Tuesday, 19 May 2020

A Magical Tour of Greece Part 2: Islands

In this magical six-day tour, I am finally - after 36 years of travelling - visiting all of the significant places I’ve yet to see and experience in a lifetime’s pilgrimage across Greece. In part 1 I ‘completed’ the mainland, in a wonderfully rich tour of monasteries, citadels, ancient theatres, forts and market-towns - all set in ravishing landscapes, girt by the sea and the mountains; indented with secretive inland lakes. All of this was done in the blinking of an eye, leaving me time still to explore islands and mountains. This time I’m boarding my magical boat, to hop across unknown islands, somehow impossibly keeping within my six-day timeframe. I’m taking with me my trusty Blue Guide and Durrell’s Greek Islands.

The Pagasitic Gulf
I’m starting my journey at Volos on the Pagasitic Gulf. My ultimate destination is Limni on Evia (Euboea). But like Jason or Odysseus, my journey will not be a simple one; we will not be going in a straight line. In my years of wanderings in Greece, I’ve visited every archipelago - 32 islands in all; I know the joys of island-hopping. The Sporades, the NE Aegean, the Dodecanese, the Cyclades, the Argo-Saronic, the Ionians: all beautiful names, conjuring subtly different memories. But on this magnificent journey I aim for new adventures. None of the places I visit, except my points of departure and arrival, are known by me. As Tennyson’s Ulysses puts it: ‘All experience is an arch wherethro'  Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades For ever and forever when I move’. 

The ship I’m boarding is called Argo and she is a magic craft: magic because she not only travels at very high speeds (as her Greek name suggests), but because she is a shape-shifter, embodying, as we go, four thousand years of Hellenic seafaring. The route we will trace across the oceans mirrors the outline of a butterfly’s wings: as it happens, that is the shape of my favourite island - which we shall not visit on this trip. (I have to keep some semi-secrets.)

On this sea journey, I shall move from one archipelago to the next. One of the great joys of the Aegean and the Ionian is the clustering of isles and islets, and the roll-calls of island names. The poet Odysseas Elytis knew this well; these names have a magic all of their own. In the Gloria of his great poem ‘The Axion Esti’ the names of islands are presented together in a moment of lyrical rhapsody: ‘Each word a swallow to bring you spring in the midst of summer’. Mikis Theodorakis set these names beautifully to music for a single psaltis (singer). The names evoke music, poetry and all the senses: the sights, sounds, tastes, touch and smells of the Greek islands. So as you read my lists of islands, think also of Elytis’ great poem and Mikis’ masterful setting of it, and dream.

Skopelos - Skiathos - Alonissos

As I leave Volos, Argo is a pentekonter: she has fifty oarsmen, twenty-five on each side, and a single mast in the mid-ships. She was built of pines from Mt Pelion. The Roman poet Catullus may be wrong to call her the first ship but it was certainly Athena who made her ‘with her own hands…to scud…at every breath of wind.’ On Volos’ foreshore the sea-nymphs and a few tourists watch us as we leave. We are headed directly for the Sporades. Apollonius tells us that Jason passed by Skiathos, hugging the coast as he headed north to fetch the Golden Fleece. But I shall land there.

Streep tease on Skopelos
The Sporades are the last cluster of islands that I got to know. I spent three wonderful days on Skyros in 2015, commemorating the centenary of the death of the poet Rupert Brooke. He’s buried there in a beautiful, remote olive-grove, a ‘corner of a foreign field that is forever England’, and had the good sense to die on the patronal feast-day of both Skyros and England.[1] The Mayor and islanders gave us wonderful hospitality. One morning, I rose with the dawn to jog along the east coast of the island, the sun shimmering marvellously in peachy shades of pink. 

This time, however, I shall visit three islands that are closer to the mainland and are strung out like the lower beads of a necklace. On Skiathos, I want to trace the novelist Alexandros Papadiamantis (1851-1911) and to idle some time away on Koukounaries beach, described by Durrell, who knew a thing or two about idle loafing, as ‘by common consent the finest in Greece’ (even the normally austere Blue Guide agrees). Next in the chain is Skopelos which was discovered by the producers of Mamma Mia! and has, I guess, never been the same since. There are probably worse ways to spend a few hours than camping it along to an Abba soundtrack in search of beaches trodden by Meryl Streep. A boat trip to the chapel of Agios Ioannis beckons. Alonnisos, the most easterly of the larger islands, is the centre of the Sporades Marine Park, where hugely important work is underway to conserve the endangered Monk Seal and other marine species (see Hellenic Society for the Study and Protection of the Monk Seal). A visit to the scientific centre at Gerakas Bay is a must.   

Samothrace - Ikaria 

As I leave the Sporades, Argo has performed the first of her metamorphoses. She is now an Athenian trireme, of the sort that the Assembly would despatch to deliver unreasonable instructions to subject islands at the height of Athens’ fifth-century empire. I used to cox rowing eights and fours at university, but on this occasion I have been asked to join the Athenian citizens as an oarsman. There are three banks of rowers: the thranitai, zygitai, and thalamitai. I am in the lowest rank, a thalamites, closest to the water. Cramped conditions, but good exercise. We are bound for Samothrace in the NE Aegean.

