This wasn’t a pair of women’s shoes with perfectly formed heels dug out from the back of a wardrobe. Or a box containing letters from the war written lovingly to an eleven-year-old boy.
Discoveries like that are very common in old-folk’s homes these days. The staff members don’t mention them because no one’s interested in the lives of the elderly. The only thing the employees are looking for as they rifle through the possessions the dead leave behind is dollars.
When their decrepitude reaches its peak, when their pants are permanently stained with urine and every breath is a feat of ingenuity, old people always hide their dollars.
Fifteen minutes after letting me know that he had died, the home’s administrator called again, this time in a more urgent tone of voice. “Someone has got to get the trunk out of the room as soon as possible.”
His private stash of memories.
When we got to the home two guys with stocky arms were pushing the trunk out of the door.
It took some effort to get them to leave it where it was. “Take it. We don’t want any trouble.”
These days, when someone dies, we expect to find them magically transported to their rest under a cedar tree in a well-manicured cemetery somewhere. No one ever mentions the bureaucracy involved – the need to identify the body and make arrangements for its transport, not to mention the coffin and shroud. No one ever mentions the cost of the burial and the undertakers.
My trouble was that I still had to get the death certificate and pick the body up from the morgue, so it didn’t occur to me to ask what they meant by trouble. Everything an old man leaves behind after their death is trouble. Old men’s junk is trouble.
At that precise moment my only real problem was that my mother was too upset.
She’d stopped visiting him when the disease became terminal.
Of course, he was still the most important man in her life.
The humble glassblower had arrived from Kasos in 1946. With nothing more than the clothes on his back. A remote island in the Dodecanese, after the war not even the Greeks cared about Kasos.
I didn’t have much to say. My grandfather’s bond with me had faded in the same way it had with everyone else. I took care of the exorbitant cost of his well-appointed old-folk’s home and all his surgery for almost a decade. It was a financial burden that my secretary took care of capably on a monthly basis. And it was much more than the rest of the family was prepared to do for him.
I took the trunk home in a taxi and left it there.
We cremated my grandfather the following day.
At one point the priest asked if we wanted to send him off with a few words. Mum dried her eyes and started out on the heroic memories. The Axis Powers had declared war on the world when her father was a young craftsman in Kasos. The Dodecanese were under Italian occupation, so my grandfather became part of Benito Mussolini’s Regia Marina. Like every Greek, he knew his local waters better than any foreigner.
It didn’t take them long to make him captain of an Argonaut-class submarine.
“But he wasn’t suited for war and became a spy for the Ellinikos Laikos Apeleftherotikos Stratos, the Greek resistance,” Mum said.
The personal diary of an immigrant’s odyssey.
“Does he have any relatives left on the island?” the priest asked. “Why not go to Kasos?”
It seemed the priest had felt himself to be very useful during the cremation, so we never told him that my grandfather was actually Greek Orthodox not Catholic. The suggested trip, however, was left up in the air.
Mum spoke perfect Greek. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was the idea of letting her travel alone to a place where she had never been but that would be full of the memories that her father had shared with her throughout his lifetime.
She needed an excuse.
One day my mother convinced herself that she needed to scatter her father’s ashes in the Aegean. That was all she needed.
No one would go untreated in her surgery if she postponed the plastic-surgery procedures until the following month. She bought two tickets from Lufthansa and asked me to come with her.
I arranged my affairs in Buenos Aires and told her that I would.
We flew to Athens. Eleven thousand kilometres with an urn in our hands; six hundred more to the island of Kasos.
We took a room on the beaches of Emporeios and went on a short walk. Mum insisted on starting to take photographs from the moment we left the suitcases in the lobby.
As usual they were skewed and out of focus. We had only my camera, and I couldn’t understand how someone could get such bad results from professional equipment.
But I didn’t want to argue about petty things like that, of course I didn’t. We were there for other reasons. Even so, after almost eight hours in Kasos she still insisted on photographing everything we came across. And she was doing it wrong. The framing, the light, the contrast.
A nightmare for any Department of Photography and Digital Enhancement.
Maybe because it was my first time in the Mediterranean I was only able to take things in properly a little later, once we’d got back to the hotel. Everything was different shades of blue and bathed in the fresh, warm breezes of the Cyclades. Until Mum spelled out Grandpa’s surname.
Up until that precise moment the owner of the hotel had limited himself to the role of host. He’d asked where we came from, what we were planning on doing and how long we were going to stay. The same questions that any hotel owner on a remote island in the Aegean asks.
I was pretty sure that the shouting match going on between my mother and the owner wasn’t about our breakfast or the cost of the taxi to Kasos airport in a week’s time. (Another problem. There are hardly any taxis on the island, and the few that do exist you have to share.)
I don’t know much Greek, but I know that skatá means shit.
“This moron is confusing your grandfather with someone else,” Mum said. “I think that talking all day with Norwegian tourists has ruined his Greek.”
Maybe I should have waited for Mum to smoke a cigarette by the sea, deciding which hill would be the best spot from which to scatter Grandpa’s ashes. Or for the hotel owner to calm down so I could ask in English what had happened.
