“This is what I thought Greece would look like,” one student’s voice rang out as the bus pulled in to Nafplio. What did she mean by that? Nafplio is a resort town, positively Venetian in style. What’s so Greek about it? But I knew precisely what she meant: it is quaint and picturesque with its layers of pastel-colored houses arranged amphitheatrically around the harbor, cafes lining the walk by the sea, fishing boats bobbing in the water. It’s a film set, a travel brochure come to life—charming, relaxing, a site for romance. “Can we stay here?” was the second question.
Athens has been chaotic and overwhelming: cars parked on sidewalks, people darting this way and that, street signs you can’t read, graffiti covering every surface. “This is Athens: gritty, gritty, gritty, ruins,” described one (the one who most likes Athens; I think it’s a compliment). Here in Nafplio you can wander down one of a handful of mostly pedestrian lanes, all cute, cup of gelato in hand. No need to learn a metro system, little danger of being felled by a motorcycle as you stop to take a photo of shutters or windowboxes or a posing cat.
Here, they tell me, is the authentic Greece. Not cosmopolitan cities but sunset-tinted villages. Not post-World War II apartment blocks but olive groves. Greece is a place you come to get lost in history, where you go back in time.
I’m not criticizing them, by the way. I’m fascinated with this phenomenon, which stretches back centuries, each new traveler to Greece declaring that something in the past, something more befitting of an ideal image, is far more real than the present staring him or her in the face. Heidegger found the Cycladic island of Delos his real Greece because it simultaneously revealed and concealed layers of being:
“Δἠλος, the manifest,” he called it, “the one that reveals and does not hide but, at the same time, the one that conceals and hides.”
Don’t think I’m not pointing to myself. Over the years I’ve grown to love the restless energy and multiple faces of Athens, but when I drive through the Peloponnese there’s something that makes me drop back in time and feel as though I’m witnessing the revelation of an absolute reality, beyond language, out of time, sublime, even as I know when the camera zooms in on the villages I will be seeing the reality of isolation and backbreaking work.
What earns the status of most real? The image that satisfyingly slots into the grooves of your expectations? The inescapably material evidence of grit and cigarette smoke and the stoniness of the stone? The breathtaking invisible that shines through the cracks of the visible? All I know is that I have to keep coming back.
When did Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” become a Christmas song? my friend Dan asked recently. I’ve noticed this too, and he’s right that “she tied you to a kitchen chair” feels not quite appropriate piped in for family shoppers. But I can see why “Hallelujah” has made its way onto the Christmas playlist. We want tunes that reflect how we really feel at this time of year: cold and broken, frayed, our strings sympathetically tuned to the song’s longing. (Other feeling-lonely candidates for Christmastime listening: Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York” and Jim James’s cover of “Rocket Man.” Along with Joni Mitchell’s “River” and Elvis’s “Blue Christmas” which are, of course, actual Christmas songs.)
There could be no better place to spend New Year’s Eve, I decided, than the Leonard Cohen room at Hydra Icons guesthouse on this artist-magnet island that exists somehow out of time, where Cohen tried in his way to be free, making a home and love and writing all those haunting timeless songs. This, I insisted, is where I will find inspiration for the new year. Hydra will be the balm to sooth the 2016-sick soul.
It’s been a weatherly challenge just to get here as day to day we’ve had to wait to see if boats can brave the wintry sea. Friends in Athens gently suggest other activities, other holiday venues, but I stubbornly persist. I don’t want to be entertained. I want to be lonely. I want to hike up to the monastery at the top of the island, to commune with donkeys and gulls and the merry band of island cats.
Sometimes you want a festive New Year’s Eve celebration. Sometimes you want a solitary sojourn with the one you love.
Happy new year, friends. May it bring you just what you need.
The worst and best I’ve seen of Greece are fused in a single event. A long chatty lunch with friends at our favorite seaside taverna is interrupted by the sight of a man running. He is young, dark-skinned, West African in appearance, his arms loaded down with sundresses to sell to lounging beachgoers. A hotel security guard, Greek, also young, is chasing him. He kicks the sundress-selling man to the rough pebbly ground and looms over him brandishing a Taser. Its crackle, startlingly loud, is itself an act of violence. No longer lounging, Greeks leap up from beach towels and from their chairs at the taverna, shouting at the security guard, waving him away, and rush to the injured man to help gather his scattered wares.
I witnessed this three years ago but it has returned to my mind all summer as I’ve followed the news of the refugees arriving daily to the Greek islands. What can you do? Extend the deeply-ingrained Greek hospitality, of course, but while your country is struggling to feed and employ its own? Joanna Kikissis, reporting from Lesvos on the humanitarian crisis for NPR, observed that both the Greeks and the tourists on the island overwhelmingly “want to help, and they don’t want to look away.” Nicolas Niarchos’ excellent story for The New Yorker highlights the generosity of locals and tourists in the Lesvos town of Molyvos (where I was happy to see a favorite taverna, The Captain’s Table, has become the center for volunteer action for Help For Refugees In Molyvos; all the more reason to support it the next time you’re there).
Journalism captures the heat and despair of the moment. Literature has the luxury of distance and reflection to slow down and extend and move inside the moment. Both know the power of the individual story to translate political and economic complexities into a tale the heart can hear.
Alexander Maksik’s 2013 novel A Marker to Measure Driftis such a work of literature. I first encountered it over a year ago but have returned to it and recommended it many times this summer.
It is the tale of a 24 year old Liberian woman named Jacqueline who fled that war-soaked land and has landed on the island of Santorini. As is true of many refugees around the world, Jacqueline was an educated professional from a prominent family in Liberia. But after the murder of her family and escape along the central Mediterranean route to Spain, she has arrived on Santorini with nothing but a change of clothes and memories she wants to keep at bay.
She is now alone in the world and must make her way. The daily struggle for mere survival takes up much of her time, of course, but Maksik gives Jacqueline a great dignity throughout as she moves from sleeping in a cave to creating a home in an abandoned building, and in some ways, if you decontextualized it, the novel could be categorized with adventure tales of characters who carve out domestic spaces for themselves in the woods or deserted islands.
