Nigel Gibbions: Indecipherable Crete

I first visited Crete in December 2002 for the wedding of my friends Keith and Maria, who are responsible for the Philhellenes website. I have loved the island ever since. This is a record of that first visit.

My plane lands at 5am: dark palm trees and red sky. The wedding is later today and I must rest.

pithos
about my height
picture me
inside it
peeping out

The day after, my arms ache from circle dancing. I walk to the centre of Heraklion.

The Morosini fountain in Heraklion

narrow pavement
hard to dodge
the butcher’s hare

On the way, there is a display of religious icons inside a small church.

graffiti
on the church wall
icons

A stained glass window

This Venetian Fortress (Koules) once protected the harbour.

The Venetian fortress in Heraklion

In the evening, I find a place to eat in the streets opposite Lion Square.

poppy seeds
on white linen
starry night

The Minoan civilisation flourished here 5000 years ago: what traces remain in the Cretan psyche?

At Knossos

pine needles
between the stones
long ago

View of two kiosks from above

white bird
overhead
my shadow

Back in the present, I wait for a bus back to Heraklion.

A cat on a scooter

white sheets
dry on the line
souvenirs

Phaestos is the other major archaeological site on the island. The palace ruins sit high above the Messara Plain.

cool breeze
in my ear
a fertile plain

Cactus leaves against a blue sky

The meaning of the mysterious disk found at the site remains unknown.

The Phaestos disk

butterfly
in the ruins
I found your wings
indecipherable
before we married

One day, my hosts, the newlyweds, drive with me to the Lasithi Plateau.

high plain
two planes cross
high above us

An antenna against a blue sky

Another day, I head West to Chania.

lighthouse
a round window
full of sea

The lighthouse in Chania

Throughout my stay, I spend time at the harbour. You can walk a mile out to sea here.

View of Heraklion harbour

wind cools
my forehead
flawless
horizon

On the last day I stay at the harbour for hours…

The breakwater in Heraklion harbour

the white boat
leaves nothing
in its wake

A ship in Heraklion harbour

Weeks later, back in England, I get ready to go out:

crouching
to tie my laces
cretan dirt

Cranes in Heraklion harbour

τοῖς ἐγρηγορόσιν ἕνα καὶ κοινὸν κόσμον εἶναι, τῶν δὲ κοιμωμένων ἕκαστον εἰς ἴδιον ἀποστρέφεσθαι

The waking have one world in common; sleepers have each a private world of his own. [Heraclitus, Fragment 89, c. 500 BC]


Nigel Gibbions was born in 1965 in Chesterfield, England. He recently completed a degree in Theoretical Physics, after working as an IT consultant for many years. He is now studying for a PhD in Polymer Physics at the University of Sheffield. In his spare time he enjoys listening to music, and writing haiku.

Sharon Blomfield: Greek kindness

A plate of loukoumades

At Christmas, the season of giving just past, my thoughts quite naturally turned to my Greek friends, both those on the island of Sifnos and those in the rest of the country and far beyond. Many travellers to that country have said that there’s something special about Greeks and the hospitality they offer, and count me in agreement on that.

At the heart of the matter, I believe, is the concept of philoxenia, the obligation in the Greek culture to treat strangers as honoured guests. This obligation is so ancient that its origins are thought to lie in the belief that, you never know, these strangers that you’ve just met could well be gods. Zeus or Hermes, perhaps, disguised as ordinary human travellers. So ingrained is philoxenia in the Greek psyche that, to my mind, it has become who they are. Innately kind, generous beyond belief, and people who live every day by the philosophy that whatever you give away to someone enriches you both.

Travellers to Greece are often astonished by the spontaneous generosity they meet, I once read in a guide book, and astonished I’ve been. I’ve received endless offers of coffee or ouzo. Wine pitchers topped up with a wink. A lime once tucked into my hand by the grocer after I’d paid for my iced teas. A basket of Sifnos eggs to cook for my breakfast the next day. A home-made goat’s cheese. Sweet treats from taverna owners to end many meals – cakes, cookies, or yogurt with fruits. Or as in the photo above, fresh-made loukoumades, drizzled with sesame, cinnamon and warm honey from the hives near the house. On occasion in more than one taverna, a meal that I’m not allowed to pay for  … well, just because. That’s the other thing with Greeks. They express their love with their food.

