1. I stroll barefoot on the beach at Spinalonga across the crushed luminescence of tiny abalones. Scanning the shore for pocketable souvenirs, I note a cube of rock, striped with bands of red and green. An inscription appears as I look closer: spidery white script engraved upon the bands of red, and thick, black gothic strokes across the green. The inscription runs along four sides of the chunk in an unbroken stream of notation.
I dip the rock into the sea to refresh its colors. A few letters leap out, unmistakable: alpha, theta, but the rest are illegible. On the lowest band is a row of white triangles resembling a highly stylized delta, all identical and evenly spaced, as if punched in the rock with the same carving tool. I am standing only a few feet from the crumbling Venetian bastions of the last leper’s colony in Europe, shut down over a half century ago. Could this have been scratched by an inmate on those dilapidated walls? Or has it been washed up from some far more ancient, sunken ruin of Byzantium?
Excitedly, I show it to my husband who stares at it amused and says I am imagining things. He sees nothing but the scribbling of sediment and sea worms on metamorphic rock. The inscription I see is merely an illusion, not archaeological artifice, he claims, and points out the rough edge where this piece has clearly broken off from a larger slab. The squiggles I call writing also appear on the part which would have been inside the slab. If you break this piece in half, he suggests, you’ll find the same squiggles and triangles inside, too.
I consider this argument and gradually yield to his logic. The shapes of the letters are transformed beneath our scrutiny, becoming less regular and defined, indeed less like writing. What I imagined as an inscription is not a text to be read by human eyes.
Not willing to give it up completely, I drop the rock, weighing about ten pounds, into my beach bag and drag it back to the car where I toss it in the backseat, along with piles of salt-stiffened beach towels, bricks of olive oil soap, bags of pungent oregano and mountain tea. As we drive around the Crete, I take out the rock whenever we stop, douse it with water and examine it anew. Sometimes the signs align themselves into script, but mostly they elude recognition. When the water dries, the markings fade.
We are on our way to walk a labyrinth. This being Crete, what better place? This is the home of the labyrinth, the maze built by King Minos’ architect, Dedalus, to imprison the Minotaur, his monstrous stepson, who demanded a sacrifice of Athenian youth every nine years. To put an end to all that, Theseus slayed the Minotaur and escaped the labyrinth, thanks to Mino’s daughter, Ariadne, who had taught him how to find his way out using a ball of thread. Abandoned by Theseus, Ariadne was courted and wed by the god Dionysus. Dedalus emigrated to Sardinia, where he imparted the art of spiral architecture to the native people there. The labyrinth remained bereft of its celebrated resident, but continued to resurface in art, dance and narrative in every continent.
Mythologists, archaeologists, philosophers, and mathematicians have debated the meaning of the labyrinth for centuries. The myth arose, claim some, from the thick mesh of passageways and cubbyholes beneath the palace of Knossos, laid bare in the last century by the excavations of Sir Arthur Evans. No claim others, it is a model of an anthropomorphized universe, a map of how nourishment moves in our entrails or of how synapses fire in our brain. By no means, claim the symbolists, the labyrinth is a universal symbol of gestation, death, rebirth, or a depiction of the underworld. Above all, it must be experienced in movement. Its meanders were designed to guide dancers along a ritual path, poised between sky and earth, beginning and ending in the same spot. Lastly, the labyrinth is associated with the Mother Goddess, she with the naked breasts and conical skirt, gripping two writhing serpents in her upraised fists, icon of Minoan culture.
For years, I came to Crete nearly every summer, to traipse through the mazelike rooms of Knossos and pay my homage to a small ceramic sculpture of the goddess on display in the Heraklion museum. From there I took a bus to the same village which over twenty years grew from a cluster of stone houses unwired for electricity to a sprawling town of air-conditioned supermarkets. A hiatus of ten years followed, during which I sought shores closer to home – Sardinia, Etruria, then one day woke with the obsession that I had to go back. In the meantime, I had heard, a group of German women had built a labyrinth there, assembled out of stones gathered from those sun-scorched hills laid out in the pattern of the Chartres cathedral labyrinth. I knew I had to walk it. So we packed the car, bought ferry tickets, and set off from the Italian port of Ancona.
A friend has told us where to find the labyrinth: not far from a threshing floor on the barren hillside on the outskirts of the village. There were several circular threshing floors in this village once, slabs of concrete edged with paving stones, last used perhaps thirty years ago at harvest time. On summer nights I often sat within that magic space stargazing at the frothy spirals of the milky way and in the day time, sometimes, I danced. No other landscape had ever inspired me to dance with joy as Crete did when I was twenty-five. Observed by no one but the rocks and a friendly donkey tethered nearby, I whirled in a purple granny dress and flung my arms out towards the cobalt sea in gestures of longing, benediction, and pure delight. I did not know then that dance was a form of worship in ancient times, but something in the landscape spoke directly to my body and my feet.
