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Friday, 1 October 2010

Separate roads

The diaspora Greek returns as an entrepreneur to make a business changing impoverished rural Greece while the prosperous romantic Englishman (substitute almost anyone with roots north of the European olive belt and income to spend on holidays or the status to enjoy sabbaticals) steeped or at least dipped in the Classics from youth, spellbound by Homer and the Olympians, finding the past alive and well in Greece during the early decades of the twentieth century, comparing its already fading traditions ecstatically with the disenchanted world to which he'd soon return, inventing a paradise – with genius – poetry, painting, films, novels, journals and biographies employing words and images that would, after a few warring decades, be purloined as copy for the commodification of Zorba-land.
An evening at Plous Bookshop
On Wednesday evening while she worked on laying plaka in the garden, Lin saw me off to an evening book launch in Corfu Town. I arrived to get a good seat in the small space at the back of the Βιβλιοπωλείον ΠλουσPlous Bookshop – easy to find, almost at the bottom end of Theotoki Street just beyond St Anthonios’ Church by the shops displaying hilariously whimsical ‘stop me if you’ve heard this one’ T-shirts. The place is stepped, one space leading into another, with bar, loos, Wifi and books, books, books. With a glass of Metaxas and two signed copies of books I bought there and then by Jim and Maria, I sat back and enjoyed....What was it about? Easier told in a tale of two different trajectories first encountered when I visited Greece again for the first time in 30 years.
In 1995 my Greek half-sister, Dorothy, invited us to a birthday party in Athens, after which she gave us the opportunity to spend a week in a small hotel near Pylos on the west coast of the Peloponnese. We left the Pentelikon Hotel near Diligiana Street in a tree lined suburb north west of Athens in the early cool of blue July morning and drove – Linda and me – via Corinth, down the east coast corniche of the Peloponnese towards a village below Leonidiou in Arkadia to lunch with my cousin Ioanna and her husband Antonis Mitsanis, who had a summer apartment overlooking the beach. Ioanna Gregoriades, who I first met as a slim solemn 16 year old at an Easter party in her parent’s garden in Kifissia in 1957, died earlier this year. She inherited her beloved father’s scorn for the decadence of modern Greece and indeed the West - the only Greek who’s actually tried to explain philotimo to me – spelling it out as to a child (Jim Potts a thousand years later explains this, to me and other readers, as an untranslatable notion of deepest significance to Greeks. This I know and respect - in ignorance) I a callow arrogant youth heading for Cambridge longing to impress her did just the opposite by arguing that it sounded 'a bit over the top', for which I was first cut dead for arguing with her dad, then patronized ever after. She was intensely proud of Greece, except for the bit about 'democracy', and the foolish idea of letting everyone vote on things.
This visit, nearly 40 years later, was only the the third time we’d met. She seemed to have softened, though making sure to tell me what short shrift Leonidias – after whom the town, sat beneath towering crags, was named – had made of his enemies even in death, and the willingness of Greeks, if it came to a choice between freedom and satrapy, to eat stones for the former. Ioanna and privation being very ill-acquainted, I barely stopped myself asking about her recipe for stone stifado.
She and Antonis were off to a wedding over the Parnon range in Sparta.
“Your home town?” I muttered under my breath
“Follow us and we’ll have a coffee in Kosma” she said
“How long will that take us?”
“Not long”
By the time we’d made it up to Kosmas, via a narrow road dotted with shrines, littered with rusting vehicles impaled on rocks at the bottom of defiles left and right, she and Antonis had been there half-an-hour - the village square a summer hubbub of returned villagers sat in myriad tables under trees, still cool so high we were among pines. Having waited for us, she and Antonis had to drive a bit faster after that. It was the last time we met.
We drove on down to the plain past the signpost to Sparta on a straighter road towards a jagged silhouette of mountains straddling the darkening horizon – the mighty Taiyetos Range. Over them towards midnight we descended Sunday morning under a diamond strewn sky to the plain above Kalamata, stopping for a welcome spit chicken and chips in the foothills of a third range, before climbing and descending them to the coast and our quiet hotel on the shore north of Pylos whose owner as we knew he would, being Greek, was still open. So having unloaded the car we sat by a pool with drinks, welcomed, warm and tired, ready for bed.
