[25 August 2011]
I. Last Days
Our Global Prowl was truncated one hot day in Heraklion when I got the news my grandmother had died in Sydney. I had been calling her every week from the road. She didn’t have a good sense of geography. From Montreal and Mexico City and Lisbon I told her to find me on the world map in her disintegrating Pears Cyclopaedia. Nan was an 85-year-old with the good humour and alertness and physical agility of a woman 20 years younger. Then one day she was no longer at the other end of the telephone line.
Clare and I made arrangements to go home immediately. It was a sad and bitter way to end six months of backpacking. It would take us four flights and about 40 hours to get back from Crete. We began with a dawn flight to Athens through clear Aegean skies. We had to wait until evening to continue on to Frankfurt, then to Bangkok, then to Sydney. Rather than stew at Elefthérios Venizélos Airport all day, we got on the metro and rode out to Akropoli Station. I love Athens and even a few hours in its streets was a welcome distraction.
I had last been in the city some months before the riots of 2008. The police shooting of a 15-year-old boy in the Exarchia neighbourhood that December was the catalyst for nation-wide protests that spilled into riots, but other problems were gurgling in the bloated gut of Greece. Wages and pensions were low while food and rent and everyday items seemed as expensive as in Western Europe. I had met many young Greeks who couldn’t get jobs. Educated people who couldn’t move out of menial jobs. Life for the average person had become more and more impoverished and without hope.
Since 2008 the country has descended further into economic catastrophe, lumped into the cruelly-named group of PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain) which soon became PIIGS (adding Ireland to the ash heap). In May 2010 further mass protests rose up in Greece against a round of austerity measures mandated by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund in exchange for a bailout package. Several people died in those protests.
Clare and I passed through Athens in May, just before a new and larger protest movement, the aganaktismenoi, was to rise up in Syntagma Square. This is the Greek version of the Spanish indignados who had camped in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol from 15 May (we missed that protest by two months). These latest Greek protests culminated at the end of June when the national parliament passed yet another round of budget cuts, privatisation, and higher taxes.
Savas Robolis, a professor of Economics and Social Policy at Panteion University, recently predicted a 40 percent decline in living standards for Greek employees and pensioners between 2008 and 2015 as a consequence of the austerity measures. (Spiegel Online, 19 July 2011)
So Athens is not exactly an economically viable city for an expatriate writer.
Maria Margaronis, writing about contemporary Greece in The Nation (28 June 2011), describes “the sense of powerlessness, resentment and humiliation that finds no foothold in democracy, reaching instead for scapegoats and too-easy answers.” There is also an “uncontainable migration crisis. Tens of thousands of Afghans, Iraqis, Pakistanis, Bengalis, Somalis, and North Africans are packed into crumbling buildings owned by slumlords, mostly Greek, who double as traffickers.”
“Already parts of Athens look like New York City circa 1980, with shut-up shops, derelict buildings and graffitied walls… depression is endemic. Suicide rates have soared. For Greeks, this is much more than an economic crisis. It is a social and political convulsion unlike anything seen here at least since the fall of the colonels’ dictatorship in 1974.”
The year 2011 has seen feverish political activity around the Mediterranean—the Arab Spring across North Africa and the Middle East, huge protests in the EU from west to east. As Clare and I crossed Western Europe to Central Asia and back, we’ve naturally read mainstream and independent internet news (plus blogs and tweets). But the real news has come from the eyewitness stories of fellow backpackers. Over late night drinks in hostels we heard from people present in Cairo during the early stages of the revolution in Tahrir Square, or exiled from Damascus because of the protests against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad.
Something was happening in early 2011.
Memories of the Ragtag Plaka Crew
Waiting for our evening flight, Clare and I went to lunch at the Taverna Restaurant in the Athenian neighbourhood of Plaka, close to Brettos Bar on Kidathineon Street. I ordered stuffed tomatoes. Over a long quiet lunch I thought back to my solo backpacking trip of 2008, before Clare and I got together.