Today, we scour the hillside in search of the rocky spiral, and at last find it, though heavy winter rains washing down the mountain and grazing goats have wreaked havoc of its pathways. Goat droppings sully the sacred center. Under the blazing sun, we set about reconstructing the trails, brushing away rubble and debris with fragrant twigs of thyme, lining up the scattered rocks to mark the turnings. When it is complete, we begin our walk.
The first few steps draw me near the center, creating the expectation of easy arrival, but then I must rotate on my axis , as I am propelled to the outermost edge and spun a hundred and eighty degrees to the far side, like a drunken planet wobbling in and out of an uncertain orbit before being drawn swiftly back towards the sun. You cannot really see the pattern when you are inside it. What feels like a deflection, a wrong direction is only one folding of the weft.
As I walk the loops, I try to bear in mind the three phases of the labyrinth prayer. Concentrate on a question or need as you wind towards the center, open yourself to higher forces when you reach the heart, release your desire or need to the cosmos as you exit the boundary back to ordinary space where answers shall be forthcoming. I am uninspired it seems, I have come thousands of miles to thread this labyrinth yet no illuminations rush in. But when I step across the line back into linear time, I know that I must leave the strange rock I found in Spinalonga here inside in the labyrinth. I return to the car to fetch the rock, reenter the loops and seek a place to put it, noting as I do that in the strong sunlight, the inscription seems to have disappeared.
Poets and philosophers have often remarked on the sublime solitude of the Greek landscape, where, despite desolation, you feel you are not alone – you are watched, sometimes scrutinized, protected, recorded even, as if you were a piece of narrative unfolding in its terrain being read by a greater eye. This sensation of being observed comes to me as I set my rock in place and slip a newly minted EU coin underneath, wondering when, if ever I will be back to look for it. Perhaps it is then that the illumination comes. I have added a small sign to the overall design, participated with those women who first assembled it years ago, who have moved on to other things in their lives, as I will, too when I leave this island. We are part of a story although we can’t see the design, intended for a reader whose consciousness infuses these rocks, hills, stones, the crows circling overhead. Although I move more slowly now than I did thirty years ago, now I see the meanders linking far flung places and people in my life to this one spot, and although it seems I have traveled far from the center, the next turning will surely bring me back to the core of pure delight.
A Writer's Life in Rome & Tuscia
1. I stroll barefoot on the beach at Spinalonga across the crushed luminescence of tiny abalones. Scanning the shore for pocketable souvenirs, I note a cube of rock, striped with bands of red and green. An inscription appears as I look closer: spidery white script engraved upon the bands of red, and thick, black gothic strokes across the green. The inscription runs along four sides of the chunk in an unbroken stream of notation.
Several readers of my mystery novel, Signatures in Stone, winner of the 2014 Daphne Du Maurier Award for mystery writing, have asked about the sources for some of the concepts concerning the Sacred Grove of Bomarzo that I incorporated into the story. Below is a brief glimpse at some of the books and ideas that influenced me.
Since its creation in the mid 16th century, the “Sacred Wood” or “Monster Park” of Bomarzo near Viterbo has continued to astonish visitors and puzzle scholars who continue to debate such key issues as the precise dating, artistic attribution, and meaning of the bizarre sculptural composites it contains – a hell mouth concealing a secret room which resembles the interior of an Etruscan tomb, sculptures of giants, dragons, elephants, sirens, and a small leaning palace designed to throw you off your balance. No certain evidence remains to document the names of the artists and workmen who designed and sculpted these creatures or, more importantly, to testify to their creator’s intention, and a number of interesting questions remain open to interpretation. Was the garden the brainchild solely of its patron, prince Vicino Orsini, a fanatical hemeticist and alchemist, or was the whole designed by a single artistic genius? Were the individual sculptures executed by rough local workmen, by Turkish prisoners , or by a group of artisans connected to an illustrious school in Rome? Were these strange beasts plucked from Vicino’s imagination, or perhaps, from some of his worst nightmares? Or are they meant to be symbolic? Various scholars have interpreted them as: representations of the seven cardinal sins, illustrations of Italian epic poetry, witty allegories of important political events of the period, pictograms of the milestones in Vicino’s personal life and career, alchemical symbols linked by an esoteric itinerary of initiation.
Another mystery concerns the relationship between the sculptures. How are they to be read? Is there a prescribed order to follow in viewing them? Do they conceal Christian meanings or are they rebelliously anti-Christian and pro-pagan? These are only some of the unresolved issues, but several recent and not so recent publications offer curious angles of interpretation which are worth exploring to anyone who has fallen under the spell of this place of dark enchantment.
Enrico Guidoni’s Il Sacro Bosco nella Cultura Europea, (Vetralla, Davide Ghaleb Editore, 2006: www.Ghaleb.com ) is bound to shatter some conservative views of the Sacred Wood. Guidoni has painstakingly pieced together textual and iconographic evidence which would suggest that the Sacred Wood was by no means an isolated experiment sprung from the maniacal imagination of its princely patron, but a complex sculptural composite conceived and designed by Michelangelo and technically executed by a group of artisans closely linked to the era’s greatest sculptor. The text includes an alphabetical “bestiary” with entries dedicated to each of the sculptures and major decorative elements, explaining their basic symbolism. The book is handsomely illustrated with photographs from diverse periods dating back fifty years,offering a rapid glance at the deterioration to which the garden and its environment have been subject. Given the importance of this study, one hopes that the publisher will bring forth an English edition.
