THERE WAS A time when romance flourished at sea, when ships traversed the globe under clouds of steam, set free by champagne bottles smashed into glass shards. Men in boater hats and women in fine dresses sailed from one exotic port to another, eyes fixed on new horizons and no doubt on each other. Ships transported people, goods, livestock and even news, before the advent of radio, cross-sea cables and satellites. In the twentieth century, cruise liners accelerated tourism, corrupting the very same ports, but departed harbours festooned with streamers. The TV show The Love Boat based its appeal on the allure of transatlantic journeys, on which wealthy retirees acted like love-struck teens.
When The Love Boat filmed episodes in the 1980s, producers hired the majestic Stella Solaris to tour the Greek Isles. Its decks were named after gems: Ruby, Sapphire, Emerald. It had a 500-seat cinema and so many bars that you could drink at one and collapse in another without taking a step. My Uncle Peter served as chief purser on the Stella, and his tales of mixing with the American glitterati was just one aspect of cruise ship splendour. Peter’s sepia-tinted Kodaks depicted romance from an insider’s perspective. Dinner at the captain’s table showed ‘Gopher’ indecorously draped over the captain’s wife while ‘Isaac’ and ‘Doc’ applauded ‘Greek Night’, in which Romanian exiles performed the Zorba. Cocktails by the pool with Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant were always served by smiling staff hired on lowly wages from the Philippines.
Peter was an uncle imbued with myth. He’d casually rock up to our café in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales looking like a young Al Pacino, immaculate in a Travolta suit and reeking of Caribbean aftershave. His tales of global adventure fascinated us yokels, before he’d mysteriously disappear again on some liner whose destinations always included New Zealand (photos of a long-haired beauty needed no explanation, even to yokels). His wanderings no doubt spiked my yearning to travel – ‘a girl in/with every port’ was a career and alcohol addiction worth pursuing. Peter’s proficiency in four or five languages, self-taught behind Reception, inspired mother to send me to Chevalier College, a French school in Bowral.
Peter’s first job was on the large oceanic carriers oscillating between Greece and Australia, during the days of mass migration. The Chandris liners, the Ellinis, Patris and Australis, are seared in the Greek psyche and revered with the same affection as a first car. Iconic black-and-white photos depict nervous newcomers arriving between 1947 and 1975 cradling newborns, chaperoned by a black-clad granny as they arrived at Circular Quay. ‘From a place of exile to a land of promise’ was the prevailing mantra that softened immigrants’ journey to the ‘distant Antipodes’.
Immigration necessitates emigration. A colleague of mine, Geoff, undertook the reverse journey in 1973 as a rite of passage. The cheap five-week cruise, costing $330, was his first trip abroad. The ticket was equivalent to an airfare to the UK, but on the Ellinis Geoff departed Sydney, voyaged across the Pacific, threaded the Panama Canal, before finally alighting in Southampton. When he made it to Piraeus aboard a Soviet carrier, the first sight of the Acropolis jolted him. From his point of view the Parthenon was framed by gums. The Australian-Greek relationship had preceded him by only a few generations.
Today the Aegean is crisscrossed by shipping routes resembling a well-thumbed map of Eurail. Greek cabotage extends to the Libyan Sea and east to Asia Minor. Greek maritime trade accounts for half of global transactions; a fifth of the world’s fleet, valued at $200 billion, is Greek-owned. But gone are the bulky vessels where you could sit on a bench to inhale diesel and avoid cigarette smoke in your face. The shipping industry has been rationalised. Firms have conglomerated, boats modernised, schedules updated. Lifelong employees have been made redundant. Even Peter had to look for work, for once on land.
Nowadays I board the Flying Cat hydrofoil, outfitted with numbered seats, air-cooled interiors and sealed windows. It’s as exciting as boarding Eurail at peak hour. The leisurely three-hour trip to Hydra that I’d enjoyed in the past is reduced to just over an hour, barely enough time to down a frappe. NO SMOKING signs are relatively new (Greeks resisted the Ottomans; the cigarette, less so). Instructions in Greek, English, French and Spanish are useful to tourists, but also a domestic reminder: Greece too was once an Empire.
