The snow is falling in dime-size lacy jewels, covering the earth, shading the evergreens’ branches and painting the landscape white. The snow is so thick I can barely see in front of me. Familiar landmarks have become chimeras of their original shapes.
The Bay department store is to my left; I can see only an outline, but I know it’s there. I’m in the middle of Phillips Square, which in summer is a midtown flower market but which has now become a slippery expanse that I have to cross to reach Place Ville Marie, where they are waiting for me. Montreal in winter is pedestrian hell—far too cold, far too slippery and far, far too wet. If the snow doesn’t drench you, then some nasty motorist will swoosh by, spraying you with waves of slush.
A car with a total rogue at its wheel—yellow parka and Italian sunglasses resting in his gel-slick hair—is driving straight for the puddle near me. He’s laughing. I can see he means to spray me. I jump to the side to avoid the imminent slush, lose my balance and fall.
Now I’m lying face down in the snow. I’m frozen to the core, more so than I should be. It’s as if I’m nude. I look down at myself and in horror discover that I’m outdoors in deep winter in my swimsuit and flippers.
My limbs are going numb. I panic. I try to stand up and run for cover. But I cannot. Every time I’m almost upright, I fall and bury myself deeper in the soft snow. A very loud noise startles me. Then a flash of lightning blinds me. Thunder and lightning during a snowstorm? Another blast, like a truckful of exploding gunpowder. It shakes the house. It wakes me up.
I was safe in my Mariou home. I was in bed, still very much in Greece, inside my delightful hillside home on the sunny southern coast of Crete. I chuckled with relief. But there was an unusual chill in the room. And the light filtering through the curtains was dull. It thundered again. And a strong wind howled. Damn! The bad weather had returned. We had had ten straight days of sunshine since Christmas. I had hoped that we had gone over the hump. Apparently not. There was a storm brewing out there. I could feel it. But at least I couldn’t hear any rain.
My roommate, the photographer Algis Kemezys, returned from his morning walk. His face was flushed, his shoes sodden, and there was suspicious wet white stuff on his jacket and hat. I thought I was imagining things, a lingering vision from my dream.
There was another clap of thunder as Algis walked to the double balcony doors in front of my bed and drew the curtains. “Look,” he said cheerfully.
I looked, I froze, I shut my eyes. “No-o-o!”
“Oh, yes!” nodded Algis. “Now it’s snow.”
Montreal-style, puffy, insistent snow was quietly covering the landscape in an alpine blanket, tinting icy outlines in the olive grove, brushing white patches on the hills, wrapping my prized view in winter fog. I could no longer see the sea!
Everything about my own life had, up to that point, been demonstrably satisfying, despite being boring. My childhood was both loving and privileged, leaving me with little to carp about in terms of unresolved abuse or repressed inner children. My young adulthood could have been problematic libido-wise since I was overweight (well, fat), but luckily I persevered and discovered that there are multitudes of thin, sexy people out there who actually prefer corpulent lovers. I married first at nineteen, then three more times later on, and have had several relationships on the side, even though I don’t mind being unattached: I find I sleep better alone.
I had never made a lot of money, but always enough and without trying very hard. I had gained a modicum of fame with my food writing and my stage plays, so that important people usually returned my phone calls. I had a collection of getting-older ailments—stomach ulcers, joint stiffness, a bad back, shortness of breath from years of smoking and a lifelong fight with excess fat—but I could cope uncomplainingly.
Really, the only thing missing from my life was this Greekness, which I had used as my pretext for coming to Crete. What I hadn’t counted on was that being Greek was no simple matter, even if one was born Greek. It involved a tremendous backlog of rules and traditions, and I guess I had lived too long in North America to relate to it in any real way.
Real Greek life, outside of small pockets of sophistication in big cities, notably central Athens, is predicated on the family, on unquestioning faith in the Orthodox Church, on the unassailable authority of men and the uncompromising subservience and labour of women and on the ongoing struggle to earn a living in the cockfight of the Greek marketplace. On previous brief trips to the homeland it had all seemed quaint and slightly exotic. Now, embedded in it, engulfed by it, desiring to be it, I was dizzy, almost nauseous with the reality of it. It was becoming painfully obvious how very un-Greek I had become.
I had successfully been staving off discovery of my non-Greek self by borrowing cheer from the early January sunshine—until the snowstorm of the century, as it was to be called: a freak of nature for people who had never seen snow in their homeland, the first snow to have stuck to the ground in the Mariou area in sixty-five years.