What images of Greek life in 2008 made the international media? Molotov cocktails, broken glass, riot police, clouds of tear gas, and the big Christmas tree in Syntagma Square enveloped in flames. But earlier that year in Athens I found a city of impassioned conversation and barely-suppressible energy. As is customary on the international backpacker circuit, I found friendship and uneasy acquaintance with both locals and travelers—a new crew in every city. The Ragtag Plaka Crew rendezvoused and caroused in Monastiraki or at Brettos in Plaka, where the bartenders would push Bloody Marys into your hands when you were already drunk. Dionysus still rules that neighbourhood. Everybody talked late into the night. Finally we walked back to our hotels and hostels. I remember a Charlie Parker record playing to the deserted streets from some phantom loudspeaker.
One day when I was on the Athenian peak of Mount Lycabettus, accessible by funicular railway, I started talking to two Polish women in their 30s named Magda and Anka. Red-headed Magda was an unlikely Polish Russophile—she dreamed of taking the Trans-Siberian Railway all the way to Vladivostok. I didn’t like her chances because she hadn’t yet been able to figure out the Athens Metro. Since I knew how to join the blue line at Evangelismos, they invited me to come along and sup with them and a Greek friend. We decamped to a souvlaki joint in Monastiraki and downed glasses of Mythos Beer. Prince’s snoozy easy-jazz record N.E.W.S. played on a loop.
The Greek friend was a blue-eyed 30-ish character named Alex, a real estate agent on a Greek island. He was well-educated, multilingual, and full of resentment. He curled his lip at the lurking emo kids and barked abuse at the Nigerian hawkers who approached our table with bootleg DVDs, pens, and roses for us to buy our Polish lady friends.
“Monkeys,” Alex said. “Give them a banana.”
I felt something wilt inside me and said I had to get going, but Magda slipped her hand into mine under the table and asked me to stay awhile. Then the food arrived (dolmades for me) and the inevitable interrogation began. “You’re a vegan?” Alex, masticating his mince, refused to let me pay for a meal so laughably insubstantial.
“Maybe I should have given you the banana,” he said with a chuckle.
Another afternoon while walking around the Parthenon I met Svetlana and Martina, two Czech women working as nannies in England. They’d come to Greece on ten quid plane tickets. Martina said she had to return to London the next morning, but Svetlana was here for three more days.
“Wednesday I go back and look after little shits,” she said. “What you do tomorrow?”
“I’m going to take a ferry to one of the islands in the Saronic Gulf,” I said. “Maybe Aegina.”
“Yes, we do this. I come, too.”
Wind from the East
Svetlana and I took a train to the port of Piraeus and a ferry to Aegina, the closest large island. The sun was high in a cloudless sky. The port was packed with dirty fishing boats and piled nets. I bought a pineapple from a fruit stall on a docked boat. People zoomed past on motor scooters. In one of the shops by the waterfront I found Dimitris Papadimitriou’s soundtrack for Anastasia, my favourite mid-‘90s slow-as-watching-paint-dry Greek soap opera. It’s the one where the girl two-times the father Pavlos with the son Alexandros. Or is it the son with the father? Anyway, the shop owner was thrilled. He blew the dust off the CD case and said, “Yes, this was very good show!”
Svetlana and I decided to hire a car.
“Thirty-five euros,” said the young man at the hire desk.
“No way, I heard you give these cars for twenty-five,” Svetlana said.
“No, impossible…you can’t…” He frowned. “We make no money that way.”
Svetlana smiled. “Yes, I’m sure you can do something.”
“I have to ask my mother.”
“And make it red car, yes?” To me, laughing: “He ask his mother!”
The man went into the back room. We heard an old lady shouting in Greek. Finally the man came back and handed over the keys.
