On August 20, 2018, Greece officially exited from the series of bailout programs that had imposed vicious austerity on the Greek people ever since 2010. Now, an international narrative of Grecovery—a tale in which austerity triumphs and the curtain falls on the country’s alleged recent return to “normalcy”—has firmly taken root. But Greece’s so-called clean exit is much dirtier than they’d have us believe: the ongoing relief program ensures that the country will be shouldered with a brutal debt burden until at least 2060.
Konstantinos Poulis’ story “Untimely Love,” from his 2014 collection Thermostat, was first published when Greece’s crisis was a fixture of international headlines. Though it shares with Poulis’ other stories an interest in the power and perils of the human imagination, “Untimely Love” differs in the kinds of questions that it poses about its limits. How do we carry on when the outside world seems to have little space or patience for imagination? What happens to storytelling when circumstances (such as police strikes and teargas) conspire to cut short our daydreams of happy endings?
This was one of very few stories in Thermostat to foreground the crisis. Now, against the fairytale of Grecovery, Nikos and Maria’s untimely love acquires a new kind of timeliness. The national victory claimed by politicians (“We reached our destination,” Alexis Tsipras triumphantly pronounced on August 20, 2018) is hardly the kind of ending that, according to this story’s logic, would allow Nikos and Maria their own happily-ever-after. And though politicians and media have pronounced the crisis over, daily realities constantly shatter that illusion—just as they shatter Nikos’ fantasies of romance. In a manner of speaking, it still “simply isn’t an age for falling in love.”
—Translator Johanna Hanink
It was the sweetest love story that blossomed after the outbreak of the sovereign debt crisis. Times were tough, and no one would have expected that, in a tense era of rapacious capitalistic attacks on working people, at a time when the international capitalist financiers had declared open war, Nikos would fall in love with a girl, a regular sweetheart. She’d happened to pass by the office to see a colleague, Anastasia, who worked in Accounting. The problem is that Nikos didn’t have much of a relationship with Anastasia, so he didn’t have the courage to find out more about her friend. He just gazed at her every time she happened to drop by to get Anastasia so the two could leave together in the afternoon.
He’d met her the previous week, they’d talked a little, Anastasia had introduced them and he’d primed himself to ask her to come on Thursday to the taverna where they all liked to go out together. He said the words, said them again, practiced calmly in front of the mirror and waited. Anastasia was leaving the office for good, so if he didn’t do it now, there’d be no other chance. Just when he’s taking a breath to speak to her, a colleague from next door appears and asks him whether the tax office has activated the system for electronic payments or if they should send someone over. His answer cuts into a little more time before we finally get to the real substance of life: his beloved Maria. In the meantime, Nikos thinks, gulps, draws a deep breath, builds up some momentum and gets ready to ask her to the taverna. He opens his mouth, clears his throat, plans the whole sentence out in his head before he says it to keep from stammering . . . and at that very moment, the girl who worked at the desk across from him starts yelling at the phone and kicking her chair. She pushed things off the desk—staplers, pencils, a little bear that had been a gift from her niece, a packet of paper—then began swearing even louder. She takes some nail polish remover out of her bag and pours it all over the papers on her desk. “You won’t drive me crazy! I’ll drive you crazy!” she shouts, and throws a match on the papers she’s drenched in acetone. Everyone runs over to her, the supervisor runs over, they hold her back, they take a step back, and she shouts again: “You won’t drive me crazy! I’ll drive you crazy!” The supervisor asks Maria to take the woman outside to go for a walk until she settles down. Three people are there struggling to put out the fire: one is trying to get the extinguisher to work while the others are clearing away the papers that haven’t caught fire yet. Maria takes the woman by the arm and leads her away from the office to calm her. In reality, she was the one who had taken Maria; she’d taken her right out from Nikos’ arms, just when the poor guy had mustered up the courage to ask her out to the taverna.
He goes home, takes off his shoes, gets some of yesterday’s leftover lentils out of the fridge and sits down in front of the television. Jesus Christ, he’d come so close. He goes to lie down since they’d be going out to the taverna again that evening. He’d been alone for so many years, just waiting for something to happen; for a chance to meet someone, a chance that never came. These evenings with the same people were like torture. Wasted time, even if they were his best friends. He gets dressed, arrives at the taverna, greets the owner, and right there in front of him is Maria. Someone had invited her, inspired by the afternoon’s fire. It was the first time Anastasia had come, and she’d brought Maria with her! “Hey hey!” “Long time no see!” “Ηow’s it going?” “Let’s just burn the motherfuckers down so they’ll get off our backs,” and so on.