I watched the storm all day, and it was like no Canadian storm at all. It came in fast-moving waves, with thick layers of the white stuff accompanied by thunder and lightning as if it were rain, only to pass and reveal the sun, the view clearing so I could again see the sea and the snow-patched olive groves. In a few minutes a new wave would follow—the same thick snow with the view fusing into whiteness, my little Mediterranean world seemingly transferred to a mountainous northern location. And a half-hour of punishment later, a new clearing, sun, view.
This went on all day, and despite myself I enjoyed it, punctuating my storm-watching with treats, such as boiled chestnuts, that Algis had risked his life to walk to the village and purchase.
At the end of this insanely variable day, the sunset dissolved the most ferocious of the snow waves to grey, bringing on instant darkness and freezing temperatures. I settled down with the rest of the chestnuts to watch the bedlam of Athens-under-snow on television. Athens suffers adversity like no other city on earth. Chaotic and underfunctional at the best of times, with the most fragile infrastructure in the Western world, the capital breaks down at will. Mere rain is enough to paralyze it. Now, under a blanket of snow, some two feet of it—a soupçon in a snow-ready town like Montreal—it had become a disaster area, with all transportation at a standstill and essential services in great jeopardy.
The consequences of the snowstorm occupied over an hour of the newscast, illustrated by interviews with its many victims. A housewife whose kitchen was at the other side of a ten-pace exterior court wailed that there was no way she could cross the snow to reach her kitchen and cook, and she, her husband and their three children would surely starve as a result. And, even more typical of the Greek mentality, an elderly woman, who was loudly furious, cursed the government: first the euro, which had recently replaced the drachma as the national currency, now the snow, and all this on top of the untimely death of her favourite singer, Stelios Kazantzidis.
I had bit into the last chestnut and was wondering which of my books I should read to pass the time when the electricity died. The lights, the TV and, most injurious of all, the electric thermostat for the oil heating ceased to function. The room—my pride and joy, my warm room with the fabulous view—became a dark, forbidding icebox in no time, with all of the built-in safeguards that kept it cool in summer conspiring against me.
There was nothing to do but go to bed fully clothed under a mountain of blankets. I tried to fall asleep, though I was not in the least sleepy, hating the clammy feeling of condensed body heat under so many layers and the icy cold that froze my face and head and especially my bald spot.
I woke up grumpy and miserable. I threw open my curtains fully expecting to see a white landscape.
The snow had disappeared, the sea was calm and blue, the olive groves were back to their grey green with no trace of white. The terrible storm that had thrown all of Greece into a tizzy had melted away with a few hours of morning sunshine as if it had never happened at all.
The electricity returned by noon, and I was once again master of a warm room, with a million-dollar view and only the usual Greek worries, like “What’s the use of life,” “What can the government do for me” and “Where’s my next cup of coffee.”
Just as I was feeling comfortable enough to restart the investigation of whether I could ever become a real Greek again, a new disaster struck: my landlady Erato came up, all flustered, to ask me to turn off my heating and use it only in the evening. The one-day storm had created a fuel shortage on the island, and there was no telling when we would get a refill of our diminishing oil supply.
Great! Just great. Why should anyone want to be part of a culture where one can’t even have an identity crisis in some sort of comfort? This was too much for me. I decided to defer to a higher authority, someone who could put it in perspective for me.
I called on Niko, Erato’s husband, back from mending his sheep shelter, which had come undone during the storm. All his animals had survived, and to celebrate he had brought a huge turkey to slaughter and had had a few drinks. I could smell the raki on his breath from ten feet away.
“So, what do you make of all this, Kirie Niko?” I asked him. “One day the snow, then a night of ice cold in my lonely bed, and now some sunshine, okay, but no more heating for who knows how long, because the oil companies are hoarding the fuel so they can raise the prices.”
“Really? And all that happened while I wasn’t looking,” he said. “Now stop complaining and listen to this mantinada.” He sang:
I can no longer bring myself to utter
“I love you,”
because I said it once, and it covered
me in painful sores,
I was wounded to the core.
He allowed a few seconds of silence for the song to settle in the air. “Now, there’s something to fret about,” he winked.
“Or how about this one?” He sang the next mantinada very close to my ear, practically singeing it with alcoholic fumes.
I’ve loved you more than anyone
could ever love you.
More even than your mother,
who gave you life.
I couldn’t figure out the relevance of that to my own predicament, but Niko couldn’t care less. He repeated the chorus, relishing it, getting louder with each reprise.
“And now, listen to the best one. The inimitable Xilouris wrote it when his son died.” Niko’s eyes watered. His face saddened. His voice faltered.
The wind put out the candle I
was clutching in my hand.
And now my life is darkness, all
night and all day.