Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Dinner with Persephone by Patricia Storace

Image of Dinner With PersephoneBecause insiders take so many of their daily sights for granted, it takes a real outsider with fine-tuned observation skills to bring them to the fore, demystifying them with descriptions in minute detail, adding perhaps a brief personal analysis to complement their experience. Sometimes those outsiders get it hopelessly wrong; other times they get it painfully right. Dinner with Persephone by Patricia Storace (1996) falls in the latter category. The book is a memoir of living one whole year in Greece where everything seemed Greek to the writer (she spent most of her time in Athens), and continued to be so, even after she had worked out how society operated here. So in a sense, she could accept things as they were in Greece, but throughout her writings, we understand that Greece was a country which smiled suspiciously on Europe - almost two decades have passed since then, and the rest is history, as they say.

wedding favours
Cretan boubouniera
Being both an insider and an outsider in Greece means that I sometimes take for granted many things that our visitors see which may seem rather strange to the uninitiated. Take for instance the over-abundance of bridal gown stores all over the country: the smallest Greek town is bound to have one of its own. These stores also deal in baptismal goods and there are very few people who would not use the services of a professional bridal store for the traditional boubouniera used in weddings and christenings. Even though it's now common for couples to marry after they have their first child for financial reasons, this doesn't mean that they skimp on the ritualistic expenses: they simply hold their wedding and the baptism of their first child together (so in effect, they save only on the reception costs, by having one - this is usually the most expensive part).

Warding off the evil eye - is the blue eye the evil eye, or is the blue eye guarding you from evil?

