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Cantea

Who the hell tells you “Christ has risen” at Christmas, jokingly swears at your “christs” and “gods” (“tu-ti cristosii dumnezeii…”) then makes clown faces to make you laugh, who gets so angry about politics that his face turns all red and his sky-blue eyes, suddenly invaded by a thousand little red veins, almost pop out of their sockets? Who slathers butter on everything at eighty-six and chases his heart pills with hard liquor? An awesome guy, that’s who. My favourite guy.

By being who he was, always two hundred percent authentic, he taught me how to stand up for myself and think critically (even though I oftentimes forget), how to be cynical but never jaded and most importantly, that nothing should be taken too seriously, especially death. He, who loved preparing his own funeral, who took note of everyone else’s (“My god, how elegant everything is! Bravo, milady, wonderful funeral!” he’d tell a new widow and innocently wonder why my grandmother scolded him for saying such inappropriate things), he who would ask me, with a morbid flicker in his Jewish eyes, knowing that it bothered me:

“Tomorrow I die, you come to my funeral?”

To which I always replied, rolling my eyes: “That’s what you asked me yesterday too. Please stop it.”

“A! You want me to die!” he concluded, victorious, then burst out laughing and apologized: “I’m a rough country guy” and continued, scolding me: ”You’re too sensitive, who did you take after, your father’s side?”

Well, he won’t ask me again, but at least it was just as he liked it, elegant and “organized by a company”, yes, a respectable company that specializes in elegant funerals. I can hear his laughter.

I don’t think I know anyone else who enjoyed life as much as he did. He would humor everyone and everything, from his army superiors to his goats later on, when he decided that he wanted to spend his retirement years close to nature. I’ve never known someone else with such an appetite for life. The way he ate a simple tomato salad or drank a glass of wine, the way he expressed joy at seeing an apple tree in full bloom, the way he told (funny) stories about the army or any story at all, always making me laugh, even when I was a depressed teenager. He was my zen teacher without ever having sat zazen. He was definitely the most in-the-moment person I know and also hilariously undiplomatic, which got him in a lot of trouble throughout his life. I remember when he told me that my choice to study theatre was “completely stupid”. I was hurt, but he was right.

I loved having him in my life. He was all there, with his direct, completely unaffected manner, his feet on the ground, his mind sharper at eighty-something than mine at thirty. I still had a lot of things to ask him and they were important too…

(to be continued)

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tataie

February

“Philology is that venerable art which demands of its votaries one thing above all: to go aside, to take time, to become still, to become slow – it is a goldsmith’s art and connoisseurship of the word which has nothing but delicate cautious work to do and achieves nothing if it does not achieve it lento. But for precisely this reason it is more necessary than ever today; by precisely this means does it entice and enchant us the most, in the midst of an age of ‘work,’ that is to say, of hurry, of indecent and perspiring haste, which wants to ‘get everything done’ at once, including every old or new book: – this art does not easily get anything done, it teaches to read well, that is to say, to read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously before and after, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate eyes and fingers.” None other than Herr Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche in “Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality”

***

I wanted to take a break from translation today and take the subway to the west side of the city, where High Park is. It has been snowing here too and I wanted to take some pictures for you with the beautiful Japanese garden covered in white. In the summer I often go there and sit on the stairs looking at the river flowing by with a book in my lap which I always forget to open. During the weekends, however, I cannot do this because lots of brides come on those stairs and they take pictures with their long dresses which everybody steps on and with their sad or annoyed husbands. At that time I prefer to stay in libraries or in China town with several books on the table which I actually do open.

***

In winter, beside the sporty people with their big running dogs who never take a moment to look around and, therefore, never make it to the Japanese garden, High Park is only populated by a huge family of squirrels. When the weather and my work load permit it, I take long walks into their territory and wonder how it would be if I had a brown fluffy tail and I was able to jump around the trees like them. Would I still run away to remote places, far away from noise, to be just with my thoughts? What laborious work would I undertake then? Perhaps painting images with my tail on an imaginary canvas?