It is a very interior novel. Maksik isn’t presenting reportage on global migration or critical commentary of the Taylor regime in Liberia. This isn’t travel writing about Santorini, either. The focus stays intimately in Jacqueline’s thoughts. We hardly even see her; beyond a fleeting glance in a bathroom mirror we are never given a description of Jacqueline as she is seen by others. Instead we travel with and within her as she moves both forward around the island and backward in memories that haunt her and in conversations with her dead mother, who is a constant companion.
“It is difficult,” she thinks, “to distinguish between memory and storytelling, between storytelling and experience, between this present life and the other.”
Jacqueline is from a privileged background (“the lucky classes,” as she puts it) and has the education and poise and wherewithal to choose, as travelers have long enjoyed, how to present herself. A Liberian on holiday, spending a leisurely summer strolling the beaches before heading off to graduate school at Columbia University: yes, that will be her persona. That will put people she encounters at ease. They won’t have to worry about her or fear her. But she also knows that she must always be conscious of her presence; she’ll never blend in with either the Greeks or the waves of white tourists. People will always notice her, whether with suspicion or sympathetic curiosity. They will always want to know her story.
In almost every instance she is treated with exquisite kindness by the Greeks and others on the island, especially by Katarina, an immigrant herself, hailing from Macedonia, and a waitress at a taverna in the picture-postcard town of Oia.
Katarina wants to know Jacqueline’s story—and by this time, nearing the end of the novel, we do too—and Maksik shifts from a third person omniscient narration to let Jacqueline tell it via dialogue, one long evening over ouzo in Oia. It is painful and Maksik doesn’t flinch from presenting it; but at the same time he doesn’t sensationalize the killings. It is horrifying; it is also readable. And, for this reader, it made me want to return to the first pages and begin reading again, now with the knowledge of what Jacqueline had been through and what haunted her mind.
For throughout the novel, what affects Jacqueline most deeply is the kindness of others: “It was so often relief that made her cry. Not pain or disappointment or horror or terror, but instead it was relief from those things. Relief and, sometimes still, love.”
By now you’ve probably seen this story—I like The Guardian’s version, by Helena Smith—of a Greek man who swept in to save Eritrean refugees whose boat capsized, “disintegrated” is how he put it, dissolved as if it were made of paper, off the coast of Rhodes. My friend Martha, who has a house in Rhodes, commented that it was fortunate the refugees were close to shore and that it was morning. Greeks in the cafes took notice quickly, many hopped in small seacraft or swam out to rescue. Wegasi Nebiat, whose parents “paid $10,000 for a voyage that would see her walk, bus, and fly her way to ‘freedom’,” has her sights are set on Sweden, not Greece, and the choice of Greece as an entryway to Europe was likely purely geographical—all those islands one could get a toehold on, then catch a ferry to Athens and be on your way—but this story fits into a longstanding narrative of travelers coming to Greece for a greater freedom than they have at home. In the earlier days of the 18th to 20th centuries the travelers were coming from the West—Britain, the United States—seeking relief from stultifying customs, sexual repressions, gender constraints. Greece, a place less free than their restrictive homes, gave them a comparative sense of liberty and license. Does Greece continue to be seen as a beacon of hope, a land of freedom, for the newcomers, those whose travel, if we can call it that, is forced?
When I returned to Athens last week the first thing I did, still in the fog of jetlag, was race over to the Athens & Epidaurus Festival to catch the final performance of We are the Persians! A documentary drama that spliced passages from Aeschylus’ Persians and Suppliants into real-life stories of recent refugees and immigrants to Greece from Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, it created a stirring and sobering look into their lives, in which the terror of war and daily uncertainty of life in a destruction zone has been replaced with the terror of interrogation, prolonged precarity, and the tedious humiliations of prejudice.
Directed by Yolanda Markopoulou, the play was a production of Station Athens, an art therapy organization for refugees and asylum seekers in Athens. Station Athens opens a portal to escape momentarily the relentless fight for mere existence and, using the meaning-making tools of theatre, film, and photography, transform memories into stories to be shared with one another and audiences hungry to know the hidden lives and inner worlds of these invisible men who work the margins of the streets.
Packed into the black box space on 260 Pireos, the theatre audience was tangibly sympathetic and, from what I could tell with my limited Greek, fully embracing the plight of the men.
This summer the island of Kos is the epicenter of a series of daily stories about the waves of refugees who, having paid large sums for the chance, make their voyage under cover of night, clinging to unseaworthy craft—in the starkest of contrasts to the holidaymakers on Kos making the reverse trip to the coast of Turkey paying very little for a breezy cruise on sturdy ferries. The Daily Mail has taken the crass road of fearmongering in their stories of the “Holiday from hell” in which your vacation will be ruined by the presence of Syrians paying to sleep in crowded conditions in an abandoned hotel (or, as that paper puts it, “bedding down as they plot their route to Britain”). The Guardian has presented a warmer, more sympathetic vision of the situation. In response to a woman from Germany who complains that tourists “come to get away from the terrible news of wars and whatnot, not to see it” and concludes, “they shouldn’t be allowed to land,” one of the “elderly fish sellers on the harbourside scolds her: ‘Lady, you’d rather have bodies on the beaches? Tsk. We knew war here too once.’”
P.S. Who has the right to live?
Anthropologist and Fulbright scholar Heath Cabot spent several years working with people “seeking to live tolerable, even ethically engaged, lives in ways that are often undone through forces outside their control.” She shares her discoveries in the book I next need to read, On the Doorstep of Europe: Asylum and Citizenship in Greece. In a lecture last night at the Athens Centre, which drew a crowd hailing from many nations, former asylum seekers alongside privileged expats and mobile travelers, all eager for an answer to Greece’s “other crisis,” she said that this was the central dilemma, the guiding question, of her work. And of our time. Who has the right to live?
I’ve been back from Greece for a month now. I long to be swimming in the Aegean, smelling salt rather than chlorine on my skin, looking down at little fish in the currents instead of at painted lane-markers as I make my laps in the pool at the Y. I miss the sound of the Greek language and the ping of delight when I comprehend something in the waves of conversation around me. But what I may miss most of all is the music.
