Three mysteries for Greek Easter

Red egg

This week I’ll be dyeing my eggs red, planning Sunday’s big dinner and shopping for lamb. The question occupying my mind is this: given the quantity of food I’ll be preparing, do we also need a pastitsio, with its heavy béchamel sauce and pasta?

I guess I already know the answer to that.

The goat

For weeks, I had been following the she-goat’s pregnancy with interest, as its round belly grew to resemble pieces of luggage. A lumpy day bag, at first, then a sack of odds and ends, and finally a duffel that nearly scraped the stony ground.

A cold February day with low clouds threatening rain, as I hurried home from school.

My aunt saw me from the kitchen window and came out to meet me. “She’s giving birth,” my aunt whispered. “Go have a look.”

To keep the she-goat warm, my aunt had put her in the greenhouse — a rickety structure of wood and plastic sheeting where they protected the tomato seedlings from frost.

And there she was as I entered, literally spilling her guts. The kid, really just a folded parcel of hair and bones soaked in blood, was trembling with electric speed. Its mother gazed at me with the goaty yellow eyes of ancient wisdom and plain stupidity.

I immediately had to leave, as you would leave a scene of violence. But after I caught my breath in the house, I returned twenty minutes later and the kid was already standing on rickety legs and taking its first step. It felt like a resurrection.

Some weeks on, several more kids, from other she-goats, were skipping around the yard and getting in my aunt’s way.

I never figured out how they did it, but at midday I’d often find the kids high up in the olive trees at the back of my aunt’s house. How they managed to climb the trees is beyond me. But there they’d be, perched in the tall branches and bleating joyfully at the sky, as their mothers watched and chewed, far below.

The uncle

My uncle drove a grocery store delivery van, and I’d join him on busy days, humping boxes up steep staircases throughout Park Ex. Gallon tins of olive oil, haunches of meat and wedges of cheese balanced on one shoulder, in preparation for Easter.

He was in a foul mood. The weather — “that whore!” — probably had something to do with it. Overnight, it had turned Canada-cold again and dumped more snow on the ground, threatening the weekend festivities. He loved the good life and hated to work, like a few Greeks. But above all, he hated being told what to do and when to do it, like most of his countrymen.

Our windows were rolled up against the weather, but he was doggedly working his way through a pack of king-size Rothmans. Every time he finished another one, he flicked the butt into the slushy floorboards. He’d been doing this for days and the floor was now littered with butts.

I’d heard the boss, fed up with the state of his van, tell my uncle to stop doing this.

“Why don’t you use the ashtray?” I asked, between deliveries. “You heard the boss.”

“Why? Because I like hearing the ‘tssss’ when my cigarette hits the snow. That’s why.”

The church

Greek Orthodox Easter, rich in ancient rites and mysteries, is the most important holiday on the calendar, and it lasts for days.

Days of clanging church bells, tinkling censers, clouds of aromatic smoke, golden vestments and ranks of candles. Days of the psalti chanting the old, halfway familiar words, and serene-looking saints on every side, jealous for your kiss. Days of the close-packed smell and heat of humanity, rising and sitting as one. The flowers, the praying, the sorrow, the people spilling out onto the street because the church cannot hold them. Then, the midnight announcement — he is risen — and the candles passed from congregant to congregant, and the trembling flame that needs shelter until it’s brought home and held high to mark a sooty cross above the threshold.

I no longer follow these rites, nor do I attend church. I have Netflix.

But even though I am fallen and far from the church, I still stubbornly dye my eggs, roast my lamb and bake my koulourakia, although I’m not sure why.

I think about that kid I saw tumbling out of its mother, barely alive, a flickering flame gaining strength by the minute. I think about my uncle and his stubborn refusal to bend to another’s will, and about my own mulish Greek ways. I think, too, about life’s boundless love and cruelty, of grief and a kind of resurrection.

All these things are mysteries enough to ponder during Easter, as I sprinkle sesame seeds on my koulourakia before sliding them into the oven.

As you’ve guessed by now, one of the kids perched in the olive tree in back of my aunt’s house became our Easter Sunday meal, all those years ago. We cracked eggs, said Christos Anesti, and ate and ate until we were bursting.