Sanctuary of the Great Gods on Samothrace
This was always one of the most mysterious islands. It’s a granite mountain: Poseidon watched the Battle of Troy from the peak of Fengari (1600 m). It has no natural harbour: disembarking remains a hazardous venture. And it was the home of a cult of the Great Mother and the Kabeiroi, Anatolian divinities also worshipped on Lemnos. (I visited the sanctuary there some years ago when it was deserted: it’s a dramatic and numinous site.) This was a mystery cult with rites of initiation. Initiands were asked to name the worst deed they had committed in their life and as initiates were rewarded by the promise of salvation from drowning. The remains of the sanctuary are substantial. Durrell memorably hated the thought of it and refused to step ashore (‘I felt the cannibals warming up the cooking pots’). I am made of sterner stuff - and, in any case, salvation from drowning might be helpful on this seagoing trip.

As I board Argo for Ikaria, she has shifted shape again. We are going to pass by the wealthy islands of Mytilini, Chios and Samos, on the sea routes from Constantinople to the Levant. Byzantine merchants used to ply their trade here, from port to port, and the Byzantine navy patrolled for centuries in ships called ‘dromons’, from which formidable Greek Fire could be thrown at hostile forces. Argo now has two masts, with 54 oars on each side, ranged in two banks: a ‘bireme’. We move fast.   

Ikaria lies in a SW-NE orientation, and from the air is dramatic (I’ve flown over it several times on trips to Samos), with a bluff spine of rock that thickens and appears to rise towards the SW. I know only two things about it: it is famous still for its hot springs and its people live very long lives. There are, it is said, more healthy people here over the age of ninety than on anywhere else on the planet. This is attributed to diet and to a relaxed pace of life. Sounds great.

Kalymnos - Nisyros - Kastelorizo - Karpathos 

I now want to head south to the Dodecanese: the last islands to be formally appended to the Greek state, in 1948. My most magical trip here happened several years ago. Our ferry from the Piraeus was cancelled and our early evening arrival was delayed long into the night. But we travelled by the light of a full moon, under a sable sky, ablaze with starlight. The ferry followed a silvery carpet of moonlight spread across the sea to Patmos. We arrived about three o’clock in the morning dazed by sleeplessness and the magic of it all. 

Caldera at Nisyros
On this trip, in the fierce Byzantine warship, I plan to stop off at small islands. First, Kalymnos, where I hope to meet some sponge-divers and learn about this ancient industry. Then to Nisyros, one of the Aegean’s spectacular volcanic islands. Like other such places in the Aegean, it has, they say, a strong smell of sulphur about it. The caldera is enormous: two miles in diameter. The main town of Mandraki looks lovely, with its kastro and Monastery of the Virgin Spiliani. Bypassing adorable Rhodes, we then head for Kastellorizo: the most remote of all the Greek islands. The Knights of St John were here too and there is even a Lycian rock-tomb. And though much damaged in the Second World War the main port-town looks enchanting. Finally, I want to see Karpathos. Durrell describes it as ‘mostly orchard and vineyard, rich in trees with plenty of water and shade’, and he loved its inland villages. The mediaeval settlement of Olympos, where the older women still wear traditional dress, sounds wonderful.  

Folegandros - Milos - Serifos - Kythnos 

As we leave Karpathos, Argo has changed again. We are heading to the Cyclades, islands long dominated by the Most Serene Republic of Venice. And although, on this trip, I shall miss Syros and Naxos, the two remaining centres of Catholic population, Argo has become a large Venetian merchant galley, a galea grossa da merchado, with rowers, masts and sails, and packed with goods. 

As surely everyone does, I love the Cyclades. Island-hopping here, even with the massive rise in tourism, retains its enchanted quality. As you sail here, islands - inhabited and barren - pass by in prodigious number, rising and disappearing on the horizon. The sun sparks off the surface of the deep blue, and, as you come to land, the colours of the water change to magnificent shades of aquamarine, turquoise, teal even, with the seafloor rising rapidly to meet you through pellucid, crystalline waters. I want to visit four small islands - all unknown to me, and as I move from one to the next, I expect that the pace of life will slow, my cares will at least temporarily evaporate, and I will revel in things that have become pure essence: light, shade, an icy ouzo, some olives, a salt cheese…

Folegandros first, to see the dramatic location of the main town, the Chora. Then to volcanic Milos, where I shall remember some ancient history and reread Ritsos’ great poem The Annihilation of Milos, before settling to enjoy the astonishing beauty of the landscape and seascape.  Then to two other westerly islands, Serifos and Kythnos. At least from afar (I’ve passed it several times), Serifos looks like the  quintessence of a Cycladic island: rocky, barren, with its main village, Chora, a mass of brilliant white cubes, lifted up high and touching the sky. Kythnos is less dramatic, but like Ikaria, has thermal springs. The promise of a hydrotherapy centre and very few foreign tourists appeals. 

Angistri - Lefkada - Paxoi 

I’m now heading to the NW, to leave the Aegean. As we enter the Argo-Saronic Gulf, Argo changes again. She is now the spitting image of Admiral Miaoulis’ flagship ‘Hellas’, one of the combatants in the Greek War of Independence. The seafarers from these islands (Hydra and Spetses) and their comrades from the NE Aegean (Psara) played an important role in the harassment and containment of the Ottoman Fleet. Argo is proud now to be configured as a Greek frigate. 

Angistri is a small, pine-clad island lying close to Aegina. It’s the only inhabited Argo-Saronic island I don’t know. I want to stop there briefly (lunch!) before we head NW to pass through the Corinth canal. This will be the first time I’ve gone through the canal itself. We are heading now for the Ionian Islands: the only part of today’s Greece that was ever ruled by the English. 

