A Ramble in Corfu 60 Years on from Durrell - Wendy Holborow
I have just been indulging in yet another reading of Lawrence Durrell's Prospero's Cell, thoroughly enjoying Durrell's beautiful portrayal of Corfu in the late 1930's, therefore forgive me if I season this article with some of his thoughts, although he said "how little of this can ever be caught in words". But he does it so well. He remarked that Lithgow's sketch of the Island "is as charming and fresh as a watercolour" but Durrell's own painting of the Island is as vivid and vibrant as an oil painting. He once said that if he was to write a book about Corfu "it would not be a history, but a poem." And this he certainly achieved.
How cheated I feel not to have experienced Greece in those days. I have a longing for what I never knew. My love affair with Corfu is barely eight years old, and only seven years have passed since I impulsively decided to move my daughter, then aged eleven, and our dog and cat, to live permanently in Corfu.
Old Spiros is lovingly tending his garden outside our house, the first home we had in Corfu. He is hoeing around rows of red peppers and dark purple aubergines, looking after them as if they were jewels nestling in the sunshine of a velvet lined box. A timeless scene, but his next move reflects the incongruancy of Corfu. He takes his mobile phone from his pocket, gesticulates and talks.
Come rambling with me and my spaniel Jake on a walk from our house. No lead is necessary, as we only have to cross a couple of fields to meet with an old donkey track near which a few somnambulant sheep graze quietly. We walk along the track until we reach the woods. Once we have passed the one or two houses dotted around and taken a smaller track into the denseness of the woods, I feel that we could have been here a century or more ago. This valley in the landscape, surrounded by tall cypress trees, which shear the outer world with its sharp pointed spears, shield us from the "modern' world. We reach a small clearing, an orchard of young olive trees sharing their space with oak, beech, apple, orange and lemon trees. It is both Mediterranean and very British at the same time. Depending on the season a variety of flowers bloom; in the autumn, tree to tree cyclamen in swathes across the paths and up into the hedgerows, interspersed with early snowdrops. The autumn and winter brings good walking weather, cold and fresh, with hardly a soul to be seen. The gardeners who invaded this space in the late spring and throughout the summer have packed away their tools and hose pipes for another year leaving the landscape for me to enjoy. Durrell's words haunt me "nowhere else", he says, "has there ever been a landscape so aware of itself'. Even in January there is a wealth of colour; the Mimosa trees are a wonderful sight with their bright yellow racemes, but the bulk of the colour comes from the orange and lemon fruits on the trees. How wonderful to stand under the very tree on which an orange has grown and eat its sweet fruit. Then, nascent spring, hysterical with colour matching the hysteria of my mood as I can't look everywhere quickly enough to take in the marvel of Corfu in springtime: the glory of the Judas trees, but dwarfed by the wisteria which climbs into the welcoming arms of the cypress trees, sometimes completely covering them, looking like glorious ball gowns. When summer arrives we walk less. It is becoming too hot and the gardeners have returned and the previously fallow plots have now been sown and planted with an abundance of vegetables and thus the seasons surrender to each other.
I have tried to paint a picture of the area near my first home. It is a wonderful place, but one day the bulldozers moved in, those mean yellow machines of environmental destruction. A new house is being built near the track to the woods. An ugly concrete bungalow surrounded by a tall chain link fence, which is seriously padlocked, and tarmac is being poured over the old cobbles of the track. Oh good, the cars can go much faster now. How soon will it be before the whole area is built on and the cypress trees won't beable to defend us from the invasion of the modern world? If they have not been cut down to make room for two-car garages!
Many of the old houses are falling into disrepair and disuse and land is being greedily bought up and pillaged. Old village houses are crumbling with decay while new fancy houses are built on land in hitherto unspoiled countryside. They have the money to do it now; tourism has brought a lot of money to the Corfiots, tourists who came in search of paradise. People who were inspired by the books of Gerald and Lawrence Durrell. But those discerning visitors may stop coming, as soon there will be no beauty in Corfu for visitors, or the inhabitants to enjoy, On his last visit to Corfu, Gerald is reputed to have been full of regret, believing that it was his book, My Family and Other Animals, which had destroyed the Corfu of his youth bringing mass tourism to the Island. It would have arrived, regardless of what anyone had written about it.
