Monday, July 19, 2010

The Countess of Ithaka

excerpt from a memoir in progress:  Travels with Persephone: An Archaeologist's Life in the Land of Odysseus



“Jesus it’s hot today.”

Lou fanned her face with her field book and looked at me. I took a sip of my frappe and leaned back into the cushion. We were sitting in the orange chairs today. Every day it was different and we took our choices seriously.

Some days, it was red, some days orange, some green. Every kafeneion and zacharoplasteion - Greek sweet shop – had their own color of chairs. They were lined up in front of each establishment, arranged like stadium seating lined up perfectly: a carpet of red, orange and green plastic covered half the plateia like competing teams.

We had settled into orange today: the domain of the Livanis family. Not only did they own the main sweet shop in the plateia – what we had come to  know affectionately as “Zacs”  – but they also owned the main grocery store in town as well as numerous other establishments on the island.

I lit a cigarette and took a sip of the frappe. 

An old man in a rowboat pushed off from the quay; some seagulls wheeled around the water and landed on a fishing boat that was chugging towards the harbor entrance, leaving a greasy wake.

“Do you think we’ll have to wash pottery tonight?”

I stirred my coffee and tried to remember if we had to or not. It was Friday, so I figured we had the night off.

“Let’s see if Sophia wants to eat with us at the Map Room,” I announced. The Map Room had become one of the team's favorite eateries, so named because of a large photo mural of the Swiss Alps dubiously plastered onto one wall. I leaned forward to grab a napkin when I noticed a strange looking woman enter the plateia.

“Get a load,” I said, nodding my head towards the woman.

Lou turned around.

“Good God, toots,” she said, craning her neck for a better look.

The woman tottered on a pair of orange mules that had a certain streetwalker look to them; I once overheard a hairdresser refer to them as "come fuck me pumps". Her skin was overly tanned and she was dressed in a leopard print top, tight leather skirt and large, Jacky-O type sunglasses.

“Who is that?” Lou turned back, a quizzical expression on her face.

“Beats the hell out of me.”

We watched for a while as she hobbled across the tarmac. She was leaning on an older woman and worked hard to maintain her balance.

As she crossed the plateia, a few heads turned to watch. The woman extended her hand in front of her as if she was holding a hot coal and about to drop it onto the floor. On each arm was a mother lode of gold bangles, tumbling over one another and glinting in the midday sun.  I watched in fascination as she continued her stroll behind the row of colored chairs. She was nodding her head, making it unclear if it was in a royal sort of deference to the crowd or if she was palsied in some way.

Once she passed us, I picked up a strong scent of perfume; it chased after her like an overly floral contrail. Her face was artificially taught and had a leathery quality. I could detect platinum hair under a chiffon scarf, pulled back into a chignon. Her eyes were made up in kohl, her lips polished in red. She looked like she had been a beautiful young woman. 






She continued to trail around the perimeter of the plateia, her attendant - an older woman - struggling alongside. The helper’s face was placid and expressionless, as though she had been doing this for a long time. In contrast to the younger woman, the elder was clad in widow’s weeds – traditional black housedress, shoes, hose and scarf. She held onto the younger woman as if she were Atlas, holding up the earth itself.

I drew in a breath and looked at Lou as they passed directly by us. She made a face and twitched her eyes towards the pair. The younger woman held a clutch purse with the other arm, again an animal print. There was an air of royalty about her. She was tall and her height was made even more commanding by the orange mules, which seemed to hurt her feet as she walked along.


In the coming weeks we would see The Countess, as we found she was known on the island, many times in the plateia; one evening in particular stands out.

We were dining at Trechandiri, the restaurant run by the family of one of the young island men who worked on the dig. Baskets of bread were placed on the table before dinner. I was ravenous, so I quickly devoured 3 pieces. It took forever for the whole team to order.

“I don’t want oil on my salad,” Dora whined. She was a young girl from New York, about 21. She and I had become roommates in town, while Lou stayed out at Sophia’s family’s property.  Dora snored and I had dragged my mattress out onto the balcony one night to escape the sound and try to sleep. Not only did I not sleep, I was bitten by mosquitoes so much I needed medication to stop the itching. That’s how Costis the pharmacist became my best friend. He dispensed anti-itch medication, birth control and earplugs to the team members.

The food arrived, finally. Jake, a high school student, sat next to me. His father was a friend of the Director’s, who had decided that working on an archaeological dig over the summer would toughen Jake up. As the youngest in our group, we enjoyed plying him with beers in the evenings after dinner, and he was thrilled to be included with the older team members in their nightly exploits in the plateia.

I noticed he was eyeing my food.

“You going to eat that?” he asked.

“No, but you are,” I answered, pushing the unfinished plate of roast pork, French Fries and boiled greens his way.

A short time earlier, I had begun to feel pain in my midsection and now it was getting to be really uncomfortable. No doubt it was gas.

