Cross cultural keys to meaning

SOME YEARS BEFORE her death at the age of eighty-eight, Aphrodite, my Greek mother-in-law, gave up walking. There was no physical or medical reason for this; she simply decided that she didn’t want to walk any more and so developed a pattern of moving between chair and bed. Her family was slow to realise that this was one of the first signs of the cloaking dementia that settled on her incrementally but inexorably. I myself came late to the understanding that she associated walking with work. But I did know she had certainly had more than enough of the latter.

One of the things that struck me in rural Greece, which I first visited on holiday in 1975, was the general appearance of the old village women. It was difficult to define or estimate ‘old’, for so many were simply worn out before their time – too many children, too often, along with too much worry, and a great deal of deprivation. Wrinkles had multiplied quickly on faces that had never known makeup; backs were most often bent from the effects of carrying heaps of olive branches and sacks of potatoes from the gardens that were usually miles away; and many apparently old women had peculiarly bowed legs from the effects of rickets, a disease that affects the bones and is usually caused by lack of vitamin D or by malnutrition. In Greece it always had to be caused by malnutrition. All this added up to work. And work that had very little reward beyond survival at a level that initially shocked me.

In a cruel irony, the only rest a traditional Greek woman ever had was the period of forty days after she had given birth. In religious terms, this period was attached to the tradition of Christ’s presentation at the temple; in practical terms, it helped reduce the possibility of infection. The new mother was forbidden to leave the house. Her duty was to look after herself and her baby, but one can well imagine the amount of ‘rest’ she had when there were other children to look after. Of course the older daughters of the house were inured to work from an early age. It was their task to care for their younger siblings. My eldest sister-in-law, married at twenty-one, told me she was so tired by then that she could not face the thought of raising her own. She raised three. 

The boys in the family also had their jobs. When he was young, my husband had to load the donkey with barrels and fetch water from the well. In summer he bitterly resented having to get up before dawn in order to help his priest-father water the vegetable garden. The boys also had to gather mulberry leaves for the silkworms. In one of the ironies of war, my sisters-in-law, though they went barefoot, wore pure silk dresses, produced by Aphrodite from the start of the process to the finish. Even if she had had money to buy dresses for her daughters, there were none to buy in war-torn rural Greece.

APHRODITE WAS BORN in 1908. She was the youngest and favorite daughter of a priest who made sure that in the fullness of time she married another priest, a man of good reputation and a distant relative. Aphrodite’s life, from the very start, was strictly prescribed. No deviation from the set pattern was ever contemplated, let alone put into practice. Education was not part of this pattern; she received so little schooling that in later life it was all she could do to sign her name, very laboriously, on her pension cheques. 

The way of life that Aphrodite inherited had scarcely changed in a thousand years and work was the most important part of it, for unremitting labour was the only way of guaranteeing basic food and shelter. Emotional fulfillment and security came through attachment to family and church, and the brief interludes of rest and recreation were connected with both. There was also a certain security in the programmed life, in knowing precisely what it was you had to do on each particular day. Each season had its rituals; three were spent in the valley, but the summers saw a retreat to the coolness of the upper village in the mountains: flocks were taken up there, and it was a time for harvesting wheat, walnuts and figs. This life resembled peasant life the world over: such a life is a type of cultural continuum, with each generation picking up the threads left behind, so that the same weave is forever repeated. 

I, on the other hand, was descended from pioneer stock, and I can see now that Aphrodite’s view of work and mine were bound to collide. The people who came to the New World had to break patterns and invent the day, rather than repeat it. There were no convenient threads left lying around for them to pick up. Both pioneer and peasant were forced to work extremely hard, but in different ways and with different attitudes towards work. A couple of my ancestors, Richard Trevithick, inventor of the steam pump, and HV McKay, inventor of the combine harvester, were hard-working maverick lateral thinkers, the sort of people who rural peasantry does not usually encourage, but most other forebears were, like so many Anglo-Celts of the nineteenth century, victims of forces beyond their control. 

Some were forced into emigration by the Highland Clearances, while the Cornishmen saw the tin run out. My ancestor from Norfolk and the one from County Down had bouts of bad temper to blame for their relocation; the former quarrelled with his mill-owner father, and was disinherited, while the Ulsterman, a sailor, took to a tyrannical petty officer with a deck scrubber, thought he’d killed him, and jumped overboard. It was fortunate that this drama was enacted in the Port of Adelaide. And also fortunate that authority was not as concerned then about illegal immigrants. All these people settled down and made reasonable lives for themselves and their families, although I don’t know if they made much money.

