Best of 2012: Greek peasant's faithful fatalism


Greek winterNobody believes Greece has a winter, but in fact Greek winters can be very bleak. It snows in Athens and, in the palely sunny Peloponnese where I live a biting wind can blow, apparently straight from Siberia, for days straight. Greek villagers have a particular verb for such a wind: it harvests.

There are various kinds of harvests, and this past winter Maria, my friend and neighbour of 32 years, was gathered in, as my grandmothers would have said. As the villagers buried her, she would have been amused, I think, to see the priest wearing a scarf under his stole. Maria was 89, and had never lived anywhere else but here; she had made an occasional visit to Kalamata, 25km away, but had never been to Athens.

Maria was born at a bad time and into poverty, and did not have much luck in escaping it. It haunted her until the end: the traditional vigil was kept, unusually, in church, her tiny, bare house being quite inadequate for the reception of mourners. Automatically destined to be a village wife and mother, she received little education. But neither did she receive a dowry, and so she never married.

Instead, she devoted herself to her nephews, who are my children's third cousins, and was a constant and loving presence in my sons' lives as well. They came and went between her garden and their own, chattering away to Maria, and playing with her kittens, chickens and kids. When her nanny-goat butted four-year-old Alexander (he bears the scar in his eyebrow to this day) she was mortified, wringing her hands with guilt.

I bore my own burden of guilt with regard to Maria, and castigated myself regularly for my own discontents. My life, with its privileges, opportunities and comforts was, in a very real sense, a world away from Maria's.

Yet I never heard her complain, despite having so little: her pension, when she eventually got it, was minimal, and she used to earn a little bit of extra cash by selling her pieces of crochet to women who were too busy to make the d'oyleys and runners that their Domestic Goddess souls yearned for. She would sit outside with her cronies in the summer evenings, chatting and plying busily.

Women are the same the world over: we need conversations with other women, so Maria and I would often have what my mother used to call 'a good mag' over her garden gate. She had met my parents during their holidays here, and never forgot to ask after them: I think she regarded the ongoing saga of my father's second marriage as her own exotic soap opera.

She consoled me when another neighbour's chooks wrecked my vegetable garden, and told me how to make a pretty and delicious dish out of courgette flowers when the courgettes themselves had failed.

Unlike me, Maria was an unchallenged believer. She would call on the Panagia, All-Holy Mother of God, in time of trouble, and was always certain of receiving an answer. She was also, predictably enough, imbued with both fortitude and peasant fatalism, and would say, very regularly, Oti thelei o Theos: Whatever God wants.

This, while I, product of a very different tradition, would huff and puff inwardly and mutter that God helps those who help themselves. But part of me envied Maria her certainties. A big part.

Somehow we have to cope with loss; we have to change our shape, as it were, in order to accommodate it. But I will miss Maria greatly: now all I can do is flip through the snapshots of memory, and be thankful that she was in my life for so long, with her patience, humour, and the lessons she taught me, all unwittingly: incidental learning.

Now fruit trees are bursting with blossom, and wild jonquils and grape hyacinths are clumped along the banks and hedgerows. Maria loved flowers. The red hips are still on the rose that straggles along her garden wall, but already little shoots of new growth are appearing.

Later in the spring and for the summer the whole will be covered with a mass of pink blooms. I wish Maria could see them. But then ... perhaps she will. Perhaps. 


Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an Australian writer who has been based in Greece for 30 years. She has had nine books published. Her latest, Seeing and Believing, is appearing in instalments on her website. 

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Greece



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Existing comments

A contrast springs to mind...Stephen Hawkins 'proving' the non-existence of God on his TV program. At the end he said he was grateful for the life he had which I thought was rather beautiful if a bit blind to his ponderous certainities. I wondered to whom he was grateful.

Bernadette | 09 January 2013  

Stephen Hawking on his program didn't prove the non-existance of God, but merely conluded it. It is interesting to ponder this question and wonder just what convinces athiests or thiests of their conclusions. It does not appear to have anything to do with a scientiffic understanding as some may be tempted to think, because all of this is often known alike to both thiests and athiests and yet we still have our John Polkinghorns and our Richard Dawkins's. It seems to be other factors that make the determination, maybe upbringing; perhaps child parential relationships with its wisdom or lack of, which may finally decide ones faith, as a thiest or an athiest, and I think that when all thinking is done and when reason does eventually run out, both thiesm and athiesm require a certain leap of faith.

John Whitehead | 09 January 2013  

Maria must have been a very special person, thank you for sharing.

Wayne McMillan | 10 January 2013  

Oh for the simple life! Rest in peace Maria! What will happen to her dear little house and garden?

Kerry and Jim Harley | 12 January 2013  

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