Πέμπτη, Νοεμβρίου 21, 2019

The little boat that loved Christmas

The little boat that loved Christmas        


A short story on
 a trip to solidarity,
 love and dreams.                                     

In the yard of a primary school a few years ago:

-You stole them, Spyros! You! It was you!!! You, bloody thief! Get out of here! Leave!
- Get the hell out of here, you dirty thief! You stink!
- There is no place for dumb asses like you in our team!
- Where’s your father, dumb ass? He dumped you, that’s why we don’t ever see him!
- Spyros is a bastard! Spyros is a bastard… ….
« Get the hell out of here, beat it, go! Beat him hard, show him good! Yeah! Hah, hah, hah!»
The writer speaking:
If it could feel, it would feel the air coming down the mountain sides in a rage right on its tall mast; the snow that had fallen smoothly on its body the night before. If it could hear, it would hear the rough song of the Vardar wind pushing the frozen clouds towards a long voyage to the unknown.  If it could see, it would rest its eyes on the wide blue waveless sea on a warm summer day, or look ecstatically at the countless lights in the sky on a freezing night. If it had a soul, a soul in combat with death, then its hull would wonder, be agitated and even fearful before the mysteries of the universe. Then it wouldn’t have a rest, it would wander among stars nesting in innumerable galaxies, it would quest on land, in the sky, in colours, sounds or smells, for a sign, for an image, for something to reveal the face of God.
But how can a piece of metal see or feel? It’s just a construction with no flesh or soul, carved by man, a mineral given its form by fire. This is the truth that stands, as conceived by logic, as accepted by the mind, as fits to science the almighty. Is there another truth? Perhaps, but just a few believe in it. Few are those who sense beyond senses, who hear mystic melodies and stand in awe before the miracles of nature; those who see the world with the eyes of their soul, unlike most...
But how? How is this possible? How can a metal boat speak and sense the air and the clouds, the sun and the animals, all creatures upon earth and air? And, not simply speak, but quest during its endless lonely hours in the junk yard; ask the old olive tree that kept it protected from the rough sun rays with its silver-green leaves, the butterfly during its ephemerous dance, the swallow before its ever-lasting trip …
 “What sort of boat am I, I wonder… A boat that’s never touched the water, how can you call it a boat? Me, a boat? I’ve never, not once, travelled the blue sea. Always on land, always adorned with these white lights, still on my hull, extinguished for quite some time…”
How can a “lifeless metal” speak is beyond me. But I heard it, I felt it in my soul. Today a dream I shall narrate; others but me shall be the narrators; the voice, the soul of the boat; the voice of a girl, one of those who come to life to make it better; the voice of a boy who became a man, but kept in his soul the tenderness of a child. Dreams, their dreams, my dreams will unfold in their words – a process so common when a soul unleashes its burden on the hand that puts letters together to form words and phrases, to express thoughts that will set souls on fire. This is what happens when the mind retreats before the needs of a dream. So, now, just before Easter Sunday, you will hear a dream from a simple-minded man who writes stories about beggars and orphans, immigrants and heartless people, about ghosts and angels, about solidarity, compassion, warmth of human heart. My inspiration was the boat that used to stand in the Aristotle square every Christmas for years. My beloved Maria discovered it accidentally some time ago, next to a warehouse and the wall of a junk yard, hidden among trees, just where (coincidence?) the Special Needs School of Thessaloniki for autistic children stands as well. It was a magic, special moment for me, the meaning of which remains a mystery. Hear it and hear it well, because it’s a story that blends Christmas with Easter, reality with dream, man with humanity.

The soul of the boat speaking:
   Time went by so slowly in isolation… hours, days, endless winters and hot summers. For years I had been waiting in that yard in vain. Loneliness came hard on me; being forgotten and abandoned when you’ve learnt to shine before crowds of people is unbearable. My iron body was languishing left to the vices of weather, squeezed among an empty warehouse and a lousy junk yard wall. 

