The Bother of Watermelon Seeds

The Bother of Watermelon Seeds

The Bother of Watermelon Seeds 1920 1440 Marina Hatsopoulos

It’s still dark in Boston when I sit in an itchy blanket to begin the torture of calling the bank in Greece, bracing for an electronic maze, followed by an epic hold with an automated message telling me that volumes are unusually high, but my call is very very important to them. Phoning at this nasty hour is necessitated by the time difference—and because Greek banks close early. If there’s any way to add friction to your day, Greek bureaucracy is ready to serve.

To my shock, the phone is answered by a human. I tell her, in choppy Greek, that my accountant needs evidence of my Euro transfers to Greece, where I regularly visit for fun and work, or else Greece will tax it all. She tells me there’s a way to avoid the issue altogether, so I say, “Perfect. I’ll do that!”

“To do that, you’d have to come to the bank here on the island.”

Everything in Greece is done in person, because efficiency carries too much risk, danger lurking behind any streamlining. Better to make me squander a beach day and drag my body through all the nameless streets in the island town, where it’s impossible to find parking. I’ll have to hobble under the sun’s glare on cobblestone walkways and rush past the bakery’s smells of pastries, foregoing fresh-squeezed orange juice and iced espresso in order to expedite my mission.

Inside, I’ll wait in a loosely-formed line where chatty locals will cut me if I don’t pay attention. In fact, anyone the banker recognizes will be invited ahead. When finally called, I’ll endure endless conversation about nothing until the banker checks my passport, fills out some forms, gets my signature, makes copies, and—for the grand finale—pounds each page with three separate rubber stamps. By this point, my blood sugar depleted, I’ll curse myself for not having stopped at the bakery. This transaction, which would take ten seconds on a computer, will become a half-day black hole.

I say, “No, forget that. All I need is an email confirming the transfers.”

“Unfortunately, we can’t verify your identity over the phone. You’d have to come into the bank.”

I groan, the wool blanket irritating my skin. “I guess I’ll come in May.”

“Great. I’m Anna. We met last summer.” So, apparently my identity is known, after all. “How’s your mother?”

I toss off my blanket as Anna then asks about my brother, uncle, and the weather.

Outside, black has turned to gray, and the skyline is visible.

“We’re expecting a snowstorm,” I say, checking my watch.

“Oh! I’m in short sleeves.” A long line has probably formed while Anna’s been chatting with me. “By May, the flowers will be blooming.”

I wonder if the plums will be out by then. When I was little, we picked fruit from the trees during our endless summer days: two weeks of apricots, followed by a month of peaches, then figs and grapes. Watermelon was ubiquitous.

Without electricity, phones, or running drinking water, the practicalities of life all took time: driving to the old lady’s house to make a phone call while she eavesdropped behind a curtain, or into town to fill our jugs with water from the cistern. Every task, more than a big bother, was an event. Beyond that, the day had no structure. I might cut wild bamboo to make miniature toy furniture or spend hours reading Fitzgerald on my Greek friend’s Zodiac while she spearfished for octopus.

Anna says, “I’m sure they wouldn’t give this information by phone in the United States.”

By now I’m hungry and craving a spinach pie from the bakery by the bank, where the clerk knows me and always waves me up to cut the line, then gives me an extra spinach pie because she says I should eat more.

I explain to Anna, “We manage our accounts online, which saves time.”

I haven’t been inside a U.S. bank in decades. Technology has implications we can’t imagine. We’ll soon be day-trading on mind-controlled laptops while sitting in our autonomous vehicles eating Chinese take-out ordered by our car using artificial intelligence. We’ll do more on our way to work than we used to do in a month.

“It’s more efficient,” I say, but Anna doesn’t get it, that life is a race for more: more tough classes for more job offers, and then more work hours to close more deals, which brings more houses and more boards, more staff to manage more stuff, more names to drop, more people who pretend to like you, more fleshless social media followers, and more charities to support, serving people you’ll never meet. To what end? There is no end; that’s the whole point. There’s always more to strive for.

During Anna’s momentary pause, amidst the sounds of friendly chatter around her, bells ring from the Byzantine church behind the bank. Street names aren’t needed since the locals know everyone’s house. Nearby is the grocer who never forgets to tell me when he has fresh watermelon: rich red, filled with seeds which slow down your eating so you can savor the crunch and sweetness, untainted by fertilizers, preservatives and genetic finagling. Sure, pretty American watermelon doesn’t have seeds, but don’t we eat watermelon for its texture and taste? Is it so bothersome to spit out seeds that it’s worth giving up flavor? Do we care how it looks? Maybe we’ve missed the point.

Along the shore past the windmill is the car rental lady who recounts stories about my grandfather. Nearby is the restaurant owner who remembers our drinks—Campari and non-alcoholic beer—and forgives us our sin of ordering Greek salad with no feta. Before bringing our order to the kitchen, she shares her family’s challenges tending her sick mother-in-law. Transactions take longer in Greece because they aren’t mere transactions. Friction, one object rubbing against another, is a function of contact. Friction converts energy from work (something productive) to heat (something you feel).

“It’s true,” Anna says. She speaks deliberately, enunciating her words to make sure I get it, because she knows my understanding of Greek—and Greece—has holes. Like, why the fervor for attending church on the night before Easter, even by those who don’t go all year long? Then I went. The smoky, incense-filled space was bustling with chatty locals. At midnight, all went dark until the priest’s candle was lit, and he led us out into the warm evening. As we sang, unlit candles in hand, he passed his flame to a congregant’s candle, and the light soon spread to all the candles, while bells clanged, boat horns blew, and firecrackers exploded.

“Yes, doing things online lets you do more,” Anna acknowledges.

Her speech has slowed to the speed of a roadside donkey, her tone shifting to that of a village elder. If I were there, she’d be placing her hand upon mine, or offering me a biscuit and telling me to eat more.

“It’s faster…but it’s missing something, isn’t it?” A more experienced philosopher would recognize the power of understatement, and leave it at that, but Anna is compelled to spell it out for me: “The human touch.”

Share This:

Leave a Reply

Back to top