Maurizio Calvesi instead, in Gli Incantesimi di Bomarzo: Il Sacro Bosco tra Arte e Letteratura, (Bonpiani, 2000) reads the sculptures in relationship to the poetry of the era. His research focuses on literary allusions incarnated in the weird figures and explores the significance of the many cryptic inscriptions which appear throughout the park and in nearby palazzo Orsini.
Whereas the focus of Peter Lamborn Wilson’s essay, "Oneiriconographia: Entering Poliphilo's Utopian Dreamscape," in issue 5 of the review Alexandria , is Francesco Colonna’s emblematic Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (The Strife of Love in a Dream), he relates his reading of this cryptic text to his explorations of Bomarzo and other sites outlying Viterbo, which had been suggested to him by a Roman alchemist as stations in an initiatory journey. For Lamborn Wilson, the absence of Christian symbols in the garden ( with the exception of the octagonal temple) would confirm Vicino’s rebellious attitude towards the ecclesiastical hierarchy. His garden is written in an alchemical code which makes use of the language of emblems, bypassing linguistic discourse to communicate meaning to the unconscious mind. Francesco Colonna’s emblems invite the reader to interpret their meaning on multiple levels simultaneously, and to read himself/herself into the narrative, to become a performer of the text, reenacting Poliphilio’s dream- quest. This intriguing idea could be applied to the Sacred Wood itself, in which each visitor plays the role of quester, re-enacting the search for the philosopher’s stone amid these giant emblems hewn in stone.
One wonders who Lamborn Wilson’s Roman alchemist might have been, but one possibility is Elemire Zolla of the University of Rome, author of many works on archetypes, hermeticism, and alchemy, including “Bomarzo: Il Santuario Neoplatonico” an essay offering a guide to the park as an arena of initiation. Art history scholar Antonio Rocca picks up this thread in his Bomarzo Ermetica: Il Sogno di Vicino Orsini, with an intriguing analysis of the park’s symbolism read within the context of Giulio Camillo’s theatre of memory.
The oldest buildings in Pieve have been standing here for over one thousand years, and date back to just prior to that moment of expansion. The main theory of their origin is that they were part of a monastery complex, one of many throughout the area, which were established at the time of the first millennium. The tallest building of the complex is a squat tower, four stories high, poised on the crest of the hill overlooking the plain, where the lights of the town of San Rocco can be seen twinkling at night. The hillsides of central Italy were once covered with towers like this one, which served not only as defense and as a nodes in a communication network, but as status symbols representing the power and economic prosperity of the villages and their leaders. They were emblems of the consolidated and ambitious self, an “I” erected towards the sky.
Thick walls once extended from the base of this tower to gird the whole complex within their protection. Those walls tumbled away centuries ago. The large rectangular building opposite the tower has gothic windows, a typical feature of sacred architecture which suggests it might have been a monastery. One of the old timers who lives in the newer village below Pieve tells the story that his own grandfather claimed he could remember a time back in his childhood when two very ancient and emaciated monks with beards down to their navels, dressed in ragged robes were living there, growing cabbages and turnips. A rough calculation would place that period back to the mid nineteenth century, or perhaps earlier.
There is some debate as to the origin of the building where the apartments of Alice and Duccio are located. Duccio claims it once housed a community of nuns in the late middle ages. After all, documents exist proving the presence of monks in Pieve, so why not nuns? For hundreds of years the whole territory was teeming with religious activity. In medieval times, the woods were full of hermits living in caves, like San Galgano and San Leonardo al Lago, whose rustic dwellings were incorporated into the crypts of churches built to honor them, and later Cistercian abbeys and Benedictine monasteries began to spring up like mushrooms all over Tuscany. Over a dozen ruined chapels, convents, and monasteries are scattered throughout the woods, including the hermitage of Santa Lucia not far from here. All these places were under the jurisdiction of the nearby abbey of Torri, just down the road, and probably served as major stations in the pilgrims route connecting France to Rome, the Via Francigena once traveled by thousands of people on foot each year.
Alice’s kitchen was probably the refectory, says Duccio, and proof of this was supplied by Guido, a neighbor recently deceased at the age of ninety, who could remember years ago during his childhood having seen a stone relief above the fireplace showing people eating at a table, which may or may not have been a representation of the Last Supper. The relief disappeared sometimes after the Second World War, when the house was occupied by German soldiers. Only religious buildings would have had such sculptural decorations, unthinkable in the house of peasants or simple laborers. Besides, Duccio claims, he hears ghostly bells at night, haven’ t I heard them? He pierces me with his wandering eye. I smile and shake my head, then remember the wind chimes that woke me before dawn on my first night in this house.
