First tongues, local bumblebees, found
First tongues, local bumblebees, found
I buy horta in a bag for one hundred lek, a small bunch of rocket for forty. The water in the Ionian Sea is choppy. A swallow’s mud nest is broken. I have begun to put leafy carrot tops in soup, the leaves of cauliflower with the florets. When I was a boy, I brought my father his slippers when he came home from work. Guernica hung behind the front door. Dad was fussy with food—didn’t like garlic. Never ate olives. I thought all Greeks ate olives, till I watched Kati Psinete, the Greek version of Come Dine with Me. My girlfriend thought I was a different man when she first heard me speak Greek. The sun is golden. My first tongue is Greek. I did not speak English till I went to kindergarten, even though I was born in Australia. Dad worked as a clerk. Mum as a seamstress. I am at home with neither language.
W hen I house-sat in Herne, England, I identified three bees: the honeybee, the banded white-tailed bumblebee and the early bumblebee. I saw the sea that Turner painted at Reculver. The two towers of the medieval church. The Roman Empire. The owners of the house-sit let me drive their small car. If life is love, then love is a butterfly. While in Whitstable, I read that Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, agreed to the name Northern Macedonia. I didn’t eat oysters; I was vegetarian. The streets were narrow, and it was hard to find a place to park. In Kavala, our neighbour, Yiannis, showed me how to cook a wild plant growing in our courtyard. I learnt to cook wild greens, with lemon and olive oil. Every night I would see fishing trawlers go out to sea. Seagulls in their wake.
I open my mouth. In Albanian, my name is difficult to pronounce. In English, I am a tortoise; in Greek, I have found my soul, the bouzouki, the table where I play tarot, look over to the island of Corfu. I want to dance. I am in Albania. It is raining, and no one will dance here till the spring weddings. Even in Greece, no one dances all the time. Once there were serfs; now there are employees. I am a spirit, so I flow like a mountain stream. I am not Greek or Australian. Neither was my father. The single-gauge train in Velingrad was painted red. It was old, but beautiful. Sofia has an outdoor market with a lot of fresh vegetables. I enjoyed eating kale in England; I haven’t seen it here in Sarande. The sea is flat as ice.
I love Over the Town, the painting by Chagall. The red house. Love flying. The first temple of Demeter I saw was in Naxos. My dad had a deep voice, and when he spoke in English, I thought he was angry. When the FYROM parliament was voting for their name change, a foreign diplomat was inside the building. When I was young, I didn’t understand why dad didn’t like the politics of England; I understood later when I realised he spent the first forty years of his life in Egypt. Persephone spent half her life away from her mother. Dad loved rock fishing. He would buy blank fishing rods and wrap coloured thread around them to hold the guides in place. He had all his rods on a special shelf in the garage. I remember the Cold War, the anti-nuclear protests. Front-page news. Dad laughed a lot, too. The sand is rough here.
In November we were in Ohrid. The weather was getting cold. Pumpkins were for sale at the markets. Rumi is like the rain; I want him to clear away the old, to find me a new poet to read. I have only seen a few seagulls here in Sarande, and two sea eagles. I carry binoculars on our travels. We have been travelling for four years. The red apples are only fifteen lek each. They are tasty. Good for baking. We eat a lot of soup and roasted vegetables. It is hard not to eat meat here; it is easier in England. I haven’t been to Rhodes. It is winter, and the sun has set. I look out to the distant village; as I get nearer, it changes. It is never the same. If I am a non-doer, then I feel I can laugh more. It is hard to laugh when I see how animals are treated. Mum didn’t understand me when I was a vegetarian. But you will eat chicken, she said. Two avocados are ripening in a bowl. With bananas.