As we emerge into the Gulf of Corinth, Argo - to my surprise - changes again. Oddly, she starts emitting smoke. But she hasn’t caught fire. As we pass Itea, where on 29 September 1827, Captain Frank Abney Hastings destroyed an Ottoman squadron (the ‘Battle of Itea’), Argo has taken on the form of the ship he most famously commanded, the steam-corvette Karteria. Hastings was one of the first to realise the strategic importance of coal-fired steam-ships in the struggle against the Ottomans. I had the honour, in 2016, of handling the lengthy memorandum he wrote in the autumn of 1823 to Byron. One of the treasures of the Greek National Library, it begins: ‘I lay down as an axiom that Greece cannot obtain any decisive advantage over the Turks without a decided maritime superiority’. Quite right. He died of wounds sustained in action in 1828 and is buried on Poros; his heart is interred in the Anglican church of St Paul’s Athens. A true hero. 

Remembering him, I continue my voyage to the Ionian islands: at least those three that I don’t know. These islands are so very different from the Aegean islands. Lush, green, almost tropical; surrounded by cold waters. First Lefkada. Not quite an island, it's joined by a spit to the mainland. Here I want to see the inland villages and, at the island’s most southerly point, the 200ft white cliffs of Cape Doukato, where the poet Sappho is alleged to have killed herself - far from her homeland in Mytilini. (The legend has it that she was distraught at a failed love affair but she was in her seventies, ‘by which time’ as the incredulous poet Michael Schmidt waspishly puts it, ‘she might have been expected to have learned restraint’.) I head then to the island of Paxoi, which lies to the south of Corfu. I’m told it’s very beautiful.

Sappho jumped here. Perhaps.

Kythera - Evia

As I board Argo at the little port of Gaios on Paxoi, she has prepared for our voyage down the west coast of the Peloponnese to the most southerly of the Ionian Islands, Kythera. As we get going, she is once again under full sail, because she has taken the shape of a nineteenth-century British ship-of-the-line, a great war-ship built like Admiral Codrington’s flagship, HMS Asia. She is flying the white ensign.

Down the coast we go. As we pass the Gulf of Kyparissia, we slow almost to a stand. The shoreline here is the precious breeding ground of the endangered loggerhead sea turtle, caretta-caretta. I’ve seen these great creatures swimming in the sea at Zakynthos and I want to catch sight of them in this their most important habitat (see further here). I’m saying a prayer for their conservation. A little further south we approach the island of Sphacteria. We will not land. This island encloses Navarino Bay, where the decisive battle of the Greek War of Independence was fought, on 20 October 1827. The island, the bay, the town of Pylos are favourite places. Places for homage. 

Chora at Kythera
As we round Cape Matapan, at the foot of the Mani, we see Kythera in the distance. A rocky island. She has some remains, I believe, from the period of British rule (which ended in 1864). I want to explore this place at leisure. The Chora, by the sea, has a pretty kastro and inland, hidden from the view of pirates, is the mediaeval settlement, the Palaiochora. 

We’re back now in the Aegean and are heading for Evia, our final destination. In this last round of metamorphoses, Argo has become sentimental. She is  yearning for home and her return, her nostos. So she briefly resembles the battleship Averoff; then she looks like the battle cruiser Elli. But on these waters, she can’t forget either the Greek merchant marine: the dry bulk carriers, the ‘Aframax’ tankers, the ferries and catamarans, the ultramodern LNG carriers - the nerves and sinews of modern Greek seafaring. As we finally approach the pretty port of Limni on the beautiful island of Evia, we are once more under sail, in the form of a modern super-fast 60' trimaran. We will reach land gracefully. And the water trickling under Argo’s bows seems to whisper some words of Kazantzakis: 

‘Fortunate is the person who, before he dies, manages to sail the Aegean.’ 

We arrive at Limni as dusk falls. Fortunate indeed.


Part 3 (the final part) of my magical tour takes me to unknown mountain peaks. 


[1] The poet A.E.Stallings wrote beautifully about this event here.

Jason's Argo
A trireme
A Byzantine 'dromon'
A Venetian 'galea grossa da merchado'
Admiral Miaoulis' 'Hellas'
Hastings's 'Karteria'
HMS Asia
Battleship Averoff

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

A Magical Tour of Greece. Part 1: The Mainland

In the last few days of June, I have a return flight ticket to Greece. I was due to be taking part in the Nemean Games, but they have been cancelled. So I’ve been thinking about what to do with my six days in Greece. I realise, of course, that the Greek Government has set 1 July for the start of its contracted tourism season; even then, travel to Greece will be possible only if the disease is elsewhere under control and new travel protocols have been internationally agreed. I’m not kidding myself that I will be drinking in the Greek light (and enough glasses of tsipouro to brighten a sun-deprived northerner’s thirst) in six weeks’ time. 

But one can still dream. 

I’ve been regularly travelling in Greece for 36 years now and I often tell people I’ve explored every corner of the country. But that’s a gross exaggeration. There’s much, much more to see and do in this wonderful country than I’ve managed to date. So I’ve pulled out my ancient Blue Guide to Greece, my Oxford Archaeological Guide to Greece and my Mountains of Greece from off my shelves, and I’m ready to dream.

In six days I have a lot to cover. There are sites to see, islands to visit, walks to make. My dream tour will have to be a magical tour. In these six days, I shall cover every significant place I haven’t yet visited and I will steel myself to ignore all the wonderful places I already know. 

This is my magical dream-plan. Part 1.

Mosaics at Daphne
My mainland journey starts in Attica and goes, somewhat schematically, clockwise around the country. In Attica, there are four monuments I have somehow missed over the years: the classical fortifications at Phyle and Aigosthena, the sanctuary of Demeter at Eleusis (I got to the site once just after closing time and looked glumly through the fence: Demeter must have felt similarly when she couldn’t find Persephone) and the Monastery at Daphne, which is now open again after a long process of restoration following the 1999 earthquake damage. All of these are, in different ways, important sites, but the one I am really desperate to see is the Monastery, with its magnificent mosaics, its gothic cloister and its interesting history (founded in late antiquity, rebuilt and gloriously adorned in the eleventh century and then occupied for four hundred years by the Franks as a Cistercian Monastery). I’ve seen the Nea Moni on Chios, Osios Loukas in Boeotia, the great mosaics of Thessaloniki and the Chora Monastery in Constantinople. Have I saved the best to last?