They were all having a great time, then, at the taverna “Klimatsida” in Kypseli. The afternoon’s incident was all but forgotten, especially now that Maria was there too; it was like she brought cheer to the group. They were sitting next to each other, Nikos and Maria, and there amid the din of the taverna he noticed how, whenever he opened his mouth to say something, she hung on his every word. He was talking about eggplant dip, which his aunt had made for him in a wood-fire oven and which was incredible, and she listened attentively, even straining to hear him. She leaned her head in and squinted her eyes. And here’s Nikos with his eggplant dip, going on and on. With most people you have to muzzle them just to get them to listen to you. So how could it be that this woman was actually squinting, just so she could hear him over all the noise? And, when she couldn’t hear him, she’d ask him to repeat; she’d laugh and insist, as if she absolutely had to know everything. But what else could he say about that eggplant dip? When the topic had been exhausted—after ten minutes or so, no short time—she confessed that seeds grossed her out and she’d never eaten eggplant nor would she ever, and they burst into laughter. Just why were they laughing? Was it really that funny? And there, in the noisy taverna, two kids started playing bouzouki and guitar, but with no microphone, because the owner wanted a “more authentic atmosphere”—forget that he charged ten euros just for a Greek salad. The bouzouki player thwacked away and sang “Eleni the Divorcée,” and right as he’s getting to the lines the butcher got word / sent a lamb when he heard, / cook it with spinach / cause I’m coming to dinner he yells out “Ooopa! Lamb and spinach!” and they burst out laughing again like they haven’t laughed since the eggplant dip. And you know why they were laughing? Because in this world, a world where it’s impossible to find an up-front guy and no one’s the right match for anyone, these two people were a chord. And every time Maria laughed, she grabbed onto his shoulder, even though it wasn’t as if she were going to fall. Just like that, out of affection. They said how they definitely had to go to the book fair at the Field of Ares Park. “Yes,” “I’d wanted to go, too,” “I’d been thinking about it” . . . Nikos had gotten his phone out and was holding it in his hand under the tablecloth so that he could ask for her number to go to the book fair together.
And while they’re laughing they hear a voice from the kitchen, the owner yelling at a waitress. The poor girl had just seated a group of kids at a prime table—one of those groups that sits there all evening and just orders appetizers. “They come for the music,” the owner says. “They can listen to the radio if they like music so much. What are you, some kind of moron, a complete idiot?”—“But they asked me if there was a table. It was free, what was I supposed to say?”—“You tell ’em to fuck off, and you can too, you stupid bitch!” The young woman started to cry. “Clean up your face and finish up here,” says the owner, who had no patience for this kind of thing because, ever since he was ten, he’d “been on the streets earning his pay, so he damn well knew his job.” When the waitress then goes to take the dish out of the oven, the handle slips from her hand and hot juices spill all over her. Now she’s shrieking in pain and crying, and her boss starts cursing her again: “You’re gonna land me in jail, you dumbass.” Then all the people who had secretly been listening without saying a word finally burst out: “Are you out of your mind? The girl burned herself!” “How could you be such a dick?” “Just look what you’ve done!” So Nikos grabs the girl and, along with Mrs. Garoufalia, who worked in the kitchen, takes her to the hospital. Let’s calm her down first, then get her some first aid—and with this and that, their conversation got cut off right there in the middle. Later that night, Nikos wouldn’t let himself think about it, but by the next morning he was already asking over and over: couldn’t she have burned herself some other day? Yesterday? The day before yesterday? Tomorrow? Next Thursday? Was there no other day? Anastasia was leaving the office for good and Nikos had no way of finding his beloved again.