Now, that may strike you as funny because while I can hardly import a Greek community, let alone the Aegean Sea, surely I can just pop in a cd or log on to hear all my favorite Greek tunes. What I miss, though, is not so much the recorded Greek music as the live music you hear all the time emanating from tavernas and cafes, sung by ordinary people.
Those of you who are Greek or who know Greece will find my most-longed-for song a conventional choice: “Sto Perigiali” (“On the Secret Seashore”) by Mikis Theodorakis, composed to the poem “Arnisi” (“Denial” or “Resistance”) by Nobel laureate George Seferis. (“On the secret seashore” is its first line.) From the first yearning strains of the bouzouki the music is so affecting you don’t need to understand Greek to be pulled in. Here’s a video with Theodorakis himself conducting and Manolis Mitsias singing. Have a listen:
I have a deep and personal love for this next version with tenor Mario Frangoulis. He’s so visibly charmed and moved by the audience and essentially lets them sing the song. It’s also from a concert at the Kallimarmaro Stadium, aka the 1896 Olympic stadium, behind which lies the Athens Centre and my home on Stilponos Street when I’m teaching abroad in Athens. In one lovely moment in the video the camera pans over the crowd to show Mt. Lykavittos in the background.
In my first semester of studying Modern Greek our professor Soterios assigned us Seferis’s “Arnisi” and the word junkie in me thrilled to translate γλυφό as “brackish.”
Here’s the English—not my own but a good translation by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard:
On the secret seashore
white like a pigeon
we thirsted at noon
but the water was brackish.
On the golden sand
we wrote her name;
but the sea-breeze blew
and the writing vanished.
With what spirit, what heart
what desire and passion
we lived our life: a mistake!
So we changed our life.
As you can see, the poem itself is a mysterious little piece, reminiscent of T. S. Eliot and Rilke. My diggings into the literary criticism on Seferis turn up little in the way of interpretation, other than that this was a very personal lyric, written in 1931 after a breakup with his first great love. Theodorakis swooped in with that heart-tugging, nostalgia-inducing music in 1961, which was banned, along with many of Seferis’ poems, when a military junta took over Greece in 1967. As the story goes, when the song was played at Seferis’ funeral in 1971 it transformed into a protest song, a song of the nation, which it has remained. The song version, with its repetition of the last two lines of every stanza, emphasizes a collective loss: “we thirsted at noon but the water was brackish; but the sea-breeze blew and the writing vanished; we lived our life a mistake! So we changed our life.”
(Yes, sharp-eyed poet friends and other grammar nerds, I deleted the colon in “we lived our life: a mistake!” Seferis never liked that Theodorakis eliminated his caesura and therefore changed his meaning. If you listen to Seferis reciting it, you hear his powerful emphasis of “lathos!” (“mistake!”) [There used to be a really cool bar in Nafplio called Lathos…])
Where you most want to hear this song is in a Greek taverna. The band plays the first few chords, or they waft over the stereo speakers, and the singing rises from the tables.
What I long for and complain about when I return to Minnesota is that you don’t hear people singing in restaurants. Maybe they’ll tap their feet a little, or when they’re really drunk, mumble-sing along to the chorus of “Hey Jude”; maybe they’re coaxed by the band to join in and do so from various feelings of obligation or desire. But when was the last time you saw and heard people sitting around a table on, say, a Sunday afternoon, unselfconsciously singing, letting the song stir them?
It’s times like these I envy my Mississippi relatives’ utter ease in breaking into song. I was raised between the South and Midwest, and though I’m more Midwestern in my reserved nature and desire for a year with four seasons, I yearn to sing without abandon songs so culturally rooted they feel a part of you: “This is my story, this is my song.”
One of the saddest lines in English drama is this, from Caryl Churchill’s Fen: “My mother always wanted to be a singer. That’s why she never sang.”
So let us sing.
How about another listen to “Sto Perigiali,” this time with a slideshow accompaniment of old black & white photographs of Greece? Nothing like that to get the nostalgia flowing.
What are the songs you love to sing? The ones that feel deeply rooted in you?
He is the cat of this port: still in grooming training for that macaroon coat, growing into those big-boy marmalade ears. One of the fishermen he’s befriended tossed him a handful of gavros—shiny silvery-skinned fish the size of sardines—but the seagulls swooped in and bullied him away from them. He’s hesitant now—that dazed expression is less an indication of sleepiness, I think, than of still figuring out the world—but he will soon learn, like the gypsy boy who appeared at my shoulder at dinner in Thessaloniki, hand out for money as he’d been instructed, but his face, not yet skilled in masking desires, clearly more interested in the three meatballs that remained on the platter in front of us. “Would you like the keftedes?” we asked. Deftly curling all three with one swoop, he popped a meatball into his mouth and disappeared around the corner to face his own seagulls.
When I tell you I’m spending a month on a Greek island, stop picturing those little whitewashed houses, a stark volcanic landscape, a cobalt sea. You’re imagining the Cycladic islands—Santorini, Mykonos, and their kind. Run your finger way up the map of the Aegean. I’m at the top, on Thasos: across the water from Kavala, closer to Istanbul than to Athens. On the clearest days, they tell me, you can see neighboring Mt. Athos, the Holy Mountain, though so far it has remained, appropriately enough, shrouded in a mystical (mist-ical, for the punsters among you: Dad) veil.
You need an artist’s palette to capture precisely all the colors the sea expresses from moment to moment: bottle green to Mexican glass blue to midnight blue. Densely clustered pine forests scent the island. Olive groves give it sustenance and livelihood, while individual trees generously shade each patio, which tend to be built, in the style of Odysseus & Penelope’s house, around the olive trees.
At Kyria Vaso’s Rooms to Let my front porch overlooks bushes bursting with lilac-colored hydrangeas, roses in profusion, and everywhere, in every pot (not just here but around the village), the exact same color of magenta geraniums, as if they all descended from the same mother.