I will then cross the Isthmus of Corinth, much more slowly than usual. I have never found time to stop at the southerly end of the canal. But there the ancient sanctuary of Isthmia has long beckoned. I can’t take part in the Nemean Games this year, so why not dream about the Isthmian Games? Here, at the stadium attached to the sanctuary of Poseidon, one of the four cycles of Panhellenic sporting festivals took place every two years. I will limber up on the start-line of the stadium and recite some lines of one of Pindar’s Isthmian Odes. Perhaps the fifth Isthmian, to Phylakidas of Aegina, which starts with a promising address to “Mother of the Sun, Theia the many-named…”

Only a little down the coast is the pretty port of Kenchreai. This was the southerly port of ancient Corinth, giving the great commercial city access to the Aegean. The city’s ancient mole and warehouses have been found and excavated. The beach is lovely. I’ve passed it on many trips and looked gloomily at my watch, denying myself the pleasure of a visit. This time, I will stop, explore, swim and have a meal.

Villages of Arcadia
The Peloponnese is wonderful from north to south, east to west. Its landscape is magnificent: dramatic mountain peaks, verdant valley bottoms, craggy and sandy shorelines alike. Here nature and culture are indivisible. To retrace earlier steps in the Morea is not just to access memory, but to deepen knowledge, to refine sensibility, to ascend even higher stages of initiation into Hellenism. On this occasion I shall, however, steer clear of all the places I have so often revisited. My destination is Arcadia. A place so beautiful it made even death defensive: Et in Arcadia ego. Yes, I’m here even in Arcadia. I was last there in 1984. I was just sixteen. We climbed with wonder the commanding position held by Geoffrey of Briel, in fief of the Villehardouins, at Karytaina and admired the stone mansions at Dimitsana. But we were really bound for Apollo’s magnificent temple at Bassai: in those days, the building was not under its ugly plastic tent and it arose organically from its remote, mysterious mountainous site. But though we found the great temple, we didn’t then have time for three other archaeological sites: two in the mountains (Gortys and Arcadian Orchomenos) and one in the plain (Tegea). These are my Arcadian destinations. Τhe magic of this trip will be metamorphotic, turning late June into April: as in 1984, when I visited Arcadia in springtime, everything will be carpeted with wild flowers and the only sounds we will hear are the cry of goats, the flapping of butterfly wings and the buzzing of bees.

From Arcadia I will pass into the territory of Elis, avoiding Olympia and giving time and attention to the archaeological site of Elis itself. From there to Patra, where I will venerate the bones of St Andrew (those, at least, that are not hallowing Scottish soil) and pay a much overdue visit to the archaeological museum. Outside Patra the Rion-Antirrion bridge, which I have crossed many times but must now bypass, will be floating majestically above a low sea-mist. I will board a small boat. This is surely the best way to approach Nafpaktos in Aitoloakarnania (Greek names are the best). Outside the port, my brilliant tour-guide will re-enact in words and dramatic gestures the Battle of Lepanto (1571), where Don John brilliantly stopped the Ottoman Fleet (and Cervantes sustained a terrible wound). And I shall be thinking, as I always do in these waters, of Codrington and Hastings, as they decisively and finally ended Ottoman naval power in the Greek War of Independence. Somehow, I’ve never yet visited Nafpaktos, despite its history and its picture-postcard looks. Ανυπομονώ. Can’t wait.

From Nafpaktos, I continue moving up the left-hand side of the clock. The places I want to visit now in Aitoloakarnania and Epirus are towns I’ve missed in the past. Skirting on one side the Pindus mountains (Giona, where the resistance fighters held sway, and Panaitoliko), on the other the flatlands, lagoons and inland waters, I shall first visit Agrinio and then, only pausing to remember the beauty of the Parigoritissa and bridge at Arta, enter Epirus. This is the journey that Byron made in 1809 with his mate Hobhouse (he landed at Preveza and headed north to seek out the tyrant Ali Pasha). Ioannina on Lake Pamvotis and the beautiful villages of Zagori are favourite places, and I shall be sad to miss them. But I will be delighted to find myself in Konitsa, close to the border with Albania. This town is sited amphitheatrically - so I understand - above the valley where the Voidomatis (so cold, so crystalline, so beautiful where it rises in the Gorge of Vikos) meets the Aoos. In this part of Greece, I shall be sure to have with me a friend called Josh, who is knowledgeable about the rich musical traditions and songs of Epirus and knows many great Epirote musicians. 
'Little' Prespa Lake
I shall then cross into Macedonia, imagining myself to be one of Alexander’s famous cavalrymen. The battered old car (it’s a rental car, so it’s battered and old, but it’s magical - so this doesn’t matter) will take me to explore three unknown towns: Grevena, Kozani and Florina. I shall then head to the two lakes Prespa: Little and Large. I want to be shown them by someone who really knows them: who lives by them and understands them, who can tell me the Greek names of plants and fish and the mists that rise from the lakes (they must have names), explaining the history, ecology and mood of the lakes. From Great Prespa I will imagine - over the borderlands to the west - Lake Ohrid, with its monastery of St Naum and the famous Ohrid school of iconography. But Macedonia, as I know it, has more than enough to occupy me and I won’t ponder travels in foreign places too long. 

