Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Όλοι μαζί

Easter celebrations recede. Four days of sunny weather, are followed by rain pattering down since before midnight. I light the stove, to stay warm as I dress after a shower. The sky's clearing, light grey to sepia over the mainland, the sea striped silver by narrow rays of light. Lin, a quarter awake, tucks herself deeper in the bedclothes. I creak and stretch, the stove clicks and hums.
Most of yesterday was spent eating, drinking and chatting in Effie and Adoni’s garden across the path between our houses. More than a score of friends and relatives came and went  - from far Crete, the Mani Μάνη at the end of Taygetos, from bustling Athens and Thessaloniki - as well as locals including Lefteri, whose home this Easter is full to the brim with family. There was village wine in pop bottles, green salads, tzadziki, cheeses, different meats from the barbeque, beef, lamb, liver, bread, pasta and mince, macaroni and later cakes that made mere sugar want to give up and go home. Especially delicious was a dish made of oranges, somewhere between a cake and a pie. Music played, some danced and – for goodness sake – plates and tiles were smashed and we laughed a lot.
Effie and Adonis
Beforehand, just after eleven on Monday, Lin and I had joined the circuit of the village led by raised banners, the choir, the full village band playing happy tunes, and no longer the epitafio but another hand-born platform showing Christ soaring from the tomb, guards with shields and weapons hurled away astonished and blinded by the force of the light around him.
At Paul and Cinty’s we stopped for tea as the procession continued down Democracy Street.
Mark asks us to tea at Paul and Cinty's
The day before that, as Saturday switched to Sunday, we heard the distant boom of fireworks in the city on the horizon, the closer detonations in the black above in Sokraki, before our village erupted with fireworks and gunshots to announce the Resurrection, Anastasis, Ανάστασις.
“Cinty and me were in town” said Paul to me later “We watched fireworks going up from villages all along the mountains.”
<Όλοι μαζί> “All together” cried the Pappas from the stage, all lit up <Χριστός ανέστη!> “Christ is risen” Dad first taught me when I joined the Easter celebration in Athens – in a crowd of many thousands in 1957 – that the proper reply is <Αλήθος ανέστη!> “Arisen indeed!”
Waiting for the Anastasis in Ano Korakiana
** **
A little earlier we’d queued for a flame for our candles outside the rood screen in Ag. Georgious, surrounded by golden illustrations disappearing into the dark of the high roof, hidden by a hundred lights on the church’s grand chandelier. We nursed the candles home to sketch a fourth cross on the lintel. In the crowd there is the transformation of faces from watching and thinking to a wreaths of smiles as people recognize and stroll over to greet friends and relatives, and sometimes to extend a greeting to strangers. This year our pool of familiar faces has increased. People we feel we know, others we see a lot but who through our shyness or theirs, exchange tentative nods and others who will stand and walk close, who we pass every day but don’t quite know how or if to contact. We were saying more ‘Chronia Pollas’ ‘Kalo Paschas’ and replying <Αλήθος ανέστη!>. This year we met Stephi and Wesley who have a studio up a canton near the bandstand. Wesley confided that some years ago there’d been a meeting to debate whether the village should have a taverna, maybe two, and attract more visitors. “80% voted that they’d like to leave their village as it is” “But that doesn’t mean they don't welcome strangers, I’m sure” I said <Όχι, Αλήθος> “No indeed” My feelings for Ano Korakiana are such that I can not speak them without getting such a lump of joy in my throat that I embarrass myself let alone others.
** **
Όλοι μαζί
On Sunday, lamb roast at Mark and Sally’s, the spit on the edge of their broad foyer - where a pair of swallows have returned to nest within inches of our heads - the party on their balcony under a sprouting vine, overlooking, so it seems, all Corfu south of the mountains behind us. We were British or Australian and so I, of course, talk a lot, no longer, subdued by my barbarian ignorance in Greek company.
“But” Sally, who does speak Greek, said kindly to my great pleasure “I can sense you getting more confident with the words, Simon.” It's not her style to say things just to be nice.
I guess conversations across languages always start with a growing body of nouns; monosyllabic chat supported by gestures, and go on from there, we hope.
We began eating around midday and watched the sunset. In between we’d fired shotguns in the air, eaten spitted lamb, sausages and kokoretsi, cracked each others' red-dyed hard-boiled eggs as in conkers, exchanged kronia pollas <Χρόνια πολλά!> and kalo pascas <Κάλο Πάσχα>, kissed hullo and goodbye on both cheeks, embracing. Is this gradual assimilation?
