April 18, as scribbled in my notebook:
a story which she will never forget – not any detail of it – and which I cannot remember. as it rolled and swelled I did a kind of orchestration by saying, every few minutes, but how did your father come to Australia?
then I fell asleep again and dreamt. I’m with an Analyst. (not that kind of analyst. He was like an accident investigator. an engineer/scientist.) We’re looking for the rust beneath the paint of the hire car. My fingers are fumbling, searching, as they learnt to, for the rubber covered button just to the right of centre which opens the boot, so that we can look from within. Where the rust lies, if you look closely, you can see that the glossy painted surface has become dulled.
(when I woke) I remembered the Hertz man at Kalamata airport, friendly, in a hurry and happily not interested in inspecting the little scratches on the car, born in Australia but moved back to Greece to be near the beach. Where he lived in Australia he was eight hours drive from the ocean. and I remembered those irritating ‘notifications’ from Google: we have a new memory for you.
one day – how soon – Maria will fall silent and the door of the museum will be locked for ever.
5.40. Then I dreamt that in the museum there were flowers that I have found in Greece: orchis provincialis and orchis pauciflora. on waking I tried to remember a song she sang for us at the end – about a lonely little church in the mountains – her voice still sweet and clear – a song she had learnt in school. I can’t remember but there was something of the miraculous in it. Before she sang it she said, like a proper teacher, see how many words you recognise. I only remember one, a favourite greek word, vouno, mountain.
7.20 dreamt again – carefully, gingerly going down a few steep steps covered in hard polished ice – to one side a grassy bank where salt had been scattered- what’s the point of that! – Then I see below the bank a small pit containing salt. I scramble down and search my pockets, as I do when looking for a dog poo bag, and find a crumpled white carrier bag. As I start to put handfuls of salt into it an old man joins me. He puts a chestnut into my bag then says, sorry! I say, no, that’s fine!
Later that morning. The museum in Exochori, as in Anavriti, is in the old school. Having grown used to public institutions and churches being always locked I took little notice of it, though it is an elegant building. But when we walked past on saturday we noticed a sign which announced that it was open once a week, on sundays from 11 to 2. As we approached it on a cold, wet sunday morning I said, bet it’s locked. J. said, how much? The door was open and Maria sat in the doorway. We were the only visitors. We made each others’ day.
When we told her where we were from she said, oh! You’re poms!! She and the rest of her family had followed their father out to Melbourne in about 1950. Much later she had returned to Greece, to look after her parnts, who had already returned to Exochori. Then followed a period of moving between continents. I asked how she had decided to finally stay in Greece, and she said that she hadn’t really made a decision to stay, it was just that when the time came that she could no longer face the thought of all the upheaval and the long flight, she had happened to be in Greece. It could have happened when she was in Australia. She had helped to set up the museum, gathering together tools and photographs and artefacts, and now she was curator, attendant, story teller, translator, guide, waiting patiently.
This was how her father came to Melbourne: after the Greeks drove out the invading Italians in 1940, the Germans attacked. British and Australian troops soon retreated, some to the coast of the Peloponnese where they hoped to be picked up in a mini Dunkirk by the Royal Navy. As they moved south some of the Allied forces were helped and hidden by Greeks, and a man from Melbourne gave his address to Maria’s father and told him that he would be very welcome in Australia. Maria told the story much better.
Oral history doesn’t work so well for the forgetful; you can’t refer back to the text. You take from it what you can, necessarily reflecting your own interest and experience. Maria and her family left Greece to get away from the civil war or its aftermath. She didn’t seem to side with the nationalists or the communists. Tears came to her eyes when she talked of war and death and exile, and of the suffering of young people in particular; the deaths of so many students in the train crash earlier this year is seen as a sacrifice of the young to the folly and neglect of their elders. As if their only options were exile or death. She saw the responsibility of both sides for the long conflict between Turks and Greeks which led to the ‘population exchange’ of 1922, an early instance of ‘ethnic cleansing’ (which wasn’t even ‘ethnic’.) She spoke of her fear just last year that war could break out between the two countries again. I had to look that up: Turkey and Greece accused each other of cruelty towards refugees, each proclaiming their own humanitarian spirit, and old conflicts over fishing rights in the Aegean and territorial disputes over the Greek islands which are so close to the Turkish coast surfaced again – Greek coastguards opened fire on a Turkish boat on one occasion. Nobody was hurt. These bitter conflicts are too trivial to arouse any interest in western news media. But Maria has her sticking point, a point of principle which admits of no compromise, and naturally it involves religion. In 1453 Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, and the sacred cathedral of Ayia Sofia was converted into a mosque. She cannot accept that. Speaking of that desecration her eyes dried, her sadness hardened into anger. (But not for long, she wasn’t obsessed.) In an early lesson in Ellinika A, the text book that goes with the City Lit’s modern greek course, Melek, a nice young Turkish woman who’s going to visit her family back home, goes to a travel agent’s to buy tickets, not to Istanbul, but to Konstantinopoulos, the city of the Emperor Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor. (Melek is studying archaeology in Athens, which makes good sense since it shows the common heritage of the two countries.)
I don’t think we got on to the ‘Elgin’ marbles, which of course should not be named after the man who bought/stole them. (To the B.M.’s argument that Lord Elgin paid good money for them, the answer is that he bought them from thieves, from the Ottoman authorities who had no right to them, which makes him a fence.)
I can’t remember if I told Maria – I probably didn’t – about the return fixture in Spain about forty years later, when the great mosque in Cordoba was converted into a christian cathedral – it’s like an alien being has burst through the roof.
What else do I remember? Her father had a water mill! He had the highest in a whole series in the gorge. It was called the head mill. The water used to run for much longer than it does now. Much water is ‘extracted’ high up. Anywhere near water courses in Greece you will see black plastic pipes, sometimes several, all snaking down to the valley. Over in Parnonas, the mountain range next to the Taygetos (each one constitutes a finger on the palm of the Peloponnese which is sometimes likened to a plane leaf) I came across a ruined mill in another gorge between two villages. Well, ‘come across’ isn’t right. a big, dilapidated sign announced it, and I looked around and saw nothing. But when I scrambled down to the stream bed I found it, ruinously overgrown. The curve of the millstone gave it away. Now mills in England are generally conveniently close to the fields where the grain was grown and the farms where it was threshed. But here the mills had to be several hundred feet below villages and terraces, where the stream was, reached only by a long, steep mulepath, so the journey to and from the mills was another laborious task in the production of bread. And just outside Exochori J. and I found a threshing circle, beautifully edged with a still intact low wall of tightly fitting sandstone blocks. (I must have walked close to it half a dozen times before.) Maria told us that every terrace in the olive groves was also used to grow grain and vegetables. And in Kastanitsa, in Parnonas – you can tell by the name – wheat was grown under the chestnut trees.
The last photo of her reminds me of beautiful Byzantine portraits – very lovely