In 2008-09 revolt was simmering. The fare to Hydra, normally $15, had tripled overnight and commuters who relied on the service to shuttle to Athens were fuming. Everything became expensive when Greece replaced the drachma in 2002. Tourism felt the pinch of escalating euros, with Croatia and Turkey offering cheaper deals than anything Greece could muster. Der Spiegel was warning of Greek bankruptcy a year before the debt crisis unravelled. But that too was concealed from Greek eyes, as no one could afford the copies sold at the bar.
When the horseshoe harbour approached I knew I was within reach of my destination. Uncle Peter’s weekender on Hydra provided the perfect excuse to explore a myth. I’d read that the ‘Australia House’, home of George Johnston and Charmian Clift, was nestled somewhere near the agora, marketplace. Where better to find such a place than on a picturesque Greek isle?
FROM 1955 TO 1964 Hydra was the centre of Johnston and Clift’s world. I’ve always liked Clift’s essays, and Cedric Flower’s illustrations that accompanied them. Clift’s pieces on Greek life were written for the women’s section of the Sydney Morning Herald. To coax her memory, Clift kept a model of an Aegean rig placed on her window. ‘It sits well against its background,’ she noted: a Greek vessel set against Sydney Harbour, seen from the viewpoint of Mosman.
Clift’s pointillist descriptions are small pixels of life that form a larger tableau. Her ability to evoke the earthiness of Greece – its seasonal rites and cicadas screeching during siesta – entranced me. Calloused hands, bitter retsina in copper mugs, the foam from the sea: the textures were endearing. Allan Ashbolt emphasised Clift’s ‘pagan vitality’ in a 1969 obituary – reason enough to admire her. Her perceptions were always open to the sublime, particularly in her novels. The only thing that dates are the prices; they’re always in pounds, as though the drachma never existed.
Clift’s arrival in 1955 was an escape from bleak London, where her husband, George Johnston, was posted. But hers was also an escape from Menzies’ Australia, signified by St George winning rugby premierships (a poor choice of timing, for Clift not the Dragons). In Clift’s ‘Youth Revisited’ she details her exile from the small-town mentality encapsulated in her father’s parochialism. She points out the monocultural character he so prized: his beloved Kiama, south of Wollongong, was ‘untainted by unmentionable foreign habits’. Pining to breathe ‘more exotic air’, Clift sojourned abroad in what became a Byronic interlude. The Mediterranean replaced the ‘tight little island’ she fled in youth – Kiama magnified to encompass an entire nation. Although Kalymnos was not to her taste, compared with Hydra it was rough bark to a polished gem. Greece quickly charmed her. On Hydra the days were long and life was ‘very easy, very wonderful’. With three children to support Clift was constantly broke ‘but rich’. Martin Johnston recalled that when a cheque arrived from his mother’s British publisher she and his father headed straight to the Katsikas store, paid off their bill, ‘then got totally plastered’.
At Hydra’s port passengers spill out from every vessel. Beyond the Hotel Argos and Il Posto café, stands are adorned with worry-beads, shrivelled sponges, the mavromati to ward off evil but entice tourists, plus an array of woven bags whose fibres leave a rash on the buyer’s shoulder. Hydra hides its back to the meltemi, the annual winds that buffet the island, while the sun bronzes everything in its wake: stones, walls, but especially tourists. Rocky slopes remain parched with a texture chiselled by the elements, while those at sea level have been smoothed by wave after salted wave. Truncated windmills and capped wells speak of another time, as do signs for STAMPS & KODAK FILM, superseded by e-cards and jpegs, Facebook and smart phones. With its galleries on the promenade and studios up the hill, though, Hydra is still a haven for watercolourists.
