My Birthday

The political cry these days seems to be "lets do it for the children". Let's clean up our mess so that our children won't have to deal with it. Let's give hope to the next generation. But I really wonder how much the children really care about us. Amarandi likes me insofar as I am useful to her, if I buy her choclate milk or hold her or take her to the bathroom. When I don't fulfill my role she quickly goes to her mother and says she is tired or she wants to nurse. When Andrea gets tirewd of holding and nursing she is back to me and when she gives up on the two of us she goes after whoever else is around. Maybe on a deeper spiritual level there is love but it seems to me that everything is geared to the fulfillment of her 'needs'. Also the concept of the innocence of children is a false one based on sentimentality. Children are possessed with full-grown egos that must be satisfied. When they are not, all hell breaks loose. If they had weapons there would not be an adult left on the planet.

With that said, I will add that Amarandi is being difficult. I know it's unintentional but she is torturing Andrea who is not in the best physical and mental state because of her injury. Amarandi makes all these demands and then cries and nags until she gets them. When she tries to get me to fulfill her needs, unless it is something she can't do herself, I refuse. She cries and Andrea gets mad at both of us. Katy's house if full of children who want to play, but everyday it takes a few hours before Amarandi warms up to them. She clings to us like a baby orangutang, tightening her grip when we try to put her down. When she finally joins the children she can care less about us. The key to the success of this vacation is that when there haven't been children, there is usually a willing adult, like Pamela or an aunt, who will occupy her. On those days when we have been traveling or visiting places where the kid factor is unknown, we are taking a calculated risk. Amarandi doesn't understand the concept of another person feeling physical pain, or tiring of holding her.

But today is a cloudy rainy day and we need to get away from Skala Thermis for awhile so we will risk the unpleasantness of a country drive with a screaming child. It's also my birthday and I want to see Skala Loutra on the bay of Yeros.

Our first stop is the town of Moria, halfway between the west coast and the bay. Rising above an olive tree filled valley is the Roman Aquaduct, built in the second century. It appears out of the mist and unlike the ruins of temples and cities which are usually buried under centuries of rubble, this has stood exposed for almost two thousand years. I imagine for half of those years people marveled at it and wondered what it was. It looks about ten stories tall and it is hard to imagine exactly how it worked. Where was the water contained? Where did it go and where did it come from?

We continue on the dirt road that eventually brings us out to the bay of Yeros. We find a secondary road that follows the coast until we get to Skala Loutra. Loutra means baths but the town looks practically deserted. It is dominated by what looks like a shipyard where smaller cargo boats are repaired or left to rust. There are many tiny fishing boats like the ones in Kaloni, in a small filthy harbor. Still the village has charm and there is a large pelican sitting on the rocks, waiting for Skala Loutra to become the next Mykonos. It's a formerly industrial village trying to adapt itself so it can attract tourism, and it certainly has potential. An old factory has been painted and repaired and is now a hotel and restaurant, but it looks closed for the season as does every restaurant and store except for one which I go in to ask what they are serving. They have some fish. The mackeral is fresh, but we can't sit outside because it's too wet and inside looks very dreary. Plus they don't actually act like they wa nt any customers.

We drive to the upper village of Loutra but it is poor and working class and there are no restaurants visble. But there are lots of teenagers who have just been let out from school. The girls are dressed in tight jeans and are stylish and beautiful, the boys have been studying James Dean. I feel like an old man driving up the hill with my family in my little rented Puegeot and my bald head.

