Serpents dispersed by the Greek art of distraction


I recently returned to Greece after a visit to Australia, and my dreams are now predictably featuring anxiety and loss: I'm on my way to the airport, and I have nothing. No keys, no money, no tickets, no passport. In daylight hours I'm acutely aware of the contrasts between Greece and Australia, and am having to cope with what has been called the solitary pang of the expatriate. I am also nagged by the thought that to say goodbye is to die a little.

SerpentBut this will not do, and so in Athens I try to concentrate on the here and now. Out in the street a tall black African walks towards me. His lime-green T-shirt is vivid against his dark skin, and I smile at the motto spread across his chest: Another sunny day in Paradise.

But my smile is rueful. It is sunny in this place, in this beautiful autumn, but as for the rest ... It's still a case of Bleed, bleed, poor country. People are going about their business with what seems to be an air of resignation, and I recall yet again the enduring nature of the Greeks, their pragmatism and fatalism. And their courage.

But, said a taxi driver, we are all tired. Daughter-in-law Nina, when asked about this, replied We are simply frozen, waiting to see what will happen next.

What has already happened is evidence of numerous serpents in Paradise.

Athens seems more run down and seedier than ever: broken pavements have proliferated, and so have the empty shops, while the human cost of the ongoing krisi is evident in the increased beggar population, and the number of homeless in the streets. Pensioners are demonstrating in protest against new measures that will almost certainly make their lives harder.

I arrived back in Greece just after the most recent election, which featured a very low turnout of voters, but saw Alexis Tsipras returned as prime minister. At the same time, the poor performance of the previously powerful parties New Democracy and PASOK reflected the public's disillusionment with old-style dynastic politics.

But of course there is always something, as a friend says, and the worst something, a threatening serpent indeed, was the increased strength of Golden Dawn, the neo-fascist party that ten years ago counted for virtually nothing. The party gained another two seats and remains the third most powerful party in the parliament, despite the fact that six leaders have been in jail for 18 months, with a total of 72 members facing charges involving criminal activity.

In the midst of hard times Greeks are good at practising what I call the Noble Art of Distraction, and so am I. Nina and I were walking fairly close to home one night when our attention was caught by music that was clearly impromptu. 'That's Cretan,' announced Nina, who was born and raised near Heraklion.

And yes, as well as the mandatory quaver of the bouzouki was the alternating skip and wail of the Cretan lyra, an instrument that originated in Byzantium, and was first mentioned, as far as historians can tell, in the ninth century. The sound rose and fell in contrast to the unremitting traffic noises.

We drew closer, and there were the men responsible, all thoroughly enjoying themselves.

They were seated on straight-backed chairs, while little tables bore plates of mezethakia and the necessary carafes and thimble sized glasses for the drinking of raki and tsipouro, Cretan samples of fire-water. Passers-by had gathered to watch. And all this was taking place outside a barber's shop.

It transpired that one of the young men of the neighbourhood was about to get married, and had turned up at the shop in order to have his prenuptial close shave and a haircut. The barber and his mates had decided that the occasion could not go unmarked, and so the modest festivities began, to the pleasure of the whole street and the inhabitants of several high-rise buildings.

It was not obvious who the bridegroom was, or even if he were there, but it didn't matter.

It was only my fancy, of course, but I told myself I could hear the serpents slithering away. Some of them were my own. They had gone, at least for a short space of time, in which people, including myself, could appreciate the moment and rekindle hope.

Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Serpent image by Schism-Walker

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Greece, krisis



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Existing comments

I've visited Greece on three separate occasions The first when I was newly-married, 23 years of age and not knowing much about the treasures I was looking at. The second visit was six years ago and I was ill the whole time. I put one foot in front of the other and ploughed on, but had to return home shortly after. Then last year, in good health, I revisited the mainland and the Greek islands. I was entranced and think of my favourite place, Naxos, a lot. My hopes for Greece are strong ones as I believe in those myths which have taught us so much.

Pam | 31 October 2015  

I only visited Greece once, in 1973, and despite martial law, freezing, grey December weather and no hot water in the unpleasant hotel ... it was wonderful. At the moment I'm reading a book by one of my heroes, Yanis Varoufakis, who is mentioned in the last book I read Eurydice Street, by Sofka Zinovieff, who was mentioned in the book I read before that: The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters - so many connections to endlessly fascinating Greece. I think there are many people around the world wishing Greece all the best in these very hard times.

Russell | 02 November 2015  

Thank you Gillian, amid the pain and struggles, love that you found a trace of your homeland's beauty!

Patricia | 04 November 2015  

We run a philosophy café in Sydney , A travel agent came to us and asked if we could run a guided tour on Greek philosophy. Greece was not only the original home of philosophy. So off to Greece we go to plan it all. First stop, Athens, and Plato’s Academy. We ask the main Tourist Office near Syntagma Square where it was. Here she says, on a little map. Off we go, but it wasn’t there. The locals had never heard of the Academy. Back to the hotel, much googling and searching online, and we finally locate the academy in a large park, just outside central Athens. After walking throughout the park, we find the Academy – a pile of broken stones, with a graffiti covered sign in Greek. We headed back to the Tourist Office the next day to tell the officer that she needed to change her directions. ”Impossible” she tells us “The Academy is where I told you. I have been telling that to people for close to ten years” . We also wrote to the Minister for Tourism, but he has yet to reply. We decided not to mount the philosophy tour of Greece

Peter Bowden | 04 November 2015  

There's no denying the resilience of the Greek spirit, even though it is being tested to the utmost! I love the way daily life is celebrated in Greece, in thought, word, deed, and the kind of joyous gesture you describe here. The Greek people and culture have always seemed to me to possess an innate and inextinguishable sense of the art of living, despite the many vicissitudes and challenges they continue to experience, and perhaps also because of those.

Jena Woodhouse | 04 November 2015  

In the times I lived or visited Greece I loved the life and the people who sought any excuse to celebrate. Greeks were quick to sing, dance, clap hands and be joyous. Shame on any government who robs it's people of this lovely disposition. Greece is a country like no other. I have fond a beautiful memories of my time there.

Anne Kostaras | 07 November 2015  

I couldn't agree more. I was back in Athens in October and noticed the proliferation of people begging on the metro. Heartbreaking. It reminded me of the early seventies when I lived there.

Kathryn Gauci | 22 November 2015  

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