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The Village of Xidera

Election time in Xidera

The window ledge in Avgalia's is littered with political posters and brochures. As we eat our dinner, one of the candidates charges in, shaking hands and greeting everyone, including us until he realizes we are Americans. He acknowledges us in perfect English which takes me by surprise but he doesn't waste any time with us, telling his father, the campaign manager not to bother enlightening us. In a flash he is out the door and across the street to Thanasis' cafe where he shakes hands with all the old men, temporarily breaking up their card game. I read the pamphlet he has given me and discover that he got his degree from Boston College and then studied economics at Cambridge. He's with the new Political Spring Party one of the small alternatives to Pasok and New Democracy. A few minutes later I can hear his voice booming through the village. On my way home I stop in the main square where he has set up a small but loud PA system at the cafeneon where the young guys hang out. He's practically shouting as he exhorts all the men to support him, so that he may support them. Several time his voice cracks and I am reminded of Clinton at the end of his first presidential campaign. The old men in the cafe across the street from him look bored, but when he is finished they break into a thunderous applause. He sits down at one of the tables where there is a cold beer waiting for him and he continues to talk with the other men sitting with him. I imagine him going to every village doing this and I am impressed, but I wonder if he is sincere about recognizing their needs and representing these poor farmers, or does he just want a piece of the pie?

    ...We go across the street to Avglaia's for dinner. It's packed with old men but they make room for us at one of the tables. Everyone greets me. Most of them, if not all, by name. Amarandi is fading fast so Andrea sends me to the car for the stroller and the flashlight so we can find our way home. The streets are even darker but I follow the sound of  Simitis' voice to the first cafeneon in the square where a handful of men are watching him on the TV attentively. The proprietor  waves a greeting to me. From inside someone calls out "Yassoo Matheos". My car is parked between the other two cafes. In one they are watching the Pasok rally. It's full of old men. In the other which is considered the young men's cafe, they're not. In fact it looks like they are watching MTV. I see a large old man pull himself up from his chair in the old man cafe and walk towards me smiling. It's Andrea's cousin the taxi driver who invites me in for a coffee. I refuse apologetically telling him I have to bring back the stroller because Amarandi is about to fall asleep at Avglaia's. Of course he misunderstands and tells me that the cigarette store is closed. I try to re-explain but he is already offended and goes back to his seat.

     I arrive back at Avglaia's just as my ouzo is being put on the table, along with a nice  tomato and rokka salad and a plate of what I thought was sun-dried tomatoes, but turns out to be fried sheep's liver and spleen dressed in olive oil. I eat it happily. It goes great with ouzo. At first I am uptight about the situation. We are the center of attention and everyone asks us questions, then comment to each other about our answers. Gradually the ouzo begins to warm me up and open me up at the same time. I relax and with some translation help from Pamela, my Greek is sufficient to get my ideas across. Most of the discussion is political. Various parties are represented in the room and they ask me who I would vote for. I tell them I'm for the guy from Boston College of course. They nod their heads. Of course.

    Avglaia starts bringing us fish. After awhile she's like the Sorcerer's Apprentice and we can't keep up with her. After we tell her we have had enough she brings us one more plateful. We send them back and tell her to save it for Amarandi's breakfast tomorrow. Amarandi's new thing is to eat the noses off all the fish. Her plate is full of noseless fish heads. Even she finds the pace exhausting and falls asleep in her stroller. Avglaia puts another salad on our plate and offers me another portion of sheep spleen which I turn down. But I do order a beer which compliments the fried fish perfectly. I tell Pam and Andrea that according to Michio Kushi, beer is the perfect balance for fried food. I don't know if it's true but it sounds good. The talk is always about America. One old man tells us that he loves Cuba, hoping to get a response from us and get the communist versus capitalist debate going, but I sidestep it. "My favorite baseball player comes from Cuba!" I tell him excitedly and then explain to Pam how Rey Ordonez had climbed over a wall in Binghamton, New York during an exhibition tour and all the baseball teams took place in a special lottery for his services. "He's the best shortstop in the world!" I tell her, but then I have to explain what a shortstop is. Then we are on to defensive shifts, variety of pitches, catcher to pitcher communication and the use of computers to evaluate information on the tendencies of opposing players. Pam is interested but Andrea has found her excuse to go home and read her mystery book. We say goodbye's all around.