***

Instead, I had to stay at my desk and go through another very long monologue from Plato’s Crito. Word by word, many times missing the logical point of the phrases, I get lost in this very dense work. The more I advance, the harder it is to retrace my steps. When I remember reading these texts leisurely in translation, I realize that I only understood the purely intellectual side of them. The arguments are intricate but eventually they fit together, even though often there is no clear conclusion reached at the end. However, I know now that it is not possible to understand Plato without feeling the sarcasm in Socrates’ “ὦ μακάριε”, “ὦ βέλτιστε” (lit. “oh, blessed one” and “oh, most virtuous man”) without feeling the foolish enthusiasm of Crito, who lets himself be lured into the argument by Socrates and approves every time he is asked “τί φῄς; ταῦτα οὐχὶ καλῶς λέγεται;” (lit.“What do you say, are these things spoken well or not?”) with “ἀληθῆ λέγεις“ (lit. “You speak the truth!”) or “ταῦτα νὴ Δία, ὦ Σώκρατες” (lit. “That is true, by Zeus, oh Socrates!”). The text is like a rollercoaster, Socrates keeps bringing up arguments which are very hard to refute. The high point of the dialogue, I think, is when Socrates impersonates the laws. The argument goes something like this:

-         the laws exist from ancient times, the whole state is based on them;

-         it is through them that the citizen was born, educated and nurtured, since they provided the environment for this to happen;

-         the laws are above the citizen the same way the father is above the son, so the son does as he is told and does not strike back;

-         the citizen can only persuade the laws or abide by them.

The argument seems correct to me in the Ancient Greek context. There is, however, something deeply disturbing about it. In Greek, Socrates’ speech is very emotional. The words for “nurture”, “educate”, “parents” bear a lot of weight. The word for laws (“οἱ νόμοι”) has a harsh resonance, I get a little scared every time I see it on the page. I wonder if I perceive things this way also because I am Eastern European. I always thought that the system of the laws and the state are impenetrable. Actually, I cringe when I think about anything which belongs to the public domain: banks, schools, postal offices…

***

It is at times like these that I wish I lived far away from the city, where every sound has an echo, where everything would reverberate through my own body and mind alone and not through everyone else around me before it gets to me, where I would have a lot of time to heal my fear of authority. Where I would walk for hours in my own Japanese garden and then write lengthy essays challenging the “νόμοι” in Socrates’ speech. Far away, in a secluded little village, where everything is “lento”, where I can age thinking about beautiful things like a snowy day in High Park and a squirrel friend.

Bia

To an ancestor, dearly…

To: Mr. Publius Ovidius Naso.
From: A descendant of the Getae, Sauromatae, Greeks, Romans and many others.

Sir Ovid (for this is how people call you in the West. I think the “ius” is too hard for them to pronounce. It could also be that they shortened your name due to that tendency they have to abbreviate everything in order to be efficient. You see, Mr. Naso, efficiency is crucial in my world, more so than it was during your beloved Roman Empire),

Although your exile poems deepened my winter depression, I still consider them to be the best stuff you ever wrote. I understand the tears of an exile. I’m an immigrant, not an exile, but my troubles are similar to yours. I know that “home” is a notion that cannot be packed in a luggage and taken out in the new place, especially when the weather in that new place is severe, for weather plays a most important role in the life of fragile people like us. However, dear ancestor, I would like to know how you would have liked it to be sent to Canada instead of Tomis! You complain about the long winter in Tomis? You exaggerate every bit when saying that “the snow lies continuously, and once fallen, neither sun nor rain may melt it“(Tr. III. 10. 13). You would be surprised to find a place colder and more sad than old Tomis, colony of Miletus. You would be grateful that you were granted such a place for your exile, on the shores of Scythia Minor (Black Sea), where the Hister (Danube) flows into the sea. In Canada, somehow, the sky is always very low. One has a feeling he’s carrying clouds with him all day and the sky scrapers with shiny windows reflecting the opaque nebulae don’t help at all. You complain that you don’t feel safe, that the savage Getae are always at war and poisonous arrows are flying through the air, searching for victims. How would you like it, I wonder, if instead of the the sound of sea and birds in the morning, you heard the constant humming, vrruuumming, beep-beeping, uiiuuuiiuuing and occasionally the bang-paffing of the highway. What if this noise went on forever, non-stop, 24/7???
I fail to understand how you couldn’t see the beauty in the things you describe. Let’s look at this image:

“(…) I have seen the vast sea stiff with ice, a slippery shell
holding the water motionless. And seeing is not enough; I
have trodden the frozen sea, and the surface lay beneath
an unwetted foot. (…) At such times the curving dolphins
cannot launch themselves into the air; if they try, stern winter
checks them; and though Boreas may roar and toss his wings,
there will be no wave on the beleaguered flood. (…) I have seen
fish clinging fast bound in the ice, yet some even then still lived
.”(Tr. III. 10. 37-50)

How cool is that??? I already see the dolphins trying to jump but banging their head against the surface ice (ouch!) and the cartoonish image of the frozen fish blinking in bewilderment and thinking “Wtf, I wan’t expecting this, man!!”. I know how the cold can make one bitter and pissed off with life but c’mon, we all know you came to Tomis with slaves. I’m sure that after taking a walk on the frozen sea, covered in the warmest bear skins (you describe the local clothing yourself!) you come back to your warm cottage, for your slaves have taken care to keep the fire going and even cooked some hearty soup for you. Your desk is ready and you can just start writing, without worrying, like my contemporaries often do, that you haven’t paid the mortgage on your house, that your car insurance is going higher by the day or that the very food you’re eating has so many genetically modified substances that it doesn’t even resemble what it once was.

The locals you hate so much seem to me much more genuine than those Romans of yours, the ones who kicked you out of Rome for a book you wrote ten years prior to your exile! You complain about the Tomitans endlessly:

With skins and stitched breeches they keep out of the evils of the
cold; of the whole body only the face is exposed. Often their hair
tinkles with hanging ice and their beards glisten white with the mantle
of frost. Exposed wine stands upright, retaining the shape of the jar,
and they drink, not droughts of wine, but fragments served them!
” (Tr. III. 10. 19-24)

The Santa-like faces must have seemed so strange to a Mediterranean poet who spent his whole life in gardens, drinking wine any other way but frozen. However, the images are frame worthy! Later, when exaggeration didn’t serve you anymore, for you gave up all hopes of being excused and called back to Rome, you put things differently:

Your gentle harboring of my fate, Tomitae, shows how kindly are
men of Grecian stock. My own people, the Paeligni, my home country
of Sulmo could not have been gentler to my woes.(…) Wherefore dear
as is to Latona the land of Delos, which alone offered her a safe place in
her wandering, so dear is Tomis to me; to me exiled from my native abode
it remains hospitable and loyal to the present time
.” (Epistulae ex Ponto. IV. 14. 47-60)

Well, not all men at Tomis were “of Grecian stock” but it’s good enough. I’ll take these verses as proof that you were less bitter after seven or eight years of life in Tomis. Moreover, you started a huge trend, the autobiographical, confessional style of writing which I greatly appreciate. Therefore, exile has good aspects. I’m sure immigrations does too, I just can’t see them at the moment.

With regards,

A student of letters.

* * *

Nine years have passed since, following my family, I set foot on North American land. Ovid himself spent nine years as a “relegatio” (a milder form of exile, where the convict could keep his property and communicate with friends and family through letters) before he died at Tomis.  I am as much of a stranger as I was nine years ago. My unadaptability justifies my affinity with works such as Ovid’s Tristia and Ex Ponto . Reading these works, however, was quite hard and, sometimes, puzzling. Ovid is exiled at Tomis, today’s Constanta, a city I love. While I can relate to his feelings of alienation, I recognize my native scenery in his depictions and I get irritated at his constant disdain towards Tomis and it’s people. I just wish Ovid was more of an explorer, more versatile and inquisitive. I wish he was, unlike me, an adaptable man, for life is short and there’s no time for endless whining. That way, we could have seen more of those beautiful images through Ovid’s eyes.

The Black Sea, as Ovid saw it, exasperated, every winter:

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Pictures from: Vapoare, English Russia, Goobix, Haioase.

All quotes from: Ovid. Tristia. Ex Ponto. Trans. Arthur Leslie Wheeler. London: Harvard University Press, 1988

English translation here

pass over

I didn’t leave him, as everyone thought,  because I got bored. It is, however, true that he was the most tedious, dull person I’ve ever met but that’s something I could have lived with. As a matter of fact, I’ve gotten to think of lameness as a positive trait of character and Gigi used to take me directly to the bottom of boredom, to it’s wonderfully grey roots where we would sit in absolute silence and despair and enjoy a cup of chlorine tap water.