The timelessness of the island is enforced by council laws, regulations and ordinances preventing high-rise development. Richard Branson’s plans for a multi-million-dollar eco-friendly resort on a prime piece of land were rejected in 1997 as deterrence to others. Every colour has been integrated into Hydra’s bold décor. There are squat whitewashed houses with navy-blue shutters aplenty, yellow buoys to demarcate swimming zones, blood-red beer crates piled high on the footpath and green dumpsters wedged in tight alleys. It would be difficult to deny that cubism was invented on Hydra, were someone to declare it so: on the island, you only have to point to what’s around you. I counted enough Orthodox crosses for a complete panorama, yet only five of the reputed 360 churches are used by the island’s fifteen hundred inhabitants. The population triples in high season, but it’s still short of the thirty thousand who were here when the eighteenth-century mansions were built by wealthy ship owners.
Instinctively I zigzagged up the cobble-stoned street, using the pinnacle of Prophet Elias for bearings. On reaching Peter’s weekender, I glimpsed the Aegean through beads chinking in a doorway.
OVER THE ENSUING weeks, I reconnected with family. Peter’s daughter Matoula is my favourite. Fluent in three languages, well-travelled, in her mid-twenties, ‘Mato’ has the smoulder and curves of Gina Lollobrigida. Her laughter, though, is pure Fellini, even if was directed at my scratchy Greek. Hydra is a refuge from her demanding job, translating for international shipping companies in Piraeus. That she has a job, let alone one well paid, marks her out. In any case Hydra is her ancestral home, her horio. Greeks love the horio, no matter how opulent or shabby it might be.
My numerous visits have dulled Hydra’s uniqueness. The post runs according to name – first name, naturally – not numbered street. You can ring the taxi on 53690 and, because cars are banned, a donkey arrives to haul your luggage. I absorb Mato’s lowdown, noting changes. Peter’s renovated kitchen has become the norm. The rustic abode has disappeared. High-end tourism is geared towards European retirees, and Greece is recalibrating its image to become ‘the Florida of Europe’. Globalisation has wrought the biggest change: the siesta is no longer sacred.
Yet Pantelis, the Rasputin figure dockside, remains as lively as when, aged thirteen, I first saw him. There’s the pretty girl with the jaw deformity, proud as ever. And there’s Zelos, the retired airline exec, recalling his sybaritic youth without ever mentioning the word ‘gay’. The port exhibits a glossy veneer as varnished as a vamp’s nail. It’s polished to perfection, but hides dirt beneath. Knifings aren’t reported. Incest isn’t acknowledged. Alcoholism always ends in depression. If you measured Hydra’s streets you’d find them wide enough for a train of mules, the perfect size for gossip to circulate and spread across the island.
Charmian Clift described being ‘marooned in summer’ because the claustrophobic quality of Hydra is enhanced by its geography. If Siberia focused the minds of Russian poets, the cramped, windblown streets during winter do likewise in Hydra. There’s a dark side to the sunny Greek Isles, one rarely promoted by tourism.
Equally unpublicised are the celebrity hangouts. Each day I passed Leonard Cohen’s house en route to Kamini. The satyr Pan is the crooner’s doorknocker, but the possibility of Mato introducing me elicited a yawn. ‘Who cares for Cohen?’ she said. It’s the attitude of a true Hydriot, dismissing his talent. But then, Hydra is Mato’s weekender; I guess it is Cohen’s too.
A ruined fort composed of crumbling bricks is Kamini’s attraction, its windows the right size to insert a brass cannon to face invaders. It is showing its age, though last week’s graffiti had somehow enlivened it. I plunged off the rocks wearing a mask and flippers, but however deep I descended there was always further to go. They say the island’s base is unreachable for good reason: the multi-headed snake which gave Hydra its name resides deep below. It’s best not to disturb her from slumber. Like the Greeks of old, she truly values the siesta.
