When I decided to visit Greece in September, 2012, I read a lot of books, watched movies, searched websites, and read guidebooks to help me plan my trip and to get inspired.
BOOKS: Here are some of the books I read, with reviews.
April 11, 2012: Odyssey with the Goddess: At the end of the book, Carol writes: “I picked up my pen and wrote the phrase: ‘the serpentine path.’
“Those were the words I had been searching for as I sought to name the experience of Zakros! The serpentine path was the path of my life, a snakelike, meandering path, winding in and out, up and down. The antithesis of the “straight and narrow.” A path that does not ever “come to a point.” Two steps left, two steps right. Into the darkness, into the light. Not the goal, but the journey.”
I love these words from Carol’s book about her odyssey to self-realization on the island of Crete. She finds power in the Greek goddesses and learns that she doesn’t have to be in control all the time. She learns that she is loved, that she just has to believe and accept the love that is in abundance around her. I love this story because it celebrates the power of womanhood in an ancient culture where women were seen as goddesses.
May 30, 2012: Eurydice Street: A Place in Athens: In this book, writer Sofka Zinovieff tells of her experience accompanying her husband Vassilis on a posting back to Athens in 2001; he returning to his fatherland and she returning to her first love. She embraces it, yet sees it unflinchingly as an outsider. Their Athenian friends had warned: “Greece is good for holidays but not for living.” So. She arrives in Athens with some trepidation.
She depicts Athens as full of rowdy tavernas, political demonstrations, and polluted chaos. At one point she says, “Athens may be an ancient city, but it is also uncompromisingly modern. And there’s hardly anything else between the two extremes. It’s almost as though the Athenians went straight from carved marble to reinforced concrete, skipping the intervening centuries.”
I love her blatant honesty and humor as she looks squarely at a culture that has been marked by years of foreign occupation, terrorism, war, internal strife and poverty. She speaks of the “inherent contradictions” of Greece: its love of excess as opposed to its desire for purification. She talks about the “practical, everyday quality” of Greek Orthodoxy: “its influence is everywhere, but it is fitted into ordinary life.” She strips bare the glamor of the city, then paints on an aura of magic. It seems a city of huge contradictions.
Since I went to Turkey in 2010, I found especially interesting her story of “the Catastrophe of 1922,” when around 900,000 Orthodox refugees from Asia Minor had arrived in Greece, driven away violently during the Greco-Turkish War. In 1923, the “Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations” was signed in Switzerland by the governments of Greece and Turkey. It involved around 2 million people (around 1.5 million Anatolian Greeks and 500,000 Muslims in Greece), most of whom were forcibly made refugees, based on their religious identity, and de jure denaturalized from their homelands.
When I was in Turkey, I heard about this population exchange from the Turkish side. Now it is interesting to read about it from the Greek side. It sounds like it was an horrific exchange, with thousands of people massacred.
This was an excellent book and I’m glad I read it before my upcoming trip to Greece. The account brings the city down to earth. It’s funny how you imagine the glamorous things about a place before traveling there, and sometimes your imaginings lead to disappointment. Now I feel I’m ready to appreciate modern-day Athens for what it really is.
June 21, 2012: Eleni: This book tells the story of Eleni Gatzoyiannis, 41, who defied intimidation by communist insurgents during the Greek Civil War following WWII and arranged for the escape of her three daughters and her son, Nicola, from their village of Lia. In 1948, children were being abducted and sent to communist “camps” inside the Iron Curtain. Because Eleni arranged for her children’s escape, she was imprisoned, tortured, and executed in cold blood.
Her son Nicola, who later took the American name of Nicholas Gage, joined his father in Massachusetts at the age of 9, after having lived his entire life in wartime Greece. He became a top New York Times investigative reporter, sharpening his skills with one goal in mind: to return to Greece and uncover the details of, and avenge, his mother’s death.
Once I got into this book, I could hardly put it down. I was caught up, along with the poor villagers of Lia, in the communist insurgency, as the guerrillas occupied their village and made their lives a living hell. Whenever I have read books about war told from the civilian side, I have always been appalled by the behaviors that human beings are capable of toward one another. All in the name of “ideals.” The paranoia that exists under these kinds of situations, from everything I’ve read, is insidious and unbelievable. Neighbors use any small grudge or jealousy to turn on their neighbors, to save their own skin or simply to get revenge on people for their own petty insecurities or perceived slights.
