I’ve been riled up lately. What with the near-bankruptcy of Cyprus and the chaos that has ensued, and the myopia that is enveloping Europe, and the meaningless political discussions taking place in the US, and the incalcitrance of theocracy in Islamic states, and the Greek Orthodox Easter playing out this weekend, making everyone remember their inherent ‘holiness’, on which hypocrisy thrives, I have been rather sharp, harsh, or blunt in my blog entries.
I don’t intend to stop now.
Here is an excerpt from a book I wrote seven years ago, and which I never published. Its title is The Other Dimension, and it is an autobiographical account of my teen years and early twenties, back when the angst of growing up was gnawing at my brain and the hypocrisy of people had me fuming and seething.
This is the third chapter in the book. As the story goes, I am still in high school. The day is Holy Saturday, the holiest of days in the Greek Orthodox calendar, but I am not at church. I am at the movies, where the damned and evil go to spend their time before they burn in hell for all eternity.
‘One ticket for Forever Young please.’
I saw the clerk’s eyelids begin to bulge as her sense of reproach contracted the muscles around her eyes, and I thought to myself, Here it comes. Three, two…
One only, mana mou?
Annoying as hell. Her voice was crackly and corvine, the expression of a genuine Garrulina Ticketus Clerkus. But her tone was glossed with honey, dripping with concern and disbelief at my most incomprehensible request. Like the kind, elderly grandma, who fails to understand the actions of youth or society, yet far from old in age, in theory anyway, this woman stared incredulously at me, shaking her head with latent judgment. She was prodding me with her crow eyes, trying to comprehend why I would do such a terrible thing to myself, why I would go to the movies on my own. Alone!
It was hard to get mad at the comment per se, which, after all, was quite a natural one. If you go alone to a place where people always go in pairs or more, you get asked if you’re alone. Ok. But it was hard not to get agitated by the tone, that dreaded, mushy whine, which hadn’t come out of the concerned mouth of a saintly granny but from the judgmental trap of a 30-year-old know-it-all, wrinkled and damp like a raisin, which of course pissed the hell out of me. I hated seeing young people trapped in elderly mannerisms. And the mana mou, that dreadful term of endearment we use so much in Cyprus, both with friends and strangers, had stung me right between the eyes. Mana mou, which is akin to saying my precious or my love, is both a misnomer and an insult, albeit a stealthy one. Many people are under the impression that its roots lie in the word ‘Mother’ – it literally means ‘mother of mine’, or so people think – and that over the years it slowly became a term of endearment with which one can address males and females alike, young or old; you know, one of those mutant, leftover expressions that don’t really make sense, not literally anyway, but which we use all the same.
It ain’t so. Mana mou has nothing to do with the word ‘Mother. It comes from manari mou: a commonly used term of endearment in Greece, and means my precious lamb. Because manari actually means sweet little lamb (that is bound to get slaughtered).
Look it up.
See my problem with the term? Kinda makes me wonder what people really mean when they call someone manari mou.
It makes sense if you know how things work here. Everyone minds everyone’s business and thinks they know better, telling people what to do, all the while “loving” them as if they were related, which is often the case. It’s a Mediterranean-isle thing. We’re one big family. In Sicily they kill you if you step out of line, in Crete they smoke you, and in Corsica they watch you. Constantly. Without end. There’s a pair of eyes behind every window, behind every person there, and it’s the same here, in Cyprus. Everybody knows everything about everyone else, because they have to. They must, it’s what good people do. It’s a traditionalist-minded, closed-community thing, the kind which you find in all isolated spaces, from little islands to remote mountain villages to minority neighborhoods in big cities, all across the world.
Welcome to Cyprus, where your business is mine. Where I know better than you and will tell you everything you need to know, and will advise you on every single aspect of your life, and tell you what you have to do to move ahead, all without having listened, heeded or paid attention to what you actually want. It’s for your own good, mana mou.
The Cyprus idiosyncrasy, truth be told, is well-meant. Cypriots are well-intentioned and eager to please.
I am being too harsh. The Cyprus idiosyncrasy, truth be told, is well-meant. Cypriots are well-intentioned and eager to please. Everybody is driven by mechanisms of care and concern that are embedded in individuals from a very young age. It’s part of the culture, of what it means to be a good, substantial person.
It’s also a wonderful, humanitarian notion, full of benevolence and open-heartedness, dripping with heart and soul, the kind you don’t easily find in the world.
But, truth be told, it more often than not gets a bit too much and ends up out of control. Everybody just cares so much that interest and concern suddenly turn into anxiety or trouble for both the carer and the cared for. What are you doing, where are you going, when are you coming back, who told you this, why are you doing this, let me tell you something, listen to me, I know best, it’s for your own good…
Get my drift?
