The Americano

Short Story by Willard Manus

They had come to Kastellorizo for three days but had found the life there to be such a carnival that they had stayed put for a month, living in one room of a pension whose only toilet was down the hall. The pension, which was owned by a Greek family newly returned from Australia, was located just off the waterfront near a cluster of once-grand houses that were now little better than stacks of rubble. That’s where he took his morning coffee, sitting amid the ruins, shaded by a blighted pine tree.
On his first day on the island, he had been joined by his landlord, Savvas, a heavyset man who spoke English with a grating Australian accent.
“Where are you from?” Savvas asked as he sipped his coffee. When the answer came he made a face and sniffed, “American, huh? How about that? We don’t get many Americans here.” Then, quickly, “What brings you to Kastellorizo?”
“I’m a writer looking for a quiet place to work.”
“And just what is it that you are working on?”
“A novel.”
“That means you are writing lies, isn’t that so, my friend?”
“That’s correct. I am writing one lie after another, but in search of the truth.”
“The truth?”
“Yes. The truth.”
“And do you think you’ll ever find it?”
“I won’t know until I finish the book.”
Savvas fell silent. The two of them sipped their coffee and eyed each other warily. Then came another question. “So tell me, Americano. Your president, with his war in Viet Nam and all, what does he want? Ti theli O Johnson?”

The Americano was not surprised by the question, having learned on arrival in Greece a year earlier that its natives were obsessed with politics. Especially American politics. So he gave Savvas a ready-made answer, one designed to provoke. “Theli na fai o cosmos.”
He wants to eat the world.
* * *
After that, the Americano became a conspicuous figure on the island, a symbol of American might and power. The inhabitants, who numbered just above two hundred, called out his name wherever he went, sometimes adding under their breath: “He’s writing a book, a book in praise of President Johnson and his bloody war.”
The Americano tried hard to keep his cool. He stuck to his routine, rising early for his coffee, then returning to the pension to work on his novel, sitting in an ancient, cracked-leather chair with a wooden slat for a desk. Then, after having done his four pages, he joined his Scottish wife downstairs and they walked through the village together, going up the hillside and heading toward a secluded cove where they could swim and laze in the nude. An hour later, they retraced their steps and returned to the village where they bought bread, feta, olives and yogurt for their lunch.
The next few hours were spent indoors to escape the excoriating heat and the swarms of flies that came with it. They slept if they could but mostly re-read the handful of paperbacks they had brought with them on the ferry-boat from Rhodes. No new books could be found on Kastellorizo; nor were there any English-language newspapers or magazines.

Later, when the sun took an oblique, less intense angle, they ventured out again and walked to the Megisti Hotel, which sat at the far corner of town, overlooking the long, wide harbor which once upon a time had served as a fueling station for French and Italian seaplanes. Years before that, in the age of canvas, the harbor had been crammed with schooners that transported goods between the Greek islands and Turkey, whose coastline sat just a mile away. It was the owners of those schooners who had built Kastellorizo’s stately houses: three-story-high stone buildings with red tile roofs and wooden balconies. Unfortunately, most of those buildings had fallen victim to earthquakes and WW II bombings; with their homes destroyed, most “Kazzies” had abandoned the island and emigrated to places like Athens, Germany and Australia.
The Hotel Megisti was where the handful of foreigners on the island congregated every late afternoon, to swim, sunbathe and gossip. Most of them were either Australian or British, with the odd German or Italian to add a little spice. Large amounts of wine, ouzo and beer were drunk on the stone jetty that fronted the hotel.
When the sun went down, it was time to think of food. Because the Americano and his wife did not have access to a kitchen, they were obliged to eat out every night, in one or another of the village’s half dozen tavernas. Most of these were located on the waterfront and catered to the charter boats from Israel, Cyprus and Lebanon that arrived and dropped anchor for a night or two. When these “yachties” came ashore they were greeted with a large sign reading: “Welcome to Europe.”

To avoid the high prices of these tourist traps, the Americano and his wife hiked up into the nearby hillside where there was a koutouki -–a rural cafe–-whose owner, a woman named Roula, cooked a few savory dishes every night, one of which was their favorite-- revythika keftedes, chickpea patties.
Roula’s husband Stergos owned a village grocery but helped out in the cafe at night. Each time the Americano and his wife showed up, Stergos sat down beside them, poured a little retsina from a beaker and asked, in Greek, “So what’s the news from Washington? What was your president up to today?”
Stergos knew full well that the Americano did not have a radio or tv in his room, but that didn’t keep him from interrogating him. He simply assumed that this representative from the richest, strongest nation on earth must be privy to inside information.
The Americano’s answer came swiftly and bluntly. “He sent another ten thousand young men to fight in Viet Nam.”
“Why would he do something like that?” Stergos asked. “Doesn’t he know that he is fighting against andartes–-guerillas–-and that this is a war he cannot win?”
“He doesn’t agree with you. He insists that America will triumph in this war.”
“He must be a very foolish man. How could he make such a terrible mistake?”
“He sincerely believes in his cause.”
“What a malaka!” Stergos cried. “Think of what he could do with all the money he is burning up in Viet Nam. He could be helping Greece with it. He could help us here on the island to rebuild our houses. We could make our village beautiful again and that would bring the tourists in large numbers, make us all rich.”

