor says take it easy, Nick, play some golf.. OK, I play golf two fockin times, fell asleep standin up. Golf is the dumbest fockin game inna world. Dress up like Sears Roebuck, walk aroun on grass chasin little fockin balls. Jeeziz Chrise. Forget it. Now my brother lookin after the company, he's dumber than golf, he's trowin money out da fockin winda. So I trow him out da winda, trash the doctor, back to work, now I'm happy again, never felt better. Whaddya think about dat?"
No time to answer. He gulped the last of his beer, crushed the can, tossed it on the floor, opened another.
"I was born here, I was a kid in Agios Lukas, my Dad took us to Clevelan, I get rich. I remember Iannis with a fockin donkey pickin up shit all his life. Since the war he's been doin it. Thirty-five years haulin shit. So I'm plannin to come home again for August, I think about Iannis one day. OK. I'm rich, I'm a nice guy. I buy him a trash truck, so now he don' haveta work so hard. Now he can put da fockin donkey inna truck, take it for a ride, up the mountain and down the other side, whatever. What the fock you come t'Orea for?"
It took me by surprise. I didn't know what to tell him.
"Er ..." alcoholically, "... just... er.. I needed to ... some time to ..."
"A seeker o' truth," stated Nick flatly, nodding disgustedly, staring at me point blank. "You a fockin nother seeker o' truth. Da children a leisure. Jeeziz wepp. You got a guitar and a couple books like 'Lord of da Ring' and 'Da Fockin Prophet', right? Do yoga, some bullshit like that?"
I was stung. He was wrong about the books I was reading. I tried to change the subject.
"Well, Iannis is going to have to work like a madman now," I ventured. "He's going to need to scour the island to find enough rubbish to fill that truck."
"Dere's enough trash," said Nick, turning away. "Trash everywhere."
The rest of that party is gone. I know I danced, because a number of people told me about that afterwards, eyeing me rather carefully. My next memory is of waking up on cold sand in the middle of the oblivious night and rolling over to vomit. But before I rose and continued homeward, I painfully but carefully dug a hole to bury my mess.
August blended into September. The tourists and the expatriates went home. For a while I took to eating in the restaurant overlooking the harbour, and from that vantage point, now and again, I'd see ancient Iannis at the wheel of his brand new hi-tech trash truck He'd still have to empty the bins by hand, but once he'd slung their contents into the monstrous maw, there was a bristling selection of levers he could pull. One evening I saw him make a mistake, and the whole back of the truck began to rise and tip hynotically backwards, accompanied by a vicious hydraulic hiss and the menacing rumble of shifting rubbish. Electrified, Iannis slapped at the levers until the tipping stopped, then had to leap into the cab to jam on the hand-brake in order to prevent the unbalanced truck rolling backwards over the edge of the pier. Nobody in the restaurant or the cafénéon seemed impressed, but it looked to me like a close thing.
For a month, I worked on a fishing boat. I earned meagre pay, but the experience was worth it many times over. We fished with light, setting out at dusk, sending counterfeit Butane-powered suns bobbing out into the darkness to hypnotise shoals of drowsy fish which we then took by stealth, sowing the net in a murderous circle around our worshipping prey, drawing the bottom of the net shut with a hawser, hauling it up around their mortal frothing terror like a deadly purse. It was genocide.
One afternoon I dove to disentangle yards of rope from the ship's propeller, swilling about under the keel in my underpants, fulfilling a long-standing Lloyd Bridges fantasy. It wasn't dangerous, but it was a long job, and I earned respect for doing it.
I participated in one of the biggest catches of the year, a huge haul of mackerel, beautiful sleek creatures with translucent esoteric markings who gasped out their lives in agony on the deck in such numbers that we were wading thigh-deep in their corpses as we worked. It took us hours to ice and box them all. I also found out what the ship's rifle was for.
"Dolphins," Spiros the captain told me, spitting on the deck. Dolphins would sometimes come to the scene of a catch and tear the nets open, freeing the captured fish. This happened often enough that fishing boats all carried a rifle.
Setting out to sea at the cool end of a day was magical, sprawled on the deck idly waking up, gutting, cooking and eating fried fish, with maybe some tomatoes and olives. And after the meal, all the scraps went over the side, just as they had done for thousands of years, just as they went onto the ground, the same ancient ritual.inscribed in the collective memory of all the world's tribes. Only in the last few years, I reflected, had this custom been defiled by plastics, profitable immortal nuisances that they were. A couple of times, having bought yoghurt to eat on the boat, I attempted to keep the empty tub in a bag under my bunk for safe consignment to the bins of Agios Lukas, but it always got discovered and lobbed impatiently over the side by someone or other. I gave up yoghurt for the duration of the job.
Autumn was cool and very calm on the island. One radiant evening I ate my single tab of acid and sat watching the sea as the sun slowly bled to death and a huge liquid moon slowly ascended into heaven. It was then I finally understood that the greatest part of music is silence, that space is alive. This I brought back from the island with me. Sitting in an ecstasy of grateful adoration, my feet washed by warm waves as my arse slowly turned to granite.
Rains now came with increasing frequency, and the nights grew colder. People I had known were gone. The big empty hotel had closed. The crickets fell silent. Slowly, nature withdrew. Sitting by the sea one afternoon, I knew that the time had come for me to leave Orea. It took three more days for me to become reconciled with this knowledge, but then, regretfully, I packed my rucksack and walked into Agios Lukas for the last time. In the cafénéon there, where silent old men now huddled round a stove, I drank a few companionly ouzos, said some goodbyes, and then sat in moody solitude at the end of the pier waiting for the steamer to berth. And as I sat there, gazing back at the familiar sea-front, I saw Iannis walk along the harbour with his donkey, just as he has the first time I'd seen him, months before. The aged donkey was once again festooned with bags of rubbish, and they moved to their ancient mission with the same slow and measured purpose.
It wasn't until the steamer left the island behind that I understood what had happened. At the far uninhabited tip of the island, there is a steep cliff. From the very top of this cliff and down into the sea dribbled a spew of litter and slime, an avalanche of filth which spread out at the bottom of the cliff to form a foul plateau, drooling like vomit into the innocent blue Aegean.
And there, tumbled miraculously upright, washed a joyous green by recent rains and gleaming in the sunset like an emerald set in shit, sat Orea's brand-new American garbage truck.