Egg basket

Bluffton to Savannah

Chicken

On our way to Savannah we stopped for breakfast at Cahill’s Market, in Bluffton, South Carolina. Cahill’s serves up Southern comfort foods for lunch and dinner — waffles and fried chicken, pork chops, oysters and crab cakes.

But breakfast at Cahill’s is all about the chicken, as we realized when we pulled into the parking lot at 7:30 a.m. and saw a large chicken coop out back, filled with several dozen fryers, snowy white in the early morning mist, strutting about and regarding us with chickeny indignation. As it was unseasonably cold, most were clustered around a heat lamp. Life is nasty, brutish and short, for a chicken, but I had the satisfaction of learning these chickens were just for show — a Potemkin coop. As I discovered, their numbers couldn’t possibly sustain Cahill’s business for more than five minutes.

Cahill’s has its own farm and sells its produce next door, where the setup reflects the world’s prevailing food fashion, with labels promising “locally grown,” “organic” and “pesticide free” beans, rice, grits and other Southern specialties.

But the breakfast menu is unabashedly old school, offering heaping platters that promise not so much pleasure as personal injury, such as the Gut Buster and Belly Bomb.

This divided soul is what’s interesting about the South: contradictions and elisions everywhere you look. The anxious desire to move with the times, and a lingering echo from lazier, more carefree times — carefree, at least, for some folks.

In keeping with the chicken-and-physical-mayhem theme, I opted for the Widow Maker — a platter of eggs, grits, toast and chicken livers.

Without really thinking it through, this clueless Northerner somehow expected sautéed livers, as I would prepare them at home: maybe dredged in a dusting of seasoned flour, possibly finished with a dash of balsamic vinegar.

They were in fact thickly breaded, deeply fried and piled so I high I recoiled when I saw them — the way you might flinch before something eats you.

But, abetted with ketchup and hot sauce, I polished them off. I then wiped my face on my sleeve and we drove to Savannah.

General Sherman’s mistress

I’m a champion flâneur, paractically incapable of boredom. I don’t need museums or walking tours of haunted houses. I don’t care to see historic bullet holes or taffy being pulled. Instead, I’m perfectly content spending the entire day on a bench with a book or loafing about aimlessly.

Yes, indeed, countless unproductive hours I’ll never get back. (Of course, these periods of deeply satisfying lethargy alternate with spells of frenetic running, so go figure.)

Missoni
A handsome Missoni tug, spotted on the river and visible from Vic’s on the River, where we enjoyed an excellent meal in Savannah. Fortunately I remembered to load my Brownie with colour film before leaving Bluffton.

Savannah is therefore the perfect city for me. Its downtown is a compact checkerboard of 21 squares, each one surrounded by great old homes and churches, flower gardens, ancient live oaks and, most important, lots of benches. There’s also the great Forsyth Park to loaf around in (about 1.3 km around, if you’re considering a tempo run or intervals), with its picturesque fountain, spreading oaks and local flâneurs draped over benches.

Wright
Wright Square. Note the empty bench, waiting for a flâneur. Note, too, the barrier. We were kicked out of Wright Square because Ang Lee was directing a movie starring Will Smith. Gemini Man, coming to a theatre near you.

Historians are still puzzling out why General Sherman didn’t burn Savannah to the ground, as he did so many other Southern cities. Maybe he forgot. Or, as some suggest, he spared the city because his mistress happened to live there. I think she deserves a statue, even if the story isn’t true.

We had an excellent dinner at Vic’s on the River, where I ordered pretty much the same meal as last time: fried green tomatoes, a salad, and shrimp and grits. If I’m going to eat at Vic’s every two years, and I’m perfectly happy with what I ate last time, I see no good reason to change.


Ship
What the Missoni tug was tugging. Apparently the first transatlantic steamship crossing sailed from Savannah and docked in Liverpool.

Shit yeah!

But the most interesting meal in Savannah was lunch at Zunzi’s, a sandwich counter — literally a hole in the wall — where folks line up on the street to order what are reputed to be America’s best sandwiches. Their slogan is “Shit yeah!” Amen to that.

“Shit yeah!” is plastered across their cars, ads and signs. You can ask for half a dozen sauces at Zunzi’s, including Shit Yeah Sauce and Hot Shit Sauce.

