I came closer to understanding what it means to be part of a Greek tragedy last week. I’m not talking about Aeschylus or Euripides of course but today’s everyday tragedy for many Greeks who feel that the rest of the world despises or is mocking them and has many of the elements of traditional Greek drama. There are the conflicting emotions of fear and pity and conflict between men as well as between nations, but so far no catharsis.
“What is happening in Europe today doesn’t represent the original European spirit, which is the spirit of cohesion and solidarity,” explained Dimitris Kounenakis, Mayor of Aghios Nikolaos, a region of Eastern Crete long beloved by tourists, especially Brits.
“At the moment there is a division between northern Europe and southern Europe and we would like just one Europe, for rich and poor alike, not one exploiting the other.”
It happened like this. A Greek friend who knew how much my husband and I loved Crete, so much so that we have built a home there, introduced us to someone whose job is to make sure the deprived and disadvantaged, women and children on the margins or in violent and abusive relationships, are aware of all the projects and initiatives that exist to help them. The idea is to make sure that local people know that the European Union is not all about road building – although there is plenty of that – but has some very tangible benefits to help those in need. She mentioned us to the Mayor and he wanted to thank us for our confidence in the region by inviting us to a moving little ceremony in his office overlooking the Marina. The original friends were there, luckily interpreting and translating as my beginner’s Greek stretched no further than a brief sentence thanking the Mr Kounenakis for bestowing on us such an honour. I hope he understood what I was trying to say as the day before, in the butcher’s, I had apparently asked for hen rather than chicken and on a mountain walk, asked a man with a donkey how old he was, meaning of course the donkey but used the wrong pronoun. I received the Greek equivalent of a very old fashioned look.
Reverting to English, I told the Mayor why I loved the island so much; for its history – the idea that paths I tread have been trodden by countless others for thousands of years – for its food, and for its people. I cannot imagine a better place for a writer to work that is both stimulating and peaceful. The ancient myth may warn ‘beware Greeks bearing gifts’ but we welcome them! Greeks are the most generous people imaginable with homemade cheese or spinach pies appearing at all times of day and night. I dare not think how long it must take some kind person to prepare these delicacies.
Then it was the Mayor’s turn again and he explained to us all the activities he has undertaken to preserve and improve the environment in the region within his jurisdiction, pointing out that there are now 23 ‘Blue Flag’ beaches, denoting that they meet stringent criteria for biodiversity and sustainable development. And then we were joined by a Greek chorus of journalists and a local TV film crew who wanted to record the moment when we were presented with a certificate and two bottles of Cretan olive oil, and I presented the Mayor with a copy of one of my books and we repeated once more why we think we have discovered a corner of paradise.
Greece may recently have been overtaken by Cyprus and even Portugal as Europe’s problem child but that does not mean the Greek crisis has gone away. Some people think we must be mad to have a house here but, in a land where antiquity surrounds you on all sides, it’s hard not to believe that the country can withstand one more drama- if not drachma. Life on the ground is good, the sun shines most days and Crete is such a lush and fertile island that most of its inhabitants can grow much of what they need so won’t starve. But for many without jobs, especially in towns on the mainland, life is still painful. And most painful of all is being lectured to by Germany; history is short and memories are long and in Crete of all places, the Nazi Occupation from 1941 to 1944 was harsh and brutal.