This past August, my wife and I made a long awaited trip to Greece. For the first time in many years, this vacation would represent an almost two week break from the book business. No email, no checking orders, no buying books, no schlepping books, no arranging to have books shipped. There was one exception. I personally collect copies of James Joyce’s Ulysses in various editions and translations, and intended to pick up a copy translated into Greek to add to my collection.
We boarded the plane on a rainy Sunday afternoon, and I did what I always do when forced into a cramped seat and with a safety belt fastened tightly around me–I fell asleep. For some reason I can read almost anywhere except on airplanes. My wife, in contrast, does most of her reading in the air. Needless to say, when we arrived in Athens around noon on Monday, I was rested and ready to explore the city, while she was eager for a hotel room and a long nap. Thus, I had a perfect opportunity to check out the bookstores and purchase my copy of Ulysses.
In my years of business travel, I have discovered that concierges are often excellent sources of information about local bookshops. After checking into our hotel room, I went down for a consultation with our friendly concierge. He was a bit surprised that I was looking for store with books in Greek when it was obvious to him that I did not even know how to say the word “book” in his language, but he pulled out a map and highlighted a street in the center of Athens, right in back of the University.
The street with the bookstores was three subway stops from the hotel. I stepped out into bright Athens sunshine, and saw the Acropolis looming in the distance. Trusting my sense of direction considerably more than my ability to read the subway signs in Greek, I opted to try to walk, using the Acropolis as a point of reference. I walked for about half an hour and decided that it was time for an ice cream break. I scanned the storefronts and was surprised to learn that in spite of the sun and the heat, there were no ice cream stands in sight. The news kiosk had a freezer with pre-packaged ice creams, so I bought one, sat on a bench and ate it. It tasted like a good humor made with skim milk instead of cream, that had been thawed and re-frozen at least three times.
I pulled out my map and tried to figure out where I was. This was no easy task, since my map was in English and the street signs were in Greek. Much to my chagrin, the Acropolis proved to be an illusory point of reference, and I discovered that I had just walked half an hour in the wrong direction.
One of the things that I learned from Leopold Bloom was the value of carrying food in my pockets. Power bars have replaced beef kidneys since this is, after all, the twenty-first century. I threw out most of the ice cream, and walked the half hour back to the hotel munching on my tasty high protein, low carb treat. Now I was ready for anything, including the subway. The platforms were large and not crowded. In less than one minute a train pulled into the station and within five minutes I disembarked at my destination.
I walked up several flights of stairs to the street level and found myself directly across the street from the university. In front of me was a familiar sight–a Starbucks Cafe. I walked in and order an iced coffee to go. The large sign over the counter was identical to the ones in the United States, except that it was in both English and Greek. I was so impressed that I whisked out my digital camera and took a picture of it. The counterman became irate and almost confiscated the expensive 256K photo disk in the camera. He told me that the prices on the sign are confidential information and should not be photographed.
Iced coffee in hand, and camera intact, I crossed the street and headed towards the university. On a small side street just in back of the main campus, I saw a large bookstore. I went up to a clerk and politely asked he had a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses in Greek. He signaled for me to wait, then disappeared to the back of the shop. A few minutes later a different clerk appeared, who asked me in English how he could help me. I told him what I was looking for and he too disappeared, returning shortly with a copy of the book. It was a very large format paperback, not unlike the actual first edition of Ulysses, with French flaps. It was all in Greek, but I could decode enough of the letters to know that it was the item I was looking for.
“How much?” I asked.
He replied “Thirty-five euro.” I was taken aback, as this was quite a bit of money- about 40 American dollars, and for only a paperback. I thought it over for a minute, then reached into my wallet and took out a credit card and handed it to him. “Sorry” he said, “the telephone lines are not working well, we can’t accept credit card payments.” I did not want to use up all of my cash the first afternoon, so I decided that since the book was readily available, I would come back and get it another day. I was already long overdue back at the hotel, so I left the shop, and headed toward the subway.
The next morning we boarded a bus for a five-day classical tour. Each night we stopped in a different town, Nafpoli, Olympia. Delphi, etc. and each time we stopped for I went looking for a bookstore, but without success. These towns had shops that sold a few books, mostly popular novels to read on the beach, along with suntan lotion, hats and other necessities. If I collected John Grisham or Stephen King, I would have been in luck, as each store had wide selections of their novels in Greek translations. There were also many editions of Greek versions of the Kama Sutra, with the instructional illustrations taken from ancient vases. In Delphi, when I passed the tree that marked the site of the original oracle, I leaned over and whispered, “Where can I find a copy of Ulysses in Greek?” There was no response. I did notice a spider spinning a web in some of the dead branches, but she was no Charlotte, and there was no hidden text.
