Indecipherable Crete

Nigel Gibbions

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.

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.

on the church wall

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
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

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

in the ruins
I found your wings
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.

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

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:

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.

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.

John Kittmer's Thirty Great Things About Greece

Photo of John Kittmer

John Kittmer is a British diplomat, who served as Ambassador to Greece from January 2013 to to December 2016. A passionate philhellene, John marked the end of his term of office with a series of tweets celebrating thirty great things about Greece, and he has very kindly given me permission to reproduce them here. Click on the link below to see the first ten.

Read John’s Foreign Office blog and follow John on Twitter.

Image: John Kittmer on the cover of VIMAagazino.






























#1 (in English)

#1 (in Greek)

A Greek perspective on austerity psychology

Keith Frankish and Maria Kasmirli

Graffiti image of person holding 'Hopeless' sign

As a philosopher of cognitive science, I take a strong interest in work in psychology and have many friends working in the field. Living in Greece, I have been sharply aware of the pressures the current crisis is placing on psychologists, both academics and clinicians, and I recently co-authored a short piece on the topic, collaborating with my partner Maria Kasmilri, who is also a philosopher. The article was a contribution to a feature on austerity in The Psychologist magazine, and I republish it here with the kind permission of the editor.

‘I have the feeling that we are in a war period’

Over the past few years no country in Europe has experienced more extreme austerity than Greece. With unsustainably high levels of national debt, the country has been forced to rely on loans from the ‘troika’ of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. These lenders required the government to implement austerity measures to reduce the deficit, and the consequent tax rises and spending cuts have sent the economy into a deep recession, now in its sixth year. Unemployment has risen to 27.4 per cent (60 per cent among young people); hundreds of thousands of businesses have closed, and there has been widespread social unrest. This has been a harsh climate for Greek psychologists, both academics and clinicians.1

Psychology has only recently established itself as an independent academic discipline in Greece (the first department was established in 1987), and psychology departments are small and vulnerable. For the last three years, no new staff have been recruited, retiring staff have not been replaced, and even formally appointed staff have not been allowed to assume their posts. Meanwhile the Ministry of Education has admitted more students (undergraduate admissions are centrally controlled), reduced completion times, and increased the number of exam periods (turning universities into ‘mass processing exam centres’ as one academic puts it). With budget cuts, departmental mergers and closures, and competition from the private sector, many academics feel stressed and dispirited. Some talk of the ‘slow death’ of small departments, such as those of psychology, and many younger academics have left to seek posts overseas.

Research has also been hit. University research budgets have been cut and can support only small projects, and outside funding is scarce (there are European Union grants, but competition for them is fierce). Even basic support is lacking; researchers often have to self-fund attendance at conferences, and institutional subscriptions to online academic journals have lapsed. As salaries have been slashed and payments delayed, this raises the prospect that only those with independent means will be able to remain active researchers.

Psychologists working in applied settings (hospitals, clinics, community mental health centres, and educational environments) have faced heavier demands and tougher working conditions. The crisis has brought a huge rise in depression, suicidality, anxiety disorders, drug abuse, domestic violence, social exclusion, and other mental health issues, and the services of medical psychologists are needed more than ever, especially in the public sector, to which patients have increasingly turned. Yet public provision has shrunk. Many institutions have been closed, had funding withdrawn or staff cut. This has created long waiting lists at the remaining institutions and left many vulnerable patients with nowhere to go: one practitioner told us that in many cases child victims of domestic abuse have to be kept in hospital. Meanwhile, fewer staff (from a small base) have increased workloads, while suffering exhaustion and insecurity themselves. ‘Sometimes, I have the feeling that we are in a war period,’ says Corina Hatzinikolaou, a developmental psychologist at the Institute of Child Health in Athens. ‘In many public health structures, psychologists have to act quickly and attend to as many people as they can, not necessarily providing the best service, but attending to the most urgent needs.’ There is a similarly bleak picture in the private sector, where psychologists have seen their practices shrink, while having to treat patients with more serious problems.

