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The exile of place and time


Writers are not only preoccupied, among other things, with the concept of place, but also with the matter of time and its passing. Novelist L.P. Hartley famously wrote that the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. Cretan Nikos Kazantzakis considered that ‘the face of Greece is a palimpsest bearing twelve successive inscriptions,’ and he went on to list them, from the 1930s, when he wrote these words, to the Stone Age.

Some of those inscriptions are evident in the old part of Kalamata, the capital of Messenia, near where I live. The focal point of March 23 Square is the church of the Holy Apostles, a little sandstone structure, parts of which date back to the 10th century. If those walls could only speak! It’s a wonder they are still standing, as it happens, after all they have been through: I have seen them crumbled, with the church’s dome on the ground, as a result of a severe earthquake. Slowly but surely the whole was restored: the town would not be the same without the Holy Apostles.

Nearby is a small memorial, once a well that people used often and regularly. It was here that in March, 1821, a sharp-eyed Turk noticed a little trail of gunpowder escaping a sack borne by a loaded donkey. He set off to warn the Pasha at Ottoman HQ, but never got there, and the revolutionaries, who had been biding their time, decided to act quickly, with the result that in Kalamata the War of Independence started two days ahead of schedule on March 23, 1821. Kalamata was the first town in Greece to be liberated, and for many years now the day has been commemorated with a re-enactment of the decisive meeting of revolutionary leaders.

Fast forward 150 years or more to the occasions when my mother-in-law, widow of an Orthodox priest, and thus always dressed in the mandatory top-to-toe black, decided that her head scarves needed some renovating. She would go to a little shop on a corner opposite the church, and ask for black dye. The shopkeeper would put a little square of newspaper on the scales and then scoop a heap of powder on to it, after which he would fold paper and powder into a neat parcel. I was fascinated by the folding process, and still am, although it is becoming rare and seems only to be practised in haberdasheries these days.


'We have to accommodate change as we age, but change has often struck me as being a kind of betrayal, so that I know I’ll never visit this new shop. And even now, when I go back to Australia, I want to find it as I left it: a vain and foolish hope, of course.'


The shop is still there, although rather smarter than it was, and doing a good line in trendy hats and stylish umbrellas.  Immediately opposite is the quintessential souvlaki joint, a fixture, I think from the 1950s, if not earlier. You can buy your souvlaki, either plain cubes of meat on sticks or the same wrapped in flat bread along with chips, tomato, onion and tzatziki, and sit on the benches near the church. I imagine people have been doing this for at least 70 years. In 2018, my eldest son, visiting from Melbourne, made a bee-line for this well-remembered place, and tucked into his purchase with great satisfaction: it was gone in record-time.

On the other side of the church was an old-style kafeneion that I patronised regularly. It was run by two brothers, whom a friend referred to as the Brothers Grimm. But they were not grim, just slightly taciturn, in that good old Peloponnesian way. Coffee, drinks, snacks, all at reasonable prices: I took my foreign friends there often. But then one day, not long ago, I went to have my usual light lunch, only to find that they were packing up. Will you go somewhere else? I asked, hopefully. They shrugged. They didn’t know; what they did know was that the pandemic and lockdowns had been very hard.

A month or so passed, and then came a shock: the shop that the brothers had run for years was no more: it has been transformed into an automatic shopping place, where there is no service. Instead, separate rows of glass-fronted shelves dispense items such as cosmetics and toiletries on the flash of a credit card. My mother-in-law would have been sore perplexed: she was illiterate and had no phone. Her radio and refrigerator had been very recent acquisitions when I first knew her, as was running water. I looked at this shop and thought of her and her life.

And then I thought of my own. We have to accommodate change as we age, but change has often struck me as being a kind of betrayal, so that I know I’ll never visit this new shop. And even now, when I go back to Australia, I want to find it as I left it: a vain and foolish hope, of course. I’ve learned (at last!) that place and time can both involve exile, and that old age is another foreign country.




Gillian 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.

Main image: Cafe under the fig tree. (Despina Galani Unsplash)

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Greece, Age, Change, Time, Past



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Existing comments

This is at once evocative and delightful writing, Gillian. We are treated to an intimate glimpse into your life in Greece and your exile from Australia. In the closing line of “The Great Gatsby”, also the epitaph on Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s tombstone: So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. You are beautifully immersed both in your life in Greece and your past in Australia.

Pam | 16 June 2022  

Thank you, Gillian. for the vignette of Kalamata and the importance of 23rd March. Yes, times do change but sometimes our memories of the past deceive us and the "good old times" weren't always that good. The coffee place was charming but who in those days could have afforded to buy a smart hat even if one had been available ?

Meriel Wilmot-Wright | 17 June 2022  

Looking back, with regret, to a seemingly golden past is something we all do with the onset of Old Age. I certainly have wonderful memories of walking safely down the then uncrowded roads of a wonderful leftover of the Portuguese Empire near Mumbai when I was young. The place has been 'developed' and built up beyond recognition. What exists now still has some of the old families living in the few remaining Indo-Portuguese mansions, but the gentle, still semi-rural ethos has been destroyed. It is the same with what was once the Jewel in the Portuguese Crown, Goa, which has been touristed to death. Many of the old families have taken advantage of their Portuguese citizenship and have left for a warm welcome and a good future there, only the oldest surviving members living on in the old mansions full of treasures from both West and East. Goa is now a tourist park. The fisherfolk still remain. It is the same with some of the mementos of the Raj, with which I have a direct connection, as do many others in the UK, here and elsewhere. Yet memories and connections remain. We survive and that is a profoundly good thing.

Edward Fido | 17 June 2022  

A great piece, Gillian. Having lived in my own house, which is close to where I lived as a student before leaving home, for the last 45 years I am sadly often horrified by the disappearance of shops, cafes and services I have relied on for decades.
The butcher has disappeared, as has the hardware shop and drapery. The restaurant in which I celebrated several significant events is no more.
The list goes on and makes one feel one’s age.

Juliet | 17 June 2022  

Once upon a time, a pilgrim who looked back was turned into salt. I’m not sure what that has to do with this winsome tale but as all things proceed from a single source, all things must be connected somehow. Through a source who is fully human and perpetually young. But, what does it mean when, being perpetually young, those delightful lines of ‘character’ on a face never appear?

roy chen yee | 17 June 2022  

Another very insightful piece.Change can very much be associated with many forms of betrayal and I can relate to this myself.
Western Universities now offer a plethora of courses from Diploma to PHD in “Change Management”…

Stathis T | 21 June 2022  

A beautifully written article that brought back some fond memories of a short holiday spent in and around Kalamata. I guess we can go back to places but not back in time, so we don't ever really go back to exactly the same place, somethings will always be different. And sometimes some things might be better. Thank you, once again for your lovely writing.

Stephen | 21 June 2022  

“There is no ‘beginning' and no ‘end'... No matter where you begin, someone else has brought the story to that point; no matter where you end, someone takes over from you and carries it on. All you can do is record a fragment of human experience - anywhere, anytime, for every moment gathers in the past and propels the future.” Eleanor Dark (The Little Company).

Ginger Meggs | 30 June 2022  

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