Tuesday 15th October 2019
x-pressed | an open journal
July 26, 2012
July 26, 2012

Letter to an Italian friend

Author: Thomas Tsalapatis Translator: Elsa Nicolaou
This article is also available in: elesit
Letter to an Italian friend

Dear Alberto,

When I was a little boy, my parents thought up a sneaky way to make me learn geography. In my childhood room, above my childhood bed, they had attached a map of Europe. So every morning I woke up, I set my eyes at the sea (not bad. You see, I lived in the center of Athens). Along with it, I was wished good morning by the borders, the capital cities, the forms and the colors of the countries.

I could say that back then I didn’t particularly fancy that map. It was serious-faced and it invariably pointed a strict finger at my boyhood toys, just as my teacher in class did. My initial excitement came with the discovery that the shape of your country is like that of a leg kicking a ball. The excitement grew even bigger because of the mundial being held in Italy then, in 1990. For the first time all the kids in the neighborhood were gathering in the narrow alleys so that our football skills and our knowledge about the players could compete. So, those days everything made sense to me and geography had a totally different meaning (today I am disappointed with my platitudinous geography comment on your country and with my football skills alike).

I’ve always liked the countries depicted with my favorite colors and I’m mentioning it just to let you know how lucky you are since Italy was depicted with green, my favorite color. The same color was shared by Poland, Sweden, Ireland and Andorra. Even until today, I can’t understand what secret correlation dresses all these countries in green, but surely they are lucky for the choice that has been made for them. On the contrary, my country was stubbornly depicted with a faded orange, the color of the bitter oranges when falling off the branches and onto the pavement and grow old, without anyone having peeled them. I’ve always thought it was unfair, and I still believe so. But anyway, I soon saw the colors on the map changing, getting distorted and the shapes being mixed up. The Soviet Union fell, the two “Germanies” united and Yugoslavia broke to pieces. My mum told me that such things happen with maps, and over the first half of the century it was even worse and that I shouldn’t get upset. I didn’t believe her – rather because I didn’t know what the first half of the century was – but anyway I’ve remained troubled ever since.

Almost 10 years have gone by since the time when the map of Europe was hanging on my wall and, whereas everything in the room has changed, it claimed its stability gloating. It was exactly then when the big earthquake of 1999 struck. For the first time in 10 years, the map found itself on the floor, hit, beaten suddenly. For reasons of honor, I hung it back, but its severe expression had been lost and so had its stability. At this point I have to inform you that my country is renowned for certain pieces of its production. It produces yogurt of superb quality and even better poets. Mediocre football players and even worse prime ministers, but at least very skillful basketball players. I’ve always believed that the earthquakes we produce are among the best in Europe, as it was manifested not only in the economic crisis, but also in the recent elections and the rise of the Left. But what was I telling you – oh yes, about the stability of the map. So, after its first fall, the map kept falling after each small or big earthquake. With such accuracy so, that at a certain point I was no longer certain if it was the earthquakes that caused the fall or the fall of the map that caused the earthquakes in the country. I think that due to this doubt, I felt the first sting of responsibility towards society and I ended up in the Left. Anyway – I don’t want to baffle you – and in order to get it over with the map, I wanted to tell you that I last saw it at the age of 18, when the map fell for the last time. While I was sleeping, right into my dream. The capital cities, the lines and the colors were gone within the sleep. The colors mainly were so tangled that since then my dreams have been color-blind. Today Europe is an unknown continent to me. Its blurred image is standing hitched on the memory like a fish bone on the palate. At least – and I don’t know why – the earthquakes stopped.

Dear Alberto

My name is Thomas Tsalapatis and I am 27 years old. I studied in the department of theater studies of the University of Athens. Recently my first collection of poetry has been published, as well as a book with translated poetry. I have been contributing articles in newspapers and magazines for four years and at the same time I have been practicing stand-up comedy. I don’t want to focus on any one of them, I just feel like introducing myself since I’m writing to you. If I were to focus on something, it would be on number 27. Over the past years, I’ve travelled to several European countries – among them I spent 6 months in Siena with my girlfriend attending an Erasmus course, maybe the most beautiful months of my life – talked to people holding the number 27 on a little piece of paper, (as happens in waiting lounges in post offices), 27 and other neighboring numbers. Together we learned to count in different languages. And it seemed as if, while age is addition, – necessarily and inevitably since we are in the bad habit of aging – to us it was subtraction, since every day over the last years tomorrow has been lessening. You know, I’m thinking that when you are 27, your age has no nationality.

The waiting lounge is common in Italy or in Greece, in Portugal, in Spain and in Ireland. If this situation keeps on, I believe that the lounge will take on the form and size of Europe. For the time being, we are waiting in this sterilized lounge and as soon as our age is told, we will post our tomorrow to some unknown recipient. The recession will be licking the stamps. The recession and those who designed it.

Do you want me to show you around my age?