Here is a quote from the book describing the setting for this story:
“In the decade of war from 1939 to 1949, one out of every ten Greeks was killed — 450,000 during World War II and 150,000 during the civil war. Of the survivors, nearly 100,000 had been exiled behind the Iron Curtain, some by choice, many by force. Families were rent apart, not to be reunited for many years, often forever. The children taken in the pedomasoma from the Mourgana villages were went to Rumania, while their parents found themselves in Hungary or Poland; the girls conscripted as andartinas (girl soldiers) wound up in Russia or Czechoslovakia.”
This story of wartime Greece is personalized in the character of Nicola’s mother, Eleni.
In the end, Nicola spent years tracking down his mother’s killers, finally coming face-to-face with the only living person who was most culpable, a man called Katis. He wanted to kill the man, especially as he was cold, arrogant and indifferent and continued to deny his culpability for Eleni’s death, despite the overwhelming evidence Gage had collected against him. In the end, Gage couldn’t do it because of “the understanding of my mother that I had gained in my examination of her life.” He realized that Eleni “did not spend the last of her strength cursing her tormenters,” but “she found the courage to face death because she had done her duty to those she loved.” He realized he would have had to uproot the love in himself and sink to the level of Katis, void of all humanity or compassion. He knew by killing Katis, he would abandon his own children, something Eleni would have never done.
In 1985, Eleni was made into a feature film starring John Malkovich as Gage. In 1987, Eleni was cited by Ronald Reagan as an inspiration for his summit meetings to end the arms race with the Soviet Union.
This was a great book that gave me a great history lesson on Greece told from a personal point of view. Astounding book!
July 27, 2012: Little Infamies is a book of short stories published in 2002 by Panos Karnezis; it is set in a nameless Greek village in some unknown time. These are stories of mythical realism; in each story I’m taken aback by the magical, and often dark and sinister, feel to them. In the stories we meet the villagers, including the priest (ubiquitous in every Greek village), a doctor, a seamstress, a mayor, and a coffee-shop proprietor called Whale because of his immense size. Animals also make appearances, including a horse named History, a centaur, and a parrot that recites Homer.
In the story, “A Funeral of Stones,” we find a man who keeps his twin daughters tied up in the basement like animals because he blames them for his wife’s death in childbirth. The twins eventually escape and take off with a bird-fancier woman. The village priest, who believes the girls died many years ago, finds out otherwise when, after an earthquake, he discovers their graves filled with stones. He goes in search of the story only to find they escaped many years earlier. Their escape had been covered up by the villagers, making them parties to the father’s crimes against his daughters.
The stories involve neighbors complicit in each others’ wrongdoings, or, alternatively, neighbors turn too easily on neighbors. From the book’s inside cover: “Their lives intersect and they know each other’s secrets: the hidden crimes, the mysteries, the little infamies that all of us commit.”
I enjoyed the stories, but I’m not a big fan of magical realism, so for me that detracted from my pleasure. After reading Eleni, which showed the Greeks at their worst, and this story, which certainly doesn’t make them attractive, I’m now a little leery about what kinds of characters I will encounter in Greece!
July 26, 2012: Cafe Tempest: Adventures on a Small Greek Island. This is a “fictional memoir” by Barbara Bonfigli. I have to say I was relieved to reach the end.
In the story, Sarah, the main character, and her friend Alex travel to the Greek island of Pharos. Sarah is a thirty-something American theatrical producer who lives in London and who just broke up with her boyfriend. Sarah also practices yoga and is writing a magazine article about mantras. Her friend Alex, a girl, happens to be another of Sarah’s ex-lovers. While in Pharos, the local doctor Theo asks Sarah if she will help produce the island’s summer play. Sarah impetuously agrees and chooses Shakespeare’s The Tempest. She proceeds to line up characters from the island’s inhabitants: including a taxi driver Caliban and a postmaster Prospero.
I am on a quest to read as many books about Greece as possible to get a feel for the country before I visit there in September. Though I do get a great feel for the small island of Pharos, where the novel takes place, and for the characters that inhabit this island, I don’t enjoy Bonfigli’s writing style. It seems disjointed; the action and conversations seem to bounce around like a misshapen rubber ball. Also, the author tosses in so many Greek phrases and words that I find the story hard to follow. Maybe if I hadn’t been reading the Kindle version, I would have realized there is a glossary at the back. I come to it too late for it to have been any help.
