Although I grew up in Australia, I was born in a rural part of Greece, in the region of Macedonia. The northern regions of Macedonia, Thessaly and Thrace were hit hard by the recent financial crisis, but people somehow make it by. And some of them even manage to do so without a scad of official paperwork bearing their name. To the state, these people don’t exist. But they actually prefer it that way. Greeks have traditionally been highly suspicious of their elected officials. When you see the state of the country now and the way the books were cooked, it’s easy to understand why.
But I struggled with the concept. In this modern world of PINs and passwords and biometric passports and facial recognition software, how could someone possibly still fly under the radar?
His name was Lefteris (not his real name), and he was my brother Georgios’s friend. I met him on my most recent trip to Greece. It was at Christmas, the time of year when my home town of Florina is ablaze with massive bonfires, several storeys high. The bonfires are ostensibly to warm the earth for the arrival of baby Jesus.
The first time I saw Lefteris, he was standing outside an illuminated sign at the pharmakeion, talking loudly into his phone. He wore a black puffer jacket, tight black jeans and aviator sunglasses. A thick tuft of grey hair poked through the top of his black Armani T-shirt, which was overlaid with garish gold chains and medallions. He had wavy grey hair, long at the back and front, balding on top.
Georgios informed me that we were picking up Lefteris to take to the police station with us. I wanted to apply for a Greek national ID card — the taftotita — from the Hellenic police. And this ageing rockstar impersonator was the secret weapon that Georgios assured me was going to somehow help secure it.
Lefteris continued his phone argument as he got into Georgios’s car. Georgios confessed he drove aggressively because he was self-taught. Neither wore a seatbelt, but I wore mine. Lefteris finally hung up and debriefed my brother. Every second word was ‘malaka’. I didn’t catch the details but I worked out it had something to do with a small sum of money.
Lefteris was my brother’s friend of forty years, ever since primary school. He did not work. He never had. Georgios had a one-room flat nearby that he let Lefteris live in rent-free. He had no lease, no bills, and nothing with his name on it. Lefteris knew everyone in town and everyone knew Lefteris. He lived the life of a lovable, harmless hustler. He bummed cigarettes, food, drinks. Lefteris didn’t own a car, didn’t hold a driver’s licence, and had no bank account or credit card. He had an unregistered mobile phone that he topped up with pre-paid credit. He had no superannuation, no pension, and spoke more lies than truth. I wanted to touch him to make sure he was real.
Growing up as an orphan, Lefteris was introduced to our family by a friend of my grandfather’s. He now used four different surnames depending on who he talked with. Georgios claimed he knew the real name but refused to share it with me.
We drove north in Georgios’s labouring Romanian jalopy. Our first stop was the border station. Georgios left me in the car while he and Lefteris crossed on foot into the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) to buy cigarettes, whiskey, and fake designer clothes. They knew the border guards well, especially Lefteris. He presented them with offerings from a plastic bag: homemade preserves and thick blocks of cheese that he’d either bartered, been gifted, or stolen. Georgios told me the most you ever saw Lefteris carry was a plastic bag.
Lefteris had never worked a day in his life. All he had was his mind and his mouth. He carried his dirty clothes to the laundry in a plastic bag. He had no appliances or furniture in his flat and slept on a pile of old blankets. His home was cold in winter, hot in summer. Lefteris never paid his first electricity bill, so the power was cut off. He kept a torch by the door that he used to see around his flat. He sometimes forgot the torch in his pocket, ended up with it at cafés, which his circle of friends found hilarious. It was the same with the water bills — he never paid them, so it was cut off. He now refilled old plastic bottles from the spring near his house, pure drinking water straight off the mountains, and carried them home. He had never let anyone into his flat, not even Georgios, who did not press him for it.
Lefteris spoke to the border guards in a combination of Greek and Yugoslavian. He was fluent in Russian, Croatian, and other assorted Baltic languages. He even spoke a little English he’d picked up watching TV in the kafenion. I watched them all laughing and wishing each other well.
We returned to town with the car’s muffler scraping the surface of the road and a trunk full of black market booty. We drove straight to the police station. With so many illegally sourced items in our possession I panicked for a moment, but Georgios assured me it was fine. We sat in the station’s waiting room while Lefteris went out the back, clutching cartons of Marlboro high-tar cigarettes and bottles of French cognac. I could hear his voice echoing, chatting with the police officers, banter and gossip, and laughter every few seconds. Lefteris said it was an honour to help out Georgios’s baby brother in such a significant way. I’d asked Georgios if I could buy Lefteris something in gratitude but he said no, it would only insult him.
The TV in the waiting room was on a news channel. The newsreader was reporting on another upcoming election. Georgios grumbled something about politicians being ‘all the same’ and that ‘nothing would change’, and lit another cigarette.
‘The air is full of words, and the words are full of air,’ he said.
‘It’s the same everywhere,’ I said, ’politics, politicians.’
‘It’s worse here,’ said Georgios. ‘Our country is built on lies and deception. It’s the reason why guys like Lefteris exist.’
Lefteris said he was originally from Crete. He also claimed to have fathered four children to four different women from four different countries. Georgios did not know if any of it was true.
Georgios inhaled deeply, savouring the balm of nicotine. He said that winter was the worst for Lefteris. With the snow knee-deep and the temperatures plunging to below freezing, Lefteris would stay out all night in clubs and cafés. It was the only way he could keep warm and escape the bitter cold in his sparse flat. He would stay till dawn, talking to whomever he could find. Lefteris was regularly sick in winter. He rubbed his body with olive oil to warm up. No one knew where or if he washed. He was known to try and pick up women just so he could use their showers. The younger girls laughed when they saw Lefteris hanging around the clubs. To them, he was a sad joke. But Lefteris knew he was following in a rich tradition. My brother knew it, too.
‘People say if you took Lefteris up the mountain, into the woods, and killed him with an axe, there would be no crime,’ said Georgios. ‘How can you murder someone who does not exist? For all intents and purposes, Lefteris does not exist. Yet he is larger than life, and my most loyal friend.’
The man of the hour suddenly appeared in the doorway, beckoning me into another room. I joined Lefteris and a young female officer who proceeded to feel the full force of his charm. He kept asking about her family, promising to bring her mother some fresh mountain honey, and fluttering his long eyelashes. Her cheeks were flushed pink as she handed over my new taftotita. It looked legit. It was legit. Lefteris winked at me. He later told me he’d been over to the police sergeant’s house the night before, sharing cigars and a bottle of whiskey, and solving the world’s problems.
Lefteris had done it. We returned to the car triumphant. Georgios threw two cigarettes into his mouth, lit both, and gave one to his long-time friend who started puffing away.
We went to the kafenion to review the day’s proceedings. I ordered espressos for everyone and a double shot of single malt for Lefteris. I was not going to take no for an answer. He thanked me and raised his glass in cheers.
Peter Papathanasiou was born in a small village in northern Greece and adopted as a baby to an Australian family. His writing has been published by The New York Times, New York Post, The Guardian UK, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Good Weekend, The Canberra Times, The Herald Sun, SBS, The Huffington Post, Neos Kosmos, Frankie, The Pigeonhole, Caught by the River, Structo, 3:AM Magazine, Elsewhere Journal, Litro, Meanjin, Overland, Going Down Swinging, and Tincture Journal, and reviewed by The Times Literary Supplement. He holds an MA in creative writing from City, University of London, and has lived in New York, California, London, Greece and Australia.