Gillian Bouras
An Australian
Writer
Living in Greece

June 2013

The beginning of summer. Summers here pass in a flash, and so it is that Nikos Kazantzakis’s autumnal Peloponnesian journey of so long ago still haunts me. On this matter, I seem to be repeating myself: that’s what happens when increasing age and languishing projects conspire to combine.

In 1937 Nikos was still a working journalist; he had not begun to write his most famous novels, and he had another twenty years to live. Greece itself had terrible suffering yet to endure in the shape of ten years of war, and in many ways the Civil War, the emphylio, caused more damage than World War II did. But in 1937, before all the terrible events started, Nikos was given a commission by a paper that is still in existence, and very much so:Kathimerini. The Daily. His task was to travel in the Peloponnese, and write a series of articles about his journey, and this is the sliver of his life that is of particular interest to me.

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Before he started to recount the details of his journey, Nikos pondered what travelling in Greece actually means, what significance it has to Greeks and to others. For, he stated in his opening line of Journey to the Morea, ‘the face of Greece is a palimpsest bearing twelve separate inscriptions: Contemporary; the period of 1821; the Turkish yoke; the Frankish sway; the Byzantine; the Roman; the Hellenistic epoch; the Classic; the Dorian middle ages; the Mycenaean; the Aegean; and the Stone Age.’ It seems to me that he left out a few inscriptions even then: the Slavs and the Saracens, for example.

Almost his next thought was that the Greek earth is a tomb consisting of these twelve levels, with voices calling the traveller from each one. This fact, he believed, causes deep anguish in the heart and soul of the traveller, for which voice should he choose to listen to? Part of this anguish is the awareness of the constant struggle between heart and mind, symbolised for Nikos, as he wrote in his opening pages, by the differences between Byzantine Mistras and ancient Sparta. It is here that he mentions ‘the frightful, ageless struggle between heart and mind,’ and says the struggle is joined.

The foreign traveller, Nikos maintained, is unencumbered, free to discover the essence of Greece.  I wonder what he meant by that phrase precisely; after more than thirty years, I still have no clear idea of what such an essence might be. Perhaps I am too close to Greece and Greece too close to me for a precise understanding to be possible. There is a lot to be said for a kind of armchair detachment, for an acquaintance through knowledge and theory rather than through actual and often painfully practical experience. As it is, I feel myself to be very much encumbered by the amount of time I have spent in this enchanting but bewildering place. And by the experiences I have had.

The Greek landscape, Nikos implied, may give the foreigner an ‘innocent tremor of beauty,’ but for Greeks it is bound up with memory, history, blood and shame. His own journey in the Peloponnese, he said in recollection, ‘stormy with such concerns,’ gave him many delights and sorrows. Decades later, it was Australian philhellene Patrick White who shrewdly remarked that Greece was a matter of ‘visions and lacerations.’  It must be more than twenty years since I read that comment, yet I have never forgotten its truth and discernment. And White had been to the Peloponnese.

Love for a country is like that, like love for a person: pleasure and pain, exaltation and sorrow. At least that is what I think.

In Athens Nikos crammed himself into the train with a host of other people: ‘clamouring, sweating, newspaper and basket-laden householders.’ Greeks still do not travel in anything resembling minimalist fashion; even today they surround themselves with cardboard boxes and plastic bags, and the prospect of enduring a journey without some sort of snack (passo-tempo, dry biscuits, sweets, a variety of pastries of cheese and spinach) is simply not to be borne. The first train journey I ever made in Greece was the very same one, and you could buy souvlakia on board, would you believe it? A man wandered up and down the aisle carrying a well-provisioned basket, but the passengers disposed of the left-overs and rubbish by the simple expedient of hurling the bits and pieces out of the window into the most heart-breakingly beautiful landscape you could possibly imagine. That disposal of rubbish was what I could not believe, myself.

And I can now hardly believe that that train service to the Peloponnese no longer exists: one of the first casualties of the krisi, the economic crisis. Yet it was one of the great train journeys of the world: documentaries have been made about it. Such is life, and such is travel.

 

 

 

  

Gillian Bouras

 

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