My half-brother George and Kate and their two small daughters as well as our daughter Amy, who'd made the journey with them, had arrived earlier by the same roads. Soon we were locally embedded; waking to a Sunday church bell and chanting; relaxing by a pool overlooking a sparkling sea. Behind us olive trees a far as the eye could see swirled light and dark in the gusts of strong sea wind, with now and then men and women in black, riding donkeys, carrying burdens - an idyll for which our hosts apologized one evening when we’d got to know them better; an Australian Greek family returned to their parents home village with Antipodean capital
“This place is so small, so poor. When you come again there will be a much larger hotel, a marina we plan and shops, and many more people.”
Dismayed, we tried to explain that those things for which he and his brothers were apologizing, were the very things we treasured about this place and their hospitality. Our protest was observed as a mark of diplomacy in overlooking our hosts’ shortcomings
“We respect your politeness”
We were on different roads – one we’d followed for more than a generation from a weary long industrialized disenchanted north to a rural Mediterranean oasis (+ pool, air-conditioning, showers, full sanitation, phones, TV) where more innocent people hoed an unforgiving soil, picked olives by hand, observed the old religion and knew one another. Their road had involved cracking the amber through which we gazed with pleasurable curiosity and respect at the lineaments of a world abandoned generations ago, traveling thousands of miles to another land to make their fortune, returning home to show off their success, pull down the bastille of village life and lore, bringing wealth to themselves and their compatriots, sending their children to higher education; to the professions, the hospitality industry, law, medicine, engineering; escaping from shackles that these visitors, who didn’t like to be thought 'tourists', seemed eccentrically to cherish.
Opposing trajectories – the empty bellied emigrant meeting the full bellied visitor, an image given me by Thalia, a Corfiot met at that evening event listening to Maria Strani and her husband Jim Potts at the bookshop off Theotoki in Corfu Town - especially hearing Maria's passionate diatribe against the feckless greed of those fellow countrymen who she believes have prostituted the island of her birth - The Pimping of Panorea. She describes witnessing a crime. In truth it's a tragedy - with the inexorable inevitability of that form. Sophia at our table in Plous said "Only when the two journey's come together can things get better, and this recession makes that far more difficult." I wonder.
*** ***
I’ve found that dogs differ from cats in their understanding of the human form. A dog may sniff your feet and look up to see whose they are. A cat can play at your feet and quite like your knees but doesn’t connect them with the rest of you. Some kittens in the monastery on the summit of Pantokrator having inherited an ascending gene mistook my leg for the inanimate trunk of a food bearing structure and began climbing me, indifferent to my feelings on the matter.
** ** **
The sun, moving north, now rises over the border, just above the rocky islet below Albania’s Kep I Stilit before the cove of Ftelias in Greece, at the start of this odd ribbon of Greek coast, in places hardly a quarter mile wide, that marches 8 miles south eastward – the bay of Kato Aetou, Capes Nenoudha, Pagania, and Akonias, Kouramos Bay, and Cape Strovoli - until the border does what borders should do and heads more confidently inland just north of the harbour at Sayiadha. It’s October and we shall soon have to head north for work. It gets cooler. I’m wearing socks in the morning and evening.
Yesterday I started sawing the timber we’d been given by Ethe and Adonis when they were restoring their garden and apothiki – a rich mix of old wood including olive beams, bits of collapsed furniture, casements and barrel staves – the latter so hard and so full of the smell of old wine I set them aside, too good for burning.
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On Sunday if all goes well my mother arrives to stay with us for a week. We’ve contrived a sort of sedan chair in which to get her up and down the steps to the house to Democracy Street; practiced with little Katherina in the seat. There’ll also be a folding wheel chair coming with mum from England. I told Vasiliki today, mentioning my mother’s name – Barbara Theodora - Μπάρμπαρα Θεοδώρας – intimating my concern for her passage on the steps to the house – ανάπηρη μητέρα μου; all of which worries Vasilikι with a confidence boosting smile dismissed as not a problem – δεν πειράζει! All the same it is an adventure for my mother and for us – περιπέτεια! ενενήντα τριών χρόνων παλιά.
** ** **
One lot of waste collection bins so efficiently and regularly emptied have been moved from their position about 70 meters from us. Some people, no doubt vexed at this, unwilling to walk another 70 metres to the bins by the car park, have been chucking their rubbish over the fence beside Democracy Street, on a piece of fallow ground beyond the Kafenion. It's just like England!
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The Greek truck strike is beginning to fall apart with disagreements among different parts of their union. But see this from Teacherdude

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Simon Baddeley