I fill letters home with tales of a happier me: a young woman sitting in the shade on her balcony, trying to read a children’s book in Greek, and nodding “Kalimera” at the neighbour opposite, who is hanging out her washing and admiring our tomato plants. There’s no place for the flatmate tending to his marijuana plants strategically placed between them.
That same young woman spends mornings wafting around the old town of Plaka, walking in the footsteps of the ancient Greeks, sometimes wandering over the Agora and all the way up the steep hill to the Parthenon. She would swear she hears the whispers of great men down through the ages. In reality, the men are not remotely great but oily of hair and soiled of shirt and they sidle up to me as I slowly slalom my way through them and their invitations to ‘take a coffee’.
I write about how near the throbbing, pulsing heart of Athens that serene young woman lives but neglect to mention she lives in a street where every other house is a blanket-door brothel and that it leads down to Omonia Square, papered with porn and grudging home to the Albanians sleeping rough there.
I explain how slowly she’s learning Greek and often makes embarrassing mistakes, like struggling home from last week’s street market with 5 kilos of oranges when she only wanted FIVE oranges. At least, she will be free of scurvy!
I don’t tell them about the School Director who touches me up at every opportunity, or the ‘important business connections’ of his, whom he’s tried to persuade me to teach in their homes. I don’t tell them that people ask me what I’m doing here and why my father and my brother back home won’t support me instead. And I wouldn’t dream of telling them about the men who cluck at me as I wander about Athens alone or the ones who masturbate in our street in the middle of the day.
I have no desire to conjure these images in the lines of reassurance I’m sending home.
Instead, I say how, despite the streets deep in drifts of rubbish and the weekly strikes, I admire the Greeks for their vocal demonstrations and marches on Parliament. I love how the language sounds: how there is drama in a simple shopping trip; how it’s loud and argumentative and full of life; how a traffic accident stops buses, not because the road ahead is blocked or they’ve been involved but to allow everyone on board to weigh in on whose fault it was, and why. I tell them how Athens is a city of villages and that many people coming from one part of Greece all move to the same area. Neighbours back home are neighbours here once again.
I don’t mention that during my first four months here EVERYONE in my street shunned me. And that it was the baker’s fault.
He used to leave the counter every day I went in the bakery, and let one of his staff serve me. I was at a loss to understand why I upset him so much.
Until yesterday, that is.
Yesterday I lucked out and happened to go there while his wife was serving and when I was confident enough to ask for what I wanted in Greek. She had leant across the counter and brushed my cheek with her floury hand, and told me that it was sweet to hear someone with my fair hair and blue eyes speaking her language. And then she asked me where I was from and what I was doing here, so I told her I was teaching English in one of Athens many frontisteria, or private language schools. She had clapped her hands and told me her son was studying in London and did I know it. Of course, I said, I’ve been there many times. And then she’d called her husband and, in a gabble of Greek and gesticulation, she explained it all to him.
Then he’d come round to my side of the counter, squeezed my cheeks, welcomed me to his bakery, and started filling my bag with baked goods. And I wanted to say, “Stop! It’s too much” but all I could make out from him was “συγνώμη” which means Sorry and “Πολωνός” which means Polish and another word which I didn’t understand. I asked him to write it down and at first he didn’t want to, but his wife obviously told him that he had to because she frowned until he ponderously wrote it down on a paper bag and gave it to me. His wife told me that he was very sorry and it was all a big mistake and that he was very happy to meet me – “our English teacher”. I eventually extracted myself from the bakery laden down with enough cakes and bread for a teddy bears’ picnic.
As soon as I got back to the apartment, I’d looked in my dictionary and just stared and stared at the word I found there.
When I went back the next day, the baker welcomed me in and called his wife out to say hello. And I was happy about that. But when the bakery emptied of other customers, I took out the question I’d written down the day before with the help of my housemate and showed it to them.
And the baker reddened but I told him it was okay, if he had. So he said that yes, despite my sweatshirts, jeans and purple army boots, he had thought me a prostitute, not an English teacher, because of my Polish colouring. It was pretty much all Poles and other Eastern Europeans who worked the brothels in our street.
And we’d all laughed when I said I didn’t give that kind of private lesson.
But I still think I’ll leave this out of my wafting heroine’s latest adventures when I next write home.