Professor Katopodis had a habit of turning every conversation topic into an academic discussion. He had a feeling that retirement would take some time to get used to. On his first day in Palaio Faliro, a seaside town 10 km south of Athens, his wife suggested he might out go for a walk to clear his head of the 37 years of strife he had endured at the National University.
Stepping outside this morning, the first thing he noticed were the oranges. Bright and plump, they littered every inch of the pavement. And then the cats. They lounged in the sun, indifferent to everyone around them. He nudged an orange with his foot toward one crouching under a parked car but it took no notice. Another car sitting on the top of a nearby BMW watched him intently.
Katopodis met the felines gaze. "The oranges in the supermarket cost 2 Euros, and here they lay on the ground for free. I wonder why."
The cat leaped off the car and disappeared into a garden.
Breathing in the salty ocean air, he continued his walk to the market. He bought two freshly caught sea bream, the tastiest fish in the Mediterranean, to celebrate their new proximity to the ocean.
"Palaio Faliro is closer to the ocean, but the price is 7% more than in Athens." He looked at the fishmonger for an explanation, but simply received a shrug.
On his return home, his wife Polina looked at his purchase. “They don’t look any different from the ones in the city,”
The Professor informed her, "The new fishing quotas in the Mediterranean have increased the fish stock by 20%."
She placed them in the refrigerator and returned to cooking. A savory aroma of stuffed peppers filled the kitchen.
The professor went to his new study to continue working on a Treatise on the Causes of Greek Economic Stagnation during the Middle Ottoman Occupation Period.
The next day–he knew he should have given it a wide berth–curiosity made him peek into the rubbish bin. He discovered the bag with the two fish in it The economics implications of this were disappointing.
He passed by the oranges and the cats, took and glance at the ocean, and kept his eyes open for anything else new. The crowded streets jammed with parked cars, and lined with 1960s era apartment blocks, looked very much like every other neighborhood of Athens.
Hundreds of years of war and occupation by the Ottoman Empire didn't leave much standing. When the hated Ottomans left, anything they left behind was torn down out of spite, and all of Athens was rebuilt in the 1950s and 1960s
The smell of coffee in the air in front of a café on Agiou Alexandrou avenue drew him inside. He ordered an espresso and a Koulouri and received a cold stare from the young woman at the cash register.
As he nibbled on the sesame bread ring, he scanned the faces of the other customers. Mostly middle-aged and older men with unkempt beards and unwavering gazes. He looked around for anyone to strike up a conversation with, but they all looked like men who had spent too much time staring at the sea.
At the university, students had often complemented Professor Katopodis’s on how lively his eyes were and how alert his gaze was for a man his age. Mostly female students close to the end of the term, when the optimism of spring was in the air.
His mobile buzzed. A message from Helena, his former administrative assistant.
“Professor Katopodis, we miss seeing you in the Economic Department this term. BTW, Adriana informed me that Professor Dougenis is also living in Palaio. Here’s his contact info…”
As the mention of Dougenis, a wave of nausea washed over him. Didn’t Helena remember how repulsive Dougenis was. But this being Greece, cordiality comes above all else, and he would need to contact him at some point. Next month. He put the phone away and took this matter out of his mind.
But, how he hated everything Dougneis stood for. With Greece’s economy sinking back into recession after the EU cut off the free supply of money, Dougenis was still promoting leftist economic policies. Loan forgiveness. Unemployment benefits for all.
His stomach churned from the combination of espresso, koulouri and Dougenis. After finishing his coffee, Professor Katopodis continued his morning walk in this fabulous neighborhood and shook this off. He was becoming accustomed to this new life of leisure.
When he returned home, a white and brown tabby cat was blocking the entrance to the apartment building. He waved his arms and stomped his feet but the cat didn't move. An unexpected puzzle. It was beneath a man of his stature to resort to violence.
As idea came to mind. He opened a package of feta cheese he had just purchased, broke off a small piece and placed it a meter away from the entrance. As he wiped his finger with a tissue, the cat stood up and walked over to sniff the pungent cheese. Katopodis chuckled at his good fortune and quickly slid into the building and closed the door behind him.
In the apartment, he smiled when he saw Paulina.
“A feta cheese, from Epirus,” he said, offering it to her. "Where the mountainous terroir produces the ideal–"
“It’s already opened?” She said, looking into the bag.
“A cat blocked the door.”