Often the story seems like an inside joke from which I am excluded. Half the time, I have to reread parts to figure out what is going on. There seems a forced cleverness to every conversation; the main character Sarah is too busy trying to be witty to establish real connections with people. I find this annoying.
I find I like Sarah best when she is being reflective and meditative. Some of her words of wisdom are “If your ex-lovers don’t become your friends, you’re dancing on a dark stage.” I like this idea that love has a capacity to expand and reinvent itself.
She says another time: “Life on Pharos is intoxicating in its simplicity.” I like the idea of travel as a way to escape into an intoxicating and simple parallel reality. I don’t want to be the same person I always am when I am traveling. I want to escape, to just be. Sarah’s meditations and mantras appeal to me for this reason. “Ham Sa” or “I am That,” suggest an interconnectedness with the universe. I am drawn to this feeling.
Finally, Sarah falls in love with Monika, who has only ever been involved with men. She tells Monika: “You love who you love. My heart doesn’t notice anything else. It only knows that it’s happy.” Monika, who is not sure yet about getting involved with a woman, replies, “And your brain doesn’t interfere?” Shortly after that, Monika disappears for a few days as she tries to process her feelings for another woman. Sarah is much more open and sees men as only “fifty percent of [her] hunting grounds.” The book explores labels that freeze people’s imaginations and inhibit their ability to discover who they are.
There are definitely interesting and thought-provoking ideas in this book; the problem is that when the characters light on these ideas, they too quickly skitter off in every direction, like fiddler crabs on a sandy beach.
August 12, 2012: Corelli’s Mandolin: Tonight I finish the amazing 1994 novel, Corelli’s Mandolin. I love the world created by British author Louis de Bernières so much that I will probably linger in it for quite some time, despite the fact that this world was filled with unimaginable hardships and horrors. The book’s characters, though imaginary, are full of depth and life. The setting is historical, and thus factual for the most part, set on the Greek island of Cephallonia before, during and after World War II. The Italian army occupies the once tranquil island, and sets in motion a chain of events that is both heartwarming and utterly devastating.
From Goodreads (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin):
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is set in the early days of WWII, before Mussolini invades Greece. Dr Iannis practices medicine on the island of Cephallonia, accompanied by his daughter, Pelagia, to whom he teaches much of his healing art. Even when the Italians do invade, life isn’t so bad–at first anyway. The officer in command of the Italian garrison is the cultured Captain Antonio Corelli, who responds to a Nazi greeting of “Heil Hitler” with his own “Heil Puccini”, and whose most precious possession is his mandolin. It isn’t long before Corelli and Pelagia are involved in a heated affair–despite her engagement to a young fisherman, Mandras, who has gone off to join Greek partisans. Love is complicated enough in wartime, even when the lovers are on the same side. And for Corelli and Pelagia, it becomes increasingly difficult to negotiate the minefield of allegiances, both personal and political, as all around them atrocities mount, former friends become enemies and the ugliness of war infects everyone it touches.
What makes the novel so amazing are the characters. Dr. Iannis is the local doctor who spends much of his spare time writing about the history of Cephallonia and nurturing his beloved only daughter Pelagia. Pelagia is not like other women on the island in that she is highly respected, educated and loved by her father. She even has dreams to become a doctor, unheard of in those days for any woman. Pelagia first falls in love with Mandras, a young, handsome local fisherman. He also falls in love with her, only to destroy their relationship by going to fight in the war, and ultimately becoming a cruel and inhumane man obsessed by Communism. Antonio Corelli is an Italian captain with a love for music and life. He despises the war, and falls in love with Pelagia; but the war inevitably tears them apart again. Corelli is one of those energetic and charming men with a great sense of humor, the kind of man all women love to love. The interactions of Corelli and Pelagia are entertaining and endearing, and, as a woman, I can see why she falls for him. She is equally charming and smart; I can easily understand why he falls in love with her.
A major player in the story is Carlo Guercio, a good-natured, but closeted, homosexual Italian soldier who falls in love with a straight Francisco, only to lose him to the war. He later falls in love with Corelli and sacrifices his life to save the Captain’s. This homosexual, and unrequited, love is never acted upon by Carlo, except in ways that are self-sacrificing and honorable. He’s an amazing character.
The theme of love is explored heavily in this novel, starting with the lust-love of Pelagia and Mandras. Love is described by Dr. Iannis as “what is left when the passion has gone”, and it certainly appears that this criterion is fulfilled by the love of Corelli and Pelagia. The paternal love of Iannis for Pelagia is also strong and never-ending.