There’s a line-up all day, but it moves quickly. Behind the counter, in an impossibly narrow space, nine surprisingly happy kids scrambled to keep up. Meanwhile, on the street, two greeters talked up passers-by, explained the menu, handed out “Shit yeah!” stickers and directed eat-in customers to tables set up in the adjacent parking lot.

The young African-American woman wrangling customers at Zunzi’s bubbled with energy.

“How y’all like my city?” she demanded, clearly proud of her hometown, its booming trade and street life.

“Shit yeah!” we said.

Shit
She gave us a sticker.

I read somewhere that, in the wake of slavery, Civil War, a failed Reconstruction period and the Civil Rights struggles, African Americans have adjusted better to the national trauma than have white Americans. They’re not in denial about what happened, they understand there is no road leading back, and they’re ready to move on, if given the chance.

Well, I can’t vouch for the truth of what I read. I’m just a know-nothing Canadian passing through. But it’s an interesting notion to think about.

I think, too, of the many contradictions and ironies I sensed at Cahill’s and just about everywhere we went — and not just the free-range basil plants cheek-by-jowl with deep-fried moon cakes.

In nearby Savannah, for example, Zunzi’s is owned by a husband-and-wife team from South Africa named DeBeer. Irony upon irony.

• • •

Back home now and struggling with a short story. I know…about time.

Statue
Statue of a famous Savannah flâneur.

Gator country

It was a moonless night and we had been driving in the dark for some minutes, following the unclear directions they gave us at the gate, so it took a while to find the cabin. The first thing we saw when we switched on the light was this sign above the kitchen sink.

Sign

I thought it was one of those jokey kitchen signs people put up, like: “We only serve the finest wines. Did you bring any?” But the next morning we realized the cabin sits on a narrow strip of land between two ponds in which alligators do, in fact, float like half-submerged logs, their dead-seeming eyes peering just above the surface. They’re everywhere on the property, like squirrels are back home, although with less frantic energy. Driving around, we saw several that had dragged themselves onto the bank to warm in the sun, the largest of them a seven-foot monster. Folks say gators can run surprisingly fast, when they have a mind to.

Advice from my sister-in-law, when she phoned from Montreal: If an alligator gives chase while you’re out running, immediately start zigzagging, as alligators can’t easily change direction.

Gator

Lowcountry

We’re staying in a gated community in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, near the town of Bluffton. The place is so vast — 20,000 acres, encompassing the lands of 21 pre-Civil War plantations — that they recently hosted a marathon entirely on site.

They call it low country because it’s just about at sea level, give or take a couple of feet, which explains the wetlands, the alligators and the many miles of riverfront at your doorstep. We’ve arrived just in time to witness great masses of pink and fuchsia-coloured azaleas in bloom, a visual tonic after months of colour-starved Canada. The live oaks are just coming into leaf, too, and the roads are like dripping tunnels, as the oak branches meet overhead and trail long wreaths of Spanish moss. Strangely ghoulish at dusk, the scene becomes spectral in the early morning light, the limbs like crooked bones clothed in shimmering green ectoplasm.

It’s so picturesque as to seem like a parody of of the South. But it’s real and the residents appreciate what they have and want to share it, which is why our gracious hosts provided us with a waterfront cabin, or “bunkie,” as they call it here.

Road

On the first day, we made sure to visit the new community centre, comprising art studios, conference rooms, upscale restaurants, pools, bowling alleys and other amenities.

It’s quite easy to find: turn right at the first corner, then go past the equestrian centre (173 acres) and the shooting club (40 acres).

Y’all come back, now. Hear?

We were here two years ago, and enjoyed the same southern hospitality. Each time, we learn a little bit more.

Like many places in the South, the adjacent town, Bluffton, was put to the torch during the Civil War, although eight homes did survive, most of which are now restored and occupied by professionals, as the gleaming Volvos and Acuras in the driveways suggest.

The sea-facing bluffs, for which the town is named, catch the distant Atlantic breezes and make Bluffton comparatively cooler and less plagued by mosquitos. In antebellum days, it was a refuge from malaria during the blazing summer months. Plantation owners packed off their families here for their holidays, so the town grew fairly prosperous before the war, but entered a long decline immediately after.