Yet, despite the huge stresses they are under, psychologists have responded positively to the situation. Many professionals volunteer their services, working with humanitarian organisations and churches to provide counselling and therapy services to the poor, immigrants, homeless, and addicts; and many self-employed practitioners work with public organisations for reduced fees or none at all. Many young unemployed psychologists are involved in voluntary work – selflessly, since such activities are not considered part of their practice.

Academics have also recognised the importance of addressing the new situation. Sofia Triliva of the University of Crete talks of an ‘ethical imperative’ to study the impact of the economic crisis on people’s lives, and has herself focused on the effects on young people and on the rise of racism, ethnocentrism and fascism, especially in schools. Maria Platsidou of the University of Macedonia notes that positive psychology is now appreciated more than ever, and that there is increased interest in topics such as subjective well-being, resilience and practical ways of helping people cope. More generally, the erosion of social structures has vividly illustrated the social dimension of psychological well-being. As Triliva puts it, ‘The bases of the person’s insecurities and problems are social, economic, and political, so how can s/he confront these problems as a disconnected individual or entity?’

Have there been any positive aspects to the crisis? It is hard to find any, but some of those we talked to pointed to an increase sense of solidarity and social responsibility, and to the challenges of developing new research partnerships and working together for social change. Perhaps we can mention also the opportunities for developing international collaborations. For one thing is certain: anyone interested in the effects of austerity, on individuals, society and the profession of psychology itself, can learn much from their colleagues in Greece.

1. It is not easy to find hard figures on the numbers of businesses that have closed since the crisis started, but it is probably correct to say that it is more than 200,000. (110,000 businesses are reported to have closed in 2011 alone.) For more details, see the following press reports: ‘Shopkeepers shutter shops as crisis bites’, ‘Dramatic drop in budget revenues’, and ‘Greek Small Businesses Face Further Gloom, Fear 55,000 Closures in 2013’.

Maria Kasmirli and Keith Frankish are philosophers with strong research interests in psychology. Maria is a PhD student in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield. Keith is a Senior Visiting Research Fellow in the Department of Philosophy at the Open University and an Adjunct Professor with the Brain and Mind Programme at the University of Crete. The authors wish to thank all those who have advised them on this article, mentioning in particular Corina Hatzinikolaou, Irini Kranias, Giannis Kugiumutzakis, Maria Platsidou, Zaira Papaligoura, Lili Roussou and Sofia Triliva.

Image credit: ‘hopeless’ by aesthetics of crisis

Photographing the Acropolis Museum

The photographer Giorgos Vitsaropoulos has kindly given me permission to reproduce one of his photographs of the new Acropolis Museum in Athens. It is an evocative image, which beautifully contrasts the permanence of the ancient statuary with the fleeting human visitors — a contrast mirrored in the clouds passing across the deep blue sky above.

Photo of the New Acropolis Museum by Giorgos Vitsaropoulos

[Click on the image to view at a larger size.]

More of Giorgos’ work, including further images of the Acropolis Museum and shots for the Greek Tourism Organisation, can be found on his website.

Sketching the gods

Diana Probst is a professional artist based in Cambridge, UK. Diana has kindly given me permission to reproduce some of her sketches of ancient Greek scultures. Below the images, Diana adds some remarks on her choice of subject and the influence of Greek culture on her work. First is a sketch of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory.


Diana writes: ‘I could never be the artist I am without the influence of Greek culture. The development of statuary from the stylised Egyptian traditions to the fluid, lifelike stone work of the city states created work that I love to look at today. This is one of my earliest sketches, the lines solidified to allow me to recreate it in ink with no tonal work. To get there, I had to sit in a cast museum, surrounded by images that were two thousand years old. The Aphrodite of Knidos was not just ground-breaking, but also heart-breaking.
‘I chose a Nike as my subject because the drapery appealed, but I was surrounded by hundreds of examples of beauty and drama, made by the urge to create those things in stone. I love the results of this work, and they are firmly within all the work I do. I owe my style to Praxiteles and Phidias, via the Renaissance and the blurred eyes of archaeologists.’

Next, a study of Laocoön

Laocoon by Diana Probst

Diana writes: ‘I drew Laocoön on a busy afternoon, with at least a dozen groups of people coming through the Cast Museum. The most interesting was the group of young teens in school uniform who stopped to talk about what I was drawing. One insisted on me sketching her, so she has gone down for posterity next to the priest who insisted the wooden horse should not come into Troy. On the whole, I prefer the statue, but the school children were refreshing in their approach.’

