Nicolas and his wife Barbara were very friendly people. Their landlord, Spyro (not the ‘Dragon’) – a peculiar character with occasional hysterical outbursts against his co-owners, who had moved out of that apartment-block in disgust some years ago – had introduced his new tenants to Arete, the only person in the condo with whom he was in touch. From the moment they met, Nicolas and Barbara had encouraged Arete to be a neighbor. Shortly afterwards they invited her for an afternoon coffee, an invitation she promptly accepted, as her passion to stand for the truth had...
alienated her from most people in the building, and she was desperate for some good company. She was also fond of American people and never missed an opportunity to befriend them.
After twenty years of tragicomic clashes with her condominium unit co-owners, it was obvious that Arete did not hold her neighbors in high esteem; neither did they. Living there and being exposed to her cohabitants’ irrational whims seemed like having chosen to constantly torment and abuse herself. Oh, at times it was like a hell! She frankly believed that, if one survived the emotional stress and strain caused by the dullness, rock-breaking apathy, incompetence, antagonism, slandering, dishonesty and hypocrisy of some co-owners without retaliating or nurturing bitterness and anger, one stood great chances of becoming a ‘saint’!
However, Arete did not have such a macabre ambition, i.e. to be mummified and ‘worshipped’ (insulted) after death somewhere in a Greek island, as is the ‘Christian’ Orthodox tradition. True, there were still some islands deprived of a sanctuary with a saint’s mummy, something that might have been bad for internal tourism, but this didn’t concern Arete. In fact, if she had the power, she would have cleared all ‘high’ places from the obscure mummies of supposedly saints. In any case, in her idolatrous ‘Orthodox’ nation the criteria for canonization were different, you see. Beside alleged miracles, the nominee ought to have been faithful to the Orthodox Church in order to firmly qualify for being canonized as a saint, something Arete wasn’t. The naughty lady didn’t even cross herself when passing outside the walls of a church!
“I am neither kidding nor exaggerating, Nicolas; at times my life here has been almost a nightmare,” exclaimed Arete, being grateful that she, at last, had found a pair of listening ears. “Please, don’t be so distressed; the situation is similar in the USA. The relationship problems arising among condo unit co-owners are almost identical everywhere”, said Nicolas, a professor of Physics from Los Angeles, who was very enthusiastic about Greece and its friendly people, apart from a few exceptions, of course. “Human beings are all the same, dear,” he added.
Nicolas’ words were of little consolation for Arete, a conscientious, sensitive, and idealistic to a fault lady – qualities that made her stand apart from the crowd as hard, boring and rigid. She had just turned fifty, although looking thirtyfivish, and her toleration of the provocatively mischievous behavior of some flat owners in the building hit its limits during the summer of 2007. It wasn’t just the high temperatures that often reached 115 oF, or the excruciating noise from the frequent impromptu, round-the-clock motor and motorbike racing of psychotic suicidal maniacs that bothered her; she should also cope daily with some insufferable, distrustful, uncommunicative and uncooperative, lazy and dull condo unit co-owners. Because of them, the state of the building had deteriorated so much that Arete was embarrassed even to invite a friend to her flat. But it hadn’t all been negative! That old ‘con-demonium’ with its peculiar inhabitants presented an excellent case study for gaining experience in the psychology of human behavior.
“Regrettably”, said Arete, “the best solution for one is to live in a detached house.” “Sure”, said Nicolas, “why don’t you move out of this place since you are so unhappy here?” “Oh, well, this is easier said than done, Nicolas,” said Arete, as she was leaving their garden-flat, promising to visit again. Indeed, for someone conservative like Arete with a moderate income as a civil servant, moving out of this ‘con-demonium’ wasn’t that easy. Houses in a southern suburb of Athens were a choice only for the very rich. So she was stuck next to a main road with heavy traffic, in number 1 Conmeniton Street, in Valiagra, a picturesque suburb on the coast of Saronic Bay, 30 kilometers from Athens center. Her compensation was that her flat was only five minutes’ walk from a sandy, albeit dirty (the cigarette butts covering the sand) and always crowded, beach. Arete loved swimming and she couldn’t live away from the sea. To move far from the Greek capital was also out of the question for her, as she preferred to live near the source of happenings.