Continuing clockwise, I need to visit Pella, the administrative capital of Philip’s Macedon (I already know Vergina and Dion well), and then I’ll head eastwards to Serres and Drama: two towns I’ve never visited. In those places, I shall have become in my imagination a wealthy Greek merchant in late Ottoman times, dreaming of the Macedonian Struggle ahead and the union with Greece. Now I’m heading steadily south again: to the archaeological sites at Stageira, to say hello to Aristotle’s birthplace, and to Olynthos, which I know only through Demosthenes’ three speeches, the Olynthiacs (I found them gruelling but fascinating at the age of sixteen). As Mount Olympus rears up to my right-hand side, I shall be looking to my left: I have many times passed but never stopped at the castle of Platamon. It needs my attention now. 

Thessaly has wonderful mythical associations: think of the Giants trying to storm Olympus by piling Pelion on Ossa, or of the marriage of Peleus and Thetis (Achilles’ mum and dad). But as Brydon and Coogan discovered on their recent Trip to Greece it’s also the setting - at Damouchari Bay - of a scene from Mamma Mia. I’ve eaten there already and so on this occasion will regretfully pass by the verdant loveliness of the Pelion region (inspiration to the poet Drosinis). I want instead to see the Monastery of the Virgin Olympiotissa at Elassona and the monasteries of the Holy Trinity and St Stephanos at Meteora (I’ve visited all the other wonderful monasteries that perch precariously there on unearthly stalagmites). At Larisa, I want to visit an ancient theatre that was scarcely known when I first visited in 1984. Demolitions and excavations in the 1990s revealed a third-century, 10,000-seat marble theatre. Deus ex machinaOver the border in Evrytania, I will finally visit what someone once told me (is it true?) is the highest market-town in Greece: Karpenisi.  

Tanagran larnakes 
The magical tour of the mainland ends in Boeotia. I know this area surprisingly poorly, but spent several hours at Eleftherai and in Thebes in 2017 and realised I’d been missing something significant. Mythology, history and archaeology are so very rich here. It’s time to do them full justice. So while battlefields aren’t always my thing, I need to see the sites of the battles of Chaironeia (with some solidaires thoughts about the Sacred Band of Thebes and the extinction of Athenian democracy) and Plataiai (Athens’ ever plucky ally). And the archaeological site at Orchomenos (the second Orchomenos of this magical tour) and the Mycenean citadel at Gla are clearly a must. (In the impressive new Archaeological Museum of Thebes three years ago, I fell in love with the wonderful Mycenean larnakes from the chamber tombs of nearby Tanagra, where I once flew with the Red Arrows(!).)

On paper this tour may seem exhausting. But it is a magical tour and nothing on it will exhaust me. Everywhere I go, I will find simple, authentic, tasty food, and good accommodation. (All suggestions welcome!) And as some of you will already have noticed, the tour is almost designed to take me through places where great wines are made (Corinthia, Macedonia) and great spirits too (e.g. tsipouro from Tyrnavos in Thessaly). But I’m also looking forward to many conversations in Greek (time to tune into some dialects?) and to traditional music, song and dance, wherever they occur. 

All magical indeed. But a kind of magical realism. Because this is the Greece that I know exists and which will once more enchant me when Covid-19 goes and the moment comes. 

Part 2 of my magical six-day tour takes me to islands and on mountain walks. Coming shortly.


Sunday, 5 April 2020

Μοναξιά, ο ποιητής σε κατ' οίκον περιορισμό, αγάπη

Είναι αξιοσημείωτος ο τρόπος που έκλεισαν οι ανοιχτές, ελεύθερες, βολικές κοινωνίες μας – εξαιτίας του κορωνοϊού. Όντως μάζεψαν οι ζωές μας, σαν να ήταν μάλλινα πουλόβερ που πλύθηκαν στη λάθος θερμοκρασία. Εγώ πάντως έχω σχεδόν τρεις βδομάδες να φύγω από το Τούτινγκ, τη συνοικία μας στο νοτιοδυτικό Λονδίνο. Επιπλέον είχε ήδη πιαστεί η πλάτη μου δέκα μέρες πριν, έτσι ώστε να μην μπορώ πια να τρέξω (επιτρέπεται να βγαίνουμε μια φορά την κάθε μέρα για την γυμναστική). Η μόνη μου φυσική επαφή με τον εξωτερικό κόσμο αποτελείται από μια ελαφριά καθημερινή βόλτα με τα δυο μας σκυλάκια. Γενικά οι άνθρωποι συνηθίζονται όλο και περισσότερο στην «κοινωνική αποστασιοποίηση» που συνεπάγεται αυτή η κατάσταση: όχι πιο κοντά ο άλλος στον άλλο παρά 2μ.
Δουλεύω σπίτι κανονικά και είμαι συνηθισμένος σε ένα συγκεκριμένο βαθμό εσωστρέφειας. Αλλά η κατάσταση αυτή είναι κατηγορηματικά διαφορετική. Δεν μπορώ πλέον να αποσπάσω την προσοχή μου με εκθέσεις, ψώνια, ραντεβού σε καφενεία, εκδρομούλες σε μουσεία, θέατρα, σινεμά. Τι είναι «εστιατόριο» άραγε; Η σκέψη του να αποστερείται κανείς την Μεγάλη Εβδομάδα είναι οδυνηρή.    