Nor do I know whether there was ever any actual money in the household when Aphrodite was a child. Though I do know that the man who became her father-in-law bought his fustanella and the rest of the traditional garb of elaborate many-pocketed leather belt and embroidered waistcoat with six goatskins of olive oil that he himself had produced: this was a weight of at least two hundred kilograms, worth two hundred thousand drachmae. He walked three loaded mules to Tripoli, a distance of ninety kilometres away, in order to make the purchase. 

FOR A VERY long time, wealth was measured in olive trees and what they could yield and earn; if there happened to be any excess oil, then it could be sold for cash, or exchanged for other goods. The olive harvest still goes on, of course, I used to dread that period: not only did it mean sweated labour, involving blistered hands and aching backs, to one unaccustomed to it, but it was then that Aphrodite was at her most tyrannical. ‘You can’t do it; you don’t know how,’ was her oft-repeated refrain to me. And she was right. But I tried to do it; I tried to learn.

I used to have a fairly steady stream of visitors, mainly women from Australia. They had read my newspaper pieces and would often simply appear: we did not have a phone for ten years, and Hellenic Post was often erratic. On one occasion I recall, I took two of these women to see Aphrodite. I am short, these women were tall and statuesque. Whereas I have three sons, these women were the mothers of daughters. Aphrodite was so impressed that she, often quite taciturn, became positively loquacious.

‘What beautiful women. And they have daughters.’

All of Aphrodite’s daughters-in-law had produced sons, and it was a sore point with her that her name would thus die out.

She kept on. ‘What strong and beautiful women. Look how tall and well-made they are. Not like you, you poor, short, skinny little thing.’

I huffed and puffed in great indignation. ‘I’m not skinny. And you’re shorter than I am!’

‘Never mind that. That doesn’t matter. Aren’t they lovely?’ The paean continued indefinitely.

Later, one of my visitors became thoughtful. ‘What all this means,’ she said, ‘is that your mother-in-law assesses women, at least on a first meeting, in terms of their ability to work, and to work hard. Now you, you’re not really built for physical labour.’

I worked in the village, though. I had three cross-cultural sons to raise, and was determined that they would speak English and have an attitude to women that was not the stereotypical village one. It took effort to suggest that there was nothing demeaning about washing dishes and cleaning bathrooms. It took more effort to convince them of the value of rosters for household chores. And sometimes bribery had to be added to the endeavour.

I taught English for ten hours every week. Small groups of children came to the house and I think I managed to convince a few of them that learning did not have to be a dull slog. Then there was the matter of my writing, which had become my ruling passion. I tried to do a certain amount every day. When my youngest son started kindergarten I would take him to the building and race back in the hope of having an uninterrupted two hours, which was the length of time at my disposal before I had to return to bring my child home.

But, and it was a big but, the key to the house had always to be left in the front door: it was more than my life was worth to remove it. Aphrodite would stroll in three or four times a day, often bearing a little saucepan of something or other for her deprived son: ‘I know you don’t make this, because you’re foreign’. Her favorite time of day for calls was the precious morning. 

The whole matter of time was another area of culture clash. American historian and philosopher of technology Lewis Mumford considered the clock the key machine of the industrial age: he wrote extensively about it and pointed out that medieval monks had first used it. It was obvious, Mumford said, that clocks accelerated the human separation from Nature. Aphrodite did not have a clock; someone had given her a watch once, she said, but she had lost it. Time, other than sunset and sunrise, meant little to her.

But I had been raised by time-obsessed people; my grandfather and father were schoolteachers who had been in the army, and my mother was also a teacher. Our whole lives were dominated by schedules, whether we liked them or not: my father, for years, had the dreaded task of organising the timetable for a very large secondary school. With this background, I was hopelessly mismatched with traditional society where things got done in their own rhythm and where the notion of solitary work was a bizarre one. 

On those school mornings when my time was precious, Aphrodite would pad in softly and remove the books and newspapers scattered on the chair nearest to where I was hunched over my old English-language typewriter. She would then sit down and say airily, ‘Don’t mind me, just go on with your work.’ But it was clear that to her writing was not work at all. Her sister-in-law, yet another woman bound upon the traditional wheel, took a dim view of her teacher-son appearing after school and wearing collar and tie. ‘Get that tie off,’ Theia Vaso would say, ‘and do some proper work, for the love of Panagia.’

I am an inveterate list-maker, and it now occurs to me to make a list of all the things that Aphrodite could do, which is the same list of things I signally couldn’t do. 