However, the countryside is not being destroyed as quickly as the coastline. To cater for mass tourism, hideous hotels and apartment blocks were built quickly with little thought for preserving the beauty of the beaches. It is still continuing. One of my favourite beaches on the east coast, Barbati has olive groves reaching to the long, clean beach; clean sea; the fantastic backdrop of the Pantokrator mountain described by Lawrence Durrell as. "Smoke grey volcanic turtle backs lying low against the ceiling of heaven" but now, new apartment complexes are being built among the olive groves. Ancient trees uprooted for the sake of even more money. And, one of the worst sacrileges to take place in recent days, the cutting down of a massive, old eucalyptus tree, in order to widen a very small area of road near a supermarket.
But while reading Prospero's Cell, I find that many of the scenes feel so familiar. Some things have never changed and hopefully never will. "the fecundity and beauty of the Island the merry laziness of the natives. the sea washing and re-washing one's dreams." So why am I here? Lawrence Durrell believed that "journeys are born and not madeáá.few of them willed or determined by the will." If this is true then my first visit here was fate, not planned, the luck of the draw at the Travel Agency when I asked for a holiday "somewhere hot". I returned three months later for a longer holiday. When I stepped off the plane at Kerkyra airport I wanted to kiss the ground. I was home. I recall writing a poem after my first holiday, which portrayed my angst at arriving back in Britain with my body and mind, but having left my heart, spirit and soul in Corfu. In order to re-unite with myself, to become whole again, I had to be there, and fleeting holidays, beautiful as they were, only made things worse for the discordance I was feeling. It was not just the beauty or spirit of the place. It was the people. Lawrence Durrell remarked that it is a place "áwhere loquacity and an over-burdening sense of hospitality are the normá" The people I had met on that first holiday welcomed me back as if I was an errant daughter, returning to the fold.
Durrell continues his portrayal of the Greek character as "a man torn between his natural and heroic genius and his hopeless power of ratiocination." This ratiocination is particularly prevalent when faced with a Greek driver, who, on a narrow lane flanked by deep ditches, even though he can see that there is no room to pass where a car is approaching, and even though the road is wide enough for two cars to pass where he is at that moment, still continues to drive towards the other car, and subsequently has to reverse. Durrell couldn't have known about the drivers when he described the Greek character as having an "impatience of slowness." He couldn't have heard the joke which goes: What's the definition of a split second?- - The time it takes for the traffic lights to change to green and the Greek driver behind you to sound his horn. But one has to make jokes about the drivers in Corfu; you just can't take seriously the phenomena of the extraordinary metamorphosis, which transforms Greek men, and increasingly the women, from their normal selves into kamikaze maniacs when they take charge of a vehicle. However, I have to admire the sheer tenacity of the Greek person who needs to park. If there is no room, they double and treble park their cars, only moving them when bus or lorry drivers cannot pass and hold their hand on the horn for several minutes until someone comes to remove the offending vehicle. There is never a word of apology or even a flicker of guilt for holding up a stream of traffic.
Back in our little village, our neighbour Petros, who has lived most of his thirty years in Belgium, seems to be keen on tradition. At least the winemaking one. I was woken early one Saturday morning in September to dirge-like but stirring music, and not the remnants of an all-night party. I went to investigate and found him knee deep in a vat of grapes. The music, I was told, was the traditional music played at winemaking time. He was enjoying himself, perhaps the anticipation of a winter's alcoholic haze. In a conversation Lawrence Durrell once had with the Count at Ropa Valley at vintage time, the Count told Durrell "don't imagine that the wine-treader doesn't transform the wine with his feet that there isn't a communication between his style and technique and state of soul and the response of the fruit. It's an aesthetic performance he treads a part of himself into the vat." Well, Petros is a good kind man, and I look forward to the wine also being good and kind.
My next door neighbours on the other side are an older Greek couple, Eftihia and Kostas, who live in a little single story whitewashed cottage. They have no need for a new modern house as they spend all but their sleeping time outside, tending their many acres of vegetable and fruit plots. At least Eftihia does. As I look out of my window at the moment, she is unravelling a hose pipe for watering time. She is of undeterminable age, slim and sprightly, face wrinkled as a tortoise, usually wearing wellington boots and a kerchief on her head. She is always working in the garden, sweeping her yard, preparing vegetables. Two plastic chairs are placed strategically under the shade of a mulberry tree but I rarely see her sit there. She is forever bringing us whatever vegetables are in season, and grapes, walnuts, mulberries, eggs from her hens, wine, the list is never ending. I don't know how to repay her. I once made her a Victoria sponge cake, she looked at it very suspiciously, I think the hens enjoyed it. She has us rolling about with laughter when she tries to speak English because the only words she knows are the words she has learnt listening to us speak to the dog: "Sit. Come here. Good boy. Bad dog" and is so pleased with her use of English. It's even more amusing because most of this is said in a cross voice as she has been listening to my daughter scold the dog.
