Love in definitive form

The dream about love is like
the dream about God: lasting and erroneous.
— Theodor Kallifatides

It was a bleak February afternoon, at the hospital and all the usual routines; meals, bathroom, doctors and nurses, had been dealt with. The moment had arrived. I opened the book Kärleken (The Love), written in Swedish, our mutual language, and started reading to him. He smiled. When I paused, he asked who the author was. “It is by Theodor Kallifatides," I replied. “I know him,” he remarked. “We met at the Greek Social club. I forget the name of the street… ”

 My father Eleftherios Stavroulakis, Vienna

My father Eleftherios Stavroulakis, Vienna

It was not a long moment, but one that I remember. My father’s  gentle smile, the vulnerability of the situation we had arrived at together, and the realization that he was dying. 

My intention was to be present, at this difficult time, to read a story I cared for, at his bedside. In a way, a strange role to be in, children seldom get to read bedtime stories to their parents. It is usually the other way around. 

I had traveled over the Atlantic to Athens to visit him, for the very last time. I was hoping for miracles and healing to take place. I took a few photographs of him, and he let me. Perhaps it was the piece of glass between us that made it less unbearable.  

Growing up, I felt torn between cultures: Sweden; my father's homeland of Greece; and Austria (where I was born), and often asked myself where home was. Before my father passed away, he said to me, “One day you will realize where you belong, and you will go home.”

Traveling to the island of Fårö, years later, at a time of personal transition, was just like coming home. My relationship to this place had deepened after visiting it each summer between 2014 and 2017. The island kept calling me back. This small, remote strip of land in the middle of the Baltic Sea, technically part of Sweden, brought my thoughts to sunny afternoons with my family in my father’s birthplace, Crete — another island.

In 2017, exactly 10 years after, my husband rented a place on the island for my birthday. I was visiting and making a film through an artist in residence at Ingmar Bergman‘s Estate. We received the keys from the owner, a middle aged Swedish lady, who boasted about the locals, dropping names. One that fell from her lips was the author Theodor Kallifatides. “We’re practically neighbors!” she blurted out, pointing further down the road. Perhaps out of nostalgia or sentimentality, I can definitely be guilty of both, I realized I wanted to find him and share the story about the moment at my father's bedside with the man who had written the book on love. This is no serendipity, but a meeting I sought. Synchronicity would be a more fitting word.

My husband and I drove around, trying to identify his house via our intuition and the woman’s vague clues. With embarrassment, I admit that I waited in the small clearing of the forest, while my husband knocked on the door of what, to us, looked like an enchanted dwelling, potentially belonging to my favorite author. Then the odd relief when my husband returned with a negative result. No one had opened the door. Like a startled animal I scurried off the grounds. After a few more equally fruitless attempts we gave up.

A month later I returned to the island, called the lady up, and asked for the author’s phone number. She readily gave it to me. “I am sure he doesn’t mind, he likes people.” How easy some things can be when you ask.

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This is no serendipity, but a meeting I sought.
Synchronicity would be a more fitting word.

Back at the house I was staying in, I dialed the number. His voice sounded much like my father’s. It had a sun-drenched quality layered over the austere Swedish tonality. I told him the story about my father, and how he had said he knew him. He listened quietly, and as the conversation dwindled off to a finishing point, Mr. Kallifatides asked, “What was your father’s name?" “Elefterios Stavroulakis", I replied. "No. I don’t remember meeting him.” The woman that gave me the number, he had also never heard of. “Well…” he said, “we could have coffee.” The following Monday I showed up at his picturesque house and was welcomed by his lovely wife, Gunilla. The house seemed a bit misplaced — a Greek home on a Swedish island — painted in the traditional Greek architectural color code of white and blue. We sat in the shade of the trees of the garden, sipping coffee and munching on freshly baked cinnamon rolls. Mr. Kallifatides stuffed his pipe and smoked it, thoughtfully pausing between sentences and puffs. 

At this time in my life, I was bored with my constant desire to capture moments. I stopped myself from the impulse to photograph him. Instead made the choice to quietly observe. My mind strayed, thinking about how I could ask if he would sit for a portrait. The moment needed to be what it was —  untampered with. So I let it be.

Three hours went by and the conversation meandered, winding along lustrous different paths about art, life, responsibility, philosophy, and making work. 

Then, the moment arrived.

“I am a photographer,” I said. “Would it be possible to take your portrait?”

“Yes.”

How easy some things can be when you ask.

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He sat for me outside his writing cottage, wearing a thick wool knit vest. The island can be cool, even in the summer. At the end, his wife photographed us together, our clothes by chance, matching the colors of the house. 

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He liked the images, especially one in particular, and I sent it to him a few weeks later. I also included a photo of my father.

Kallifatides wrote back: “I do recognize him after all.”