Thursday, October 17, 2013


    Let me start by describing the view from my mother's narrow balcony: concrete apartment buildings of 5 or 6 floors with balconies, a very narrow street populated by pigeons, small cars, motorcycles, and the occasional cat.  Pedestrians walk in the middle of the street because sidewalks are impassable, parked as they are with the aforementioned motorcycles or simply too narrow to maneuver with a bag. (Is there a synonym for narrow? I’m going to need it so as not to bore you with the word.) Balconies across the street are mostly empty of people these days but there are green plants, a table here, a chair there, some laundry hanging. People are away, on holiday as they like to say.  Holiday from what?  The top apartments of the buildings tend to be recessed and therefore offer larger, more spacious balconies called verandas. They’re like penthouses and coveted. 

    There are a handful of stores visible from my vantage point: a leather bag workshop, a car mechanic, an apartment-management office, an off-track betting parlor sort of shop but for the lottery and other sports, and, in the distance (in the corner) the confluence of two streets, a pharmacy, a frozen fish and seafood store, and a few more buildings.  If I look the other way I see an uphill street losing itself in the near mountain.
    On Sundays the accordionist strolls and plays around 10-11 in the morning, hoping for a few coins thrown from one of the balconies. On weekdays a small truck with loudspeakers rolls by announcing his intentions to buy whatever you might want to sell him: old appliances, rags, furniture, anything old and useless to you but obviously profitable to him. The sound or roar of motorcycles can drive me batty, especially at nap time or night time.  These days however the traffic on the street down below from the balcony has noticeably decreased. Few cars, few people make their way up and down.  Are they on holiday?
    The entire city seems deserted, emptier than I've ever seen it. Downtown on weekends you can bowl on the wide avenues – the few wide streets in the entire city. Taxis are so plentiful I am awed. And the drivers are so polite compared to the past that it is a pleasure to hail one as opposed to earlier times when I used to dread the thought of hailing a cab: if you weren't going their way, they wouldn’t take you; if there was someone else in it, they’d ask you where you’re going and decide if they would let you in. Today they beg for fares, lined up in corners one after another – 6 or 7 or 8.
    Let me continue by describing the farmer’s market where you buy a kilo or two of peaches or eggplants or green beans or lemons – never one or two – “they’ll laugh at you” my mother says.  And lunch and dinner are so late – lunch time runs into dinner.  And dinner might as well be breakfast.             

    D.J.s are plentiful. Every bar and cafe must have one.  And open-air cinemas are ubiquitous, awesome and fragrant with jasmine. You sit under the blue sky and watch a big screen surrounded by flowers and trees.  Sometimes cats’ shrieks can interfere with the movie but you learn to ignore them. The same way you learn to ignore the cigarette smoke all around you.  Pigeons are everywhere. People feed them. They fly over your head while you’re sitting at a cafe in the plaza. They shit all over.
    And now I’ll tell you about the walk to the trolley stop, the cafes on Ymittou Street or the St. Lazarus square: again narrow sidewalks, so narrow I walk in the middle of the street. With my mother I walk slowly, holding her, or rather – she holding my right arm. To the trolley stop I pass the corner where the pharmacist sells mom her medications and even does some of her errands. Then the small supermarket – “Melissa” – that knows her well and even carries her groceries home. I cross the street and there is the stop.  

    All the streets are a noisy assault on the senses. Signs of all shapes and sizes crowd the fronts of buildings. Shops fight for space even though now many are empty, vacant, FOR RENT.  There is no respite from sounds and sights.  Trees are few, mostly the bitter orange trees that German soldiers liked to eat during the Occupation in the 1940s.  Athenians laughed at them, thinking them stupid. Blank walls are covered with graffiti. No place to rest your eyes or ears.  Colors and words attack you all the time. Clothing stores, shoe stores, cosmetics boutiques, cafes, bakeries, banks. Only the walk to St. Lazarus square is less chaotic. But once there, the square surrounds you with cafes: chairs, tables, trees, pigeons, cigarette smoke. And a tiny fountain.
    My image of the city when I close my eyes : concrete blocks piled on top of each other crowded around with barely an inch of green space or free air sprinkled with magnificent ruins of ancient structures popping up when you least expect them, columns, arches, sculptures, monuments.  I would rather have the old ruins. Such chaos!
    The first morning I go to a cafe around the block from the hotel I’m staying at during the conference.  This is what I overhear:  “I am not a communist. I’m a Marxist. There is a big difference.”  Then the man continues expounding on “the state vs. the people.”  I sit on the sidewalk sipping my coffee and emailing friends on my little computer.  When the man walks by me on his way home I smile. Heartwarming, isn't it? 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013