Nonsense, counters the engineer, who has published a book about the history of Pieve and loves to talk about his research. There are no nun’s ghosts fretting in Pieve. The building where Duccio and Alice live was not a convent at all, but a workshop of the wool-workers guild. Siena, unlike Florence, had no rivers or streams to provide energy, thus its industries developed outside the town, in the Val di Merse, an area rich in water resources. The monks of Torri, master hydraulic engineers, quickly harnessed the Merse, draining the marshland, creating canals, and building the mills whose ruins lie hidden deep in the woods today. When these works were completed, the monks made a deal with the craftsmen of Siena to allow them to use these facilities. In return the City of Siena promised to protect the monks and their land. The masters of the art of wool were based in Stigliano just down the road, where fulling mills operated along the streams, to clean and thicken wool. The houses in Pieve may have served their guild as homes, storage areas, or workshops.
Of a more romantic vein, I like to think of the nuns in this house : a handful of women living according to Benedictine rule. Saint Benedict ordered his followers to spend seven hours a day in manual labor, either in the fields or in a library transcribing books, and two hours of spiritual study. Here perhaps these women lived tending cabbages and carrots, pursuing a life of inner search, although their spiritual and intellectual instruction was probably imparted orally, for most women during the middle ages could not read. Perhaps they sat in this very kitchen, taking their meals together after the day’s work.
Once again I wake in early morning to the faint, far away yet distinct sound of chimes. Ding ding ding and then all is silent. Is it the nuns rising for prayer in the early hours of the morning? Read More
Author: Diana Farr Louis and June Marinos
Published by I.B. Tauris Hardback, 2012, 252 pp.
Isbn 978-1-78076 -1367
The Ionian islands are a string of seven rough gems lying southeast of the heel of Italy’s boot, stretching down towards the mountainous coast of Epirus and the Peloponnese. You see them in the offing as your ferry chugs down from Ancona or Bari on its way to Patras, taking shape in the mist one by one –glistening blackish green above the astonishing blue: Corfu, Paxos, Antipaxos, Lefkada, Cephalonia, Ithaca, Zakynthos. Further down to the south, wedged between the middle toes of the Mani, lies Kythera. Greece is a magic country, where myths, stories, superstitions and miracles permeate the landscape, and, as Patrick Leigh Fermor once suggested, “thicken round the traveler’s path at every step.” The Ionian islands, the birthplace of Venus and the home of Odysseus, are no exception, steeped in stories, ancient and new. Among them is one told by Lawrence Durrell in his memoir, Prospero’s Cell, according to which Corfu was the model for Prospero’s island in the Tempest, and Shakespeare may have actually visited there.
Diana Farr Louis and June Marinos pay homage to this myth in their enchanting literary cookbook Prospero’s Kitchen : Island Cooking of Greece a new, revised, third edition of their pioneering classic of 1995, which was the very first book either in Greek or English on Ionian cuisine. In the two decades that have followed the original publication, there has been a renaissance of interest in local Greek cuisines, previously “unchartered... unknown and unsung.” Ionian food products and wine, such as Cephalonia’ s prize white wine, Robola, now enjoy greater distribution within Greece and Europe and like the islands themselves, today top tourist destinations, are much more widely known. Ionian cuisine is particularly deserving of such interest : it is a melting pot of flavors thanks to the many cultural influences which it received through the vicissitudes of its history: under Roman, Byzantine, Venetian, French, British rule – only Lefkada , so close to the mainland, fell to the Turks. In no other area of Greece is the Italian influence on food felt so strongly.
The first half of this book is a rich compendium of the islands’ history, folklore, festivals and food traditions, drawn in part from the writings of nineteenth- century travelers to the islands, along with a section of detailed notes on basic ingredients and condiments used in Ionian cuisine. The recipes that follow were lovingly assembled from scribbled notes or treasured family recipe troves transmitted by Greek housewives, friends, relatives, and acquaintances of the authors, then tested back home in more modern kitchens. “There was always the fear that some key ingredient might have been left out in the telling,“ claim the authors. In other cases, lists of ingredients were exhaustive, but instructions abbreviated. “We had to cope with such vague directions as ‘add as much water as necessary’ or ‘as much flour as it will take.” Oven times and temperatures, rarely specified in the original sources, had to be laboriously worked out.
Readers will find plenty of simple, hearty everyday recipes for vegetable bake with okra, cuttlefish, stewed rabbit, bean soups, and spinach pudding, along with the more elaborate Venetian Pasticcio, Venetziàniko pastitsìo, with layers of pasta, meat, chicken, hardboiled eggs sandwiched between a leaves of sweet pastry
( pasta frolla), and unusual dishes such as Partridge Pilaf, Woodcock Salmi, Octopus Pie from Cephalonia, Bobota from Zakynthos - a spicey corn bread made with orange juice, walnuts, and currants - and a delicate tangerine cake, all of which bear the stamp of authenticity .