WHO REMEMBERS THE Australia House or the family ‘Tzonson’? At the port I scrounged around but made little progress. I should have suspected the discreet bookstore owner could provide answers. Lefteris, whose owlish glasses give him the look of a retired professor, sold coffee-table books on Hydra, displaying them open-faced for viewing. The Specialty Press was in high demand and also highly priced. Hydra at its zenith photographed well. Here was Jackie Kennedy alongside Aristotle Onassis, with just a small contingent of the yachting set: Melina Mercouri, Maria Callas, Audrey Hepburn too. In this natural amphitheatre they came as actors ready to perform. Sentimental voyages, honeymoons, dirty weekends: Hydra seemed the place to pursue them. ‘Greeks may have invented tragedy,’ Manoly Lascaris wryly suggested, ‘but they were fated to play operetta.’ Boy on a Dophin (1957), The Girl in Black (1956) and Phaedra (1962), as well as domestic films by FINOS shot on Hydra: my Aunt Liyeri recalls seeing more film crews than family during her childhood.
Lefteris was a school chum of Martin Johnston, the bespectacled son of George Johnston and Charmian Clift. Lefteris knew of Martin’s parents – he mentioned ‘bohemians’ – and disapproved of Charmian’s philandering (but, curiously, not George’s). He remembered their carousing at night, relayed by his parents on the community grapevine. Lefteris’s greying temples were a reminder that while the island may be timeless, its inhabitants are not.
His directions were straightforward enough. ‘Start at Alpha Bank, turn left at the bakery, stroll past theChurch of Aghios Constantine, dog-leg it to the well...’ At the end of the trail Omega awaits in the shape of a lock on the door. A-B-C-D-Ω.
I set off at once, despite the heatwave. Sweat slid off me with each advancing step. My face instantly baked red. My hair poked out at every angle. I looked like a shabby Minotaur lost in a labyrinth. But ultimately I was satisfied: I found the Australian House.
Built in the symbolic year of 1788, the Australia House beckoned young Australians up from the waterfront ‘as though to a national monument’, Clift writes, sewing the seeds of her myth. With its blue door and red bougainvillea, ‘you can’t miss it.’ The bougainvillea had disappeared; the rendered grey stone suggested a facelift worthy of an American tourist. Arched window were reconfigured with rectangles, as if the house had plucked its eyebrows and put on spectacles. Bizarrely, an anchor was chained and cemented outside the front door. A withered wreath hanging in the courtyard meant the owners were still in Athens – or possibly Holland? The outdoor well was capped with a blue concrete lid. An ashtray poking with stubs suggested that people still gather as in Clift’s day – gossip is such effective glue.
The likes of Mungo MacCallum and Rodney Hall remember an open-house invitation when they visited. Enterprising youth settled here, as though on a lily pad, before continuing on their European adventures. Leonard Cohen stayed in a back room, too, before moving down the road from Mato’s. The foreign colony grew around the Tzonson myth, and the bigger it got the more its members squabbled. Martin Johnston remembered a stage filled with petty intrigue, a false sense of collective harmony. Everybody was playing operetta.
I decided Hydra occupies the same space in the Greek cultural psyche as Byron Bay in Australia. Both alternative enclaves are tolerated because they don’t upset the status quo. They provide colour and act as a palliative to middle-class mores. I took a few photos and left. I liked that no shrine, plaque, or memorial signposted the house. It would have killed the adventure by making it official. I particularly liked the anchor. If the island metaphorically sinks, it will float in my imagination.
CHARMIAN CLIFT LIVED during what seemed to be Greece’s modern Golden Age. Arriving after the civil war and leaving before the Colonel’s junta, Clift enjoyed the period of reconstruction when prices were low and real estate affordable. Cocooned in her world of artistic endeavour, Clift found Hydra idyllic. But Aunt Liyeri, attending the same school as Martin Johnston, just a few grades below, remembers that era differently. Liyeri was a source of information concealed from the expatriate narrative. Her father, like many a Hydriot, worked on ships in the same way Filipinos now do on cruisers. Away for long stretches of time, he left his wife, the imposing Mariditsa, to fend for the extended family. There was no maid for errands, as there was for the Family Tzonson. Liyeri recalls hunger, oppression, poverty. Running barefoot didn’t mean freedom. Liyeri’s island home modernised late: Cohen’s ‘Bird on a Wire’ was inspired when telephone lines were belatedly installed in 1968. The tedium of life without mod cons is Liyeri’s defining memory, a different world to that of her daughter Mato. That era has pretty much vanished. Today every home has more than one TV, including the Australia House.
