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20/3/2004: The Nits in Paradiso

The train

Theatre review: Purple Heart

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The train
Thursday, 27 November 2003 Symeon Charalabides (

I had the following article published at, a website that deals with the ridiculous Greek policy of conscription. I have attempted a rough translation here and, although I've decided to present it, it is quite far removed from the original, both in essence and style.
Translation is a process I never got the hang of, and even if I had, the original is replete with Greek cultural references, figures of speech, proverbs and even a school ditty, things impossible to express satisfactorily in another language. Well, that's my excuse anyway. I have included some brief explanations in square brackets and left the rest to the imagination of the reader. Enjoy.

"You're planning another escape?" you told me brother, "I'd love to know what it is you whisper every time you're away, but I can't afford 35 years to learn Greek."
"There are no Greek songs that favour departure," believe and question not, "only return."
"So it's foreign?"
"It's not foreign brother," I responded, "it's just not Greek."

Once on a cold gray morning
I was walking home alone.
The traffic lights in the falling rain,
the unanswered phone.

Black cordura, end of May with 30 degrees, but who could stop you?
Shot front wheel bearings before Patra [Greek port city, where the ferry to Italy docks] even? No bother, Italy stocks consumables too. Probably. When you're tired at 26, it is urgent to panic. You only stop for a broken shaft.
Novae thoughts in view of the ship struggling to dock at Patras port, 120 lorry drivers and you, "yes, I understand that return is only marginally more expensive than one way, but I'm still not interested. Are you even listening?" Provocative smile at the customs officer who sends you to the shipping company's office for a boarding pass knowing that it's closed: your last time giving me the run-around, buddy, make the most of it.
And then?
Then memory blurs. Kilometres become notes, you play music on geography whollier than the Couros [famous ancient Greek statue]. Tunells that connect lives, gas stations larger than the eye can see, orbitals that embrace countries whole. Never a biker that didn't wave, you saw no borders, nobode asked you for a boarding pass. You saw lions in the city of 1000 years ("It's a good start!"), floating houses in concentric circles, it rained and you looked the sky in the eyes.

Looking back, I had a thousand reasons to leave. Personal, financial, social, countless arguments that insistently defy stacking. A thousand and none, mere excuses to cover what I know now, that I would leave anyway, it was my destiny. And this sounds funny, as I am too much "the scientist" to believe in karma, but the fact of the matter is that never in my life do I feel as alive as when I'm leaving. It doesn't matter for where or how long, if I have an invitation or money or slept in the last 3 days, only the departure per se. The act they tried for so long, in so many ways to make me fear.
The notion they tried for so long, in so many ways to make me fear.

Yes, they do replace wheel bearings in Italy and they smile and they call them "cuzinetti".

I was so sad and lonely
on a lonesome avenue.
So sad and lonely,
what could I do?

"Legally deferring military service" then, "legally deferring military service" now and with two years of having dodged it in between, the issue of your military "obligation" constantly gnaws at your relations with Greece, your personal time and your first conversation with every new acquaintance.
"But how can they oblige you to go without a salary for a year?" What if I told you until recently it was 18 months?
"Only after 45? What do they want a 45-year old soldier for?" What if I told you until last year it used to be 50?
They are unimaginable things in countries with a strictly professional army. They are unimaginable things even in countries with conscription, in fact. Only in Greece does the unimaginable become silently accepted - for the "country".

What is our country? Could it be the valleys?
Could it be the FIR of Athens?

The "country" is a strange thing that defies definition. The following evidence, however, apply:

  • The "country" is something towards which you have inherent obligations, while it has none towards you.
  • The "country" is something for which you may even die.
  • The "country" is something that everybody has, but every "country" is better than all other "countries".
  • The "country" is the reason that Bush Jr. bombs civilians, Hitler invaded Poland, the gulags were so popular.

For the country, damn it!
So I searched extensively and I think that I learned the utility of the "country". And it seems to me that having a "country" is something unwise. And based on what I know now, I decided that I don't want to have a "country". Is it possible, Mr. lawmaker? If not, can at least the "country" change? To one that not only demands, but provides as well? To one that doesn't only take advantage of its citizens, but also supports? That judges fairly, that listens to reason? That lives in the present, plans for the future and doesn't live miserably in the past? What if I ask very nicely?

OK, but don't wait up, I'll be late.