To know a place and its people, you must taste its food, and the authors of Prospero’s Kitchen : Island Cooking of Greece, give you the opportunity to do that whether you are seeking to recreate flavors and textures encountered on a trip to Greece, or simply experimenting with something new. The words “Island Cooking” evoke the pristine if limited ingredients of island life according to season: things that you grow, raise, catch, forage, and preserve yourself; others that must come by sea from far away and carefully be stored for months to be used on a special occasion. Much of this cookbook is about the sacred bonds that link people, food, and festivities to the cycle of seasons and the soul of place.
In Peter Greenway’s film of The Tempest, Prospero’s Books, huge, fantastical volumes open to reveal palaces, landscapes, visions, and celebrations happening on the island. Similar magic happens when you open Prospero’s Kitchen - unleashing strong flavors, redolent of sun - honey, goats milk, wild herbs grazed with salt spray, thick- skinned citrus, piquant tomatoes, fresh fish, and charcoal grilling; parsimonious winters and abundant summers, the quintessence of Mediterranean life.
For this blog tour, I was asked to answer the following questions:
The Writing Process: What am I working on now?
Currently I am involved in a project I never dreamed I’d do: a screenplay of my first novel THE ETRUSCAN and I am finding it very hard going. Firstly because my novel presents multiple points of view on a central love story that has an open ending. In the book, there is a narrative frame constructed from a shifting third person point of view with a first person narrative / diary inserted at the core. This device allowed me to maintain an ambiguous status for the central story narrated by the main character, Harriet: is the text found in her journal a true account, a dream, an allegory, a roman a clef, a work of fiction? Who is the shape -shifting count, Federigo del Re, really? Different readers have had very different reactions to the characters and storyline. In working with the screenplay, I find that I cannot keep the same ambiguity and maintain multiple viewpoints with the same flexibility that you can in fiction. So that, along with the general compression of time and action required, is quite a challenge. Working on this screen play may influence my fiction technique in the future, too.
I am also involved in other projects too: a final draft of my writing textbook based on the Soul of Place, for which I am still thrashing about for a proper title. Exercises from this book have begun to appear in places like The Writer ( Katabasis, Your Journey to Hell and Back, June 2013; Crafting a Quest Narrative: Pilgrim’s Tales upcoming in March) and editing of my memoir, Postcards of a Tuscan Interior, sections of which have appeared previously on my website. One section was recently nominated for a Pushcart prize. I have two novels in different draft stages. The Brotherhood of Miguel a spiritual adventure novel set in Rome and elsewhere is in its final draft. I am doing a sequel to my recent Signatures in Stone entitled Melusine, in which the heroine Daphne must solve a mystery related to mermaids in Bolsena lake.
Last but not least I am working with Southwestern artist Carolyn Florek of Mutabilis press to create a Tarot deck based on my mystery novel SIGNATURES IN STONE, set in Bomarzo’s monster park. Pieces have been posted on Signatures Facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/SignaturesInStone
How does my work differ from that of other writers working in the same genre?
One aspect of my work is that it combines genres or sometimes spills over borders . The Etruscan is literary fiction, but also a mystery, and to some, an intertextual puzzle with elements of pastiche. Some readers find in it a Rebecca –like atmosphere, with modern gothic overtones, others find it nineteenth-century. And yet its unreliable narrator, open ending, ambiguity, metafictional aspirations and altered chronology at the end are meant to be “experimental,” or at least deviate from the forms of mainstream fiction. I was pleased that one critic likened it to The Magus, as it was partly my intent to create a strange story with surreal elements.
Katherine’s Wish, based on the last five years of Katherine Mansfield’s life, was the product of much research and piecing together of fragments. It has been called “fictional biography,” “creative scholarship,” “creative nonfiction,” and a work of historical fiction. Signatures in Stone, instead is definitely a mystery story: but is it a house mystery, a murder mystery, or an art history mystery? It is a bit of all three, there being at least three separate mysteries, existing on three different levels, that must be solved. I like to work with different forms and bend them in new shapes.
Why do I write what I do?
I am inspired by places, by the soul of place. For my books set in Italy, I have had years to absorb influences and crystalize them into fiction or nonfiction. It was a very short visit to the Prieure, outside Paris where Katherine Mansfield died, that set in motion a process that would end in Katherine’s Wish. I guess I find myself stumbling over or into what some critics might call landscape narratives, stories embedded in places which we intersect from time to time.
How does my writing process work?
After an initial spark of inspiration, I work in spurts, sometimes spending long uninterrupted periods at the computer and not stopping until I am satisfied. But I try to leave something out at the end, to have an idea where I am going to go next when I pick it up again. Once I have something substantial, several pages of something that hangs together, I print out and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, but first I need some kind of draft to work with. I find it very hard to schedule time every day for fiction writing, although I do write most every day – essays, reviews, blogs, etc. but I need a special kind of psychic compression to work on fiction
Now I would like to introduce the three writers who will be continuing this blog tour next week : Click on their names to visit their websites.
