I’ve just finished reading Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi – one of the finest travelogues ever. It chronicles Miller’s year out travelling around Greece just as World War ll broke. He describes Greece with such fondness.
It echoes where I’m at. I’ve been to Greece three times now – the first time was 20 years ago. I had no money and I hitchhiked all over. Old men on the islands gave me food. I hiked. I swam. I ate. I was 18 and lost and philosophical and seeking life. I came, again, 10 years ago, with my partner at the time. He’s Greek-Australian – from Kythera – and the experience was much the same. No, the sensation was the same.
Each time I’m here I feel a pounding connection. Like the place grabs me from my insides and says, “Hey, sit down a while. You’ve arrived safely.”
What is it exactly about the place?
It’s the light. It’s honest and raw. And the smells. The wild thyme, fig trees and mountain herbs, the brine of the sea, the dry-earthiness of the heat hitting dust and rock. It stirs something inside, something that yearns to be freed and expressive. And yet it doesn’t demand the expression. You can just sit quietly with it.
It says, “this is how life is meant to be”. This is why history is preserved here and the Greek ethos remains unmoved: life arrived and stayed.
Millar’s reflections on Greece very much mirror my own. He arrived in Athens in a heat wave and during a time of incredible poverty; the day I stepped into Syntagma Square it was 47 degrees. The country has just had a whopping 40 per cent cut to wages and families are starving all over the country. Miller was taking time out from writing for the first time in years; ditto me. Miller travelled with few possessions, ditto me.
“I’m glad I arrived in Athens in during that incredible heatwave,” he wrote. “Glad I saw it under the worst conditions. I felt the naked strength of the people, their purity, their nobility, their resignation….I saw people in rags, and that was cleansing, too….
“The Greek knows how to live with his rags; they don’t utterly degrade and befoul him as in other countries.”
He describes the light here: “Here the light penetrates to the soul, opens the doors and windows of the heart, makes one naked…isolated in a metaphysical bliss which makes everything clear without being known.
“No analysis can go on this light: the neurotic is either instantly healed or goes mad.”
Which mirrors something I wrote a few days ago about being broken down by the Greek experience.
I’m still trying to work out the upshot of all this as I leave Greece now and to head to Denmark (contrast much?). The light is one thing. The people – or what the light has done to a people over eons – is another, more interesting thing. Not all people, and I’m generalising, but a theme emerges. If you’ve been to Greece, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. Although, it’s always going to be a personal take.
The Greeks know how to live with their rags. They don’t complicate stuff that doesn’t need to be complicated. The rich come back to basic tavernas to eat goat. Their food is simple. They refuse to “fuse”. When some olive oil, oregano olives and a chunk of fresh cheese, with some wine, can bring people together, why complicate things further with balsamic glazes and French-inspired foams? Many people here think leaving the EU and returning to the drachma is the best thing for the country. “We have everything we need here,” Eleni says to me over cheese and olives and wine. “We don’t need to buy asparagus from Spain or sprouts from Brussels when we’re happy with cucumbers. Let us get on with it.”
The heat, the light…when it grabs you and sits you down and says you’ve arrived,, well, you no longer have the need to dart off looking for more. You can live with your rags, with cucumbers for lunch. You’re not desperately looking for more, darting off to something better. And so you can enjoy what’s right there in front.
Miller finishes with this quote, which I read a night or two ago sitting out the front of the cottage I’ve been renting. I’d had a day where I didn’t look for more and I’d let the heat plonk me down.
Miller is describing the Colossus (his poet friend he admires so deeply and who is the protaganist of sorts of his book):
“He spoke of little things and of great with equal reverence; he was never too busy to pause and dwell on the things which moved him…
“He had endless time on his hands, which in itself is the mark of a great soul.”
I’m realising rushing and darting and reaching for more, and not honouring what’s in front of you, degrades and befouls. And rags are redundant. I leave today. But I know the experience will keep grabbing me and telling me I’ve arrived.
Have you had a similar experience travelling in Greece? Does the light leave you naked?