On Sunday, July 8th, 2007, Arete experienced a minor emotional crisis. She declined to participate in the 10 a.m. annual meeting of the co-owners for the usual superficial ‘discussion’ of the building’s problems and needs, and the replacement of the old useless administrator by another, probably, more useless one. For many days, she had been in two minds about going. Eventually she decided she shouldn’t go, although half-heartedly. She went swimming instead, but she returned home from the beach urgently, as she was stung on the belly by a nasty jellyfish. As Arete was in the habit of reading ‘messages’ in every unusual event – not that she was superstitious – she wondered whether this had something to do with the animosity of the co-owners against her, although she was sure they were pleased with her absence from the meeting.
The jellyfish’s ‘hug’ was apparently very ‘passionate’, as it caused a severe local swelling accompanied by a mild allergic shock all over her body such as Arete had never suffered in previous encounters with the ugly and unfriendly water creature. After having a cold shower she lay in bed trying to relax and, if possible, to have a siesta, but to no avail. She turned from one side to the other about a dozen times a minute, but she found neither rest nor peace. She put a big piece of cotton soaked in vinegar on the swollen area of her stomach, and hoped for the best. No question of going to the nearest hospital, as she had had a bitter experience from another time when, in a hot early afternoon with the temperature at 113oF, she had dashed to it with a fish-bone stuck in her throat, coughing all the way, but had been mercilessly turned away unaided by a nurse and a doctor. They had told her that the hospital was not catering for emergencies that day! Two other hospitals in Greater Athens area were on duty, but they were located more than 30 kilometers away. However, for Arete it was too hot to consider driving there in such a condition. So she had decided to eat a lot of soft bread instead, and eventually the nasty fish-bone was pushed down into her stomach.
This time Arete’s mind and emotions were in turmoil. As she lay in bed, she tried to pray, although God felt so distant! She lifted up her hands in an effort to draw healing energy from the Universe, but this didn’t seem to work either, or, it might have worked actually! In a couple of hours, she was still lying in bed, disgusted with her co-owners as well as with her cowardly self. Fortunately, the allergic shock – needles and itching all over her body – gradually diminished, and in another hour or so she was fully recovered. She got up from bed, made herself a cold drink, and went straight to the computer. She felt the need to talk to someone, even if that was to write an Email to a friend.
Before she had time to think whom she was going to write to, the telephone rang: “Hello Arete, this is Rania; how are you? It has been a while since we talked and I felt like giving you a ring to see how things are with you.” “Hi Rania! I am glad you rang. I have been thinking of you lately.” “Why don’t you come over for a cold drink on my veranda? It is really cool here and very quiet, ” said Rania. “Thanks for the invitation! Why not? Please give me your address and directions how to come. I will be there later this evening, if this is O.K. with you.” “That’s fine with me. I am looking forward to seeing you. Here is how to come… It’s easy.”
Arete wrote down the address and directions and started getting ready to visit this aristocratic middle-aged Swiss widow of Greek descent, whom she had met at the beach not long ago. Rania had moved to Greece in 2004, the year of the Olympic Games, on the advice of her doctor to live in a warm climate because of her arthritis. Indeed the sun and regular swimming in the sea had considerably improved her health, and her deformed fingers had almost straightened up. The beach was about 50 minutes away from Rania’s house, not a small distance to walk at noon, especially returning after swimming. Arete had been impressed by the determination of this delicate lady and admired her. Rania was also such a sweet talker; so sweet, that one would think honey would drop out of her mouth every time she uttered a word or two. She talked clearly, softly, almost musically, gently and to the point. No idle talking, no waste of energy. Arete imagined that Rania must have been highly educated in literature and, perhaps, she might have taught at some Swiss university. She was looking forward to finding out that evening.
When Rania opened the door of her apartment to Arete, the latter was in for another pleasant shock. “Wow! What a beautiful apartment you live in! Honestly, it reminds me the Palace of Versailles which I had visited some years ago!”