We get on the road to Mytilini and to our surprise it is just over the next hill. We drive past the apartment buildings on the outskirts and then to the center where we park in the parking lot behind the row of fish restaurants where we go for my birthday lunch. We are greeted warmly at the one called The Stavros and the waitor is affectionate to Amarandi, who surprisingly does not cringe or run away. I order fried shrimp, fried with the skin and heads on. It's delicious but Amarandi doesn't like it because of the feet and has the kalamaraki instead. She eats the whole thing. Andrea has mussels in redsauce with fried cheese and hot peppers. We also have beets with skordaya and fried pepper salad. It's a delicious birthday meal and we top it off by going to the small esspresso bar in the old market and having coffee. While Andrea and Amarandi write postcards and draw, I wander around the waterfront looking for a place to change our dollars since the banks are now closed and won't be open until Monday and we ha ve no drachma left. There is an exchange machine at one of the banks that promises to give you drachma if you put your currency in the slot. The largest US denomination it will take is a fifty and I have hundreds, not that I would even trust the machine to give me anything in return. I continue into the ferry embarcation area of the port and cannot help but notice three tanks parked in the parking lot. I am confused as to why they are there. They are usually transported on trucks because they use so much gas and tend to tear up the streets. They look out of place among the automobiles and trucks.

I return to the cafe but Andrea is gone. There is a priest leading an army of little old ladies, fifty strong, trying to locate some church. They look like they are on a mission from God as they wander the back streets, blocking traffic and setting off a chorus of beeps and profanity. I see Andrea down the block and catch up with her to tell her the bad news. She blames me, even though she is in charge of the money. We come across a bank machine that will let us withdraw money from our VISA accounts. It seems like a gift from the Gods until it asks for my special identification code which I don't know. We try to use Andrea's card but she doesn't know hers either. "How could you not know your special identification code?" I ask her in disbelief. "This is also your fault."

"How come it's my fault? You didn't know your special identification code either", she replies.

"Yeah, but I didn't even know I had a special identification code." I tell her, ending the arguement. We continue trying to find someone to change our money. We walk up the street to the post office but it is closed. I suggest we continue another block to the OTE, Greek Telephone building. Andrea thinks I'm stupid for even thinking that OTE will change my money and refuses to go any furthur. I send her back to the park. Of course there is no place to change money but they tell me there is an agency that will change it by the waterfront. When I get to the park Amarandi has gone off to examine the penises on a statue of three naked men holding up the world. She wants me to see but I decline. She has this obsession about penises, which she calls 'peanuts'. I drag her away from the statue and we find the agency, near the bus station. The man seems suspicious and when he sees my new hundred dollar bills it's obvious that they are his first, but he has a little pen that turns brown when the bills are counterfit and mine pass the test. We walk out of the office happy, once again with money in our pockets.

Andrea informs me that it is the custom in Greece for the person celebrating his birthday to buy cake, or sweets for his friends and family. I don't know whether to believe her but I agree to buy some for the kids. We go to a tiny zacharo-plastion(sugar shop) and pick out the healthiest looking cakes we can find, made of choclate, almonds and walnuts.

We walk out to the cafeneon at the end of the dock, where the sea is so rough it is breaking over the outer tables and they have placed a plastic tarp around the others. We watch the ferryboat Mytilini leave for Pireaus and drink a couple ouzos. Amarandi is becomming more and more cranky. As we are walking towards our car she drops Andrea's scarf. Andrea snaps at her and Amarandi begins screaming. I take the stroller from Andrea and tell Amarandi, "Ssssh. We have to be quiet. There are gypsies here." I motion with my eyes at a group of gypsies living out of their trucks at the end of the parking lot next to the sea. Amarandi is instantly quiet. I exagerate all my movements as if I am taking special care to be quiet, and Amarandi is doing the same as we fold up the stroller and put it and ourselves in the car. "Quiet Mommy", we say to Andrea who is unaware of our little game. "There are Gypsies". Andrea doesn't know what is going on except that Amarandi is not crying, in fact she is laughing at this new game. She is still talking in a whisper as we leave. Finally as we join the traffic on the main road she asks in a normal voice."Why do we have to be quiet near the gypsies?"

"Because they have very good ears", I tell her, unable to think of a better reason.

"What are gypsies?" she asks.

"They are nomads", says Andrea.

"They don't have a home. They live in their trucks and go wherever there is work." I tell her.