Fact of the matter is that here, in the Mediterranean Sea, no man’s an island, and no woman is either. Naturally so. It’s the trademark attitude of a close-knit culture that has developed over the centuries with the aim to withstand the constant waves of invaders that were flooding our lands. Maintaining strong and rigid identities was synonymous to survival.
The problem is that in the “absence of sheep,” not only do the shepherds have nothing to herd, ending up herding each other…
Now when you mix that small-community, rigid mentality with the kind of caring that is stuffed down your throat without second thought, even from people you barely know, you end up with an island chock full of shepherds. The problem is that in the “absence of sheep,” not only do the shepherds have nothing to herd, ending up herding each other, but they also become the targets of the prowling wolves. So you end up with a community filled with people who smother each other with loving care without doing anyone any good. You end up with a society that refuses to let its children grow up. A society packed with individuals who asphyxiate each other.
Its name? The Cyprus Anaconda, a constrictor that makes its Amazonian counterpart look like a wet earthworm.
I first heard about this master constrictor from its father, the Great Caring Anaconda. An old and unhinged fellow, broken from the many disappointments in his life, he had lost his mind and was largely incoherent. I thought he would kill me. But he was lonely and just wanted to talk. So he sat down and, with surprising lucidity, told me his tale, which I wrote about in my English lit class:
The Great Caring Anaconda was a benevolent male beast that roamed the Earth tirelessly, defending the smaller and weaker creatures. He protected families until their children were fully grown, and cared for the sick, and watched over the elderly. Bullies and predators were kept at bay by him. If they dared approach or attack anyone, he would intervene, wrapping his long body around them and crushing them to a pulp.
In short, the Great Caring Anaconda, loved as he was by those he was caring for and revered across the entire world, was the champion and protector of all living things.
For this very reason he was deeply hated and fatally scorned by the monsters he was fighting against, not to mention numerous envious rivals, who desperately wanted his death. Theirs was not to protect but to brood over their plans to kill him, fantasizing what the world would be without him.
One day these monsters, determined to do anything to achieve their goals, sought council from a great grudge that hovered in the form of a putrid mist over a faraway bog. The great grudge listened to the monsters carefully. She had a wicked plan, and had been waiting a long time to implement it.
She told them it was of no use to try killing their enemy. Instead, they should manipulate his powers in such a way so as to turn them against him.
The idea was to attack the creatures of the world. Attack and back away. Attack and back away. Everywhere around the world, a long, endless assault on life would be carried out – a strike here, a snick there; death by a billion cuts. The Great Caring Anaconda would rush to the world’s help, but would be unable to cope. He would be overwhelmed and start losing his good judgment, unable to keep track of what is going on or where to intervene next, or who to choose to protect over whom.
It would mess with his mind. Weakened and confused, he would become a prime target. The grudge would cast a spell from the depths of the bog, ensnaring his mind in a constant cloud.
And so he would eventually perish.
In return for all this, the grudge demanded to be conjured out of the bog so that she could seep once again through the lands and feed on people’s fears and insecurities.
The agreement was made and the terrible onslaught began. Fear and terror spread through the lands as the monsters attacked life on all fronts. The Great Caring Anaconda reacted with strength and courage, rushing to the aid of whoever was closest, doing his best to defend them. But as soon as he got there, wherever that was, the monsters would retreat and wage another attack somewhere else. He could not keep up with the relentless pace. He had to find another way to protect the earth’s creatures.
He began to gather them up in safe places, where he could keep an eye on them. He would not let them out of his sight, for whatever reason, not even for a second. He began getting paranoid. He would forbid them to go anywhere, or do anything, lest they fall prey to the roaming monsters and, worse yet, the great grudge, who, rumor now had it, had somehow been released from the bog, let loose to roam around the world in the form of a devastating, maddening mist.
He hoped that this was not true, that it was just a foul rumor. It had been thousands of years since the grudge had made her appearance. Last time she was around, back in the Second Era, when the world was at war with itself, she had precipitated calamity by casting a charcoal cloud of despair over the lands, consuming them with darkness. She took residence in the shadows of every living creature thereafter, for over a thousand years. It wasn’t until a rider on a beam of light swept in and rent the cloud with his flaming torch and tore the despair to shreds and drove the grudge from the world, casting her into the bog, that the world breathed again.
Now she was back. An era of despair was emerging once more.