On June 28, there was the demonstration against austerity. Nikos was walking down Stadiou Street and suddenly, right before him, someone appears who looks like Maria. He didn’t let himself get too excited, though, since over the last month in his longing for her he’d seen ten such girls, all of whom resembled Maria. Except this time she looked so much like her because she was, in fact, Maria. They greet each other and kiss on the cheeks; she asks what, in the end, had happened that evening, how badly had the girl been burnt, “whoa . . . what a bastard . . . this and that,” and there they are cursing the man from the taverna, feeling sorry for the girl and, in short, picking up the thread right where they left off with the eggplant dip. Things were going well, as we’d say. They walk together and talk about how awful the situation is. What’s going to happen, how far is this all going to go, it just can’t keep up, the people won’t stand for it and so on. Right at that moment, the first flashbang grenades can be heard going off in Syntagma Square. The two joke that it’s Easter, say “Christ is Risen,” laugh, and then the teargas begins. The police want to drive the demonstrators out of the square and press in from all sides, spraying and beating the crowd. They try to move toward Amalia Boulevard, poor Maria can’t see anything, her eyes have been forced shut, she’s grabbed Nikos tightly by the arm and they’re making their way together, huddled in a crowd trying its best not to run and cause a stampede. And as she’s gripping his arm Nikos puts his other arm around her shoulders, to protect her. Suddenly, a romantic rainfall—of stones, that is—begins and the crowd scatters. Neither of them can see, because of the teargas. Some guy has anti-teargas, liquid Maalox, loaded in a huge canister and is spraying it towards people’s eyes, but eyes don’t recover that quickly. At first Maria clutches Nikos’ sleeve to keep from getting lost, but it’s chaos, people are pressing in and it feels like they’re pushing from every which way. Suddenly a hulky young guy stumbles between them, lunges forward with all his weight onto Nikos who tries to throw him off and has to use all of his strength just to stay on his feet; he swerves to keep from falling but it’s impossible to hold onto Maria. She, too, stretches out her hand, stretches it out a little bit more—and goodbye. He looks for her but can’t see anything, only a blur of strange faces. That was it. He’d lost her. Again. He walked and tried to locate her in the crowd. His eyes were squinting and stinging from the teargas and people were panicked and scared. With every new wave of chemicals you could hear their voices saying “don’t run,” for fear of being trampled as they tried to get out. Unable to keep his eyes all the way open, he glanced around in an attempt to find her; he looked for her shirt and the strap of her bag, which he kept thinking he could make out. The police launched more teargas and pressed in on all sides, leaving no way out in an attempt to incite panic and force the demonstrators to disperse. Nikos kept looking, kept searching, and saw a shirt that looked like hers but wasn’t; he went up to speak to a girl, but she turned her head and was someone else. Disappointed, he sat down on a bench at the edge of the National Garden. He started to daydream, the way that he used to do when he was young: he imagines that Maria’s stopped on the side of the street and having a hard time breathing and that he helps her get up and start walking; through tears, she unable to see anything, they head towards Monastiraki and land in another world, on the tranquil lawn of Thissio, where they relax and smile. Just then there was another strike by the police. It’s a bad spot for daydreaming, he’d better go. He moves on, swept along by the crowd, with no hope of ever finding her again.
And then he reflects that this simply isn’t an age for falling in love, that it can’t be a coincidence that everything’s going wrong. The fire, the firing, the police strikes—it’s just not the right time. And honestly, deep down that’s how I wanted it, too. In a tense era of rapacious capitalistic attacks on working people, it’s impossible to tell a love story. After all, let’s be real: who wants to read those kinds of stories these days?
Konstantinos Poulis was born in Athens in 1973. An essayist, satirist, journalist, television presenter, radio host, and translator, Poulis is editor at Greece’s ThePressProject and host and head writer of the satirical television show Anaskopisi [Roundup]. His books include Tax the Ragpickers (ThePressProject, 2013), a collection of political essays, and a Greek translation of Oscar Wilde’s Vera; or, The Nihilists (Koukkida, 2011). Thermostat, his first collection of short stories, appeared in 2014 with Melani Editions and was shortlisted for the Greek national prize for debut author. His latest book is Ἀπ’ τὸ ἀλέτρι στὸ smartphone: συζητήσεις μὲ τὸν πατέρα μου [From the Plough to the Smartphone: Conversations with My Father] (Melani Editions, 2019).
Johanna Hanink is an associate professor of Classics at Brown University and co-editor of the Journal of Modern Greek Studies. She is author of The Classical Debt: Greek Antiquity in an Era of Austerity (Harvard University Press, 2017), and her translation of selected speeches from Thucydides, How to Think about War: An Ancient Guide to Foreign Policy, was published in February by Princeton University Press.
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