Here’s to becoming like the octopus, which has a naked mind: every ripple of feeling that passes through it is expressed upon its skin. The skin will change colors, like a mood ring was supposed to do, to communciate the octopus’s state of being, flushing this way with rage and that way with love. No layers of reserve to protect them from predators, or from life.
In my ongoing and most pleasurable if quixotic quest to capture the precise charms that make people fall in love—and stay in love—with Greece (impossible, yes, but still, προσπαθώ [I try]), today I interview essayist and poet Sherri Moshman Paganos, who first stepped foot in Greece in the late 1970’s and returned to live permanently 30 years ago.
What a powerful initiator into love of Greece: Kazantzakis. As you said last year in the Greek-American Greek News, “Even before I came to Greece, I had felt an almost mythical connection with Crete from reading Nikos Kazantzakis’ autobiographical novel Report to Greco.” This book has been on my you-know-this-will-be-life-changing-so-why-haven’t-you-yet-read-it list for years now. How about a tantalizing précis to send all of us to the bookshelves? Which passages have been seared into your mind?
Yes, I’d say the book really connected me with Crete, though I think the spiritual connection has much to do with reading it at a certain stage of my life. Honestly I think if I picked up Report to Greco now, I might get a little impatient with Kazantzakis’ excesses of emotion. Still, don’t take it off your life-changing book list! A précis of the novel? Hmm, that’s a bit like asking for a summary of a Christopher Nolan or David Lynch film, but I’ll give it a try!
Kazantzakis is telling his story to his Cretan spiritual ancestor El Greco, one of his heroes, along with Odysseus, Christ, Buddha, Nietzsche and Lenin (interesting list!) It’s called an autobiographical novel because although the events in his life are there, more important, he’s looking back on his spiritual and intellectual life journey. Orwell once said that “an autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful.” But in an autobiographical novel, the events may not be true. The method “by which I confront reality,” Kazantzakis writes, “is brighter, better, more suitable to my purpose.” So he embellishes the truth if he thinks it makes a better story or it helps prove a point. It’s a book to savor, like eating yogurt and honey, for along the road to maturity he has many parables and philosophical musings.
But for me the best part of the book is how he uses the language of the senses to evoke a feeling; here’s a description of his childhood, where he’s reading the saints’ legends to his family and to others in the town:
“each evening I sat on my little stool amid the basil and marigolds of our courtyard and read out loud all the various ordeals the saints had endured to save their souls. The neighbors congregated around me with their sewing or work-some knitted socks-others ground coffee or cleaned mustard stalks. They listened and little by little our courtyard began to ring with the lamentations for the saints’ sufferings and torments.”
Kazantzakis wrote Report to Greco toward the end of his life and sensed that he had little time left on this earth. He yearned to beg from people, not for money, but for time. “Alms brothers! A quarter of an hour from each of you. Oh for a little time, just enough to let me finish my work. Afterwards, let Charon come.” Charon came too soon, before he had time to polish some of the rough points of the book. But I think the rough points hardly matter.
When he was born in 1883 in Iraklio (Megalo Kastro then), Crete was still under Turkish dominion, which affected him deeply. His paternal grandfather fought the Turks and his father was always described as dark and frightening, while his mother’s family were full of light and joy. These two strains tugged at him throughout his life, along with other contrasts, those who are pencil pushers like himself contrasted with men of action, like Alexis Zorba, who he immortalized of course in his novel Zorba the Greek.
Life at this time was a grim sort of existence (“life rolled along noiselessly—serious and sparing of words”), and the beautiful and sublime were always mixed with harsh reality. He writes about a massacre that occurred when he was a child (“for the first time my childish mind saw life’s true face behind the beautiful mask of sea, verdant fields, fruit-laden vines, wheaten bread and a mother’s smile. Life’s true face: the skull.”)
Some people feel everything deeply, others go through life with blinders, they don’t notice the colors of the sky, the shape of the moon, the almond blossoms, they don’t question what the purpose of life is. Throughout the book Kazantzakis is a restless soul with a “hungry heart” like his hero Odysseus, the Ulysses of Dante and Tennyson, who can’t rest from adventure and can’t stand to stay in Ithaca once he finally arrives. Life must be an “ascent,” a word he uses often in Report to Greco, a struggle. “I vowed never to shut myself up inside four walls of an office, never to come to terms with the good life,” he writes. Most of us do end up inside four walls, but we identify with that yearning to escape. We follow him in his travels around mainland Greece, Mt. Athos, Italy, the Sinai, Jerusalem, Vienna, Berlin, Moscow, and then always his return to his beloved Cretan soil. He’s searching for meaning in life but he always grounds us in the senses. “Within me, even the most metaphysical problem takes on a warm physical body which smells of sea, soil and human sweat,” he writes. Odors especially matter to him as a young boy, and he identifies villagers by their smell (one neighbor always smelled of cinnamon, another of warm soil): “The sense of smell was the very first to grow firm within me. It was the first to start establishing order over chaos.”
The power of the book is how we see ourselves in so much of what he writes—not only in our own searching for answers about our life on earth, but in the curiosity of the child, in the rebellion of the adolescent. In one passage Kazantzakis asks El Greco for some advice. His spiritual ancestor answers him “Reach what you can.” Kazantzakis is disappointed and asks him for something more difficult, more “Cretan.” The answer he receives: “Reach what you cannot.”
And with that, you’ve moved Report to Greco to the top of my summer reading queue; one never knows just when Charon will be waiting. Another excuse, too, to give Eleftheroudakis some business as soon as I land in Athens. But what about your own writing? Kazantzakis has been a longtime influence. How so?
I love the way he distills experience with sense details. Right from the first lines he gives us a writer at work: “I collect my tools: sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing, intellect,” he writes. “Night has fallen, the day’s work is done. I return like a mole to my home, the ground.”
As writers, we wonder how to “glean” from our “teeming brain” experiences from our life. Seemingly insignificant details spring into our minds from “the trap door of memory,” as Kazantzakis calls it. He gives the following details he recalls from his own life:
“a flowering pomegranate tree near Kalamata, a fragrant Santorinian melon so big I could hardly put my arms around it, a swarthy little girl selling jasmine in Naples, the joyously triumphant clamor from the wooden clogs of a widow dancing at a wedding in the courtyard of her house, the two great arcs formed by the eyebrows of a Circassian woman in Moscow.”
