Topism

The cats in the empty lot beside my apartment block are ‘in heat’. They howl and wail all day and night. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I wake to the chilling sound of a neighbor being murdered, or maybe having a freakish orgasm—and it takes a few seconds to realise that the screech was just a horny she-cat neighbor, singing her siren song.

When we first viewed what is now our apartment, early 2017, Dom and I worried about the lack of sunlight. Ours is a ground-floor apartment situated towards the bottom of a hill, so: not exactly prime real-estate. But the agent assured us that the lot next door—the only empty lot on the block—was too small to ever get council approval for construction. So, according to the real estate agent (who would never lie), the fat slice of light that pours through it, through the gap in the skyline and through my bedroom window-doors, would therefore belong to me as long as I live here. It floods my bedroom with clean, bright light from around 7am till 2pm—usually the time I spend in my room working. After that, the walls pale a little and shadows elongate and I go have a bath or take my work to the living room or go out for groceries.

There are many things I don’t know about the cats who live in the lot beside my apartment. I was told they, the cats, are in heat only now and then, like avocados are in season twice or three times a year, but that seems to be a lie. The wailing seems constant. I don’t know who feeds the cats, though I watch them frequently while I smoke on my balcony, and their little plastic tubs are always full of dry food. I do not know where the old cat family went—a family with long-haired, black and white coats that looked like fluffy little tuxedos, who lived there for a year or two. Gone, presumed dead. Now, the new cat family is composed of lithe, short-haired jet-black and mid-grey ones. The grey ones look especially well-bred, though I know they are just moggies whose pleasing features are an accident, rather than a design, of conception.

My friend T, an animal lover, tells me that cats in the city are murdered periodically. Someone will come and poison a whole family. Or else, one by one, over the years, they will get run over. Families decimated. The traffic in Athens is bad, and these cats are exposed to the threat of it all day long. T once walked into a park and found the corpses of a dozen dead dogs—strays who had been baited by a twisted citizen. T once saved a tiny kitten which had crawled into the hood of a parked car, for warmth, during the cold months. T harangued everyone in the neighbourhood to find the car’s owner and open the hood, and pulled the weeping kitty to safety. It’s a hard life, being a street animal.

I am very glad to have a home. A shelter. Ground floor notwithstanding.

There’s a Greek word I like very much: topism. It means, obviously, place-ism, and it’s usually employed to describe a toxic localist attitude that lays the foundations in a community for nationalism and racism. It’s an attitude designed to keep populations separated by overstating the irreducibility of cultural differences. My friend Ioulia uses it to describe the place her great-grandparents come from, a very parochial town in Greece that is famous for its medieval towers—little towers that ordinary families built and lived in for the purpose of throwing boiling oil onto their rival neighbours if they dared step on their land. This town, unremarkably, is the birthplace of the neo-Nazi party the Golden Dawn. So you know what is meant by topism.

Every time I come home to Melbourne it feels less and less like my city. I find myself looking up the names of cafes I frequented for fifteen years. I have to look at a map of the neighbourhood I lived in for a decade, to remember where things go. Eventually, after a few weeks, or months, of being back, my body remembers the bus numbers and how frequently they run and which trams go all the way to the end of the line. This used to make me sad, this my-city-is-growing-up-without-me! wah!, because it is of course so comforting to feel totally familiar, totally at home, totally invited and welcome and contingent in a place. When I felt like that, like I belonged, and like me and the city owed each other something, I also felt I had a duty to protect my place from its contamination by wealth and gentrification. The bit about belonging that we don’t much want to talk about is how it can turn us into topist.

Oddly, when I come back to Melbourne, now, and it feels like not my home, I enjoy it much more: because it is a charming city; because people dress beautifully in it; and because I am not responsible for what or who it is. I can’t afford to live there, really live there, but I can enjoy being part of it for a little while and then leave.

Who was it who told me the story of a holiday they went on, they were staying on a Greek or an Italian island and while there, they became obsessed by a delusion that the elderly cat-loving woman who fed the strays was actually poisoning the cats. The holiday, in the version of this story I recall being told, turned overnight from a ‘nice time’ into a struggle against an imagined spate of cat poisoning. This person, whoever told me this story—was it D?—bought cat food from the supermarket, stalked the old woman as she did her rounds to the cat-feeding-places, gathered up her cat food and put it in the bin, and left his own store-bought food in its place. My God, I thought, when I was told this story. What on earth possessed him to do that?

I guess the metaphor I’m building—cheaply, maybe—is that even if poisoned, the cats replace themselves, the neighbours replace themselves, the city sheds its particles and turns itself over and over and you can try but you can’t stop a place from forgetting about you. You can cry, but it doesn’t care. You don’t have to be born somewhere or grow up there to become part of it. And you don’t get to keep imposing yourself onto things you leave behind. You don’t get to own anything outright. We are all just renting.

I’m going home to Melbourne in two weeks and I’m dreading it—at least I’m dreading the feelings of used-to-be-home, the interruption to my making my new home my new home (will Eleni, the baker down the street, forget about me? She keeps me informed of her dental woes). But I am looking forward to the nice outfits and the lectures in my native language and the new babies I will get to meet and the extremely clean pavements. I am looking forward to being a visitor in a beautiful, rich city that used to be my home.

Love,

Ellena