Patricia Borlenghi, published by Bloomsbury, is the author of children’s books, adult fiction, and food memoirs highly praised by Jamie Oliver, and now publisher of Patrician Press, a small independent and courageous literary press located in Essex. http://www.patricianpress.com/bookauthor/patricia-borlenghi/ She is about to publish her historical novel Zaira about a peasant girl coming of age and improving her status through self-education in late nineteenth century Northern Italy. See her blog @ Patrician Press Blog
Adrianne Kalfopoulou, poet, critic, and essayist, lives in Athens where she teaches at the Hellenic American University. She is also adjunct professor of creative writing for NYU and teaches in several international workshops. Her poetry collections are available from Red Hen Press. Her blog, Greek Voices, Inside
offers an insider’s perspective on the current turmoil in Greece.
Teresa Cutler Broyles has been writing professionally since 1992, traveling to Italy regularly since 2000, and teaching writing (and film) classes since 2001. In 2008 she combined these three passions and started her business, TLC Writing Tours, and leads Writing and Cultural Tours to Italy. When she’s not traveling and teaching, she writes Young Adult and historical novels, travel essays, and creative nonfiction. Twitter: @TLCWritingTours. Facebook
We had set off at dawn from a nearby village across water as smooth as oil. Seven of us packed in that little boat, the Eleutheria, without a single life-jacket: my friend, Pandelis; his fishing partner, Vanghelis; Vanghelis’ wife, two sons and mother-in-law who looked askance at foreign girls in scanty tops spending their summers here. While Vanghelis and the boys secured the boat, the women unpacked the lunch: tinned sardines, home -pickled olives from their trees, like tiny, shriveled raisins; tomatoes; slabs of goat cheese; thirst-quenching cucumbers; green- fleshed melons. Beer, water, and the ubiquitous raki.
Pandelis turned to me. “Come . We get food. ” With fishing knife strapped to his waist, a bucket swinging from one hand, he led me teetering along a slippery shelf of rock above the tidal line. When I lost my footing and splashed down into a pool, he jerked me up with stern warning.
“Watch out! There may be …..” he paused, searching for the English word, “Morays. Your toes --- their lunch,” then grinned, waiting to see the effect of his announcement.
The crevice in the cliff wound down to a grotto where low tide had exposed row on row of glistening purple sea urchins. He plunked down his bucket to observe them with approval. “A man not starve here,” he said. Unsheathing his knife, he pried a first specimen free, sliced it through, and held it out to me . A black and orange gelatinous mass quivered in its spiny cup. Stooping to the water, he dunked it once, swirled the tip of his knife inside it, then scraped the slimy contents into the palm of my hand . “Freshest food in Greece, “ he said. “Taste.”
I never cared for sea food except scallops when I was younger. Even the sight of the shucked oysters my father relished used to make me nauseous as a child. How was I going to refuse food from a Greek for whom hospitality is sacred? If only I had a slice of lemon.
He frowned at my hesitation. “Eat,” he commanded.
I pushed the salty, spongy stuff into my mouth, then spit it out, unrepentant.
Producing a hip flask from his back pocket, he offered it to me. The searing taste of 40 proof raki removed all trace of the offending substance. I wiped my lips with the back of my hand.
Pandelis shook his head in feigned disgust. “You will never be a Greek.”
This essay originally appeared in Alimentum Literary Journal, Winter 2012
It sounds like a story of the recent crisis that has dragged our neighbors in Greece to despair. But the origins of this story go way back in time, seven or eight years, when the previous administrator of this condominio organized some maintenance work that not everyone in the complex apparently agreed to. The expenses were divided up among the five hundred families residing in the complex, but a great number refused to pay. So the administrator took the funds we had all paid in advance for the heating and used those to pay the maintenance work, leaving an unpaid bill of over 100,000$ owed to the gas company.
Since then, we have been living with this debt over our heads. Money for this year's heating gets scraped together from the few who do pay to try to pay back the prexisting debt. Sometimes the gas company comes and puts a lock on the gas meter, so nothing comes out, and no heat gets turned on, like tonight. It is ten degrees centigrade on my balcony tonight and will keep dropping till dawn.
Stringent laws protect the privacy of those who don't pay. Their names can't be revealed, so they are spared dirty looks in the elevator. In theory the administrator is required to prosecute them to recover the outstanding payments, but the previous one never did, and the current one doesn't seem inclined to do so, either.
Then there is the question of "the law of solidarity," -- whether binding law of the land or only general policy, I have yet to discover -- according to which, those who can pay are required or encouraged to cover the debts of those who can't or won't in hopes that the sums will be paid back once the law courts and collection agencies have snapped into action.
But court cases here drag on for decades, and it is unlikely that the sums will ever be paid back. There are also rumors that one of the biggest "retardees' in paying the outstanding gas bills is actually the owner of a dozens of apartments in the complex, which he rents out, and can well afford to pay the bills. For some reason he has never bothered to collect heating bills, or the condominio bills -- covering things like cleaning, lights on the stairs, regular building maintenance. Up till a few years ago, the administrators were able to juggle things so that life went on as usual, but the crisis has made things worse. Ten years ago it was probably 25% who neglected to pay. Now it's more like 50%, perhaps more. and it will probably keep increasing.
