My Two Greeks
Age Rating: 13 +
Someone recently asked me, “Do you have any stories about Greeks?” Well, George, yes I do. I have a story about everything. There have been two significant Greeks in my life, and each has his story.
Peter Previs was my first Greek and he came on the scene in seventh grade as my “Life Sciences” teacher. Mr. Previs was something of an old-man. Not simply because he was of advancing years. It was his graying hair, his gruff demeanor, his absentmindedness, and the two pairs of glasses he carried (He refused to wear bifocals, citing the one pair he’d worn decades before in the chemical plant in which he’d worked and the time he’d looked through the wrong part, gotten dizzy and nearly fell into a vat of something toxic.). Many of the kids in my class didn’t like him, or at least they held him in contempt – abusing him in the dehumanizing way that middle school kids have. My friend Saul and I, however, thought he was marvelous.
We two chose to sit, every day, in the front row. For this reason, and because we both treated him with respect and admiration, he called us his “Protos Anthropos” (a phrase he always said with an accompanying hand gesture implying strength and vigor), meaning front men. His fondness for us “Protos Anthropos” sometimes caused Mr. Previs to lapse a bit in the norms of teacher/student discretions.
Hernan was a heavy kid in our class who was particularly cruel to Mr. Previs in his growing senility. One day, while Mr. Previs was teaching class, Hernan sat toward the back, reading to others in the class, under his breath, from a book called Truly Tasteless Jokes. The teacher couldn’t hear what he was saying, and it took him a while to catch on, but from the laughter coming from the back, he could tell something was amiss. After a bit of cat and mouse, Mr. Previs zeroed in on Hernan as the source of the disturbance and took the book away from him. He glanced through the pages and visibly paled, then reddened before sending Hernan out of the room. For the duration of class that day, Mr. Previs was more scattered than usual. He kept shaking his head in disbelief that a seventh grader would be reading dirty jokes in his classroom.
The next day, he joked with Saul and me in the hallway, recounting how he’d caught the “opachis barbaros” (fat barbarian) reading “kaka vivlia” (dirty books) in class. Saul and I laughed with him, and enjoyed learning these phrases in Greek. When Mr. Previs asked us aloud in class where the “opachis barbaros” was, however, it made us a bit uncomfortable, secure though we were in the knowledge that the rest of the class hadn’t a clue what he had said.
I’ve often missed Peter Previs since then. Saul too.
My second Greek was less benign. When I arrived at college freshman year, and checked into my dorm, I was told that I’d be rooming with another freshman, though a 20 year-old, from Greece. His name, I was told, was Christos Galeleas. Having arrived first, I had my choice of beds, and configured the furniture in a way that I liked. I unpacked that afternoon, wondering what time Christos would arrive. I went to sleep wondering. He didn’t arrive the next day. He didn’t arrive the following week either, when classes began. After a week and a half, and having been told that they didn’t know what his status was, I began to believe that he would not come. My belongings crept slowly to his half of the room, onto his desk, his bed, his dresser. After a month, I stopped trying to keep the spread under control.
One week later, I learned he’d be coming after all. He’s quite the violinist, I was told. He’d be studying violin in the music conservatory, and he was late in coming to school because he was touring Europe with some symphony or another. “He’ll be here tomorrow.” I spent all that day and the next morning cleaning up the room, bringing my things back to my side of the room and trying not to resent the intrusion. He did not arrive the next day. The day after that, I wondered all day if I would ever meet this Christos. I went to sleep, and he still hadn’t arrived.
At around one in the morning, I was awakened by a sudden light and loud voices. A tall, dark, handsome man was standing in the door, speaking in words I didn’t understand to another tall dark and handsome man who followed him into the room. I squinted at them against the painful glare. “Hi, I’m Christos,” one of them said.
“Christos,” I croaked, “Welcome to our room. Now turn off the light and shut-up. I was sleeping.”
I decided, upon waking in the morning before he did, to give him the benefit of the doubt and to try again, clean slate. I dressed quietly in the dark and slipped out of the room to go to class. When I returned, Christos was nowhere to be seen, but my computer had been left on (I’d never turned it on), as had my stereo, and the CD I’d left in the player was on my desk, not in the case. I took a few deep breaths to calm myself and went to lunch. When I returned, Christos was there.
“Christos, I really don’t mind if you use my things. I really don’t. Only, ask first. And treat my things with respect.” I’d have to say this many times again.
“Ok.” He said. “When you are talking to me, you say, ‘Christo’. Leave off the ‘S’.” He saw my confusion. “That’s just what you do in Greek. When you’re talking to the person, you leave off the ‘S’.”
Christos and I were never to get along. I didn’t like his attitude or his treatment of my belongings. He didn’t like my friends. I didn’t like the way he bathed in Polo a few times a day, leaving the room smelling like three perfume stores crammed into the space of one person. He didn’t like my music, especially the song which says, “Istanbul was Constantinople. Now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople. Been a long time gone…” and “No, you can’t go back to Constantinople. Why did Constantinople get the works? That’s nobody’s business but the Turks’.”
“My Grandmother lives there. She wants Constantinople. It is MY business.”
“Ok.” I turned off the CD.
Our college was divided into two schools: the conservatory of music, and the liberal arts college. I was in the college. He was a "conny". The college was a well-known haven of liberalism. The Con was known to have folks of every political stripe. I was liberal. Christos was a homophobic, staunch conservative. On voting day in the presidential primaries, I returned to our room to find a Bob Dole bumper sticker on my door. Obviously, as a Clinton supporter, I was annoyed. When I walked in the door, Christos (who is by the way a native Greek, who had never before lived in the U.S.) immediately said, “Let’s go vote for Bob Dole.”
“Let’s? let’s?” I said, searching for the thing to say that might sting him. “You can’t vote, you silly Greek.” Christos was not stung. He thought that was hilarious and would ask me on many future occasions, especially when one of his Greek friends was in our room, to repeat this castigation again and again.
After dinner, I walked into the room to find Christos dressing in a tuxedo for a concert he'd be playing in that night. "Aaron," he turned to me extending his arms with his cuffs unbuttoned, "will you button my cuffs?" I looked at him in disbelief. "My mother always does it for me. I can't do it with one hand." I did it. Later that night, when he got back, it was, "Aaron, can you hang my pants?" I took them, demonstrated how to hold them by the hems, fold them along the crease and toss them over the hanger. "That's just the way my mother does it," he said.
"That's how it's done," I explained. "You're twenty years old. Maybe you should learn this skill."
My good friend Dan shared my growing contempt for "The Greek Problem." One day we decided upon a plan to drive Christos out of the room. Neither of us is gay, but both of us deplored Christos’ anti-gay attitude and had discussed the history of Greek homosexuality and what, if any, effect the history had had on Christos’ hatred. We decided that one day we would both strip down to our boxers and hop into bed together just as Christos was about to enter the room. We figured that would scare him into asking to be transferred to a different room.
We never did it. I’m not sure why. More's the pity.