A spoonful of ouzo helps the Medicane go down
If the Greeks have taught me anything, it's that life isn't about what storms may come, but how you deal with them
“I am praying for the medicane!” said Theodoros. Theodoros works at To Steno, my local place in the town of Yialis on the island of Symi in the Dodecanese. I don’t usually call it To Steno, I call it Theodoros’ place or the Vine Leaf place, because it is all outdoors with a bower of vines that casts a deep, cool green shade during the day and starts to rustle when the wind starts to stir.
Theodoros was praying for the medicane – Mediterranean hurricane – because his girlfriend was visiting from Rhodes Island and was due to go back on Sunday afternoon, but if the medicane arrived earlier than expected, the ferry would be cancelled and she’d have to stay.
“Medicane” is a terrible name for it. It sounds like the name of John McCain’s healthcare plan, if he’d won the 2008 election instead of Barack Obama. You may think it’s hard to get excited about something called a medicane, but by Sunday afternoon all the boats had been moved from the harbour in Yialis, and people were bringing in their tables from outside the cafes and nailing closed their wooden shutters. Medicanes are not that rare if you ask climatologists, but they’re very rare if you ask people who live here.
Medicane Zorba wasn’t expected to pass directly over Symi, but we were scheduled to catch the hem of his trailing cloak, and also, you never know with medicanes. On Sunday afternoon the light was yellow and eerie. It seemed very quiet, but the sea was sloshing about as though just over the horizon Neptune was sloshing about in his bath and there were thunderheads on the horizon toward the north and the south. Were we surrounded? Was the medicane coming from both sides? Were we right now in the very eye of the medicane?
Theodoros was very disgruntled. He’d just seen off his girlfriend on the ferry. “It is my luck,” he scowled. “If the medicane comes now, it’s too late. Now it is just me and my mother and my grandmother and uncle Mercury. This life is very cruel.”
His old uncle Mercury plays accordion every night in the Vine Leaf place. He has one glass eye that is open slightly too wide open and one eye that bulges slightly too intensely when he is singing one of the sad old sailor songs about being far from home across stormy seas. Once some years ago there was a storm and all the diners and drinkers at the Vine Leaf place had to cram inside the tiny kitchen to take shelter, all 33 of them, including uncle Mercury and his accordion. They had to drag the fridge outside into the storm to make enough space for everyone, and the fridge didn’t work again after that and they had to wait weeks for a new one from Rhodes, which they’d only just paid off.
Theodoros speaks decent English, which he has learnt by watching American movies. He calls himself Scarface because one of his customers told him he looks like Al Pacino as Tony Montana. I have to tell you now, Theodoros does not look like Al Pacino. He looks like a skinny 20-year-old bespectacled oddball Greek kid who has watched Scarface 15 times and all of the Marvel superhero movies. Do you remember Rabin from the second season of Big Brother? That’s what he looks like.
Theodoros loves his family. He loves his mom and dad and his old uncle Mercury, and he even loves his sister’s young kids although he acts very stern and grumpy with them and rolls his eyes at me over their heads. He loves the island although he pretends not to, and he loves the community and the church bells that toll happy or sad from high on the hill, to let you know when someone has died or someone has married or been born.
“Do they toll happy or sad when someone is married?” I asked, and he laughed. Later I saw him telling it in Greek to his mom, and she frowned and glared at me.
Theodoros loves his life, but he also wants to travel out into the world. He doesn’t know what he wants to do – he knows he’s smart, but he knows the world is full of smart people. He also sees enough smart people coming to his island, wanting to leave the world behind. Ideally, he would be some sort of superhero, who would use his superpowers to be someone, be amazing and then one day return to where he belongs. But he knows there is good and bad luck in the world, and not everyone is lucky.
I asked him if he would close To Steno that night, in case the medicane comes. He scowled. He said they would have to open because it’s late in the season and they have to do business while they can.
“But if it comes,” he said grumpy and scowling, “I will chase everyone away! I will go to sleep in my bed and wait for tomorrow. I can’t shelter everyone! My fridge is expensive! If they get wet walking home, it’s their bad luck! Everyone has bad luck sometimes!”
That night I was having dinner at another place in an alleyway near the water, and there was lightning in the distance over the sea but no wind, and you could see the stars in the sky. Zorba is somewhere else, I thought, and then the rain started and the wind whipped at the tablecloths and the lights went out. The water poured down the rocky slopes into the town, and we all shrieked and laughed and raised our feet from the water running foot-deep across the stone floor.
The Greeks took Medicane Zorba the way they take all the storms that sweep across their skies and their lives. They shrug and laugh and move tables out of the leaks and lift their feet to stop them from getting too wet. They listen for the bells to tell them the storm has started and the storm has stopped, and they make space and pour a glass for the person next to them because we are all here and we are all together and what else can anyone do when the storm comes but take care of their neighbours?
And if you could hear over the sound of the rain, up the alley, and down another, in the narrow passage where the Vine Leaf place is, you would have seen the yellow lights on in the tiny kitchen and figures through the glass, and you would have heard the sound of laughter and singing and the sound of someone playing the accordion with people packed closely all around, and you would have seen a fridge standing out in the rain.
I think Theodoros will go out into the world one day, but I hope he knows he is already someone, and I hope that one day he will make it back to where he belongs.