Gillian Bouras
An Australian
Writer
Living in Greece

May 2015

After an exceptionally long, hard winter, Spring has arrived at last, and Greeks are looking forward to a long weekend, for May Day is a public holiday. But there is not a great deal to look forward to in Greece at present, as the country is still trembling on the brink of economic collapse, and may well run out of cash in the next few days. My youngest son and I have more or less stopped taking an interest in the ongoing krisi, as we agree that we have been reading and listening to the same old thing for far too long. Call us ostriches if you like. But keeping up-to-date, we have decided, is exceedingly stressful. So we are trying to concentrate on more positive matters, being powerless, in any case, to influence the path of this much-beset country.

Spring weather signals the start of large-scale Domestic Frenzy on the part of the nation’s conscientious housewives: needless to say, I am not among their number. But compulsive cleaning is now well underway, and drying blankets and rugs are proliferating along balconies. For the seasons are clearly marked here, as they signally are not in my home town of Melbourne, Victoria. When, long ago, my mother-in-law, the redoubtable Aphrodite, visited Melbourne at the height of summer, she ordered me to put the blanket I had left in her bedroom away in a cupboard. I protested, but in vain, as came to be a predictable pattern. I permitted myself a moment’s gloating satisfaction, however, when she had to ask for the blanket back again a few nights later.

Spring brings visitors: I’ve had three lots already. The most memorable visit was that paid by my cousin’s offspring, a young man of 21. The whole business of words to denote relationships is interesting when you operate in another language. Nick is, according to strict English usage, my first cousin once removed, as he is ‘removed’ from the generation his mother and I belong to. But in Greek there is no such term: all one’s parents’ cousins are called ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’, and similarly, there is no word for great-aunt or great-uncle in Greek: the siblings of grandparents are always called Yiayia and Pappou, so explanations are called for when one tries to decide who is the actual grandmother or grandfather.

Confused? So was I, for a long time. When it comes to relationships involving marriage the situation becomes clearer, as long as you can hold the words in your head. Whereas in English we have the rather vague terms of sister-in-law and brother-in-law, in Greek there is specific terminology, so you know immediately whether a sister-in-law, for example, is your brother’s wife, or your husband’s sister. There are similar distinctions for brothers-in-law, and still more labels for people who have married siblings from the same family. And yet another word for people whose children are married to each other. You will not be surprised, gentle reader, to learn that it took me years to sort all this nomenclature out.

Anyway, Nick had never been to Greece before. With a bravery that is quite foreign to my nature, he hired a car, drove all the way from Athens and back, and when staying here made the most of the flexibility wheels offer. Our first excursion was to Sparta and then on to mountainous Mystras, the place that the late, great travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor described as an ‘airy casket of a city’, and which once was home to about 40,000 people. It dates from the thirteenth century, and like most of the Peloponnese, has had a very chequered history. It can also boast some of the world’s most important frescoes still extant.

Our next excursion took us along the southern part of the coast of Messenia, the province of which Kalamata is the capital. We visited Koroni first, and then cut across country to Finikounta: it was near there that Nick had his first Greek swim (may there be many more) and felt very pleased with himself. Then it was on to Methoni, followed by Pylos, and back home, after more or less completing a circle, one with rather odd and jagged edges. The Peloponnesian coast is a great place for castles and fortresses, and we saw four that day: we fetched up all castled out, you might say. These structures were built as a measure against pirates and invaders, and their solidity has ensured their long histories. The one disappointment, at least for me, was the fact that the nuns who live in the convent inside the walls of Koroni castle have let the painting of the sign Orthodoxy or Death fade quite away. But I was not at all disappointed to see that the human skeleton that used to hang in the entrance foyer has vanished.

The coast is sublimely beautiful, like much of the rest of Greece. For me it is also full of memories, for I have visited all of these places many times: with friends, with my children, with my aunt, uncle, and parents. It was a great pleasure to show these sites to another, much younger Australian: I hope there is another phihellene in the making. In fact, I feel fairly confident there is.

 

 

Gillian Bouras

 

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