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Gifts of the Greeks

Dinner with Persephone

by Patricia Storace
Pantheon, 398 pp., $25.00

What is it that we all know, and yet we don’t know at all? A good candidate for the answer to the riddle might be Greece and the Greeks. On the one hand there is Ancient Greece. Everyone has a repertoire of images which that idea calls up: stone columns, open-air theaters with actors in beards and masks, a vague air of uplift combined rather disconcertingly with nude statues, indecent vase paintings, and a general sense that these people wore no underclothes. On the other hand there is the Greece of today, the place we have visited, perhaps, on a package holiday or a conducted tour: suggestive of wine flavored with turpentine, priests with beards and their hair in a bun, Melina Mercouri, and a general sense of being herded with other foreigners round crowded sites, to meals with goats’ cheese in the salad, followed by a cautious sun bath on the beach of an Aegean island. That leaves a considerable gap in the middle, through which modern Greece as a real place, with inhabitants who are neither extras from a play by Sophocles nor tour guides and bartenders, somehow tends to slip and evade us.

The American poet Patricia Storace decided to spend a year in Greece. She tells us that she grew up without knowing her parents, and that as a result of her thoughts about them, “I knew something about beings who are powerfully present without being visible to others”; she was in quest of origins, and “Greece, too, was preoccupied with questions of origins.” We know so little of modern Greece that the founding fathers of the nation and its culture, leaders such as Kolokotronis and Makriyiannis, are not even known by name to the modern West. And behind modern Greece she senses the thoughts and religion of the ancient world. Storace’s desire to understand Greece is a search to understand herself, too.

She speaks Greek; she continued to take lessons while she was there, and she observes how prominent in Greece are the ubiquitous advertisements for foreign language schools, but it is clear that she spoke and understood it well enough. Her book is full of insights, marvelously entertaining, and in parts piercingly sad. She met a lot of Greeks, men and women, and she traveled quite widely, from Corfu in the west to islands just off the Turkish coast in the east. She went to weddings, celebrated Orthodox Easter, studied the popular books that tell Greeks how to interpret their dreams. She is sometimes bruised by what she sees, but she writes with the love that it is, even amid exasperation, impossible not to feel for this extraordinary people.

She had her clothes frankly appraised by women:

While I am reading the new crop of leaflets, I feel myself being handled from the waist. I look down and to the left and see a charming middle-class lady running the fabric of my knit sweater between her hands. “Marvelous sweater,” she says, turning me to an angle more convenient for her, “is it made in China?” “No,” I say, as she outlines the design. “Flowers,” she says, “a panel of flowers. It looks easy to clean. How much did you pay for it?”

Not much,” I say. “And where did you buy it?” “New York,” I say. “Well, I like it. Simple. And sexy. Have a good week,” she says, strolling off with one of the many variations of Greek benedictions on time, which are made for days, weeks, months, and seasons.

She was frankly propositioned by men, all of whom seem to have shown a sublime self-confidence. Here she is, walking on the island of Aegina alone: a spectacle, of course, which presents an irresistible challenge to the Greek male.

On my way back to Aegina town, I have quite a lot of trouble not getting married in one village, where a lonely taverna keeper announces that he, after years of bachelorhood, may very well be interested in getting married, and has fixed on me as his choice. Having disentangled myself, I am followed through the village by a man on a motorcycle, who says to me, “Here’s what I want to do. Let’s go for a ride in the mountains and see the scenery and then have sex.” I explain I have a desmos, a bond elsewhere, and he says, “What, a husband?” No, I say. “Then why not have two? Look how handsome I am,” he says, running his hands over his torso. “Don’t you find me handsome?”

Another kamaki (“harpoon”) tries to win her with the promise, “With the Greeks, my girl, eight times a night is what you can expect.” A publisher chases her round his office with a camera, trying to get photos that he can show his friends as evidence of a conquest. But my favorite among these self-regarding suitors is Christos the computer programmer:

A series of rather mercantile compliments is produced, like putting coins in a jukebox. He arrives at “You are beautiful.” “Especially,” he says, “I like your hair. It is the kind of hair I myself would have, if I were a woman.”

From his point of view, what greater compliment could there be?

Some of these encounters resemble those described by other female visitors, except for the distinction of Storace’s prose. But this is not simply a book of finely recounted incidents. Storace succeeds in bringing out the enormous and fundamental differences in the presumptions of life, and even the meanings of words (“metaphors,” it says on the side of a moving van), between what is normal in Greece and what is normal in the United States—or in Britain, that land of lovers of Greece who never understand her. And she does it without losing that very difficult emotional and stylistic balance which is vital to a book like this, constantly menaced by the opposite perils of sentimentality and impatience.