    ...I walk in to Thanasis' to say goodnight but an old man pulls me over to a table he is sharing with a friend and insists I join him for a discussion. He's a communist named Anthymos. He hates America. Not the American people, he makes sure I understand. He believes the American government is on the side of the Turks. I tell him that it is not possible. The Greeks have too much power in America. They have a strong lobby and spend millions. They are in government and more important, they are at the tops of some very powerful corporations. Even if it is strategically better to support the Turks, America could not do it because of public opinion. Americans love the Greeks. He doesn't agree. I can understand. Any communist who witnessed America's role in the Greek Civil War would find it difficult to ever forgive us. When comrades and family have been killed by American guns and money and your future has been snatched unfairly from your grasp, to be able to forgive would take a superhuman effort. To me it is enough that he holds no grudge against the American people.
     Thanasis is the translator when something Anthymos says is beyond my range of understanding, but mostly, through repetition and intent he is making himself very clear and he is happy that I am agreeing with almost everything he says. He keeps shaking my hand in the solidarity handshake. He's missing parts of most of his fingers.
     Finally it's only Thanasis, Anthymos and myself. All the other old men have gone, and Thanasis yawns, signaling that the evening is over. When Anthymos leaves I say to Thanasis, "You don't know how lucky you are to have this business. Every night you can have a meaningful conversation with people who talk passionately about what they believe in. You think you are stuck in the middle of nowhere but really you are at the center of the universe. Every night you are a guest in the hearts and minds of men. I am envious of you."
     "Maybe", he tells me with a disinterested shrug. "But you said something to me that made me very proud. It was when you told of your friends college thesis on the Greek/Americans being the most educated and successful of all immigrants in the United States. This is very special."
     We say goodnight. He has to wake up at five in the morning to take his wife and mother-in-law to a small church up in the mountains. I walk home but it is so dark I can't see the street. It's like walking with my eyes closed. I take one slow step at a time with my hand out in front to feel the way. I miss the turn and find myself down at the square. I am tempted to go back and borrow a flashlight but instead look up at the stars. By using them I can find the streets by seeing where the total blackness of the rooftops end and the stars begin. I finally find what feels like our gate but until I open the front door of the house and switch on the light, I'm still not totally sure I am in the right place.

    Someone has ordered a lamb slaughtered for a big party in the platia tonight. Many people have come back to the village form Athens and Mytilini town to vote. If you live within five-hundred kilometers from your home village you must vote there. The government pays for half your fare so many people who live more then that distance take advantage of the law and come home to visit friends and relatives.
 There are two uniformed soldiers eating dinner at Aglaia's. They are here to guard the polling place. Pam, Andrea and Amarandi arrive and we sit down for dinner. Andrea can't handle anymore ouzo so I drink hers and several more. Stavros comes in and hands his mother something wrapped in plastic. Is it sardelles pastes? No it's kolios pastes, and not fresh but canned, though it will do for now. By the time dinner is over I feel like hell after an afternoon of eating and drinking. We go home to bed but I wake up at two in the morning and sit outside. I can hear music coming from the platia and I am tempted to join the party. But even the thought of roasted lamb is not enough to stir my appetite after today and the possibility, or probability of another round of ouzo frightens me enough so that I stay in bed.

    Tonight the village priest makes his first appearance at Aglaia's. According to Thanasis he has been hiding out in his home because he has been drinking too much. This must be a tough posting for a village priest. He is pleased to see us. We tell him we had seen a portrait of  him on Andrea's Aunt Yota's piano. "In the bedroom?" he asks us with a shocked look on his face. "Of course not", says Andrea. "In the living room, on the piano".
     I go across the street to watch the election returns with Thanasis and a group of men who keep filling my ouzo glass and offering me what I thought were little sausages but discover they are merely hot-dogs. They are also eating something called 'elies pikra' which means 'bitter olives. These are the green olives that fall early from the trees. I am told not to eat them alone but in the same mouthful as a piece of bread and tomato. All I taste is the bread and tomato. It's too early to tell who the winner is so I go across the street to have dinner with Andrea and Amarandi. Pam had fallen asleep and was skipping dinner. I'm not very hungry and have to struggle to finish the fried eggplant and salad Aglaia has given me. Just when I thought my task was completed she plops down before me another plate of the sheep's liver and spleen. She must have an endless supply, and for some reason Amarandi is not interested in it tonight so I have to finish the whole plate to avoid offending Avglaia's hospitality. I am able to stop her before she gives me a second helping and hurry across the street to avoid any more and to watch the elections. Miltiades Evert, the leader of New Democracy is not only giving his concession speech, but stepping down as leader of the party, stating that the loss is his responsibility. He had cancelled his party rally in downtown Athens saying that the Greek people are tired of these shows. Pasok had held theirs and as Simitis spoke the camera's panned on hundreds of thousands of supporters filling the square at Green Park, and the large avenues adjoining it. It was a powerful image.

