“Two weeks earlier, I was on the Greek island of Kea, in a bathroom so small you had to sit down to use the shower and the water trickled out either too hot or too cold. I was thinking about how great it had been to live on a Greek island for six months and wake up and look out my window at the ships passing in the Cavo d’Oro and be able to get in my car and drive five minutes to a beautiful sandy beach with turquoise sea and about how it didn’t rain almost the whole time we were there. And yet here I was in North Carolina with gray skies and rain outside and a list of seemingly pointless chores before me and I was really happy.”—Matt Barrett
Nothing At All to Write Home About
By Matt Barrett
“There is nowhere in the world where you can live like you can in Hydra, and that includes Hydra.”―Leonard Cohen
CARRBORO North Carolina & KEA Greece—(Weekly Hubris)—December 1, 2021—Editor’s Note: Matt Barret and I go back a long way. To the 1980s, in Athens, Greece, where I sat in the Deputy Editor’s seat at The Athenian: Greece’s English Language Monthly, and Matt, before a rapt, usually-drinking audience, singing his own songs and accompanying himself on the guitar. We were young; he was younger. Unbeknownst to one another, we attended the Athens Community School in Halandri, one of my most almae of matres, and we were both American-Greeks, as opposed to Greek-Americans (there’s a difference). We argued peripatetically and gently, round and about Syntagma Square, about such things as A Course in Miracles—I thought it was bunk, and still do; he bought me a copy, at great expense—and whether or not he could write (well, he could, and can, but he could not, cannot punctuate, and we differed, back then, as now, about where the lines between the two are to be drawn and how important the latter is in light of the former). I believe Matt and I met through The Athenian, but he’ll have another, truer story, I’m sure. Still, here we are today, he, the publisher/editor/author of the world’s most successful Greek travel site, and I, the publisher/editor/author of the world’s least successful Greek travel site, crankily editing still. One thing about which we have always, will always, agree, though, is Leonard Cohen: we both like him; I (alone) consider him a genius. Still, for all our tetchy differences, I, on Mykonos, Matt, on Kea, and Leonard on Hydra . . . will always be young; always be full of promise; always be besotted with Greece. Greece, for me was, and is, the real course in Miracles.
I was thinking of the refrain in my friend Parthenon Huxley’s song Bazooka Joe, about how some critical question in his life was answered when he opened a piece of gum and read the comic inside. I was thinking of this in my shower. I was thinking about this because the water was flowing strongly, it was the perfect temperature, and I was feeling as good as a person can possibly feel.
Two weeks earlier, I was on the Greek island of Kea, in a bathroom so small you had to sit down to use the shower and the water trickled out either too hot or too cold. I was thinking about how great it had been to live on a Greek island for six months and wake up and look out my window at the ships passing in the Cavo d’Oro and be able to get in my car and drive five minutes to a beautiful sandy beach with turquoise sea and about how it didn’t rain almost the whole time we were there. And yet here I was in North Carolina with gray skies and rain outside and a list of seemingly pointless chores before me and I was really happy.
The world moves in mysterious ways . . . .
It had started with two transferred North Carolina basketball players, a couple of point guards named Brian Morrison and Adam Boone who disliked coach Matt Dougherty and left the program the year before he was fired. I had just turned on the TV to see the end of a game between Virginia and Minnesota and the thought came into my head. “Whatever happened to those two guards who transferred?” I could not even remember their names. No sooner had that thought flashed into my mind than I heard the announcer say, “Guard Adam Boone, a transfer from North Carolina is coming in.”
Cool! Somebody is listening to me!
The next morning, the phone rang. It was Parthenon Huxley. “Guess who scored 32 points for UCLA last night?” I said.
“Brian Morrison?” (of course)
I talked to Parthenon about the game and we laughed at the thought of God leaving the side of some person in dire circumstances to answer my merely curious question about what had happened to two Carolina players. If God comes so quickly for something so insignificant, I am either very important or else this is totally normal and can and does happen to everyone and they simply don’t notice.
The world moves in mysterious ways . . . .
Which brings me to Leonard Cohen. (What?!!!)
A few years ago, I was with my friend Elizabeth Boleman-Herring listening to a tape of an interview she had done with Leonard Cohen she had done with Leonard Cohen when he had returned to Greece for a concert on Lycavettus and to do a BBC documentary on the island of Hydra where he had lived for a year or so and written his best songs. Leonard Cohen had been on the fringes of our little ex-pat society in the early 1970s. Everyone we knew had some kind of contact with him. Some knew him well. Some had been with him at a large table in a taverna and some had slept with him or someone from one of his songs. (My only connection was when his step-son Axyl stayed over our house in Aghia Paraskevi with the McGee kids who lived on Hydra. Axyl had a crush on my sister and followed her home.)
“You should send your music to Leonard Cohen,” Elizabeth told me after the interview was over. (It was not actually over. She just didn’t want to play the last 20 minutes when he tries to talk her into going to bed with him).
“Really? Do you think he’d like my music?” I asked, in those hopeful innocent years.
