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….
At the festival of Saint Nektarios, the patient Storace (“I am the closest thing available to someone meek”) is almost squashed by the faithful:
With an instinct for creating suffering where none needs to exist, and then exalting it, the crowd pushes, shoves, stamps on, and makes all its members as uncomfortable and claustrophobic as possible. Old ladies aggressively push each other back and forth….
Seats on public transport are “defended to the point of violence.” What surprises her friend Paul most when he goes abroad is “the ease of making arrangements.” To get a telephone, outside Athens, can take years.
She has a good story about her attempts to open an account in a bank affiliated with her American bank. She is told,
“We open accounts in dollars under the following conditions: You must deposit at least fifty thousand dollars in the account. Or you must be of Greek descent.” I am puzzled, since this appears to be a branch of an American bank, and ask the reason for these unexpected conditions. She says certainly, she will ask her supervisor, and after a conference with him, she returns. “There is no reason,” she says.
She is sent on to a second bank, which deals with just that kind of account; they tell her that only the first bank handles such accounts. At the third bank she tries, she is met by an official who first shouts “You? You have business here? What kind of business can you have here?” and then kisses and licks her passport photograph. I can’t resist interjecting here that I have had the experience, as a foreigner, of trying to transfer my account at an American bank from its Princeton branch to a branch in Manhattan, and meeting (except for the licking of my photograph; I can’t claim that) very similar reactions, no less baffling and, in the end, no less impenetrable. American banks, at least when confronted with anything or anyone not American, have what one might call their Levantine side.
The culture of Greece is one that lives by the striking gesture and that likes to make a statement, giving an outlet for emotion where colder societies see none. A dress shop closing for summer holidays sports a notice: “We are not going for a coffee! We are not going to the square across the street! We are going to the sea! Goodbye for the month!” At every purchase the question is asked, “Is it a present?” If it is, it must be specially wrapped and have a tiny extra present attached. Blessings and wishes have been mentioned. A purchase of a cassette player is accompanied with the wish “May it be well fated!” A strange woman says to her, “First, I wish that you have your own money, and second a decent man.” But one must be careful to avoid the ever-menacing evil eye, against which eyes of blue glass are carried and displayed everywhere. She is warned: “Don’t compliment anyone unless you say ftou ftou ftou three times, because unless you show that you cancel out the compliment by spitting, you might accidentally bring the evil eye on them.” So it is best to be very careful about uttering good wishes for a baby, in case the effect may be the opposite.
Curses are no less important, and her friends lose no time in teaching her the obscene words and gestures she will need. A friend appears in a smart pair of leather trousers:
“Four women cursed me on the way down here today,” she says proudly. “I think my new pants must look nice. You know how it works here, half of the people are saying ‘Ftou, ftou, may the evil eye not see you,’ and the other half are going ‘Katara mou, you have my curse for all eternity.”‘
I well remember being driven in Athens, very aggressively, by a smart Athenian lady, who when another driver did something to displease her made the sign at him that means “Your wife is cuckolding you,” adding happily, “And that is very terrible for him, because I am a woman.”
Storace has much to say about the question of women and their position. She gives a pretty grim account of it. The Orthodox marriage ceremony insists at length on the inferiority of women:
I am struck…by the almost badgering emphasis on the wife’s secondary position, both with her husband and in creation itself, the constant admonition that she must obey her husband in all things, that he is her head.
The television constantly shows scenes of women being slapped, beaten, assaulted. Storace keeps score for a week, finding that “fistfights between men were much rarer than the episodes of men hitting women, so incessant that they seemed as much a matter of national taste as of dramatic necessity.” A Greek woman friend whom she consults replies,
“I had never quite grasped how shocking such violence must seem to an outsider, almost as if it were a pillar of our culture, even celebrated.” She sips at her coffee. “To idealize and to sublimate. Now that I think of it, I am not aware of anything in our criminal code that defines beating or any kind of physical violence to women as a criminal offense. But for the mutilation or any physical damage done to statues, the penalties are very severe.”
A friend’s father presides over the division of the food at dinner in a taverna; he asks Storace whether she wants onions in her salad; she says No; he says they are good for her, he is sure she wants onions in her salad; kicked under the table, she says Yes, she wants onions in her salad.
Not, cumulatively, a pretty picture; and there is more. The Greek mothers the author encounters “often seem to be competing with each other in possessiveness, as if permanently dependent children were a glory of motherhood.” Greek mothers adore and smother their sons and dominate the lives of their daughters-in-law. It is certainly not easy to imagine a piece in a men’s magazine in North America or in Britain in which four middle-aged men, all well known in show business, pose for the camera in the act of being spanked or diapered by their mothers.