Live oak

The last time we were here, we arrived directly from Savannah (we’re finishing up in Savannah this time), so I was struck by official and unofficial attitudes toward the South’s troubled past. Our Savannah tour guides, for example, maintained a neutral tone about the grand homes we toured: about the families that lived there, their rising and falling fortunes, and where they fit into the larger society. For the most part our guides stuck to the script.

But the moment we entered the slaves’ quarters, the guides lost several degrees of coolness. They made plain where they and the local historical society stand: slavery remains an unregenerate abomination, without palliating conditions, explanations or context.

I remember, particularly, a child’s room with an enormous high-canopied bed topped with bolsters and feather pillows. At its foot was a large chest for toys. On the floor beside the bed was a thin mat where the playmate curled up.

Back in Bluffton

Several days later, I wandered through Bluffton to admire the old homes. Among them is the Heyward House, built by slaves in 1841 for their white masters, and now run by the local historical society. For a few dollars you’re permitted to walk through the cramped rooms and feel like an interloper, peering at the household belongings of wood, leather and iron, ivory, bone and glass.

Out back, more belongings: a one-room shed and a patch of dirt indicates the slave quarters.

I was the only visitor, and the young woman who greeted me, a volunteer, was clearly proud of her town and its past. I don’t know what kind of training she’d had, and whether she was expected to follow any official line. But I did ask some questions, and when she saw that I was genuinely interested in the town’s history, and clearly not from these parts, she informed me that, contrary to what I may have heard or read, the Civil War was primarily a clash of civilizations — a largely rural, agrarian and communitarian society (the South) coming up against a mercantilist, industrial and urban one (the North).

Somehow, in her explanation, slavery got misplaced. Never even came up. Yes, there were slaves. Of course there were! Why, their quarters are right there in back, if you care to look. But that’s hardly the whole story…

I think of the alligators and their inability to change direction. But I remain hopeful.

The loneliness of running

Greyhound_Drawing

Long distance running once had more purpose — say, chasing an enemy across the savannah to jam a spear into his throat, or being chased to have that thing with a spear done to you.

Then again, you might be running after food, and that’s definitely more useful. Animals run faster than we do but can’t run as far, so you will eventually catch one if you keep it up. Messengers also ran long distances in the old days, but that was their job. We know of at least one who, after gasping out news of a victory over the Persians, died on the spot. Or so the legend goes.

At the ancient Olympics, foot races were strictly sprints, so forget about the Greeks: no staying power. Some native peoples in the Americas, however, did run long distance races, and I suppose that was for glory.

I’m still trying to puzzle out why I run. The ancient inducements — vengeance, hunger, news, glory — no longer apply. My moods are under control, my fridge is full and I have a phone. As for the much-discussed runner’s high, I’m still waiting….

The compulsion is a mystery.

Cross-country gulping

I had a high school gym teacher who was a devotee of cross-country running. Close-cropped silvery hair, lean physique, pointy nose: he actually looked like a greyhound. A Brit, of course, as the Brits pretty much invented and excelled at cross-country running for generations.

Since our school was at the foot of Mount Royal, there was simply no escaping his mania. At least once a week, we’d be forced to jog along Park Avenue and take the urine-drenched tunnel at Duluth, emerging from the other side dopey with low-level ammonia poisoning. We began our ascent beside the bronze lions of the George-Étienne Cartier Monument, taking the sloping path to the right, then up the 400-odd steps, past the cross and on to Beaver Lake.

Here we’d pause, gulping air and hating our lives. By this point our lungs were on fire and the bones in our trembling legs had dissolved.

Shamelessly, I tried to weasel out of it by claiming bronchitis. Others produced dubious doctor’s notes. They feigned injury, wept openly. The greyhound wasn’t buying it.

“Up we go, lads!”

Of course, a few of my classmates were naturals, with lean muscles, massive hearts and lungs, and arteries like garden hoses. They held a steady pace all the way, effortlessly loping along and out of sight within minutes of our start.

Paul was one of these gifted boys. He had a Montreal Gazette route and persuaded the paper to sponsor him on a bike ride to Vancouver, literally cross-country — more than 5,000 km. This was long before such feats were common, so he did the distance, quietly and alone, and took the train back, paid for by the Gazette. Not a penny was raised for cancer, the homeless or universal understanding.

