SOME CHARACTER SKETCHES: I thought you might like to meet some people that I met along the way…

EMANUELE is 27 years old, a university graduate (early childhood education) who has traveled abroad (including the U.S., where Diana met him a few years ago). His father is a doctor, retired by law at 70 so as to make room for new doctors. Doctors, as everyone else, are in over-supply in Italy.

E is able to eke out a living with a part-time home-room-monitor job and a couple of private students. He lives at home with his parents, on the top (5th) floor of a building his grandfather bought shortly after the end of the second world war, and divided up among his children. When his aunt dies, he will inherit her apartment on the next floor down. He doesn’t pay anything for room or board, and his mother owns an almost-new car, so even on his meager earnings, he can afford some of the pleasures of his native Florence, including the 50-kilometre drive to visit his girlfriend on weekends. She lives at the family farm, one of several properties her wealthy dentist father owns.

E and Vera have been dating for five years. She is 29 and wants to get married. She feels her biological clock ticking. He says he is not interested in settling down and having children, but running like a current beneath the surface of his protestations is the reality that he is in no position to support a family — that he does not earn enough to contribute a fair share to a household separated from all the free perks which he now enjoys. E’s situation is not unique. Most “serious” men do not marry until around 40, and then they choose much younger women.

To add to his anguish, E happens to be very bright, with a high social conscience and a strong desire to “do something of social value”. This combination, for him, produces a state of near-depressive anxiety and low self-esteem.

For most young men of his class, clothes, cars, discos and a life of shallow values provide and outlet to help them smother the regimentation of their lives (it is not easy to sit on your hands waiting for someone to be forced to retire so you can move up). E, being more socially conscious, spends time sitting around with others who, like himself, are sruggling to find hope of a better future.

Zero population growth has kept Italy from eating its own heart out, and things seem to have stabilized, but E sees little hope of breaking out of his dependence on family. His older brother, who is a bit of a wheeler-dealer, wines and dines doctors and dentists for a pharmaceutical house. E is both jealous of his brother’s wealth and scornful of his socially useless work.

SARA is a Yemeni Jew who grew up in Somalia and has spent time in Israel. Like many of her low caste (Israel is a very segregated and racist country), she finds it easier to relate to Palestinians than to Sabras.

Somalia having been an Italian colony, S, with her fluent Italian, found it natural to attend University in Italy. When she came to Florence to study, about 30 years ago, it was an affordable, quiet and uncrowded place, where tourism, while visible, was not the defining force in the local economy.

About 17 years ago, she met and married an Englishman. Long since returned to his native land, he left her to raise their son Luis, now 15. S has a 4th floor walkup apartment in the old section of Florence, where she has lived for 20 years. If the amount theat rent can be raised each year was not controlled by law, she would have been forced to move years ago. A jumble of rooms on various levels and at odd angles to each other, it is both a haven and a trap: she could never hope to find a place as cheap anywhere else in the city.

S has never worked in “covered” employment, and so at nearly 50, she has no pension to which to look forward. She hasn’t ever worked much, and presently makes a subsistence living providing room and board to foreign students of Italian.

S’s attitude is one of quiet and determined optimism. Yes, things are tough, but they are surviving. The TV is broken and they have not had extra money to get it fixed, but somehow there is money for a new graphics program for Luis’ computer. He is teaching himself to program video games and expects to be a major inventor some day.

S would like to return to Mexico one day (that’s where she met Diana), but the airfare is expensive. Instead, she has been to India and Thailand (cheap, popular package destinations), vacations she has afforded by knowing how to survive on little and saving the rest.

KEMAL is 38 years old, a native of Konya, in the mountains of east Antalya, famous for its Turkish carpets. He has lived in the coastal town of Antalya, in a house that is “in the family”, for about 16 years. In what was probably a stable or a storage room on one of the outer walls, he holds forth as owner and proprietor of Antalya’s foremost foreign language book exchange, “The Owl”. The books are mainly in English and German, with a small section in Russian.

Relatively fair skinned, with balding brown hair and a scabrous beard, K is a big guy, with a measuring gaze and a commanding voice. Sitting among the piles of old newspapers and magazines in a room lined with scrap-lumber shelves on which books repose in unorganized hodgepodge, K is librarian, ringmaster, resident intellectual and Perle Mesta to the steady flow of tourists and would-be residents that follow the directions printed in “Lets Go”, “Lonely Planet” and other guidebooks to find him.

On our first visit, there are two Turks (one a teacher of German), a Russian woman, and Michael from Arizona (with whom we will later dine, and tour some nearby ruins), talking with K and with each other. As soon as we enter, K switches his attention to us. Rapidly he “qualifies” us: who is our favorite auther? Have we been to Bodrum? Did we like it? What is our impression of Antalya? Then more personal: Have I done LSD? Do I like Clinton? Have I read Marx (he is now reading Das Kapital in the original, although he has had knowledge of Marxism for some time)?