All these rich sense details make his experience of the world become ours. Kazantzakis seems to like these lists of images that bring happiness, or that characterize a life. In his novel Christ Recrucified, when old captain Fortunas dies, he struggles to remember his myriad experiences, but all that comes to mind is one afternoon sitting in a garden with “a little fine rain, three friends, a few red flowers.” You can see in the book what molds one into a writer. I see young Kazantzakis much like Joyce’s character in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the child who loves words, the child all confused about the world around him and its strange rules. Kazantzakis as a boy mixes people in his “yeasty childhood mind”: Christ and his grandfather blend into one, his teacher and an angel unite, and his mother blends into their pet canary and the acacia flower. Even to this day, he writes, “I can’t smell an acacia or hear a canary without feeling my mother rise from the grave and unite with the fragrance and the canary’s song.”
Greece is a fertile birthing-ground for writers for this very reason—the intensity with which it educates one’s senses. How has living there shaped your writing life? (I’m thinking of course of the landscape and culture and language and literary history but also of the human connections and the practicalities of the writer’s life—e.g., writing communities and outlets for publication).
Beyond the inspiration from the landscape – the light, the sea, the pine and cypress forests – and the Greek people, I think living here helped me break into publishing some of my essays and articles on Greek life in the magazine Odyssey. I didn’t really send anything to Odyssey though until 2006 – in the meantime, I was filling notebooks with observations about Greek life. Raising my children and teaching took up all my time though, both at high school and freshman comp classes at the American College of Greece. After reading a stack of student essays on say, the use of technology in education, can you sit and write something creative? Here I miss creative writing groups and classes, which I was involved with in New York. I’m not saying they don’t exist here, but they’re harder to find or take part in. The catalyst actually for my submitting to Odyssey was a creative writing class I sat in on at the college. Basically I hate to admit it but (like most people I guess) I need a push to make me work.
In My Report to Greco, the lovely elegiac essay you wrote for Odyssey, we learn about your initial voyage to Greece. Tell us about those first captivating moments.
My first glimpse of Athens was in the darkness of 4:30 a.m., arriving on a flight from London. I made my way to the Plaka, followed the steps and the homemade wooden signs up to the Acropolis, and there watched the night sky soften and slowly bathe with light. Sunrise on the Acropolis wasn’t a bad way to start my love affair with the country.
So: in those days you could walk up at any time? No gates?
Well, I don’t remember a gate, but there must’ve been one! You know how the haze of the past can obscure your vision. I can see clearly though climbing on the Parthenon. I also remember that the city in August was hot, noisy and chaotic, and the next day I found myself on the overnight boat to Crete. The journal of the trip I called (what else?) “In the footsteps of Zorba.” At the time, I and other tourists harbored a secret wish to dance syrtaki with Anthony Quinn barefoot on the beach in Crete. (Five years ago I was lucky enough to meet and interview the film’s Oscar winning cinematographer Walter Lasally on the same Cretan beach near Hania where much of Zorba was filmed.) Everywhere on the trip I carried Report to Greco with its reddish cover showing an ethereal-looking El Greco glancing to one side. Over the years, the picture of El Greco on the dampstained crumbling cover has grown ever fainter as if he’s not giving up his secrets so easily.
After this brutally cold and depressingly long winter in Minnesota, I long to return to Greece—next week, readers!—soak the warmth into my bones, and dive back in to all the pleasures of the Greek summer you detail in the Greek News interview: outdoor cinemas, no-hurry voltas at sunset to bask in the sudden goldness of it all, lingering taverna dinners. What are you most looking forward to this summer?
Of course, we didn’t suffer anything like your winter, but still, summertime has so many treasures. I love how everything moves outdoors. I can’t wait for the usual summer concerts, theater, summer cinema; every June I’m waiting for the outdoor cinema across the street from my house to come out with its summer schedule. Watching a film under the stars, smelling jasmine, honeysuckle and basil, surrounded by the deep pink of the bougainvillea shrubs, is one of the great summer pleasures. Other summer pastimes I (and so many others) look forward to: drinking frappé in a cafe, preferably sitting by the sea, swimming, reading whatever what I want, just enjoying dinner on my balcony in the evening, surrounded by my plants, talking with my husband, listening to music, feeling the dryness of the air.
Finally about food, there’s too much to say, but briefly: summer fruit and vegetables in season. Food that’s fresh with taste, without worrying about light or low-fat! To add to the catalogue of simple pleasures: eating chatopodi sti schara (grilled octopus) with fresh lemon squeezed on it at a fish taverna on the beach under the brightness of the moon: is there anything else you need to be happy? Now I’ve mentioned two of the three foods in the title of Christopher Bakken’s book, which I can’t wait to read.
I’m usually looking forward to taking the slow boat to Crete (Hania and the southwestern part) or to a Cycladic island where I love the starkness of the landscape and the pungent smell of thyme. This year there’s an irony in my summer plans. I’ll miss four weeks of the Greek summer; of all places I’m going on a cruise in Alaska, the birthday treat of my father turning 90 in August, so I’ll be shivering in the Alaska glaciers. (But a happy birthday to my Dad!) Even though I wrote this poem “Birthday Wish” to myself, inspired by the Cretan landscape, I dedicate it to him. It’s a wish for calmness that I also dedicate to Kazantzakis!
On my birthday let me be as serene
as the seagulls gathering in the sea at Kyani Akti
bobbing in the gentle waves
till one, then others flap their wings soaring to the sky
circling till they return to their lazy languid sea rest.
No hurries no cares no worries.
Let me have the wisdom of the nearby river,
the winter snows of the Lefka Ori mountains
melting, feeding into the sea, let the coldness
the strength flow into me.
Give me the lushness of Spiros’ garden,
palms, fruit trees, banana leafs open to the sky,
rhythms of the sunset over Souda Bay,
later the rising of the waning moon.