“Thank you,” said Rania. “Please make yourself comfortable. Where would you like to sit?”
“Oh, well, that’s a good question! Actually, it appears that nobody else has sat on these immaculate armchairs and this king-size beautiful sofa before me. How do you manage to keep this place so clean? Do you employ a cleaner?”
“No, dear, I do everything on my own. I enjoy keeping my home clean and tidy. It also gives me something to do.”
“Congratulations, Rania! I am really impressed,” said Arete. "However, I feel uncomfortable that I came casually dressed in my jeans and sports shoes, while you are beautifully dressed up in your evening dress and high heels. I feel embarrassed.”
“Please, don’t worry about it. I am not looking at your appearance. It is your personality I was attracted to when we first met at the beach. As a matter of fact, I don’t easily make friends in Greece. I only keep in touch with two or three people, since I came from Switzerland. Having two or three good friends in Greece is enough for me.”
“You sound a bit disappointed with our fellow Greeks. Am I right Rania?”
“Oh, we shall talk about it later. Let me offer you a cold drink now. What would you like?”
“I prefer a fruit juice if there is any available,” said Arete, as she was sinking into the huge armchair.
“Oh, there are plenty of fruit juices in my refrigerator, let me make a nice cocktail for you.”
As Rania was preparing the juice cocktail in her open-plan impressive kitchen, Arete couldn’t help wondering who was that extraordinary aristocrat who had invited her to her home. She couldn’t wait to find out more about her hostess’s upbringing. So, as soon as Rania came back with the drinks and sat down on her spacious sofa, Arete impatiently asked: “You seem as if you might have been a university professor, am I right?”
“No, you are totally wrong, my dear!” said Rania sweetly. “I have only finished the elementary school in Greece. My parents were Greek and they moved to Switzerland after I finished school at the age of twelve. I did not attend any other school there, and I got married when I was seventeen. I have one son and two grandchildren who live in Switzerland. My husband passed away four years ago, and within a year of his death I moved to Greece and bought this apartment here. This is briefly my story.”
Arete could not believe what she heard! How could an uneducated lady speak so well and be knowledgeable almost on every subject? Rania was undoubtedly a phenomenon of a lady! Eager to know more about her, Arete proceeded to the next question: “Do you ever miss Zurich, Rania? I mean did you have second thoughts about settling in Greece?”
“Yes, Arete, I do miss Switzerland. I miss the order, the cleanness and the discipline of the Swiss people. I miss the effective way the public sector operates there, including Health Services. I miss a lot of that country. On the other hand, I love Greece. It is my home; I was born here and this cannot change. And I love Greek people although I cannot say that I always like their attitude and approve their style.
Most of the time they seem to run amok, like the undisciplined children of a drunkard father and a prostitute or drug addict mother. You can witness this in the erratic and dangerous way they drive, the coarse manner they talk to each other, the careless attitude regarding the disposal of their rubbish, the ineffective way the Public Sector works, etc., etc.
Oh, it grieves my heart to see my fellow Greeks being so undisciplined. Yet, I love them. They are my naughty brothers and sisters. However, they also have unique qualities and charisma. They are lively, friendly, generous, hospitable, humorous, and know how to entertain themselves.”By the time Rania finished expressing her feelings for fellow Greeks, tears were running down on her cheeks, and she apologized for that. Arete was amazed and moved with what she heard. She had just found a sister soul…
“Thank you dear Rania for speaking so openly to me,” said Arete. “I am comforted to know that somebody else thinks the same way. You see, many times I wondered whether I had been unreasonable in my judgment of my fellow Greeks. I really do not enjoy faultfinding and criticizing my race. Yet, every day, in many ways, my heart is grieved with the way we abuse this most beautiful country.”
“Let us change the subject,” Rania said. "It is obvious that it hurts both of us. Another drink?”
“No, thanks! But if you don’t mind, I would like your opinion on a decision I made today not to participate in a co-owners meeting. I just could not endure the strain of it; yet afterwards I felt I might have been a coward.”