The problem was, we hardly ate all day. Getting up at the crack of dawn, all we were given was Greek coffee and hard rolls. Lunch was served alfresco, which was a nice way of putting it. In reality, around 11 a.m. we stopped work for a half hour to forty five minutes. The Director was supposed to bring enough food for everyone, but inevitably someone always forgot something crucial, like bread. At its best, lunch consisted of a stick of salame, a wedge of cheese wrapped in butcher paper, a tin of olives and if we were lucky, tomatoes. We all drank from a green plastic water dispenser, which looked like it hadn’t been washed since the British were digging here, before the war. It was only 2 weeks into the season but I was shocked that no one had yet developed dysentery.

“You can have it all,” I groaned, nodding at the plate. Jake looked at me quizzically.

“You OK?”

“No.”

I pushed away from the table and got up. Before anyone had a chance to ask, I was out the door.

The pain was becoming intolerable. I stepped out onto the sidewalk and looked up and down the street. It was the main drag behind the plateia, lined with food shops, clothing stores and shops that sold, well……..everything. I turned to the left and walked past a display window. It was filled with those blue plastic covered lined school notebooks, a flowery pink backpack, bolts of fabric, batteries and a couple of cheap stainless saucepans.

I turned right and headed down another alley. The buildings were becoming more residential now. A series of Italianate structures lined the street. Most were coated in a paint that rubbed off on your clothing in a dusty chalkiness. Doorways were defined with metal scrollwork over the window panels; a bicycle was leaning against one, a moped up on another.

Hoping the walking would help the pain to disperse, I soldiered on, but it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t working. I realized I needed to lay down, immediately. The only problem was, I was nowhere near my room at crazy Martha's. My eyes scanned around and I zeroed in on a building that was set back and away on a seemingly obscure street corner. There was a low wall along the stoop that shielded the door from the street. Bingo. I could lie there for a while until the gas pains passed.

I stepped up on the portico and – looking around me one more time – lay down on a mat near the front door. Stretching my legs out, I could feel my intestines thanking me for allowing them the opportunity to push the 3 slices of bread plus French Fries and roast pork through my system.

A half hour passed, and the sky grew pinker and then orange as the sun approached setting. The wind picked up and I could hear the halyards snapping on the yachts, moored a few hundred feet away in the harbor.

“Yia YIA!!!”

A girl screamed and chased after a little boy, who was holding two ice cream treats.

“Grandma!!!” She wailed, “Andreas took my ice cream. He’s a malacca!!!”

Even though it hurt to do so, I laughed. Malacca. It meant masturbator. As bad as it sounded, everyone said it over here - it was relatively tame slang: little kids used it all the time.

A group of older woman approached, linking arms and talking softly. Being screened by the low wall, no one could see me, but I could catch peeks of people once they had passed by.

A little while later, I began to feel better. I had decided I would get up in about 5 minutes when I heard a woman murmuring, seemingly under her breath. Then I heard an older woman speak. I rolled onto my side and faced the wall of the house. Just a few more minutes, I told myself, almost lulling into a sleep.

Suddenly I heard footsteps and then shuffling, right behind my head. Too afraid to turn over, I stiffened, waiting to be admonished by some villager accusing me of being a drunk bum. To my surprise, I heard the lock being jiggled above my head; I twisted my body to see who it was.

There, looming above me on the porch step, stood the Countess and her companion. In a surreal, a sort of slow-motion movement I watched in amazement as first she, and then the older woman, stepped over my body as if I were a family pet, and walk through the door. Never looking down or even acknowledging me, they pulled the key out of the lock and pushed the door shut quietly behind them.

I sat upright and stared at the front door; my arms coated in the chalky dust powder that coated the marble porch. I waited for a moment to see if I would hear loud voice once they were inside the house, but there was nothing. It was as if they never saw me.



Later on that night, stomach ailments finally abated, I lay in the comfort of my own bed. I thought about the two women, wondering if they had even questioned my presence -- I mean, seeing a person sprawled on your front step probably wasn’t a typical sight for this remote island. Then it dawned on me: maybe it wasn’t so strange for them after all. As the locals had so alluded, she was royalty........ perhaps she thought of me not as a drunken bum or spaced-out tourist -- but just another peon in her kingdom. If you happened to be named The Countess, I ultimately reasoned - then stepping over the prostrate bodies of loyal subjects would be all in a day’s work.

image courtesy of Karen's Whimsy

24 comments:

  1. This is so intriguing! I love how it is set up, two women talking until the third one walks in and takes their attention. I'm hooked!

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  2. rosaria,

    thanks! the plateia has been the site of many a conversation over the past 2 decades, oftentimes leading me into intriguing and unexpected situations~

    there will be more installments of the ithaka memoir forthcoming -- so glad you liked it this excerpt ♡

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  3. Hello from cold and foggy San Francisco! What a wonderful blog.... we share more than the moon....as I adore Greece and have been there twice. And, you are an archaeologist.... a career I would have loved to embrace!

    This chapter was so intriguing.....I am eagerly awaiting the next one. In the meanwhile, I shall go to earlier posts!

    Hugs from your new friend in San Francisco!

    ♥ Robin ♥

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  4. Now i'm really wishing i could go to Greece, this was fabulous Amanda! I am really looking forward to more, you are an exellent writer.

    xoxo lori

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  5. welcome robin!!! thanks so much for visiting and it's wonderful to meet you too!!!

    san francisco has to be one of my favorite cities in the world! i've been there over the summer a few times for my son's fencing tournaments and remember how cold and foggy it could be - almost colder than in winter, right?! but it's such a glorious city the weather never mattered.....

