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Communique 10-22-2020 "Opa!"

By Philip Drucker

For those of you who follow my pondering, musings and general ramblings contained within the Communiqués you are already familiar with my lifelong habit of reading books and, from time to time finding and visiting various locations to recreate certain events, experiences and hopefully learn a bit more about what the writer had in mind and I can only assume since they wrote it down, wanted to share with their readers, like me. And then I can pass my new experiences and communicate my findings, if any, to you. Hence the title Communiqué. Plus, I am rather fond of words with accents so it’s all win-win for me, and hopefully, for you too.

One of the books that shaped, or perhaps warped my collegiate years was Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba The Greek. One of the earliest revelations involving my kinship with Zorba happened as I was reading it. What I discovered is that while many of my fellow classmates had seen the I admit incredibly wonderful movie starring Anthony Quinn, and of equal surprise, were very fond of Herb Alpert’s version of the theme song, I couldn’t find anyone who read the book. By extrapolation, it made me wonder if I was the only person who favored reading the book before seeing the cinematic fruits of delight, or not, that followed. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 was another text falling into this category, as was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

One of my earliest theories of and incentives to travel comes from a quote by Kazantzakis.

“Every perfect traveler always creates the country where he travels.”

But of all the books, novels, short stories I admire, Zorba has been somewhat unique in that and although I have never been to the mine in Crete, several lines and life lessons contained in Zorba and various quotes from Kazantzakis have repeatedly “popped up” often in the strangest of times and in the oddest of places. Including one just the other day.

The first time I ran into Zorba was a no-brainer from my college days.

“You have your brush, you have your colors, you paint the paradise, then in you go.” ― Nikos Kazantzakis

At the time, I was studying fine art with an emphasis on oil painting and the idea of painting one’s own paradise then living in it was conceptually very appealing. It got me thinking about most of the paintings of the Impressionists and the paintings of Van Gogh and Gauguin and how wonderful it would be to live through one’s own paintings in a world filled with Monet’s water lilies, Degas’ ballerinas, Gauguin’s Tahiti and beneath one of Van Gogh’s starry, starry nights.

A few years later while traveling throughout Europe, I found myself in the middle of winter stuck in of all places Prague, in what was still Czechoslovakia. It was snowing heavily when I decided to venture out into the city center and look around for an open café or at least somewhere I could get a cup of coffee and a pastry, anything cream-filled would do. What I encountered was several street vendors selling different kinds of I imagine popular local favorites, most of which were for some reason drenched in mayonnaise. The one that caught my eye was an elderly gentleman all bundled up in dark, winter clothing to the point where all I could see were his brown eyes and bushy eyebrows peering out from between his knitted cap and scarf.

He was standing over what looked to be an old 42 gallon oil can that was billowing out smoke. Moving closer, I discovered the oil can had been converted into a makeshift charcoal BBQ smoker grill and what appeared to be chestnuts still in their shells roasting on an open fire.

Not speaking the language, I pointed at his nuts (don’t go there) and gave the universal symbol of rubbing (don’t go there) two of my fingers against my thumb, “How much?” He rattled off some numbers (I guess) in Czech before I reached into my pocket (really?) and pulling out…a handful of coins, “asked” him to pick out as many as necessary to complete the sale. He proceeded to remove a couple of coins from my hand and then proceed to scoop up a handful or two of what appeared to be very hot nuts into a newspaper cone for consumption.

I know this may seem a bit unusual, but I had never had chestnuts in their shells before and so mindful of the heat, I began to separate the seed from the shell, and after waiting a bit for it to cool off, placed it in my mouth (you are so bad) and was immediately transported to a world of unspeakable bliss. While still basking in my new world of culinary discovery, I began to think of, you guessed it, Zorba.

“I felt once more how simple and frugal a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. Nothing else.” ― Nikos Kazantzakis

I thanked the part-time dream maker, and full time roast master, who was my only witness to this monumental event, and as I walked away he waved back at me and could swear his eyes were smiling. I began to wonder what it was he saw, what I looked like as I ate the chestnut/peyote/lotus flower of infinite, edible wisdom. Can’t say I know, but I do know this, I was, and there is no better word for it, happy.

Several years later, I was flying home across country on a plane from Pennsylvania to California. As I sat in my window seat, I remember thinking about how poorly my life was going at the time. Nothing major mind you, I had a good job, a livable apartment and very little else to look forward to. As I watched the other passengers get on the plane the seat next to me remained open. As I continued to watch the herd find their seats, each time someone would walk by me I began to think, pray, call it what you will, that maybe, just maybe I was not going to have to sit next to anyone.

