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Bitter Lemons

Everything went well until we got to Corfu.  It’s not that things started to go wrong there, but that this may have been an omen that our happiness had already been drawn out far too long.  I was a new professor.  Upon completing my first course as a lecturer, I bought myself a car: a white Fiat 127.   My goal was to travel through Greece that summer, traversing those historic and literary places of which I had dreamed since my childhood.  I was neither financially nor physically able to do this alone; and all the promises made to accompany me had fallen through.     

Time was short; and it occurred to me to post a flyer in the department area. Two female students confirmed their interest with a phone call.  I had had them in my course, but that relationship had ended.  I set out with Maite and Victoria, from whom I was separated by only a few years.  At first, it felt odd to travel with girls who I had maintained a certain degree of professional distance from; but their good nature and humor brought us closer very soon.  We all drove; we all liked the monuments and ruins, and the camaraderie, and shared responsibility served to alleviate the heat and exhaustion.  We had made our way across the south of France and then Italy; and we were already on the Brindisi-to-Corfu ferry to later cross onto the mainland.  I announced our arrival at the port; and upon seeing the buildings that welcomed us there, I couldn't discern a difference from one country to another.  Pompous Mussolinian constructions gave way to buildings and plazas, imported from the ancient French and English metropolises, in the historic center of the capital. It was dawn; we had the whole day ahead of us; and we decided to find a more rustic, almost military place, like a seaman’s barrack, removed from the hustle and bustle of the city.  The road signs took us to the northwest of the island. We were on the coastside road.  We passed through Alykes, Kontokali, and the majestic Venetian shipyards of Gouvia, then Kommeno, Daphnila, and, finally, Dassia, which had an immense beach nearly fifteen kilometers long.  Some orchards reached down to the whitest sands.  There, in the Ionian Sea, we were able to take our first Greek bath.  I lay down under the shade of some olive trees; and when I woke up, I saw Victoria still floating on the water and Maite, who returned from who knows where, gesticulating with an elderly woman all dressed in black.  I had found lodging in that very spot.  It was an old stable, which was now coarsely renovated.  It had three bunks, a dining table, and a small oven, all in one open space.   Outside were the water closet and a washbasin that served as both a bath and shower without hot water.  The price was reasonable, and the small barrack seemed a suitable place to gain new strength for the assault on the Greek mainland.  The landlady’s house and grove were very close, and the woman would gather fresh fruit and vegetables for us.  All was perfect, even in the intimate chastity that we practiced.  Time passed slowly and I allowed myself to get lost in the “why?” of earthly things, while they became brackish women, iodized and with aquatic eyes, with seaweed hair that was tousled by a couple of nets that were hanging from the ceiling like bridal veils.  From our encampment we went up to the north of the island, to Kassiopi, where Tiberius built another one of his mansions, and we also headed down toward the south.  At Gastouri was the Achilleion, a palace built by Sisi, the melancholic empress, in honor of Thetis and Achilles—a neoclassical building, with beautiful gardens headed by the statues of the triumphant hero, fatally wounded in the heel.  At Korkyra we spent many afternoons in the terraces of the Spianada Square of the archway, which reminded us of the Rue de Rivoli of Paris.  While they frugally toured the narrow streets replete with eye-catching shop windows, I visited the pediment of Medusa, she who mortally enthralled.  Her demented smile, her bulging eyes, the curly snakes of her hair and her waist, her immense mouth from which a wide and bifurcated tongue must have stuck out, like that of a snake, they petrified me.  I felt well in the island of the Phaeacians, where Nausicaa found the wayward Ulysses; but the days proposed for the last stop had passed. I spoke of an imminent departure that never happened.  At the dawn of every daybreak, I was hidden by them in the dense down of their pubis.  I came to understand that I was sweetly anchored when I confirmed that both young women had suspended their depilatory practices and that their bodies ran freely under their dainty clothes.  I gazed upon them as they slept, homely and enigmatic; and the hour to leave escaped me.  The bedroom became covered with scattered objects; the clothes were stirred in disarray.  I enjoyed being one more object.  I didn’t brush off the dust that began to cover them.  Everything remained in place, where it was, in the same manner and arrangement. I was entangled in their clothes, and I didn’t feel the nostalgia of my domestic order.  In that place I could not even manage to put myself in order.  I remained enveloped by all those forms that were scattered by the clouds across that firmament and also within my heart.

