Gillian Bouras
An Australian
Writer
Living in Greece

October 2016

School has well and truly started, and eldest grandson Nikitas is (miraculous to report) learning French! I’ll soon be able to check on his progress, as I am about to set off very soon for Megara and Athens. Once upon a time I hardly ever went to Attica, but now, of course, the grandchildren are a great draw. And they change so quickly and grow up so inexorably. Each phase is interesting, but sometimes I wish the growth rate would slow just a little. Especially in the case of Natalia, my granddaughter, who is in her third month already.

I was in the bus station two days ago in order to buy the all-important ticket. The place was quiet, with employees and would-be travellers going about their business. But suddenly (these occurrences are always sudden) an earth tremor struck. Scary. Never are you made more aware of the illusory nature of life than when solid buildings and floors start to sway and shake. You feel extremely helpless: official instructions tell you that you should move smartly to the nearest door architrave, but this is rarely possible. I, for one, am always rooted to the spot, while my mental processes waver between Oh, help! and Que sera, sera. The man ahead of me in the queue grinned ruefully, and we exchanged a few words about nature deciding, and humans having no choice in the matter.

The man issuing tickets remained calm, as indeed did everybody else: earth tremors are very common here, to the point that some people welcome them in the belief that they relieve tectonic pressure and so stave off a bad earthquake like the one experienced in Kalamata almost exactly thirty years ago. That quake, which measured the same, 6.2 on the Richter scale, as the recent disastrous one in Italy, could have been much worse: fortunately, it occurred at a time when most of the town’s population was out of doors in the comparative cool of the evening. And there are many factors influencing the actual results of earthquakes. This recent local tremor was quite strong, measuring 5 on the scale, and having a depth of 10 km; the epicentre was in the sea off the coast of Koroni, on the other side of Messenian Bay.

I remember my long ago pondering on the differences a change in environment makes. When I took my children to their bare and dingy classrooms in the village school, I was struck by the one chart on the wall, which listed safety instructions in the event of earthquake. The classrooms in the Australian townships of the 1950s were not as bare or dingy, but there was also one important wall chart in each room: it told us what to do in cases of snakebite. I can’t recall that we ever had to use said instructions, thank goodness, and I’m told they are now out of date, in any case.

Last month I visited Aegina again, in what seems to have become an annual routine, or even pilgrimage, thanks to a very good and hospitable friend. Such a beautiful island, and so handily close to Athens. The history. The Temple of Aphaia. The yachts on the water. The olive groves and pistachio orchards: well, I’ve said it all before. And it was a lovely time to be there: the summer crowds had gone, and the weather was still perfect.

Then there are the ferry trips to and fro. Piraeus, the port of Athens, has never been a pretty sight: at least the surrounds have not been, although the sight of majestic ships is some compensation. But the place itself, being generally rundown, has always presented a dejected air. This is currently made worse by the fact that the pedestrian escalator, which usually takes travellers safely above the boiling traffic of the road below to the port itself, is out of action and has been all summer. One doesn’t like to think about the numbers of disgruntled tourists dragging their suitcases and tired selves across the threatening thoroughfare.

There is always something or somebody to look at on the ferry. I think it was last summer that I saw an entire row of Orthodox nuns, six of them, sitting silently and trying to cope with the relentless heat. Nuns here have not moved with the times, so that they are always swathed from top to toe in heavy black, regardless of season.  I was concerned for them all, but especially for one, who was young and fragile-looking. She was so pale I was afraid she was going to faint. But she didn’t.

This last time a singular-looking monk was on board. He was very tall, with long beard and hair of what looked like out- of- control steel wool. The biggest and most ornate cross I have ever seen clanked around his neck and down his front: if the jewellery has been genuine, he would have been kidnapped long ago. Looped from his belt was a bright blue woven prayer chain, the Orthodox rosary. It was extremely long: this monk was a larger-than-life figure in every way. Extremely gregarious, he chatted to all and sundry throughout the journey, and generally had a good time. But he also proved to be of a practical turn: shortly before disembarking, he hitched his cassock up over his belt. This freed up his trousers and his stride and made him much more able to take part in a favourite sport of the Greeks, that of the speedy and no-holds-barred departure. Me, I tell myself they also serve who only stand and wait.

 

 

Gillian Bouras

 

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