We Athenians call it (not so) affectionately the 'Electric', short for the 'electric railroad'–it's the Athens municipal train. Just got in, I carry a big paper shopping bag, I sit down but don't face the front. Whenever I find an aisle seat I don't sit straight, I allow for other people’s feet and for my bags, and face sideways. Slowly the standing crowd multiplies, as humans claim the space I turn and sit straight.
A little while ago I reached out to a journalist I revere for help. I'm writing an academic article that is complicated and important, and he has written a lot on the issue, of historical proportions. Only, he had retired recently, after a long career, and I sent the email to a general server of the political magazine he still retains a writing relationship with. As I start facing forward, and position my bag on my lap, I realise he is sitting across my seat, cornered next to the window. For a few long seconds I stop breathing as my eyes open up a little bit more - one can't see it but I feel it, my eyes become rounder, like a pair of perfect spheres, and ever so slightly my skin lifts over them and doesn't touch them, not exactly. Then I compose myself and I smile. I decide to introduce myself.
We had spoken before, in public speeches of his, of course he doesn't remember, but I explain, smiling, both my admiration for his work, how I've used it in my academic writing, and my problem. '-I've emailed you via the magazine, asking them to give you the email' - '-Sorry, it's my fault, I haven't been to the magazine for a while'. He understands the issue of my concern; immediately tells me he agrees and that it's important. I think I'm possibly the only one who recognises him in this train compartment full of people, both standing and sitting, wanting to be taken places, yet very still and very stationary.
His career was long and full of clout, but he is a newspaper man, he hasn't done any TV or any broadcasting apart from some scarce appearances. He also comes from a time when to be a journalist still meant that you would be well read and educated.No, no one else recognises him around us. That makes our conversation almost private–and it’s on public issues that affect all of us. Its political nature takes over us. I wonder whether it's the city that exercises its past influence on us, demands that we are kind to strangers and open to discuss things. Is it that we were brought up with a remembrance of an Athenian existence of 2000 years ago, when the political was not a swear-word but a description of humanity?
He knows the history of the issue I want to tackle, he knows details hidden in the sand that I don't know. Along with his knowledge ride his manners. There's this feeling of an old Athens of the thirties, the one where manners meant good education, kind heart and a solid identity, a respect towards one's own self and therefore towards the world. I know the information I get from him is knowledge, and even in judgments of his I don't agree with I can trust his sources and the work he has done to reach them; I can trust the beds on which his arguments lie are made of facts.
He calls me, as I apologize for asking him things on a train, 'glykitati desposyni', to appease and reassure me. The first word means ‘sweetest’, but with the intonation in an archaic way, ‘wrong’ for modern Greek, inciting decades that passed between ideals and dreams fulfilled or shuttered. 'Desposyni' is the young woman, 'miss', an archaic word again, which only shows care with the language and fails–completely fails–to be condescending even for a sensitive feminist, and becomes – is– gallant. I have always disliked being called sweet, even by people who I knew loved me, always feeling it was patronising–right now I don't feel like that at all.
There is, of course, also this connection with good education, with words that are held tight in one's tongue as they are uttered, on certain footing, clearly pronounced vowels and consonants, even when they are soft. But let me take you into my confidence: I compare this type of manners with those in a bourgeois society, that of another European country I love, in the North, of another city I am particularly fond of. I remember someone who loved me calling me sweet, in perfect condescending English of a foreign national–someone who learnt it painfully at school and not in the streets–and how I didn't like it. I remember him more recently, after love has left only a few deep traces and we're now friends, telling me that he paid an extraordinary amount of money for a service, taking for granted that that's why it was good. For all his great qualities I still love, this is a fault I knew and scolded in the past too. This is a bourgeoisie with a 'charme discreet', it's not class in that other meaning of the word, the non-conflictual one. It's not class away from power and appearances. It's sitting down for a meal, dressed in ‘good society’, when the meal never comes. Or, alternatively, I'm distorting his good intentions because of a remaining bitterness for being called sweet, when myself dipping my heel in the bourgeoisie, proud and vain. Bitter because I couldn't recognise the use of old language and old manners in simple, clear, uncompromising English, when some compromise had to be achieved.
I enjoy the noble journalist's simple manners, kindness, and knowledge of history and current affairs for a while longer. We get off at the same station, it seems we don't live far from each other, and walk together. I was worryingly preoccupied with the issue, he educated me. Then we reach the bakery where he buys his bread, I have strayed a bit from my own way, he promises to call me before I trace back my own route.
On my way back, I think about what 'class' means as I saw it in him, stripped of fine clothing, only in the way one sees you and the way he sees the world, only in manners and not in mannerisms. He could be an anarchist, yet I think he is an independent thinker, like those writers I most admire – not conservative and not a 'socialist', neither right nor left nor center. That makes him able to judge facts and reality without seeing them as pre-baked in an easy-bake oven. But he is also a journalist from a time when journalists _were_ their profession, they didn't just _do_ their profession.
The difference, I think, also has to do with some self-congratulatory smugness. My northern European friend can be at the mercy of it - this journalist has none. In his profession, he watched the world by being political, taking a position when it had to be done, calmly and without overriding passion – sometimes with indignation. Maybe that calmness is what I can't do myself, which is why I would admire it so. I'm too passionate and I worry I make mistakes–I could even be bourgeois myself, when I think of the shock I felt when a British friend narrated his misfortunes after losing his job–my illusions about academia, once again badly battered. Will I always be in a position to see my mistakes, admit and try to correct them? When do we control our vanity and manage to reduce it, boil it down to the necessary pride of a person who must be political–therefore has to judge and write, has to 'speak' up? Proud, secure footing, is needed–how do we stop vain steps, which surely lead into potholes in the road, by virtue of us not looking where we go?
Let me take you into my confidence once again: I still feel some residual guilt about some of my judgments, when I worry they might have been harsh; yet I can't be sure I can be the person I want to be any other way. If I get over wanting to be a little bit like my bourgeois friend, charging into anything and everything with a cape on my shoulders, will I achieve being like this old journalist? And then there are the people like whom I also don't want to be–those that are so far from things, in their own sphere, no one touching them outside that–decent people, who write, but are untouched. I would fear that, in me. I would fear being like those who have only ‘own people’ around them, flattering them, bowing to them, feeling they can shut themselves in a sphere that is small–how else could it be closed?–and can come out at will, sliding then back in, as if in a womb. Not me–and my mother's womb was never hospitable, I imagine, even in the first months, during the whiff of ‘existence’–no, if I don't 'shout', I can't possibly hear me. I need of course people who will cheer on, friends, but I have no bubble around me, no perfect, round sphere–at best, fleeting soap bubbles as if made by children playing. Yet, a child I am not, the mirror says, my protests too are adult and demanding of me, thankfully in mature moments, more than of others. But I have to do some walking still.
I reach my home and I lay on my desk, head on hands, wondering how to compromise, when I don't want to compromise. Head on hands and then head falling on the desk, as though I was positioning my ear on the desk deliberately, to hear something, the steps of men, the steps of horses, who knows. At worst, 'an invisible procession'.
But I have to do some walking still. And if I were in a bubble, a perfect, round sphere of influence, how far could I go, and wouldn't that make me a hamster?
by Sophia Kanaouti