The car was perfectly prepared to continue the trip and my suitcase ready.  Yet I inspected an old bicycle, oiled its chain, and set out at dawn, slowly, to walk along the shoreline. I managed to reach Ipsos—a sandlot covered with pebbles—and climbed Mount Pantokrator, the highest mountain of the island, surrounded by forests and overlooking the bay.  On this morning stroll I came across the ferries that arrived from Italy or those that set out en route to Patras.  At the end of the sandlot that was Dassia, along a curve from which you could no longer see the spot we’d set out from, there was a beverage stand that served drinks all night as if it were a bustling nightclub.  Upon one of its walls was its name:  “La tortuga ecuestre” [The Equestrian Turtle].  A bit earlier, at a safe distance from that playful outdoor locale, I watched as a couple of large trucks took their place.  They carried the lighting equipment and props for a film shoot.  I stopped in my tracks and looked for a good perspective from which I could get distracted by the work of others.  Little by little, from the depths of those great stomachs, emerged the spotlights, cranes, rails, and cameras, along with the cables and other objects that were unknown to me.  At the end, due to the familiarity that shared time grants us, I found out what these objects were from one of the laborers who prepared the footage of a film whose outdoor scenes were set on the island.  To ensure my solitude, I shared nothing with my captors.  I decided to return the next day and offer my services to the crew, even if for free.  I woke up at first light and left them in their slumber, abandoning them in their undressed geography.  Sometimes I would lie back on the cot and gaze upon them until they woke, not to get lost in desire but to keep watch over their dreams.  Maite’s hair was denser than Victoria’s, but the latter’s took root in more abyssal zones.

When I arrived at the set preparation was already underway.  By now those first few tractors had been hitched to other trailers to shelter some of the actors and the director himself.  My voluntary help served to haul the heavy loads and to better prepare everything.  But my research on the information sheet for the film did not progress much.  I was able to deduce from the comments made that it was a peplum [sword-and-sandal], and this brought on a very special surge of excitement, to find myself in Greece and to attend the filming of a cinematographic genre so dear to me.  As the day progressed, that strange landscape of scattered objects became covered with actors in period costumes.  I understood immediately, based on their attire, that they were not Romans but Greeks; and this first requirement came to be confirmed by the slate blackboard where the following title was written in Italian:  I rostri di Helena [The Rostra of Helen].   Had I not developed a sort of friendship with the technicians and agreed to lend a helping hand, I would have returned to my restless and contemplative state, for I discovered how boring, slow, and tedious it is to make a film.  The end of the work day was resolved with nothing but a few minutes of suitable celluloid.  On the sixth day of being engaged in these matters, awaiting my friends’ latest promises to leave, I arrived at the film shoot, as always, at the break of dawn.  Concerns and expectations were higher, because that day would not involve extras or supporting actors but the main protagonists.  Everything seemed ready and, even then, three hours had to pass in order for the action to resume.   I was seated in the shadow of a giraffe sipping a soft drink, when I heard the door to one of those mobile dressing rooms. Out came Helen who, to my surprise, was none other than the actress Rossana Podestà, who had already played the same role, some ten years ago, in Robert Wise’s film Helen of Troy.  In the scene, three actors—two men and a woman—were portraying the historical characters, surrounded by a small army corps, in the middle of the beach.  One of the men tried to pierce the woman with a sword, while the other warrior prevented it.  Among the three, a dialogue of threats and accusations developed that ended with the forgiveness of the protagonist.  Several scenes were reshot not because of errors or flaws in diction or gestures, but because the actor who played the threatening role did it with such violence; so much so that he exceeded the demands of the director’s instructions.  During lunch I learned that the dispute would re-enact Agamemnon’s quarrel with his brother Menelaus, in which he tries to prevent the latter from killing his treacherous wife. And that extreme violence, exacerbated by incessant repetition, stemmed from the disputes maintained by the protagonist couple, who had recently split up in real life.  The interiors of this Italo-Franco-German coproduction had already been shot in the Cineccità studios in Rome.  The film attempted to recreate what might have happened to this woman “rich in men,” after the fall and burning of Troy.  For that purpose, the screenwriter and director, Duccio de Martino, borrowed from three different stories, told by Euripides, Hesiod, and Virgil in antiquity.  The first scene, reminiscent of The Trojan Women, depicted a tragic woman, suicidal, making sacrifices in order to wash away the guilt that had provoked such a disgraceful series of events.  However, Hesiod exonerated her of any responsibility given that she had never been in Troy and her recollection was nothing but a false, supplanted, image.   As for Virgil, in the Æneid, he made Venus stay Aeneas’s sword from piercing her as punishment for her treason to the Trojans and the delivery of her defenseless brother-in-law, Deiphobus, to the fierce vengeance of Menelaus. They had chosen Corfu to film the outdoor scenes due to its proximity, isolation, the economy, and variety of the scenery.  Rossana spent most of her time alone, since no one wanted to take a side one way or another, with respect to the private quarrel. At the end of the day, that mythical Helen climbed into her sports car and disappeared en route to the hotel.