    I'm glad we have so much in common - even greece! and i look forward to getting to know you, too!

    hugs and thanks from your new friend in the midwest♡

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    her lori girl,

    thank you for this sweet comment♡

    i know how much you love africa, but if you ever decide greece is on your travel agenda, just let me know - once the antiquities have been viewed my itineraries involve regular stops for greek fries (the world's best) dancing and toasting the sunset with ouzo!

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  6. Lori and I will set sails and arive on Ithaka`s coast one day, okay? On our way to Africa, it is hardly a detour. And then we will sit on your favorite chairs with you, watching people and gossiping - oh that will be lovely! I ALWAYS have such encounters, too, so be prepared for more stuff for another book.
    In the meantime, I WANT THAT BOOK! What happens next? Love to you from a beach basket on Germany`s coast!

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  7. What a terrific name for your blog and memoir. You give a good sense of place and character. I've always wanted to see Greece.

    So nice to connect with you!

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  8. You are a wonderful story-teller! Perhaps they didn't want to disturb you - LOL.

    I could relate to your stomach issues. I am now housebound for the sixth day with some sort of flu or something awful I picked up eating out... I'm starting to not want to eat anywhere but home.

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  9. "...it chased after her like an overly floral contrail."

    I once worked in an office where there were two mature women who dueled one another with their perfumes ... I always knew who had just passed by my desk: Ester Lauder Youth Dew or Oscar de la Renta

    looking forward to hearing more of the Countess*!*

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  10. geli,

    a trip with you and lori to greece?? i LOVE that idea -- just name the date!! between us we could come up with plenty of stuff to fill a book i have no doubt....♡

    enjoy that beach basket my dear!!

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    welcome distracted - how nice of you to drop by! i had a chance to visit you today and found myself becoming your 600th follower - great blog!!

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    hi sarah,

    thanks for your nice comments and for stopping by - it's lovely to meet you too!!

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    hi nancy! i appreciate your supportive words -- and you're right about the 2 women - perhaps it was due to old fashioned greek hospitality!

    i'm so sorry to hear about your stomach flu - yuk -- i hope you're feeling better soon~

    thanks so much for visiting and look forward to returning to explore your blog! ♡

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  11. hey annie -- your comment just showed up as i was writing - sorry i missed it!!

    wow-- you have a good nose for scent!! the only one i've ever been able to pick up for sure is calvin klein's obsession.....

    glad you enjoyed, and yes, more installments to come of life on ithaki ♡

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  12. hello amanda, i came here to thank you for visiting my blog but now i am especially thankful because you are a writer and a good writer.

    that last paragraph describing that woman was incredibly good. the last line ' she looked like she used to be beautiful' was unexpected and so powerful.

    and now that i'm here, i find people i quite love. so i'm coming back! i'm glad to meet you.... :)

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  13. hi kj -- thanks for the kind comments - i'm glad you're finding kindred souls here!

    i know it's not obvious (blogger provides a 'read more' icon that not everyone sees) but the story continues on a bit...so i hope you will return and see what happens next!!

    thanks again for stopping by and wonderful to meet you!

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  14. hi amanda! thanks for visiting monkeys on the roof (thanks Geli for the intro!) really enjoyed this story. Do you think they were ghosts? fantastic - cant wait to read more of your wonderful writing!

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  15. ah! more to read.

    will do.

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  16. ... with those two ladies their perfume always arrived before they did ;)

    I just noticed what you said to Kj about the read more, I've missed seeing that! ... she really does sound like royalty stepping right over you ... I wonder if the other woman dressed her*!*

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  17. hello val - many thanks for paying a visit to my blog! i'm glad you liked the story --- and about the ghosts -- so many strange things happen in greece that i wouldn't be surprised!

    hope to see you again soon and so glad to meet you!
    xo

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    kj - glad you came back!

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    annie - yes, the "read more" prompt is not as obvious as i'd like!! but i figure it's better to cut the story than putting a really long post on one page....

    i think the other lady was probably her mother and seemed to tend to her every need, so dressing may have been a part of her duties!

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  18. Wow! So powerful. So vivid. And real.

    Women radiate power, even the meekest among us. Beautiful piece, Amanda!

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  19. reya, thanks!

    and what a lovely thought....women radiate power -- you put it perfectly ♡

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  20. Amanda!Great idea with the cage and oh my how tall are those tomato plants!!
    I feed those "buggers" peanuts but they still chowed down many of my bing cherries as did the birds and racoons...Grrrr!
    Nice to meet you!

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  21. naturegirl, you are very generous to feed the squirrels peanuts! where i live i wouldn't dare do it as all the squirrels in the neighborhood would be pounding down my door.

    cherry trees? lucky you......hope there are some left for you to enjoy after the critters leave!

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  22. Another great read. Look forward to more chapters from this fascinating adventure....

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  23. hey dd - thanks!

    and yes, more to follow...
    xo

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Thank you for visiting♡