Arete went on explaining more about the situation in her condominium and the arguments with the co-owners over a financial scandal. “Don’t accuse yourself, Arete, please! You did the right thing not to go to the meeting. I would have done the same. You shouldn’t feel that you were a coward. You were simply cautious. Personally, whenever I get angry with someone and have a quarrel, I become ill,” said Rania, in her sweet, soft manner of speaking.
Despite Rania’s reassurance, Arete knew deep inside that she ought to become emotionally stronger. She also knew that in our imperfect world, when people become hostile to the truth because they refuse to admit that they are guilty, diplomacy, i.e. a measure of hypocrisy, would, perhaps, be worth trying.
“What else? You can’t whip people into confession of their guilt, and you cannot take every offense to Court,” Arete reckoned. On the other hand, Arete hated being a hypocrite or playing ‘stupid’ with someone. Besides, who could win an argument with those who are professional in playing ‘stupid’?
“To be born real ‘stupid’ may be fortunate in this world!” said Arete with a cynical smile… “Do you think this is why Jesus said, ‘Blessed are those who are poor in mind’?”
“Come on, Arete! He didn’t mean that. But please stop thinking too much. Let us sit outside on the balcony and have something to eat. I have prepared a light dinner for us.”
“Oh, Rania, you shouldn’t have done that. I came here on short notice to see you and have a chat, not for dinner. Anyway, thanks! But let me help you set the table on the balcony. What a beautiful view from here! Your jasmine smells wonderfully! And that one with the little white flower smells even better. What is it called?”
“This is nychtolouloudo,” said Rania.
“What a delicate aroma! You can be hypnotized by just smelling it. Mmmm!”
When Rania brought out the food – fresh vegetable salads and a bowl with rice mixed with peas and chopped pork – Arete lost her tongue for a few moments. She tried not to be noticed, but Rania understood that something was wrong.
“What is the matter, Arete?”
“Well, hmm, nothing really. Still thinking, or rather dreaming, but I will be alright.”
Arete felt nauseated at the sight of the pork. She had not touched red meat, let alone pork, for the last thirty years. But to say so to Rania would mean to offend her and undervalue her hospitality. Arete was, once again, disgusted with herself.
“Goodness me! Why should I be so careful not to hurt other people’s feelings? Why should I be a coward? Oh, there must be something wrong with me to always put others first and myself last…” she thought, trying to soften the expression on her face so as to fool Rania. She then proceeded to serving herself with a portion of the rice dish, while Rania insisted that she should take more.
When they finished dinner, Arete felt that she had won another great battle for the sake of love. Or, had she actually being cowardly once again? Before leaving Rania’s apartment, Arete kindly requested if she could be shown all the rooms. She was curious to see the bedrooms and the bathrooms. Rania was pleased to escort Arete round the three bedrooms and three bathrooms.
“Oh my God! It is like walking around a prestigious furniture exhibition. What a luxury! And how spotlessly clean everything is! It seems as if no one lives here.”
“I already told you that I like to keep my space clean and tidy,” Rania said.
“Yes you did, dear… But it must be hard work for you!” “Not at all! Besides, this is a daily exercise that I need.”
“And those fairy white silk nightgowns and robes hanging in the bathroom, whose are they? Do you wear them?”
“Certainly I do.”
“You really treat yourself like a queen! Actually, having seen your life-style, I will be reluctant to invite you to my flat. I still live like a student. My furniture is simple and my clothes plain. Neither do I devote much time to constantly keep my flat spotlessly clean. As I work hard, I do not have so much time or energy to spare.”
“Don’t worry about all this Arete. I accept you as you are,” said Rania.
“Please come by as often as you wish. You are always welcome, even on short notice. I enjoyed your company.”
“Sure, I will come again. Thanks for the ‘delicious’ dinner. Good night Rania.”
As Arete was driving home, trying to psychoanalyze Rania and explain the extravagant way she lived and spoke, she hoped that she could digest that pork she ate against her will. To her amazement, there were no problems… When she arrived home, she found Nicolas and Barbara still relaxing on their garden veranda, and Arete had a brief word with them. She was told that they and their two teenaged daughters would leave in the morning for a week’s cruise around the Aegean islands, aboard the luxurious yacht of a Greek millionaire friend. “The offer was too great to refuse,” said Barbara.