She didn't ask any more questions, and took the cheese and put it into the refrigerator.
He went to the study to continue working on a Treatise on the Causes of Greek Economic Stagnation during the Late Ottoman Occupation Period.
But words refused to come. He had to get something out of the way.
On his mobile, he typed:
Prof Dougneis, this is Katopodis. Helena says we are neighbors. You must be very busy, but if you have an emergency, here is my contact information.
He despised Dougenis so much, and hoped hated him in return, and this would be the end of the matter.
The next day, he avoided looking into the rubbish bin and went out to explore the neighborhood further. This was Athens’ finest seaside suburb. He went to the Flisvos Marina and walked the mega-yachts and trendy restaurants. Observing the diners, he saw mostly groups of salesmen in their 30s and 40s. In Greece, men and women usually socialize in separate groups. The salesman looked supremely confident with each other. He overheard bluntly stated opinions about what was the "best" and what was the "worst" without any nuance or logic to explain their position. As an Economic professor, he lamented that most economic activity looked more like this than the facts and figure he worked with.
They didn't appear to be in no hurry to go back to work. Lunches can go on for hours in Greece.
Things were different in London. Employees are meant to be “productive”. His 10 years in London were awful. Trapped in a fishbowl office–behind glass walls in full display for everyone else to look at–ten hours a day. He pretended to be working while all day he dreamt of escape from that glass prison.
Thankfully, he abandoned the high salary and returned home. The pace of life was better in Greece. Almost everyone spends two or three hours after lunch sipping coffee and gossiping about current events before returning to do a few hours of work before dinner. The whole day is an escape, and work is a few patches in between to break the monotony.
He walked back to Agiou Alexandrou avenue and found a fast food restaurant to eat in, Zorba the Pita. Looking at the menu, he wondered why mass-produced fast food was more expensive than traditional food. Surrounded by high school students, he stared blankly out the window eating a lamb pita, hoping none of the overly boisterous students would approach him.
His mobile vibrated.
Prof Katopodis, I believe we did not finish our discussion about the Greek civil servant pension reform. If you are free this afternoon, you should stop over at 57 Amfitritis Street and I will serve you coffee and we can finish that discussion once and for all. -Prof Dougenis
The address was only 5 minutes away. Repulsive, yes. But there were some points in his argument he hadn’t made yet.
Professor Dougenis. Fortunately, I have a small gap in my schedule this afternoon to accept your gracious offer. -Prof Katopodis
At hour later, his face was red-hot as he lectured Dougenis on the lunacy of pension privatization.
If you lecture an Economic Professor, you can expect to receive a lecture back. “The word privatization is waved around as a magic solution to every problem in Greece. But isn’t privatization simply giving the nation's most important assets to greedy individuals through corrupt deals fueled by kickbacks and nepotism?" Dougenis's voice was now at an ear-piercing squeal.
“But individual effort and hard work is the bedrock of economic activity.”
“You always come back to hard work. May I ask why you have strong views on this theme of hard work?”
Professor Katopodis stared at the knickknacks on Dougenis's walls. A photo of Dougnesis's retirement party. Maybe he didn't have anything to lose.
“My grandparents were refugees from Turkey during the population exchange. They started in Athens with nothing.” For decades, these Greek immigrants from Turkey were treated as suspect. Different. Not bound by the same ties of loyalty as everyone else in Athens. Untrustable.
“In all our years working together in the National University, I never know that,” Dougenis said, "I think I better understand you.”
Katopodis wonder if he opened a Pandora box. Would this change his status back at the National University?
Dougenis was quiet in contemplation for a while, then he left for the kitchen, and returned with a bottle of Fatourada.
"Greeks. A history of struggle," he said, “Let’s have a drink to the old days. And to more discussions like this to come in Palaio Faliro."
He poured two shots of the orange flavored spiced spirit.
They clinked their glass and exchanged a toast. “Yiamas!”
When he returned home later, the white and brown tabby cat was again blocking the door. He had a package of lamb meatballs he had received from Dougenis’s wife to share with his family. He carefully took one out and placed it about a meter away from the door. The cat cautiously slunk over, took a sniff, and began at eat.
Katopodis carefully closed the lid on the package. Feeling the chill of the autumn breeze, while inhaling deeply of the salty ocean air tinged with the scent of oranges, he returned home to share what he had received with Polina and tell her all about Dougenis and how he has changed.