It was a toss up between titles. You swing between the two appraisals like a pendulum; first one feeling, then an abrupt about-face in favor of the other.
You need to explain…
Spaso is a 40-year-old hippie living in Agia Galini on the southern coast of Crete for the last twenty years. How can you describe this guy?! Lean, but not the wiry type—frail seeming, but not fragile. Frail like grace; the kind of frailty that allows only for smooth movement. His hair is long, gathered at the back of his neck, and his Gandalf beard is shaved away completely just hours after you arrive, leaving visible an upper lip that dips inwards like an old man’s; he has no upper teeth.
The tips of the fingers of his right hand are stained brownish-yellow from the rollies he inhales with the regularity of someone who has exchanged smoke for oxygen. You wonder what the insides of his lungs look like. He drinks his several coffees with three teaspoons of sugar and ample milk; he usually has 2-3 pints of Amstell with lunch. He is a vegetarian who cannot chew, and so he can only consume foods that are cooked and soft, if he eats food at all. Soft candy, chocolate, and Nutella by the jar are the only things that seem to keep him going.
He is soft-spoken and patient, with eyes at once deep and sharp. The quality of his work is excellent, but he doesn’t like working. His attention to detail is laudable, even as he juggles several projects at once. His strength is awareness, considering all possibilities, all combinations, all approaches, and weighing the pros and cons—of judging the odds. His memory, at times exquisite, is also selective.
He lives in a house on top of a mountain overlooking the sea, but does not pay rent; he makes improvements. In town, he does odd jobs for local businesses for cash, but has little need of money. It seems as though he owns only his tools, a few changes of clothes, and an old car that sounds as though it is dragging tin cans behind it.
Spaso is highly intelligent; enviably so. His intelligence is demonstrated in his ability to focus, to calculate, to see geometrically. He is a hippie that does not do drugs; he prefers to play games that require very high levels of strategy and concentration.
You didn’t know any of this until you spent more time with him. After the Nipple Pincher dropped you in Agia Galini, you were desperate to get out of the rain—even if that meant calling Spaso’s nunber, given to you by Cheda on the ferry. You hadn’t been sure you would want to go out of your way to meet Cheda again, but the weather made the decision for you.
And it was a good decision. You were invited to stray in Spaso’s home, and were treated to dinner. You were so thrilled to have company and a dry place that you offered to work to keep in exchange. The two men were employed to restore parts of a hotel in town. Spaso simply said, “We’ll see.”
What did he see? That you can work? That you can spread paint? That you can hand him screws? You didn’t do anything impressive, but he claimed to see a work ethic and intelligence he “rarely meets with workers,” and gave you 20 Euros for the day’s 2-3 hours. You tried to refuse the cash, since you’d had no designs on getting paid and were simply happy to help, to have people to talk to, and a dry place. But he insisted.
Spaso said it would be an insult if he wouldn’t be able to pay you for your work; then he asked you to come in again the next day. And the next.
Sure. Why not? After all, it was raining cats and dogs every day. So there you were, living and working in a little Greek town, rubbing elbows at the taverna with all the other builders, getting free food and drink, and only able to return big smiles and words of gratitude every time you got.
Until something started to rub you the wrong way.
Spaso is somewhat of a philosopher. It was fun at first, exchanging ideas over beers in the taverna, that is, until you realized that Spaso is more of a talker, and less of a listener. It doesn’t matter what you say, how complicated or straight-forward–he disagrees, or he challenges the statement. Too strict, too narrow—it doesn’t matter. Nothing you say is “right” according to Spaso.
Because you tire of the same semantic games, you no longer volunteer words.
Spaso is a teacher, but his lessons are often superfluous and tiresome. Why, when you have a torch in your hand, should you stand in the cold to wait for your eyes to adjust to darkness in order to gather timber? The lessons begin to sound like criticisms, but they are not.
They are merely articulated possibilities.
In a world of infinite possibilies, it seems fruitless to explore them all. Choose one that works on a practical level.
Spaso threw out his back playing “full-court ping pong.” You recognized the pain and difficulty immediately, and offered to stay a week to help him complete the jobs he was working on. You could use the work. But the work changed. Rather than working, as you did in the first few days, you now trail him like a lost puppy, waiting for a word.