Clift and George Johnston are well served by their biographers. Nadia Wheatley and Garry Kinnane give compelling accounts of lives committed to literature, but it’s what’s sidelined that’s instructive. Liyeri’s insider history provided another dimension to the story.
The artistic colony appeared worldly and rich, and speaking English and French intimidated the islanders: Hydriots felt like yokels in comparison. A two-tier society was in place, the locals and the outsiders kept apart by lifestyle and language. With so many ‘bohemians’ passing through – Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, Joan Collins – it’s no wonder Hydriots are blasé about celebrity. Who cares for Cohen?
George Johnston was flummoxed at the limitations of his ‘shopping Greek’. Needing a brush to whitewash his house, he famously blurted ‘I want a hairy cunt’ to a bemused shopkeeper. Martin often acted as interpreter, the lot of children of migrants everywhere, and always reluctantly. Clift and Johnston never learned Greek beyond the words needed for survival. Why didn’t they bother to learn the language of their exile? A sympathiser can pile up excuses: there were no tutors; Greek wasn’t an essential language; they had little time to learn. But whether to Tuscany or Tangiers, creative freedom and nice weather entice the writer abroad, and rarely to another language.
Through Aunt Liyeri’s eyes an alternative picture emerges, highlighting this non-integration of expats. Their bohemianism barely dented the sexual conservatism of Greek society. Promiscuity wasn’t a hanging offence, yet during the 1950s Greece maintained a strict moral code. The expats’ antics on Hydra were tolerated, but generally frowned upon. To islanders, the interlopers had brought over ‘unmentionable foreign habits’.
They drank heavily – and, as moderation is an Aristotelian virtue, getting ‘plastered’ is an activity Greeks shun. I can tell from Liyeri’s face that the disapproval remains. In Social Drinking Clift boasts she was the first woman to drink in a taverna. It’s a boast which carries no cultural value. Shorn of its Hemingwayesque bravado, drinking to oblivion is thought a flaw.
Such minor criticisms suggest a larger problem. How aware of Greece were these writers, beyond the superficial? To what degree did they remain deliberate outsiders? Their decade-long stay makes for a troubling inventory. Peel Me a Lotus is a successful novel because it stays within Clift’s world, but it’s the closed world of expatriates. Where the authors aim to include Greeks as more than backdrop, it’s embarrassing. Re-reading their co-written book Strong Man from Piraeus, I found the pace hesitant, the characterisation unconvincing, the sensibility clinical. They weren’t the first writers to misrepresent Greece, of course, and theirs was a mild colonialism at work. Far from heroic writers abroad, as the myth would have it, perhaps the family Tzonson were simply actors on an unfamiliar stage – as though they came to perform operetta, having pushed Greek tragedy off-stage?
AUSTRALIA EXERTED A pull on the migrant, but it also gently pushed the expat to return. In early 1964 George Johnston was feted at the Adelaide Festival and noted a changed society. Australia was reaping the benefits of ‘cosmopolitanism’, he observed with satisfaction. He cabled his family to join him in Sydney. Later that year they did. In ‘Coming Home’ Clift writes of her return aboard the Ellinis. Given assisted passage as a ‘Ten Pound Pom’, she came at roughly the same time my mother did on the sister ship Patris. Squashed six to a cabin, ‘travelling hopefully or apprehensively from one world to another’, Clift is a good source in recounting the immigrant passage. Emotional ties were far stronger than ropes unfurled from the pier, and the trauma of departure affected many Greeks. It placed them in the same category as Clift’s own children.