After his summer ride, Paul showed me his mouldering maps and a curled Hillroy exercise book that contained a daily log. He averaged more than a hundred miles each day (160 km), pitching his tent and unrolling his sleeping bag wherever he happened to conk out.

Running: The Movie

A couple of years ago, I saw a black and white movie from the early Sixties titled The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. It’s pretty raw, in the realist manner of post-war cinema. Angry young men with impenetrably thick accents thoroughly pissed at the upper classes. While North Americans were riding an economic boom, the English were still clearing rubble and struggling under punishing austerity — as were most Europeans.

The movie is about a kid in the North of England, probably about Paul’s age, who’s caught robbing a bakery and is packed off to reform school (Borstal schools, they called them). He discovers cross-country running, which somehow gives focus to his identity and rebellion. It’s a far cry from Chariots of Fire, offering limited uplift, reconciliation or redemption, and certainly no haunting Vangelis score.

But it’s sometimes grimly funny, as when he boasts, “Running has always been a big thing in my family, especially running away from the police.”

At least this kid got something from long-distance running. For me, it remains utterly pointless. No ball or puck to put into a net. No exhilaration, no sense of satisfaction.

But the utter pointlessness is precisely the point — like writing these dispatches each week. They are useful to no one; they offer no information or even informed opinion. And yet I keep putting one foot in front of the other, one word after another.

The queen of Park Ex

Liz

Shortly after Greece’s independence in 1821, the Great Powers determined that what Greece really needed, after centuries of arbitrary rule under the Ottoman yoke, was a family of Northern Europeans telling Greeks what to do.

If you know anything about Greeks, it’s that they have enough trouble following instructions from each other, let alone from a foreigner in a sash.

And yet, after some false starts a suitable family — the Danish Glücksburgs — was installed and various dynasties proceeded to fall in and out of favour over the next century-and-a-half. One king was assassinated while out for a stroll. Another king, George II, said this: “The most important tool for a king of Greece is a suitcase.”

After decades in exile, ex-King Constantine II recently packed his suitcase and moved back to Greece because it’s cheaper than London. He’s a first cousin of the Duke of Edinburgh and I’m told he makes a mean mousaka.

History’s long tail

I don’t know how the day began in Catholic schools, but in the English Protestant one I attended in Park Ex, we stood beside our desks, faced the flag and sang “God Save the Queen.”

This is impossible to imagine in French Catholic schools. French Quebecers could never quite stomach, nor understand, the Anglo fetish for royals. (To them, naming Montreal’s flagship hotel the Queen Elizabeth was one of countless “provocations.”)

Just about every Canadian town and city has its Queen and King Streets, its Victoria Hotels and Duke of Edinburgh schools. It must seem odd to our American cousins, whose only titled citizens are Duke Ellington and Count Basie.

In school we also sang “Marching to Pretoria,” from the Boer War, where Churchill made his reputation as a war correspondent and thousands of black Africans perished serving one or another of the white teams. Thousands more perished, black and white, in the innovation for which the Boer War is most famous — concentration camps.

Cheer up boys and sing good luck to all our gallant men
Who fought for the Empire out in Africa and when
They have brought the seas once more we welcome home again
Conquerors of proud Pretoria

Empire was everywhere. Aromas of leather and wet wool, mothballs and fried fish. War memorials of identical boys with clipped moustaches. Photos of ladies knitting socks. It was all very far away, but also at the heart of the world around us.

The long tail of history and of Empire is still with us. I had cause to reflect on Empire and past mistakes throughout this week.

Last Friday I posted a short story titled “The Imperial Matinée.” A reader gently reminded me that the Park Ex cinema where some of the story unfolds was actually the Empire Cinema. I fixed my mistake.

But it also reminded me that Montreal once had two cinemas, separated by maybe a dozen stops on the number 80 bus, both paying tribute to the idea of Empire.

The Empire Matinée — a new story

Matinée

A couple of weeks ago, on Facebook, a woman remarked that she recognized the street signs on my blog’s masthead photo. They’re attached to the building she used to live in many years ago. She also remarked that across the street stood the Imperial Cinema.

As it happens, I was at that time wrestling with a short story that, in part, takes place in the Imperial. So here is that story. It’s called The Empire Matinée, and I hope you like it.