“Aren’t you lucky?” Arete exclaimed, with underlying envy. “I have never had such an opportunity, and there are still many beautiful Greek islands that I have not visited. Anyway, have a great time. I hope to see you again when you come back.”
Arete tried hard to hide her discontent. She wasn’t a saint after all! Over the years she had seen hundreds of foreign celebrities, princes and princesses, people who could afford to pay any cost for their holidays, being entertained free of charge aboard Greek yachts or luxurious cruise ships, and she never understood why. Was this due to Greek vanity, giving someone the opportunity to make headline news? Was it due to Greek inferiority complexes, used as a way for someone to feel taller and important? Or was it simply public relations for the expansion of businesses?
Whatever the reason behind the Greek ostentatious generosity and unique hospitality to VIPs, Arete considered it ridiculous. She reckoned, “If those Greek millionaires were genuinely generous, they would first be generous to fellow Greeks by offering their yachts for free holidays, say, to students for educational purposes, or to lonely and poor elderly people, or to single mothers and other underprivileged citizens.”
The next day at work Arete was pleasantly surprised with a new project allocated to her: “Marriage as Immigration Gate in Greece.” She was delighted to be given the opportunity to do research on this subject, as she had been concerned with the social problems arising from the increasing number of unmarried Greek females. During the last fifteen years, thousands of Greek men had been married to Eastern European women, especially Bulgarian, Ukrainian, Russian and Moldavian. This had puzzled Arete. Of course she knew that Greek men found these foreign women less demanding and more submissive. Maybe they had other special secret ‘skills’ as well…
On their part, female migrants from ex-Soviet republics were in the habit of falling in 'love' with much older men, in order to legalize their status in Greece and inherit property and fat Greek pensions. In the long run, the latter could prove a real threat to the Greek economy and its already problematic pension system. Undoubtedly the project had a lot of parameters to explore, and Arete was looking forward to getting her teeth into it. However, for the time being, Arete couldn’t devote all her heart and mind to it. She was preoccupied with the acute problems in the small society of her ‘con-demonium’ and was determined to find a solution to them. She often thought, “If I can’t influence a small group of twenty five families, what chances do I have to affect any change in complex Greek society?”
Sorting out the broken relationships in the condo of 1 Conmeniton Street was her priority; it had become a ‘mission’ for Arete. It was also a great challenge for this British educated lady, who had obtained a PhD in psychology from University College London and an MSc in Sociology from the University of Glasgow. She had returned to Greece two decades ago with the lofty ambition and genuine desire to make a difference to her country, but here she was not having made the slightest difference even within the little community of her ‘con-demonium’, although, God knew, she had tried hard with all her heart giving the best of herself to selflessly serving them! What, then, was she doing wrong?
Certainly Arete needed time to get all her thoughts together. She felt she ought first to thoroughly examine her own attitude towards the co-owners since the time she had returned to Greece. Did she keep a diary? Oh, no! But the events that had deeply impressed her mind and disturbed her soul had been indelibly engraved in her memory. All she needed was to devote the time to reflect on her experiences in the condo under the light of her middle-aged maturity. This would be a useful exercise for her personality evaluation and, perhaps, it would help her affect the much-desired change in her relationships with the co-owners, although the problem seemed as difficult as a Gordian knot. In Arete’s mind, serving the truth, having a passion for honesty, justice, order and progress, forgiving the unrepentant, pretending not to understand, and turning the other cheek and a new page, all seemed impossible to reconcile with each other and realistically unattainable goals. “Maybe, indifference would be the answer, as opposed to making myself available for constant torture by my cohabitants,” Arete thought. And then, in a sudden flash of wisdom, she exclaimed: “Oh, yes, perhaps those of my ancestors who had resorted to the misunderstood Cynical philosophy in ancient Greece were characters like me! Well, then, I must try to be like them, if I want to survive in this crazy environment…” And with this, a smile shone on her face and Arete fell fast asleep.
Copyright © 2007 by Maria Seferou