** ** **
My greatgrandmother, Lucy Halkett, who encouraged me to call her what I’d called her from my cot – Gaga - once muttered incomprehensibly “we thought Oscar was a fool taking on Queensbury” and “I was with Edmund Gosse in Trafalgar Square on election night – every time a seat went to the Liberals up went a red rocket, to the Tories, a blue” and “We were in a hotel in Kristiania and I saw Ibsen, through a window, combing his leonine locks” “Who, Gaga?” “I asked him to sign my copy of Hedda Gabler, which he did.” Aged three or four I’d climb into her bed at her cottage in Itchen Abbas, a few feet down a green carpeted landing from my nursery in which hung a print of Vermeer’s girl with a pearl earring and, over my bed, a watercolour of a sunny view of the sea, a small distant steamer, a brush smudge, coasting between me and a low stretch of east coast. Tucked in beside her she’d read me fairy stories and legends about the Minotaur, the Golden Fleece, about Baucis and – what was the other’s name? – and the drowned village, about Robin Hood and King Arthur, and Pooh Bear (the only one that bored me even then) and telling me about the seascape reading me Masefield’s poem Cargoes with its quinquireme of Nineveh and a dirty tramp steamer with salt-caked smokestack carrying Tyne coal, road-rails, pig-lead, firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays, so that painlessly and cosy, leaning on her downy pillows I learned to read. She also taught me about looking after a book; “never turn down a page to keep your place; never turn back the spines on themselves; never write in a book.”
I’ve been disobedient, liking paperbacks I can read them on beaches, stain with messy fingers from a picnic, annotate, fold the tip of a page to mark my place, the bottom to mark a passage I’d like to find again, a good while later – like Mistress Quickly describing Falstaff’s death in Henry V
…and went away, an it had been any christom child; ‘a parted even just between twelve and one, e’en at turning of the tide; for after I saw him fumble with sheets, and play with flowers, and smile upon his fingers’ ends, I knew there was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as a pen, and ‘a babbled of green fields….
or the passage around page 582 (I invent) in War and Peace where Tolstoy describes the unknowable confusion of a battle compared to the ordered narratives of its historians.
This book we’ve been lent by Cinty and Paul is, as Lin says, a mite ‘unwieldy’. It needs to be treated with the respect I’ve almost forgotten, approached cap in hand as one might approach the places it describes – in their heyday. It has a map insert of Corfu which shows the name of the two rocks, that - from the Old Port - look like one (on the horizon just to the left of the bollard on this image), sprouting from the sea 400 metres off the western tip of Vido island. On a modern chart they’re Nausika Rocks – βράχα. On the Venetian map, they’re shown as one islet, with the name Condillonisi – νησί=island. Paul, Cinty’s husband, told me the other night “We call it Punk Rock”. 
Inside the back and front covers of the book, on cream vellum is an engraved seascape of the Porto Spilea, in the lea of the old Citadel. A paddle steamer ploughs towards the port past the becalmed sailboats.
This suggests mid-19th century, near the end of the British Protectorate, and therefore harbinger of the decline of the islands dominant class – the signorini - with whom, by and large, the British – excepting Lord Nugent, Stewart-Mackenzie and especially Lord Seaton, had tended to find common cause if seldom common sympathy. Noble houses of Corfu (Παϊσίδου Δέσποινα, 1997, Στ' αρχοντικά της Κέρκυρας, Θεσσαλονίκη ) was published a year after the death of its author, Despina Paisidou, in 1996.
Her project, begun in the late 70s, continued into the 80s as she absorbed the atmosphere of over twenty houses, some in Corfu town, others in the countryside around; houses and the remnants of estates in the same families for generations – the noble houses of Corfu that you seldom see, in part because they are being absorbed by vegetation, in part because they were so finely designed they do not assail the eye like the graceless constructions of the modern Lopachkins, destroyers of the world’s cherry orchards. In 1992 Paisidou started working with the photographer Chrysa Nikoleri to obtain the photographs for the book. It is competently but artlessly translated into English by Christopher Markham, making the Greek prose sound awkward – which I’m sure it’s not - spelling the name of the first Lord High Commissioner ‘Mateland’, along with a number of simple mispellings that should have been picked up by an Anglophone proofer and using English versions of Greek place names that frequently make them almost unfindable - which might be no bad thing. Unlike another somewhat self-congratulatory ‘coffee table’ book full of advantageous photos of Corfu that I looked through last year and called ‘landscape-porn’ this is quite a different work. Paisidou grew up and was educated in Thessaloniki, studied journalism in the US, art history at Stanford, and continued her education in Perugia and Teheran, becoming a successful journalist in national press, radio and television, and of course, working in happy partnership with her talented photographer also from Thessaloniki.
