This piece was commissioned and published by DUST magazine (issue 8, November 2015).
Date: September 27, 2015 3:24:01 AM GMT+03:00
Subject: Hello from Athens
Another day has passed, and I’m still sitting in front of this old, noisy laptop. I suddenly realise it’s ten o’clock at night — it’s too late to make more coffee now, or to go shop for dinner. How did time pass so quickly again? Regardless, spending the hours away from you makes life unspeakably monotonous.
Silence hides in the corners of my room. Shy, weak; breathing wearily. There’s a fragile balance in all this. I dare not move: spaces should be left intact sometimes…
I hope you still do things as you used to: your cigarette-rolling ritual, your Bach in the mornings. Your dog, to be walked every day at 1 p.m. — your cats, allowed to run on the rooftop after midnight. The other day I realised that my cat looks a lot like you — she even moves like you I think, particularly in the way she sits on her side and twists her torso to see me as I turn the pages of a book. Your balcony, your plants… I never said goodbye to your plants; or to you, for that matter.
Wet and odourless places are far away now; here in Athens it’s all dry and particularly hard. Although I do love hard surfaces (stones, metals, concrete floors), I discovered that desire evaporates under certain conditions — it’s a strange fluid, you might say. I have a day job now, I do my taxes… I also bought that flat I was telling you about — well, my parents did. I tore all the walls down and I’m redecorating it from scratch. I don’t think I have the budget to finish it though… And I’m still perplexed with the idea of owning property — that a small part of this city is now legally mine. Everyone thinks it’s amazing that I bought this flat, that it’s great to have your very own home somewhere. I on the other hand find it weird that one can buy a “home” in the first place. Especially someone like me, who is so far away from home to begin with.
My mother texted me the other day: “They came and took your piano. I can’t believe it. The house is so empty, one by one all the rooms are emptying. Please don’t be sad.” Of course she meant that she and my father back in Cyprus sold my piano to someone. My father never liked that piano; he thought it took up too much space in the living room. That instrument was bought when I was eight years old — that’s 23 years ago. (How old where you then, I wonder? And where were you?) It was a shiny black Korean upright, but I have to admit I never practiced on it as much as I should have. Anyway, I composed my first piece on that piano, and many crappy cassettes were recorded in that living room. I still have them somewhere, I guess. Next time I’m there, I will play them on my dad’s hi-fi; it will be weird to listen to a recording from twenty years ago in the same room it was recorded, but without the piano there.
My relationship with the piano as an instrument in general has always been very confusing… Maybe because it’s so immobile, like a press machine, I could never carry it along to a party or an improvisation jam or whatever… A piano has its own locality; you must go to it, it can’t come to you. And even if it does get moved to come to you, it is always by means of significant manpower and hustle. Not to mention that, once it’s moved, it’s then irreversibly altered: its frame shifts, its sound changes, it becomes a different instrument.
Pianos cannot cover any distance without changing. In their monolithic gravity, they are both an object and a place; like temples, or homes, are.
I read this story about a Syrian pianist who had put his piano on wheels and was moving it around the ruins of Yarmouk, playing for people amidst the war. When he eventually had to flee the country a few weeks ago, he left his piano and family behind. Now, a refugee crossing Europe, he carries an electric keyboard with him that runs on batteries: a cheap, depressing substitute. When our instruments are taken away from us, all that remains is a raw, unresolved desire for making — I guess that’s the kind of frustration where some traditional songs come from.
Yesterday I spent ten hours loading a container with aid for refugees who arrive on the Greek islands. For a day, a Greek taxi company offered free transportation to anyone who wanted to send useful things to the welcoming centres on Kos and elsewhere, such as clothes, food, blankets, toys and the like. The team of volunteers I was part of was responsible for separating all these stuff as they arrived, pack them up in boxes and put them in the container. The response was overwhelming: taxis kept coming for hours, loaded with bags and boxes. We kept working even after sunset, although we were out on a parking lot and there wasn’t much light. We eventually filled the container, which then was shipped off to Lesvos.