There is the constant preoccupation with being Greek: a member of a special people, the inventors of all civilization, who are always the victims of conspiracy and injustice. The reader is sometimes struck by similarities with another ancient and tenacious people, the Jews. Storace was in Greece at the height of the national outrage when the Republic of Skopje, a fragment of the old Yugoslavia, proposed to take the name “Macedonia” and to use as its emblem the Star of Vergina, the symbol found on the silver caskets in the tomb of Philip, father of Alexander the Great. The subject comes up constantly. The Star is stamped on letters; crowds chant “Macedonia is forever Greek”; an archbishop says that Holy Scripture confirms the Greekness of Macedonia in seventy-seven passages (and that “Very very many of today’s women will not enter Paradise”). Threats of death are the response when scholars write papers challenging this view of history, and pamphlets are produced claiming that “All this is typical propaganda of Skopje! The so-called Macedonians have secret agents in the United States, Canada, and Australia as well as all over Europe.” Nor does paranoia extend only to these spurious Macedonians. There has been a destructive fire on the island of Thasos:

It was sabotage, you know.” I ask if the arsonists had ever been found. “No,” he says. “They were professionals. But it was the Turks. Or maybe the Italians, to destroy tourism.”

And when Coca-Cola uses an advertisement—in Italy, not in Greece—that shows the Parthenon supported by Coke bottles instead of Doric columns, there is a national storm of protest and demands for a public apology: “We must not vulgarize the symbols of antiquity. It is for us to set an example for the younger Western cultures which are based on ours.”

Storace is perceptive about the faces of the people she sees, and she notices that expressions are different from those back home. Going to pay her rent to her landlady, a transaction that involves having a chat about the last month and being served a cake and a glass of water, she says,

During our first meetings, although her face would relax slightly when she saw me, I was struck by the absence of the convention of the American smile of greeting. Here the initial glance is harsh, probing, prolonged; a smile has to be earned, there is no assumption that just your existence can be valued by a smile. There may be no reason to smile at your existence. This is true even of people you are not destined to meet, the frank assessing stare on the street, of which the stare of sexual invitation is only one variant.

In fact, smiles too freely lavished can annoy or arouse contempt. In contrast to “the self-consciously stern, imposing jailor’s facial expression that means authority in Greece,” a Greek friend

shook his head once over a picture of Franklin Roosevelt…and said irritatedly, “That face. I can never understand that face, that inane smile.” In the Greek vocabulary of the face, smiling does not include the nuance of power that it does in the United States…. Taki …saw smiling as a kind of placation, a sign of submission.

It is also an acute observation that Greeks reckon to make their faces expressive, and to remain conscious of what their expressions are doing. Traveling by ferry,

On the deck, I watch the Scandinavian and German tourists, their faces blank in repose. But the convention of the Greek face is different; it is the norm to show a face worked with emotion, like the faces of actors and actresses, even in repose. An obviously Greek man standing at the railing shows animated features, his eyes widening, his forehead wrinkling, even distorted by his responses to what he is looking at.

That goes with the whole Greek approach to life, as much more exciting, much more dramatic, and much more of a struggle, than we nowadays, in the soft modern West, expect or want it to be. Storace finds that simple transactions require the expenditure of all one’s energy: queues and crowds are occasions of misery for the weak, victory for the determined, and suffering for all; political questions command enormous passions and violent demonstrations; wishes, blessings, and curses are constantly uttered in conversation and conveyed in gestures; and one lives by putting on a positive show, presenting to the world a consciously thought-out façade. Here is a scene that will strike a reminiscent chord with anyone who has ever been in Greece, even no further than Athens airport, as the guide of a party of Cypriots, whom the author has joined on their bus, struggles with a bit of her daily routine, getting the bus onto the ferry at Patras:

At the ferry, there is anarchic shouting and near collision as the cars and tour buses and trucks with beer and produce fight their way on. The man directing the vehicles onto the ferry couldn’t care less about the vehicles’ schedules…. It is an accustomed tense situation for Leda; she has to fight for her bus so that her travelers won’t lose their connections on the other side if she isn’t aggressive enough to get them on the scheduled ferry…. I watch my friend, who I know has great reserves of tenderness, mercilessly badger the ferryman on the ground to find a place for her bus. She has an obligation to meet; he does not, and only her will and persistence will make that important to him. It is an ordinary, exhausting circumstance of Greek daily life, in which simple transactions that might elsewhere be understood as reciprocal obligation are here dependent on patronage, permanent or temporary. It is strange to think that the business of getting us on the ferry will be partly the result of Leda’s resoluteness, but also of accident—what the ferryman feels like. He continues to wave other vehicles onto the ferry, and she continues to surround him. “My bus is next, my bus has to be next,” she says furiously. The ferry attendant glares at her, and says, “What do you think I am doing, playing with the little bird? You think I am masturbating here?” She answers, “I don’t know. Please find a place for my bus now.” He waves us on, and we sail briskly across the water….

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