Greece: A Memoir; Part 1: Introduction

(This is an excerpt of a memoir-in-progress of my life in Greece.)

For years I have had a fantasy of getting hold of a camper somehow and traveling around Greece and writing about the experience.  In my mind it was always tied to some sort of mythical affluence – you know, the kind we always have in the not-too-distant future whenever we are daydreaming.  I would do the job right, not missing any of the important locations, staying at campgrounds long enough to take in the sights and absorb the local atmosphere and write it all down.  In this fantasy sometimes I traveled alone and sometimes I had company, but that was not the important thing.  What was important that my muse directed my path, and I had enough leisure time and wealth to let it do so.

Recently I woke up.  It didn’t take a slap in the face; it just occurred to me that such a trip was unnecessary.  I have already lived in Greece for over fifteen years.  I have lived in both Athens and Thessaloniki and in a small village in Halkidiki.  I have hitchhiked over many of its roads, and I have traveled by camper over many of them too.  I have journeyed by plane, boat, car, taxi, on foot and on the backs of motorcycles.  I don’t have to do all of that again.  It would be nice to, of course, but all I really have to do is remember and write about it.  And when I get down to it, I don’t really want to write a travelogue anyway.  What Greece is to me is not what it is to you or to anyone else.  Experience is shaped and filtered through individual minds and hearts, so that by the time it comes out it is flavored with unique personality.

This is my impression of Greece.  Hope you like it.

Currently I live with my Greek wife and two of my five sons in a village in the hills east of Thessaloniki.  From the hill on which we live you can see the white arc of the city spread around the dark waters of the Thermaic Gulf.  We live in a residential area between two villages; in a sense it is a suburb of Thessaloniki.  A few years ago there was a housing boom and it looked like the city would spread right up into the hills, but then Greece’s economy crashed and the villages are riddled with fully- and half-constructed housing that nobody can afford to buy.  By car or by bus the city can be reached in about twenty minutes; nevertheless it is far enough away for us to avoid the confusion, noise, and smog.  Our village is quiet, peaceful, clean, and orderly.

But stunning though the view is of Thessaloniki and the bay, it is not the most awe-inspiring view in the area.  If you walk or drive up over the top of the hill and look down the other side, you can see across the Gulf to majestic Mount Olympus.  On a clear day when the sky is deep blue and the cobalt-blue waters of the Gulf are still, the sight of the home of the gods is stunning, breathtaking, uplifting, whether it is summer and the craggy summit is stark brown, or winter and it is covered in blinding white snow.  The green hills that drop down to the waters of the Gulf are speckled with houses, and I have often wished I could live on that side so every day I could observe the mountain and its changes; but that is beyond our means just now.  Instead I can relish the sight every time I drive by, which is often.  I just have to be careful I don’t get too enthralled and go off the road.

Just a twenty-minute drive to the east are beautiful sandy beaches; in the summer the sea water is bath-warm.  An hour or so of driving to the southwest takes you to a mountainous area where there are ski resorts and hiking trails.

Well, it all sounds idyllic but honestly I don’t intend this as some sort of travel brochure.  Living here has its ups and downs, its pros and cons, just like living anywhere else.  Greeks can be generous and magnanimous and hospitable, but they can also be narrow-minded and bull-headed and petty.  My kids have benefited greatly from being brought up in a bilingual and bicultural environment, being taught in Greek at school but having an English-speaking home life, but they have all received intense bullying at schools due to anti-American sentiments.  I mentioned the financial crash earlier; it has hit us hard, as it has most Greek families.  Nevertheless, we have managed to carve out a life here, and generally, though always hand-to-mouth in economic terms in spite of the fact that my wife and I both have full-time jobs, it is a good life.

Before I ever visited, two literary experiences colored my impression of Greece.

The first was “Zorba the Greek” by Nikos Kazantzakis.  As I recall I came across the book even before I saw the movie.  I enjoyed the film, but it was the book that was the illuminating experience for me.  I read it over and over in the days after my new birth as a writer.  I was like the narrator, of course, the timid writer who was terrified of stepping out and experiencing life.  I wanted to but I was afraid.  I had no Zorba figure to urge me on, to poke and prod in the spirit and encourage me by example, but the Zorba in the book, among other literary influences, filled that role for me.  I knew I had to bust out of my rut and dance the dance of life, and this book helped me to do that.  I don’t think I was ever naive enough to think that Zorba represented all Greeks; even in the book he is presented as an anomaly.  But he gave me an ideal picture of how I imagined Greeks should be, most of which, in retrospect, was unrealistic.

The second and even greater influence was “The Colossus of Maroussi” by Henry Miller.  Shortly before I set out on the road I discovered Henry Miller, and became enthralled with his work.  After devouring “Tropic of Cancer”, “Tropic of Capricorn”, and “Black Spring”, I came across this memoir of his time in Greece after leaving Paris just at the start of World War II.  He paints an idyllic picture of Greece; it seems to have saved and resuscitated and invigorated him.  His experiences are blown up into grand mythic proportions, and the Greeks he meets, most of whom were the literary lights of the era, are presented as far greater than mere mortals.  It’s a robust, full-throated, energetic, invigorating song of praise.  Greece isn’t like that for most people.  For one thing, we don’t hang out with people of such stature as Nobel-prize winning poets; to be honest I have no access to literary circles in Greece at all, and I am unaware of the current state of the arts.  Miller approached Greece from a privileged position; he was initially invited to Corfu by Lawrence Durell, and was wined and dined regally as he traveled from place to place.  Nevertheless, he gives that unique Milleresque twist to his impressions of Greece.  Nobody writes like Henry Miller, and there are portions of “The Colossus of Maroussi” that are unsurpassed in pure descriptive brilliance.  As a writer I learned a lot from Miller, mainly that the writing and the man are inseparable, that one’s life is a base component of one’s work.  And Greece definitely changed Miller’s life, and I think that as I approached it for the first time I had the feeling that it might change mine as well.

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