I have learned so much in the time I’ve been going to Sifnos, and every time that I’m there, I find my reserved Canadian heart pried open a bit farther. That is in fact, I believe, why I feel such a strong compulsion to go back and so often. If I can distill into a few words what its people have taught me, it’s this: in the list of human virtues, it’s kindness that belongs at the top. Kindness to friends and to family, of course, and equal amounts to those whose paths merely brush against ours.

Imagine, I often think and especially these days, a world that lives by philoxenia. Smiles offered freely to strangers passing by, no matter how different they look. A compliment or words of encouragement to someone you’ve just met, someone who, you never know, may need it more than you can imagine right now. An understanding that we’re all humans in this life together and that whenever and whatever we share, we’ll each come away with much more. A world awash in kindness.

The ancient Greeks can teach us still. The modern ones, too.

Sharon Blomfield is Canadian a writer and traveller. She is the author of The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle, and she writes a blog about Sifnos. You can find out more about Sharon’s work on her personal website, and you can also follow Sharon on Twitter.

Marjory McGinn’s big fat Greek odyssey

Marjory and Wallace

Marjory McGinn is a Scottish-born journalist and author, who has had a long connection with Greece, starting with a youthful work/travel year in Athens in the seventies. More recently, in 2010, she set off on a mid-life odyssey to the southern Peloponnese with her partner Jim and their crazy Jack Russell dog, Wallace. What was planned as a year’s adventure turned into four, living first on a hillside village in the Mani, and later in the Messinian peninsula. The adventure inspired her three travel memoirs, starting with Things Can Only Get Feta. She also writes a blog with a Greek theme and can be found on on Facebook and Twitter.

As a taster of her writing about Greece, Marjory has kindly allowed Philhellenes to reprint the following piece, which first appeared on her own blog. Writing after the controversial July 2015 Greek referendum on the EU’s proposed bailout terms, which caused another fiscal upheaval in Greece, Marjory suggests that the EU’s handling of the crisis has displayed a lack of understanding of Greek culture and history.


Why the EU must embrace the Zorba philosophy

Marjory McGinn

Still from Zorba the Greek
Anthony Quinn as Zorba, with Alan Bates, dancing the sirtaki in the 1964 movie

THE events of the last few weeks, as Greece has fought for a new bailout deal, have left us all in shock. They have shown us how oppressive and vindictive the EU can be and, in contrast, how spirited and stoical the Greeks are when under attack and fighting for their lives.

I don’t want to add any more to the voluminous public discussions. Greater minds than mine have debated all the political/economic issues of the crisis. As someone who loves Greece, I can only pray there will be a good outcome for the country, despite more austerity piling up against it.

What I have gathered from watching recent events unfold – the June referendum and then EU leaders, particularly Germany, acting like schoolyard bullies – is this: most Europeans don’t really understand Greeks, or their culture. It’s as if few of them have ever been to Greece.

What EU leaders have tried to do is shoehorn the Greek character into a northern European template. It won’t go; it never will go. It’s ham-fisted and almost laughable. Greeks have a different story, a different history and cultural influences. Greece is still the least European country in Europe, still leaning gently towards its old Levantine influences, which makes it the exotic, appealing, often chaotic and, sometimes, maddeningly different place that it is. But we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Greeks will never be cool-headed, flinty, northern European clock-watchers, which is why generations of foreigners have flocked to Greece for respite. Apart from its physical beauty, Greece still has the human touch, which is something that has been lost in many parts of Europe, and the UK as well, to a degree.

Greeks have not been blameless in the way they have handled their economy, but I believe that it’s basically because they are different from their northern partners, their character has come in for a battering. They have been labelled as lazy, work-shy and corrupt, and these clichés have been echoed unfairly throughout much of the international media.