Ταυτόχρονα ελπίζω αυτή η επιβαλλόμενη απομόνωση να βελτιώσει τη δυνατότητα αυτοσυγκέντρωσής μου. Εργάζομαι τώρα πάνω σε μια μετάφραση του μεγάλου ποιήματος «Το τερατώδες αριστούργημα» του Γιάννη Ρίτσου, καθώς και στη μετάφραση από τον Ρίτσο του έργου του Μπέρτολτ Μπρεχτ «Στρογγυλοκέφαλοι και Σουβλεροκέφαλοι». Στο στάδιο αυτό, μπορώ να προχωρήσω χωρίς να επισκεφτώ την Βρετανική Βιβλιοθήκη ή τις πανεπιστημιακές βιβλιοθήκες. Και αρπάζω την ευκαιρία να διαβάσω πολλά βιβλία που τα αγόρασα και παραμέλησα. 

Καλό είναι να έχουμε λιγότερες διασπάσεις της προσοχής, αλλά όχι τόσο καλό να αναρωτιόμαστε για το εάν προθεσμίες έχουν πλέον σημασία.

Βεβαίως, παραμένουν κι ακόμη κάποια πράγματα που αποσπούν την προσοχή μας.
Πριν λίγες μέρες καταφέραμε να αγοράσουμε μπογιές που θα μας παραδώσουν στο σπίτι. Περιμένω επίσης να μου φέρουν χώμα και λίπασμα για τον κήπο. Κάποια μαγαζιά ειδών κηπουρικής παραδίδουν φυτά στο σπίτι. Έτσι η εσωτερική διακόσμηση και η κηπουρική μπορούν να προχωρήσουν κι οι δυο – περισσότερο ή λιγότερο όπως και πριν.

Υποκατάστατα για άμεσες επαφές έγιναν Το Skype, το Zoom και το Webex. Οι συνεδριάσεις του διοικητικού συμβουλίου, η καθοδήγηση (mentoring), οι κοινωνικές κουβεντούλες – είναι όλες δυνατές ακόμη και όντως γίνονται. Όλα περιορίζονται αναμφίβολα, αλλά οι σύγχρονες τεχνολογίες μειώνουν την μοναξιά μας. 

Λόγω της απομόνωσης σκέφτομαι εδώ και μερικές μέρες τις συνθήκες που αντιμετώπισε ο Γιάννης Ρίτσος στα πενήντα χρόνια του, επί της Χούντας. Όταν οι συνταγματάρχες κατέλαβαν την εξουσία, συλλήφθηκε αμέσως κι ο Ρίτσος, ώστε να περάσει 18 μήνες σε φυλακή στη Γιάρο και τη Λέρο. Αλλά έπειτα μεταφέρθηκε σε κατ΄οίκον περιορισμό για δυο χρόνια στο Καρλόβασι της Σάμου, μεταξύ του Οκτωβρίου του 1968 και του Οκτωβρίου του 1970. Εκεί υποβλήθηκε στους πιο σοβαρούς περιορισμούς. Επιτρεπόταν να βγαίνει από το σπίτι του κάθε τόσο, αλλά απαγορευόταν να μιλάει με άλλους παρά τη γυναίκα του και την κόρη τους. Κανένας από τους κατοίκους του νησιού  – ούτε κανένας άλλος – δεν επιτρεπόταν να επικοινωνεί με αυτόν. Και οι υπάλληλοι ασφαλείας τον ακολουθούσαν παντού.

Κατά τις έρευνές μου, ανακάλυψα μια επιστολή που έγραψε ο Ρίτσος την εποχή αυτή στη φίλη και εκδότριά του, Νανά Καλλιανέση. Σε αυτή γράφει για το αντίκτυπο του κατ’ οίκον περιορισμού στην ψυχολογική του κατάσταση. Ως συγγραφέας ο Ρίτσος ήταν συνηθισμένος στην αυτοαπομόνωση, αλλά ήταν και κοινωνικός άνθρωπος και οι συνέπειες του περιορισμού του ήταν σοβαρές:

Αγαπημένη μου, θάθελα να υπήρχε ένας αυτόματος τρόπος καταγραφής αυτών των εσωτερικών συμπιεσμένων δονήσεων ή, μάλλον, θορύβων, χωρίς τη μεσολάβηση του χεριού μου, του μυαλού μου, της λέξης. Το μόνο που μούρχεται στο στόμα είναι: ασφυξία, ασφυξία, ασφυξία, ασφυξία. Και πάλι: ασφυξία, ασφυξία. Μα πρέπει επιτέλους να μιλήσω. Να σου πω κάτι απ’ την εδώ «ζωή» μου: Δε βλέπω κανέναν, δε μιλώ με κανέναν. Κανένας δε τολμά νάρθει να με δει.


Νανάκι μου, πνίγομαι. Σαν ψέμματα μού φαίνεται πώς μπορούσαμε κάποτε να βλεπόμαστε, να μιλάμε, να ονειρευόμαστε, να εκδίδουμε βιβλία· ότι υπήρχε μια γωνίτσα εκεί κοντά σου που με περίμενε να καθήσω ώρες και να τα πούμε ή να σωπάσουμε μέσα σ’ εκείνη τη βαθειά κι αναπαυτική αίσθηση της ανθρώπινης φιλίας. Αλήθεια υπήρξε ποτέ αυτή η ευτυχία; Υπήρξε αυτό ο Παράδεισος; Και δεν τον εκτιμήσαμε όσο του άξιζε. (*)

Με συγκινούν ιδιαίτερα αυτές οι παράγραφοι. Πρόκειται για μια αληθινή κραυγή εκ βάθους καρδιάς. Εννοείται ότι δεν μπορούμε να ταυτίσουμε τον ψυχολογικό πόνο που υπέφερε ο Ρίτσος κατά τον κατ’ οίκο περιορισμό επί της δικτατορίας με την «κοινωνική αποστασιοποίηση» που υποχρεωνόμαστε να κάνουμε τώρα για χάρη της δικής μας υγείας και ευημερίας. Εμείς είμαστε σε απομόνωση για καλούς λόγους, ενώ ο Ρίτσος όχι. Ταυτόχρονα, λίγοι από μας θα διαλέγαμε μια τέτοια μοναξιά, και οι πιέσεις που αντιμετωπίζουμε είναι πραγματικές.