The oceanic journey took twenty-six days. Even though the Patris was fitted with a buffet and bars, it didn’t operate as a cruise liner. Its clientele weren’t rich retirees but economic refugees of the type Greece produced – may yet produce again – in abundance. Yet the possibility of romance still lingered. Many Greeks journeyed to Australia to an awaiting suitor, only to find a partner on the ship. After stopping at Port Said, crossing the Suez, thence arriving at Circular Quay, the travellers saw a new world beckon through an arresting image – an Aegean rig back-dropped by Sydney Harbour. Clift inhaled new air on the Ellinis’ arrival, and immediately settled in the city. My mother concurred when the Patris docked, before heading straight to the country.
In the days before Lonely Planet and Google, little knowledge was available on foreign destinations. Australia was just a notion. Unquestionably, it was a land of opportunity. Wealth through honest labour was the bait that lured Greeks. An elderly uncle in Bowral was the point man; Mother’s contacts from her village smoothed entry. She travelled across the bumpy Razorback Range, before settling in Mittagong. Under the unforgiving eye of matriarch Petrou, her marriage to my father was a done deal. The Southern Highlands of New South Wales were an island of sorts, idyllic to migrants lucky enough to live in small townships: Goulburn, Crookwell, Young, Bendigo, the outback towns in Queensland, Rum Jungle, Darwin. Such towns were lily pads, a place from which to spring to new adventures. Spared the humiliating procedures of being stripped naked and sprayed on arrival in places like Bonegilla, before becoming factory fodder, for migrants country life revolved around cafés and an extended family network. Hardship was glossed over. A cocooned existence consolidated identity.
Rather than keep the local language at a distance, as Clift did on Hydra, migrants immersed themselves in English. Aboard the Patris, lessons were mandatory. Over the years my parents paid taxes, filled out forms, visited Indian doctors, argued with Hungarian tenants – all in English. Relatives bought and managed cinemas, stood for council, and being wily businessmen supported the local Chamber of Commerce. English became a key to progress.
Greeks set up makeshift schools to learn their own language, too. In clammy CWA halls a Greek priest taught youngsters the alphabetario beneath a stern portrait of the Queen. Bilingualism became the norm and it was reflected in the charming synthesis we made of words: car-o, basket-a, biscott-o.
But why were English speakers in Greece who kept their native tongue always met with respect, whereas migrants learning English as a second language in Australia were invariably met with derision? Expatriate and immigrant have only one thing in common: a change of locale. The immigrant obeys the law of economics; the expatriate, the law of freedom. Necessity compels the immigrant to act; choice allows the expatriate to explore. But choice involves ambiguity. Do you plant roots deeply in the soil? Or do you hold back, waiting for a better shore? Necessity forces you to plant roots firmly – for the Greek migrant to return home was a second uprooting, and never an easy option. Clift’s ambivalence to homeland meant that from any part of the globe Australia was never really far away.
In setting down roots for the future, many dreams were achieved. And what was lost? An earlier generation of Kytherian immigrants had shortened their names for Anglo-Australian consumption. The 1916 Life in Australia handbook produced for Greek immigrants gives precise instructions for keeping a low profile: ‘Raising your voice, banging your hand on the table, making gestures and scruffy dress are for the Australians, something strange and unattractive.’ It’s the sort of behaviour to be expected of drunken expats on Hydra. It struck me only recently, this philosophy of immigrant experience: to use English for progress, to culturally adapt without losing identity, to plan generations ahead. In certain respects, we were very Chinese.
MY STAY IN Hydra was nearing its end. The Miaoulis festival, held at the height of summer, fills hotels and presses close the crowd. Battles are re-enacted in the harbour; cannon blasts reverberate; wooden ships crackle loudly when set ablaze. By night’s end fireworks have illuminated stately mansions, the crisscrossing telephone lines between them, and church steeples housing rusty bells. This high opera relives a significant moment in nautical history, when Hydra’s strategic involvement undermined Ottoman hegemony.