Why do people find it so hard to donate ten kilos of rice or an hour’s worth of voluntary labour, but are always ready to bury you in their clothes?
What really impressed me however is how easily people dump all their old clothes on you whenever they can. I mean, all refugee centres in Greece at the moment are asking people to stop bringing clothes. What is this thing with clothing that makes it different from food for example? Why do people find it so hard to donate ten kilos of rice or an hour’s worth of voluntary labour, but are always ready to bury you in their clothes? The same happened at that new refugee squat in Eksarxeia; I don’t know if you heard about it, but a group squatted an abandoned public building there in late September and turned it into a self-managed accommodation centre for refugees and migrants. After a couple of days, the place was brimming with clothes — so many, that there is hardly any room for the food supplies now. Maybe this is because we all have too many clothes; or because people love stuffing other people’s needs with rags, like they do with dolls and teddy bears.
This morning I went to the Eksarxeia squat to do my shift. After we served the guests breakfast and cleaned a bit, there wasn’t much else to do but wait for lunchtime. We then noticed a little Afgan girl, who was spending a few days there with her family on their way to Germany, walking up and down looking for something to play with. One of us then asked whether we should open the “nursery room” and bring the children there. I said I could go and keep an eye on the children for a while, so I took the key and waved the little girl to follow me. She followed me hesitantly. We went upstairs and opened the room; it was full of plush toys people had donated to the squat, as well as drawing materials and other games.
I thought that the best way to start communicating would be to draw something together.
I thought that the best way to start communicating would be to draw something together, so we sat down at a little desk and pulled out some paper and markers. Soon, the girl’s two-year-old sister arrived with their mother. I kept on drawing on the paper with the children: I was drawing black outlines of different objects and the girls were filling in the colours. At some point, the oldest of the two, who must be four or five, pointed at herself and said: “Zahar.” Then she pointed at her sister and said: “Mobina.” She also knew a few words in English — well, basically she could say “no” and count to three. But she was repeating things I was telling her, in English and Greek — it was really amazing. A few minutes later she got up and was trying to write something on one of those erasable plastic writing boards. I kneeled next to her and she said “I love you.” I thought she was repeating random English again, so I picked up the marker and wrote the phrase on the little board and spelled the words one by one for her. She nodded affirmatively: “I love you.”
Is that how love works? How can you trust someone completely without understanding a word they say and after crossing half a continent full of war? Zahar and Mobina’s father is probably my age, their mother even younger; I have never seen people so destitute before, so exhausted and frightened, yet striving to provide a fraction of security and peace to their children. Each person that crosses the sea from Turkey to Greece has a similar story to tell. The most heart-rending are the stories of single-parent families and unescorted minors who lost their relatives along the way. A friend of a friend who lives on Lesvos used to go underwater fishing as a hobby— until the began finding the bodies of the drowned stuck between the rocks at the bottom of the sea.
It’s hard to sleep at night with all these happening around you. It’s hard to concentrate on whatever else you have to do — or rather, whatever it was that I thought was important now seems completely insignificant. I’m sorry I wrote so much, I know you’re not a reading person. But I just wanted to share all these with you. Maybe it’s because you call me “husband” now and then, even though we haven’t seen each other for two years. Is this a bond that still lasts because it has roots that are deep, or is it just a sort of habit, a fire alarm-button that we press from time to time to cover the silence? Who knows…
I like my home when it’s so silent, those moments when the cats are asleep and it’s nighttime and it’s just this thick, harmless silence all around. I like it because I feel insulated with air: the distance between me and the walls becomes an airbag that keeps me protected — as if, any moment now, the whole apartment were to break off and fall, like icebergs do there where the glaciers meet the sea.
I’m beginning to make no sense, and it’s already very late. I promised myself I would come and visit you. I will try to do so soon.