 

The l’Acadie fence

Fennce

When I lived in Park Ex, we often rode our bikes through a gate on l’Acadie Boulevard and into Town of Mount Royal. The mile-long fence separating Park Ex from TMR was infamous among urban planners and activists across the country — even written about in the U.S.

Once a year or so, an article would unfailingly appear in some local paper about the unembarrassed way the fence divided working-class from middle-class Montreal. It was our Berlin Wall, or directly descended from apartheid barriers. (You always have to leave some room for journalistic hyperbole.)

The fence never became a big enough cause célèbre to convince anyone to bring it down. It’s still there, still doing an excellent job.

Profiling

The l’Acadie fence was not just a physical barrier, of course. It separated worlds.

At first, we crossed into TMR just to ride around and ogle the houses we could only dream about. Houses with lawns and finished basements and garages and, somewhere inside, colour TVs and cool air-conditioned rooms.

As we grew older, the rides into TMR gained purpose. We wanted access to services. So we’d ride to the centre of town and run the quarter-mile track attached to TMR High, or shoot hoops at the courts next to the town hall. (We weren’t the only interlopers. Kids from the Côte-des-Neiges area would also arrive for pickup games, lime-green combs poking from their Afros.)

The police occasionally stopped us en route. I’ve always wondered how they knew we didn’t belong. Did something about our faces and haircuts tip them off? Maybe our cheap clothes and banged up bikes told them we weren’t Townies.

When they stopped us, the cops were unfailingly polite and unthreatening. (We were white kids, after all.) They asked where we lived and where we were going. One time, they pumped us for information. Someone had been stealing bikes. They mentioned a name. Did we know this individual?

To be fair to the cops and to their impulse to profile, I suppose a Park Ex kid was more likely to steal a bike than a TMR kid.

Look at me — the first bike I ever owned was stolen. Thirty-five bucks for a white Mercier with racing handlebars. A guy about my age, who lived around the corner, sold it to me.

So the police were right.

I now live in house with a lawn. We have air-conditioning and an alarm to keep people from stealing our stuff.

Lately, though, there’s been a rash of burglaries in our area. It might only be a matter of time.

 

Smells like running

 

Illustrations1

People smarter than I am have remarked on the very short distance between the nose and brain. Scents, especially when they arrive unexpectedly, can conjure up ghosts with devastating clarity. You find yourself on the edge of tears without knowing exactly why.

Incense
I often run by a spot near home where someone burns incense. To my nose, it’s the same incense as they burn in Greek Orthodox churches.

This happens occasionally but not always, making it hard to anticipate or to locate its source. So I’m never prepared for the sudden and overpowering presence of the livani, or for how it catapults me back several decades and halfway across the city to Agia Triada (Holy Trinity), the Greek Orthodox church that stood at the corner of Sherbrooke and Clark Streets.

Inside, an enormous chandelier and a trapped sparrow. Below, this sinner shrinks under the glare of the all-seeing eye of God painted at the centre of the dome.

Agia Triada burned down years ago. But every time I run through the cloud of incense, somewhere near home, she rises up again.

Meat

The Club gathers in a residential development on Monday nights for the weekly tempo run. If you know where to look, you might spot a discreet piece of reflective tape on a parking sign every 500 metres, marking one quarter of the 2k loop.

Round and around we go.

The housing development is new, without a tree in sight. The roads are wide and immaculate. On tiny pieces of land, massive houses squat like giant toads. The developers have installed warlike turrets and crenellations, as if to protect the houses from an invasion of proportion and taste.

Fine. Maybe I’m a little irritable. I haven’t eaten since lunch, so that I can run on an empty stomach.

It’s not helping, either, that the locals choose to grill meat at this hour, venting powerful exhaust fans from their fancy Wolf stoves directly at the road. Already light-headed from fasting and runner’s pain, the aromas waft me to a long-ago village agora.

I am seven years old. A man stands behind a small charcoal brazier. His left arm ends at the elbow, and a disembodied sleeve is neatly folded and pinned to his upper arm. With his remaining hand he tends a dozen bamboo skewers threaded with bits of meat. Lemony oregano fills the air. An adult hands over a coin. The man behind the brazier squeezes a lemon wedge on a souvlaki, places it on a waiting slice of bread and gives it to me.