The red hatchback was a manual transmission. I could only drive an automatic. Svetlana took the wheel. “Not worth more than twenty,” she said as the car croaked along Leoforos Dimokratias. The sun burned above. We left the port and wove through bald hills of spindly olive trees, white-and-blue churches, holiday villas. We pulled off the road at a restaurant amid groves of lemon trees. The place was shut up for the winter. Svetlana pulled down her jeans and squatted in the grass to piss. I stole some lemons.
Svetlana decided it was time I learned to drive a real car. I got into the driver’s seat. “Don’t worry,” she said as I stalled coming down the next hill. “You can’t wreck this car any worse than already is.” At the first corner I nearly smacked into a herd of goats. The old goatherd leaned into the car to show me how to use the clutch. I got the hang of it.
Beyond the village of Mesagros we headed for the Temple of Aphaia. I parked. We hiked to the summit and raised clouds of dust from the hillside with our boots. We were alone at the temple. It was noon and the colonnades barely threw a shadow. The sky was blindingly blue and hazy at the horizon. Svetlana took photos of herself in front of the temple. I gazed east across the Saronic Gulf to the ghostly mainland: Attica. A Homeric vision. Gulls winged above the sea. The wind from the east blew hard and salty.
For lunch we drove to the Agia Marina on the eastern coast of the island, almost a ghost town at that time of year. The rocky coastline was crowded with closed-up white-and-blue hotels. We found a supermarket and bought a big bottle of Mythos beer, a jar of olives, bread, tomatoes, and camembert (for Svetlana).
“You don’t eat cheese?” she said. “My God, what you eat?”
We sat in the sun on a stone wall at the shore, making sandwiches and drinking the beer and twirling our bare toes in the limpid sapphire water. A duck clucked by to harass us for food scraps. Svetlana and I compared histories. My school pledge had been to God, Queen, and School, while hers was:
“To Lenin and the workers of the world!”
Since then we’d both rebelled: I’d become a republican atheist, while the grown-up Svetlana showed little solidarity with the downtrodden.
“The worst are the blacks,” she told me.
I called her a fucking racist.
“Ha,” she said. “You don’t know.”
She drove me back across the island. We returned the car without refilling the tank (“This guy not know,” Svetlana chuckled). The sun was starting to sink into a wraith of low-drifting cirrus. There were white-hot sparkles on the water. Our shadows were long on the wharf near the miniature Church of Agios Nikolaos. The last ferry, the Giorgios, was docked.
“Coming back to Athens?” she said.
“I like it here.”
“My God, so boring.”
She caught the ferry. I checked into a little hotel at the port. It was cheap. There was a small table on the terrace with a view out to sea.
Later, back in Athens, I forgot about the Ragtag Plaka Crew and spent my days and nights with a beautiful Albanian girl who worked in a shop in Plaka. We formed our own crew of two. She was trying to find a new job in Athens or in the islands but having no luck. She was studying Human Resources Management by correspondence. Some nights she had to read her textbook to prepare for an exam. I was reading Kafka’s The Castle. I figured her book lied about power, while mine told the truth.
It began to rain with fury beneath the Acropolis. The afternoon was wearing on and soon Clare and I would have to get back to the Airport to continue the long journey home. We travelled one metro stop to Syntagma Square in front of the nation’s parliament where protestors would take up residence later in May and June. For now, everything was calm. Misty rain drifted to the pavement. Athenians were wandering about, eating on the square’s wet benches. We wandered down Ermou Street, the shopping thoroughfare which leads to Monastiraki. I went to the bathroom in the Syntagma McDonalds. It would be vandalised in the June protests. That day it was full of teenagers in raincoats. The windows were steamed up.
Clare and I went back down to the Syntagma metro station and rode out to the airport for our flight. I tried to distract myself by reading the second volume of Simon Callow’s Orson Welles biography, Hello Americans. I watched Guillaume Canet’s Les petits mouchoirs (translated as Little White Lies), an awful and interminably episodic movie about the French bourgeoisie on vacation in Cap Ferret, a movie trying very self-consciously to make a generational statement about thirtysomethings. From my outsider’s perspective, it had no feel for the European zeitgeist; it had nothing to with the young people we’d met on our global prowl.
