That day the leaden sky was as low over the lake as the ceiling in my freezing ancestral home. I counted each of my nocturnal breaths etched upon the windowpane as I descended the steps and proceeded down to the lake lapping at the village entrance. It was dawn and in two hours I needed to be across the border in Argyrokastro, from where I was to find my way to Tirana, there to attend as an observer, the annual conference of the Union for Human Rights Party.
I could not see my reflection in the ashen lake. Instead, its own reflection could be found in the sky and as I wandered along its deserted shores, I wondered how many aeons of human futility and dashed hopes lay submerged under the quagmire within, along with Kyra Frosyne, drowned upon the orders of Ali Pasha not so far from where I was standing, and my mother's wooden doll, lost in these waters forty years previously.
In the solitude of the rushes fringing the great silence of the lake, I availed myself of the stillness in order to answer a call of nature, musing as I prepared to do so, upon that unique sense of sweet sorrow, that which the inhabitants of Constantinople term hüzün, but which here at Ioannina acts as a great drain with the plug removed, dragging everyone, slowly, imperceptibly but inevitably into its watery sink of oblivion.
Poised, primed and ready to relieve myself, I gazed distractedly at the ground below, only to discover, coiled at my feet, within striking distance of my vital appendages, an enormous black water snake. One of the most vivid Greek expressions used to denote terror literally translates as: "My spleen was cut," and I bear living testament to its aptness. Backing away from the serpent with much care, I forgot to complete the primary task I had undertaken to perform, which would have easily foreseeable consequences later.
All the auguries were awful, compounded by a developing migraine wherein each revolution of my taxi to the border’s wheels assumed the form of a circular saw, cutting its way into my skull in iambic tetrameters. In my delirium, in which snakes featured prominently, I retained only a dim recollection of crossing the border checkpoint into Albania and my bladder felt as pressed as John Proctor in The Crucible, as my taxi driver to Argyrokastro tactlessly and enthusiastically explained that he came from the village of Bistritsa, which was Slavonic for a “gurgling stream.”
The plan was to find in Argyrokastro, the bus terminal whence passage could be obtained for Tirana. Subordinate to that was the locating of a public convenience in which I could, the threat of ophidian beasts notwithstanding, achieve bodily release. Yet as soon as I alighted from my taxi, I was dragged under the arm by a waiting friend, who pushed me into a worn, but surprisingly sturdy BMW. “You are not getting on a bus,” he stated in a tone that brooked no argument. “Anything can happen between here and Tirana and your Albanian is cringeworthy. I’ve arranged for you a lift with these gentlemen. They are all delegates to the conference, and the man in the front seat is the eparch of the Greek village of M. You will have plenty to talk about. You are late, off you go.”
As the door slammed shut behind me (the Greeks of Albania share none of their Helladic brethren’s aversion to being assertive when it comes to closing car doors), I was greeted by long, expressionless glances by the young men seated in front and beside me. “Here, you are the skinniest, sit in the middle,” one of them offered, moving aside. They would have been only five years older than me and yet their faces were furrowed with lines and wrinkles, in contrast to their painstakingly coiffed hair, granted structural integrity via immense quantities of bryllcream.
“So you are Australian?” the eparch asked, turning to me with a smile.
“Yes. I’m much interested in your views as to the constitutional efficacy of the new minority laws…”
“Do you know Elle Macpherson?” he interrupted.
“No, I haven’t had that pleasure but I’m wondering from a human rights perspective whether…”
“I’d love to do her. Είμαι καυλωμένος κάργα.»
«Κάργα!» came a chorus from the boys in the backseat.
“What about Jessica Hart?”
“Huh? Who is she?”
“You live in Australia and you don’t know who Jessica Hart is? Η ομορφούλα η κουτσιοδόντω μωρέ.”
“Sorry, I’ve never heard of her.”
“I’d do her, gaps in her teeth, or no gaps.”
“Ok, but how do the restrictions on private schools affect the status of Greek education in…”
“Είμαι καυλωμένος κάργα,” the eparch exclaimed, clutching at his crotch.
«Κάργα!» the boys in the backseat diligently echoed.
“Now listen and repeat,” the eparch instructed. «Τα βόδια σύρονται.»