"Do people like gypsies?" asks Amarandi.

"People here are afraid of them", says Andrea.

"Why are they afraid of them?" asks Amarandi.

"Because they are different", answers Andrea.

"Oh. Can we be gypsies?"

I tell her we can when we go back to America, but Andrea is thinking that we already are. I feel bad that I have perhaps created a suspicion in her that gypsies are somehow different from other people, but it certainly worked as a tool to change her mood. We continue to talk about gypsies until she finally runs out of questions. When I look over at her she is asleep.

Katy and Nassos are waiting for us when we get back to Skala Thermis. It begins to rain, then pour. We sit on our front porch, drinking ouzo and eating the little pizzas Katy has made as mezedes, before opening the box of my birthday cookies. Everybody is tired and nobody wants to come to dinner with Andrea and I so we eat alone at Platanos. We try the Plomari Special ouzo which says it is 46% alchohol. It tastes like pure alchohol. They have all the different brands of ouzo lined up on the counter. I read the alchohol percentage of each of them and come to the realization that my favorite ouzo's are the ones with the least alchohol. It's a stunning realization and a useful tool. We eat our dinner and watch through the door as the lightning illuminates the sea between Lesvos and Turkey. I can think of no better way to spend my 42nd birthday.

I wake up early and drive to the uppervillage of Thermis. The first thing I see is a group of gypsies who have taken up residence in one of the houses on the main street. They look at me with suspicion but smile and wave whe I wave at them. I find the bakery and buy a couple tiropita's and ask for the hottest freshest bread. The tiropitas are great but the bread is white flower and not as fresh as I had hoped. I go to the lower cafeneon next to the thermal baths and have a Greek coffee before going back to the house for nescafe with Katy and Nassos. They are going house-hunting and shopping in Mytilini town today. We are planning on a trip to Plomari but the weather looks ominous. Instead we squeeze everyone into the car and drive into town.

The city is jammed with traffic. They have closed part of the main waterfront street for a three on three basketball tournament to raise money for an anti-drug program. We are detoured round it and park in our usual place behind the Stavros fish restaurant. Marlise goes to meet her friends for a day of fun at the fast food restaurant. We go to meet our friend Anna Voudouris who works at a graphic arts studio. When we go in we discover that her company has designed some of our favorite ouzo labels. Anna is very pleased to see us after twenty-five years and we agree to meet in an hour at the cafeneon on the end of the dock. She gives us some postcards of old Mytilini that her company has done. Katy and Nassos go off house-hunting while Andrea, Amarandi and I walk through the market-place.

Amarandi is terrible. The worst ever. She screams and cries for everything she sees. She acts contrarily to everything we say and I finally have to strap her into her stroller so she doesn't get run over by a car. We take the market road to the old harbor where many new and interesting shops have sprung up, along with a couple modern style ouzeries and cafeneons. We go to the Albatross, one of our favorite and seediest restaurants in the world. It was run by an old man. The clientele were hookers and sailors. All they served were grilled sardines and the hottest peppers in Greece. The walls and surfaces were crammed with every imaginable piece of junk that one could find anywhere, from a stuffed seagull with a coctail umbrella in it's eyesocket, to anything that might be dragged out of the sea in a fishing net. It was noisy, smokey and vulgar and in the middle of it all was his ten year old grandson, the most innocent looking boy on the island, waiting tables. We had taken Andrea's mother here for dinner and horrified her. After taking her home I ran back with my camera and photographed every inch of the place, including a tootheless old hooker who began to do a striptease for me until physically restrained by her friend. My last memory of the place was me running down Ermou street with the tootheless hooker chasing me, calling my name.

But those carefree days are over I realize as I peer through the window at the rubble within. The Albatross is closed for good. The old man became sick and could no longer work, we are told by the young man in the butcher shop across the street.