Finally, a study of a young warrior

Warrior by Diana Probst

Diania notes, ‘The warrior is an unidentified young man, but the statue is a good one. He would have had a shield, but that did not survive.’

More examples of Diana’s work, some of which are available for purchase, can be seen on her website.

The goddess Athena

Charles Fernyhough

Detail from black-figure ceramic amphora depicting the birth of Athena from Zeus' head,

The goddess Athena sprang, fully armed, from a bump on her father’s head. Other versions of the myth associate her birth with water, with a stream or a lake, which may reflect her origin in the earth goddesses of the pre-Hellenics. In Greek mythology, however, she is a virgin goddess. In Book Seven of the Odyssey, she appears to Odysseus as a little girl in pigtails, hugging a water jug. The poet tells us that she retains her grey eyes, and yet her divine disguise is not compromised: Odysseus does not recognise her. Our daughter Athena was also born with grey eyes, for me at least the ultimate vindication of our name-choice. A prophecy had been fulfilled, and it was just one of the things I was delighted about. It took a few weeks for me to be relieved of this delusion, and have it gently pointed out that all babies have blue-grey eyes at birth. Iris colour is determined by the presence of isolated pigment cells called chromatophores, which only begin to develop in the first few weeks of life. In the newborn, light passes through the unpigmented front layer of the iris and is reflected back with the red frequencies absorbed. The same happens when light passes through a body of water: the longer wavelengths are absorbed, and the water appears blue-grey. The poets are therefore correct: eyes are like water-pools. There is a scientific basis for everything, if you want to look for it.

Perhaps, in naming her Athena, we had made a sort of purchase, an investment in some of these ready-made myths. Otherwise, choosing a name for a child seemed like an utterly arbitrary decision, pointless in its specificity, like insisting on a particular day of the week for an appointment twenty years in the future. We already had our own myth about our daughter’s creation. It involved a stove-warmed room in our house in County Durham, shortly after our return from the first of our heady Cretan holidays. There were other occasions that might have been responsible — we could still feel the sun on our skin, after all — but this one shone back at us through memory with the right amount of quiet magicality. We seemed to want to tell a story about her, as if that might justify her, as if her mere presence here wasn’t enough. The goddess would not have existed outside the stories. Our daughter, on the other hand, was a thing of flesh and blood, who was there at night when you went to sleep, and would be there, you hoped, when you woke up. We worried about cot death, of course. We had heard that Sudden Infant Death Syndrome was caused by pillows and duvets. We went to great lengths to protect our daughter from these dangers of the modern world. If a pillow or duvet-corner ever touched Athena accidentally, Lizzie would gasp almost audibly, and rush to bat the offending article out of the way, with as much urgency as if it had been a trailing electrical cable, or a letter impregnated with anthrax.

The bump on Zeus’s head came about in an unusual way. Zeus had made love to Metis, a Titan, and then heard that the child she would bear would grow up to rule the gods. Zeus’s way of dealing with the pregnant Metis was to swallow her. But the child, Athena, was determined to be born, and fought her way out, fully armed with sword and aegis. In Crete that year I had been reading Ted Hughes’s translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. When we drove along the northern motorway, Mount Ida rose above us, parched by the ravages of summer. Zeus had been raised there. The light on the sea seemed eternal, and we felt as though we were outside time, that we could have ceased to be material and simply dissolved in that brilliance. At Falassarna I stood in a rockpool up to my knees and watched a young woman run naked into the water. She was about a hundred yards down the beach, too far for anything but a thumbnail memory. All I could be sure of was the fact of her nakedness, and that alone made her beautiful. She had a quick happy shyness about her, so different to the confident Germans on the south coast. She looked too pale to be a tourist. There was a friend there as well, and I saw them laughing as they waded into the shallows, eurhythmic ghosts from another century, caught on silent film. She, too, was a myth, one of the true ones. I could love her, dream of her, because she wasn’t really of this earth. I waded out of the rockpool and swam after her, trying to make my nude pursuit look natural, but she was lost among the anonymous wet heads that bobbed and dived in that part of the sea. A little while later I saw her back at her camp beside the rocks, mortal again, a towel wrapped around her shoulders, her head tipped back to laugh quietly and kindly, as though she had just played a trick on a child.