So what can you do? It sounds outrageous. But that's real life in Rome.
Thank goodness I bought an electric heating pad when I was in Finland last year.
Maybe if I am lucky there will be heating tomorrow.
I was thirty, single, and had never cooked a roast. For many years I had been vegetarian and had lived in rented rooms in Rome without a kitchen. Those weren’t the only reasons. I didn’t believe I was capable. After moving into an apartment all my own, I wake up longing for roast beef.
I loved meat as a child: pineapple-glazed hams, pork loin with apricots, lamb with mint sauce -- I have yet to see their equals. Those perfect roasts were the product of science. It was my father, a chemist, who supervised the Sunday roast. A lover of good food, he mingled his gusto for all things natural with stern precision when it came to cooking times and temperatures and the strict observance of proper procedure. A candid snapshot of Sunday noon in our kitchen would show my father and mother leaning over the roasting pan, piercing the flesh with a skewer, scrutinizing the color of the liquid oozing from the tiny aperture. Is the meat done? Is it underdone? Will it be too dry? They never agreed. Oven thermometers, timers , glass measuring cups still stir in me a certain anxiety.
I get out an old cookbook and study oven roasting. Here too, science is required. How much liquid, if any? At what temperature? I shut the book and go off to my neighborhood butcher where I examine the cuts of beef displayed amid labyrinthine coils of brains , lungs like fuchsia sponges. The baleful, bloody eyes of a severed lamb’s head reproach me for my apostasy from vegetarianism.
I ask the butcher for a suitable cut to make rosbif al forno. A philosophical disquisition follows – would I prefer a girello, a lombata, a filetto, or a controfiletto? I have no idea, but tell him I have guests for dinner, my closest friend and my new boyfriend, and I want to impress them both.
Later, alone, with the roast, I try to remember my father’s gestures as he ministered the meat. I rub it with garlic, herbs, butter; pat it with flour, plop it in a pan, pouring in a generous cup of wine. I throw in some quartered potatoes – that was never done in my house – and dribble them with olive oil. My oven is a battered monstrosity from the fifties salvaged from a friend’s basement. It looks as though it has been fashioned with parts recycled from an allied tank. There’s only one setting: high – any lower and the flame goes out. This is folly, I think. I put the roast in and stand guard with a basting brush.
Soon a delicious smell spirals through the flat, delighting my friends when they arrive. When I pull the roast from the oven and pierce it with a fork, the color of the juice is just right. I carve the meat and serve the potatoes. I watch my friends set to with obvious pleasure. Their enjoyment for me is in itself a sort of nourishment. Perfect --- they say --- it’s perfect. Read More
The extraordinary works on show at the Galerie Charlotte Norberg at 74 Rue Charlot, in the Marais recreate walls, doorways, windows, beaches and olive groves of Ibiza and surroundings in a mixed media of collage, sculpture, and painting. Natural objects like tree trunks, sea shells, stones, earth, pebbles, sand, sticks, pieces of wood, and even eggs are glued on supports to recreate seascapes, landscapes, and street scenes. The island life in the old town is recreated in dozens of domestic details. In white brick walls (made of some plastic like substance) real doors, windows, shutters, and gates are inserted, made of peeling wood, with rusted hinges, padlocks, and chicken wire, opening to reveal a sea view or a distant island. Frayed old electric wiring is strung over doorways outside of which are placed baskets of firewood or a dish of eggs. Beneath windows flap dingy pieces of laundry, fixed with wooden clothespins, moved by a slight breeze, caught in the folds as they ripple.
That house, said the person at the gallery who showed us around, really exists! I have seen it, he insisted. All these places really exist in Ibiza.
Stage sets, magic boxes, dollhouses, Advent calendars, Mexican crèche scenes enclosed in covered niches opening to reveal figures or surprises are all akin to these works carefully constructed to create a true to life tactile impression in crumbs of red earth , hard, knotty tree trunks, wooden window and door fixtures that splinter at your touch, shedding scraps of colored paint, old iron hinges, nails, and locks covered with the fine dusting of rust. She also gives us the visual impact of strong sunlight glancing off white walls and petals, leaves, seashells, and of course, the blue and turquoise surface of the sea. She gives her viewers the illusion of being elsewhere. Read More
Whenever I am in Paris, I make a private pilgrimage to Katherine Mansfield’s grave in the cemetery of Avon, near Fontainebleau. Recently in town for a reading at Shakespeare & Company, I take a day out of a hectic schedule to pay homage to a writer who deeply influenced my life.
A row of driverless taxis waits outside the Fontainebleau-Avon station. It’s lunchtime and the drivers are probably all at table. Each taxi displays a sign with a mobile number to call should the driver be absent, but I am informed by an
American couple ahead of me in line that only one has answered their calls, promising to come “toute de suite,” nearly an hour ago. Chatting with them I learn that they are from California and that they too are on a pilgrimage to the cemetery
of Avon, to visit Gurdjieff’s grave there. We decide to share a taxi, should one arrive, and within moments, voilà, an unlicensed taxi pulls into the stand and we strike a deal with the driver for a tour.