The winter in question I hoped I wouldn’t be forgotten. No, not again, never again, I kept telling the olive tree. The yard where I had been abandoned was high on the foot of the Cedar Hill (Kedrinos Lofos). From that height I could see the whole city, all the way from Pylaia down to the imposing arms of the harbor cranes.
Winter had come earlier that year, with the first snow falling early November, that was more than a fact. Time went by and Christmas was near; people had been busy decorating streets, trees and shop windows in the city. Every day I could see new lights coming to life; now they were shining in a downtown apartment, the next moment in the window of a shop at the mall. Sometimes I could see them shivering in a large garden of a marvelous mansion at the foot of the hill. But there were also those that would brighten a dark allay, or a poor underlit apartment on the ground floor colouring the broken blinds, the wet walls, the endless poverty of man.
I kept hoping and waiting for the moment when I would finally lay my eyes on the large crane. It would take me at once on the back of the truck that always roared in anger under my burden when setting off for the Aristotle Square. But I wouldn’t mind that old grumbler, because in a little while I would be surrounded by electricians with their tools, screwdrivers and pliers and all. Soon enough my thick masts and sails would rise and all the wires and the lights would be connected. I would stand proudly, just like Greece, with its long naval history, next to the tall Christmas tree and its thousand lights. With the click of a button I would shine with happiness and for a whole month I would stand there with all my ornaments and bright lights, watching the families, the couples, all the people who were longing for a few happy moments under my bright lights. Who knows how many photos would contain me right in the middle of the festive square, scattered all around the world!
Every night I used to look from my piece of land far away at the minuscule city lights, at the sea becoming one with the sky and its stars. Dark and lonely as I was, memories arose; memories of festive times, of my square. Late in the evening, people left and all sounds were clear; I would listen till the break of dawn to the peaceful lap of the waves, just a breath away; and, in the faint glow of the sun, ships would gently shine in their thin silhouettes. Lights on ship bridges would travel through the sea haze and fade away on the square. And behind them, would stand the snowy Mount Olympus, so huge and imposing before them, so insignificant below the dark blue sky, below the evening star. Glowing from happiness in my square was I; yet how I envied those monstrous travelers nesting in the arms of the Thermaikos Bay! How I envied their voyages to faraway lands, to faraway seas. I had never dived in sea water, only rainwater had ever caressed me. The shipwright who had constructed me had only given me a strong hull, with no keel, no bottom, no steering wheel.
And then another year came, the circle closed, merry Christmas days came again. The square was filled with numerous lights, games and glowing faces. New Year’s Day passed, then Epiphany Day came and passed too, and I was always in the vicinity of the empty warehouse, always dark, always lonely.


Winter having come so early, springtime arrived in a haste right in the middle of February. White flowers on almond trees, yellow wildflowers in fields, blossomed in the glory of God. Nature dressed in all its colours, green and yellow, pink and red, spreading aromas intoxicating passers-by. My greyish hull lightened up in the view of all these blossoms, my frozen metal melted in the warmth of colours, scents and sweet melodies of sparrows. On that very spring day, the doors of the warehouse rattled with noise and opened to let in the craftsmen with their assistants, their tools and materials. They worked hard and fast and in a few days everything was ready and in place. The old funnel of the small industry was painted in merry designs and the warehouse was divided in rooms of equal size. Everything, be it the walls, the benches, the tables, the chairs, the toys, the carpets, or the colourful large pillows, the lights and the computers, was merry and ready to welcome the kids.