The next morning we went to the Civil Records Office. It was barely visible in the shade of a small Platanus orientalis, of which Mum took a photograph from too far away.
Kasos has no official birth rate because hardly anyone lives on Kasos.
The last marriage was recorded in 1982.
If you go to Kasos you’ll soon become familiar with the concept of an island converted into a tourism machine operated by a small group of specialists. When the summer is over these specialists go back to the mainland until the next season.
The real residents of Kasos are a handful of old people and another handful of workers. Picture-postcard characters whose purpose is to provide local colour.
I’d like to have a good image of the workers, but none of the pictures, taken with the camera that Mum insisted on monopolizing, was in proper focus.
The employee at the municipal office was one of the few young women on the island. In the afternoons she ran the airport and on weekends she was a tour guide.
Mum spelled out our surname and asked if any relatives still lived there. The employee looked at us for a few seconds and said that there was a hotel on the other side of the island with that name. “You should ask there,” she suggested in English. Then she looked at Mum and said – in Greek – that she’d give her until the next day to look through the records.
In July 1942 Grandpa’s Argonaut-class submarine was ceded to the Greek navy as a spoil of war: 599 tons powered by a diesel engine with a top speed of nine knots under water; a four-inch cannon; two thirteen-millimetre anti-aircraft guns; six torpedoes.
Thanks to my grandfather’s bravery it was immediately placed at the service of the Greek resistance in their desperate struggle against the invaders.
The epic story.
When the war was over Kasos was devastated. Throughout history it had been ravaged by the Turks, the Egyptians, the Albanians and the British. But the Germans and their blitzkrieg had left nothing standing.
Then came the moment when the rebel captain of the Argonaut-class submarine renounced the glory that was his due, picked up his glassblowing tools and left for South America.
This was the family version of the story.
Mum told it to the waiter who served us keftedes with tzatziki and lit another cigarette. “He met my mother and opened one of the best glassblowing workshops in Buenos Aires,” she said. I wanted to take a photograph of the kataifi, but Mum insisted on doing it herself. The flash bounced back off the plate, ruining every interesting detail.
We finished lunch and went to the hotel on the other side of the island that bore our name. The owner was from Rhodes. He’d chosen the name at random. “I know people with that surname on many islands,” he said, fiddling with his komboloi.
The transparent waves in the blue sea. The subtle scent of the olive trees. The dry heat of the Mediterranean. It was all a postcard – an out-of-focus postcard, but still a postcard – except for this guy’s palpable anxiety. “Kosta is this island’s historian,” he said. Then he pointed out a man drinking coffee on a small, sky-blue terrace by the sea. But, of course, everywhere on Kasos is by the sea. “If anyone can help you, it’s him.”
My grandfather had grown up learning Italian, but he had no trouble with German. Speaking the invaders’ languages had been an advantage; he heard about everything before everyone else and understood it better. That was how a young glassblower found himself pressed into perfecting his seamanship and quickly rose to become the captain of an Argonaut-class submarine.
The genealogical myth of courage.
Kosta left his frappé coffee on the table and asked us – in Greek and English – to accompany him to a small office in front of the hotel. “My modest personal museum,” he said, opening the door.
The windows were covered in paper.
He flipped the switch of the fluorescent lights, and they flickered on to illuminate the room and the Deutschland Erwache, Nationalsozialistische and Hitlerjugend flags that covered the walls. “Over the last sixty years I’ve gathered all this from across the island,” he said proudly.
In the middle of the room were three glass display cases containing medals, helmets, lighters, coins, ammunition, canteens and binoculars. Some of them were rusty; others would have been worthy of the Imperial War Museum in London. I have another of the photographs that Mum took in which, despite the very poor framing, one can clearly see the Wehrmacht officers’ daggers, which were set apart from those belonging to the Waffen SS and the Luftwaffe.
Kosta went over to the final case.
It contained a Luger P-08. Eight cartridges. A perfectly preserved 102-millimetre, six-fluted barrel. “The Reihenfeuerpistolen of the German army,” Kosta said in Greek. He looked at the weapon and said to me in English, “Any resemblance to the US Army Luger is no coincidence.” Next to it was a Browning FN 1922. “The Luftwaffe officers’ favourite.” He slowly took it out of the case and pointed to a small insignia etched next to the trigger: a black eagle over a swastika. “The Waffenamt of the German inspectors,” he said. “The mark of official approval before they were sent to the Wehrmacht.”
Kosta asked Mum to say the surname one more time.
Weighed down by a few rusty bullets was an envelope containing some photographs. “The rocket launcher this man is holding is called a Panzerschrek. The bane of allied armour units.”
Kosta put his index finger over the blurred silhouette of a soldier in Italian uniform. “These photographs were taken in Kasos between 1939 and 1943,” he said in English.
Then he began to speak in Greek, so I knew that he wanted to speak solely to Mum.
My advantage is that when I’m not travelling the world scattering my relatives’ ashes I work as a publicist, so I have a well-developed talent for deception.