In the Introduction to his translations, Hughes points out some reasons why Ovid’s tales have a particular resonance for our times. We stand at a particular point in history. The old pantheon has fallen in on men’s heads. The mythic plane has been defrocked. At the same time, Hughes writes, the Empire is flooded with ecstatic cults. It is at sea in hysteria and despair, one extreme wallowing in the mire, the other searching higher and higher for a spiritual transcendence. Ovid’s tales of metamorphosis, continues Hughes, establish a rough register of what it feels like to live in the psychological gulf that opens at the end of an era. For us, the era is modernity. Our crumbling Empire is Reason. The need for spiritual transcendence is as great as it was in Ovid’s time.

Like all good scientists, even lapsed ones, I interpreted this passage strictly in terms of my own obsessions. Hughes’s psychological gulf was a crisis in psychology itself. It was the gulf between the pop psychology of self-help books and therapy fashions, and the more or less rigorous empirical work of those who actually sought evidence to support their theories. I had turned my back on a science that was under attack from all sides. Public confidence had been battered by the BSE disaster, and a perceived arrogance about genetic determination. The modern myth-maker was Freud, and what Freud offered was the story. Therapy, in all its watered-down versions of Freudianism, was about telling a story about yourself. No one read novels any more, because everyone had their own story — constructed at great expense with the help of an analyst — and didn’t need anyone else to write one for them. The sales figures for my own first novel seemed to prove this triumphantly. If this scepticism was directed at science in general, then it was felt in scientific psychology in particular. The “narrative turn” in psychology had elevated the personal and subjective above the quaint old methods of the first experimental psychologists. The only people still doing behavioural studies weren’t psychologists at all: they were biologists and geneticists. Freud had won. His all-conquering vaguenesses had permeated every area of thought. Never before had a psychology taken root so pervasively in the absence of any empirical support. But these days you didn’t need empirical support — you needed a story that sounded right. And if you dared suggest that science could offer an objective truth about reality, you were told that science itself was a myth, a clever toolkit of fully-adjustable rhetorics, just one more product of the human need to tell ourselves stories about the world.

One of the most important first steps in the development of narrative psychology was, paradoxically, taken by an old school empiricist. Sir Frederic Bartlett, FRS, first professor of Experimental Psychology in the University of Cambridge, conducted a series of experiments in the 1920s designed to shed light on the brain’s capacity to organise incoming information. He presented his subjects with a North American Indian folk-tale called The War of the Ghosts, which involved supernatural goings-on quite alien to his Cambridge subjects. By looking at the errors his subjects made in their retellings of the story, Bartlett found convincing evidence that people assimilate an unusual story to existing knowledge structures, in much the same way that Piaget’s infant assimilates new objects to existing schemas. Recent work on cognitive “scripts” supports Bartlett’s conclusions. When we go into a restaurant, the context automatically activates a script, or prototypical story structure, for the events — being shown to a seat, handed a menu and wine list — that can be expected to unfold. But these are stories that are shared by everyone in the culture. Even Bartlett, the arch-empiricist, knew that his work posed a problem for objectivity in psychology. Some scripts are shared, but most are unique to the individual. Everyone’s stories are different. How can we generalise about human mentality, when everyone cuts the world according to a different plan?

Acknowledgements: This article is an extract from a pre-final version of the author’s The Baby in the Mirror (Granta Books, 2008). Paragraph 4 incorporates and adapts quotations from Ted Hughes’ Introduction to his Tales from Ovid (Faber and Faber, 2002).

© Charles Fernyhough, 2012

Charles Fernyhough is a British writer and scientist. He has written two novels, The Auctioneer (1999) and A Box of Birds (forthcoming), and two highly praised works of popular science, The Baby in the Mirror (2008), an intellectual biography of his infant daughter, and Pieces of Light (2012), an exploration of the psychology of autobiographical memory. He is also Reader in Psychology at the University of Durham, where he conducts research on private speech and child cognitive development — topics on which he has published extensively.