Τον Απρίλιο του 1969, ο Ρίτσος, ο οποίος ήταν όχι μόνο απομονωμένος αλλά και άρρωστος με καρκίνο του προστάτη και με μια ξαφνική επανεμφάνιση της φυματίωσης που τον είχε πλήξει στα παιδικά του χρόνια, βρήκε λίγη ανακούφιση. Ήταν ίσως η μόνη φορά που δεν μπορούσε να συγκεντρωθεί στη δουλειά του – ούτε να γράψει ούτε να διαβάσει. Αλλά στην οικογένειά του, στις περιστασιακές επιστολές που αφέθηκαν από τον λογοκριτή να περάσουν, και στα και πιο σπάνια τηλεφωνήματα που κατάφερνε να κάνει, βρήκε παρηγοριά. Κάθε τόσο έφταναν προσκλήσεις για να μιλήσει στο εξωτερικό, ειδήσεις για νέες μεταφράσεις. Πήρε δύναμη από την επαφή με τον Μίκη Θεοδωράκη και από τα λόγια του Σεφέρη («έδειξε ακόμη μια φορά τί ποιητής και τί άνθρωπος είναι»). Και έκλεινε το γράμμα του με χαιρετισμούς όχι μόνο στη Νανά Καλλιανέση αλλά και σε όλους του τους πολλούς φίλους στην Αθήνα και πέραν. Σε αυτούς τους χαιρετισμούς (πρόκειται για μια μεγάλη λίστα) μπορεί κανείς να αισθανθεί μια πράξη αυτοεπιβεβαίωσης, αποφασιστικότητας, αγάπης. Αυτή η μαρτυρία συγκινεί και μας υπενθυμίζει – αν χρειαζόμασταν τέτοια υπενθύμιση – ότι σε τέτοιες εποχές πρέπει να αγαπήσουμε ο ένας τον άλλο, και να φροντίσουμε ο ένας τον άλλο με όλα τα θεμιτά μέσα που διαθέτουμε.

Παρατηρώ με θαυμασμό τον τρόπο με τον οποίο οι ελληνικές και βρετανικές κοινωνίες έχουν προσαρμοστεί στην απειλή του Covid-19 («μένουμε σπίτι») και ελπίζω όλοι κι όλες οι αναγνώστες μου να παραμείνουν ασφαλείς, υγιείς και κεφάτοι. Αν βοηθάει λίγο αυτό το μπλογκ, θα χαρώ πολύ. 


(*) Η επιστολή στην οποία αναφέρομαι βρίσκεται στο Αρχείο Ρίτσου στο Μουσείο Μπενάκη. Είμαι ευγνώμων στις αρχές του Μουσείου και στην Έρη Ρίτσου για τη βοήθειά τους σχετικά με τις έρευνές μου.

Holy Week and Easter: Celebrating in Isolation

I was brought up in a ‘middling’ but serious form of Anglicanism: neither particularly high nor noticeably low. Lent, Holy Week and Easter were observed solemnly, and our mediaeval parish church was always decked in gorgeous white flowers for Easter. The seasons of the Church became part of my life in childhood and grew in importance during my adolescence, when I was confirmed – after a due period of instruction. 

But it was in Greece, in 1984, that I first grasped, in something resembling its totality, the real possibility of Easter and its season of preparation. I was sixteen and on my first visit to Greece. We spent Holy Week and Easter on the island of Aegina. The island was carpeted with wildflowers and we walked extensively. As Holy Week progressed, I realised we were getting caught up in something I had never exactly experienced before: a whole community observing the Christian rituals together. Aegina Town has three large and beautiful churches, and we were in all of them at various times. For Good Friday, we headed to the Panagitsa, the lovely church dedicated to the Virgin on the harbour front. There the epitaphios (the representation of the Lord’s funeral bier) was sumptuous: its frame encrusted with seasonal wildflowers and carried aloft into the streets, with the bells tolling mournfully and the people following the procession. On Holy Saturday, I was surprised to find the tavernas largely closed at lunch and in the early evening; we ate alone in the apparently sole place that was open. Everyone else was observing the fast of the triduum. Later we were in the cathedral for the Easter vigil and the proclamation of the Resurrection at midnight. Since then, I have been present at many Greek Easter proclamations, but I shall never forget the excitement, the heat, the chaos, the joy of that first one. 

The bidding prayer for the Anglican service of imposition of ashes at the start of Lent exhorts us to observe a ‘holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word’. These are demanding words, addressed to and binding on each observant Christian and requiring acts of individual preparation and penitence. But the exhortation is too tough for us to carry it out entirely on our own. And so the Church helps us throughout Lent by offering collective worship that gathers in its intensity and enables us to participate together first as a penitential community and then as a congregation living together the Easter triumph. It is a collective experience that challenges, encourages, cajoles, sustains and ultimately rewards the efforts of the individual soul.