There is corruption, of course, as there is in every country, and there are complex reasons for it, but I believe that due to a weaker and not very independent media, the corruption and excesses of past governments have not been exposed as they might have been in western countries. Only now are we seeing more transparency in Greece, and the internet and social media has helped to expose wrongdoing where some of the press has not.

We forget that Greece has only recently emerged from a devastating series of occupations and political upheavals: 400 years of Turkish occupation; the punitive German occupation of the Second World War and the Greek civil war it spawned, and a disastrous military takeover in 1967 with a regime that lasted until 1974.

foteini on donkey
Greeks are bred tough like Foteini, a ‘traditional woman’ from the Mani

Four decades of relative calm since the 1970s is but a drop in the ocean for a country to re-invent itself. Until recent weeks, at least, the economic crisis was just another upheaval that Greeks have had to cope with.

During my time in Greece, I have found Greeks are among the hardest working people in Europe. In the last five years I met countless people, especially in the restaurant trade, who work more than 12 hours a day, seven days a week from May to October and in many areas like the Peloponnese will then do a long olive harvest in the winter.

Foteini, one of my farming friends in the Mani, who features prominently in both my books, is an unforgettable character and the toughest woman (a pensioner!) I’ve ever met anywhere. She harvests olives from her 200 trees, alone, every year, without fail, and rears a few goats to supplement her paltry farmer’s pension of 300 euros a month, which has been cut back since 2011. No pensioner in the UK would live like Foteini.

Not only have the Eurocrats tried to reinvent the Greek personality but they have also asked for the impossible, for a country to change its system overnight.

Andreas, one of our Greek friends in the Mani, who I wrote about in my second memoir Homer’s Where The Heart Is, put it this way during a discussion about the crisis in 2012, and I quote from the book (chapter 20): “The Troika moans at us… they say we don’t make changes fast enough in the government, and with taxes… but they want us to change centuries of customs and business in a few months. We cannot do it! Impossible!”

The recent events have proved him right. Impossible, and heartbreaking!

photo of Artemis
A favourite old friend, Artemios, from Santorini typifies the Greek character: generous, maverick and an expert at skinning prickly pears

After a lifetime of visiting Greece and after four years living in the southern Peloponnese, most recently Koroni, in Messinia, I do not recognise many of the criticisms and cliches levelled at the Greeks. And nor do I feel they deserve the excruciating contempt and hatred that has been slung at them during the crisis.

Perhaps the main fault of ordinary Greeks (and not the dynastic elites or the shipping magnates) is not just making a mess of their fiscal spreadsheets, but in not putting money first in the way that other societies in the west do. In my opinion, this is a country that has put life to the fore, and people, with a belief in leventia (generosity of heart), parea (company), kefi (high spirits) filotimo (sense of honour).

I have found Greeks to be the kindest people I have ever met. When we lived in Koroni for a year, we befriended a couple who had a small holding (with a few goats and chickens) near to where we lived. Tasos and Eleni are warm-hearted and interesting people, whom we saw regularly and became fond of, along with their lovely family.

One day, after their long olive harvest, they arrived at our house with a big basket full of gifts from their farm: olive oil, olives, capers, goat cheese, herbs, and a bottle of their homemade wine. They simply wanted to show us hospitality, filoxenia, and make our stay more pleasant. We were overwhelmed by this gesture of friendship. It’s not the first time I’ve experienced this in Greece. Whether Greeks are in crisis or not, they never lose this generosity, or their indomitable spirit. The Zorba factor.

I believe it’s not Greeks who need to change radically, it’s the ‘other’ Europeans. They need to thaw and become more like the Greeks; get in touch with their inner Zorba. Perhaps then they’ll understand Greeks a bit better, offer a more reasonable fiscal blueprint for the future. And create a more compassionate EU.

As Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek, wrote: “A man needs a little madness in his life!”

The Eurocrats need to kick off their shoes, find a beach and dance on it. Opa!

© Marjory McGinn 2015


book cover
One of Marjory's three books about Greece

For details of Marjory’s books about Greece, see her Amazon webpage.