“No. I think he will hate your music because it is better than his.” (Actual Quote)
“Well, why would he help me?” I asked, confused. Elizabeth gave me some kind of answer in a language that was more artistic and esoteric than I was able to comprehend in those days, about ego, artists, and the twisted way they view the world, their own talent, and their competition. An artist helps another artist that he is jealous of so that he can have power over him, or to sabotage him, or because he saw it as something he was “supposed to do.” It sounded more like me helping my best friend get together with my ex-girlfriend so that I could have sex with her again. Anyway, it did not matter because I did not give the idea of presenting my music to Leonard Cohen a second thought . . . .
. . . . until August of 1990 when I was driving in Upstate New York in my little green BMW 2002 with no plan and no idea where to go to spend the rest of the summer. Somewhere, I saw the road sign to Montreal and I thought, “Why don’t I drive up and give a tape to Leonard Cohen?” (What happens to our sense of adventure as we get older?) I pointed my car north on the New York State Thruway and picked up the first hitchhiker I saw, a young guy from France. When we got to the border, we both had to go inside and answer some questions. They let me go right away but I hung around so we could continue together after they finished with him. I heard him say to the border official, “I am staying at zee house of Leonard Cohen.” (Pretty weird right? You probably think I am making this up.)
When they finished interrogating my new French pal, we got back in the car and continued our journey. Sure enough, he was a friend of Leonard Cohen’s daughter, staying with her in Montreal. We drove into the city and up Rue Saint Laurant and parked right in front of Leonard Cohen’s house. He brought me in and up the stairs to a place that did not look like any house of Leonard Cohen. Newspapers and sleeping bags all over the floor. Little if any furniture. Several young people, reading, smoking, sleeping. “This is the house of Leonard Cohen?” I asked in disillusionment. Was he a junkie now?
“This is where his daughter lives. Leonard Cohen lives next door.”
I wandered around the neighborhood and by chance found a Greek restaurant owned by someone from my grandmother’s village. A woman named Electra recognized me and we talked. She gave me her number and the address of her restaurant. (We are still good friends!) I walked back to get my car, still parked in front of Leonard Cohen’s house. There, on the steps, smoking a cigarette was Leonard Cohen. I approached him cautiously, not wishing to startle him and send him scurrying back to the safety of his house.
“Hi, Leonard” (maybe I said Mr. Cohen . . . I don’t remember, but it was an awkward moment). I introduced myself as a “fan.” OK, I was not a true fan. I liked his songs, but I did not have any of his albums. I knew his stuff because my friend Dorian Kokas, who performed with me at the Old Captain Bar on Sifnos, was a big fan and played a couple of Cohen songs every night. Plus every guy in Greece in the early 70s knew the first album backwards and forewords because that is what our girlfriends would want to hear when we got stoned together. A bottle of retsina, a hash joint, and “The Songs of Leonard Cohen” filled the evenings and Sunday afternoons of many a Greek-American hippy chick in those days.
Greetings from mutual friends in Hydra opened the door to a night of conversation with Leonard Cohen on his front steps and in the Samos Bakery, where we went to get fresh bread, just like on a Greek island. Montreal was changing, he told me. The city was being French-o-fied and he confessed that he did not know what to do or where to go. He said he did not speak French all that well. (How could Leonard Cohen not speak French?) “I don’t really like LA,” he told me. “But in my apartment the sun rises in one window and sets in the other.” This did not seem to me a good enough reason to live in a city you don’t like. But I am not Leonard Cohen. When we said good-night, I told him I would bring him a tape, which I did the next day. He accepted it like it was a Holy Sacrament and gave me a little Buddhist bow. But he never called me.
For the next week, I kept running into him. I would go to a deli and there in the corner was Leonard Cohen, his daughter, and a friend. It was like I was subconsciously stalking him. I found myself avoiding Leonard Cohen! After a while, the force of nature stopped putting Leonard Cohen in my path and except for buying The Essential Leonard Cohen, the poet disappeared from my life.
. . . . until this morning in the shower when I was thinking about how happy I was to be there and how “. . . .the world moves in mysterious ways.” I suddenly realized what he meant when he told me about the sun rising and setting in his apartment in LA. Life is made up of moments. Some are deep and profound and leave an imprint. For him, one such moment was the sun setting in smoggy Los Angeles, probably a spectacular sight. Moments that fuel me are things like sitting in a cafe in a port watching the ferry leave, or walking through the fish market on Athinas Street. A sunny day, a song, a photo, or any number of stimuli can trigger one of these moments in my mind and create nostalgia so intense I feel that if I can’t be in Greece at this moment I will die.
Until today, when I realized that these moments are everywhere and occur all the time if we choose to be aware of them. Heaven is not across an ocean. Heaven is everywhere in the best and worst of times, waiting to be noticed. Heaven is in the moment. Not a particular moment that you look back on and attempt to recreate over and over until it becomes robbed of its power. Any moment. Anywhere. Any time.
So, like Parthenon Huxley finding inspiration in a gum wrapper which led to his song Bazooka Joe, Adam Boone, Brian Morrison, and Leonard Cohen all got together in my shower and inspired me to see the magic of the world that we either take for granted or spend so much time trying to figure it out that we miss the point. If life is getting you down, dreaming of faraway places can help. So can taking time to notice the things we truly enjoy, like a hot shower, a sunset, and words of wisdom in places we least expect to find them.