The tragedy of my beloved Greece

Victoria Hislop

My passion for Greece began the day I first went on holiday there 30 years ago, and has intensified ever since. I have been at the “party” that Greece once was. Now I am sharing the hangover. And it is desperately painful and sad.

I travel to Greece most months, to give talks on my novels, to work on adapting The Island into a 26-part miniseries for local television, and to research writing projects.

I have learnt the language well enough to appear on live television, and over the past five years have become so much part of this country that on arrival I do not always have to show my passport. I also have a house in Crete, which means I pay taxes. I can’t vote — which, in some ways, I am glad about, as I would be torn between a series of equally nightmarish scenarios.

The problems have been brewing for years, but what feels like potential meltdown arrived in Athens very suddenly. Last week, I went to a favourite restaurant in the city centre. It used to be heaving with customers until 2am.

At 10pm on Thursday, the place was almost empty. Restaurants where you once had to book tables a week ahead are now struggling to survive. The bouzoukia, live venues that are a quintessential part of Greek life and where musicians used to play four nights a week, are now mostly open for one. I never thought the Greeks would stop going out. Staying in isn’t in their DNA.

The bars are still full, as these are where people go to argue about politics and the future of the country. There does not seem to be any other conversation worth having. One friend, a leading Athenian journalist, told me how at least half of her friends are without jobs and money, and how anger is growing. Many people, in Athens at least, are at breaking point. “We don’t care any more,” she told me.

Suddenly, I can feel how dangerous the mood has become. My friend Maria, who voted for Pasok, Greece’s main party on the centre-Left, in the recent election will shift allegiance to the communists; she has been driven to this after her salary dropped from €2,500 a month to €1,000. She is weary and disillusioned.

A 40-year-old fashion writer for a glossy magazine, Maria has seen the quality of her life disintegrate. She feels broken and angry. “For the next issue, we’re focusing on punk — because that’s where the country is at. Anarchy could happen.” At least the riots have stopped, for now. As the country waits for new elections, Athens is strangely quiet. When I was last in town three months ago, I joined a peaceful march to get a feeling for the popular mood.

Up close, it was scary. The Greek police are quick to fire tear gas, and I felt things could erupt at any minute. The quiet on the streets now is even more eerie.

The Greeks are a very proud people, and feel humiliated by what has happened to them. At least once a day, someone will bring up the national debt and, in the same breath, how much Germany still owes Greece in outstanding reparation for their occupation during the Second World War.

Many people have lost their jobs, but the statistics do not reveal the thousands who still have jobs but have not been paid for many months. They are stuck: they have no income, but if they leave, they have no hope of recouping what they are owed. It has left a huge proportion of the country with no money to spend. As a result, retail businesses are going down all around us.

I’ve watched men in suits fishing in bins. The worst thing is when they do not take anything out, because someone has beaten them to it. People I know report their children’s poorer schoolmates fainting in class from hunger.

There is now an urge to end the corruption that has helped to destroy this country. Friends with businesses tell me that bribery has long been an assumed part of business life. I have listened, open-mouthed, to stories of tax evasion, often in the form of brown envelopes full of cash given to government inspectors to reduce a bill; sometimes, the pressure to hand over these bribes is tantamount to blackmail.

On a very small scale, I have witnessed it in restaurants when the credit card machine is “broken”. “We can only take cash,” says the owner. Dozens of times, I have watched a €20 note slip into a pocket, knowing that the government will not see a cent of it in tax.

The past few months have seen new taxes being imposed as existing ones rise. People are exhausted and confused by it all, and if their businesses survive at all, it is down to their determination.

Greek children are all too aware of the crisis into which their country has plummeted. Apart from having parents who are constantly anxious and talking about the “krisi”, schools are running short of money. I have discussions over Skype with a school in northern Greece, and during the winter I noticed the pupils were wrapped up in coats and scarves. There was no money to heat the classrooms.

There was no budget for schoolbooks either. When I heard about the problem eight months ago, I asked my Greek publisher if we could start an initiative for authors to donate copies of their books. Even though I wanted to help, it has not been possible. There are layers of bureaucracy, but often very little organisation.