In the noble house of Jan and Augustus Sordinas (photos: Chrysa Nikoleri)
Augustus Sordinos, one of the prefacing academics persuaded to both write an introduction as well as inviting Nikoleris and Paisidou to view the remains of his baronial home with its church, crypt, olive presses, outbuildings and outlying estate, gives an eloquent testimony to a book that witnesses the folk-museums of a decaying class - a collective of landlords who inherited and maintained their power through shrewd collusion with the Venetian empire, preserved it through similar arrangements with their highly temporary successors, the post-Napoleonic French and the British. Their gift to posterity, made even clearer by this diplomatically created work, was a poisoned chalice – but for those fine exceptions where character surpassed class. The income of the signorini derived from their land and the wage slavery of those who worked it for them. Progressive legislation such as the 1912 Land Act granting ownership of much of that land to those who cultivated it, the selling off of ‘family silver’, the fragmentation of land through dowries and bequests, and much later the higher wages of tourism, signalled the decay of the estates through loss of scale and cheap labour. One legacy of the noble estates lies in the parlous state of agriculture, a once-intensive olive harvest that lit the lamps of the Venetian empire – a specific problem of scale Corfu shares with mono-crop islands across the world; another most positive, added to by this book, is or ought to be, the exemplary architecture and construction, interior joinery, flooring and plastering, not of palaces or castles, but of moderate sized town and country houses. The book – with its photographs of exteriors patina-ed by age, flaked paint and chipped stucco, wreathed in the coils of unpruned creepers, finely proportioned rooms, mottled with damp, rich dark woodwork, tiled passages, stained glass, elegantly moulded coving and skirting, full of the exquisite spoils of class exploitation - fills a missing piece in my understanding of the present economy and the driving passion of the Ionian rizospastai, the radicals from Corfu, Levkas, Cephalonia and the unionists from Zakinthos who campaigned to end the emptying of signorini chamber pots and the humiliation of rouveli pie – a tale in the book also told us by Lula describing estate workers ordered to make a pie of Robins (were they κοκκινολαιμόπιτα?) over the weekend to prevent them using spare time to assemble. Once it was delivered, she said, the Master had it thrown away.
Prof Sordinas introduces Noble Houses of Corfu
I would like to see this essay in Greek; submit it to a translator who would honour Sordinas' passion, scholarship and decency.
***
The service for Good Friday began at Ag. Georgios at 8.00pm. We stood in the well of the church in the shadow. Not understanding the words of the prayers nor the hymns I had less occasion to think about them, only able to look and listen. Candlelight in a high building embroidered with gilt and silver makes faces as serene as icons, especially where there are long curving eyebrows in the flickering light of tapers. Above, in the choir of the church, profiles seen from below, take on the foreshortening grandeur of set-piece Italian paintings. High on the ceiling astride a galloping white horse, his eyes half shut as he concentrates on his target, Saint George, more visible for the darkness in the church, charges to the rescue, tilting at the evil one. The informal clothes that most of us wear - even for special events - fade into the dark, turning us into timeless silhouettes, while by the rood screen our priest and his helpers move between light and shade.
After the first service Lin and I walked out into the crowded yard of the church under stars, through the gate and down a short road to Democracy Street where we followed well behind the band, the choir, couched banners, and the epitaphio - Christ's tomb - carried by four laymen, festooned with carnations and lilies, fitted with electric candles. So the procession marched swaying gently through the narrow street a hundred metres to the small church of Saint Spiridon, opposite the lady who grows a host of pelargonium and geraniums along the front of her house and who sings in the choir. More prayers and a hymn, then we paraded a kilometre, past our house again, and up through the wooded darkness over the bridge, seeing the lights of the village through the tall cypress’, on through the narrows of Venetia, where we got to peer inside houses as people greeted one another at doorways ‘Chronia polla’ “Chronia polla’. We saw Katya Spingos, with her daughter Melina, home from study in Mytilini, who asked how we were when we met on the way
“I’m happy” I said “well no not too happy tonight”
“No of course” she smiled, but she was right that in a way despite the lamenting notes and solemn taps of the band, I was too happy for Good Friday.
Back from Venetia after eleven, trailed by several impatient cars down from Sokraki, who expected our village to observe the notice that Democracy Street would re-open on the hour, the procession returned to Ag. Georgios where, after more prayers, we could gather around the epitafio and help ourselves to red carnations to take home.
As we passed their home on the corner we met Cinty and Paul.
 “The little brindle cat died this morning before dawn and I’ve buried her in the garden” I told them, having asked Cinty the night before if there was any hope for the little creature. Bubble we called her, her brother Squeak having disappeared a week after we gave both cats names. She succumbed to a stroke two days ago and lay near our door, miaowing unable to get to her feet. She’d been an outside-the-house companion since we came to the village in 2007 – one of the rare cats not fearful of being stroked.