One of the classic Greek novels of the last century, The Murderess, is about a women who decides that the lives of Greek women are intolerable; she begins to murder little girls, to spare them. Truly chilling to the reader is Storace’s account of the first important writer of children’s literature in Greek, Penelope Delta, née Benaki (1874-1941). Her life story is a classic instance of the worst of Victorian family repression. Both her parents seem to have been monsters of lovelessness and raw will, who inflicted on their daughter a childhood of terror: the father inflexible, imperious, not be questioned or dissented from; the mother arrogant, vengeful, violent, and unpredictable.
It appears that the parents resolved that their daughter should not marry the man she loved, whom they had initially accepted, simply because she loved him: the father “wants your marriage, but he doesn’t want you to love,” her mother told her. Another suitor, corpulent and unattractive, was produced, and Penelope was obliged to accept an engagement to him. Even then, when she behaved with him in what she thought an appropriately affectionate way for a betrothed couple, her parents could not contain their anger at her selfish happiness; and the first ten years of her marriage were hag-ridden by a classic monster mother-in-law. When she met the writer, thinker, and politician Ion Dragoumis, a dashing and intelligent man who became, in some sense, a lover, the family broke it up with ferocity and relish. Dragoumis was later murdered by a firing squad led by a former bodyguard of the prime minister, Venizelos; the man later claimed that the order for the death had been given by Venizelos’s economic minister, Benaki, Penelope’s father.
The whole story is heart-rending to read. Poor Penelope turned to the writing of books for children. She took a progressive position on the vexed problem of the Language Question, by which Greece has been plagued ever since independence. For the purposes of polite literature, education, and journalism, ought Greeks to use the demotic Greek which is actually spoken, or should they insist on the “pure” language, the artificial katharevousa, devised in the nineteenth century to be more dignified and closer to the Greek of antiquity? She was one of the first to write in demotic, the living Greek chosen by the great poets of modern Greece, for seven years proscribed by the tyrannical Colonels, and now, perhaps, finally forever reinstated.
In her books exciting adventures are interspersed with moral and political lessons, sometimes liberal—she was enlightened, for instance, about anti-Semitism—but often violently nationalistic: viciously hostile, for instance, to all Bulgarians. It is still a common experience that one’s most sophisticated and cosmopolitan Greek acquaintances suddenly reveal a vehement and humorless nationalism when the conversation turns to politics. The recent history of Greece has not been of a sort to suggest that there is anything funny about unreconstructed nationalism. When the Germans occupied her beloved country, she took her life. Her father is commemorated by the Benaki museum, containing his various collections, in Athens.
And yet, and yet. Not all of this is specifically Greek. Mr. Barrett of Wimpole Street, the father of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, shows us how tyrannical a conventional Victorian father could be, even in Britain; though he could not actually have had an inconvenient suitor murdered with impunity. My only real question about this haunting and beautifully written book is a feeling that it is misleading about the relations of men and women in Greece. Storace, who is forbearing about almost every other aspect of Greek life and manners—I say “almost,” because she does allow herself a few cracks at the Orthodox Church—takes everything rather literally on the position of women and the relations of the sexes. This is notoriously a subject in which it is extremely hard to tell the truth, even if one tries: and almost nobody, in the history of the world, has ever really tried.
The society described with such pain by Storace should produce women who are crushed, frightened, under the heel of their men. I reflect on the Greek women I have actually known, and the degree to which they do not fit that picture is almost comical. Of course, every Greek man is by definition Mr. Macho, a pasha among the ladies, the boss to whom his wife dare not answer back; any Greek man will be delighted to tell you so, and his wife may talk as if she agreed. But I know a Greek lady who summons her husband from another room by clapping her hands and shouting his name. I have another Greek friend who explains her husband’s thoughts and opinions, in his presence, in the third person—“he thinks”—before explaining with relish what is wrong with them. I know several Greek women married to Anglo-Saxon husbands, who are each clearly the dominant partner in the marriage. I have known two English girls who went to work as au pairs in Greece; both had to come home abruptly, because the wives were jealous for the affections of their husbands; both assured me that the husbands would not, in reality, have dared even to look at them.
I have met Athenian ladies at receptions and the like, in London and Athens, and I have usually been impressed, and sometimes intimidated, by their self-confidence and social command. I have met Greek women whom I should call, if pressed for a word, imperious. What I can’t call to mind is ever encountering a crushed or spiritless Greek woman. Nor, for that matter, is that the impression given by the demeanor of the women I see in the streets or the shops. Of course, mine, like Storace’s, is anecdotal evidence, not quantifiable; but the reader observes that she, too, seems to meet a series of fiery and articulate Greek women, with not a foot-squashed flower among them. Perhaps in this matter the assumptions of a modern American woman may have distorted the result, as she takes for unvarnished truth what were sometimes the enjoyable sallies of eloquence and anger.
November 14, 1996