And make me like the hardy almerikia,
tamarisk trees bending by the sea
sending out salt through their feathery leaves,
offering the gift of shade, of coolness
enduring the harsh dryness,
trees of survival and grace.
* * *
And then I’ll be back again to dive into the Aegean…
I have a special fondness for books about Greece that prove themselves up to the task of loving it properly. Christopher Bakken‘s recent Honey, Olives, Octopus is one of these, and I am delighted to interview him for The Vale of Soul-Making.
Honey, Olives, Octopus, your intricate tapestry of travelogue and memoir and manifesto for good, local food, is also clearly a love letter to Greece. As readers of this blog know, the sentiments you express are ones I share: “I go back to Greece as often as I can, but that’s never often enough, since my love affair with the country hasn’t dulled one bit”; “while I’m not Greek by birth, I feel more at home there than almost anywhere else on the planet” (xvii). You’ve traveled quite a bit, from what I can tell. Why, precisely, is it Greece you feel at home in? Why, for you, is Greece the country you’ve fallen in love with?
This is a question I ask myself a lot, and others have asked me too, but I still don’t know the answer. As it turns out, love isn’t so easy to explain, even the love of place.
Part of the answer probably has to do with timing: I already loved the IDEA of Greece before I moved there at age twenty-four, but actually being there at that moment, just I was expanding the contours of myself, made me pretty easy to woo. And the place just knocked me out. First, with its raw physical beauty. Later, with much more subtle charms. As I explored the country by motorcycle, leaving a trail of drachmas and empty plates in my wake, I found myself being stripped bare—I was alone a lot my first years in Greece and suffered a glorious education of the senses there, pitching my little red tent in archeological sites and on hidden spits of sand.
I’d traveled a lot before that, but no place had quite so altered me. By the time I returned to the U.S. to finish graduate school, I had a Greek self, I might say, and knew I’d never be the same.
Then there is the food: still fresh from the sea, austere, and brimming with sunlight. Like the landscape itself.
Can I ask you to go back to that original IDEA of Greece and describe it for us? From what was it born? (I’m perhaps overly curious because I lack such a tale of conception myself and seem to have landed at the old Gazi airport in May 2000—as a last-minute companion for my father on one of those university alumni tours—with no longing, no romanticized notions, no concrete expectations. Of course I had read Aeschylus and looked forward to the ancient theatre at Epidauros but my dreams of myself lay in Britain. Yet within two days , my journal attests,I was taken with something in the landscape and people and myself in that place, as if it were the unnameable thing that had been missing in my life.)
Before I actually went there, the idea of Greece was primarily a literary one. Every image I had of the place was shaped by a slew of art history courses and some blood-spattered images out of Homer and Company—Greece was a whitewashed, attractively ruined Arcadia, a conglomerate of my pastoral imagination. It didn’t occur to me that it was a modern place at all.
But I felt that it was a kind of elsewhere too, perched on the periphery of Europe, and looking to the East more than the West, and I suspected that it held secrets I wanted to know. My first intellectual mentor told me that the only way to properly “finish my education” was to wander around Greece, preferably sooner than later. So I guess I already believed the place would teach me something.
And I had Greece in mind long ago when I jotted this sentence from one of Joseph Brodsky’s essays into my journal: “There are places where history is inescapable, like a highway accident—places where geography provokes history.” I suspected Greece was exactly that kind of place. And of course I was right.
One of the things I’ve noticed in my reading of many travelogues and memoirs about Greece is this same pattern, this same narrative arc: traveler romanticizes Greece, then visits / moves to / sets up house in the country, becomes disillusioned, primarily by Greek people (almost never by the landscape), but eventually grows to love this “real” Greece, warts and all. I’m guilty of a bit of this myself, or at least I capitalize on it in my study abroad course, “In Byron’s Shadow: Romanticizing and Realizing Greece,” which explores this arc through writer-travelers’ experiences alongside students’ own. You, however, manage to avoid a lot of this: from the get-go, though you write of longing for Greece, your romanticizing is tempered, and you refreshingly never present the Greeks you encounter as caricatures. Was this something you were conscious of as you were writing and revising the book?
I was very conscious of this for several reasons. What you are really asking, I think, is how you write about Greece without falling prey to the clichés we associate with the place? Well, you try hard to present things as they are…..warts and all, as you say.
The book’s integrity depended upon that sort of honesty. First, tourism is the arch-enemy of the cultural and culinary traditions I’m celebrating in this book. To romanticize the place would require adopting the tourist’s shallow perspective: in that lie, every ruin is bathed in cerulean, every beach is pollution-free, every Greek person is a kind of noble European rustic, and every meal is a wine-sodden symposium complete with dancing and the breaking of plates. Given the current economic crisis, which is very real, I felt like it was crucial to show how desperate things currently are on real Greek soil. Also, food is a great leveler: you can’t really lie to the tongue. Anyone who has eaten the artificial Greek food they serve in tourist restaurants knows that. Following the trail of authentic culinary traditions led me way off the beaten path, and it required an understanding of recent Greek history. When you do that, those romantic ideas become unstable pretty quickly, in spite of the undeniable beauty of the place.
Second, the Greeks I interact with in my book are real people, many of them friends. Again: warts and all. This presented an even bigger problem, since several of the characters you meet in my chapters are, in fact, completely larger-than-life. There’s the inimitable Tasos of Thasos, who is a kind of superhero of energetic Greekness, and there’s George Kaltsas, my philosophizing hotel-managing mountain-climbing compadre. The challenge, in certain ways, was to let them speak for themselves, which meant letting their actions and dialogue speak. I needed to let them be who they are. Lucky for me, their reality is again more interesting than caricature.
When one of my friends met Tasos of Thasos in the flesh for the first time, she looked at me and said: “I thought you were exaggerating his character, but I now see that you were actually exercising enormous restraint. This guy’s charisma is unbelievable.”
Fasolada: tasty, humble, warming bean soup.
Thank you for celebrating the chickpea along with the other more expected, more stereotypically Greek foods. I too seek out fasolada in the winters and love roasted chickpeas and greens. Were there other foods you considered including in the book?
