For many years, I took it for granted I could revisit Greece whenever I had the urge and the money. Now that there’s no possibility of going back anytime soon due to COVID-19, I dream of olive trees, quiet seas and blue-painted boats. I’m reminded of Seferis’ poem, ‘Wherever I go, Greece wounds me.’
My journeys to Greece have been the fulfilment of a romanticised longing yet at the same time contain an element of disappointment and pain. Every few years, my family and I go back and contemplate living there. When I land in Athens, I suffer through a period of mourning for a place that exists only in my fantasies. When I’m ‘home’ in Australia, I experience the intense loss of an ancient, idealised Arcadia. It’s nostalgia (a particularly Greek word for wistful longing) for a pre-war Greece which doesn’t exist anymore, which didn’t even exist when our immigrant parents left in the 60s.
My husband and I first arrived in Greece as a new couple in 1998, looking for Paradise. Soon we started bickering about the insane traffic and pollution and chain-smoking, churlish Greeks crammed onto trolley buses and in government departments. We fought about where we were going to live. We fought about whether it should be close to relatives. I wanted to be as far away as possible, he wanted to be in the same village, preferably next door. No sleepy, idle days for us. Instead we wandered the streets, still arguing, and bought plastic bags of purple figs from the local market, over-ripe, sticky with sap. I glutted myself on my rigid ideals the way I made myself sick on those figs.
My husband and I first arrived in Greece as a new couple in 1998, looking for Paradise.
We often stayed on the island of Hydra, where Australian writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston, the quintessential lotus-eaters, made their own Greek idyll. Charmian, author of Mermaid Singing and Peel Me a Lotus, was nurtured creatively in the 50s and 60s on Kalymnos and Hydra. She read, wrote, swam, walked, picnicked, drank ouzo, watched sunrises and sunsets – all good things I dream about during a wet Australian winter. She made friends with Leonard Cohen, Sidney Nolan and filmmaker Michael Cacoyiannis (Zorba the Greek). She also paid the ultimate price due to isolation, ill-health, relationship breakdown, loss of identity and eventual suicide.
In 2018 we stayed once again on the tiny, car-free island where Charmian’s bougainvillea-draped, stone home still stands, and made friends with the resident gravedigger, privy to his stories of Charmian, George and their children. As always when I’m in Greece, I grappled with being in-between, having a Greek mother and Australian father – too Greek in Australia, too Australian in Greece. I’ve now become used to my divided loyalties, halved and doubled, the twin wounds of exile and return.
Yet there were moments when my free-wheeling happiness was without shadows, where I felt as if I’d come home. Late breakfasts of sheep’s yoghurt thick as clotted cream, a spoonful of thyme honey; noonday walks alone, everyone else behind closed shutters, sleeping; fragrance of chamomile and holy basil intensified in dry heat; the sharp, saturated colours of summer, cutting through any lingering doubts.
Late breakfasts of sheep’s yoghurt thick as clotted cream, a spoonful of thyme honey; noonday walks alone, everyone else behind closed shutters, sleeping; fragrance of chamomile and holy basil intensified in dry heat; the sharp, saturated colours of summer, cutting through any lingering doubts.
Yet Greece is never so simple. Soon, overflowing garbage bins on unpaved roads, plastic bottles and straws ending up in waterways and once-pristine landscapes, overworked donkeys and mules which are Hydra’s only transport, stray cats and dogs – too many to rescue – began to wear me down. Sailing into Athens for supplies, we were struck by how desperate everyone was in the port of Piraeus, how many homeless people and beggars. The financial crisis has broken Greece – and my sentimental desire for a ‘simple’ life, my middle-class privilege, does nothing to alleviate this. It’s not the fault of Greece that I made it into an unattainable fantasy. It’s flawed, ambiguous, still compelling.
Little did I know that a dusty, chaotic day would transform my decades-long quest. On the metro platform to Athens it was crowded, suffocating. Making our way into the train carriage we were blocked by a middle-aged, thickset man. Much as I tried, he wouldn’t let me in. Finally, I pushed my way through, gripping onto my daughter’s arm and husband’s elbow. As the doors began to close two other men pressed against us, forcing us into a tight circle. From the corner of my eye I saw my husband’s daypack ripped off his shoulder. I reached out, grabbed the man’s own bag, yelling in English, and flung it outside. All three ran after it. In the silent aftermath, nobody in the carriage looked up or met our eyes. We were xeni, strangers.
Greece is like any other place. But my longing for it will never be satisfied.
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