Conversations about Memory

My father had an excellent memory that he exercised often.  He remembered dates, figures, names and faces, events and patterns. What was amazing was that he had an excellent memory of his visits to Greece, where he spent six or eight weeks a year. These memories filled his life.

He was a good conversationalist and a good story teller. Not that he wanted to be the centre of attraction, but he was when he told a story. I suppose this blog is about those stories.

But his good memory was more than that… He created or precipitated or anticipated the event that would create the memory. He would gather as much information as possible about the event and people before hand, and then he would participate in the event, retell the story many times afterwards, so that it was committed to memory.

I suppose one of the other aspects of his good memory is that he never allowed poisonous people to drag him down. He just cut them off, and did not see them nor speak to them. There were not many people like that, a handful perhaps. There were many people that he had disagreements with; sometimes they agreed to disagree and still things worked out.

He had another unusual aspect of memory. One does not see that around much today: the inherited memory. He had this huge repository of information of the village in Greece from his father, Uncle Piet and his mother. His other cousins who came out later from the village also helped  create this vision of Arcadia for him, so that when he went there for the first time in his thirties it was almost like he knew every church, every family and even the position of the headstones in the small cemetery on the hill, surrounded by tall cypress trees.

His memory would be expanded at the kafeneio, when he sat and caught up the previous day’s events, or when they played cards in the evening, and he used the numbers and suites to sharpen his mind. A great repository of historical memory came from Old man George Simbonis. He was really my father’s best friend, even though he was a generation ahead and was almost a contemporary of my grandfather. My father would see him every day he was in the village, and spend an hour just chatting. Going over the details of some past event, of current Greek politics, of world politics or of family politics. The Old Man always had a sparkle in his eye and knowingly raised his arthritic finger to his temple, his sharp blue eyes close, when he made a point, with a sweet smile that was almost feminine but probably came from an Arcadian forebear called Diotima.

Yes, memory can extend that far back, to the ancients, in our collective unconscious. Not all of us can tap into that power. The noise of modern living distracts us from the roots of the past and we easily lose our way.

Surreal Sea

Conversations at Keza’s

Gia sou Vasili. Ela. Ti nea? Ti na sou keraso?”

Keza always greeted me almost like a son. Definitely like a nephew. His kafeneio is up in the village, a block away from the main square and church, in front of a triangle of roads where three roads meet in a low triangle.

“Your health, Basil. What news? What can I offer you?”

When I was younger I would ask for a gazoza, a carbonated drink. Now I ask for a coffee, metrio, and a cognac in the morning, or an ouzo in the afternoon.

The kafeneio is the heart of democratic royalists. Occasionally a visitor of another persuasion may attend, by virtue of a polite invitation, but most times the politics that is spoken is weighted on the right. In summer everybody sits outside, now around small metal tables and clean slatted chairs with rattan seats. The original furniture was rough wooden tables with village wooden chairs, the bases supported by tension wires under the straw woven seats. At one stage in the nineties when China flooded the market with cheap garish desire, the chairs worn chairs were replaced with ugly white characterless chairs. At least he recovered some sensibility in the local interior design sphere.

The long veranda faces east and is covered by a vine. The trunks of these are old and gnarled, the bark replicating the faces of some of the village men who sit in the shade of the translucent green leaves in the afternoon. The floor is simple cement and runs into a square interior through cream painted French doors. During the summer day these are closed with a beaded curtain keeping out flies as Keza delivers drinks to the customers under the shade. As the flies rest for the evening, the doors are opened but everyone sits outside anyway. In winter they huddle along one wall to play cards.

Opposite the veranda a counter runs the length of the shop. For most of its length the dark rough wood is empty, and in the corner is a glass fronted refrigerator with some beers, cool drinks, cheese and meat. Next to that is the old till and besides that along the end wall a two gas burner. Here Keza can make coffee in a briki, or boil up some lamb or goat stew to feed his customers.

He keeps a flock of sheep attended by his son; his son has not finished school and is challenged. As people die and their gardens are left untended in the village he can be found grazing the sheep in forgotten garden singing baritone klepht songs that are so beautiful they haunt you. The sheep stayed behind the house, next to the kafeneio. The smell of lamb and mutton, their droppings and rancid fat from carcasses hanging next to the kitchen added strong flavour to the air of this rustic kafeneio.

Xarika pou se eida, Vasili. As sto kalo. Xairetismata

“I am happy to have seen you, Basil. Go well. Greetings to all.”

Autumn with Keza standing next to my father in the Kafeneio 17 September 2007