She could: raise silkworms, spin, weave all sorts of items from donkey rugs to sheets to mats for the floor, prepare olives in brine. She could make bread, soap, cheese and yoghurt, pasto, salt pork, noodles, cordials from various fruits, tomato paste and puree.

Aphrodite also raised a pig a year, and no part of that pig was ever wasted.

She had goats, chickens and a donkey, and knew how to look after them all.

She delivered the kids when the nanny got into difficulties. I saw her do it once. She then went on to coddle the undersized kid, which was bottle-fed and placed near the kitchen hearth, in full knowledge that the same animal would be killed and eaten at Easter. She could wring a chicken’s or a rabbit’s neck in the twinkling of an eye, and thought me very strange because I turned away from the sight. She had a flourishing vegetable garden always, and could not believe my ignorance; when she asked me to help her plant garlic and I had to ask her which end of the bulb went in the ground, the incredulous silence was thunderous.

IN THE EARLY stage of my unexpected immigration, my friend June came to stay, briefly, from Australia. We had been colleagues and June was an incurable traveller and a great philhellene. But she had never stayed in a traditional village before. She quietly observed the scene and came to her own conclusions. ‘What all this means,’ she said, ‘is that your mother-in-law could emerge from a nuclear fallout shelter and start again, whereas we wouldn’t have a hope.’ I was forced, reluctantly, to agree.

It seems to me now that the various cultures have their separate attitudes towards work. I had been raised by Nonconformists, so the idea of industry being a form of virtue was very much present. Inevitably a puritan at heart, I still hold to the notion that I can cope with most difficulties in life as long as my work is ticking over satisfactorily. In the past, a recalcitrant class at school would cause me much heartache, soul-searching and many dark nights. In childhood and adolescence we had never been allowed to give up on tasks, no matter how onerous. ‘Just nibble away at it,’ my father would instruct if we ever complained that something was too hard. ‘Always remember that genius is one per cent inspiration, and ninety-nine per cent perspiration,’ my mother would chime in.

Grandfather delivered a more insidious message: ‘Work hard and you will get what you want out of life.’ What a snare and a delusion that notion turned out to be. For him it had been the solution to an unsatisfactory early life. Born in gold-producing Rutherglen, Victoria in 1893, he was never able to get on with his irresponsible publican father and hated serving in the hotel bar. He escaped because of an interested teacher and his own dedication to relentless study. Because of his example, his brothers also shed their early life: one became a teacher, like my grandfather and two went into journalism.

For that generation and for my father’s, work, at its most successful, meant a job for life, financial security and a chance of some upwardly social mobility. And you managed all these things by being honest, keeping your head down, filling in your tax returns, going to church and doing your best in your chosen field. The securing of jobs via connections and bribery came as a great shock to me when I came to Greece, naive creature that I was. Another shock was the acceptance of ‘the system’. ‘That’s just the way it is,’ was a phrase that I came to hear all too often.

ON THE VILLAGE scene, nobody worries too much about the amount of time men spend sitting with their cups of coffee and their worry beads at one or other of the local kafeneions. My father would view this scene at ten o’clock in the morning and begin a puritanical rant: ‘Wouldn’t you think they’d all be working?’ It was useless for me to suggest that the men might have been in the olive groves since five. 

But village women have to be seen to be working; the concept of invisible work, such as writing, is alien to them and it doesn’t do to show that you have too much leisure time. I take long walks every day as a matter of routine and one day I walked four kilometres up a mountain path to a village I had visited only once or twice before. I sat outside a modest taverna and ordered a drink before setting off down the mountain on my return home. Solitude is hard to achieve here, so sure enough the serving woman sat down beside me and demanded chapter and verse. Who was I? Where had I come from? And why? I established my identity and explained that I had come up the mountain. It took some time and effort to convince her, but in the end I managed it, only to have her sniff and say, ‘Well, since you have no work to do at all…’

I have reached the stage at which I am nominally retired, but in fact I become jittery if I am too long away from work, which is mainly writing these days. Writers never take holidays, not really, although they often wish they could. It is mainly people to whom work is a psychological necessity that keep on. A teaching colleague of mine once said that she was going to work until she dropped, and indeed my grandfather retired briefly but then went back to work for five more years as a school librarian. He would have kept on had my grandmother not become ill. As it was, he started as a junior teacher at the age of fifteen and gave up work, finally, when he was seventy. He fitted in active war service in France and Belgium at the relevant time. That too, one has to say, was work…of a very particular kind.

A friend of mine says he intends to die in harness. I intend to do the same. But it saddens me to think that Aphrodite’s way of escaping a harness that she did not choose was to give up walking.

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