So manythings, yes! Limiting myself to only eight spectacular dishes, each representing one “element” of the Greek table, also required a lot of restraint. I sneak in references to a lot of other dishes in the narrative recipes between each chapter, which allow me to talk about the many things a Greek pitacan contain (it’s nothing like our idea of pita), or about the different salates available on the Platonic Greek menu of my imagination. I think I could have written a book on the hundreds of vegetable dishes alone. At the base of Greek cuisine is a foundation of beans and local produce and, thanks to poverty and necessity, generations of Greek cooks have performed wizardry with just those ingredients.
But, just off the top of my head, I could have written other chapters on: the myriad delicious weeds of Crete; the salted pastes of Lesbos; the saffron of Kozani; the grilled sardines of Kavala; the noodles of Arahova above Parnassus; the sea succulents of Thasos; the smoked cheeses of Metsovo; the tsoureki of Easter in Patras; the kokoretsi (guts wrapped in guts) of Livadia; the chestnuts of Pelion; the late-night bougatsa joints of red-light Thessaloniki; the candied eggplants of Corfu; the bottarga of Messalonghi; the halvah of Macedonia; the stuffed cuttlefish of Ourzeri Aristotelous; the imam bayildi of Alexandroupoli; the capers of the Chora of Naxos; the asparagus of Keramoti; the snails and cherry tomatoes of Santorini; the trigona of Panorama; the fried gavros of Halkidiki; the melamakarona of Athenian Christmas; and the thousand funky, delicious fishes extracted from nets on every harbor front of every island. Sigh. The place makes me hungry.
I love that you chose to highlight less-touristed places in Greece and I found your book an eloquent argument for ecotourism as well as a celebration of traditional agriculture. Is that what you intended? Do you foresee—and wish for—a future ecotourism boom in Greece? Would it be beneficial, or even possible, in a place such as Kythira? Your chapter on the honey there was particularly moving.
Well, as I crankily admitted above, I’m fundamentally against tourism, period. When I lead students abroad I always ask them to consider the difference between the tourist and the traveler, which ultimately comes down to a desire for transformation. Tourists remain closed while they are in motion, and are happy if the visited place serves as a picturesque backdrop against which they look good in photographs. The traveler is porous and wants to learn and be changed by the movement across the threshold of a foreign border. Needless to say, tourism as it is currently promoted in Greece is neither interesting, nor sustainable: it turns both land and sea into a garbage dump.
That said, I am completely in favor of travel to Greece and it pleases me a lot that people are already following the meandering goat path of my book to places like Kythira. Greece offers the possibility of transformation like no other place I’ve visited, especially if you stray from the well-worn highways.
Done right, agritourism and ecotourism can serve as economically viable alternatives to the cruise ship and group herd mentality. It puts money into the hands of farmers, bakers, fishermen, winemakers, and small-business owners, instead of conglomerate tour operators and trinket shops. For that reason, I am in favor of it.
But more than anything, I’m in favor of landing in a new place, setting out without a fixed itinerary, and following one’s hunger. That’s exactly what I did in my book and I can’t think of a better way to travel.
One of the loveliest lines in the book is a quotation from your friend George: “We live in a sphere, not on a line, and we must find a way to fill it.” Will you reflect on that, and on him?
Perhaps my comment above, about setting out without a fixed itinerary, is a smaller way of stating what George said.
For too many people, that fixed itinerary is a line that goes something like this: birth, school, job, retirement, death. You live by gaining things while emptying yourself out.
Anyone who has been stricken by a sudden, potentially fatal illness, as my friend George has, pretty quickly sees the narrowness of that approach to being. George decided a long time ago that he couldn’t live, or die, like that. I’ve never met a person more determined to fill himself out with experience and ideas and new places. Like me, he goes forever in search of the single best place to swim on the planet (Greece is, of course, the best place to embark on such a quest). If, after that, he can drink a good glass of wine while still dripping salt water, even better. He is like a shark: if he stops moving too long, he’ll suffocate. That kind of desire for being. That kind of desire to know. I’m something of a shark myself.
You’re also program director for writing workshops in Thessaloniki and Thasos. Please say more: what’s involved? What kinds of writers do you tend to get? What are the workshops like?
Since you have read my book, you’ll understand the significance of what I’m about to say: our workshops allow people to read and write for a month on a cliff overlooking three archeological sites, not to mention three astonishing beaches, while being served exquisite food by Tasos of Thasos. That’s right, that very Tasos is our waiter.
We have four workshops, with eight participants each: Carolyn Forché leads the poets; Jayne Anne Phillips the fiction writers; Natalie Bakopoulos the essayists and nonfiction writers; and I run a food and travel writing course. Mine is the least traditional of the three, since it is part cooking class, part action-adventure experience (we go octopus hunting, for example), and part literary workshop. Basically, imagine a month of food pornography and island adventure. We read some excellent books too.
Most of the writers in our cohort already have experience on the page; many are already working on a book manuscript. We spend our mornings writing and discussing the words we produce, then spend the afternoon swimming and reading. In the evening, my friend Joanna offers Greek language instruction. That’s usually followed by a poetry or prose reading in the olive grove, or down in the temple. Then dinner and dancing until we collapse. The next day we do it again.
People get a lot of serious work done there and it’s inspiring to have so many artists brought together on one peninsula on the very edge of Greek earth. I confess that it is an unreasonably beautiful place to do such work.
And, there are still a few spots left in each of our workshops. We’ll be reading applications till all workshops fill. Check us out. www.writingworkshopsingreece.com
“People are getting INVOLVED — Folks are DOING something, and that is a magical thing to watch, and even more magical to be involved in,” my dear friend Martha wrote to me this spring from Athens.
The news of Greece, as you know, hasn’t been good. Austerity strategies are a cruel joke, based on false premises. Homelessness, drug addiction, prostitution are on the rise in Athens, as you can see captured in Angelos Tzortzinis’s heartbreaking photos.