Storace mentions the preponderance of the 'blue glass eye' that she saw everywhere in Greece, even in the most unlikely places:
All the neighbourhood shops - the laundry, the butcher's, the vegetable market, the TV and appliances store, the cheap dress shop and the bridal gown shop, the school supplies shop with its large-sized brightly coloured picture books of Greek myths and tales of Alexander the Great - were defended by charms against the evil eye suspended over their counters
What has often eluded my own understanding is the emphasis some Greeks place on the evil eye. There are many people who believe that someone carries the power to do you harm, just by looking at you. (I believe in the opposite effect - a person's gaze can dissuade others from doing any harm). Storace recounts what a businessman told her about the evil eye:
"... the eyes produce electricity, as does the mouth - the whole body is charged, but especially the eyes and the mouth - and the evil eye is a product of a kind of negative magnetism in a person, who may not always be aware of possessing this power. And this negative magnetism makes the victim have an accident or get sick or lose something he treasures. Animals die of it often, since they have fewer defences... Fthonos [poisonous omnipresent jealousy] surely has something to do with it... We are a strange people - it is a disgrace for us to be the unwilling means for any other Greek's advancement. That is why we are so patriotic. We love the patrida [mother country] so much - because - we hate each other."
But why is that eye always - ALWAYS - blue? According to Storace:
The world of magic so often has its roots in the concrete social world; not so much its polar opposite, but its inseparable familiar - that blue glass eye ... reminds me of the Gothic minority in fourth-century Byzantium, a half-forgotten example of the mobile nature of racial prejudice. For in fourth-century Byzantine society, the fair-skinned and the blue-eyed were objects of physical disgust and fear, they were household slaves, street sweepers, cannon fodder as mercenaries in the army, people in daily contact with contamination, with refuse and with blood, an exploited population who it was feared would revolt one day and slaughter their masters and commanders. By the sixth century the situation had changed and the Gothic population had been absorbed, but I wonder if the blue glass eye might not have been at one time a charm against having the bad fortune to be a Goth, a charm to keep the bad luck of the blue eye out of your own face.
 A typical frontistirio in a Greek neighbourhood
The plethora of businesses in Greece selling what seems to be something of little functional value, with a mainly decorative use, at such inflated prices (in our recent past, of course - now most such items have suddenly become cheaper, despite the lack of buyers) which may not seem so essential to Westerners is a hidden part of our identity. The significance of the bridal gown store is partly related to the now possibly decreasing importance of religion in Greek society, but it also hides an uneasy truth - some aspects of Greek symbolism are so highly regarded by Greeks that their progress is impeded by their attachment to them. To take a non-religious example, I cite the abundance of the private foreign language school, more commonly known in Greece as the frontistirio; even Storace noticed its profusion here:
Here... they are ubiquitous; it is hard to walk more than a city block without seeing schools or posters advertising them, as if foreign languages were some kind of vital substance you needed constantly to replenish, a milk. In Greece, where every enterprise that involves language - publishing, entertainment, journalism, tourism - is dependent on the roughly nine million people who speak Greek, knowing one or more foreign languages is a professional necessity.  
Despite the crisis which has meant that Greeks don't have much disposable income available to them any longer, few Greeks will think of not sending their children to afternoon classes or private lessons to learn English. When they moan about their reduced incomes, they often cite frontistirio costs: "How am I going to pay for my children's frontistiria which this kind of money?" It's difficult for them to consider alternative (and often cheaper) methods of language learning (which do not entail transport costs, book purchases and monthly school fees) because the frontistirio in Greece is treated as a sacred institution.
Bank in Hania, damaged during demonstrations against the austerity measures
Storace's observations in Dinner with Persephone also focus on the oblivious Greeks that she had to deal with on a daily basis; as they went about their business completely unaware of her meticulous scrutiny, she would read their minds like a psychoanalyst. She explicitly states this when recounting what happened at a bank, where she was unable to get what seemed like a simple transaction done. She suddenly realises that she must also put up with abusive treatment towards her because she made her seemingly simple request; such behaviour is inconsistent with the expectations one would have of a 'European' country:
"You have business here? What kind of business can you have here?" [The bank officer] bursts out laughing theatrically, shuddering with stagy hilarity. "What makes you laugh?" I ask him, and he picks up my passport, opens it, and begins kissing my passport picture, making sure I can see he is using his tongue. I do have business here, though, and I am engaged in it at this very moment - my business is to remember you, I think.
Storace's highly perceptive insights of life in Greece are narrated in almost poetic manner, which sometimes drones on enigmatically and leaves the reader slightly lost, before the story comes back on track. Perhaps the reason for this is that Storace is a dreamer and her main focus in the writing of her Greek memoir is as an interpretation of a year-long dream, in the style of Artemidorus. The numerous examples of real-life incidents she experiences jolt the reader back to life from the trance she had put them under during her more vaguer moments.
Greek book-calendars (kazamias) always contain an oneirokriti (dream interpretation).
I hear the sounds of church chants from a radio or television down the hall, celebrating the Metamorphosis with the trance-like vocalisation of Orthodox ceremony, which combines inexhaustible rhythmic repetition with sinuous vocal ornament... The pungent rosemary-laden smell of the incense seeps under my door. Livani, it is called, from the archaic word for the aromatic incense that used to be burned at sacrifices. The whole floor smells as if it is cooking, but the without the scent of the missing meat. I look up incense in my dream book [Oneirokritis]... "Whoever sees that a priest swings a censer toward him and comes into contact with the fumes is being flattered and deceived." This is a piece of dream technique familiar from Artemidorus, the dream that relies on a play of words for its meaning. The verb livanizo, to cense, also means to flatter - he is made for incense, you say about someone, meaning he adores flattery. But the technique used so skillfully by Artemidorus also reflected a poignant limitation which he must have recognised - that you could rarely successfully interfere in a dream dreamed in a language you didn't understand.
