There are many things about myself that I’d change; one is that I wish I was a braver photographer. I wish I’d had the courage to go up to all the old men in Parga, and ask them if I could take their pictures.
Last time I came here, it was the old women who fascinated me. They were everywhere: ambling through the streets, all in black, widows conversing in pairs – always in pairs, as if compensating one another for what they had lost. If they weren’t walking they were sitting on plastic garden furniture outside their houses, watching tourists parade past them, on their way up the steep hill to the castle and the restaurants, all offering only slightly different iterations of the same dishes, the same views. Parga seemed, back then, to be a town of old women – old women and young people, and nothing in between the two except tourists.
On this visit, even though I saw the same place, the same streets, the same restaurants and the same plastic garden furniture, my eye was drawn to the old men. Something, I figured, must have changed in me.
There were two distinct types of old men, and the first I saw time and time again. I would spot them sitting outside “Parga Safari” - a dubious looking travel company which did no safaris, as far as I could tell. Instead, it provided four tables outside for the old Greek men to sit at, drinking by the dusty roadside and yelling to one another, animated and cantankerous, nursing a coffee in the morning and a beer at any point from lunchtime onwards. I would walk past the first type of old man on my way to the Green Bakery some mornings, in a rush to pick up spinach pies before catching the boat from the pier.
These men were shabby and weathered, wearing oversized flannel shirts that had seen better days, like makeshift maxi dresses made up of long faded stripes. Their faces were lined, their eyes were weary, and the whole ensemble told dozens of stories. I would have liked to stop just a couple of those men, take some photographs and try to capture something of what those stories might be. But I didn’t have the resolve for that, still struggling as I was to say kalimera and kalispera at the right time, to say thank you and please, and you’re welcome, trying to remember that the last two were the same word.
Phrase books never tell you how to say the things you really need, like: I want to see what a lens would make of your face in this light. People don’t look like you, back home. I want to be able to show people quite how magnificent you look. It didn’t sound inappropriate in my head, although heaven knows I am no judge of that, but even if it wasn’t inappropriate it would still have been patronising.
The second type of old man was even more striking, although I only saw one: a beautifully, beautifully dressed old man. A little, delicate old man, flawlessly turned out, even though it was nearly thirty degrees. He wore a lightweight, light grey suit, again a size or two too big, with a v-neck jumper underneath the jacket. The v-neck matched the suit, matched the cap on his head, matched his short wiry hair. The wire frames of the little glasses perching on his beaky nose matched the white moustache underneath it, both so thin they were barely perceptible. He was a pocket square away from perfection, and again, it was all about his face. All those stories I didn’t have the language to tell, or even to ask to hear.
How I would have liked to stop him, him in particular, and take his photograph. But of course I didn’t have the nerve. As I rued my failure, I thought again that sometimes, the difference between snapshots and photographs is simply that snapshots are pictures of people you know, photographs pictures of people you don’t.
Stranger still, I did take sneaky photographs – with my iPhone – of some people while I was on holiday in Parga. I took a picture, for instance, of the horrifying old woman on the lounger at the Town Beach – a deeply disturbing mahogany lady with a sunken face and a sunken chest, dressed in a bikini which only appeared to have one purpose, namely to allow her to tan as much of her body as possible. We saw her on a couple of days and all she did, all day, was lie on that lounger in the in the blazing sun, eyes shut, motionless. If she hadn’t occasionally been facing up and occasionally been facing down, you could easily have concluded that she was dead. Looking at her, even as she turned over to roast her back, you could almost convince yourself that she was. No friends, no conversation, no sign that she was here with anybody else, she looked more like Tollund Man than a woman enjoying her holiday. Perhaps someone had exhumed her some time ago and just abandoned her on that lounger. It was distinctly possible.
My friend Philip took to referring to her as Ann.
“Was Ann on the beach today?” he’d say as we poured wine, up on the balcony, looked out at the harbour in the dimming light and discussed where to eat that evening.
“Who’s Ann?” I said.
“Ann Teak.” he’d reply, pleased with his way with words, and not without good cause.
“Oh, you mean Miss Teak.” Wendy would chip in. The deep brown semi-corpse hadn’t escaped anybody’s notice, it seemed.
I had no compunctions, either, about taking a picture of the New York Giants superfan, a holidaymaker who, despite being English, never left his accommodation without being clad head to toe in New York Giants merchandising – shorts, a wide variety of different royal blue polyester shirts festooned with logos, a baseball cap at all times. He was on the same plane home as us, at the end of the holiday, and to my delight he even wore his baseball cap for the duration of the flight. I’d see him, eating at a taverna, or wandering along the harbour front, dressed more in packaging than clothes, his Easter Island face impassive in a way that suggested he didn’t enjoy sport, life or anything else. I took a sneaky photograph of him, as if pretending that I was actually snapping something else, shifting the camera across at the last minute, because I didn’t want to forget that people like him existed. I didn’t ask him for permission, even though I had the words to do so, if I’d wanted.
I didn’t feel bad about photographing the mahogany woman and the New York Giants’ biggest fan. They were a joke to me, I guess, and I didn’t feel like they deserved any better. But the old men merited more; maybe that’s why I couldn’t take pictures of them. They were not people to accidentally turn up at the edge of an image ostensibly of something else. They should have been filling the frame. They should have been the subject, them, their faces and all their untold stories.
I’m still thinking about the last of those old men now. I wonder how my camera would have rendered his face, that disconcerting blend of mischief and dignity. Maybe if I had a photograph, if I was looking at it now, I would realise that he wasn’t as dapper as I’d thought, that his eyes didn’t dance in the way I thought they had. Maybe if I’d caught that butterfly in the net and showed it to friends, like I showed my friend Iain the picture of the perma-tanned woman at lunch yesterday, they would have just laughed or said “is that it?” Perhaps my camera would have let me down, or I would have let him down, and he would have ended up just another figure of fun, like the menu I snapped one afternoon, the horrifying misprint, SIX SQUITS, hidden among the appetisers. No, I’d rather remember him as I thought I saw him, without documentary proof. Photographs make memories, they invent memories, but they can destroy them too.
When I’m old, I won’t wear purple: I hate that cliché, so calculated and wacky. Mine will be a quieter rebellion. When I’m old I plan to be a man like that old man, one of those splendid old men who wears a suit to go into town, even at the weekend. Maybe I’ll do that when my hair is white and I’ve started to shrink and creak, even if it means that, like his suit, mine is a couple of sizes too big for me. I fancy becoming one of those men, a breed they don’t make any more in this country, overrun as it is by a tidal wave of fleeces and hoodies. I think I’ll wear my best hats, too, for no other reason than that I can. And if anyone sees me and asks if they can take a photograph, I’ll smile and let them. Only time will tell, I suppose, what stories you might find then, looking at my face.