Reinventing Greece's paradise lost


Inventing Paradise by Edmund KeeleyHomer, my Greek-American friend, travels from California to Athens once a year in order to stay in his house in Plaka and connect with his roots.

This year, at the end of my visit, which I try never to miss, he instructed me to choose a book, a present, from a crammed shelf. My task was a hard one, but I eventually chose Inventing Paradise, written by that great philhellene, American writer Edmund Keeley.

The book covers the period 1937 to 1947 and considers the relationship between Greece and other famous philhellenes such as writers Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller, both of whom outstripped most other people in their passion for Greece.

Keeley suggests that Durrell and Miller, in their Greek travels, and in their interaction with legendary figures poet George Seferis and the Colossus of Maroussi, George Katsimbalis, were constructing a sort of Paradise for themselves.

Most visitors to, or foreign inhabitants of, Greece, try to do the same. I certainly did. Here I was in an enchanted land of stunning landscape, an area loaded with history, myth and legend, the poet Drosinis's blue beloved homeland.

I was coming to an understanding of the pain involved in emigration, yet this magical place was half of my children's heritage. I embraced customs and a way of life new to me with the enthusiasm of the mature innocent, and all the time Greece was making a serious takeover bid for my romantic spirit and idealistic soul.

But, inevitably, the serpents came wriggling. For example, I found Greek village fatalism hard to bear. Oti thelie o Theos, sighed the old women with monotonous regularity: Whatever God wants, while I ground my teeth in an effort not to shout God helps those who help themselves.

The mistreatment of animals and the wanton neglect of the environment appalled me, as did the education system to which my children had been sacrificed.

Then there was the implacable routine of village life, so strange to one descended from pioneer stock. The pioneer invents the day, while the peasant repeats an age-old pattern. My mother-in-law would get up, say, on 29 August, the Feast Day of the Beheading of St John, and know exactly what she had to do. And she did it.

The fasting, the rules, and the concomitant lack of self-doubt: all these things wore away at my spirit. As well, I was always on the edge of things, and learning bitterly the truth of the anthropological notion that the outsider is both dangerous and in danger.

And even though I am an economics illiterate, I also worried about the bubble of consumerism that Greeks had begun to inhabit on entry to the European Union.

The bubble burst spectacularly, as we know, and for at least two years Greeks have struggled with the knowledge that the party is over. For good.

This past week has been one of the stormiest, politically speaking, that I can recall. PASOK Prime Minister George Papandreou set Europe on its collective ear by declaring that in a January referendum the Greek people would be consulted about the debt crisis and rescue plan. This huge political gamble earned the ire of Sarkozy and Merkel, and the widespread disgust of the Greek population.

And then, having received the promise of cooperation from the opposition New Democracy party, the PM backed down, and immediately faced the prospect of a parliamentary vote of confidence.

Georgakis, (Little George) as he is often called, proved adept at pulling his own chestnuts out of what could have been a funeral pyre. I propped my eyelids open on Saturday night to listen to his address to Parliament; it was so efficacious that he subdued the rebels in PASOK, and won the vote by the skin of his teeth. But in order to form a 'government of unity', he had to promise to step down as PM.

There was still more tension on Sunday night as both Papandreou and opposition leader Samaras met with President Papoulias. Now the promise of a coalition government is there, with elections to take place in February. Lucas Papademos, expected to step in as interim prime minister, is a former deputy president of the European Central Bank. (Life is shot through with irony.)

Whatever happens, I devoutly hope there is some slight chance of Paradise being regained. But the situation is a desperately fragile one, and I am haunted by the rueful comment of a Greek journalist: Our worst enemy is ourself, and he is armed. 


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, Greek debt crisis



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Existing comments

"Our worst enemy is ourself, and he is armed"
I certainly agree with the Greek journalist, as I watch the situation from Australia with bated breath.
The present Greek economic situation also angers me; to watch the utter stupidity of a country that has been ruined by sheer greed overlayed with previous stupidity - a far cry from its legendary past.