Other neighbours, a couple in their thirties with two young children, could I suppose be termed "yuppies'. They are both bank employees and leave their smart modern house each morning in their smart modern car in their equally smart "city' clothes. They take the oldest child with them to drop him at the school in the town. No village school for him! Old Mama comes each day to look after the younger child. Of course, they have a state of the art washing machine, but Mama prefers to wash the dirty linen in public. Eachday she is to be seen on the steps scrubbing the clothes on a wash board.
As does Harikla, an old woman, dressed in layer upon layer of skirts and pinafores, who shambles down the road each day from her house, muttering incoherently to herself. She comes to wash her clothes at the well outside my house. Again using the old fashioned washboard, she scrubs and rinses, scrubs and rinses, drawing water from the well for each rinse. Then she hangs the newly washed clothes on the branches of the eucalyptus tree to dry. Or she used to, before we took in a street dog, who loves nothing better than to pull her hours of work off the tree and drag it around the gardens. I watch nervously from behind my curtains as she swears and curses while collecting up the garments, only to have to wash them again. However it does now mean that my view isn't obscured by her husband's longjohns and her copious knickers. Now, she takes them home to dry.
Occasionally we have had to draw water from the well as, with no warning, our water gets cut off. We use Harikla's buckets, and twice we have dropped them down the well, never to be seen again. I quickly replace the bucket, but she knows. She glares up at my windows, where I am hiding behind the curtain again. Yet, when I pluck up the courage to strike up a conversation with her, she is extremely friendly and speaks slowly so that I can understand her.
So much for village life, what about Corfu Town? It is reputed to be the most beautiful city in Greece, and its roads are paved, not with fairy tale gold but actually paved or covered in marble. However, it is probably easier to walk in the mountains than in town. Most people walk in the roads. Parents push children in prams on the roads and the one or two brave or foolish people I have seen in wheelchairs, also use the roads. Why? Do they have a suicide wish? No, it's actually safer to dodge the traffic than to use the pavements, which are like something from an archeological excavation site. Usually made from odd chunks of paving stones, they regularly drop a few metres to the next level, or are completely missing.
Yet, it is a fascinating town with a long and interesting history. The main difference compared to most European and even world capitals is the relative absence of chain stores, which means that small family run businesses thrive. There is a myriad of tiny shops in the main shopping streets as well as along many back streets and alleyways, some in such obscure places that you wonder how they sell anything at all. You get to know your average British town quite quickly, but here, it could take years, if ever, to get to know your way around all the shops. Bakeries, bathroom supplies, cake shops, florists, builder's supplies, clothes, furniture and music shops all rub shoulders with each other. It will be a sad day if the big companies buy up these small premises and turn them into superstores.
Corfu is also a thriving financial centre and the banks fascinate me. They look just like any other bank you would find anywhere in the world, except that the bank tellers smoke, and precariously balance cups of coffee on their computers. I watch in great anticipation of a bank-teller counting thousands of euros, dropping his cigarette end and setting fire to it all. The security seems to be non-existent with friends and family of the staff casually wandering behind the cash desks to chat or sit down to smoke and drink a coffee.
We spend many wonderful evenings in Corfu town, just wandering around soaking up the cosmopolitan atmosphere, sitting near the sea watching the "great copper-coloured moon rising over Epirus." (Lawrence Durrell-of course), or traversing the criss-cross of the alleyways amongst the jumbled pink washed colours of the buildings falling softly against each other.
In summer, we like nothing better than to watch the tourists and are thankful that we are not one of them. I do not want to feel what Durrell wrote when reminiscing from another country that "..the loss of Greece has been an amputation," or to quote the Greek poet George Seferis "Wherever I travel, Greece wounds me."
My love affair with Greece is permanent. We have our quarrels and occasional time apart, but there will be no trial separation and hopefully, never a divorce.
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