I’ve just returned from a trip to London which predictably enough began and ended, like an embrace of parentheses, with my friend Jörg, a Princeton-educated German man living and working in London. I say, predictably, because I will always associate the city with him. Even if I’m there on a business trip, which was the case this time, he unfailingly manages to punctuate my trip with surprise, delight and memorable experiences, taking me on walks to neighborhoods of London I’ve not yet explored, plays I might not have not ventured to see on my own, quirky concert venues and six-table hideaway restaurants.
The trip, at least psychologically, began days before I departed, as I shopped for gifts for a birthday he had celebrated weeks before. I bought him a copy of Giorgos Seferis’s Journal of the Levant (he’s an architect and development consultant who spends half his time in places like Oman, Morocco and Cyprus) and a jar of pickled caper leaves, which he had tasted during our summer on Patmos. I thought he could use them as a garnish for a dirty martini. He’s a wizard at cocktails, and each of our summer trips have been marked like the score of film by a particular cocktail that he would prepare in the later afternoon—one summer it was Pimm’s Cup (he had brought the ingredients with him from London), another, Negronis. One of the many things I like about him is his talent for infusing the quotidian with celebratory ritual, The third gift, a cookbook of recipes from various hip hotels around the world, expressed the conceit of the flying nester, which I think Jörg embodies more than anyone else I’ve met, a cosmopolitan traveler with a sense (and appreciation) of home. Somewhere I had read that there are two kinds of gay men: nesters on the one hand, the hearth-builders in whose kitchens one can find 24 matching wine glasses, and the fliers, for whom home is basically a refueling base for adventures afield. Jörg, however, manages to embody both type.
I don’t think he’ll read much of the Seferis, but I imagine he’ll appreciate my motive in buying it for him. But I’m sure I’ll taste the martinis sometime soon; he’s turned me onto an exquisite gin—Hendrick’s for those interested (its web site claims it’s “an iconoclastically produced small batch gin distilled in Ayrshire, Scotland”)—that he swears makes a vastly superior martini. Though this may have more to do with his being love with Jonathan, a Scotsman, an adorable man I met during this trip. Of course I was envious.
My beautiful and smart poet friend Adrianna, who like me is an American who has spent half her life in Greece, talks about the gifts we give to friends and family abroad as exilic gestures, an attempt to connect or reconcile two disparate worlds. This is much on her mind these days, as her daughter has left Athens for college in New York. I don’t know if she means that she or her daughter is in exile. I suppose I’ll need to wait until I read the essay she says she’ll write about this.
I packed and unpacked the caper leave jar a number of times, struggling with my foolish paranoia that the jar would break and soak my underwear with the pungent brine. In the end I packed it, only to discover later that what I thought was a rare small-producer Greek delicacy could be found on the shelves of Sainsbury’s. Globalization has given a new twist to the notion of exilic gestures I suppose.
Seriously though, exile is such a strong word. One of those super-compressed black holes of words that are so heavily, so densely fraught with meaning that one can understand them only when they explode and expand and take shape in the countless stories of loss, disassociation, uprooting and separation which they are made up of. I don’t feel as if I’m in exile. Admittedly, I don’t entirely feel at home in Athens either, but perhaps that would be true anywhere. There are moments, though, where I feel my foreignness acutely. I miss many of the references to the characters and lines from old Greek movies that many of my friends pepper their conversations with—shorthand notation that speaks volumes. But that’s something I could remedy if I really wanted to—this curatorial research is what DVDs are for. The feeling of exile only really creeps in, surreptitiously, like a sudden cold draft, when Greeks sing. I think melody, like food, must be imprinted into memory and intertwined with feeling from a very early age. Just like my mother’s meatballs or the spinach pies that Greek mothers pack in Tupperware and send via the regional bus network to their sons and daughters studying in the provinces and that taste better than anyone else’s, precisely because taste is braided in a synaesthesia of memory together with feelings of unconditional love. So, too, song. And Greeks, like the Irish, are a people of song (and stories!). The longer a party goes one, the more likely that at some point progressive house will give way to Greek songs, those on the current pop chart but also the songs their parents sang. I doubt if anyone not born and raised in Greece truly feels these songs; one remains in the best of cases an anthropologist or collector, deprived of the near visceral associations Greeks have with this music, the memory of a first kiss stolen at a wedding with the sound of an island folk song in the background, or sitting on one’s father’s lap at a taverna, the center of attention as the guests at table softly sing the refrain of a ballad, or the recollection of one’s mother ironing in the kitchen and humming the melody of yet another song.