The cemetery of Avon, located at the end of “Rue de Souvenir” is beautifully kept.
The black marble tombs are polished to a mirror’s perfection and decorated with bright bursts of yellow and rust-orange chrysanthemums and flares of purple heather. Wandering back to an older part of the cemetery, I find Katherine’s grave –
simple, stern, unadorned except for a small vase of ivy set at the head. The name “Katherine Mansfield” is etched in large letters. This is the name by which the world knew her, but not the one printed on her passport, “Kathleen Mansfield
Murry.” Beneath appears the title by which she longed to be known, “wife of John Middleton Murry.” Barely legible today is the epitaph: “Out of this nettle danger, we pluck the flower, safety,” summing up the contradictions and tug of opposites
within Mansfield’s life, character, and writing. Not far off, just “next door,” as it were, is the Gurdjieff family plot, a large rectangle of green turf edged in yellow pansies, surmounted by two rough hewn menhirs, and shaded by a gnarled
The graves are unmarked but the tourist board has added an unobtrusive sign briefly explaining who Gurdjieff was and his connection to Avon. My fellow pilgrims film the grave from every angle. We stand a while in silent reflection and then return to our taxi. Although our driver has lived in Fontainebleau for all his forty-some years and is fiercely proud of this fact, he is perplexed as to our request to visit the Prieuré des Basses Loges. He is unsure where it is exactly. The Californians have a map, which indicates a building at the end of Rue de Katherine Mansfield, but it turns out to be a
modern nursing home. I have been to the Prieuré once before, while doing research which would later develop into my novel, Katherine’s Wish, based on the last five years of Mansfield’s life, and I know that it is not easy to find the Prieuré.
The modernization of this area of the town, the division of the old estate, taller walls, and a certain reticence concerning Gurdjieff and his school make the place hard to spot, but at last we find it, secluded behind a tall stone wall. We follow
the wall to a front gate and peer in. Since my last visit, the place has been transformed into an elegant residential complex. No plaque on the gate denotes the presence of Gurdjieff’s school in the 1920s, or Katherine’s death here in
1923, or even the name by which the building was known. Continuing along the wall, we come to a side entrance leading to a parking area. The gate is locked, but a young woman in a track suit, noticing us on her way to her car, comes to enquire if we are looking for someone. Quite simply we tell her we are looking for the place where Katherine Mansfield once lived, and where Gurdjieff had his school.
She seems puzzled and tells us that she thinks Mansfield lived elsewhere, down the street perhaps, and has never heard of Gurdjieff. However, she lets us in, shows us how to open the gate to let ourselves out again and apologizes for not
being able to help us on our search. “I have only been living here for a couple of months,” she says, before driving out the gate. We go in and walk around the grounds, to what is now the rear of the building on the southern side, where the
great lawns and flower beds once extended, now parceled off today with fences. There are few trees save a large plane tree shedding its yellow leaves on the shaggy lawn. It must be nearly a century old and was surely standing here in
Katherine’s time. I picture her in the elegant room she occupied on the upper floor of the Chateau, known as The Ritz to pupils who stayed in more Spartan quarters.
I imagine her standing at the window, looking out at the lawns, at this tree, feeling the autumn sun on her chest and eyelids, desiring to become “A Child of the Sun.” A large dog comes bounding out of the bushes toward us. Luckily he is
friendly, but we take this as a sign that we should not prolong our visit. Slowly we circle the house, pause to examine the fountain with blue tiles out front, now drained, then discreetly slip back out to the street. There are many accounts of the
intense, whirling life that went on within these walls –from C.S: Knott’s Journal of a Pupil, Fritz Peters’ delightful memoir, Boyhood with Gurdjieff – but none are more moving than Katherine’s own letters written in the last weeks from the her little
writing table upstairs. It seems strange to me that the drama of this writer’s last days, which has touched so many readers for four generations, should remain completely unknown to the people who now eat, sleep, and carry on their daily lives in the
place where Mansfield died. But that is Paris and its environs – rife with ghosts, layer upon layer, who unseen breathe upon us.
Linda Lappin is the author of Katherine's Wish a novel about the last five years of Katherine Mansfield's life and her stay at Gurdjieff's institute in Fontainebleau, which won the IPPY gold medal in historical fiction and was short listed for the ForeWord Book of the Year award in fiction, among other prizes. She is also the author of the prize winning essay: Katherine Mansfield and DH Lawrence, a Parallel Quest discussing the spiritual journeys undertaken by these two great modernists in the last phase of their lives. The essay shared first place in the international essay contest sponsored by the Katherine Mansfield Society. She is also the author of an essay on Mansfield and Gurdjieff, The Ghosts of Fontainebleau published in the Southwest Review. Katherine's Wish is available on Kindle at a discount throughout August 2013 @ amazon