Saturday, March 28, 2015

Fifty Shades of Snow (Part II)

March brought us some good news. The temperature started rising and some warm and timid sunny rays crept into our freezing winter. The snow started thinning away. It also started turning black, like the countenance of a humiliated warrior who can’t do anything about the incumbent defeat.  No more snow-slopes on the sidewalks. We got into the habit of contemplating them every day for the past two months. Snow-banks and snow-slopes have now turned into narrow black-and-white strips. It’s a sign that spring is around the corner (or so we hope). There are even days when I can hear spring’s quiet whisper. But the next moment I am brought back again into the wintry reality I was dreaming of leaving behind. Suddenly, the temperature begins to drop and a chilly wind cuts straight to the bones, like a chainsaw. The snow never surrenders till it melts away, until it totally disappears. The snow is stubborn. Winters in these parts of the world are stubborn, springs and summers are fragile and autumns just gorgeous.

I received a message regarding the essay I wrote on the four ages of snow, sent by a friend who belongs to the category of “genuine Bostonians”. He wrote that he found it really funny; at the end of his message he added that, in any case, “snow makes us patient and resilient”. I have often thought about this during the harsh winter. I asked myself whether the snow might really play a decisive role in shaping the singular characters of people living with it. Let me say first that I am rather skeptical of deterministic theories which try to explain human behavior and environment in terms of cause-and-effect. In the past, I have heard people going so far as to explain even the rise of Nazism in Germany based on some weird “environmentalist” theories. According to these “theories” Nazism could have thrived only in freezing and snowy weather because under such conditions people become introverted and get obsessed with discipline. While people living in sunny climates are usually extroverted and inclined towards anarchy.  It is not my intention to spend the rest of this sunny and cold day here in Boston trying to contradict/dismiss such “theories”. Just allow me to mention a few facts. The last three fascist dictatorships in Europe were all in sunny places: Greece, Spain and Portugal (they collapsed in the mid-70s). Actually, the most genuine Nazi party in Europe at this very moment is thriving in the south; its name is Golden Dawn and it’s the third biggest political party in Greece.
Traveling and living through North and South I have discovered that human behavior is far more complicated, far more weird, nasty, beautiful, unpredictable and phenomenal than all the meteorological phenomena put together. Nevertheless, this winter, I felt tempted to draw some cultural conclusions while watching people make their way through blizzards. Snow “trains” you to become a skillful observer; into carefully planning your own steps. Snow, especially in its icy version, requires maximum attention while you walk on it. Daydreaming might cost you a broken leg or a broken neck. I have to admit that snow “taught” me to become less distracted and more pragmatic. It happened inadvertently. Therefore, my genuine Bostonian friend might be right; living with snow might make you become more patient, pragmatic and resilient. 

Personally I consider human behavior and moral values far more important than weather. What do I mean by this? I mean that if I had to choose between living under an oppressive political regime or under the most oppressive freezing winter I would choose the latter without a second thought. If I had to choose between living surrounded by racists and nationalists or surrounded by nasty weather, intolerable blizzards and icebergs I would choose the latter without a second thought. If I had to choose living in a sunny place without a future or in the coldest place in the whole world where I can re-invent myself I would choose the latter without a second thought.
In his book Traveling with Charley, John Steinbeck writes: "I've lived in good climate, and it bores the hell out of me. I like weather rather than climate." Fortunately or unfortunately, I can’t say the same. Living in a good climate doesn’t bore the hell out of me. Because I have lived for a long time in good climates, perhaps. At the same time, it bores the hell out of me to hear people who come from good climates  complain all the time about the cold weather, constantly comparing it with the good weather back home. Sometimes, I have the impression that they are trying hard to project the cause of all their insecurities and failures on the low temperatures or the lack of sun.  Winter becomes their scapegoat.
I can’t say I was happy with the harsh winter of this year. I started dreaming of moving toward more “friendly” climates, like California. This winter will remain though unforgettable for me. Not because of  the inches of snow and the frequent snow-storm alerts. During one of the worst blizzard-nights, when everything, immobile and mobile, seemed buried under layers of snow and unable to do anything else outside my house, I went to check my mailbox. There was a white envelope in there with  “Urgent” written on it. It was from the Immigration Service. I opened it with agony and there was a card in it; its color was green. It was my Green Card, accompanied by a letter which read “Welcome to the United States of America”. I watched the snow falling incessantly outside, covering everything, and I felt something like spring leaping within me.
In the meantime, we all are waiting for  spring to come. Exhausted by a very disrespectful winter. Perhaps it’s the southerner within me that makes me feel impatient about the upcoming spring; I want it to be here as soon as possible. I want to listen to its whisper, to feel its melodies intoxicate my mind and my body, to feel the blood moving faster in my veins, to walk daydreaming in the streets while trees and people are coming out of hibernation. Then, when  fragile spring  finally arrives,  stubborn winter will be buried into oblivion. Till next time, when winter will be back again and its snow-banks will invade and occupy the sidewalks once more . Till next time, when winter will be back again, instilling boredom in our souls and “training” us into becoming a bit more patient, pragmatic and resilient…

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; 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…