Friday, February 27, 2015

Fifty Shades of Snow

(Part I – The Four Ages of Snow)

For the last three winters of my life I have been surrounded by snow and frigid weather. A completely new experience for me. Before coming to Boston three years ago, I had spent all my life in no-snow zones. In zones where you sometimes get fed up with too much sun: in Lushnje (a small town in central Albania) and Athens, Greece. Even in my mum’s bedtimes stories the presence of snow was scarce. The only “snow characters” I remember from childhood are snowman  and Snow White. The first didn’t figure among my toys. As for the latter I never fell in love with her (maybe because I couldn’t dream of myself as a Prince; I felt closer to the Seven Dwarfs).


In the songs that I hum time after time, snow is almost never mentioned (except for Adamo's "Tombe La Neige"). The first time I came face to face with snow was when I was 13. It happened at a town in Southeastern Albania, called Librazhd. As I was visiting my uncle there, during the winter-break, a thin white layer of snow peppered the sidewalks and the streets of the town. Just enough to allow me to make the first snowball of my life. The snow melted in few hours and I continued the rest of my life without it.
When I grew up, my meetings with snow were few, casual and relatively short-lived. The longest period I ever co-existed with snow - before coming to Boston - was in Berlin in 2007. We stayed together there, me and the snow, for a few weeks. Then I went back to Athens and I quickly forgot about it.
The last three winters of my life here in Boston the word “snow” has settled for good in my everyday vocabulary. Apart from the word “snow” other words have become an integral part of my vocabulary: boots, winter jacket, thermal T-shirts, thermal underwear, parka, hood etc.
It took me a few months to accept the fact that Bostonian winters were going to be really different from the previous winters of my life. My friends from Northern Europe came then to mind; I remembered when they would visit me in Athens, they would sigh and say “lucky you, living under such a mild winter.”  I had never seriously paid attention to their lament. Furthermore these kind of exchanges between Northern and Southern Europeans have become kind of routine. The Southerners brag about their climate and ancient ruins (while envying, sometimes, the bureaucratic efficacy of the Northerners and their modern achievements). Vice versa the Northerners brag about their modern achievements (while envying, sometimes, the sun and ancient ruins of the Southerners). I belong to those Southerners who would like the Northerners to envy us for something we have invented and crafted with our own minds and hands in the present (apart from the food of course). I want them to admire us for something that was not offered to us for free by nature; or was left to us as a heritage by ancestors that we never knew.
But let’s go back to my Boston winter. As I said, the word “snow” didn’t come alone. So it was that in my first snowy Bostonian winter I learned that my worst enemy in the streets lay invisible; its name is “black ice”. Woe to those who underestimate it. Fortunately I am not someone who underestimates “enemies”.
My neck adjusted to the new wintry reality. It lost the carefreeness of the Southern European winter; it gained a kind of alerted rigidity, like that of a hunter when looking for the prey. While walking on snow I caught myself whispering words like: “watch your step!”.
Once I learned about the different shapes and shades of black ice, slush-puddles and snowbanks, I started to pay attention to the soles of the shoes I was about to buy. I had to be careful and pick those that would be able to protect me against sliding. It’s a matter of a broken or non-broken neck; a matter of broken or non-broken leg; in few words, a matter of life and death. Inadvertently other words became an integral part of my everyday vocabulary. Words like “blizzard,” “snowstorm warning,” “shoveling,”  “snow blower,” and “snow plow.”
But words never come alone. Behind the snow-words there is a new landscape that my eyes behold for three to four months every year. During these months I know that everything will be covered by snow: sidewalks, trash bins, mailboxes, fences, roofs, cars, bushes, train tracks, barren tree branches, power wires, bikes, benches, bridges, river water, ocean water, taxis, trucks, buses, sex- shop signboards.