The first person I saw was Maria, the special needs tutor from Mytilene. She was exploring the place outside the classrooms, and turning the corner coming from the warehouse, she bumped into me. She recognized me at once, even though all my shrouds and festive lights were scattered here and there inside the hull. Her shouts and screams led everyone before me; the manager, the social worker, the psychologist, the school nurse, the speech therapists, the occupational therapists and the rest of the teachers. The truth is she had never seen me from up close, but she remembered the TV reports she used to watch as a kid on Christmas festivities in Thessaloniki.
-       So, all these years it has been left here? Maria asked.
-       Yes, I can’t remember how many years it’s been since it’s not been decorated for Christmas, it’s a pity; sure, it’s very expensive to take it down to the city square, probably that’s why they left it here. I honestly can’t think of any other reason, such a beautiful boat!, answered Jacob, the occupational therapist.
That’s how my story became known to Maria. She felt sorry seeing me so pitiful and she said to the others that a boat as beautiful as me shouldn’t be left there unprotected from people and rust.
The special kindergarten and the primary school for children with autism were housed in the industrial warehouse. For Maria this was her first year in Thessaloniki after she had served two years in Athens, still fresh from her university education, taking her degree in sign language and Braille method. This profession suited her fine; she was a unique person, tender and compassionate, she won children’s sympathy with her smile, generously giving them all her love and attention. Her eyes were enchanting, they seemed to gather in them all the beauties and all the colours of the world. Parents loved her as well, glad to have her together with all the other tutors on the side of their children, assisting them in the hard struggle of their life.
From the moment she saw me, a dream was born in the heart of the island girl. It seemed hard, but she was prepared to risk it, she had made a promise to herself, to me, but most of all to her children. She first sent a wonderful letter to the Mayor, exposing her arguments and asking him to donate the ship to the school. After a while, the Mayor, touched by her move, responded that after the formal approval by the city council, they would be glad to donate it to the school and he would be of any assistance for anything they might need. Maria was very satisfied, but there remained a lot to be done for her dream to come true. Who knows how much money would be needed and how could she raise it? And on top of that, a bunch of other issues had to be taken care of; this whole situation made her doubt at times, even lose her spirit. Many many afternoons, after the kids would leave, she would come to me, look at me, calculating, talking to herself.
With this and that, a year passed, a year not like others. I didn’t feel sad or lonely. With the help and patience of Maria, within a repeating everyday routine, step by step, shyly at first, with a growing interest, children came to know me and in time they came close to me with confidence. By now I was pulled from my old place. With the help of the mayor I started looking like a ship again; my masts were raised high and I was placed in front of the school, on my very top was waving the most beautiful flag, the colourful flag of our school. Everyone, I mean everyone, loved me; every morning grown-ups told me “good-morning” and kids filled me with smiles and at times they spoke a word or two, like “ship”, like “travel”. Their little faces looked at me with such love that at times I thought my hull’s wooden heart would break. It was my first Christmas together with those cute little-ones, who filled me with marvelous colours, ornaments made by their little hands and drawings filled with emotion. I was shining with joy, even more than my electric lights.
In spring, a year after we met, Maria had put a lot of effort to the whole project, but all she could see was obstacles. She didn’t want to quit, but it was above her powers. Her dream was fading; our joint dream of me travelling the sea, of all of us making the trip of humanity, solidarity, understanding, was fading. But, just the moment when all hopes of a just cause are gone, it’s in the hands of the Creator to lean over the earth and help.   

The soul of Maria speaking: 
Spiros, a handsome 45-year old, with beautiful short-cut blond hair, was a captain in the merchant navy. While driving outside the school, his eyes fell on the tall mast of a boat standing out above the wall. A strange flag was waving on top of it, like none he had ever seen; it drew his attention. He wondered what kind of vessel it belonged to, what it was doing there. He stopped to take a good look, but the doors were closed, so he left.
I was in a bad mood those days, I had sought help wherever I could, but problems accumulated. How can you make a vessel out of that iron hull? One obstacle was money; besides, I needed a man with knowledge, who would surpass all difficulties, which were unfortunately more than enough. Sailing licenses and insurances and means of protection and port authorities and mooring and… and in a country in the middle of an economic crisis how can anything be possible!
The day I met Spiros, children had just left school and I was sitting by myself beside our little boat. A sweet breeze was blowing scattering everywhere the scents of spring blossoms. The boat was filled with drawings children had made, depicting nature waking from the deep winter sleep. I was feeling sad about our fading dream. Spiros, drawn by his innate curiosity, professional perversion he called it later, came over to see the boat once more. And right there, under the shadow the boat was throwing over us, we met for the first time; though total strangers, we talked for hours. I saw in him the ally I was seeking for; the man I could rely on to make the dream come true.