Once I opened a drawer
in a room of a strange hotel.
I saw a photograph of you.

Did you have anything against the army? I don't recall such a thing.
You left because the opportunity arose. Grab it or regret it all your life. How could you face your parents if you missed it?
You could collect cigarette-butts in Lagos [notorious military camp on the border with Turkey] for 18 months, painting everything solid and saluting everything that moves, or you could study for the Ph.D. you'd gone after with two scholarships. It wasn't a hard choice.
The time passed with newfound experiences. You tasted European capitals in friends' tables, your phone rang in the middle of the night, you learned to project your ideas to a hundred million people, you fell in love completely, utterly with the big world.
- Where you have rights and are aware of them every moment.
- Where you are innocent until proven otherwise.
- Where being treated with civility doesn't require a reason.
- Where you are worth being invested on.
- Where "elsewhere" and "otherwise" are discussed with interest and love, not fear and hate.
And suddenly, like a leaf's twitching on the first gale of an autumn storm, you weren't the same...

This "suddenly" took years, I can't count how many. How many highlights did Kim Wilde's locks have when she was 28?
Greece surprised me for not having changed along with me. For expecting me to accept at face value the things I accepted once. Didn't it notice I've changed? Doesn't it care? It's insulting.
Absurd, ambiguous mantras, "national dominance" I think and stuff like that, like an American movie. People who look at me with enmity on the streets - how did I harm them? Coffee in Thyseion [popular area of Athens], more expensive than the Quartier Latin, and a sympathetic look on the face of everyone listening to the summary, "Take it easy, it's almost over." And then: "What do you mean you're not coming back?"
I must go out with Babiniotis [established Greek dictionary] in the future.
"How can I want to return?" Silence. Suddenly, I belong to "otherwise".
I don't want this to be over, this is my life. It's the life I've chosen, not the life I was dealt and now try to justify so I can feel better. A decided to open my eyes and accept what I see. To open my arms to those who don't judge me based on usefulness. To offer all my energy, every hour, every day, to a world that chokes and falters in insecurity, xenophobia, self-righteousness. To fight for self-determination, freedom, meritocracy, justice.
How can I be a soldier anymore?

You looked so sad and lonely
on a lonesome avenue.
So sad and lonely,
what could I do?

You were too long a soldier. You fought a thousand battles and learned to fear war. Even when you won, the enemy was still there. Unmovable, unbeatable and you spent. Wounds that still pull on cold winter nights. You didn't ask for them, don't want them, proved that they are not essential and life is better without them. And they insist still.
You changed trying to forget.

Do you remember wondering about the patronization in school? The beautification, the vagueness, the silent innuendos? Do you remember 12 years of religious studies?
Do you remember unveiling the secret interview for the fellowships? Do you remember who won them?
Do you remember your pride at not contributing to the gridlock, pollution, noise? Do you remember being taxed heavily for that? Do you remember the 250 on its side and everybody looking at you like a criminal?
Do you remember running from office to office trying to make sense? Paying for the errors and ignorance of the people "in charge"? Do you remember hundreds of hours in queues?
Do you remember waiting for the traffic light to turn green? Do you remember how much you were punished for it?
Do you remember the condescending looks on the mention of recycling, renewable energy sources, protection of the biosphere?
Do you remember two ministers in a row smiling at the screen and lying that "the problem of military deferrence has been solved conclusively"?

I've been too long a soldier. I grew tired of wars and learned to avoid them. To select my battles, not the ones I could win but the ones there's a point in winning. How else will I make the most of my limited time in an infinite world? There are situations that cannot be rectified, let them proliferate. "Discretion is the better part of valour", the British know a few things. If they'd only install spectator stands in Donington...
I changed because I remember.