Music is a major theme, offering a direct contrast to the horror and destruction that the war brings, showing how something beautiful can arise from something horrible.
The war is described in graphic detail, particularly the death of Francisco, Carlo’s unrequited love. It is responsible for the fall of Mandras and the German Weber, the deaths of Carlo and Francisco, and the separation of Pelagia and Corelli. It is the source of much suffering and devastation, much like in the book I read earlier, Eleni by Nicolas Gage. The war demonstrates the horrors that people are capable of inflicting on one another in the name of ideologies such as Fascism, Nazism and Communism.
As horrible as this world was, the characters made the world somehow palatable, even romantic. The love between Pelagia and Corelli is one of those timeless and enduring love stories that I will hold in my heart forever.
view from a monastery at Meteora
April 2, 2012: Shirley Valentine
My British friend Sandy came again to Oman to visit for her spring break and, at my request, she brought the movie Shirley Valentine (1989). From IMDb:
“Shirley’s a middle-aged Liverpool housewife, who finds herself talking to the wall while she prepares her husband’s chip’n’egg, wondering what happened to her life. She compares scenes in her current life with what she used to be like and feels she’s stagnated and in a rut. But when her best friend wins an all-expenses-paid vacation to Greece for two, Shirley begins to see the world, and herself, in a different light.”
I can identify with Shirley’s feelings as a housewife feeling stagnated and trapped. This movie reminds me of my favorite Italian film, Bread & Tulips, where a frustrated housewife escapes her life and makes a new life for herself in Venice. I love these kinds of movies where women realize their unhappiness and make changes in their lives to improve them! Bread & Tulips was one of the movies that inspired my nomadic life.
Church in Athens
May 19, 2012: My Life in Ruins
Tonight, to get in the mindset for my upcoming trip to Greece, I watch a pretty bad movie, My Life in Ruins. This is a 2009 romantic comedy set among the ruins of ancient Greece. Nia Vardalos (of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame) stars as Georgia, a laid-off American professor of classical Greek history who is now working as a tour guide. She fashions her tours in the form of a university classroom, trying to teach her group of vagabonds about the history of Greece she finds so fascinating. However, this uneducated bunch of misfits has no interest in learning anything. It seems they just want to eat ice cream, shop for tacky souvenirs, get their picture taken in hokey poses, and buy T-shirts.
According to Wikipedia, the film is set on location in Greece and Alicante, in Spain, as well as Guadalest and Javea. This was the first time that an American film studio was allowed to film on location at the Acropolis; the Greek government gave the studio its approval after Vardalos sought permission to film several scenes there. Other Greek filming locations include Olympia, Delphi and Epidaurus.
The scenery of Greece and its classical architecture is frankly the only reason I find this movie at all appealing.
The cast of characters, though meant to be misfits, are so obnoxious I can hardly stand them. Vardalos as Georgia is endearing, but the other characters are mainly one-dimensional bad stereotypes of Americans, Australians, and Brits.
In a clash of personalities and cultures, everything seems to go wrong until the day when older traveler Irv Gideon, played by Richard Dreyfuss, shows Georgia how to have fun, and to take a good look at the last person she would ever expect to find love with, her Greek bus driver Prokopi Kakas, played by Alexis Georgoulis.
The characters in this movie get on my nerves big time. The saving grace is that I get to see some of the beautiful places in Greece I hope to see in person this September… 🙂
I plotted out my trip for September of 2012:
- August 31: Athens
- September 2: Crete
- September 5: Santorini
- September 9: Return to Athens
- September 10: Delphi
- September 11: Meteora
- September 12: Mycenae, Nafplio, and Epidaurus and Return to Athens
- September 13: Return to Oman
greek wanderings: catbird’s rambles through greece
books | international a-z |
“ANTICIPATION & PREPARATION” INVITATION: I invite you to write a post on your own blog about anticipation & preparation for a particular destination (not journeys in general). If you don’t have a blog, I invite you to write in the comments. Include the link in the comments below by Thursday, December 27 at 1:00 p.m. EST. When I write my post in response to this challenge on Friday, December 28, I’ll include your links in that post.
This will be an ongoing invitation, on the 4th Friday of each month. Feel free to jump in at any time. 🙂 If you’d like to read more about the topic, see: journeys: anticipation & preparation.
I hope you’ll join in our community. I look forward to reading your posts!