We arrived back in Athens late Saturday afternoon, just after the bookstores had closed. They would not re-open until mid-morning on Monday, by which time we would already be aboard the ship heading to the Islands. Greece may be the ˜cradle of civilization” but they still have not discovered the value of the late-night book-cafes that dot the landscape of even small cities across the United States.
On Sunday, I did manage to find one open bookshop in the flea market district. It was a large, dark, cavernous basement store filled with piles of dusty (and musty) old books. The shop clerk spoke little English and did not understand my question when I asked if he had a Greek translation of Ulysses. Instead he pointed me to the English language section, which consisted of dog-eared paperbacks abandoned by young English speaking visitors attempting to travel lightly by abandoning their books as they finished them.
The next morning, by the time the shops had opened we were on a bus speeding toward the port of Pireaus. Once aboard the ship, and settled into our stateroom, I decided to skip the orientation, grab a book and head for the pool deck. Topless sun bathing was strictly prohibited, so I decided to walk around and check out what the other passengers were reading. Perhaps I would find a copy of Ulysses and try to persuade its owner to sell it to me. I am familiar enough with the novel to tell them the ending. In fact, I can quote the last sentence verbatim. I quickly discovered that the reading selections of Europeans on Greek cruise ships are what Americans call “beach reading” – mostly light bestsellers, advice books and the occasional long Russian novel.
We arrived in Mykonos, late in the afternoon. With its reputation as a haven for writers and artists, I was sure there would be a well-stocked bookshop. We found pelicans, windmills, cobblestone streets with whitewashed shops, and a magnificent sunset, but no books. The next day, I did find a bookshop on the island of Patmos, but it mainly contained souvenir picture books for the religious pilgrims who flock to the island, and a few popular novels. I did not want to return home without buying at least one book, so I purchased an English translation of a historical novel about Alexander the Great, that I had seen at least three people on the boat reading in different languages.
We spent the third day on the island of Rhodes. The city of Rhodes is quite large and has its own university. We spent the morning on an organized tour of the old city. At the end I asked the tour guide where I could find some bookshops within walking distance of the dock. She pulled out a map and pointed to a neighborhood that she described as the sophisticated shopping district. After lunch on the boat, I dropped my wife off at the archeological museum and headed for the bookstores. I found two large bookstores, but both of them were closed for the remainder of the afternoon. The typical shop on Rhodes is open from 10 A.M. to 2 P.M. then closes for lunch and reopens from 5 P.M. to 8 P.M. I did manage to find an ice cream shop with excellent soft ice cream then headed back to the museum to pick up my wife. We were not due back at the boat until 5:30, so we headed for the beach. This time, the sun-bathing was topless, so there were few readers to survey. We left the beach at 5, so I could stop at the larger of the two bookstores on the way back to the boat. By the time we reached the shop it was well after 5, but the windows looked dark. The door was locked, so I peered in through the glass and saw a light on in the back room. I banged on the door, and an elderly gentleman appeared, and opened the shop. After I explained to him what I was looking for, he confessed that it was really his daughter’s shop, and he was not very familiar with possible contributions in her stock. He called her at her home, and she explained to him where the book would be if she had it. We walked over to the section, but there was no Ulysses. In fact, there was no James Joyce at all. By this time I would have settled for Portrait of the Artist, or even The Dubliners. Sadly, we raced back to the boat empty-handed.
I had no luck on either Crete or Santorini, and my last chance was at the Athens airport. The airport bookshop had a nice selection of world classics in Greek. If I was looking for Hemingway, or Faulkner or even Virginia Woolf, I would have been in luck, but Leopold Bloom’s musings in Greece are even scarcer than punctuation in his wife Molly’s famous soliloquy, and I returned home with nothing to add to my Joyce collection.
A few weeks later, when I was labeling the photos from the trip, I picked up a picture of the site of the oracle, and realized that it had been right. There was no response, because I could not obtain a copy of the book in Greece. Then, I remembered the spider web. Eureka! I logged onto the Internet and went into the worldwide web. I did a search on Athens bookstores and sent a few email queries looking for the book. The first dealer who responded wrote that he could not accept credit cards, but I could send a money order in Euro. I went to a local bank, but had no luck obtaining a foreign money order. Fortunately, the next day, I received an email from a different dealer who had the book and accepted credit cards. I sent him the information, and 5 days later a pristine copy of Ulysses in Greek arrived, identical to the one that I had passed up that first day in Athens. (The price, including shipping, was even the same as I would have paid in the store.) Up on the shelf it went, next to its cousins in Hebrew, Turkish, Rumanian, etc.
Next year, I would like to fulfill another dream, and visit Mainland China. While it would be easier just to log onto the web and order a copy of Ulysses from a bookstore in Bejing, it would only spoil both the fun, and the mystery of the chase. Joe Perlman, Editor LIABDA (Long Island Antiquarian Book Dealer Newsletter)