Andreas Theodoridis was a shipbuilder and shipowner. This unimaginably rich man, who had started his life as a refugee, he and his parents, in a poor beach house near N. Moudania, was the first employer of Spiros. Eventually he and Spiros became very good friends. Knowing his character, Spiros turned to him for help. His choice proved right; at hearing about my dream, about the boat of solidarity, about my marvelous children, Andreas Theodoridis didn’t need to think twice. The man who had worked like a dog to raise his family and offer them what he had lacked as a child, spoke few words plain and clear:
 “I will make it strong and sturdy, a real adventurer, this ship will be my heritage to the world before I close my eyes. It will bear my good name, and my family’s too, an honour for those who passed and for those to come. All I ask from you Spiros, is that you will be the captain”.
And he knew it too, there was no one more suitable for this position. Spiros was not born in a dream house. His father was some Russian his mo’m had met in the bar she worked, but then again she wouldn’t know. She was almost never sober and when she was, she immersed herself in a world of gray and melancholy. Spiros was ten years old, when one evening his mom came home with two cops. She was drunk, blood was running from her right hand, she gave him a blank look and fell into bed. The next morning the cops came over to ask for the kid. She grabbed Spiros in her arms, slowly took his face in her hands and dug her hands in his hair, grasped it as if she wanted to pull off a tuft, and “better this way” she finally said and gestured him to leave with them. He would always remember the tall door, the office, the polite lady with the blond well-combed hair and the red thick glasses. She asked him if he wanted to go to a beautiful house, where he would be taken care of, and he could have all kinds of tasty dishes. He accepted right away; it was better than wondering the neighbourhood hungry with a bunch of older kids who would always get into trouble. At school no one wanted him, everyone called him names; dirty, thief, bastard. But life was finally good to him and offered him everything he had been deprived of. He had a happy childhood at the SOS village with the rest of his “brothers” and his stepmother, Mrs Voula. That woman was an angel; she loved Spiros and all the other kids in her care as if they were her own; and she had two of her own back in her village, Thanasis and Vangelis, her captains. She was a true mother to him. She was always there when he needed her, at school, when he was burning with fever. A smart kid, he performed well at school, and when he grew up and finished high school, Mrs Voula sent him to her captains and they accepted him like a brother, helped him study and become a captain, too, in merchant ships.
Theodoridis meant every word he said; when they brought the iron hull to the shipyard, he got down to work right away. He smiled when he saw it; he remembered the photo in his drawer, the only one he had from Christmas. He was in the Aristotle Square, with his grandchildren before that very ship, bright with lights. It was so strange! Even though worn out, with its lights all out, now it looked brighter than ever. Stop jerking around, he thought to himself, this Christmas delight must turn into a real ship now; actually, it was no more than a big caique. He called all his business associates and they gathered in his office to make the plans for the ship. He wanted everything to be perfect, it meant a lot to him. He didn’t mind the cost, it was his legacy to his country; not a legacy of an old rich man, but of a poor little boy and his refugee parents who had fought hard to make it in this land, in this vast blue sea.
Sweet smells of spring and the warm caress of the sun together with the gentle haze were here to welcome Easter in town. The Holy Week was in all its grandeur and the shipyard would be open for the first time. He never used to work around these days, it was an inviolable rule, but the Christmas ship, as he had named it, had to be ready for Easter Sunday; Jesus would forgive him that, he was sure. Mr. Theodoridis had suggested the first trip of the ship should be at the midnight before Easter Sunday. The day of the Resurrection was a deeply symbolic day, according to the shipowner. He used to say that the sacrifice of the Bridegroom on the Cross is the greatest act of love. The Resurrection of Christ is a new beginning, a victory not only over death, but also over all mankind’s sufferings. At last, all tools had been set aside, oxygen burners had finished working, all the ironwork had been done; only a few technical details were left, and the last coat of paint and everything would be ready!
On Good Friday everything was set, the ship, the equipment, the licenses. All over the country, in islands and fields, on mountaintops, in cities and villages, the church bells tolled slowly, in tones of melancholy and devoutness. Crowds of Christians came from everywhere walking slowly in a litany around the epitaphs decorated with scented flowers; flowers of all colours girls had adorned the epitaphs with the night before. This year my heart was filled only with hope and joy. When Spiros came for me, I couldn’t wait to reach the shipyard. When I stood before out ship, I couldn’t believe my eyes; tears of joy and boundless gratitude filled me for all the people who had worked for it.

