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Text: World Copyright
Martin Foreman

Copyright of pictures acknowledged where possible






Sunday Morning
Ancient Greece     Cavafy     Greece Today

Athens, March 2010: it’s nine in the evening and I’m in the middle of Gazi, a district in Athens where gay bars sparkle in dark streets like stars in the night. There are few people about this early; only small groups of friends having a quiet drink as they put the world to rights. Alone and tired, I don’t have the energy to hang around until midnight, when handsome young homosexuals emerge to drink and dance, to flirt and make love. So I wander back to my hotel through narrow deserted streets, remembering the Athens I knew thirty-five years ago.

In 1975 I was twenty-two, newly graduated and in the Greek capital at the tail end of summer. I was vaguely intending to travel around the world and this far corner of Europe – a country only just shaking off dictatorship, long before dreams of European unity – was my first port of call. Three weeks had allowed me to skim its surface, sleeping on island beaches, drinking its ouzo and retsina, practising basic Greek with aging farmers in two-tabled tavernas, and letting myself be hypnotised by its arid mountains, its turquoise seas, its stolid olive trees and wafting eucalyptus.

Even more significant, I had been seduced by my impression of its past, particularly the men who loved boys-on-the-threshold-of-adulthood (“ephebe” was too effeminate a word and “teenager” too modern) as they rode, strode and fought their way across Mary Renault’s novels. The Persian Boy was my favourite and I even cried when Alexander died . . .

An advertisement in the Athens News offered a post as an English teacher in the town of Halkis (aka Chalkis or Halkida). Sixty miles north of Athens, where the island of Evia (Euboia) almost touched the mainland, in ancient times the city had had, I later learnt, a reputation for male liaisons. In modern times its only claim to fame appeared to be a cement works. I did not mind; it was offering me a home, an income and a chance to stay in this wonderful land.

Today, no matter where you are, you are no further from home than the nearest wireless signal or internet cable; in 1975 I was truly in a foreign land. The world, for those of you under forty, was unbelievably primitive. I had no telephone – neither mobile nor landline. Nor did I have television. No computer, of course – no internet, no Facebook, no iPod, iPhone, iPad. No i-anything. There was just I, myself alone in my one-bedroomed apartment with a shelfful of books and a borrowed typewriter on which I wrote my first short stories.

Yes, I was bored occasionally but I survived. In addition to reading and writing I wrote a weekly letter home – the only way of keeping in touch. I studied modern Greek and within a year could speak it well and read newspapers and books. In the afternoons and early evenings I faced classrooms of teenagers cramming English for their exams. At weekends I met the young English couple who worked at a rival private school, the young Greek-Australian woman who spoke English like a native and the petite prim Greek teacher who fell in love with me – and who decided it was impossible for her to be my friend when I told her I was gay.

Ah yes, being gay. Whatever its past reputation, Halkis was no hotbed of homosexuality. It was a small town where many of its citizens were new to urban life. They worked during the day and did not venture out at night; at weekends, many returned to the villages whence they had come and Halkis appeared deserted. If I wanted gay life I had to take the train that trundled slowly into Athens, stay overnight and return the next day – and my income of 8,000 drachmae a month limited such excursions to no more than twice a month.

Once in Athens I do not remember how I discovered where to go, but gaydar is much older than the internet. I soon learnt that young men seeking masculine company loitered in Omonia Square. But I have never been adept at public cruising in public, so my habit, after checking in at my cheap hotel was to head for the only gay bar I knew - the Mykonos, which lurked in the warren of dark streets below the Acropolis known as the Plaka.

The Mykonos - long since closed - was small and poorly decorated, no more than a narrow room in winter and an additional patio in spring and summer. For six months of the year there were never more than a dozen visitors at a time, even at weekends, and a blond foreigner was soon recognised and made welcome.

So far, so good. But most of the other customers were middle-aged and my tastes ran to young men as callow as myself. That meant that most evenings I did little more than talk. In the first six months I only remember going home with two people. One was Yiorgos (George), who was thin, effeminate, perhaps a couple of years younger than me in age and a decade or so older in attitude. We “dated” perhaps three times – once or twice in a short-term hotel not far from Omonia and once or twice when he made the trip back to Halkis with me - until he got bored and sensibly refused my further advances.

The other’s name I have forgotten. He was in his thirties and I was not immediately attracted. But it was flattering to be pursued and one evening the offer of his flat was preferable to my cheap hotel. So we had adequate sex in his bed and I woke to coffee on a balcony on a warm spring morning surrounded by the scent of flowers. The situation was perfect; it was only the man that was wrong, as I wrote in a haiku later that day – Sunday morning / waking up in a strange bed / and wishing it was yours. (The “you”, of course, was the ideal lover, the wealthy, handsome, artistic, intelligent, generous, humorous young man that I had yet to meet - and who, I finally accepted, did not exist.)

My failure to meet the man of my dreams that year did not bother me too much. What was important was the fact that each time I arrived in Athens, each street I walked along, each evening I pushed upon the door, I was celebrating – celebrating my youth, my independence, my ability to survive in a strange land and in a strange language.

Summer came and with it tourists from Western Europe and North America. Pre-Ryanair and EasyJet, these were usually wealthier, older men who could afford foreign travel, on their way to or from the island of Mykonos. (Yes, Dearly Beloved, Mykonos was popular with gay men even then.) In warm summer nights we would sit in the small patio and discuss Life with the intensity, if not the insight and wit, of Oscar Wilde, Somerset Maugham or Gore Vidal. Then I usually returned to my hotel alone but uncomplaining. Unlike the young men of today, pampered by the internet and saunas, by nightclubs and drugs, I did not consider sex either an imperative or a right. My sensuous appetites were more than satisfied by the alcohol, the conversation and the heat.

Not that I rejected sex when it was offered. By June I had quit my job and moved to Athens, where a young Chicano – the term for Mexican-Americans was new to me - invited me to share his bed and the rent. The latter arrangement lasted longer than the former but we sailed to the islands together, leaving me, decades later, with blurred memories of frequent encounters – including a handsome blond Frenchman in his hostel room, a wealthy Greek fashion designer on the beach, a hairy American offering free massage, and a midnight encounter with another Frenchman half-way up a darkened hillside.

There were almost certainly more whom I have forgotten. I did not keep a diary and photos were rare and expensive. Nor is it only the sex that has slipped from my memory. All I can remember of a bar on Mykonos (the island) where I spent several evenings is the then-amazing phenomenon of a digital watch flashing red in the night. And wasn’t there another bar not far from there where classical music played softly as the Mediterranean lapped at our feet? And while I was on boats or on beaches, wasn’t it then that I read Kazantzakis in the original Greek, experiencing both elation at the sweep of his prose and frustration at the vocabulary that I still lacked? Are these true memories or invention - and does it matter which is which?

Summer began to fade. Back in Athens, decisions had to be made. Cleo the Chicano was moving on. I loved Greece, I had decided, but not the Greeks (who, like other Mediterraneans, I later discovered, tend to be utterly absorbed by you the night you meet and to ignore you ever after). I had thought of moving to Arabia or the Gulf but had no money and did not have the energy to start all over again. It was time to come back to the UK. In September, therefore, I flew to London, where I quickly found a job and, in time, friends and a home.

In the next decade I returned to Greece twice – once to write a novel that thankfully did not get published, and once at the request of a man who thought he loved me. The last time was twenty-five years ago. Now I’ve come back for a short break and found that the Athens I knew has changed much less than I thought. continued here


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