Only a week to go and I get my first break since Easter. Despite the fact that there are still lessons to deliver and assessments to make, I’m feeling very end-of-term and demob happy. On the fifteenth I’m going to Greece for ten days. Given that I lived there for fifteen years it may not seem like much of a change, but after four unbroken years in England I am looking forward to deep lungfuls of exhaust fumes in Athens, where I lived 1990 to 2002, and as an antidote, some sea air in Kalamata in the Peloponnese where I spent 2002 to 2005.
I became fascinated by Greek when I was nine. My mum had a part-time job in a café owned and staffed by Cypriots, and I used to have her collect and write down vocabulary items for me to memorise. I evolved a romanticised image of Greece derived largely from travel brochures and an incomprehensible seventies TV series, The Lotus Eaters, that was set in Crete. I visited Italy on a school trip when I was fourteen and was absolutely bowled over by the light, the colour, the ubiquitous smells of good cooking, good bread and good coffee and, astonishingly, the easy availability of wine to pre-pubescent boys. (That dates me. No boy would be surprised now.) The sunlit sensuousness of Liguria, the warm, fragrant nights with fireflies sparkling in the trees and grass verges, made me decide there and then that Northern England was not the ideal habitat for human beings. I stayed in France for six months in 1978, and this confirmed my view that the English simply didn’t know how to live. I expected Greece would be pretty similar to Italy and France, and anticipated good food, good wine, lingering over late dinners with good conversation, and similar Bovaryesque fantasies. When I first fetched up in Greece in 1985 as a teacher in a language school in Kavala, I knew diddly squat about language teaching and no Greek beyond a lexical set of café vocab: cup, saucer, teaspoon and so on, many items garbled by my mum’s mishearing of them. I entertained high hopes of reliving Italy and France, but this time for a whole year.
Ah, but Greece is Greece, not Italy or France. It’s much rougher around the edges. God, I hated it. Absolutely fucking hated it. So many people seemed unsmiling and suspicious. I was paid peanuts, given lessons to teach at seven in the morning and generally taken for a mug by the school owner. Winter in Northern Greece is bitterly cold and the house I had been allocated was glacial. I remember the bedroom had the most hideous lampshade I have ever seen: a glass up-lighter in the shape, approximately, of a nipple: the areola was reddish and the centre frosted mustardy yellow. It looked like a huge pustule dangling over the bed. You felt if you popped it, it would splatter the room with gunk. The custom of propping coffin lids outside the door of a house where someone had died depressed the hell out of me. People held stentorian conversations outside my window. The woman opposite supervised her kids’ play in the street from her fourth floor balcony, and her relentless deafening squawk gave me headache. One day as I was walking down the street to the school, an elderly gentleman in front of me stopped, bent forward, applied a forefinger to his nose to close one nostril, and from the other he blew to expel a green pendulum of snot that swung briefly before hitting the cobbles like a blob of Swarfega. I looked at the cheese pie I was eating, and slung it into an open bin-liner. Eventually I went and bought a plane ticket, packed my bags and did a bunk.
I had done what so many do when experiencing culture shock; allowed everything to irritate or depress me. After all, a lampshade that looks like a gigantic zit can be replaced - it need not lead you to loathe an entire culture. I had not stopped to consider how many people had been kind and helpful and hospitable to a very unworldly and thoughtless young man, and how horribly ungrateful I must have appeared, and how it was incumbent upon me as a resident, not a tourist, to adapt. Back in England a week or two after arriving home I was watching a concert on TV from the Herodion in Athens. Nana Mouskouri was singing some popular Greek song, ‘Aspri Mera’, maybe. I burst into tears.
‘Greece is like fly-paper,’ someone said to me years later. True. After leaving in 85, I taught myself Greek and went back on visits every chance I got, until a colleague pointed out that it would probably be more sensible to go and live there. So I did. Now I’m waiting to see what this visit will do for me. It may convince me that I did the right thing in leaving, or that I need to get back as soon as I can.