“I’m sorry,” the Americano said. “But President Lyndon Baines Johnson does not care a rat’s ass about Kastellorizo.”
“And you, my friend, do you also feel the same way?”
“I like Kastellorizo. But my feelings about the island count for nothing in Washington.”
“America should help us,” Stergos persisted. “Look how hard we fought against Mussolini and Hitler during world war two.”
“But America did help Greece after the war. What about the Marshall Plan and all that?”
“America gave us food, but then it betrayed us by putting the King back in power, after we had fought a civil war to get rid of that bastard.”
It went on like that. The Americano had heard it many times before and now he was hearing it again. America was responsible for all of Greece’s problems. It had shoved the King and his German wife down the throats of the people. It kept favoring Turkey over Greece. And now it was fighting a tragic war in Asia instead of helping to restore Kastellorizo to its days of glory.
It would have been pointless for The Americano to argue with Stergos. His role on the island as apologist for LBJ’s foreign policy was not negotiable. He was obliged, even though it went against what he truly believed, to play the part they had assigned him.

The act got to him at times, dragged his spirits down. But on the whole he took a perverse pleasure in playing the devil’s advocate, challenging the mentality of these people, especially when it came to the USA. Someone had to jolt them out of their misconceptions, their annoying need to blame LBJ for all of Greece’s problems.
The Americano made sure, though, never to lose his temper, become shrill or rude. There was no point in riling these villagers up, or in judging them too harshly. Their island was poor, it was way off the tourist track, an isolated Aegean flyspeck that had suffered grievously during WW II. Life here was so difficult that the Greek government actually paid the inhabitants a stipend to remain on Kastellorizo, keep it from falling into Turkish hands.
So the Americano avoided getting into a slugging match with Stergos, was content to just land a few light jabs while defending the hated LBJ. Stergos also pulled his punches, knowing full well that he and the Americano were just messing with each other, pretending to be antagonists.
Eventually, though, Stergos and the other villagers turned to more urgent matters, almost all of which had to do with property rights. Every time the ferry-boat from Rhodes arrived, several “Kazzies” disembarked, returning to the island after long sojourns abroad. Some of them found their family houses in ruins; others found them intact but occupied by squatters. Squatters who refused to vacate the premises.
It made for a series of legal squabbles, all of which were fought out nightly between the two clans that controlled the island. Each of these clans was headed by a woman, it turned out. Tough, burly and foul-mouthed, these matriarchs liked nothing better than to face off against each other on the waterfront.

There, in the center of town, with the entire village looking on from their tables, the two female behemoths stood nose to nose, shouting at the top of their lungs.
“Look who’s here, the bitch who tried to steal my aunt Frosene’s house!”
“What are you talking about, you whore, you and your husband stole it from my father when he went to Australia thirty years ago!”
“Liar! I ought to bash your teeth in!”
“Do that and I’ll pull out every hair in your smelly cunt!”
It was like a demented Punch and Judy show, and the Americano and his wife wouldn’t have missed it for anything. It was the main reason they had decided to extend their stay on Kastellorizo; every night brought a new confrontation between these two hulking Amazons. With entertainment like this, who needed a tv or radio.
* * *
It also helped that they had begun to make a few friends on the island, notably Panayotis, a hermit (and ikon-painter) who lived in a hillside cave; Stratis, an Athenian lawyer who was spending the summer rebuilding his family house; and Eleftheris (“Leffie”), who was visiting from Australia and taking care of his ailing aunt Eleni.
Leffie had grown up on Kastellorizo and was nine years old when the war broke out. The Italians who had occupied the island in 1940 were bombed sporadically by the Allies. When Italy capitulated in 1943, British commandos took over the island and became a target for the German air force. The Brits quickly departed, leaving the island unguarded and defenseless.

“That’s when we villagers decided to abandon Kastellorizo,” Leffie said. “We all boarded a Greek freighter and set out for Cyprus, only to be attacked from the air by Nazi dive-bombers.
“Our ship was hit and began to sink,” Leffie continued over dinner at his aunt’s house. “There were no life boats, only a few cork jackets. It was decided that they should be given to the children, the next generation. My parents strapped me in and, after a last kiss and prayer, tossed me over the side. I never saw them again.”
Picked up hours later by a Greek fisherman, the traumatized Leffie was put into an orphanage until the end of the war, at which time relatives claimed him and took him to Australia.
“Specifically, the city of Perth, where a first wave of Kastellorizans had emigrated early in the 20th century,” Leffie
explained. “There must be twenty thousand Kazzies there. We have our own newspaper, churches, schools and shops. We call Perth ‘Little Kastellorizo.’”
Then came a sudden knock at the door; when Leffie opened it he was confronted by someone in a wet suit. Drenched with sea water, trembling with cold, the young man looked stunned, frightened and exhausted, near death, really.
Later, after Leffie had fed and clothed him, the visitor told us his story, in a mixture of broken English and Greek. He was Kurdish, fleeing poverty and oppression in Turkey. Desperately, recklessly, he had swum the mile between the Turkish coast and Kastellorizo, sloshing through an icy, hard-running sea, fighting waves, jelly-fish and fatigue for hour upon hour.

* * *
The next morning, the Americano escorted the Kurd to the police station (Leffie being unable to leave his aunt’s side). On the way there, the Kurd kept looking sideways at his escort. Finally, he broke down and asked after his nationality.
“No, not French.”
“No, not English.”
“No, not Greek.”
“What then?”
“Ah,” the Kurd cried, his eyes lighting up. “American! Good! Good!”
For the first time in a month, the Americano broke out into a smile, a big, face-cracking smile of pride.