During my second winter here in Boston, I began classifying the ages of the snow. I called it something like “The Four Ages of the Bostonian Snow.”
“The Age of Innocence” corresponds to the snow that falls during the first month (December or January). The landscape around you takes on a fairytale-like aspect. “The Age of Innocence” usually triggers joy and brings me internal harmony. It invites me to reach out to the snow, to touch it, to gather it in my palms, to rub it on my face. It is soft and light, like a dream, like a wonderful illusion.
After the first month, it becomes “The Age of Mature Snow.” You understand then that you have to get used to it (and the snow has to get used to you). Gradually you begin losing interest for each other, in the same way it happens sometimes with married couples, when marriage becomes kind of habit and routine. (Then you are together because that’s what it is). Even if you don’t confess it out loud you start asking questions – why has the snow suddenly lost its previous beauty? 
After “The Age of Mature Snow” comes “The Age of Melancholy.” At this stage, deep inside, you start hating the snow. You feel it as an oppressor and an occupier. You feel colonized and sometimes excluded by it. To go along with it you might even pretend that the snow doesn’t exist. It’s like your defying denial will contribute to melting it away sooner.
At the end comes the “Age of Mourning.” The snow becomes filthy. There is something lugubrious and corpse-like about it. It looks like a dead man, waiting for the funeral ceremony to take place. It’s the most melancholic moment of the coexistence with snow. At that point everything and everyone looks exhausted and dull: the snow, the people, the trees, the reflexes, the bikes, the mailboxes, the taxis, the sex-shop signboards. It’s the moment that nature is preparing in silence its come-back, like someone buried deep in memory who suddenly pops up, resuscitated, in front of you. By then it’s April, “the cruellest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain” (T.S. Eliot).

To be continued...

Friday, February 13, 2015

Paris at Harvard Square

Yesterday, I was making my way home, after a nice dinner with friends in Lexington. It was around 11.30 in the evening when I arrived at the Harvard Square T station. I was waiting on the platform for the train to arrive. Usually I tend to walk back and forth waiting the train. Sitting and waiting still like a stone makes me feel nervous. My thoughts circulate better in my brain when I move my legs.
The platform was empty; the kind of train platforms I like because they give me plenty of room to walk around. There were two other people on the platform. I hurriedly looked at them and my first impression was that they were both homeless. It was freezing cold and snowing non-stop outside and maybe they had found a temporary refuge against the arctic-like temperatures on that red-color platform. Homeless people usually do this in order to protect themselves from the cold.
One of the seemingly homeless people was a young lady who had sat down on the floor, cross-legged, a backpack next to her, her head covered with a hoodie, stretching her hand out with difficulty in order to grab a plastic bottle of water. I glanced at her and she looked at me with haggard eyes. As I walked past her I heard her sluggish voice saying “excuse me sir”. I stopped immediately and turned towards her as she was trying to articulate her next sentence; her face “spoke” to my memory. It was a familiar face; I was sure I had seen her once and more than once. “You look familiar”, she said. “You look familiar too”, I said standing immobile. “What’s your name” she asked. “Gazi”, I answered”.

Her sleepy, jaw-dropping face changed suddenly, like ignited by a sudden emotional fire. “Oh my God” she exclaimed. “I was in your class… one ‘f’my best professors… m’ name is L.… d’u remember me?” she asked jumping up and giving me a hug. As I returned the hug, the odor of alcohol reached my nostrils. I told her that I remembered her. She was one of my best students in my class on ancient Greek epics and tragedy. But the L. I had known two years ago was somehow different from the L. I was embracing on the train platform.
Like reading my inner thoughts she grabbed her hair with her hand, under her hoodie and said “I’ve changed a bit; I dyed my hair”. I didn’t say a word. I tried to strike a smile and only nodded. “I’ve had some medical problems; a lot of doctors”, she added. I nodded again. I remained silent, trying to find the right words, the right English words. I'm a young and inexperienced teacher (in America); it rarely occurs that I might meet my students outside of college. I felt flattered that L. recognized me and called me “one of her best professors”. Then I said something like “so happy to see you” and “are you done with your studies?”.
I don’t remember what her exact answer were. Actually, I was struggling to find the right expressions, the appropriate English expressions for these circumstances, that seemed rather extraordinary to me. Then she said: “do you remember my essay on Paris?”. She was not talking about the Paris of France but Paris of Troy – the handsome prince who “stole” the most beautiful woman of the ancient world, Helen, and brought her to Troy. Their transgressive love triggered a devastating war between Greeks and Trojans that lasted ten years, ending with the biggest massacre the world had ever known and the total destruction of Troy. All wars are devastating for that matter and the Trojan War – narrated by Homer in the Iliad - stands out as a the model for all wars. Reading and analyzing “Iliad” with my students, I hardly could hide my sympathies for Paris; according to me he is the first anti-hero character in the history of Western literature. He was not a warmonger, a war-lover or a good fighter; he was just a good lover. He was not interested in becoming a hero - in a world where men felt really accomplished only if they were considered heroes. He was not interested in kleos - the glory that surrounds the men who have died heroically in battle, making them immortal in the eyes of the mortals. All Paris longed for was to enjoy his love with Helen. He couldn’t understand all those war-loving men who preferred to die, to destroy their lives, their families and those of others, fighting for a woman who had chosen to love Paris instead of staying with a husband she had married against her will.
"I was harsh on Paris", L. said. In her essay she had treated Paris with contempt; she considered him a spoiled soul and a sort of irresponsible traitor, who brought disgrace and destruction to his homeland for a whim, for a love affair. "No L., you were not harsh. Maybe your take was the right one. It’ s a matter of interpretation after all", I said. "Everything is a matter of interpretation" L., replied, and her words came out of her mouth with difficulty.