I had planned to spend this holy season amid great congregations. I was intending to be at the Brompton Oratory with Catholic friends for Palm Sunday today; at Southwark Cathedral for Maundy Thursday; at Westminster Abbey for Good Friday; and at my local parish church, All Saints, for Easter Sunday. This is the first time for many years that none of this will happen – for me or for others, and it feels like a bereavement all of its own – particularly the loss of Good Friday and Easter Day: music, readings, prayers, acts of penitence, adoration, rejoicing. Like many others, I will have to do without the great congregational consolations and find substitutes in isolation: live transmission of private acts of worship; CDs and streaming of the passion oratorios; the great settings (Palestrina, Victoria) of the Gospel reading, the Improperia; the hymns of celebration.

Throughout Holy Week, I shall be reading from the Select Meditations of Thomas Traherne, a seventeenth-century poet, theologian and Anglican priest. The meditations are both intensely personal, reflecting intimately on Traherne’s relationship with God, and yet wonderfully outward-looking: with expositions on the Godhead, the beauty of the natural world, the Church, the nation, Traherne’s own ministry. The individual meditations are arranged into four 'centuries' (i.e. collections of 100) and are mostly short (sometimes as short as four lines), occasionally written in the form of poetry and, even in prose, always expressed with magnificent poetic sensibility. I may tweet some of them, as we go through Holy Week. 

As we stay at home, protecting ourselves, our families, our heroic health workers and the integrity of our health service, we have more time than usual to think and reflect. It’s not necessarily comfortable to have this time, but it can be well spent!  I hope that everyone who reads this will stay safe and enjoy a Happy Easter.

Palm Sunday 2020

Friday, 20 March 2020

Covid-19: Thoughts on successful home-working

I am a long-term home-worker. I hadn’t ever intended to be so. I left full-time employment at the end of July 2017, when my then employer refused my application for unpaid leave, to complete my doctorate. After ten months of exclusive devotion to my thesis, I picked up a position as a non-executive director of a Greek shipping business and became chair of trustees of a small charity. With the passage of time, my academic work has morphed into post-doctoral projects and I have picked up the chairmanship of a second charity. All of this work – paid and unpaid; academic, charitable and professional – is home-based. Meetings happen in person only annually or quarterly; most take place by video- or teleconference. My study has become my office and I spend the bulk of my time at home in Tooting. 

So I’ve noted with interest the Government’s advice that all who can work from home should now do so, in order to contain transmission of the Coronavirus. In the past few days, my own husband, who normally works in the City or in Brussels, has joined me – in his case, as a temporary home-worker. So far, we’re surviving this new experience.

Home-working isn’t an easy option, even for a short time, but it can be done successfully and rewardingly.

The immediate benefits are obvious: no commuting, no need to put on ties or suits every day, greater freedom over the hours of work, far fewer noxious and pointless meetings, less intrusive supervision, relationships based on greater trust. Much of this has or may have a positive effect on well-being.

At the same time, home-working can be a lonely business. A sense of isolation can accumulate. At a distance stresses and strains are less easily shared or mitigated. Disciplines and boundaries are easy enough to establish at first, but may quickly crumble under the pressure of illness, miscalculations or external events. The voice of self-criticism may multiply exponentially. The temptation to skimp on physical exercise, proper diet or even healthy social contacts may grow with the passage of time. 

Over the past two and a half years, my own experiences have been variable but increasingly positive. Unlike those now working at home because of the Coronavirus, I had to make a complete break from a job that had been busy and stressful, with a large management requirement. The last few weeks of that job were tough, and its termination felt like going over the edge of a cliff or, to put it another way, like a total and bracing immersion into an entirely new pattern of life. The freeing-up of my time created much space – too much space – for introspection about the past. I had to learn new habits and patterns of thought, to work out how to spend my time productively and to develop new forms of concentration without former structures and boundaries to coerce me. As if all that weren’t enough, I quickly realised that there are many temptations around to make the home-worker unproductive: social media; the internet; the music collection; exhibitions, lectures, events; the fridge; the wine-cellar...and so on. And when, in June 2018, I picked up paid and charitable work, I had to think through how to juggle a portfolio that makes very different types of demand.

My experiences as a home-worker suggest a work in progress. Broadly speaking, I know now what works for me and what doesn’t, and I am very happy to have moved on from the traditional pattern of office-bound employment. For those of you who are new to this, I can’t claim that anything I have learnt will necessarily help you (we’re all different), but my tips for successful home-working would include the following:

·      Define your working-day clearly and create boundaries around it; don’t let working-time and non-working-time contaminate each other.
·      Set yourself a realistic daily routine that contains and balances as much variety as possible.
·      Generate enough real human contact (e.g. telephone, Skype) every day to maintain a healthy social component in your home-working – do not let e-mail or texting become your only form of contact.
·      Create time for physical exercise – in whatever way suits you: a brisk walk, some gardening, a jog, exercising the dogs, cycling….
·      Get out of the house every day – even if only to feel the rain on your skin and wonder when you last saw the sun.
·      Confine social-media apps to one or two devices and keep them in another room from the one you’re working in; set aside specific time for social media – do not let Twitter, or, if you must, Facebook and Instagram dominate and overwhelm your time.
·      Do not convince yourself that a lunchtime glass of wine (or two) will help your work.
·      Watch your diet – work out whether you need more or fewer calories as a home-worker than an office-worker (I need far fewer); 
·      If you feel bored and listless, get up, move around, do something else for ten minutes and then set yourself down to concentrate for a set period of time.

The Coronavirus seems to be posing a unique risk to human health. Like everyone else, I am listening closely every day to the emerging advice from Government and doing my bit to take personal steps to contain the spread of the virus. Such steps may cause novel secondary effects, but they need not be unwelcome. Successful home-working is certainly possible; good home-working feels very rewarding. Good luck to everyone who is now embarked on a new, if temporary pattern of work.