Thursday, May 20, 2010

381. Ithaca

Death is now a welcome guest
When I am laid in earth, may my wrongs
Create no trouble in thy breast;
Remember me … but ahh, forget my fate.

-- from the libretto to 'Dido and Aeneas' by Henry Purcell

The chainlink fence prevented and defied all access
so you had to walk hundreds of metres up to the gate,
sweating in the sun, but as the suitcase, thankfully, had wheels,
it was no big deal; the same hundreds of metres back again.

You get used to these things: world travel is basically
one inconvenience after another: people scrambling through
windows on Indian trains, scrabbling, losing their grip
falling under the wheels, screams. The old grandmother
collapsing suddenly upon your lap on the bus in Guatemala
who turns out to be dead, eyes open, dribbling on your knees.

Afghanistan. No, we don't want to go back to that,
to that young lad dying in my arms. Allah … Allah… Allah ….
his last moments spent with an infidel Ferenghi. His eyes, his eyes
fixed on me to the end: pleading, darting, then frozen glassy still:
poor poor young boy, I held you, carried you into your death.

Some things you simply remember, others you cannot forget.

An iron ramp led into the bowels of the boat, which was
rocking and swaying, even on a very sheltered harbour tide;
there came angry shouts, brilliant smiles, the usual Greek confusion,
as passengers come stumbling aboard like sheep, and me
among them: this battered old tub will sink and drown us all!

When setting out upon your way to Ithaca,
Wish always that your course be long,
Wish for many adventures, many good stories.
And let there be many summer mornings
When with pleasure and with great delight
You leave a harbour for the very first time.

In a stink of diesel fumes and alarming shudders
we departed the harbour, farting on all cylinders,
and left behind Patras and the Peloponnese,
and all of Greece, as troubled now as in ancient times,
with its pride, corruption and underpaid military,
almost (but not quite) Balkanized,
a summer playground for backpackers,
for pallid northeners with better salaries,
our EU partner who cannot pay their bills …

But I have seen Greece in a far different light
after emerging from Turkey, across the minefields,
(Idiota! Did you not know the risk? No, I didn't)
but I knew instantaneously I was back in Europe
after pleasant then precipitately rather unpleasant
relations with the Turks ( a small matter of a smuggled car)
when they wouldn't let me leave, I left anyway.
I didn't know about the mines. Obviously.
The Greek customs guys thought it was great,
clapped me on the back and plied me with ouzo.
One in the eye to the Turks! I actually liked the Turks,
far more stable than the Greeks, a bit ponderous,
Oriental, Muslim, but solid, not so excitable.
I love Istanbul. Been back several times since,
no hint of that phantom car on an expired passport.

It's so good to be young, you know?
No matter how stupid you are you still survive,
unless, of course, you don't. Happens.

But do not rush your journey.
Better that it should last for many years,
And that when you moor at Ithaca at last,
An old man, enriched by all you have gained,
You do not expect Ithaca to give you further wealth.

Here on this boat, snorting, plunging and struggling,
we passed by the coast of unknown secret Albania,
home of the greatest criminal gangs in Europe, recently
spreading their tentacles into Italy and even beyond,
a total plague not unconnected to the KLA or KSA,
whatever, that crowd NATO supported against Serbia.

But that was a couple of wars ago:
after a while, you lose count of wars.
Vietnam is simply fading into history,
all the deaths, the wounds, the pychological damage,
all the aging warriors, the damaged surfers
surviving on drink and pills. Well, they will soon
have a new bunch of veteran friends
from Afghanistan and Iraq. It will never end.

I lay no claim: I have no claim to lay.
I believe in freedom.
I believe in travel.
I believe in all countries open to all men.
I don't like war. I've seen it.
No thanks.
I believe in a rollicking great shag.
I believe in friends and family.
I believe in little children,
in desperation, love and honesty.
I believe in ... things that disappear
(well, fucking won’t be one of them).

You do not expect Ithaca to give you further wealth.
For Ithaca has given you the journey.
Without her you would not have set your course.
There is no more she can give.


The quoted poem is from Cavafy, an Alexandrine Greek (1863-1933), and it's my own rather doubtful translation.