Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Patras

In Patras you could walk directly off the streets and into the port, then to the very end of the dock. There you could wait comfortably: for a ship, For love, for a promise, as you will. I used to wait for all three: a Venetian girl named Danna worked on the “Minoan-Lines” Patras-Venice ferry. We met when making the two-night crossing myself. I was bound for Athens, but upon disembarkation decided to stick around town till Danna completed another round.

Four days later she returned, long dark hair and heavy makeup – she resembled other girls I've seen in Venice but was different, Jewish, so she told me, or at least part Jewish. My own Jewishness thrilled her. Her eyes were full of light when she descended to the dock – a ray of sun glistening on the sea's ripples, a street lamp showing the way to San Marco, a shabbat candle. Together we ran from the port to the streets and up the steep staircase that leads to the top of the citadel hill. We sat panting on the uppermost stair, looking down at the forbidding mouth of the bay of Corinth, guarded by behemoth mountains on both sides, talked a bit and kissed a bit and ran back downtown to feed Danna her favorite Peloponnese souvlaki before she had to take off again.

By the third time I received Danna, it began to seem futile. Two hours every four days hardly justified sticking around as boring a town as that. Patras should be world famous for its endless siestas. The stores seemed to be closed perpetually, not that I had anything to buy nor the money with which to buy it, but I made my living busking and needed pedestrian traffic. A heavy smell of burnt diesel, borne from ship smokestacks, hung over a small sea side bar, the cheapest in town. There I would spend the sleepy afternoons chatting with a Palestinian man in his forties, over shrimp and sweet iced coffee.

One night he took me to the tavern owned by an aqually Palestinian friend. On hearing that I was a compatriot of sorts, a free bottle of ouzo was opened before me, just for me, and for anyone I'd care to treat. It turned out to be bottomless. The only thing that stopped the drinking was a group of girls who pushed the tables against the walls and started dancing to the Greek music. I waddled like a broken legged, happy drake back to the hostel before dawn. Patras trashed me and thrilled me, it taught me peace, generosity, and several good steps all in one night. Still, I was there for Danna and Danna couldn't be there. I departed before she landed for the fourth time.

Here in Haifa, you can't walk directly into the port – security restrictions prohibit it. Nonetheless, there's something Patras-like about the city, especially now, at four A.M.. I can't quite name it – maybe it's the closed stores, maybe the stairs, climbing up the mountain towards Haddar, maybe the absence of Danna. I should sleep but the mosquitoes are killing me so I walk along Ha'azma'ut Boulevard to the old mosque by the Governement Center and watch a bread truck unload in front of a grocery store. When it takes off, the sharp smell of burnt diesel erupts from its exhaust pipe. It engulfs me and suddenly I'm entirely there, thirteen years ago, restless and sleepless, well wined and weary, strolling by the docks, whistling something Billie Holiday sang best.

2 comments:

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Yuval said...

I'm keeping this first comment because it's so nicely phrased. Also: Cafe Shani in Haifa has the best plum croissants and early 60s decor anywhere, and they open at 6:00 AM with all the newspapers nicely stacked for the benefit of earlybirds and insomniacs. Bless their hearts.