Thursday, October 28, 2010

I met Zorba the Greek...

I have never thought he ever existed outside Kazantzakis' imagination. Even Anthony Quinn was nothing more than an impersonator. Zorba had to be Greek by birth. Quinn was anything but Greek. My Zorba is an ex-football legend, of PAOK first and Panathinaïkos later. After he stopped active football, he maintained a restaurant at the famous (infamous to some) Omonia Square in Athens, where he made himself a fortune serving 'patsas'. "We used to earn money by the buckets" he said. The menu contained only a single item: Patsas! Most Westerners wouldn't go anywhere near but Greeks eat that for breakfast, lunch and supper too, especially during cold winter days. My dad used to breakfast like this as well, I remember. Not me though. Mother hated it...

Achilleas (not Alexis) is the name of my Zorba. He simply acted naturally like everything Nikos Kazantzakis described. Sing, dance, talk like an Olympian God for hours. He dominated the whole scene. My Zorba is bigger than life. Sure thing! I was speechless for most of the time I was in his company. We were both scheduled to pitch about the book on the following day's ceremony, you see. It would be him first and then I'd follow. At a given moment during supper the night before, he started talking with unseen energy and in much manlier vocabulary than I could ever use, and repeat in his own special manner about the same that I had planned as my closing statements. I leaned over to Lefteris and said: "I believe he has hijacked an entire chapter of my pitch". Zorba overheard me and said. "Don't you worry Professor. I won't pitch. I'll sing! I always sing in events like those". I thought he was joking, but the day after the singing happened indeed. Without music. Just like Zorba would do it! Never ever have I seen a man like this. He actually gave meaning to the concept of 'man'. If manges were like him, I can now understand why rebetika became so popular. I was trying to absorb every single word he said. He turns sixty this year but I imagined every woman who'd listen to him for more than a quarter would dream of getting in bed with this alpha male!

Achilleas Aslanidis
Authentic Zorba the Greek
My friend Lefteris, the writer, was listening to him the same way I did. His brain was working faster than mine though. I could almost hear his hard disk in his head doing billions of random accesses. He picked up every word coming out of Zorba's mouth. At a given moment in time Lefteris said: "Have you heard what Achilleas just said?". I hadn't. It was all too overwhelming for me. I said so. "Well", Lefteris continued, "he said 'Great men only have expectations from themselves, while common men have expectations from others...' that's a hell of a statement, innit?". I must admit it was.

Achilleas was proud to publicly admit that he wasn't fortunate enough to go to school but he felt he could often see the truth more clearly than many so called educated men. On the day of Lefteris book ceremony our timing clashed with a pitch by Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou who unexpectedly came to town. As the PM, after his pitch, was shaking hands in the hotel lobby where everyone had assembled, Zorba approached the PM and said. "It's the first time I am in the neighborhood of a PASOK (ruling party) PM and I feel sad!" "Your father, Andreas" he said, "never missed a penalty. But, you keep shooting penalty shots to the tribunes" Zorba meant that the current government, instead of getting their arms around various well known capitalist sharks with undeclared billions in questionable income, is only exercising pressure upon common citizens with empty pockets. His words and ideas were so much Zorba's. If I had Kazantzakis' talent I could have written volumes about the man. I hope Lefteris, obviously with a writing talent comparable to other great Greek writers, will one day publish a book about Achilleas. I'll stand in the row to get one.

In the clip above that I shot with my iPhone at the Restaurant Spitambelo, where we were all invited at the end of Lefteris official ceremony at the Grecotel (launch of his third book in a Rebetika trilogy), a middle-aged Pontian virtuoso plays the Lyra and sings. In the second half of the clip, Achilleas sings along, with a heavy voice like the Pontian singing God Kazantzidis, and is telling me that he himself originated from the area where that song came from. He then confirms to his neighbor, Neurosurgeon Dr. Antoniadis (another legendary Pontian with track record in writing lyrics for contemporary Pontian songs) that these were indeed the best Pontian songs ever written. I wouldn't know. To me they all sounded the same. Until a moment came that I felt I was part of them Pontians too. There's something electric about the people and their music. In a very rare and unusual moment, all quite unexpectedly, I suddenly felt very humble. I felt like being in the company of mythical giants... and I was just a hobbit...

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