It was a long trip back to a bitter winter Sydney dawn.
Weeks later an expatriate English blogger living in Greece, who goes by the online name of Teacher Dude, wrote of Syntagma Square on June 29:
“Even though I have seen lots of upheaval in Greece, including the violent uprising in December 2008, the level of violence I witnessed in Syntagma was of a new order of magnitude and it seemed that it was ushering in a violently different relationship between the Greek government and the people they are supposed to represent.”
A few weeks after our return to Sydney there was a brief coda to the Global Prowl. I left Clare in Sydney and spent four days in Melbourne, Australia’s second-largest city. You might think that cosmopolitan Melbourne is the obvious alternative for somebody priced-out of Sydney. I had a look at some figures. It wasn’t encouraging.
The June 2011 Worldwide Cost of Living survey, prepared by the Economist Intelligence Unit, a sister company of the Economist magazine, ranks Melbourne as the 7th most expensive city in the world. Sydney is at number 6. Perth and Brisbane are 13th and 14th. This is more disheartening when you remember that these are four of only five cities in Australia with a population over 600,000. That’s across the entire 7.69 million square kilometres of the isolated Australian continent.
The Economist survey, designed for expatriate business people, does not factor in the price of housing, so I looked elsewhere for that information. It was a bit more encouraging. On July 18 the Melbourne Age reported on data collected by Australian Property Monitors: “The median asking rental for a house in Sydney is [AU]$490 per week, which is 36 per cent more expensive than Melbourne’s median house rentals. Median unit rentals in Sydney at $450 are 29 per cent higher than Melbourne’s.”
Melbourne, the capital of the southern state of Victoria, lies on the Yarra River. Like Sydney, the city sprawls into endless suburbs. Unlike Sydney, which abandoned its tram network in the ‘50s—the future is cars!—central Melbourne is still navigable by the world’s most expansive tram network. It makes for an easy city to get around.
I was staying in town with my sister at her place in North Carlton, just a few minutes north of the city centre. It was a week of wintry gales and constant rain. But in typical Melbourne style, many things were happening; an Emerging Writers’ Festival and the annual International Jazz Festival.
The 80-year-old Sonny Rollins hobbled onto the stage of the Melbourne Town Hall in a billowing red shirt, wearing a white beard and a halo of white fuzz. He began by riffing on ‘Newark News’. Sonny worked his playing into shape, got speedier and more proficient as he went on, but his signature sound, a warm dark tone that filled the cavernous Town Hall—who needs the Grand Organ?—was there from the beginning. Rollins waddled in a hunch across the stage, jabbing his horn towards the crowd as he soloed. At moments he stopped playing to wave in irritation at the people filming the gig on their phones. They stopped.
The arrangements were not as exciting as Sonny’s playing. Most of the time he improvised glorious rhapsodies over slow standard changes and calypso vamps. The band comprised competent musicians who never drew much attention from the leader: Bon Cranshaw was the stalwart and ever-youthful bass player, joined by Peter Bernstein (guitar), Kobie Watkins (drums) and Sammy Figueroa (percussion). The performance concluded with the old calypso ‘Don’t Stop the Carnival’. Sonny worked around the melody, repeatedly coming back to it, laying out variations.
Although the Melbourne gig was probably superior to the Sydney Opera House performance of four days earlier, which I’d also seen, it did not feature that show’s long jam on ‘Sonny, Please’, a runaway train groove that Sonny chased and tamed with sheets-of-sound velocity and limitless nuance. But he always sounded like he was having the time of his life.
In his courteous and soft but husky voice Sonny thanked the Melbourne audience for the city’s hospitality. “I believe in the golden rule—do unto others,” he said. “I’m sorry, but I do!”
