Josna Rege

44. Greece in the 60s: Expats & Other Animals

In 1960s, Books, Childhood, Family, Greece, history, places, Stories on May 15, 2010 at 8:53 pm

Greece in the early 1960s was a haven for bohemian expatriates, who could make a little money go a long way in a perfect Mediterranean climate among friendly, easygoing people. We lived in Athens from 1960 to 1963 while my father was working as an urban planner with the visionary Doxiadis (who coined the term Ekistics for the study of human settlements), during a peaceful interlude for the Greek people when the hardships of the Second World War and its aftermath were over  and the military junta of 1967 to 1973 was not yet on the horizon. My parents’ friends were an international crowd, and many were wonderfully eccentric. They all came bearing food and gifts and stories for my sister and me, and left a little of themselves with us as well. They were lovers of animals, of music, of life,  mellowed by the sun, the climate of acceptance (the favorite Greek phrase was den pirazi, or ‘it doesn’t matter’), and the plentiful Greek wine.

An artist with few material needs could live gloriously in Greece in 1962. Retsina, Greek red wine, flowed like water and was sold by the barrel. Food—apricots, figs, fresh bread, yoghurt, feta cheese, and juicy red tomatoes—was cheap and abundant. Rents were affordable, presumably, for I was never aware of scarcity and my father must have been drawing a modest salary. And the Greeks loved children: when my parents were apartment-hunting and the landlords inquired how many children they had, we were a positive asset, especially my baby sister. (The Greek love for babies saved us when we were hauled into court for having accidentally overstayed our visa’s time limit. The judge was about to order our deportation when Sally started crying and he did an immediate turnaround, telling us gruffly to get out of there, quickly: Case dismissed.)

Friends were always flowing into our home and we into theirs. We used to visit a  Turkish friend and sit with him in his walled garden with mulberry bushes and a fig tree. Our German friend Ursula had a little Volkswagen, and drove us all around the countryside in it. (Unfortunately, I had bad carsickness as a child, and all I can remember of our outings with Ursula were the Volkswagen pulled off the road and me vomiting into a ditch.) There were Valerie and Barry Unsworth: Barry must have kept himself busy writing most of the time, because I remember Valerie better. Years after we left Greece we began seeing Barry’s name in print as a Booker-Prize winning novelist, and Greece has figured in more than one of his works. Another friend, Peter—I don’t remember his surname—first introduced me to Tolkien with a copy of The Hobbit, which he presented to me with great seriousness as a work of major importance; Paul, a mate of my Uncle Len visiting from Africa, brought me Little Women, and I identified completely with Jo, the bookworm; and when we returned to India the Plattens, whose father had worked at Doxiadis with mine, sent us a copy of the Australian classic, Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding, which became a family favorite. To this day I can reel off large chunks of it by heart.

Every summer we used to travel just 20 kilometers out of Athens to Vouliagmeni, by far the pleasantest and most well-appointed public beach I have ever seen, before or since. One summer we rented a cabin in the area for a week or two, and got to know a fascinating cast of characters, all European expatriates driven to Greece by the War. The leading lady was a large, imposing figure of a woman, an artist with an air of tragedy about her, who had been some kind of aristocrat, perhaps a countess, back in Austria. She took us to the little coves around Vouliagmeni, where she collected shells and stones to make her striking jewelry, and gave me a beautiful grey-and-green striped lucky stone, worn smooth by the Aegean Sea, that I kept for many years, taking with me to exams in three countries until it was finally lost. There was a gaunt, graying, older man on the scene with whom she had an undefined relationship, but of whom I can remember nothing else, perhaps because his place in the household seemed distinctly secondary to that of her cats, all 32 of them.

Cats occupied every surface of the house and spilled out of every space, including the kitchen cabinets, as I recall. It smelled overwhelmingly of cats, of course, and if one was a friend of the Countess, one simply accepted it. Many expats left their cats with her when they finally left Greece, knowing that they would be safe, for she did not have it in her to reject a single one. Did we leave her ours? I can’t quite remember.

The cabin we rented during that week by the sea was owned by Anna, a thin, straight-backed German woman—a painter, I think—who lived in the adjacent cottage with a dog, three cats, and a donkey. The most remarkable feature of the cottage was the sun room open to the sky where one could sunbathe in complete privacy. The cats and dog ate freely off Anna’s plate at mealtimes, and the donkey freely ate everything in sight out of doors. He munched regularly on the thatch of the cottage itself, chewed up one of my rubber flip-flops, and, one afternoon during siesta time, devoured half of my mother’s bikini as it hung on the line to dry.

Although the Greeks religiously took a long siesta after lunch every afternoon, with children coming home from school and fathers from work, I was chronically unable to sleep in the daytime. (This meant, among other things, that I had to go to bed earlier at night, while my Greek peers were allowed to play in the streets long into the warm summer evenings, while their parents sat outdoors talking, laughing, and drinking retsina.) On one particular long, hot afternoon at the cabin my parents and Sally were sleeping soundly while I sat outside restlessly, watching the donkey at work on the cottage roof, and looking for a playmate. But there was no one in sight except for the dog, who roused and shook himself and looked at me pointedly, as if to say, Okay, let’s go. So I followed.

