One morning on my trip through the Peloponnese, I stumbled down the street in search of coffee. A few days before, I had passed a nice coffee shop at the edge of town; so, I decided to head over and see if they had breakfast too.
When I got there, the server was talking with the elderly gentleman who had just entered before me. They looked at me in surprise (most Greek people do). I asked if the cafe was closed, and the server said that it would be open in a few minutes if I’d like to wait. There didn’t appear to be breakfast, but I decided that was okay, and was waiting outside when I heard a, “Come in, sit down!” in English. It was the older man, and he had pulled out a chair next to him for me to sit in.
Taking a hint from my amazing cafe adventure in Lesvos, I accepted.
The conversation was slow at first, as we were both a little bleary. We mostly just talked about how much we wanted coffee. Yet even at this early hour, I took note of how perfect his English was.
Finally, I had my Greek coffee and he had his double espresso. The conversation became more and more pleasant. He was 64 years old, and an excellent storyteller. As we talked more and more, the stories got increasingly incredulous… and I became more and more curious. I ditched my plans for the morning and decided to hang out and chat with him for a while. Eventually, I did have to leave, but before I did, I asked his advice as a local for where I could get a great meal that night.
The response I got was, “Come to the taverna at this address at 7:30, and I’ll buy you a great dinner.”
That evening, over an amazing roast lamb dinner, we chatted for the next two hours. And at the end of the night, he walked with me back to my hotel, and we swapped e-mail addresses to keep in touch before shaking hands and bidding each other good night.
What were we talking about? Him. In fact, he never even asked me my name. He asked a few questions about what I was doing in Greece, and that was it. That, and an astounding array of surprising stories, to say the least. Here’s just a sampling of what he told me.
He has been married and divorced four times.
He has seven kids, four of which he adopted from Kenya in person while he was on the UN Peacekeeping Force there.
He was an admiral in the Greek navy, and a commanding officer in the Greek army. He knows Papandreou personally, and if the army needs anything, they still call him on his cell phone.
His dog is named Pepe. He got him for free from some college students.
Coffee should be “Black like the devil, hot like hell, and sweet like love.”
The way to keep thin is to always eat dinner at 7:30.
If you want to never have to go to the doctor, you must keep your feet warm and your head cold.
He had his first girlfriend at 13. She was a 35 year-old Japanese woman. He went to Japan four times to find her before he finally did, when he was 55 years old.
His favorite teacher died in 1964, but he still goes and lights the candle on his grave every day.
He was a political prisoner for three and a half years, and would have gone insane if not for the things his Japanese girlfriend and his favorite teacher taught him.
He thinks The Fratricides is the best Kazantzakis book. (I think Zorba and Captain Michalis are, but I’m reading The Fratricides right now.)
He speaks Greek, English, Russian, Swahili, Spanish and a little German.
He spent 20 years traveling, and has been around the world “7 or 8 times.” But when I asked him what his favorite places were on his travels, he said, “Eh. Santorini.”
He has coffee at the cafe I met him every morning. He has dinner at the taverna we went to every night.
The world doesn’t actually change. Ever. Especially not in the neighboring town of Argos.
And, of course, the ancient Greek civilization has the ancient Egyptian civilization beat in every way you can imagine.
He was a truly talented storyteller. For any story that involved dialogue, he did different facial expressions and voices for each party; the only interference with his performance was the slight smile that gave him away when the punch line was approaching. I found myself asking questions like, “And what did the Archbishop say then?” He also knew almost every single local we passed, whether they were my age or his.
And now, dear readers, we must discuss the notion of truth. What is it? What is a story, besides simple perception? What is a “fact,” even? And above all, do we not become the stories we tell? “Big Fish” is one of my favorite movies, and it’s had me thinking about these questions for quite some time. Now that I’ve met Albert Finney’s Greek counterpart, I’ve thought about them even more lately.
I suppose I will never really know what was true of the things he told me. But I’m hereby declaring that it doesn’t matter. Let us say, for a moment, hypothetically, that absolutely none of it actually happened. If so, two things are of import here. First, if they didn’t actually happen, there was still a reason he told the stories–something within him compelled him to say these hypothetical falsehoods aloud. I find that very interesting. Second, the question of truth or lies, in this case, has no effect whatsoever on the enjoyment of both parties. He was happy. I was happy. We shared some laughs and some great food. The question of truth doesn’t even come into play from this perspective.
And maybe he really is a navy admiral with seven kids, an incredible talent for languages (his English was perfect, idioms and all!), and a remarkably wise Japanese ex-girlfriend who saved him from certain doom in a prison camp.
Either way, I’m thrilled. I’m thrilled to have been so thoroughly entertained for an evening by someone from a different culture. I’m thrilled to have made a local connection while traveling, and thrilled to have grown enough this year to be open to it. And perhaps most of all, with the question of truth tossed out the window, I’m thrilled to have shared this thrill with someone else. After all, that is our duty as humans, isn’t it, no matter our culture? To share. To entertain and take care of one another. The more I travel, the clearer it becomes: we must be good to one another, whether that manifests itself in free lamb and excellent stories or in peace between nations, as Fulbright intended. I dare say we all need a reminder of this every now and then. The Legend was mine. I hope the next reminder you find will be equally entertaining.