The mood in places far from Athens is not quite so bleak. I have been given so many gifts on my current trip (books, wine, pieces of embroidery, pens, olive oil and more) that they have had to be sent home by ship. Even when Greeks have very little, they give — and their generosity is humbling. In a city in the north, Alexandroupolis, I was given a vintage necklace, with old beads and coins. “Ah,” said the woman who had made it, touching a drachma coin. “I might need that back.”

Most Greeks are not making jokes about the currency. I have to keep a sum of money in my Greek bank account, which I was obliged to open when I bought the house. The hefty taxes that are randomly imposed on home owners these days are removed by direct debit, so the funds need to be there. It seems disloyal to remove them.

With eurozone banks on the brink, friends have asked me to help take their savings out of Greece. Three friends offered to fly to London with their life savings in suitcases — €40,000 in one instance — so that I might keep it in my account. I wanted to help, but then I considered the consequences if something happened to me: the money would be lost under my name, and they would be left with nothing.

Tourism could help to save Greece, but the Greeks need to nurture and treasure the assets that the gods gave them. This is a country with beautiful landscapes, blue sea, culture, history and wonderful food. But one of the problems now is that the mood is so glum that when tourists come, they will not see the best of the country.

In Athens, they will be driven from the airport by a taxi driver who spends the journey on his mobile phone (illegal), smokes (illegal), and breaks the speed limit (illegal). If they live to tell the tale, they will see boarded-up shops, graffiti-covered walls and people going through the bins. I hope that visitors can see past the dilapidation to the eternally ravishing aspects of Greece that are beyond politics and time. This could help the country to survive. I was touring Greece last week talking about my novel, The Thread, which describes the traumatic, often dark, events of 20th-century Greek history — occupation, civil war, earthquake. It is a tale about the Greeks’ ability to survive, and they need to brace themselves now, just as they have before.

Unusually for May, it poured with rain last week. From my balcony, I could see the crowd that had gathered in the ancient marble stadium for the handing over of the Olympic flame. After several hours, the clouds parted and an intense rainbow appeared.

Greece always delivers drama. It is always larger than life. I hope for the sake of everyone in this extraordinary country that the rainbow was symbolic and that Greece will soon find its pot of gold.

Victoria Hislop is a British author. She has a deep love of Greece and has written two best-selling historical novels set in the country — The Island (2005) and The Thread (2011) — the first of which was dramatized for Greek TV with great success.

This essay was written in May this year, shortly after the first, inconclusive general election in Greece, and it originally appeared in The Telegraph newspaper (link to Telegraph version). It is reproduced here with the author’s kind permission.

Stuart Franklin: The Greek landscape in flux

Stuart Franklin is a world-famous, award-winning photographer, and former president of Magnum Photos. He has kindly given me permission to reproduce his photograph of the deserted village of Anthochori in Arcadia, which appeared in his book Footprint: Our Landscape in Flux (Thames & Hudson, 2008). ‘Anthochori’ means ‘village of flowers’.


Stuart has commented on the image:

‘To the ancient Greeks, Arcadia was a rural idyll. Instead of a lush, bucolic landscape, I found one devastated by the hunt for fossil fuels. Sixty per cent of Greece’s electricity is derived from lignite (brown coal). This involves bulldozing whole landscapes to feed the nearby power station. In Megalopolis I found Greece’s second largest lignite mine. The village of Anthohori in Arcadia was wiped off the map – the church of Santa Maria was all that remained’ Source.

It’s a wonderful image, rich with metaphors for the condition of modern Greece. I don’t know whether Stuart intended it, but what strikes me is the visual echo of countless photos of the Acropolis. The Anthochori hill is a modern sacred mount: tiny, accidental, and fragile, and with an ambiguous message. Is it a superstitious folly or a gesture of defiance to materialism? Either way, it’s gone now.

Many thanks to Stuart for supporting He adds a personal note: ‘I love Greece and the Greek people, remember growing up looking at the grainy black and white pictures of Leonard Cohen and Marianne on Hydra from the “Songs from a Room” album and longing somehow to escape from school, and exams … and travel. So I did!’