home
biography
publications
reviews

form The Furies (The Athens News)

Survival of the less-than-fittest (in conversation with JK)

THINGS pile up, sometimes unbelievably; and you're sure the next wrong move or dose of bad luck will finally do you in. You somehow manage and wearily find you have the. stamina to endure what feels unendurable, but wonder if this is actually a good thing.
For anyone who has lived in Athens for any length of time it isn't surprising to hear the phrase "The variese. Ti na kanoume?" (Don't sweat it. What can you do?). The night before I had to catch an early- morning train, I booked a taxi to the train station, double-checking with the operator that the driver would be on time. I called again in the early morning. The operator said the cab was on its way.
But as time kept passing and the taxi didn't turn up, I called again. The driver eventually came, telling me breathlessly that "this was a one in a million situation". There had been a mixup; misinformed, the original driver had, in fact, gone elsewhere.
I was furious. "This never happens," he repeated. "But it did," I said, wishing we could fly to the station instead of arguing.
"Ti na kanoume?" he finally said, as in "what is there to be done about it now?"
The taxi driver wanted me to realise what he had done to overcome the mixup and to appreciate it.
"Ti na kanoume? The variese" is a refrain I often hear at that crucial moment when what looks hopeless is nevertheless discussed for whatever slim potential might remain for overcoming or explaining anything from mundane mistakes to outright disasters. Discussion is there to keep us - in a manner however frail - connected to given reality.
In the neighbourhood coffee shop I am listening to the owner tell a regular customer that he owes 80 euros; the owner with his narrow strip of thin cardboard of tabulations is insisting he be paid. The customer pulls out a wad of bills shaking his head. "I don't have it," he says to the owner, half smiling, taking what feels like forever to slowly flip through the bills.
"What can I tell you, " the owner answers, not happy. "I'll give you something," the
client adds quickly, "but not 80 euros."
"The variese," the owner says, in a tone of practical resignation. I watch as the client licks through five bills of 10 euros and puts them, with some ceremony, onto the counter. Theowner nods, scratching off something from the cardboard and circling something else. The client leaves with a
nod. "See you tomorrow," he adds, to which the owner nods in return.
The scene made me think of a discussion I had a year ago on the New Jersey transit train into New York City.
A man, who later introduced himself as a priest, was curious how I felt about being in the States after so much time away. I mentioned, among other things, that what struck me most was the drive for perfection. "People refuse to admit to failure," I said, thinking as much about the current politics as I was about the saleswoman who wanted to sell me a product I didn't need when the shampoo
I asked for was not in stock. He nodded.
"We're taught to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps in this country, but forget some people don't even have boots," he said.
In Greece we seem surprised when the bootstraps'actually hold up, expecting them to be less than perfect - even preparing for the fact. This makes for all sorts of strange challenges to how one differentiates between avoidable and unavoidable mistakes or disasters.
"Why did it take you two days to come and fix the pipe? " my neighbour was almost shouting. The worker from the water company explained that a pipe had mistakenly been severed in a public works trench that cut across a street, and all apartments in the neighbourhood had temporarily lost their water supply.
"It's a human mistake" he pointed out politely. "And humans pay for them," my neighbour answered less politely, "and don't tell me 'ti m kanoume'\" She was now yelling, and he could say nothing more.
When I later found myself in the unlucky spot of approaching a new toll and realised I had taken a bag without my wallet, I discovered an unexpected dignity in the expression. I scrounged for coins which totalled 1.74 euros. The toll was 2 euros. I was breaking out in a cold sweat as I drove up to the toll and told the young man attending that I didn't have the right change.
"How much do you have? " he asked politely.
"1.74," I said in a combination of shame and panic.
"I'll cover you," he said, "ti na kanoume."


© 2006 Adrianne Kalfopoulou, Author. All Rights Reserved
akalf@hol.gr