Translation Tuesday: “The Space Between” by Christos Asteriou

“We slip between the spaces left by bodies, through the holes in the teeth, and slide down the subway escalators upside down.”

I’ve been living with Lata since the beginning of the summer. It’s true that I’m only fifteen and she’s around the same age, that we don’t have a single thing to call our own yet—no money, no nothing—but what’s the big deal? Lata and I, we know how to make things work no matter what. We haven’t found a long-term place yet, that’s true, too. We’re usually all over the map—on rooftops, in warehouses—but not every day of the week because we go back home often. I go to my mom’s and she goes to hers. She’s the one that really makes a scene, screaming and crying and saying a whole bunch of things I can’t understand. Of course, she always ends up cooling it and putting her arms around Lata; once she starts in with her broken Greek, everything goes back to normal. My mom, on the other hand, cooks dinner whether I’m there or not in the evening, and waits for me to show up with my stories about the outside world. It’s hard out there, I tell her, the old buildings are really tough and they chase us away. Her eyes open wide and she gives me a strange look. They put up scarecrows and wooden signs on the rooftops, as if we were unwanted birds, and if, after all this, we don’t heed their warning and lie down to sleep up there, there’s always someone who busts in and breaks it up with a gunshot in the air. On the other hand, you’ve got to have real balls to vault the obstacles on those new places, they’re super difficult, and they too want us out of there. I show her with my hands how you’re supposed to do the moves, how to jump over obstacles rhythmically, one-by-one. Like a primitive beast lost in the crowds of civilization, a mad rabbit let loose in the megalopolis. My body taut, my calves like stone, my lungs full of grimy air: that’s how I make it through the heart of the storm, see? That’s how the mind opens when you jump into space, how your thoughts breathe in oxygen. She starts yelling at me about how if I don’t shape up and get it together I will never find a job, about how I’ll get killed one day—all the usual babble. Don’t shout, I tell her, you don’t know what you’re talking about. How could you? Don’t worry—there’s no reason to. Everything will be fine: you see me now, there’s no obstacle anywhere that scares me anymore. And you know what, I like living like this; I like having you and Lata; I like walking on air. And if anyone asks me, I’ll tell them straight to their face: I don’t want to change anything at all, I want to stay like this forever.

Lata is from India, but grew up in London. She lived there with her mother before coming to Greece to join relatives of theirs from back home who moved here some time ago. London is where she learnt all the moves, the parkour, how to fly over every obstacle in her way. She really worked on her body and her mind and at this point she can do almost anything with the same nonchalance that most people fall asleep and wake up every day. Jumping is her life now; and since I met her, it’s been exactly the same for me.

Lata is beautiful. Her skin is dark and she gathers her hair in a braid. Her face is long and open. We have talked a lot, Lata and I, we’ve told each other so much, in English, Greek, with our hands and feet. We understand each other, that’s what matters. We’ve also made so many plans. We promised each other we’d go to London as soon as possible—if we find the money we may even go before Christmas. Let’s see how things shape up, because it’s tough collecting loose change here and there from grandmothers and aunts.

I like Lata. I like her a lot. I take in every little bit of her as she tells me about the things she wants to show me over there: buildings and their angled corners beyond my wildest dreams. That’s why I want so much to visit and see it all from up close, to actually put my hands on it. We don’t need to worry about food or a place to sleep—she’s got a whole lot of friends there and if we stay a day with each one we won’t need to spend a cent. I’ve dreamt about that trip thousands of times. I can’t stop thinking about England and its routes. At night, while twisting and turning in my sleeping bag, I find myself, like a sleepwalker, knocking back beers in a pub; jumping obstacles with her near Regent Street; doing front and back flips together in Piccadilly; monkey vaults in Soho’s many backstreets, all of which I saw one day on an internet photography site.

In Athens, we start our days early, backpacks slung over our shoulders, at the same time that everyone else goes off to work. I bet not one of those people would guess that everything I own fits in that backpack. We look them in the eyes and they get flustered. No one looks you in the eyes. The city falls upon us with its rotten, yellow teeth. We slip between the spaces left by bodies, through the holes in the teeth, and slide down the subway escalators upside down. Their black conveyor-belt handrails map out their public’s routines with their nonstop up and down, constant and endless. Today, like every other day, someone will step on that escalator to betray or be betrayed; to break down, rip off, snatch up. Yet another day when one of the many will find love, laughter, vindication. Today I want to go everywhere, I tell her, to walk the city through and through, to dig our heels into its nostrils, our All Stars in its ears, to tickle the soles of this huge, exhausted beast. I want to climb on top of it and shake it up once and for all.

Tic Tac

The one thing you really need for tic tac is good shoes. You launch yourself at the wall with the strength of an athlete who has his body under complete control. You step on the wall with the side of your shoe—not too high, just a bit higher than your knee—push off, turn in the opposite direction and land with your legs strong and steady. Your body twists in the air, your head, a counterweight. It looks easy but you have to be disciplined about it or else you’ll burst like a watermelon on the pavement. For a split second the world turns upside down. The straight line of pavement turns over and the wall becomes the open road. When the stream of human traffic threatens to drown you, the wall is always your ally. If you leap quickly, outstripping the approaching bodies, you become a dancer, even if only for a second.