It was a fascinating experience to be walked by that dog. He took me on a long circuit which obviously hit some of his favorite haunts, but also seemed to be courteously moderating his route and pace for my sake. When we reached the big tarred road that I had never crossed without holding one of my parents’ hands, he actually looked left, then right, then left again before he stepped off the kerb, with me following obediently behind him.  Eventually we doubled back down a desolate country lane and into a dry streambed, or perhaps an abandoned quarry, which some people seem to have used as a dump. My companion nosed around for a while, sniffing at an old boot, but politely aware that I might not share his interests.  So after some time we strolled out of the dump and he delivered me safely back home by another path, one I had never taken before, and perhaps one that was unknown to humans. We never went on a walk together again, and I never told my parents about it, but it was an afternoon I will never forget.

Come to think of it, our time in Greece was like one long summer afternoon. Hearing of the economic crisis there now, and the spirited response of the Greek people, who, celebrated Oxi (or No) Day every year to commemorate their rejection of Mussolini and Fascism, I wish them well, and a return someday to those golden times a half-century ago that they shared so freely with foreigners like us.

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  1. Wonderful! Especially the walk with the dog…

  2. Josna, your remembrance of Greece of your early childhood
    reminds me of a place I once visited in a daydream.

  3. I’m glad, Jimii. It feels rather like that to me, too–it was so long ago. And yet I remember parts of it so clearly.

  4. Sitting with mum reading this on a warm late spring afternoon Jo. Fab – will be forwarding it to Paul, dad’s friend – he will be chuffed to see his name in print I am sure. Lots of love Aunty Angy and Cussin Lesley xxxxluk

    • Hi Lesley, Hi Aunty Angy, from a warm late spring morning in Amherst! I think Paul was also good at magic tricks–he impressed me with one particular card trick, anyway–see if he remembers that, and please say hi to him for me. xxx Jo
      PS I may be remembering wrong, but I have a feeling that he either started me off stamp collecting, or he admired my stamp collection and contributed some stamps from Africa–from countries that have different names today! x J

  5. As a child expat in Athens during the 1960’s one of my favourite wandering places was Mount Lycabettos which was near to where we lived in Kolonaki. Not just the church at the top but the forrest about its base and there was some sort of gorge to explore. The rocks here were peppered with machine gun scars from the war. We used to fly kites from somewhere on its side where there was an open space covered in broken rocks.

    The Akropolis and surroundings were another place we children loved to explore. It was all but deserted in the off season.

    We also used to take ouselves alone on the bus to the beaches near Athens. As Australians we used to wonder why it was that you had to pay to enter the beach. On one such visit we saw Prince Charles larking about in the water. Wasn’t till latter that we realised who it was.

    Greece was a safe place for expatriate children to wander alone, and for that matter also Prince Charles, in those years.

    • I know exactly which “gorge” you describe! We used to call it “the canyon”! We children would wander through those scrubby woods of Lycabettos entirely on our own, with never a fear. I didn’t notice the bullet marks on the rocks–fascinating; what I noticed were the traces of lovers’ trysts, since it seemed to be a favorite meeting place for Athens’ lovers. What a magical place it was for children to be able to roam in–and in the middle of the city!

      We too loved the beaches, just a busride away. Though we were a bit too young to go on our own I do seem to remember taking the bus by myself to St. Catherine’s. Did you go to Vouliagmeni? I too remember having to pay, but it felt eminently worthwhile because of the amenities, which I’ve never seen at any beach since. There was a shallow clear water area you walked through on the way out of the ocean to wash off the sand and salt, and a little open-air cafe where you could buy absolutely delicious tiropitas and creatopitas (cheese and meat pies, like Cornish pasties). And then there was the slide on the beach which shot you right into the sea–bliss for a child. What fun that you saw Prince Charles at the beach–in an era before today’s crazy celebrity culture.

      If you’re interested, I’ve written a bit more about our time in Athens in a few other stories, including Kalo Paska, , and Childhood Scars. Thanks so much for commenting. Cheers, J

    • I know exactly which “gorge” you describe! We used to call it “the canyon”! We children would wander through those scrubby woods of Lycabettos entirely on our own, with never a fear. I didn’t notice the bullet marks on the rocks–fascinating; what I noticed were the traces of lovers’ trysts, since it seemed to be a favorite meeting place for Athens’ lovers. What a magical place it was for children to be able to roam in–and in the middle of the city!

      We too loved the beaches, just a busride away. Though we were a bit too young to go on our own I do seem to remember taking the bus by myself to St. Catherine’s. Did you go to Vouliagmeni? I too remember having to pay, but it felt eminently worthwhile because of the amenities, which I’ve never seen at any beach since. There was a shallow clear water area you walked through on the way out of the ocean to wash off the sand and salt, and a little open-air cafe where you could buy absolutely delicious tiropitas and creatopitas (cheese and meat pies, like Cornish pasties). And then there was the slide on the beach which shot you right into the sea–bliss for a child. What fun that you saw Prince Charles at the beach–in an era before today’s crazy celebrity culture.

      If you’re interested, I’ve written a bit more about our time in Greece in a few other stories, including Kalo Paska, , Learning to Swim, and Childhood Scars. Thanks so much for commenting. Cheers, J

      P.S. Oh, and Holi, Water Play, Rites of Spring, in which I remember playing with water pistols bought at the corner kiosks. Best, J

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