«Και τα πρόβατα μαρκαλιούνται. Say it.»
“Ok. Τα βόδια σύρονται και τα πρόβατα μαρκαλιούνται. What of it? Is this a folksong or a line from some demotic poetry?”
Howls of laughter ensued as the boys in the backseat started chanting «Τα βόδια σύρονται και τα πρόβατα μαρκαλιούνται,» in manner akin to a soccer chant, but with greater and more refined attention to phrasing.
“These are the words we use when bulls and sheep mate,” the eparch explained. "Each animal does his business in a different way.”
“What about humans,” I ventured. “Can we employ different terms for them, or is it the same across the board?”
The eparch considered this for a moment before remarking dismissively, as if it should be painfully obvious even to a foreigner like me: “No, humans are humans, naturally. Except,” he added as an afterthought,” for those humans who are βόδια. Human βόδια μαρκαλιούνται. You will find plenty in the villages around here.»
Peals of laughter ensued from the backseat as the boys once again took up their chant.
“Have you slept with Sarah Murdoch? She is Australian,” the eparch enquired.
“No. I can’t say that I have.”
“Why not? If I was living in Australia, I would,” the eparch commented. “Beautiful women, kissed by the sun with no hair on their lips, their legs, or their pudenda.”
I confess that at that time I had no idea who Sarah Murdoch was and was having trouble keeping up with the conversation, let alone steering it in the direction of minority rights, which was the purpose of my trip. Furthermore, my bladder ached with urgency and I pressed my legs tightly together. Seeking a further way to contribute, I offered: “The Albanian writer Ismail Kadare laments the modern taste for depilation as a key to sexual attractiveness…”
“Bugger Ismail Kadare, he is probably gay anyway. I’m talking to you about a blonde beauty and you… I’d do her any day. Είμαι καυλωμένος κάργα.»
«Κάργα!» the boys in the backseat dutifully repeated, clasping their crotches.
“Do you know what I’d do to Sarah Murdoch if she was sitting here?” the eparch continued.
“No but I’m sure I can guess. Can we make a stop here, by the creek? I’m dying to go to the toilet.”
“Yeah, good idea. We can all take a leak. It will give us a good idea as to what size Australians are.”
We stopped under a tree and I ran as fast as I could, away from my fellow travellers who were sniggering behind me. Ensconced safely between some rocks on the banks of the creeks, I began to unburden myself.
“Watch out, there are snakes here. Decent size by the way, though I was expecting something a lot more heavy duty, if you are to take on the Australian woman.”
To this day, I do not know how the eparch, who when last I looked was approximately one hundred metres away, attempting to “cross streams” with his friends and giggling like a schoolgirl, found himself at my side, his arm resting protectively upon my shoulder as he viewed my nether regions appraisingly. “If Elle Macpherson was here right now…” the eparch intoned before abruptly interposing another thought. “You know,” he mused, “It’s strange. Your skin is very smooth. Like a woman.”
My flow immediately shut itself off midstream and I walked to the car, my hands in between my legs. I am unable to fathom how I endured the next two and a half hours in which the eparch duly recited the diptychs of all American supermodels, past and present, revealing to all and sundry that he was καυλωμένος κάργα, the refrain of κάργα being unstintingly intoned by his entourage. All the while, I felt like the little Dutch boy of legend who was compelled to place his fingers in many dykes, a subject also canvassed by the versatile eparch, in order to stop an imminent flow that would flood the entire Netherlands, pun probably intended. When upon our arrival in Tirana I was able to enclose myself in the protective custody of a lockable lavatory, I felt a liberation of a magnitude that can only be conveyed by a Cecil B DeMille dramatisation of the Lord smiting Pharaoh with the gushing waters of the Red Sea.
I’ve not kept in touch a great deal with the eparch, single and living at home with his parents, but still fighting the good fight on behalf of the Greeks of Northern Epirus over the years and I was surprised to receive an email from him the other week, in which he enquired as to the prospect of him emigrating to Australia. I furnished him with answers to his queries, attaching as a coda to my response the following: "Τα βόδια σύρονται και τα πρόβατα μαρκαλιούνται." He effected not to know what I was talking about.
First published in Neos Kosmos on 27 August 2016