By dawn the band had packed away its clarinets and streamers hung limp around poles. Bleary-eyed stragglers emerged from Saronikos before sinking into vinyl, one backside at a time. Charmian Clift had unearthed an archetype unique to the island, the lotus-eater. Mato’s gang, contemporary lotus-eaters, met at the Fourno for a ritual debriefing. The warmth beside the bakery made it feel intimate, as though we were in someone’s kitchen. Fresh tiropitas – cheese pastizzi – were perfect for soaking up the toxic spirits coursing through every vein. The gang included the Adonis hunk Elias, the studious Giorgios, the Mr Bean lookalike Pavlos, and Kostas, denouncing army life with zeal. Their camaraderie is evident, linked by a love of horio, childhood memories, shared experiences. Mato thrives in this environment, a queen bee to her circle of admirers.
Mato’s refrain – ‘Den thelo tin Athina me tipota!’ – is a sign of an authentic islander, because she ‘couldn’t care less for Athens’. For lotus-eaters, Hydra is an idyllic respite from urban complexity. The members of ‘Generation 700 euro’, the workers of today, are living in a changed world – one in which the siesta is no longer sacred. Eurozone nations have effaced local traditions. Handicrafts like leather sandals are no longer made. The sponges are imported. Giorgios even decried the decline of the donkey. The animals continued to clip-clop past, reminding us of a tradition Greece is deliberately shedding.
These are anxious times. Mato’s sympathies might coincide with the koukoulofori, those balaclava-wearing anarchists in Athens seeking the overthrow of capitalism, but she won’t join them: they dress badly. If that sounds cynical, Greek youth have every right to be. Governments lurch from one scandal to the next, with kickbacks, patronage and bureaucratic inefficiency rife. Greek politics is a perpetual operetta, played out in tongues: Prime Minister Papandreou, with his Canadian accent; New Democracy’s Dora Bakoyannis, proficient in German; even the leader of the 17 November terrorist group defends himself in French!
If Charmian Clift were magically to reappear, would she recognise herself in the aspirations of this youth? Unemployment in Greece is among the highest in Europe. Mato is seeking brighter shores: Italy, Canada, maybe the US (but only if it’s Florida). She and her gang know that globalisation has skewered ‘the lands of opportunity’. ‘The milk and honey of the Promised Land seems to have curdled,’ Clift wrote prophetically, sensing the problem of migration ‘to elsewhere’.
If ships have a reverse journey, so must dreams, ambitions and desires. Australia elicits little wonder from Mato’s gang. Migration is a historical memory, one poorly taught in Greek schools. They’re surprised at its extent, reminded only by the media in times of need. A billion dollars in remittances came from the diaspora in 1980 – reason enough to ask its expats to bail it out during the current crisis.
The stage was set for action. The streamers were clipped away. Another day had emerged. Prior to departure, I slumped to the Johnston and Clift hangout at the Katsikas store, since rebranded as the Tassos Café. Along with wi-fi and the UEFA Championship live, a six-euro frappe gave me enough time to reflect. Not all my aims were realised during my stay. True, I managed to locate the Australia House. But I’d have liked to have hiked the pinnacle of Prophet Elias to pay respects to Helios, a pagan spirit, before he too was rebranded. I’d have liked to dive to the very bottom of the sea. What wonders are down there, I wondered? Matoula told me the mark of an authentic Hydriot is not to have done either.
When I returned to Piraeus I thanked Peter for letting me use his weekender. Temporarily employed at a dismal two-star hotel, Peter scolded me thoroughly. Favours need no reminding, no gratitude, he explained – to mention them misses the mark of Greek culture. At times like that I recognise I am an outsider too.
Thanks to Petro Alexiou, Steve Aronis, Roseanne Bonney, Katerina Cosgrove, Geoffrey Gordon and Marouli Sotirios.