I remember Giannis waving goodbye after our visit with tears in his eyes.
I remember the lad in Perissos [area of Athens] tempering the FZR with 8 fingers: he'd left 2 on a tank track. What do you mean "charged responsibility"?
I remember the drawing in Lazaros' playful letter: a soldier hung in front of the post.
I remember the awesome question Miltos was asked: "Do you have friends?"
I remember Apostolos returning from Rhodes, his back in pieces: 4 soldiers constructed a road in a day. Who dared make a law suit, report, the kid had still 6 months to go. He wouldn't come out alive.
I remember a sentence from his journal still: "I think I will commit suicide".
I remember Giorgos' infuriated words: "Do you know I have white temples"?
I remember Demetres, only 2 years after his release did he walk straight.
I remember my own father, 30 years of civil service without ever one day sick leave, telling me with feeling (regarding the incident with the helicopter at Imia [Greek islands]) "Why did those young men die for no reason? If you can avoid going, don't go."
I also remember what the military officer told him, presented with a statement from a national university: "I can't give you a formal exemption, but it's obvious that the kid is doing something serious. He shouldn't come."
I remember all my friends being dismissed 20 years older. The weariness in every move, their enthousiasm dead, no appetite for life. The flame in their eyes a pile of ashes after the rain. What studies, what plans, what creation? A small-time job, a small house and reality TV to the grave. Have you forgotten 12 hours on the saddle amid lightning bolts, Radio Greece and how to patch the hole in the sky? "You haven't been to the army".

Once in a railway station,
in the city where I live,
the windows were like mirrors
in this train,

You chose not to become a soldier, it's part of your own war. It absorbs all your being, and that's how it should be: there's not point in doing anything unless you give it everything you've got. You ignore the ghosts that claim your attention. You don't believe in nations, "countries", religions, authorities, genders, political orientations, all sad remnants of a past people find a false sense of security in - more so in some countries than others. Shin jin rui, but with a sword and matching attire.
And you know well now that we are able to catch up with our technological civilisation that preceeds our mental one by 2000 years. To live without "evil" or enemies. Without being annoyed or even disturbed by different languages, habits, opinions. Without raping our environment, in a peaceful symbiosis with the planet. Like royalty all, every one of our wishes satisfiable. Working minimally, researching the colonisation of the solar system and beyond. Problems, goals with solutions visible, viable, feasible. Somehow, stomping to attention at 8 in the morning in the cement world of Megalo Peyko [conscription centre near Athens] sounds alien...
Can you compare known quantities with unknown ones? Does it make sense to?
How many push-ups would you do in the 45' it took you from Munich to Nuremberg? Would you sweat the same?
Do you hear in 12 months' worth of service as many Irish references as by watching "The weir" in London?
Would you be treated to coffee in the control tower of Tripoli [defunct Greek airport that couples as a race track] as you were in Assen's control room?
Which officer's story would you laugh as much with, as the one about the cover of "99 red balloons" in Berlin?
Can a flag move you as much as the view of Europe's last sunset every day?
Is camping on Evros [region & river, Greece-Turkey border] a comparable experience to jamming with Henk in Utrecht?
Do you feel as sad and lonely standing guard, as losing the 1000 at Brno?

You may be winning or you may be losing. Have you calculated the difference? Do you know?

I am unable to become a soldier, it's a condition of my own war. Ghosts do not exist, there is no sufficient proof. If I believe in them, will they appear? I'd love to know what it is to have blind faith, but I can't afford 12 months to forget how to think. They're not enough anymore.
And I'd gladly join the army for the substancial experience. To learn to assemble a weapon, targeting, exercise and where the Greek cows are hiding because I've never seen one, except on Tetra-paks. Useful things for the individual and the society. Even to accept the fake, though convenient supposed threat of Turkey, from which Greece has nothing to fear (don't shoot the messenger, Akis [former Greek defence minister] said so). For these things, one month is enough. Two tops. And I can do them evenings, nights, weekends. Refrigerators are for eggs, not lives.
But I will not waste 12 months of my life to provide a reason for the existence of 40.000 otherwise useless officers. Let them go elsewhere and do something useful.
I will not spend the fruit of original and useful labour to preserve otherwise unviable microcommunities. Let them disassemble or reorganise themselves.
I will not stay idle to maintain a fake unemployment rate so we can collectively close our eyes to the real problem. There are solutions and they are applied throughout Europe.
I will not put my physical existence to the absolute disposal and will of an entity that "justifies" 2% losses without the slightest political or social scrutiny.
I can be in good terms with the state I happened to be born in, or I can be in good terms with myself. It isn't a hard choice.

I may be winning or I may be losing. I've made my choices and am not defaulting on them. History is not an exact science and protects us from knowing if they were the right ones. Or not. I only know what I think and how I feel. And what I'm doing with my life.

"Hey what you're doing with your life?"

I'm fighting hard, brother. I'm fighting every day.

Symeon Charalabides (cosmopolite trainee)
(Lyrics by Henk Hofstede)

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