“Four years is quite good for a Corfu cat” said Cinta
“We’ve a few of her surviving children wandering about now” I said.
Chalky, Double, Bubble and Ginger
** ** **
Generosity, gifts and help; mostly unsought. Vasiliki brought round two long cheesepies sprinkled with sesame, hot from the oven.
I was visiting Mark and Sally and in the alley down to their house noticed an open door to a shaded wine store with a large wooden barrel and ranks of fat glass bottles. A woman came over to me as I peeked in at this array.
“Hullo. You don’t know me but I know you.” It was Katerina, a friend of Katya and Thanassis, married to a carpenter, Alexander, whose skills include being able to make and mend wooden barrels. His joinery is below the village. The local filler material for mending barrel staves is papyrus reed. “I know how much you love the village”
“That’s true” She gave me a two litre bottle of their wine, from local grapes from vines at the western edge of the village. There I presume the summer heat had not, as in Lefteris’ garden, dessicated the fruit on the vine, so that, for last year’s vintage, he’d needed to buy Zakinthos grapes sold by the road in Corfu during September.
"I hate plastic"
We discussed the economy. Hard times we agreed, “but it may throw us back on skills and attitudes we’ve been abandoning. I’m impressed at your wine making and barrel-making"
“But few can pay the cost of my husband’s work. I hate plastic”
“Me too…but it’s so convenient and cheap” but, I thought, for the cost of collateral damage in indestructible detritus from pole to pole.
All the time we’ve been here, Mark and Sally, have done us services – checked and paid local bills for power and water in our absence, taken greeting cards to our neighbours, checked the house. To Mark I mentioned that my angle grinder - itself a local gift added gratis to a purchase of a double bed a couple of years ago – had stopped. He brought me another, with speed control, adding a small square of marine ply we needed to back the bottom half of one of our doors. An 8’ x 4’ sheet of this costs €60 from Simoneti in town.
At a table-top sale in Dassia we met Maya. I’d not heeded her peering over my shoulder while I browsed second-hand books, buying a scuffed paperback of Zola’s Earth, that she’d already picked up and put down. Later we came to her clothing stall. Lin spied a jacket that fitted me.
“This was my father’s. He died only three years ago. This is my sister Rose. We’re Dutch and German, from Haarlem” speaking Greek and living here much of the year, though with commitments in the Netherlands -drop-in refuge where young people at a loss to make a life can stay for a while, be trained; get a better chance. As we chatted she piled up more of her dad’s clothes – jeans, shirts, vests – and insisted - “because we enjoy the same reading, please have them all"
I said “Can I take your picture?”
“It sounds paranoid. Mention me on the internet, but don’t post any picture of me. I’m an atheist and a free-thinker. In my country there are dangerous idiots who think they’ll go to paradise if they punish a woman for speaking her mind.”
******
Corfu green continues to spread – from our balcony railings, to the side door, the cupboard door beside, the shutters on the small window, a length of gutter for the apothiki and its doors, both garden gates and the garden fence. Lin paints.
I do smaller jobs like getting the small door inside the porch to hang properly, sanding down the old shutters to go in the bedroom window, taking out the wood and reinserting sanded and carefully screwed down, making and inserting end pieces cut from a tin sheet for the repainted gutter…Katerina and Nectarina, her little sister scamper about. We practice Greek and English on each other. Katerina decided as a numbers exercise to see how many clothes pegs she can attach to her head. I also had a chance to correct her tendency, when picking flowers, to make no distinction between wild and garden flowers, owned and unowned, a difference that would have interested Lévi-Strauss. On a walk round the village Katerina was picking a small bunch of flowers to give Lin, when we saw her run to a garden fence and reach through to pick a geranium head. "Oxi Katerina, Yia to dromo endaxi. Yia to kipos den einai endaxi!" "Katalaveno" she said to my astonishment.
Clothespeg goblin at the door
** ** **
From Ana-Digest today:
A crucial week for the Greek economy begins on Tuesday, as the Middle-term programme and the package of privatisations must be itemized for tabling in parliament by mid-May and vote by early June after deliberations with the EU-IMF 'troika'. Prime minister George Papandreou returns to Athens on Monday from a brief Easter holiday respite on the island of Hydra. A team of the EU-IMF troika experts is due in early May for its regular consultations and evaluation of progress ahead of the disbursement of the next tranche (€12 billion) of the EU-IMF €110 billion bailout loan to Greece. Eurostat, the European Commission's statistical agency, is also due to release on Tuesday the figures for the 2010 deficit.

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