When I returned to our lodging and told Maite and Victoria about my little adventure, they showed a certain amount of jealousy and announced—after weeks of delay—their willingness to leave the island and resume our interrupted journey. I refused and told them—a white lie—of my commitment to the production to work until the end of filming, in a couple of weeks.  My real intention was to see, face to face, that new Helen of flesh and bone and, above all, to touch her hands.  In Helen of Troy, Rossana Podestà played the role of a faithful woman in love; Jacques Sernas portrayed Paris.  When he dies at the hands of Menelaus, in the midst of the burning and pillaging of the city, after the entry of Ulysses’s wooden horse, she holds him; and her white tunic and her hands end up covered in blood.  In the following scene, the last one, Helen is on a ship headed back for Greece.  Menelaus still sees her blood-stained clothes and grasps her wrists to look at her hands.  Then, with great ire, he orders her to change and to wash up.  And she, staring with hate, answers:  “Never!”

The exterior shots changed to places not far from that first location.   I kept watch for the moment of our encounter.  Because of my position of constant watchfulness, I could see how Steve Reeves, leaving the company of Stanley Baker and Cedric Hardwicke, made his way toward Rossana when she retired from the set to her dressing room trailer.  He stopped her and they exchanged a few words.  She rejected him; and he grabbed her in a furious manner and threw her to the floor. I sprang to her aid and received a hard blow to the head, inflicted with the same Achaean helmet he held in his hands.  For a few minutes, I lost consciousness.  When I came to, my whole face was soaked in blood and the gash opened in my brow was still bleeding.  Next to me was Rossana, or who knows, Helen, with her peplum and her hands stained with my blood, trying to contain the violent hemorrhage.

Maite and Victoria welcomed me like abandoned lovers, a role I had never played.  We spoke of our departure—we had been there for nearly two months; and, again, it was impossible for us to come to an agreement.  They insisted on spending September there, too.  But my time was running out, and I felt I should no longer continue the trip to the Greek mainland, but return to Madrid for September exams.   I loaded my Fiat 127, and on the next day, when I turned the ignition, I saw that it didn’t work.  For several days, I was subjected to their ruses that were, indeed, pleasant and witty. On September 14, the date of my birthday, I took them to celebrate at “La tortuga ecuestre.”  They drank and danced to exhaustion while I feigned the same.  I struggled to make them return and they fell exhausted on their cots.  I saw them for the last time, undressed and unwary.  Then, for some unknown reason, I took a safety razor from one of their toiletry kits, and gingerly shaved the down from their pelvises; and I saved each of them in a book of its own, as with dry leaves.

From the stern of the ferry that was heading for Brindisi, I saw the shadow of the hills over the fields of wheat, the vineyards, the olive trees, the orange trees, and the bitter lemon trees of the island.

“Limones amargos,”  from Fuga del amor (Barcelona: Ediciones Destino, 2005), pp. 32–39. © César Antonio Molina. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Francisco Macias. All rights reserved.