Cat leap

At the supermarket, I filled our backpacks as quickly as I could. Lata was pushing two carts full of stuff while the others had made a chain with their hands in front of the registers. My heart was beating like it would burst. If they caught us, I didn’t know what I would say to my mother, but now I was in there and I couldn’t back out. I would tell her that we were going to give everything away in the nearby streets, but I was hoping not to have to ever explain what we were doing. We loaded up as much as we could before the manager came back from his break and noticed what was going on. We were done in a few minutes. We ran outside and broke up into small groups. Even though no one was following us, Lata and I climbed the wall of the building across the road. We ran along the top, leaped, and hung from a ledge. We pulled ourselves up and flipped over to the other side. The others would be waiting for us at the usual meeting place.

Long Jump I

Someone is chasing us again, closing in on us as fast as a panther on the hunt. Lata doesn’t give it much thought; she builds up momentum, steps off the edge of the roof, and lets her body fall into space. This nightfall was to have been our time alone in the arms of the building at the corner of Sikelianos and Grammos Streets. But now, this time, our time, turns into bated breath and shatters into shards of glass. Now the hourglass has turned and I must mark out time: the time at my back until the door opens (and I have to make it in time before it actually opens and they come after me), and the time in front of me until she reaches the other side. The time at my back is excruciatingly fast (that toothless old idiot must have spotted us and is approaching at lightning speed from the stairwell), and the time in front unbearably slow (the length of time it takes her to fight gravity). I, in the center of it all, hold my breath until she gets there. Once again, Lata does the trick. She leaps over to the other side, landing on the cement blocks of the neighboring rooftop like a soft rubber ball. Her entire weight folds into her shoulder, she rolls over three times and stands up. She signals that it’s my turn.

Long Jump II

The door opens behind me, its hinges creaking, rusty iron scraping against my ears. Did the old idiot catch up with me? Are his eyes boring into my back before I even have the chance to try to escape? I put all my might into the leap to defy the distance in front of me, to bridge the space between where I am now and where I want to be. Under me the yawning gulf howls like a beast, its open jaws streaked with spit. It’s the longest jump I have ever taken, but I don’t have the time to get scared. Careful, it’s a long jump, she warned me quickly before she leapt, put everything you have into it. I soar over dusty balconies, over my life in dirty backstreets; I shoot over the farmer’s market as it’s closing down for the day, the old women picking fallen fruit off the ground. In this rift in time, I find myself suspended in space: I see my friends all together, laughing; I fly over an outdoor concert in the pedestrian zone, over the lifeless body of one of the fallen, and pass a hair’s breadth from the naked couple standing at a window. It’s an endless jump and night falls by the time I make it across, through the cables of the trolley that hasn’t budged all this time. Their electric sparks light up the sky. Like a flying trapeze artist without a net, a tightrope runner without a rope, I fly in the face of everything that was holding me back. Delivered from the beast’s razor-sharp nails, free of the walls of cement all around, I find refuge in her embrace, in the velvety cradle of Lata’s arms.


Patricia Barbeito: Written at the very beginning of the economic crisis that has devastated Greek society, and depicting a community radically changed by successive waves of immigration in the past fifteen years, Christos Asteriou’s short story “The Space Between” presents us with a lesser-known side of the sprawling multicultural and global megalopolis Athens has become. The story is narrated in the voice of one of its Generation X’ers, a fifteen-year-old boy whose love for an Indian girl is nourished by their shared obsession with parkour. Indeed, parkour provides them with a way of navigating an urban environment that has become literally and metaphorically inhospitable to a younger generation bereft of meaning and hope.

As the narrator points out, parkour’s jumps allow him to bridge the distance between “where I am now,” the harsh reality of dirty backstreets where old women forage for food in the debris of farmers’ markets, and “where I want to be.” Parkour, then, provides a means of imaginative escape and possibility, a way of giving free rein to one’s thought: the boy describes Athens as a cartoon monster with yellow teeth that can be tamed and dominated. Even more importantly, however, parkour’s defiance of obstacles and literal physical and mental re-orientation allows for a critical distance from and resistance to the lifestyle, “schedules,” and economic paradigms that directly led to the crisis. As with all of Asteriou’s stories, these points are conveyed to us deftly and evocatively through the idiosyncracies of the narrator’s voice, poignantly poised among ennui, rebellion, angst, and grandiose but liberating dreams. The story’s wry humor and wrenching mix of disillusionment and hope ultimately places us, the readers, in a “space between, ” and thereby asks us to think about where we would want to be.


Christos Asteriou is the highly respected author of two novels, two volumes of short stories, and numerous other fiction and non-fiction works. Born in Athens in 1971, he is part of a generation of writers known for their playful experimentations with genre and their ironic engagement with the contemporary and popular culture. His most recent novel, Isla Boa (Polis Publishing, 2012) was widely reviewed and acclaimed. He studied German and modern Greek literature at the Universities of Athens, Würzburg, and Zurich and he was the Head of the German Department at the European Center for Literary Translation. He received the 2013 literature fellowship from the Berlin Academy of Arts. 

Patricia Barbeito is a professor of American literatures at the Rhode Island School of Design. She is co-translator (with Vangelis Calotychos) of Menis Koumandareas’s Their Smell Makes Me Want to Cry (The University of Birmingham Modern Greek Translations, 2004), and translator of Elias Maglinis’s The Interrogation (Birmingham Modern Greek Translations, 2013) for which she received the 2013 Modern Greek Studies Association’s Constantinides Memorial Translation Prize. She has also translated shorter pieces by Vasilis Gkourogiannis and Sotiris Dimitriou for the online international literature journal Words Without Borders. She is currently working on a book about the African-American author Chester Himes.

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