Right at that moment the train arrived. I didn’t know if she intended to take the same train I was about to step into. "Your train is here" she said, like reading my thoughts. She gave me a hug, whispering “goodbye”. I returned the hug. "Take care please" I said. "I will” she said and I felt again the odor of the alcohol. I stepped into the train and watched her from the window as the train was leaving the platform. She sat down again and sipped from her plastic bottle of water. I don’t know if there was, somewhere, a roof over her head; I don t know what kind of medical problems she hinted at. Tenderness and surprise: that’s what I was feeling at that moment, as the train was carrying me towards my destination. Mixed with the noise of the train’s wheels her sluggish voice echoed in my mind: "Everything is a matter of interpretation"...

Monday, June 30, 2014

Le lire et le dire

Let's make an exception this time - for those who speak french. Here's the first part of an interview in French with Jean-Claude Caillette (radio Fréquence Paris Plurielle) in his radio program "Le Lire et le Dire". Just download the MP3 (325 Europe 1ère par tie liredire 04.07.14.mp3) from the link below:

I will post the second part next Monday…

Monday, May 26, 2014

Give me one reason…

Dedicated to the post-election-Europe. Give me one reason to stay here (with so many pre-modern and post-modern fascists around); or are you going to tell me again that old Galilean "eppur si muove (and yet it moves", this time around?

Monday, December 02, 2013

All roads lead to Balkans

Last year at Thanksgiving I was in New Jersey. I was invited by Sophia and Spyros, a couple of psychoanalysts and close friends, to share their Thanksgiving dinner. Sophia is one of the child survivors of the holocaust and Spyros a child of Greek immigrants, who came to America in the 1930s. Sophia and Spyros met in Manhattan in the 70’. Sophia was finishing her PhD in psychoanalysis and would often have lunch at a Greek diner, run by Spyros’s family and where he was working as a waiter. This was the beginning of a romance that ended in their marrying after a few months. Spyros decided to quit his job at the Greek diner and dedicate himself to psychoanalysis. He told me how his parents couldn’t understand what “psychoanalysis” was about. They were hoping for him to become an engineer, so that he could go back one day to their birthplace, in the tiny island of Erikusa near Corfu, and build roads there. Spyros remained in Manhattan and became a renowned psychoanalyst. Last year they celebrated 40 years of being together.
All these stories were told under the strong smell of turkey and other delicious dishes. Because Thanksgiving in America is mainly about personal and family tales, well cooked turkeys and cranberry sauce. This is its bright, warm side. If you were a Native American, though, you might have had a different family story to tell. Thanksgiving for Native Americans, as I learned from my psychoanalyst friends, is a day of thanks and mourning.
Last Thursday I celebrated Thanksgiving day in Boston, with wonderful colleagues from Emerson College; Americans of third generation, American-Cubans, American-Americans, Greek-Austrialian-Americans. And I, an Albanian and somehow Greek and a bit American, perhaps. Over a table dominated by a huge cooked turkey and full of many delicious dishes, we discussed and told stories about politics, literature, cooking, multilingualism and even animals; according to Aristotle the main difference between human beings and animals is that human beings are able to articulate sounds which express justice or injustice, while animals can only articulate sounds that express pain and pleasure. Therefore, if turkeys could articulate human sounds, they would tell many stories about how cruel humans are toward turkeys, killing them by the millions each year for Thanksgiving.   
I have asked some of my American friends whether they know the origin of the word turkey. Usually they shrug their shoulders. I decided to research the etymology of the word and discovered that it all began in the 1540s, when "guinea fowl" (Numida meleagris), was imported from Madagascar via Turkey, by Near East traders known as turkey merchants. By 1575, turkey was becoming the usual main course at an English Christmas. Around 1927, in business show slang, turkey in English meant "inferior show” and “failure", probably from the bird's reputation for stupidity - In few words, the word “turkey” is associated with Turkey, therefore, with the Balkans as well. In further words, am I wrong then if I think that in some way all roads lead to Balkans?