     I sit next to the priest who tells me he has submitted a blank voting card. "What do you expect", he tells me. "I'm a priest". Every time I ask him a question about what's being said on TV he says "How should I know? I'm a priest." I'm hungry for information and I'm sitting with the one guy in the village who knows less then me. He invites me for coffee at his house common which I accept. Maybe he has a spiritual problem he wants to confide in me. I get up for a moment to quickly ask Thanasis what is going on and from the corner of my eye I see the priest slip out, most likely offended. Thanasis explains that Pasok has won.
     But the election is not over in Xidera. Stavros asks if I want to help him bring food to the soldiers at the school where they are tallying the votes. I carry the bread. We walk to the top of the village to the school. The entrance is crowded with teenage boys awaiting the results. Lost in the group is a short soldier, guarding the entrance in full battle dress, holding a large automatic rifle. We are allowed to pass. The boys are envious of Stavros being able to pass the guard and curious who I am. Inside a classroom it looks like a barracks. Mattresses and sleeping bags are laid out on the floor and the soldiers are involved in various activities until the food arrives and they jump up. There are children's drawings and educational posters and pictures on the walls and it's strange to see the soldiers and the guns in this setting.
    We leave but return with more fried potatoes, retsina and coca-cola. One of the soldiers asks me where I am from and is surprised to find out I am American. He is from one of the lower class neighborhoods near Omonia Square in Athens. Though he is very young his teeth are falling out. I ask him how he likes the army.
    "What's to like? he asks. "Do this. Go here. Do that. Yes sir. No sir. It's a bunch of crap."
     "Yes but you get to do jobs like this", I point at his surroundings.
     "Yes. This is fun," he admits but he doesn't like being posted in Petra where all the tourists are old British couples. He's only got six months left and he'll survive. Stavros and I say goodbye and the soldiers thank us and wave. As we leave one of the officials is dialing the phone and I wonder if he is calling in the results to Mytilini. At the gate of the school we are surrounded by the teenagers who for some reason want me to do a chin-up on the trellis. I resist but finally make a feeble attempt. Then they want to know who my favorite NBA team is. I tell them Charlotte Hornets and  they seem disappointed. They all want to talk about Michael Jordon and the Chicago Bulls but I don't think this is an appropriate audience for me to criticize either, which is my usual stance, and so we say goodbye instead.

    When we get back to Avglaia's everyone wants to know what it was like in the school. I describe it as best I can and leave them discussing it to watch whatever's left of the election on TV. A few minutes later, Thanasis' son Yorgos, who has been staying with an aunt while he attends trade school in Mytilini, runs into the cafeneon from the polling station. He excitedly recites the numbers he has heard. 289 for Pasok. 210 for New Democracy. 33 for the Communist...and down the line. One of the men tallies it up.
    "It's impossible he says. This adds up to six-hundred and there are only 400 people in the village. Yorgo seems disappointed that his information is inaccurate.

    I continue to ask Thanasis questions about voting in Greece and he wants to know about America. I laugh about the soldiers and tell him that when I go to vote I walk into a room where there is a desk. Behind the desk is a big fat old man with a white beard, a black man, and a woman who checks my name off a list.
     "Wait just a minute. Do you mean everywhere you vote in America you have one black man, an old man with a beard and a woman?" he asks incredulously as if the three are some kind of  tradition symbolic of age gender and race. I apologize for not being more clear and explain that this is just my village. Who knows how the people look in other villages. I am also realizing that by using the term village for where I live in Carrboro, North Carolina, with it's traffic jams, super markets and malls, I place another false image in his mind. Compared to Xidera, my village is a city.
    He nods and happens to look out the door just as the village president is passing by holding a manila envelope.
 "Get in here!" he yells. "Let me have those numbers so we can start collecting on our bets" He writes down the results the village leader gives him. George had been correct except he had said two-hundred for both Pasok and ND, where it was only one-hundred.
"Tomorrow the paper will give us a breakdown for the whole island", he tells me. "Something to look forward to", I think as I say goodnight and walk home having enjoyed the electoral process in Xidera.

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