Gillian Bouras
An Australian
Writer
Living in Greece

November 2011

One of the many advantages of a crazily peripatetic life is the way in which said life ensures that you meet a wide variety of people. And of course you see some marvellous places. Santorini, from which island I have just returned, quite simply dazzles. I flew in on this, my second visit, but the first time I went there, I went by ferry, and thus had the pleasure of experiencing one of the great arrivals of the world. A distant view is a black-and-white one: jet-black cliffs covered by a thin line of white. As the ferry draws closer, the black resolves itself into rather mysterious deep purples and charcoal greys, with the mass of mountain, jagged outcrops, and crags supporting rows of cube-like white houses, some of which are gouged and carved out of the rock itself. The closer view suggests, more than anything else, a surrealistic wedding cake with a layer of icing on its top.

 

 

It was on that first visit that I met Eileen. In company and at a restaurant dinner. As my approach to life is often of the limp face-washer variety, her contrasting vitality and ebullience made a deep impression: those snapping blue eyes, the vigour of her opinions, her fearless approach to life. But it was only on this second visit that we had a chance to talk in a way that is impossible to achieve when other people are around. Wide-ranging talk, as the politicians say. It went fairly deep as well.

I found the fact hard to believe, but Eileen is 80, and during our talks could have been said to be engaging in a life review, although I’ve no doubt this process will be continued for another ten years at least. She is not Greek, but has lived with a younger Greek partner for 34 years, first on his home island of Rhodes, and since 1989, on Santorini.

‘Why Santorini?’ I wanted to know, and then discovered that Eileen has lived in four countries. She was born in England, very near London, and can remember listening to the radio with her parents and brother on that fateful day in 1939 when Neville Chamberlain informed the population that Britain was now at war with Germany. A year later, at the start of the Blitz, her father took her to the window so she could observe a red glow in the sky. ‘That’s London. It’s burning,’ he said. Eileen was nine. Central London was not the only target, of course, and some children left school one afternoon and did not return in the morning. ‘We would have one minute’s silence for our lost classmate, and then we all got on with things; that’s just the way it was, and the way it had to be.’

For years I have wondered about resilience. What makes it? Where does it come from? Eileen’s childhood was a loveless one: her mother told her she was a mistake, and never showed her any affection. And there were many secrets kept: it was a long time before Eileen discovered that her mother was Jewish and the daughter of Polish immigrants. But Eileen had a rich fantasy life, was friends with all the neighbours, loved school, and was loved by her paternal grandmother. She also went to a school that emphasized discipline, self-restraint and consideration for others.

But it seems to me that she was often looking for escape, and the desire to reinvent herself was part of the search.

‘Life’s a journey, don’t you think?’

I do think that, and also know there are many meanderings along the way.

Eileen’s first escape was from the bleakness of post-war London, where ‘everything was grey, grey, grey.’ After her college course, she got herself a job with Nestle in Vevey, Switzerland.

‘I’ll never forget the contrast with all the drabness I’d left behind. The dazzling railway stations, super clean. Those mountains. The cloudless sky. And as I stepped out of the station on to the street, there was a most wonderful smell of freshly-baked bread.’

Her Swiss husband took her to New York for a total of eight years, but when the marriage failed, she decided to go to Santorini.

‘Just for a holiday. And there I met my man. But Greece had always drawn me. I had a background of the usual sort of reading: the myths and legends, and the archaeology. I was interested in Creteand Sir Arthur Evans, but Santorini’s particular story fascinated me.’

As well it might. Santorini is the remnant of a volcanic cone, the top of which was blown off approximately 3600 years ago. This event is commonly referred to as the Minoan eruption, and is thought of as a possible cause of the collapse of the Minoan civilization on Crete, 110km south. A huge tidal wave swallowed up Cretan settlements. Well, that’s the theory. Other theories concern the Exodus, although Biblical scholars are sceptical, and the lost city of Atlantis.

‘It’s not Atlantis,’ says Eileen, firmly.

Whatever it is to scholars, what is Santorini to Eileen?

‘It’s my home in the literal sense, but it’s also my spiritual home, I think. It’s a strange place, Santorini; it can accept or reject people. It has accepted me; I know that, because when I am away from it I experience a terrible tearing of the spirit. But then it enfolds me on my return. I never really want to go away. My travelling days are done.’

But Eileen’s other journey goes on.

 

Gillian Bouras

 

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