Gifts are always a gloss on the relationship between the giver and recipient, a note in the margin that says, “this is what I think of us”. A gift is not just for someone, it’s also about us. It commemorates our connection, even if it’s not much of a connection at all—a gift of flowers to a host of a dinner party or a corporate Christmas wine basket, which is why a scarf for your host or an hour’s massage for your assistant is an inappropriate gift in these occasions: they are incongruent with the relationship they mark. The gift may say I am your mentor or benefactor—the gift of a wealthy man to his younger mistress. And then there are gifts that are occasions to celebrate the other, as was the case with Jörg’s presents. I was glad I had this occasion to give him a gift. Gifts, as Mauss stated, create an obligation between the giver and recipient, but it didn’t feel that way with Jörg. It was as if the occasion of his birthday was his gift to me: the chance to celebrate him. As Montaigne says in his essay On Friendship, “the one who furnishes the means and the occasion is in fact the more generous, since he gives his friend the joy of performing for him what he most desires.”
A gift says where we are now but sometimes also where I might want us to be. It expresses intent and aims at precipitating an action: like me, love me, forgive me, fuck me. “Youth is bought more oft than begged or borrowed,” as Olivia notes in Twelfth Night. I’m not sure what the intent was with my gifts to Jörg, except perhaps, remember me. Maybe Adrianna was right about exilic gestures after all. Of course some gifts are more fun to shop for than others. Giorgos’s enthusiasm over the film Elizabeth was a delightfully unexpected occasion to explore recent recordings of lute music. Buying a black shirt for someone who already has ten but who you know will be very very happy with the eleventh is less fun, as I imagine it was for Alexandra (but yes, I really do love the shirt!). The gift will also say something about the giver as well. We rarely transcend ourselves when we give a gift: usually we repeat ourselves. Never expect a thoughtful gift from a thoughtless lover, even if he wants to placate you or get you into bed.
Jörg liked his gifts, which I gave him after we saw a performance of Joe DiPietro’s Fucking Men at the King’s Head theatre, a tale of the various pairings among ten gay men, diverse in age, background, sexual experience, and relationship status. A callboy,a guy in the Army coming to grips with his sexual identity, an actor on the verge of coming out, a closeted married TV talk show moderator, a young student, two middle-aged guys in a negotiated but tenuous “open” relationship (with the usual array of rules that are always broken in such relationships, such as “never twice with the same guy”)… It was too ambitious a play with too many ideas, some of which the playwright could only intimate and not satisfactorily develop. It was more a collection of tales, ten stories of contemporary gay life in its wondrous diversity, even if the themes transcend the modern—the longing for and fear of intimacy, the desire for and discontent with commitment, the challenge of keeping long-term relationships sexually interesting. After the play over dinner of wild boar sausage and rabbit ragout at a wonderful French bistro in Islington, we asked the expected trenchant question any self-respecting gay theater critic might ask—which of the ten would you want to sleep with? Jonathan and I whispered to each other the name of the character we thought Jörg would chose. We were both wrong: we thought he’d say the sensitive, cute college boy, but J opted for the army grunt. I said if forced to choose perhaps the playwright character, whose fumbling self-irony I found disarming, but I thought the measure of the success of the play was that I’d want to spend a night with practically all of them. I’m such a sucker for a good tale. Back at home now I’m listening to the CD that Panagiotis gave me as part of his triptych of gifts of art (the catalogue for Eleni Theofilaktou’s intriguing exhibition—more to follow in a later post), music and poetry (Platon Rodakanakis’s De Profundis) that he gave to me after I had shared with him some thoughts I had on the English translation of his poems. The music reflects his encompassing musical taste: Rameau, Chet Baker, Bjork, Pet Shop Boys, Mahler… Rather expressive of a conversation with the man himself, a rushing cascade of ideas, exhilarating, scintillating, provocative.
Image: John Singer Sargent, Man Wearing Laurels