The plane continued to fill up and still, no one was in the aisle seat. I looked over at one of the stewards slowly making his way toward the cabin door and…suddenly I and everybody else on board heard someone yelling “Wait! Wait!” Lo and behold through the door at the very last possible minute burst a tangle of long flowing blond hair attached to an attractive to say the least young kind of artsy looking femme fatale (at least for me) holding several open shopping bags who happened to be right about my age.

I readily admit I started to think “Sit here! Sit here! And then, she did. I still remember she was wearing a floral sun dress that I though was kind of odd considering it was fall. I soon realized the bags were not her “carry-ons” they were her luggage and she hadn’t checked in any baggage, at least none that I could see, at all. I also readily admit she said hello first.

It was a somewhat long trip with a stopover in St. Louis. As we began talking, mostly about art, it was becoming obvious to both of us that we were both basically normal, not completely unhappy travelers who basically wanted to kill ourselves every other day because we had nothing to look forward to. We both confessed to when it came to life, “Is that all there is?” Was by far the best descriptor. Two suicidal art students on a plane. What could possibly go wrong?

The funny part, the part I got wrong was it never occurred to me she wasn’t going all the way through to Los Angeles and when we got the 20 minutes till landing, back in your seat with your seatbelt securely fastened on warning, she told me she was from and returning to St. Louis. While I of course, was flying through to LA. Or was I?

As the plane began its descent, Art Girl turned to me, took my hands in her hands and said, “Get off the plane with me in St. Louis.” It was mad, crazy, impetuous, uninhibited and, impossible. But it wasn’t out of the question and so I had to think about it. And just like that, like unwanted keep out of my business would you it’s my life counsel from an old friend, came to me the words and yes, if I may be so bold, the very essence of what it must have been like to be Zorba The Greek.

“If a woman sleeps alone it puts a shame on all men. God has a very big heart, but there is one sin He will not forgive. If a woman calls a man to her bed and he will not go.” ― Nikos Kazantzakis

But I didn’t. As she walked out the door she turned and looked back at me as if to say it was not too late. But it was and all I can remember thinking at the time was forgive me Lord, for I have sinned. It was one of the few times I did not buy the ticket, or take the ride (you know what I mean). Alas, even the Hunter S. Thompson god was against me.

Regrets? Oh, I’ve had a few, or is that Frank Sinatra? Me? I am a man of few regrets, if any. Is this regret? I still think about it from time to time. But, if I am honest with myself and you, and if you haven’t figured it out by now, OK, I’ll admit it. I don’t remember her name. Damn you Zorba.

It’s been a long time now since I’ve thought about Zorba, until the other day, that is. I was having a particularly blue day, one where I was in the hospital for half a day getting poked and prodded and drained of blood by the vampire nurses surrounding me (I don’t mean this, they are all angels) followed by an incredibly purplish early afternoon dealing with issues that after a morning in the hospital fighting cancer seemed unbelievably small, petty, unimportant, and frankly evidence of a sick society bent on doing everything it can to indulge our worst tendencies dead ending in nothing short of a manufactured mass neurosis that owning “things’ can actually make us happy (it can’t).

Then, almost as if I were in a rave house dance trance, without the drugs, which would have been useful, I walked outside into the backyard. The one with the three palm trees behind the house I live in with my wife and soul mate and two dogs who drive me to the point of distraction on a nearly daily basis which I love them for. I began doing all the little things one does in their backyard. Clean up after the mutts, trim the trees, water the aloe plants, change the air-conditioning filters, moving around decorative gnomes and Buddha, burying a few left-over bodies, you know, basic look at me I’m the jolly green giant and sometimes reliable handyman all in one stuff.

Then, while digging through some dirt I found what looked like a green stone. It reminded me not of a quote, but a passage near the end of the book where Zorba sends his former boss/friend/stuffed shirt intellectual Basil now living in the bleak, cold environment of Berlin, a telegram asking him to join him in Serbia as he had “FOUND MOST BEAUTIFUL GREEN STONE. COME IMMEDIATELY. ZORBA.”

I was never quite clear about why Zorba was so enamored with a plain, although green, rock. Then it hit me. The rock made him happy. Then I looked around, and began to think, I have a house with three palm trees where I live with my wife, my soulmate, and two corgis that drive me to distraction on a near daily basis and that is only one of the parts of why I love them.

Then I realized the little green rock in my hand wasn’t a rock at all and was probably a piece of a broken colored flood light. But it didn’t matter, because at that moment, I was happy and so as I ran into the house to share my green piece of glass with my wife, the telegram, Zorba’s enthusiasm, his happiness and his desire to share his happiness, all made perfect, perfect sense. Thank you, little beautiful green piece of glass rock. Thank you.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Rz5Z5t4B7g

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