Let me tell you, then, why I did leave him!

I know, you see, that on my deathbed I won’t be able to carry out full arguments like Plato’s Socrates in Phaedo. And, to the disappointment of my traditionalist friends, I’m also not going to have some priest whispering last minute prayers in my already deaf ear and asking me to confess my sins because I simply don’t want to remember the lot of them right there and then.  Plus, priests have a mechanical way of pronouncing words which freaks me out. Unless there will be a group of priests who chant something Byzantine style, doesn’t matter what, could be one of Neruda’s poems, the “Communist Manifesto” or the ingredients list on the cream cake we bought last night (an awful long list, believe me!). In that case, I can spoil some time and tell their piousnesses things that will make them not blush but grow purple, beyond purple, cyclamen!!!  Moreover, I would even kiss that cross they take from house to house, the one that everyone kisses, even the guy on the first floor who has Hepatitis A and the old woman who died yesterday due to complications of tuberculosis!  All this for a little Byzantine chanting…

I also know that dieing in meditation and reaching satori at the end of my last breath is close to impossible (although I’m still hoping that will happen but don’t tell anyone, ok?).

I do know, however, what I will do in order to make my passing away a very pleasant one! For example, I know for sure that the walls of the room in which I’ll roll my eyes towards whatever expects me on the other side are going to be yellow, although I didn’t decide yet if it’ll be a mustard yellow or a brighter, colder, lime yellow. I would, of course, prefer to die during summer but I’m afraid I’ll get carried away with gardening or with lying in the sun close to the sea and I won’t remember to make the world one soul lighter until October or so.

The other walls, the walls inside, will have to be painted too. The color…well, it’s more of an atmosphere than a color. I’ll describe it but if you didn’t spend a lot of time in between, if you’re as solid as a rock, more, as a tree, you won’t get it. You have to lose your balance to see this color. You have to be a bit of a fuck up…

It’s the atmosphere of the airports and train stations. Not any airports and certainly not any stations but only those you love deeply. The airports that you thought of slitting your wrists on because you left someone behind. The train stations you spent many hours on in the company of good friends waiting for trains that were never on time. The passing points where it doesn’t really matter who you are but where you’re going. And that you’re going. The other walls will be painted in this color, the color of the hiatus. I love that word. It does make a lot of sense because death is just like another passing point…hopefully.

October it will be, then! October, like the last time I stepped on that airport, my airport, where I come every time I screw up every single little segment of my life.  Which happens a lot. Every two years or so.You get the picture, I hope. Me – immigrant from small Eastern European country, chasing the  American dream which is not my dream at all (since I didn’t even immigrate to America but to Canada and it’s goddamn cold here even for chasing the bus in the morning), obsessed about odd things like Byzantine music, yellow walls, Plato and an airport. Gigi – Eastern European very boring boyfriend who waits for me at that airport. Me – happy to be there, I want to kiss the floor of the airport and the stinky sweaty cleaning lady in the dirty washroom. Gigi, looking at the watch with that look on his face, the “I bore myself to death” look. Did I tell you how boring he was?

Then, as  I step out of the wonderful place where I pick up my luggage from the rolling band and struggle to push it on the cart, which never stays put, and I enter the unventilated waiting room where sweaty and tired arriving immigrants embrace their sweatier and cigarette-smoke-plus-a-lot-of-deodorant smelling relatives, Gigi does something unexpected. He grins. A horrible, happy grin, something he probably rehearsed at home thinking it gives him a romantic look. You know that grin, I’m sure, Hollywood abuses it. The “I’m lost without you” grin, the grotesque “I’ve been dreaming of you for the last two years” grin, the idiotic “I could die for you right now” grin…

It wasn’t the nightmarish rictus of his letter-box mouth itself that worried me but the fear that this memory which, in fact, will always hunt me, could destroy my love for in-betweens and those interior walls would be stripped down and left bare, just like the walls of Bubulina’s house in “Zorba” after she dies. I thought then and I still think that one boring Gigi is not worth that much. Especially when the same grinning face was pressing hard against my best friend’s hair just two months before it almost wrecked my death plans.

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