Through all the questions and answers, K seems to me distracted, pensive. When I ask him about the “Kurdish Problem”, he gives me a very vague reply, as he does about the Cyprus question. About the coming “Fundamentalis Revolution”, however, he is more forthcoming: the Imams will go to war against the secularist government, and they will lose — but this will do nothing to rid the country of the tight-fisted rule of “the oligarchy”.

K excuses himself and comes back with a bottle of wine and four glasses (by now, only Michael remains with us). At 7 pm, his normal closing time, he asks us to excuse him, but would we come back in two nights for dinner?

K’s house is small but comfortable, and the kitchen and dining room are the most-used public rooms. Dinner is simple — pasta and salad — but there is lots of shrimp in the pasta, and shrimp is pricey. Diana makes the salad dressing, at his request. Michael assists, setting the table removing dishes, fitching this and that. He has obviously been here before. An intellectual and world traveler (he has just arrived from months teaching English in St. Petersburg), Micheal, 24, is clearly impressed with K.

By the time we leave K’s house at around 11 pm, I have had enough of him. I find his unrelenting pessimism at best depressing and at worst boring, although he is otherwise an interesting, well-read and perceptive guy. I also find myself resenting his sexist patronization of Diana (pretty typical for a Turk). This, even though I am not the most optimistic person in the world.

I consider changing my own tune: can I be this boring to be around? No, I decide, I don’t have to. True, I can be a gloom-spreader, but unlike K, I am not gloomy: I laugh and joke and contrive to explore the limits of the language while I do my “screw the human race, people are no damn good” schtick.

Being a curmudgeon can be fun, as long as you don’t take yourself too seriously. No doubt K will lighten up a little by the time he is my age.

KOSTAS appears to be in his late 50s. His energy and good spirits are all Greek and a meter wide. He speaks fluent German, English and Japanese; can hold his own in Spanish, French and Italian, and has worked as a tour guide in the U.S., Japan and Germany. Born in Thrace, near the Turkish border, his family is mostly in Thessaloniki and Alexandropoulos.

A few years ago, he took his not inconsiderable savings and invested them in a scheme to build a few bungalows in a tourist area near Sitia, a port city in western Crete. He was depending on government development funds to help him complete teh project, but a few months ago that money temporarily dried up, so he came to Athens to be near the source. He says that the faucet will be turned on again in April. Meanwhile he finances his down time by “helping” his old friend George in George’s travel business. Whether K owns a piece is not clear.

We had run into George the night before and struck a tentative deal on a tour package to the islands. The next day when we returned to confirm the arrangements, K was there at George’s desk. When George arrived later, papers were signed, money changed hands and Kostas went off with Diana, Dan and Deb (who had joined us in Rodos) to search for an ATM, while I stayed on to do some email on George’s computer.

When they got back an hour later with their money, they regaled me with how K took them on a walking tour of the Plaka district, and of the delightful taverna he had described where we could get “authentic” Greek cooking.

We left to take care of some other things, and in the early afternoon we followed K’s instructions and found the taverna. It has no name, but it is unmistakable when we arrive on the corner of Socrates and Theatre streets. Down a very low-clearance and slippery set of stairs, with wooden tables and chairs, paper tablecloths, and lacking decorations and a bathroom. Small cramped cooking area, no exhaust fan (the smoke goes up the stairway), one chef, one assistant, two waiters (a young woman, very serious, and one young Albanian, very amused), and, at a table at the long inside wall lined with wine barrels, Kostas!

“Oh, yes,” he tells us, “I eat here every day.” So, he tells us, do the workers in the wholesale meat markets across the street, and the functionaries from the financial justice courts down the street, and many prominent politicians including the present and many past presidents, and many other movers and shakers. A very egalitarian watering hole.

The taverna was founded over 50 years ago by an idealist who eschewed family inheritance and instead bequeathed it to whomever was the longest lasting employee at the time of his death, and to be in turn passed on to the most senior at the time of that person’s death, ad infinitum. The present owner, the chef, started working there at the age of 12, more than 40 years ago. Maintaining the style, basic menu, and comparative price range of the founder (also a requirement of inheritance), he has preserved an island of tradition (there are many, but in a city of a few million, not very many) in a sea of neon or art deco eateries that have evolved with modern Athens.

With Kostas joining us, and sharing our food, we ate and drank ourselves into a state of near-catatonic euphoria. Aside from one born in Chicago Greek-American now living in Athens, we were the only non-Greeks we saw in our two hours of eating Greek salad, fried eggplant, vegie soup, lamb pilaf and peasant bread and drinking cold retsina drawn from the barrel and served in copper flagons. K ducked out to the market and returned with fresh halvah and sweet green apples which he peeled and sliced for us until we groaned “stop” in a convincing enough manner.

After we returned from our trip, we revisited the same restaurant, and there was Kostas, who declined our invitation to join us (he was with others) but ducked out and came back with a big piece of feta cheese to grace our table.

Dan and Deb had left when we went back to the office to say goodbye to George and Kostas. We presented them both with papel amante bookmarks from Oaxaca, with our thanks for all they did to make our stay so good. It wasn’t enough, but the sentiment sure was there.