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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

I have always looked forward and am invariably inspired and moved forward by the pieces that you write. I shall now follow your instalments on your website, thank you so much, also to Eureka for publishing these uplifting pieces.

helen m donnellan | 28 March 2012  

Lovely writing Gillian. Maria reminds me of several women we got to know on the island of Ithaca where my partner Dora's family come from and where we have spent time over the years. Walter Benjamin has a lovely phrase for this type of person, one who knows one place utterly and completely, its rhythms of life, its stories, its lore: 'The resident tiller of the soil.' Thank you for your beautiful eulogy

Arnold Zable | 28 March 2012  

Thank you, Arnold. Such an understanding comment from one who really knows.

Gillian Bouras | 28 March 2012  

Indeed a beautiful eulogy for a person so accepting of life, and a most beautiful heart felt piece of writing.

John Whitehead | 28 March 2012  

A moving tribute to Maria As I was always fond of her and loved the way she was so caring with Liza and children She would have made a good mother and it is sad that this was denied her I always admired her for her attitude to life and I am grateful that I was able to be on good terms with her. Thanks

Teresa | 29 March 2012  

Gillian, this tribue to your neighbour Maria reminds me so much of "my" granny Katerina in Kythira.

Katerina is a tiny woman in her eighties, living all by herself in a simple, tiny house with a lovely little flower (louloudia) and vegetable garden. Although she was married and has a son, she is by herself, husband passed away, the only son went to Australia when he was 17. How she masters her life and all obstacles including serious health problems with patience and belief in God, with humour keeps me speachless with admiration.

I happened to meet Katerina 7 years ago during a longtime autumn-winter-spring stay at the island and, since then, we started and continue to write letters and cards to each other several times a month. Katerina's practial sense, her humour, her poems and rhymes, her constant fight against private and local (Greek) problems and most of all - that she writes to me - a simple woman like her, who had to walk miles to school when she was a girl - considering me like the daughter she never had, although I am e Xeni (a stranger) from Austria is something I admire and appreciate very much.

Last February I went back to see her, we did little trips,I took many photos from her former tiny farm-home, from her cats, garden, from ourselves.
I very much wish that people - women - like her will not become extinct. These personalities are rare and special.

I hope very much that Katerina and I will have the chance to meet again in 2012! Our friendship is a great enrichment for each other - just by fate - and, realizing that this was a special chance to bring new issues and joy into each other's lives.

I've thought about it many times ... to write a book from all her letters - happy or sad, the poems she knows by heart, the hardship of her live, the loss of beloved ones due to emigration, the solitude, the believe in God and the courage to always go on, no matter what.

Well, who knows?? Anyway, thank you so much for what you said about your Maria. We partly can learn from these women although we are leading a very differnt life.

Wilma | 02 April 2012  

Those of us who live in Greece and have connections with "the village" usually know or have been touched by somebody like Maria. You will miss her Gillian, but your memories and the lessons she taught you live on. One truly learns to count one's blessings ... sadly such women are of a certain era and will not be replaced.....

di | 02 May 2012  

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