He does not communicate; he does not think it is necessary. You wait, frustrated with your lack of understanding of your working relationship. In your opinion, “work” is not “watching/waiting.” You do not fuel yourself on coffee, sugar, and cigarettes, and your energy wanes. You wonder bitterly what the hell you are doing there? The terms of your service and payment were never actually discussed.
“You do not smile,” Spaso said to you over coffee. “A real smile comes from the eyes. You have never smiled. You do not laugh. You make the sound of laughter when it is appropriate, but you do not mean it.”
He was right. Maybe because, as Alexis would say, he and Cheda were about as funny as a root canal.
“I don’t laugh because I don’t find anything funny,” you replied. You immediately wished you could take it back.
Spaso went into a long disseration about laughter having nothing to do with something being funny. It was about life. It was about being your authentic self. Not a presentation for others. You have to be your full self all the time; you must be fully aware of everything. When you are walking down the street, you must be aware that you could kill something—a bug, a dog, a person. Anything. Even if you don’t mean to. You must be prepared to kill.
How long did he talk? You were so hungy, so frustrated with the idleness, the lessons, the criticism that you wanted to cry. What the fuck did killing anything have to do with the fact that nothing he nor his brother said actually made you want to laugh? Maybe you should have said it is polite to force a chuckle at times, lest someone’s terrible attempt at a joke go completely unacknowledged. People like to be acknowledged. Certainly, you appreciate a half-felt laugh when your attempts to lighten the mood ultimately fail.
How can you laugh when you feel so wound up and challenged? When your brain is always in concentration mode? When you are tiptoeing around the threat of another lecture about the mundane?
It occurred to you that Spaso may have been seizing on the opportunity to lecture someone. To be the wise, all-knowing hippie who was too “enlightened” for the main stream. Who can dazzle you with his connections, his outlook, his lifestyle, and his willingness to employ you, and at the same time set you up to fail, play games with you (is that what he is doing?), and have you run around like a little errand boy.
Funny how you can be so ambivalent about a person. Is he as smart as you think he is? Or is this person, who believes that most conventional chickens are reared without heads, who talks incessently about health and has some of the most revolting, unhealthy habits imaginable, as susceptible to idiocy as the next deadbeat who has to create an idyllic “alternative/enlightened/zen” existence to justify his lack of greater influence in the world?
“I just wish I knew what was going on. I never know where we are going, or what we are doing. No one communicates with me. I can’t tell what I should or should not be doing,” you said.
“Why do you need to know?” Spaso asked. Before you could answer, he added, “You do not need to know. Everyone always feels like they have to know everything, to control the future. Why can’t you just wait? Be in the moment?”
Ridiculous. You didn’t feel out of line stating your desire for communication.
Spaso ended the conversation by telling you that you must be satisfied not knowing anything. Clearly, that was how he wanted it to be. Thank you, Master Yoda. You really didn’t feel like laughing after that conversation.
But later in the evening, after Spaso effortlessly kicked your ass in chess for the seventh time in a row, you sat back in your chair and smiled. “You know why I like spending time with you,” you said. “Because I am a smarter, more patient person at the end of the day.”
Everything you do with Spaso comes with a lesson. If it’s in Zen and the Art of Carpentry, that’s one thing; you can learn project by project how to approach a task and find different solutions, using finess and appropriate tools—a welcome skill. If it’s in nurturing the Precious Male Ego, then you have allowed him to feel as though he is really helping you, and you place well-timed appreciative, eager nods and compliments in order to distract him.
And why would you do such a thing, Maria? Because life on Crete is good—really good. Despite the daily showers, it is still sunny, warm, and stunning. The drinks have been free thus far, and the food—lots and lots of free, authentic Greek food, is abundant. You now live in a house on top of a mountain overlooking the sea, in paradise. You wake up every morning to a sunrise over snow-capped peaks, and to a cacophany or chirping birds, bleating goats, and meowing kittens.
Why tolerate what can be, at times, extremely wearisome? Because every day you do learn something new, and improve on existing skills—be it in carpentry, chess, or patience; and because nurturing the precious male ego is a the timeless enterprise of all women.