A short anthology with snippets of poetry, prose and history about Greece and her people…
Until the advent of the airplane the sea approach was the most convenient way in from the West and still the method I would recommend if you have the time.
If you wish to make a mini-cruise of it then Venice or Trieste are the ports you sail from, otherwise Ancona, Bari or Brindisi at the heel of Italy.
Once you leave the flat and desolate Calabrian mainland towards the sea you are aware of many changes, you are aware of islands coming out of the darkness to meet you…
You enter Greece as one might enter as dark crystal. The form of everything becomes irregular, refracted.
Mirages suddenly swallow islands and wherever you look the atmosphere deceives.
Lawrence Durrell was on his way to Corfu, an island that the poet of “The Isles of Greece” only ever approached in the strangest of circumstances, as sergeant Wheeler of the British Garrison related in one of his letters home :
“Argostoli – (Cephalonia)- 10 June 1824
Sailing out of the harbour of Corfu we passed the beautiful Gun-Brig, the property of the late Lord Byron, his Lordship’s remains are on board on its way to England.
Lord Byron died a short time since at Mesolonghi. He seems to have devoted both his purse and talents to the Greek cause.
I said to a Greek one day : “Byron’s dead”
He replied “ No, Never, he will always live here in the hearts of my countrymen”.
Edward Lear, landscape painter and writer of nonsense poems who lived on Corfu on and off from 1848 to 1864 writes : “there was no place in this world more beautiful…,if so beautiful”.
On Christmas day 1855 he wrote to his sister :
“Oh! If you had but seen the day here! Perfectly cloudless, warm and sunny and with every orange and any myrtle and olive tree alive with sunshine and all the bright snow hills on the other side of the water, pink and lilac and blue.
We have had three fine days but none so lovely as this-the moonlight nights too are beyond everything beautiful…”
When in 1864 Corfu and the other Ionian Islands were ceded to Greece the British residents had to leave. Otto, Greece’s first king had not long since been forced out and the search was on or a new monarch.
Our jovial nonsense man even thought of applying for the job-as King Lear!!-on the basis that he could then stay where he pleased !
Lear’s first port of call after Corfu was the island of Syros, at that time an important bunker station in the centre of the Aegean lying on the sea-lane to Constantinople.
From there he sailed to Crete, still under the Ottoman Turks. There, in search of fresh landscapes he walked everywhere and also used a horse.
Lawrence Durrell writes the following about the Aegean :
“The sea, autumn mildness, islands bathed in light, fine rain spreading a fine veil everywhere…
Happy is the man who before dying has the good fortune to sail the Aegean sea. Many are the joys of this world-women, fruit, ideas, but…to cleave that sea in the autumn season murmuring the name of each islet is to my mind the joy the most apt to transport the heart of a man to paradise”.
The Greeks in general are not romantic people. Sentimental they definitely are and given to mood swings.
They are a resilient, active, sociable, inquisitive people. They bounce back.
Their curiosity never ceases to amaze.
Modern urban life and mass tourism have done something towards dinting these attributes but event he urban Greek is still more in tune with the rural, natural ways.
Natural imagery features widely in their conversations and their writings.
You only have to look at an English translation of a Greek guidebook to appreciate this fact.
I shall never forget the words of Nikos Kazantzakis put in the mouth of St. Francis :
I said to the almond tree :
“Speak to me of God”
And the almond tree blossomed”
Conversation often sounds rowdy to a foreigner’s ear but it is rarely confrontational whatever he appearances-much theatre is involved and animated gesticulations are an integral part of the communication process!
Many group discussions round the kafeneion tables are actually a succession of monologues, each participant in turn recounting his or her particular story.
Story telling is still part of the fabric of Greek life.
Here I would like to include the following story :
Zorba wakes one morning and recounts a dream he had to his boss:
“ I wanted to go to South America but I only had 70% of the fare. So I approached the Captain of the passenger ship, which was only half booked, and asked him if he would accept a reduced fare. Unfortunately the Captain was a mean, pedantic fellow. He told me that with the money I had I could find another ship and go to India or Africa. I told him I didn’t want to go to India or Africa. Then I suggested that if only there was somewhere en route two thirds the way across the Atlantic where I could get off, I would willingly pay him to take me that far, but since there was no stopping-off point he might as well take me the whole way. This and many other cogent arguments had no effect upon the miserable fellow, so in the end I lost my temper and threatened him”.
“You didn’t” replies Zorba”s boss
“I don’t suppose that helped!
“Oh yes it did. I got my ticket!”
“And how? What did you say to him?”
“I told him that if he didn’t stop being so stupid and mean
I’d wake up and he would lose the lot!”
I will end, with a short homage with a familiar ring to it for any traveler who has had the time and inclination to scratch beneath the surface of tourist Greece.
The writer is Patrick Leigh Fermor :
“Two items close this long list of Greek characteristics. The first is the conviction that a stranger feels here that that he is surrounded by people of ancient and civilized descent. this feeling grows in force the lower one plunges in the economic scale, not because it is absent in bourgeois circles-far from it, but primitive surroundings place it in higher relief.
The last of these Greece-wide attributes is an orientation towards virtue.
This may be rooted in the qualities which the ancients prized or in the Christian ethic.
Perhaps natural and physical influences are responsible.
The demons drove the ancients to acts of darkness and horror, rage and violence sometimes harry their descendants. But the luminosity which surrounds them does much to exorcise the principle of wickedness and confute the dogma of original sin.
In a world where the law’s retribution is looked on as bad luck and life after death holds neither hope nor terror, the existence of this quality is especially remarkable. The bent towards virtue may waver, but it exerts as powerful an influence on the Greek subconscious mind as the north on a compass needle.”
By Aleko Damaskinos