The Humble Colossus in Conversation
The next day I went to the Forum on Flinders Street, a ‘20s theatre opposite Federation Square, for an audience Q&A session with Sonny Rollins. The small crowd consisted mostly of young musicians. It was another cold wet day. Sonny came out on stage in a red beanie and a heavy coat.
He spoke of his childhood love for Louis Jordan. He said he learned humility from trumpeter Clifford Brown, who was both great and humble. And Rollins displayed his own humility, insisting that sure, his gift was for music, but a librarian could be equally gifted putting together a shelf of books and helping people to read. To the amusement of the audience, he admitted that he was initially “almost embarrassed” to play on a Rolling Stones record (‘Waiting on a Friend’).
Because Sonny likes to play unusual standards—on this tour he played Lester Lee and Bob Russell’s ‘Blue Gardenia’, originally performed by Nat King Cole—I asked him what the American songbook has meant to him as a musician.
“The American songbook? It’s a treasure. I went to the movies a lot as a kid, so I know all the songs. I love Irving Berlin but my favourite is Jerome Kern.” He was emphatic that jazz musicians had done a lot for American standards. “Take ‘Body and Soul’,” Sonny said. “Coleman Hawkins made a masterpiece out of what was really a pretty schmaltzy tune.” Later he added that he believed improvisation to be “the supreme form of composition.”
Rollins also believes in reincarnation. He is confident the lessons of this life will be carried over into the next. “Otherwise what’s the point of existence?” he said. “To eat more ice cream? I’ve had my share of Häagen-Dazs and it didn’t do me any good!”
Emerging Writers and Hypnotic Brass
While jazz was playing across town, I went to Federation Square to check out the zine fair of the Emerging Writers’ Festival. Rows of trestle tables were staffed by authors and editors selling indie novels, art journals, comics, and handmade zines.
So what’s happening in Melbourne’s indie publishing scene? There is the work of Gracia Haby and Louise Jennison, two young Melbourne book artists. I bought a copy of But I just got here a minute ago (vol I), one of Haby’s small limited edition zines, created from a series of appropriated postcards from the old USSR, Poland, and Korea. Pictures of animals have been added to the cityscapes on the postcards, and there is a handwritten epistolary text to accompany the images.
I also bought an impressively printed colour comic book called The Dirt Nap illustrated by Melbourne artist Brendan Halyday. Some independent publishers and writers groups from Sydney were down for the festival, including Penguin Plays Rough, who organise story readings in Sydney’s Inner-West and have published anthologies for print and ebooks.
That night I went back over to the Forum to see another Jazz Festival performance. The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble come from Chicago’s South Side, eight sons of the former Sun-Ra Arkestra trumpet player Phil Cohran. They combine impressively tight horn charts with hip-hop and chanting and bravura showmanship. Only recently the ensemble were busking in the streets of Manhattan. Shakily-filmed clips of their street performances were winding up on YouTube. Soon, bareshirted and bathed in blue light, the brothers jumped up and down in sync as they ran through their repertoire. The only thing really missing was solos and improvisation. The packed-in crowd loved it.
I left Melbourne knowing it was the final stop on the long road leading back to Sydney. The global prowl took Clare and I about 60,000 kilometres. We visited four continents, taking in 11 countries, about 20 cities, plus many towns and villages.
Back in Sydney in temporary accommodation and grounded for the immediate future, I’ve begun to study Spanish and prepare for a new semester of teaching creative writing to undergraduates at university. Clare has gone back to archeology. By necessity we’re hoping to hole up in a new flat in Sydney for at least the next 18 months. But the outlook for low-income renters seems even bleaker than it was when we gave up our Petersham flat at the end of 2010: a one percent vacancy rate and ever-rising rents. I don’t see Clare and I being able to stay in this city for the long term.
But why fight it? As you’ve seen, there are a lot of fun cities around the globe.
Matthew Asprey is the author of the novellas Sonny's Guerrillas and Red Hills of Africa and the editor of Jack London: San Francisco Stories. Check out www.matthewasprey.com and Matthew's blog, Honey for the Bears.