Of course my accusations do not apply to you Gillian - your constructive articles are on the ball as usual, and thank goodness there are some there that can step back and understand just what is happening!

John Whitehead | 09 November 2011

'We found Paradise and turned it into a parking lot'. What an informative and stimulating article on the Greek crisis. Gillian Bouras crystallises the current politico-economic dilemma in a few sentences. Her comment (ref Keeley) that Durrell and Miller, in their Greek travels and cultural interactions, constructed a sort of Paradise for themselves in Greece; and that most visitors to or foreign inhabitants of Greece try to do the same in this enchanted land of stunning landscape, history, myth and legend, rang bells with my own experience of Spsin (ref 'Walking the Camino'). I think to some extent I made my own mental country as I walked through it. And Spain is also in similar trouble now, as are Italy and Portugal. We do construct our own mental Paradises in comparing life in these beautiful countries with our hard, economic rationalism-driven lives at home. We compare Paradise with reality, and we fear to lose Paradise. I am sure Merkel and Sarkozy have these emotive mental pictures of Greece too; they are embedded in our common European culture.

The present EU crisis is so difficult and so heartbreaking, because Northern Europeans now feel forced to destroy much of what they truly love and value about Southern Europe. This is truly a theme of tragedy, and Gillian's rich piece offers a key into understanding it which few commentators have yet grasped.
I hope that even if Greece becomes materially poor again for some years, its rich living culture and spirit will survive. Thankfully, like their olive trees, the Greeks are hardy and tough.

tony kevin | 09 November 2011

Touching, evocative and wistful. Deeper than so-called analysis because it alludes to the ironic outcomes of events and to the underlying self-destructive impulses of allegedly rational political man.
Sanford Rose | 09 November 2011

Thanks Gillian - despatches from the front lines - with heart and literary reflectiveness. Aah, the mature innocent in a magical land - I know that sensitivity, too - from 16 years in western Japan. And finding it difficult to judge the political mood by being immersed within it - in distant regional setting. Certainties for the locals versus the shifting paradigms of understanding of me, the stranger, acclimatising is/was exhausting on some levels. As I watch the national/international news this evening I find that the media "circus" is moving on from Greece - to feast on the bigger problems in Greece's neighbour Italy! Will we all learn that our spirit is more important than the material - that generosity trumps hopes so - in the same sense that Gillian signs off with a semi-hopeful if slightly rueful glance.
Jim KABLE | 09 November 2011

Gillian, I do confirm every word you say. The change must come from INSIDE, from the people themselves. It is not enough to rely on God, the government and the EU. Having been allover Greece in 30 years including several longtime stays I witnessed the changes and a backdrop in Greece compared to other European countries. Like you, I hope that a miracle will happen, that politicians (look how the 2 big parties are gambling even now, Wednesday, just looking to the next elections, while Greece is going down the drain!!) will wake up and act. Same must do the people - it is not enough to strike and to say "no". What I also miss is ONE word or comment from the Greek Orthodox Church which has piled up riches and has so much power. Well, I am deeply frustrated. I love this beautiful country however, many of it's "habits" are driving me crazy. Thank you, Gillian, for your open comment, based on your own experiences.
Wilma Allex | 10 November 2011

Spot on, paithi mou - spot on!
Its now Thursday after and we are no further forward are we.... tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow is the refrain.... Well maybe we'll actually have a new interim government after all ... believe it when I see it!

di | 11 November 2011

I could read and re read this article ad infinitum. Writing of percale where most weave hessian.

Gillian has selflessly and simply allowed us to share her world, once more. This particular piece has caused me to reflect on the richness of Gillian’s contribution to literature – to humanity.
Her great affection and concern for her adopted country shine through, as a stepparent might tussle and struggle with a child they seem destined to never quite understand. And that quest for understanding continues on, without any threat of diminishing the love they hold.
Her perspective is unique, born of three decades of living in Greece and moving with Greece from peasant times through to a modern economy. Her investment is complete, spending the majority of her adult life in Greece and having Greek children and grandchildren.
Great stuff Gillian: thank you.

Fiona Douglas | 13 November 2011


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