The soul of Spiros speaking: 
In the evening of Holy Saturday just before dusk, a sudden storm broke out
followed by strong winds. It only lasted a few minutes, as if God’s wrath meant to wash out the sins of the world. I remember these words, it seems only yesterday when I heard them coming out of the mouth of reverend Fotis, the old priest of my childhood village. And then everything calmed down; the seagulls spread their wings to hit the sky in merry squawks right above our heads. Inside our ship, anchored in the Marina Yacht Club, near the little chapel of S. Nicholas, we were well protected. Theodoridis had done a great job turning the empty hull into a marvelous sailboat, the cute Christmas boat into the almighty “Argo”; we were ready, all of us, for a great adventure, campaigning for love not for war.
When stars appeared in the sky, there was not a sign of clouds, just the sea breeze blowing the sails gently. Late at night cars were gone and city streets were swamped by crowds of people heading for churches to celebrate Resurrection. Happy faces all around, each for different reasons; as for me, I had my own reasons to be happy, thinking how lucky I was. Last Easter, it was a day like this, our tanker had anchored in a large port in central Java, Semarang. There, a foreigner among foreigners, I missed Greece so much, its sun light, its springtime, its beauties. I was tired of travelling the four corners of the earth having nothing to long for, a wife, a kid’s smile awaiting back at home. This Easter, though, Maria was by my side; she was a wonderful woman and we were so good together. We had a common purpose for the time being, a purpose worth devoting to, but I was hoping for a common future, too…
At 11.00 the whole area filled with people. Parents from our school were there; now I felt it as mine. Our kids were there too, glowing with happiness for their ship, their flag which would become the flag of all children on earth. Other children were there too, young and older ones, who had come to Thessaloniki for the Year of Youth. You could see primary and secondary school children who wished to see how the love and care of one teacher, Maria, was enough to turn the abandoned Christmas boat into the sailboat of hope, solidarity and love.

It had been some time now we had sailed off the bay, at a point unseen by the crowd. Today Argo had three captains, me and my brothers, Thanasis and Vangelis who I so much respected. Not blood related, but soul brothers, great was the honour I felt they were with us. On board was Mr Theodoridis, too, the refugee from Asia Minor, his eyes in tears; he was holding in one arm his daughter Eleftheria and in his other arm Maria, whom he had loved as his own. In the quiet of the night, the elderly man was gazing through his tears at the breathtaking Salonica, which is “only fit for the ship”, as quotes Kavvadias; at times, he would raise his eyes to the stars, where he could feel his grandparents and parents, together with his beloved wife, proudly looking at him. Thank God his fortune was very big, and he had decided to use it to make a new school for children with special abilities, as well as anything else he could until he would close his eyes too, until he, too, would reach the stars. 
On the night of the Resurrection to come, at midnight, wild were the celebrations, with crashes and clashes and flashes, and smiles, lots of smiles, in the light of hope and happiness. Our boat appeared right behind the little chapel, illuminated, sounding its horn long and festive. We arrived right amongst the “Christ is Risen”, the Uncreated Light and the noisy flashes of fireworks. Everyone waved at us and cheered for “Argo” and the large paintings that adorned the sails and the hull all around. Argo united them all, voices, souls, people. The children’s faces were bright; you could see children who couldn’t get up from their wheelchair, but seemed to stand higher than anyone; children who couldn’t hear or speak, but their eyes sparkled; children who couldn’t see, but they felt Argo in all its grandeur right in front of them.
At the sea shore, the colleagues of Maria had left little wooden boats on the sand, copies of Argo. The children fled away from their parents and came to get one boat each and lay it on the sea foam giving a promise.
Lampri – the Brilliant day – was dawning and countless wooden little boats scattered around the bay surrounded Argo carrying on their hull a couple of verses and the children’s promise – the children who would govern tomorrow. A promise of love, humanity, solidarity…