We live in a world of collapsing newly- built buildings, in a route of fresh debris. If there is a group badly affected by the crisis, it is the younger generation. The age divided between its physical exaltation and its untimely aged perspective. This grouping of people under a common called- off future. It’s not only because the decisions affect its immature present, but because they multiply their significance and weight within an uncertain tomorrow. Thus, to a great extent our generation experiences the present as stagnation, the future as certain and at the same time unknown danger looming and the history as treasury (speaking of history I mean modern history, the fish bone and the map that has lost its colors).

Unemployment grows every day making the prevailing precarious work, look like a bitter gift as and when it appears. Open contracts, unspecified working hours, employer arbitrariness and late payments are the tattered escort of these “gifts”. Next to the old concept of the proletariat what appears is the ever-expanding number of precariat, modern labor and uncertain uninsured worker (from the English word Precarity).

The modern unemployed youngster bears no resemblance with the generations of unemployed of the last century. Often educated, often fully qualified with two and three degrees, familiar with the technologies, trends, internet, languages, travel and simultaneously blocked, gagged and hopeless.

The relatively new term came to describe these pop crowds, the term kogknitarios (from the Latin and Cartesian cogito) best describes this case: the case of the young man who has the knowledge but not the wealth, power, perspective. But I think I began to theorize. Sometimes it seems to be the most polite way to hide your wrath.

Do you want me to show you around my City?

Not in ancient Greek ruins or in taverns. Not even where the old routine is trying to keep up with today’s reality. A little further; I’ll take you where the Nazi blades hunt the weak, the immigrant, the “Other”. Where misery is baptized crime, murder is turned into legitimate defense and the return to bestial state regarded an action of national pride. And a little further, on the steps of Greek reality where homeless are sleeping, where drug users get doped, where ghosts exchange gestures.

Have you ever seen gangrene? You will, in the city center next to smiling postcards and expensive and slightly anxious brokers.

In this country the last 3 years measured suicides: three every two days. Have you heard what Greek police means? Have you heard of the 20 HIV-positive prostitutes? 20 women are in prison, living in inhumane conditions between sewage and mice because they are carriers of AIDS. Certainly they were first pilloried by their photos circulating in newspapers, somewhere between WARNING signs you see on labels or WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE that you encounter in the Wild West. It was the most recent gift by the two major political parties in our country (PASOK, New Democracy), by the courts and the media, the most recent moment in a number of economic, political and moral crimes. But shall I tell you something? It seems strange, but I do not despair. If you look at what preceded the Greek 20th century you cannot despair. Here prayer is the stone.

Do you want to go sightseeing in my history?

And I’m not talking about the battle of Marathon and Thermopylae. Only about the 100 years of the last century. Let’s start counting: 2 Balkan Wars, 2 world wars; the Asia Minor disaster, the refugees, the uprooting; the bloodiest civil war in Europe; the exiles, the persecuted and tortured; four coups in the last military junta from ’67 to ’74; the invasion of Cyprus … Looking back not only do you learn history, but also arithmetic. Numerical loss. But mostly you learn not to despair and to withstand, to resist, to struggle and to hope.

Dear Alberto

Beside the crisis in Greece, another Greece has lived here for years now. A new generation subtracted of something they did not even touch. A generation that learns to spell the creation of the new. The generation that in December 2008, after the murder of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos in Athens by police, through its uprising, set a moral boundary that no one is allowed to overcome. That described a crowd that nobody could ignore. A generation that every day from the beginning, defines the right of civil disobedience. From the refusal to pay tolls, and buses to the massive marches of the last year and a clash with the police. A generation that tried to define the relationship with the concept of politics, the open concentrations of the Indignant at Syntagma Square, by popular assemblies in each square of the country.

But I forgot to talk about art. The art exists beside all this. Next to the black color of suffering and injustice, the white of the desire and of the new, beside all the colors of resistance. And you write and write. Writing articles, lyrics, jokes, next to all those who fall. Reluctantly, often with a sense of guilt, a sense of shoddy defeat. I do not know what we need the art for at such times, what it serves, who it helps, not to mention who seeks it. All I know is that it is of need. In the darkest times, art survives as a need, is experienced with the naturalness of the urgent and during its happier and authentic moments, it teaches courage.

I may write one more letter sometime. Let me talk about the dozens of new theatrical groups trying the new. The younger generation of poets who already counts its first big lyrics. The short stories and novels seeking to breathe in a different way. The free screenings on squats and squares every day throughout the city. And mostly, the discussions, endless discussions until the first alarm of the sun. Maybe one day we’ll talk about this Black Spring of ours.

I’d like to say goodbye with a verse. It belongs to the poet Paul Celan and has been taught to me by a very good friend of mine. The poet writes: ‘Oh, you dig and I dig and dig into myself until I reach you.’ While times are changing skin, while the self-evident is falling apart and the old certainties are running away in terror, these times look like times for hard digging. And maybe in the end we will have a chance to get to know all our inner part without undue bliss, hasty conclusions or easy ornaments. And maybe there, next to us, we will encounter the others and perhaps a little further, the Other. Free from prejudices, colour, nationality. My Dear Alberto, I hope to meet you in there.

With sincere love

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