Maybe this is all you’ve heard about Greece—one wave after another of failed bailouts and government infighting. Maybe you’ve tuned out, writing it off as a hopeless cause. Beautiful country, great weather, hopeless politics, nothing to be done. Maybe, then, you need to learn about a remarkable crisis response in Athens: the Metropolitan
Community Clinic at Helliniko, a free clinic that has sprung up to help the unemployed, uninsured, and/or impoverished Greeks, immigrants, and others who are falling through the widening cracks in the system.
(The space, may I add, is an inspired repurposing of a former American Air Force base.)
The clinic’s been catching some much-deserved media attention: this BBC News Magazine story, a visit from Naomi Klein (scroll down to 29 May 2013). But I know about it from Martha and her husband Mark, who have been volunteering there since its inception (read her quoted in the BBC story). Not the type of folks who sit soliloquizing while something is rotten in the state, they have been translating materials for the clinic’s website, sorting medicines for the storeroom, listening to patients’ stories, chipping in to pay for medicines to keep people going, providing good will and hope.
An authentic hope, as my colleague Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer puts it—one which “pays attention to problems as they actually are to the best of our understanding, even if problems are grave and solutions are demanding or uncertain.” Not the feeble wishful thinking, the “optimism disconnected from reality” that passes for hope in most of our public discourse (and private conversations, for that matter).
Outside of Greece we’re always reading about the high unemployment rate, especially for young people, who are depicted as futureless. In contrast, Martha sees their vibrant creativity at work: “The young people will save us. There are so many new ideas, initiatives – young folks coming up with wonderful things – ranging from apps that can be used by free clinics to track medications to fun ads for Greek tourism. Wonderful stuff.”
One of my writing idols Rebecca Solnit profiles the ways communities can rise up in crisis situations: the generosity that individuals show to one another, the calm they find together at the center of the storm. Instead of complaining about how the situation will never be ideal, we could be heroes building on hope, knowing that “to be hopeful means to be uncertain about the future, to be tender toward possibilities, to be dedicated to change all the way down to the bottom of your heart.”
In 1822 Byron wrote to his friend and banker Douglas Kinnaird, “the longer I live – the more I perceive that Money (honestly come by) is the Philosopher’s Stone. . . . I want to get a sum together to go amongst the Greeks or Americans [he meant South Americans] – and do some good.” He did just that: got a sum together and spent the last 100 days of his life trying to do some good in Greece.
The conference theme was the politics of poetry (and poetry of politics), highlighted by a keynote address by Professor Roderick Beaton, whose new book Byron’s War narrates the trajectory of Byron’s life that led him from romantic young traveler and Romantic poet to statesman working for the Greek cause.
Much of what Byron faced in 1824 he would in 2013: petty bickering and mutual undermining between factions who should be working together for a common solution, economically-interested meddling from European leaders who wanted their own piece of Greece, quiet indifference from the many. The venture, then as now, was fraught with uncertainty: are you funding the right people, is your money being used effectively? Will any lasting good come from this? And what precisely do the words “right” and “effectively” and “good” in this situation mean?
It’s easiest to do nothing. But Byron, and Martha and Mark, and countless unsung volunteers, put their philosophers’ stones to good use and sprang into action. Byron’s death in Greece galvanized a movement, and a mythology. Martha is more sanguine: “we will survive and will come out of this different, utterly changed, and pretty much the same.”
As we walked out of the dark movie theatre we had the same complaint. Why so little depiction of Greece? We need more Greece! The Before Midnight crew set up shop there for some time, filming on location in the southern Peloponnese, giving us glimpses of the Kalamata airport, a drive-by of the ruins of Pylos, some lovely scenes of the late writer Patrick Leigh Fermor’s house (see more on the Patrick Leigh Fermor blog), a great walkabout of the village of Kardamyli, a twinkly-lighted bay backdrop to a café at sunset and nearly midnight. (Readers in Greece: where is that teeny Byzantine church? I loved it!)
But so much of the film took place inside a rental car and a hotel room (well-chosen, by the way, for its banal luxury). This lent the scenes an appropriately claustrophobic feel, but I was longing for you, Richard Linklater, to let your director of photography, Christos Voudouris, burst in with a bunch of extraneous scenery for a pure pleasure indulgence. There are so many fans of Celine and Jesse that Before Midnight will be stimulating the Peloponnesian economy in no time but just think how much more you could have done.
Maybe I wanted to look at the backdrop not just because I’m in love with Greece but because I wanted somewhere else to fix my gaze but on the characters. In Before Sunset we’re watching the faces of two people falling in love, gingerly cautious about giving too much away but in every frame and every facial flicker dazzled with their good fortune of reuniting. The Paris they walk through mirrors that, and the long interior scenes—inside Shakespeare & Company bookstore, the café, Celine’s apartment—are the high rather than low points, charming interior scenes that reflect the longing for love, the hopeful reaching out between the two. Like everyone else in the movie theatre in Chelsea, I sighed with delight at the most-exquisitely-perfect ending of Before Sunset. And when Before Midnight finally opened in Minneapolis yesterday I was there, front row in the balcony, sharing the loveseat and popcorn bag with my beau, for the very first showing.
The Greece pictured looked worn and sad, like the too-realistic depiction of a romance that’s become mundane, a portrayal of two people who constantly bicker, harbor suspicions of one another, find ways to avoid intimacy. Yeah, I know. Apologies to Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke. It’s not you, it’s me. The film is beautiful, painful, precisely written, so real it feels voyeuristic. What I’m frustrated with is the failure of our narrative imagination—that we, culturally speaking, can’t seem to find or create a narrative for romantic partnership other than one that peaks at courtship and falls inexorably into boredom and long-simmering resentment.
What if the film opened to reveal Jesse and Celine, nine years down the road, more intimate with one another, taking more joy in one another’s presence? Not holding hands and skipping through the clover, but using language as a way of growing closer and more open rather than as a way of picking each other apart and donning armor. Multiple choice answers: (a)Too sentimental? (b) Mere fantasy? (c) Just not possible? (d) OK, maybe possible, but not with children?
I know it’s a form of pathetic fallacy but that Greek landscape would look brighter, more hopeful, with a little tenderness.