Turkeys made up an important part of my childhood in Albania. They lay on their back on the platters of Albania every New Year. The whole month of December was dedicated to turkeys. Albanians preferred buying them live, took very good care of them during a whole month and then put them to the sword (or to the knife more precisely) on New Year’s Eve. There were arguments in Albanian families about who should slay the turkey, because there were two completely opposite beliefs on how it should be done. According to the first, slaying a turkey brings luck; according to the latter it brings bad omens. Families who believed the second thesis usually hired a slaughterer. It’s always safe to make disgrace fall on the Others - even in regard to our own choices and pleasures.
I remember the turkeys invading my town, every year, in early December. My family lived on an apartment building and as a child I never had the chance to take care of a turkey.  Every New Year’s Eve, in the morning, my father went to the bazaar to buy the turkey live; he then slayed it himself, in the bathroom of our house, over a huge basin of warm water, using a perfect killing-technique, in order to not let the blood spill onto the floor and walls. Once, trying to satisfy my insatiable curiosity, I decided to secretly watch the killing procedure. I saw the red blood of the turkey, very similar to human blood, fill the basin, the body of the turkey shaking in my father’s hands, as if desperately asking for help; I couldn’t help the turkey and moreover, after noticing me, my father ordered me to stop watching. I fully identified with the victim; I remember myself crying for three days, every time that the image of the slain turkey invaded my memory. I refused to touch the turkey on our family New Year dinner table, considering it, almost, the result of a crime. My father told my mother “maybe we have a weird boy”.


In December turkeys gave life to our little grey town. Actually, we didn’t call them “turkey”; we called them “sea roosters”. I don’t know why. Maybe they were brought to Albania by ships. Adolescents gave them heroic human names and made them fight each other, the way Patricians used to do with gladiators in ancient Rome. Thanks to the turkeys we all felt Patricians for one month.
The turkeys were split into two categories. The domesticated turkeys and the wild turkeys. Albanians agreed with Englishmen about domesticated turkeys: they were considered rather silly animals. The wild turkeys instead were revered like holy cows in India; only wild turkeys had the “right” to fight. I assure you that wild turkeys are very proud animals and fierce fighters. They never abandon the battle without “destroying” their enemy. Some of the duels among wild turkeys became part of the heroic memory of our town. The famous duel, for example, between two wild turkeys, “Stalin” and “Ulysses” (a very famous name in Albania in the 80’s because of a film by that name, where the role of Ulysses was played by Bekim Fehmiu, a Hollywood actor of Albanian origin while Penelope was played by the Greek actress Irene Papas). That year, Stalin and Ulysses were considered the most terrific fighters, among all the turkeys of our town. Three days before New Year’s Eve they faced each other in a life and death duel, on a meadow on the outskirts of our town. A huge crowd – some even bringing old wooden chairs from their houses – gathered around the fighting wild turkeys. The crowd was absorbed by the fight and divided by it, some rooting for Stalin to kill Ulysses and others for Ulysses to kill that “motherfucker” - as they called Stalin. Ulysses won, even if it was politically incorrect, as you can imagine. The crowd, though, was so dizzy by the excitement of the battle that, for once, it didn’t pay attention to the fact that winning against Stalin was strictly forbidden. The owner of “Stalin”, a tall guy with read hair who looked more Russian than Albanian, disappointed and angry with his defeated turkey declared that he will kill Stalin by his own hand right away. “Ulysses” won but he never won his freedom. He also was sacrificed, in the cheerful day of New Year’s Eve. At least he had a glorious death. He had already become a legend...