Storace's book is remarkably accurate in its description of a European country that defied European norms - until now, that is; the present economic crisis could have been predicted at many points in the book, if only one cares to listen. But possibly one (meaning a Greek one) does not care to listen, as reviewers of the book attest to, when they imply that Greeks may be offended by what she says (according to the range of opinions expressed in the reviews of her book on I didn't find that Storace actually said anything insulting. Most of the time, she was describing various incidents that occurred to her in the year she spent here, and most of the time, they did seem strange. Her explanations are simply based on her own analysis, complemented by a very wide range of reading, showing she is well versed in her subject:
... the old claim of the Great Idea, the dream of a Greece as it had momentarily been under Alexandra, the idea that so many Greeks died for it in the [nineteen-]twenties... It was never an idea, though, but a dream, beyond the reach of though. No matter where I travel here, I am traveling in dreams.
But not, of course, to us, the Greeks (as in the royal we), who take (or should I say took) such beliefs for granted, as though they were completely normal, and may even wonder why other advanced societies like our own do not adopt our ideas and habits:
Typical Greek priest
On the steps [of a church] we are met by a priest, who is what Leda says is a common arrangement with various travel agencies receives a fee to meet groups of pilgrims and conduct small services of blessing for them. The priest has a luxurious chestnut ponytail and a showman-like smile of warm condescension, like a Hollywood agent representing an extremely famous and much-sought-after client. All the group [Cypriot tourists] dutifully purchase and light candles as they follow him to the chapel... We stand behind a low gate in the chapel next to the reliquary itself, and the priest sings 'Kyrie Eleison," throwing his stole over the heads of the people nearest him. When he ends the prayer, he begins to speak about the Turkish occupation of Cyprus, while many of the tourists begin to sob. He speaks of a monastery dedicated to Saint Andrew, which is now in Turkish territory. "I will pray for you," he says, "and for the day you will be free to make pilgrimages to your monastery, when your saint will no longer be enslaved." It is a remarkable display of the convergence of two kinds of power, the magic and the ritual... After the speech, the group passes through the gate of the chapel, kissing the priest's hand... Some pass the priest drachma notes and pencil names on paper for special blessings. Some of the Cypriots are still shaken with the emotion of the priest's speech... I get on the bus for the trip back to Athens... A family are seated... in front of their small grocery store, playing backgammon. The game is briefly interrupted as the priest who blessed the group arrives to buy a watermelon... he gathers his black skirts in his hand, climbs into an expensive-looking German car, and goes roaring off down the avenue. A sticker on the back of the car reads "Macedonia is only Greek."
If it weren't for the crisis, Storace's descriptions might even still apply to the Greece of 2012. But already, such convictions are now waning. Throughout my second reading of the book (I bought my copy in 2009), I felt a tinge of nostalgia as I came across passages describing my very recent past, involving incidents of happy people with carefree lives'; in Greece, we call those people χαζοχαρούμενοι (χαζο- = 'stupid'; -χαρούμενοι = 'happy'), which means something like 'jolly', with a shade of oblivious, blissful ignorance:
Ε, όχι και νοικοκυρές αυτές!
The Real Housewives of Athens; which one would be Kyria Maro?
The doorbell rings, and I answer it a little uncertainly, not knowing quite how cautious to be. Standing outside is a small, sturdy woman with carefully architected gray curls. She is holding a tray of some unrecognizable cookies, and is dressed in a flowered smock. The entire floor smells like a swimming pool thanks to the heavily chlorinated cleansers popular in Greek households. "Welcome to Greece," she say, "I am Kyria Maro. If you have any questions, knock at my door. I am a friend of your landlady's, so if you cannot reach her for some reason you can come to me. Any questions at all. And," she adds in grandmotherly tones, as if she were imparting some domestic golden rule about doing the dishes or the frugal use of electricity, "you know, Macedonia is Greek." She hands me the china plate and tells me to return it whenever it should happen that I have the time, and clacks down the hall in her slippers. 
Dinner with Persephone has its funny moments - they may seem like scenes of hilarity for the non-Greek, while the same scenes would be interpreted more seriously by a Greek - but the book is actually a heavy-going read. It's worth winding through it, even though you will come out at the end feeling rather exhausted, a bit like a backpacker who travelled through Greece without ever sleeping on a proper bed; at the end of the journey, he crashed. Above all, the book stands as a testament of what was inevitable. And it isn't all nice, as the book's publisher, Granta, notes:
This volume explores the complicated relationship between the idea of classical Greece and the messy, Mediterranean reality of a country unsure of its place in the world. Modern Greece is the strangest nation in Europe, insisting on its privileged place as the "cradle of democracy", while offering a less-than-perfect form of democracy to its own minorities... This is the country that turned itself upside down over the adoption of the name of "Macedonia" by a former Yugoslav republic, as though Alexander the Great's nationality were a matter of extreme contemporary urgency.
Bear in mind that this description of the book was probably written at about the time the book was published (1996), which is a long time away from now, when Greece is slowly coming to terms with where she belongs in the world (whether she likes it or not), and her own less-than-perfect form of democracy is now being reshaped, and the Macedonia issue has been overshadowed by other much more serious matters of extreme contemporary urgency. See what I mean by feeling insulted? No? That's possibly because you're not Greek. And since I am, I'd better not write something like Dinner with Persephone, unless I am prepared to be yoghurted. (Or egged. Or tomatoed. Hopefully not potatoed. The latter would hurt; the others simply require dry-cleaning.)

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