I play the tarot. The cards say I am a fool. I prefer the fool to the one who turns his face. There are stories about me that I have never heard. I look out: a red table with chairs, an empty laundry rack, a white painted balcony, a sparkling sea, a cruise boat. I walk downstairs to the corner shop. A man walks by, wears scuffed leather shoes. An old jacket. No, he does not speak Aramaic. We carry more than luggage when we travel. Our heater is not warm enough. A buoy sits in the sea; I haven’t seen any birds land on it. We hang our washing out in cold sun.
There are a lot of apartments being built here. The earth shook last week: 4.5. Pandora is still a sign of trouble. We listen to Bob Dylan. The Streets of London. The town of Sarande is beautiful from the sea. A packet of oregano chips has milk in it. The smell of coffee. I can afford to pay ten dollars for a T-shirt, not five. On a walk, empty storefronts, unfinished buildings, stray dogs. It takes more food to feed livestock than it does to feed people. A dead cat on the road. A green apple. We keep our jobs for life, even if we have enough. The days are getting longer. On the streets at night, when it is quiet, men in bars, cafes.
W hen I was young, I ran in pouring rain to the corner of our street, carrying an umbrella for Dad. Dad didn’t like umbrellas. In Turkey, a woman at a market stall gave me a dried fig to taste. With a walnut in it. The shop downstairs has fresh spinach, parsley, lettuce. There are chickens in a garden nearby. I am a bundle of thoughts. Only I am not. My sister and I went fishing with Dad on the rocks. A storm came, and before the heavy rain hit, Mum was there with umbrellas. How did you know? I asked Mum. A little bird told me, she said. There is soil on the carrot tops here. A painting on the wall: a woman in a red dress, at a table. Dad’s voice. There are no leaves on the fig trees. Nostalgia won’t change anything. It took me months of travelling in Turkey to tell a Turk I was Greek. I eat a spoon of halva from Egypt. Alexandria. The factory is on Mustafa Kamel Street. I love halva. I bought it from a Middle Eastern shop in Thessaloniki. It is sweet.
To eat well, one must have money. Van Gogh did not kill himself. I am not a seeker. The path is steep here. There are empty villages, men and women who search bins for food, for things to sell. You throw a quarter of your food away, eat at expensive restaurants. I will not be quiet. I walked the same streets of Athens that Dad did. The coffee is ready in the percolator. When my dad painted, he used bright colours. I never saw him paint on canvas, only on antiques. On the weekends. He didn’t use his sick days. He listened to the news a lot.
Zen talks about the mountain being a mountain. After a while, it stops being a mountain. Then it’s a mountain again. Rumi writes about getting drunk. He saw God everywhere. I can feel a rift in the air. I smash a plate; I don’t look around. It is the end. It is the start. I smash another plate. This is not nostalgia; this is dying. Greed is the new passion. Milled flaxseed has no special taste. I say yes to life. I have a lot of questions for Dad, questions I have already asked him. It is time to drink coffee. Black. Listen to Greek music. Like Dad did. I have visited Greece many times now. The mystery has dissipated. The love has not.
I bake bread. Soak lentils overnight. Make a white-bean paste. I see pigs in a pen. Guernica, again. Fog. Ghost villages. Baklava. Rumi swims in a desert pool. God has arrived. I did not know he was here. When I was a boy, I went to Greek church. I didn’t understand what was said, except for a few words: Xristos Anesti and Kyrie Eleison. Jesus went to India. So did Alexander the Great. I peel potatoes, make soup. Watch a yellow-legged seagull on a roof. The winter sun. There are a lot of empty apartments in Australia. I am learning to eat more vegetables. Food is what keeps me growing. When we travel to India in March, I will not be I anymore. I will be different.
Ion Corcos has been published in Cordite, Meanjin, The High Window, Wild Court and other journals. He is a nature lover and a supporter of animal rights. He is currently travelling with his partner, Lisa. He is the author of A Spoon of Honey (Flutter Press, 2018). This poem was a finalist for Nowhere’s Fall 2020 Travel Writing Prize.
Lead image: Polina Rytova