Monday, June 25, 2007

Travel 3

When our first voyage was finally over and we docked in Rotterdam, Holland, it was with a sense of sadness that we disembarked. After ten days at sea and thirty or so meals at our table, we seven had become more than mere friends-–we were a family. Our final parting was painful and we all promised to write. And we did for a while. But as memories faded so too did the letters. This has been the script with every ship I have been on save one. In that instance, I spent more time in the bars with a group of like-minded louts than at the dinner table and thus, I hardly knew my table mates.

Generally, when I travel abroad it is not so much to visit as observe. Although I've seen the Eiffel Tower, the Coliseum, the Casbah (above), the Parthenon, the Blue Mosque, and other great landmarks, I prefer to study local life forms. After drinking my fill the first week, I followed old drunks the second week as they wobbled and weaved through the Oktoberfest hordes in Munich (several nights of that will cure any one of imbibing to stupidity). I've pondered Moroccan waiters during Ramadan as they fed us foreign devils while they themselves starved from sunup to sundown (vultures on a limb is the best description I can draw). I've watched sanitation workers in Zurich (one man, one machine, no mess), eyed for nights on end some really old and ugly Paris prostitutes in action (or inaction) and some of the Quasimodos they had as clients. I've hitchhiked and driven on the German autobahns so I could find out what racing at Indianapolis was really like.

While living in Greece, I also had a chance to study gypsies. Some of the first encounters came when they appeared at our door seeking handouts. Although these people always wanted more, if Maurine gave them a little bread they generally left satisfied. If we had nothing to give or were unwilling to part with what we had, our guests would stand staring at us through the kitchen window. As a rule, one seldom sees a gypsy man unless he is lolling around their camp. They apparently shade the day away in tents while forcing the women and children out on their plundering expeditions.

As for the gypsy females, no one could mistake them for Greeks. Some Greek women (those few not in mourning, that is) wear bright clothing; but nothing like the colorful, gaudy gypsy. Also, to see a young gypsy woman walking on the road is pure pleasure. When they aren't quarreling with one another or sifting through trash cans or lashing a kid for something, the ladies really set a pace. With a long, rapid stride and arms swinging gracefully, a gypsy woman would leave her short-legged Greek sister in the dust. Their children often trot to stay up.

Second to pilfering, begging is the main occupation of gypsies. One might imagine that after centuries of practice, these people would have become pretty adept in that line of work. But such is not the case. With a swaddled infant in her arms, a gypsy woman when begging will normally assume the most pained and exaggerated expression imaginable--not even close to looking sincere. If one can envision a woman with her foot caught in a bear trap, then one will have a pretty good idea of what a gypsy's face looks like when begging. Maurine once saw two women in the Kalamata market hustling at different times with the same baby. Although infants naturally tug hardest on a client's heart strings, if none are handy almost any child under twenty will do. While in Patras once, my son, Clipper, and I stared in disbelief as a gypsy woman carried an eight- or nine-year-old child who was almost as big as she. The large, squirming kid was obviously miserable and wanted down but the woman struggled to hold him and beg at the same time. I have seen other women pounding the pavement in winter, begging in shirt sleeves, while thirty or forty yards behind another is carrying their coats. Apparently a lot of Greeks fall for such corn, else the gypsies would have switched to a new scam long ago.

One morning I pedaled my bike ten miles to Messina to spend a day observing gypsies. They had their big camp along both banks of the Pamisos River, about a mile from town. Except for a few blue and green pickup trucks, the scene might have been 1876 and the Little Bighorn. Breakfast was long over when I came by and only a few threads of smoke were trailing up from cold camp fires. Several squatting women were about, doing hand wash or beating canvass at the river's edge. Wildly colored rugs and clothes were draped on bushes to dry. Horses and mules grazed quietly nearby; a dog stretched in the sun. But other than this, the camp was dead. The bulk of the women and children were in Messina. Poor Messina.

When I reached the town a short time later, I found gypsies swarming everywhere--begging, stealing, rattling locked doors and gates, trying to resell the junk they had just begged or stolen. Some of the green grocers gave handouts, I noticed, probably on the premise that it is better to give and seem magnanimous rather than be stolen from and appear stupid. Gangs of gypsy children also made their presence felt. These kids are hard to describe since other than being completely filthy, there is nothing else uniform about them. Little boys might have their knotty heads shaved right down to the bone or they might sport dirty long curls. And they might don anything from one-legged pants to an old suit coat worn over swimming trunks. I even saw one nine- or ten-year-old boy in a dress. The pathetic little girls all look like they have just climbed out of a chimney.

The life of a gypsy kid, free and wild, is the life all children fight to gain, but without success. They loaf at cafĂ© tables and steal food when no one is looking; they play with matches and smoke; they twist the arms and pound and torture someone smaller; they race down streets like a knot of squabbling sparrows zeroing in on crumbs in a gutter. A little boy who can't keep his pants up and his bottom shows–-who cares? Most go barefoot, even in winter.

When I left town around noon, the gypsies too were calling it a day and heading back to camp with their plunder. As I pedaled back along the highway, the scene looked like a column of ants returning to the hole. I saw one child with a sack of potatoes on his back as big as he. I suppose that such booty greatly pleased his grim sire and stayed the flogging arm for a sun or two.

On another occasion, Maurine and I drifted over an abandoned gypsy camp at dusk. A hand or two of scattered, soggy playing cards, a discarded "blanket" heavy enough to crush a shot-put, folds of clear plastic, one brown shoe, unbent kindling, orange peals, paper. And, of course, human excrement, which I managed to trod upon. Going by the camp on the drizzly night before and seeing the bonfires through the dripping olive trees, it occurred to me why Greece or any other country would tolerate as they do thieves proud and bold in their midst. It is much like the national parks of America, to use an analogy. Sprung from the caves as we are, we want to embrace that which was best of savagery. Though the parks are beautiful unto themselves, they also remind us of our wildness and origin which we at times long to return to. The same is true when viewing the gypsies. The campfires, the tents, the nomadic existence from land to land-–to see true freedom at work is a shot in the arm and a wonderful thing to ponder. Certainly gypsies are a different species of Homo sapiens–-the grimy little urchins and their almost extraterrestrial parents. What happened in the great long ago to set these people apart from the rest?

My observations while traveling are not limited to humanites. I've watched dogs on the sandy beaches of southern Portugal dig for clams (one dog digs and another barks encouragement); I've observed the proud little dachshunds as they trip along the river promenade in Salzburg (if ever a race of dogs raises a civilization, my money is on these intelligent little creatures); I've written about the "rock apes" of Gibraltar (they love pulling down the bikini bras of buxom young women who try to feed them peanuts); I've studied cats in Switzerland (cunning and cruel, cats are the same everywhere). Like the "manure bugs" of Nebraska, I'm also fascinated by insects.