We pass the old Turkish mosque. The roof has collapsed. I think that they have left it as a shrine but I realize that probably the only reason they haven't torn it down is because it is so big. It's an awsome sight, like seeing a cathedral in ruins.

Andrea takes us to her favorite cafeneon but with Amarandi torturing me, it's difficult to appreciate. We sit in the courtyard as far from the people inside as we can so we don't bother them with our screaming child. We order two ouzos. They are the size of four. When he brings the meze it is a souzoukaki, feta, tomato, and string beans, by far the most impressive mezedes we have gotten yet. Amarandi continues to get worse, stepping all over my already sore feet and throwing temper tantrums. I finally give her a strong spank on her butt and she cries, then sits down in her stroller. I tell her, "My favorite thing to do in all the world is to come to these cafeneons and sit here, drink an ouzo and enjoy myself. But I can't do it and do you know why? Because when I come here with you behaving like this, the old men pity me. It makes me uncomfortable to know that they pity me."

Amarandi listens and for awhile she is quiet but she starts up again. I take her in to pay but before we walk through the door I tell her "sshhh. There's gypsies in here." Once again it works and the old men barely notice, much less pity me.

As we walk towards our rendevous with Anna it begins to rain. By the time we are halfway through the city it is pouring. Amarandi is taking it well until she sees someone drinking chocolate milk and begins screaming for some. I refuse to reward her by buying it for her and Andrea yells at me for being just as stubborn as Amarandi. I leave them and walk ahead declaring to myself that I have had enough with women and being a father, until I feel bad about deserting my two helpless females and I return. On our way to the ouzerie which is being buffeted by high wind and waves, Anna calls to us from Stavros restaurant where she, Katy, Nassos and Stratiki are sitting under the awning, nice and dry. We join them and have a lunch of grilled kalamari and these long thin mussels found only on Lesvos. Andrea and I split a bottle of Samara ouzo, the lightest in alchohol and as we talk about old friends and Amarandi feverishly draws pictures of Mister Sun, the sky magically clears, revealing a beautiful Mytilini day in au tumn.

Amarandi and I take a walk for ice-cream and newspapers while Andrea reads in the car like Pamela. The first kiosk has newspapers but no ice-cream or stamps. At the second they have stamps but no ice-cream. The woman inside speaks to me in English. She is a Greek/Austrialian who has grown tired of the confined life of a kiosk owner and is moving back to Melbourne. We find ice-cream at the fast food shop. We search the supermarket for Katy and her family but they have gone home, probably by taxi. While Andrea lays in the back we drive the flat coastal road past the airport, where in the height of the summer jets land not only from Athens, but London, Germany and Scandinavia. We think about swimming at a nice clean beach but when we get out of the car there is a cold wind blowing and though the sea feels warm, I don't relish having to get out and freeze while I'm trying to dry. Instead we drive back to the city and while Andrea sleeps in the car, Amarandi and I go to the cafeneon where the ferry boats are docke d. We walk to the back of the Sapho where they are loading cars thrucks and people. Up close the age of the ship is apparent with what looks like coat after coat of white paint on rust. The Theophilos is in port too, in comparison clean and new and much larger. The tanks from yesterday are no longer in the parking lot.

When we return to the car Andrea is awake so we go to the coastal village of Panayouda for coffee. While we sit watching the fishing boats tied in the harbor we are joined by a family of kittens who sit purring on our laps and distract Amarandi from her ritual abuse of her parents.

Anna joins us for dinner tonight and instead of the usual delicious fish taverna we go to a psistaria which serves grilled chicken. The food is only secondary as conversation takes precedence. Anna has brought her two beautiful daughters. Amarandi and Marilise are in top form and entertaining us all. The discussion turns to Katy's property, a huge piece of beachside land the size of a New York city block. We tell her she should develop it. Put up a hotel, a live music bar, a gallery for Nassos and her painting's and a jewelry store for Andrea. She could create a tastefully done tourist village. All we need to do is find a partner who wants to invest a million dollars or so.