Dimitri

This is a story about someone I met this week.

In the northern part of the island of Lesvos, not far from Molyvos with its stone houses and beautiful castle, is a small fishing village of 300 people called Skala Sikamanias.

It has a tiny harbour with tiny boats jostling waist-to-waist at the dock, and a lovely tavern with a pebbled beach out the back and a big red parrot who clears his throat when you walk past so that you’re sure to notice him and tell him what a handsome boy he is.

The tavern serves very good ouzo – ouzo is Lesvos’ second-most famous export – which is good for sitting on a Sunday afternoon watching people unhurriedly passing by. One of those people, more unhurried than most this last Sunday past, was perhaps 60 or 70 with thin, curling greying hair. He was handsome enough – he had a good, strong nose and a broad brow over shy eyes – but it was below the chin that he came into his own. He was wearing a dazzling red evening gown that hugged his fine figure in just the right places. It glittered here and there and swished as he walked to display a gorgeous pair of block-heeled pointy ankle boots in fine red leather. The gown had a chiffon train that when held out on either side billowed and rippled like a pair of diaphanous red wings.

I know that this is not supposed to be an arresting sight any more, in this modern world where soon small children will be given the option of sexual realignment surgery to ease their nerves before their first day of school, but it’s still not what you expect to see in an old-fashioned macho Greek fishing village.

His name – are you about to shout at me for being a fascist genocidal misgenderer? Please send your letters to the editrix – is Dimitri, and no one in the village paid him a second’s heed as he strolled up and down, around the square, to the end of the stone dock and back, toe-stepping along a low whitewashed wall, occasionally pausing to spread his trains and turn slowly on the spot precisely like some stately solitary peacock. Dimitri’s elegance and compusure was breathtaking – to be so determinedly, proudly on display and simultaneously so serenely indifferent to anyone watching.

“You look very beautiful,” I told him, and he inclined his head regally and said, “Sank you.”

“Are you from around here?” I asked, and he waved at the hillside.

“I live over there,” he said. “I have lived here all my life.”

Dimitri couldn’t speak much English, but he had spent some time off the island. When he was 14 he told his parents that he was really a girl, and his father didn’t respond to it well. Finally Dimitri ran away to Athens, where he lived on the streets for a number of years. His mother always loved him and stayed in touch with him, and when she became sick, and his no-goodnik dad left the island to avoid the responsibility, Dimitri returned to Skala Sikamanias to live in the small damp house and take care of her.

He looked after her for 25 years, alone in an unsympathetic village with only his mother for company, without any help from his far-fled father or his brothers, who have scattered across the world (men, I am tempted to say, do not on the whole come out well in these sorts of stories). When finally she died Dimitri was left alone, without purpose, sitting alone in his small damp house, listening to Maria Callas records and considering suicide. But then one day he put on one of his mother’s dresses. He had never worn women’s clothing before, not once, but it made him feel closer to her. He felt her love enveloping him. Something calmed inside him.

And these things take time, but eventually one day he went outside the house wearing the dress, and a pair of her sensible lace-up shoes that were a little too small for him. People stared. People shouted at him. People shook their heads, muttering that they always knew he was weird, but now this has gone too far. Once or twice a week he wore his mother’s clothes to take a stroll and do his shopping. Only the children would speak to him, but he didn’t mind. He felt like himself again.

It was a step in the right direction for Dimitri, but everything really turned around with the Syrian crisis, when refuges started washing up on Lesvos and journalists came from the world. Soon one of them discovered Dimitri, then they all did. He appeared on CNN and the BBC, on Sky and Al-Jazeira. Ordinary people see him on their TVs and travelled to come see him in person and take photographs with him. Dimitri became a star, like Melina Mercouri, like Maria Callas.

What does a star do when her spotlight arrives? Dimitri upped his game. He acquired pearls and twinsets and cocktail dresses, ballgowns and bodices and bustiers and sleeveless satiny sheath dresses. He started standing straight and cocking a sassy hip and looking people in the eye. He began to sway and sashay. What I’m telling you is that Dimitri flourished. He blossomed. He unfolded like the petals of some strange, grizzled flower. Each day now he promenades, ignoring the sidelong glances, basking in the stares, grandly accepting polite requests for selfies. He is still lonely, of course – he still has no friends, really, and no family that cares about him. He has still lived a life without the kind of love you and I would die without, but he has been accepted by his village now, and that’s something, and even more: he is glowing now, filling up, turning his smiling face to the sunslight.

I asked him if he still feels that he is a woman and he waves this aside. His thoughts have changed over the years. He believes that we are all men and all women, to varying degrees. His personal beliefs are deeply entwined with mother’s Catholic mysticism, and he says there isn’t one thing or another thing – he thinks we’re all sacred, so we are all each other. His name is still Dimitri. He doesn’t care if you call him he or she.

There was one question I wanted to ask him, and his answer made me blink a little at realizing afresh how the meaning we choose to make of our lives matters so much more than the often terrible details of our lives themselves. Dimitri doesn’t have a job, and his family had no money. He lives in a poor town where people have enough food but no one has a lot of anything. So how, I wondered, did he have such a dazzling wardrobe of frocks and couture? How does it keep growing? Where – to be tacky – does his money come from?

Dimitri said that when he was 14 and announced he was a girl, his father had taken him a mental institution and he had become an in-patient while they tried to cure his madness. They couldn’t, of course, and finally released him, but that time as an in-patient had qualified for a lifelong monthly mental disability payment.

Dimitri smiled very warmly and sincerely as he reflected that, whether they like it or not, the government pay for his dresses. “Oh yes,” said Dimitri, gathering his train around his legs and preparing for one last turn in the dusk beside the lighthouse, “Oh yes, I have been very lucky in my life.”

The Times, 18 July 2019