“This young man is wearing the Treue Dienste in der Wehrmacht, the medal the Reich gave for loyal service in the armed forces,” said Kosta in English, shifting his index finger to this photograph.
Publicity offers certain professional advantages.
The main one being that one quickly learns to detect the meaning of what is said but also, more importantly, what is left unsaid.
“This man began by exposing Greek insurgents in Kasos.”
One of the things that you learn very quickly is that behind the luxury brand that models kick and pull out each other’s hair over before a runway show there’s always a clandestine workshop where undocumented workers slave away for eighteen hours a day. My job is to make sure that nobody thinks of that when standing in front of the mirror in the changing-rooms before making a purchase.
“Then he was transferred by the Germans to the Kriegsmarine.”
Once of my most recent accounts is the latest sex bomb.
She has shared a bed with all the leaders of Mercosur, but only because she listened to me when I suggested a gluteoplasty with implants. After three weeks of Lycra girdle compression she had the most famous natural behind in Buenos Aires. This is just by way of showing that one is ready to see that nothing is precisely how people say it is.
For example, when they tell you that the Italian Argonaut-class submarine that your grandfather captained was never given to the Greek resistance as a spoil of war but had been assigned to torpedo the Athenian merchant navy into extinction.
“When the war ended this man disappeared from Greece so he wouldn’t be shot as a traitor.”
Everything can be retouched.
“This man,” Kosta said.
Mum refused to look at the photographs. “My father was a glassblower,” she said in Greek. “You’re confused.”
Bringing the flight from Kasos to Athens forward to the next day wasn’t easy. Only a little more difficult than bringing forward the flight from Athens to Buenos Aires.
I had to wait until Mum went out to smoke another cigarette by the sea – the blue, warm, transparent sea – to make the final phone call to Buenos Aires.
I spoke to one of my assistants and asked him to go urgently to my apartment. That’s the only advantage of having one of those signs bearing the word Executive on the door of my office. There’s always some novice ready to do for free what a client would have to pay for.
From 11,600 kilometres away my assistant called me back fifteen minutes later. The tone of his voice was what in the world of publicity is generally described as horrified.
Now I think that it might be a genetic trait.
A certain predisposition for disturbing people.
“Is all this stuff real?”
That doesn’t detract from the fact that one needs to hear certain lies to rest easy. And by lies I mean things that have nothing to do with the actual facts of the matter.
Panting, my assistant started to share his memories from school.
“Once they made us study Adolf Hitler’s family tree to show us that he had a Jewish ancestor,” he said.
I could hear him opening my grandfather’s trunk.
His private collection commemorating the achievements of his youth.
Having said that, one should never doubt the power of Google to shed some light on the contents of a trunk belonging to a recently deceased humble Greek artisan.
“I’ve never seen a Deutsches Kreuz medal before in my life – a German Cross like the one Erich Hartmann had.” I didn’t need to ask who Erich Hartmann was. “The Black Devil of the Ukraine,” he said, “one of the most famous Luftwaffe aces.”
I could hear the trunk tilting and emptying its contents onto my living-room floor. I could hear fragments of glass breaking against the parquetry on the other side of the world. The dry crunch of his relics – which did not include a single dollar.
“We also learned that the Trojan walls fell because a mortal had infiltrated himself among the gods during their construction. Do you see what I’m saying?” my assistant said.
I understood, but I wasn’t interested.
I told him that in Spanish.
In publicity we call it adaptation. Adjusting the original to the format that the medium requires. In other words, converting the existing facts into something that lives up to other people’s desires.
“I never would have believed it,” said my assistant.
He’d heard about gold teeth being taken from millions of jaws at Dachau and Treblinka but never an anthropodermic binding.
I thought later that if it came to it I’d have to talk to my mother about another publicity term. Attitude. An individual’s reaction to a determined stimulus.
“Sandals made from prisoners’ hair.” He paused until Google had finished its search. “Silent footwear to avoid detection by sonar.”
The spoils of heroism.
“What I don’t get are these photographs,” I heard my assistant say next. He said it with the reverential fear of a trespasser. I walked around the room, trying to keep the signal. “This is the same man as in the others but in colour and he’s much older.”
I went over to the window and saw my mother, still smoking her cigarette.
“You can see some buildings through a window. It’s Buenos Aires. A kind of…”
She was walking up and down the shore.
“A fancy-dress party?” I heard my assistant say in a pathetic, apologetic voice. “Still, it’s a shock to see military uniforms with swastikas in colour, even if they are completely out of focus.”
Mum had left her shoes on a chair and was walking into the sea.
The water was rising higher and higher.
“A few of the photographs are dated by hand on the back,” he said. “1972.”
He told me that he hadn’t been born by that time. Nor me, I thought. I hadn’t been born then either, I told him.
The trouble is that after a few years in the profession one develops a tough shell of cynicism.
“They’re very poorly taken,” he said.
An almost subconscious talent for denial.
“Out of focus,” I heard my assistant say. “Horribly framed.”
I looked out of the window again. Mum was walking back to the hotel.