The Caring Anaconda could not allow this to happen. He decided to do everything in his power to prevent the grudge from resurfacing. He would protect his beloved creatures, keeping them close to him, smiting all monsters he came across. For a while things seemed to be going well, and the attacks subsided. Things were calming down.
Then he saw it. A grey, putrid mist, rising out of the horizon at sunrise, squelching the sun and casting a dreary shadow over the land.
The Caring Anaconda gathered everyone up and made for the west, where, according to legend, the Rider had hidden the flaming torch that had dispelled the mist. The grudge followed them closely, flanked by hoards of monsters scavenging on the life its mist was enveloping, preying on their fears and insecurities, and casting spells on their peace of mind.
Six hundred years on, the chase goes on, to this day. The Caring Anaconda is still looking for the flaming torch, eager to rend the mist and release the world from despair, with the grudge at his heels, pushing on. And the world is in upheaval, fearful for their lives. Everyone is kept close, safe, where they can be kept an eye on, under close scrutiny. The embrace has turned into a vise, and the Caring Anaconda has over the years turned from sentinel to jailer, squeezing the life out of everyone and everything he loves. The grudge has successfully clouded his mind.
He told me his story during one of his brief lucid intervals atop a great mountain, at midday, when the sun was strong, before hurrying away on his way to his beloved dependents to give them another hug. As he was slipping away, mumbling to himself, I asked him if he had any children. He said he did, many children, whom he had reared to help him keep everyone close. He had placed one in every mountain and valley of the world, and one on every island. ‘Cyprus too?’ I shouted after him, as he was rushing away. All I heard was, “…my darling sweet daughter… such a loving, embracing creature…”
Now you know. We are all victims of extreme care, which, when applied injudiciously, can turn stifling, if not deadly.
Hence my disaffection for terms of endearment like mana mou, the term with which people on my island display affection toward one another.
Aw, he is suffocating, poor little creature. He has a gripe with society, poor thing. Mana mou. You look so lonely mana mou! Are you all right, mana mou? Only one ticket for the movies mana mou?”
Mana mou your ass!
I stared at the clerk before answering. She stared back at me, waiting for my response. I wondered what she was thinking. Probably what a weirdo I was. Not only was I there alone but I was also looking at her funny. Her concern for me was pathetic. To her I was a poor little lamb walking all alone into a dark abattoir, where I would be slashed by the sharp Dolby Surround Sound under a glowing silver screen, in front of the eyes of clustered, knotted up, intermeshed individuals, coming to the conclusion I would be made a meal of, which she of course had to worry about and be kind to me.
Had I bleated? I was sure I had spoken.
‘Yes, only one,’ I replied casually, not letting my frustration get the better of me. Suddenly a big sneeze whiplashed my head forward and to the side, and a second one followed suit, coming on faster than the first.
Having sneezed in my left hand so as not to spray the air with sky-surfing germs, I was now stuck with an unusable, snot-coated limb. Sticking out of the clerk’s bag, on a small side-bench, a pack of tissues caught my eye. I was never offered one.
‘Here’s your ticket mana mou, the toilets are over there.’
Fuck you lady, and your attitude too.
‘Much obliged,’ I muttered, and sped off to wash my hands, wondering what her reaction would have been had I sneezed through the hole in the glass pane and right into her face. I wished I’d done that. There’d be tissues and germs flying all over the place. Bless my heart, sick little me! Yeah, that would get her to go for those tissues in a hurry. Hell, she’d go for the infirmary, where she would be cajoled into health by a throng of doctors, nurses and caring relatives armed with pills, food and priceless advice.
Cypriots hate being sick by the way. We worry so much about catching our death of cold, and thus, ironically, end up worrying so much about flu and colds that we get sick all the time.
Cypriots hate being sick by the way. We worry so much about catching our death of cold, and thus, ironically, end up worrying so much about flu and colds that we get sick all the time. And if we are not sick, then someone we know surely is, so we exercise our hard-wired ability to care for them and tell them what to do all the time.
Yeah, I should have sneezed in that woman’s face alright, then counted how fast she would dial her doctor.
Come to think of it though, I didn’t have the flu. I’d been fine and dandy all day, up until I’d walked towards the cashier booth. That’s when my nose turned into a faucet.
I wasn’t sure.
I calmed myself down in the restroom, thinking if anybody was gonna walk in and ask me, ‘Why are you washing your hands all by yourself, mana mou? Didn’t you find someone to poop with?’
The scenario lifted my mood and I came out of the restroom a new man, my nose wiped clean and dry and no longer running, ready to hit the folding seats and enjoy my Holy Saturday movie. Yes, it was the holiest day in the land and I was at the movies, the blasphemous little shit.