   I went to the Chicago International Film Festival, saw two films; one was not very good, the other much better.  David and I enjoyed "Just a Sigh" last night, a French film starring Emmanuelle Devos and Gabriel Byrne.  Two strangers see each other on a train bound for Paris.  He asks her a question before getting off but circumstances get in the way and they don't continue the conversation.  Nevertheless, she goes and finds him at a church where the funeral of a friend is taking place.  Awkward at first, eventually they kiss, have sex in his hotel room, back and forth she goes between her real life and this adventure.  By the end they part ways.  Lots of close-ups of faces.  Plenty of Paris sights.  Fine classical music.  All in all, a satisfactory way to spend an evening.  

   More movies to come later.

   And now on to the Chicago Humanities Festival.  Sunday at Northwestern Day we attended two programs: "A Neuroscientist and a Humanist Walk into a Bar..." and "Julia Kristeva's Couch." The first conversation between two professors was scripted and rather obscure.  It wasn't easy to hear them or see them on a rather dark stage.  The two women seemed like fun teachers to have and could've been more interesting.  Not much learned there.  Kristeva's chat with an English professor turned out more difficult to hear or understand.  I was so excited to see her and listen to her words after having studied her work in graduate school (read and regurgitated often) and admired her philosophy.  What she said Sunday afternoon was fairly abstract and unclear.  And I'll say it again: the format of a conversation sucks!  I said it last year and even wrote a review of the whole thing that I sent to the CHF people.  But - who listens to me?  Nobody apparently. Conversations between two fabulously interesting, smart, exciting people do not work out.  Let the guest talk for her or himself about something.  Let him or her teach us something, make us laugh, whatever; but don't have some puppet sit there and ask insipid questions.  It's boring.  

   More programs coming in November.  Stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


     A few weeks ago I joined a study group on Women in Literature - one of the many organized by the OLLI people (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) at Northwestern University.  They offer about 50 different classes a week that last til the holidays.  The classes are led by the students themselves and meet once a week.  So far I've read four books, I'm on my fifth now.

     1. Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks:  a historical novel based on the life of the first Native-American to attend Harvard College in the 1660s in Martha's Vineyard.  I had read already two other novels by Brooks and enjoyed them immensely.  In Caleb's Crossing a young Puritan woman - Bethia - writes her story in scraps of paper she scavenges since she's not allowed to write or learn anything for that matter.  

     2. The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante: translated from the Italian The Lost Daughter is an unusual work of fiction.  "The hardest things to talk about are the ones we ourselves can't understand" says the narrator of this economical novel, Leda, a professor who goes on a summer vacation to a house on the coast of Italy.  Strong and unconventional, Leda shows us a world that's not necessarily pretty but nevertheless exists.

     3. Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton: a classic novel about late 19th century in the New York upper class and the mores, traditions, conventions, and rituals that must be followed lest you become a pariah.  Never mind if you love someone.  You must marry who has been chosen for you.

     4. Toby's Room by Pat Barker: what a surprise! I had never heard of this author despite the fact that she has published numerous books and won several awards.  Toby's Room takes place in pre-WWI and during WWI - London.  Told through the eyes of a young woman - Elinor - who studies art and finds herself conflicted about the war between her pacifist ideals and her love/affection for her brother who is a soldier.  

This week I'm reading So Big by Edna Ferber.  Will let you know what I think.