I am afraid to eat it because then it will be gone.

 

 

The 80 goes to Place d’Armes

I often say that going for a run clears the mind. As if my cramped attic room gets cluttered with furniture and inessentials between runs, and an hour on the road helps to blow it all into a pile in the corner.

A “lower-body injury” and the flu have prevented me from running much over the past several weeks, generating more-than-usual clutter. But I did manage a therapeutic run the other day, under a brilliant sun and over fresh snow.

All better now. And the run helped me focus on the 1969 NFB documentary, The 80 Goes to Sparta, which I saw some years ago and that friends have been telling me to revisit. (The other one to revisit is last year’s Return to Park Ex, by Tony Asimakopoulos. Perhaps in another post…)

The 80 is my agora

For me, the 80 was always something of a village on wheels. When I lived in Park Ex, I would often hop on the southbound 80 on Saturday mornings, a fat weekend Gazette under my arm, and grab the last two-seater on the right-hand side. This gave me a chance to catch up on the news, eavesdrop on people getting on and off, and enjoy the familiar sights of Jean Talon, Park Avenue, Mount Royal and Bleury. There was nothing more comforting.

By the time we got to the end of the line, at Place d’Armes, the 80 was nearly empty. I’d exit through the rear door and immediately line up to get back on. My seat was still warm when I sat down again and unfolded the paper. The driver would then head north, to the other end of the line, at Crémazie Boulevard. A third ticket (student tickets were cheaper then) got me home, by which time I’d pretty much read the entire paper.

I knew this was an odd thing to do. Now that I’m older I realize it was a very odd thing to do.

The rich don’t ride the 80

A friend came for breakfast last Sunday, and we talked about the documentary and the memories it evokes. For her, it’s personal: she recognized her mother, family members and friends, and had a chance to revisit the now vanished world she grew up in.

The 80 Goes to Sparta opens with a close-up of classical busts. As the camera pulls back, the carvings are revealed to be mass-produced souvenirs on a store shelf — the Hellenic clutter familiar in every Greek home.

We like our myths served up warm and without irony. The irony here is unmistakable and easy — the disparity between gauzy national myths and hard reality — but also un-enlightening. It doesn’t address the main irony of the film, which is about the sharp divide between the haves and have-nots, and the very human impulse to create myth.

(Inadvertently, the documentary is also revealing about women, who are barely acknowledged as thinking, speaking beings. But that’s a subject for another time.)

In the documentary, the Greeks who arrived pre-War are dismissive of more recent arrivals: the newcomers have high expectations; they are ungrateful; they don’t understand that things are different here.

Montreal’s own shipping magnate, Phrixos Papachristidis, comes off poorly on camera and he hardly knows it. He’s too busy tending his personal myth to notice: compared to today’s immigrants, he started off with less money, worked harder, received no charity, endured more hardship.

But look at me now, he seems to say beyond the grave, in my chauffeur-driven limousine and Westmount mansion. Let that be a lesson to you.

My parents were part of the wave of economic migrants shown trudging across Fletcher’s Field in the dead of winter, to save a bus ticket on the 80. They began to arrive in the mid-Fifties and their numbers surged sometime in the early Sixties.

Family legend has it that my father began a dishwashing job the morning after arriving by train from Halifax’s Pier 21. In those pre-PETA days, his next job was tending research animals in the basement of the Royal Victoria Hospital (I dimly recall a galvanized iron tub full of squirming white rats).

Backbreaking work and punishing hours went on for decades, in various jobs, for the Greek women and men who made the crossing (with women, for the most part, working that much harder). But there’s nothing unique or noble about the Greek immigrant experience. Montreal’s Chinese and Portuguese, Italians and Ukranians and Poles — they all endured something similar.

Years later, I listened in as old men of my father’s generation gathered at Tim Horton’s on Jean Talon to grumble about “government handouts” to Park Ex immigrants — the Sri Lankans and Pakistanis and Africans who had replaced them.

When our generation arrived forty years ago, one of them said, knuckles rapping on the table to make his point, we didn’t have welfare and medicare and soup kitchens. Now, everything is served to these newcomers on a silver platter.

We’re still suckers for myth, and tone deaf to irony.