 Blooming Spring sail we shall set
with a light breeze ahead 
Behind us the earth will wave at us
smiling like a mother
Lovely sea jasmines will ornament
the open sea to the earth’s end

In our dream boat we shall sail
in blue waters without a care
A lonely kid I am in the whole wide world
With a sweet smile and with hope
I shall wait for you on the boat’s bow

With the power of love a forgotten jewel which was never to travel the seas, fulfilled its dream under the flag of solidarity. An abandoned kid who grew up with no loving care and could have ended up a lost case, became a captain. The two of them travelled the seas, reached faraway cities and villages and brought to the world the message of humanity, respect, understanding, diversity. A loving family would be the crew of Argo in its long voyage for the years to come; the family of Maria and Spiros. The little boat was really a mystery; it was as if it was alive, as if it had a soul, as if it felt the love that surrounded it, and in return it sent the message far far away. It sure was a special boat, because it carried in its hull the best part of the people who loved it, a part of their soul and the promise they all gave before it.

To Eleftheria Roussou, the teacher who used to brighten the lives of children with her love and care.
To Andreas Giannopoulos and his father, because they embraced all kids with their smile.
To the deceased Christos Vlachos, president of “Pistis”, to Christina Lazaridou and Mary Grammatikaki who encouraged me to make the dream of the little boat come true.
To all the children of special schools. To the educators and all people who work there.
To all SOS villages and their deceased founder Hermann Gmeiner.
To Markos who will hopefully become a man like Spiros when he grows up.

My special thanks to the principal of the Special Primary School of Thessaloniki for children with autism, Mrs Alaxandra Evaggelou, for all the information she gave me and her full support to the realization of the dream following this short story; and this dream would be for the city’s Christmas boat to be repositioned from Aristotle Square to another city square where children would expose all year round works about diversity of all kinds in a society that respects and teaches diversity. It’s a dream that concerns all schools and needs the help and support of all teachers. Our ship will symbolize the trip of children towards solidarity, towards a better world, a better tomorrow.  
I would also like to thank Mrs Despina Karypidou, who works as children’s escort at the Special Primary School of Thessaloniki for children with autism.
My friend Dinos Papaspyrou lightened up the short story with his wonderful paintings and I’m really grateful to him. Another painter, Tasos Efthimiadis, painted the Little boat that loved Christmas in April 2019, after reading my story. I deeply thank him from the bottom of my heart!

Dinos Papaspyrou,
1. ON THE ROAD TO THESSALONIKI -81, A sailing boat in Thermaikos, tempera, 39X29 cm., 2013, Ref. 1101
3. LANDSCAPES-12, Almond Tree
4. LANDSCAPES-179, Halkidiki Landscape, tempera, 12X12 cm, 2011
5. WOMAN-16, Myrtle in front of the Sea, tempera, 30X21.5 cm., 2012, Ref. 980 (Table section)

Tasos Efthymiadis,
6. The Boat That Loved Christmas 80x90cm Acrylic Spatula 2019

April 2014