What is it about Greece that so inspires writers, always has? With Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, it’s where the very idea of literature in the western world began. The Histories by Herodotus came, relatively speaking, not long after and in the centuries since then, this muse has infected countless others. Some like Cavafy and Kazantzakis were of Greek heritage, others became so enamoured with what they’d encountered on their travels that they had no choice, really, but to put pen to paper.
I’m one of those. On my first visit a dozen or so years ago, the island of Sifnos took a firm hold on my heart and the result is my two books, The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales, as well as this blog. Up until then, I’d never ever considered myself a book author. Now I am one. What I’d never expected is how many wonderful, interesting, passionate people from all corners of the globe my writings about Sifnos would bring into my life. Ekaterina Botziou from the UK is one. She’s a go-getter, an eclectic sort and when she posted a video recently on her Youtube channel. “What’s on My Greek Bookshelf” and included my two books on it, well, I was thrilled. “A beautifully written travel memoir,” she called The Chronicles. “Nicely paced,” she went on. “Funny and quirky,” all of which, of course, made my writer’s heart soar. Chronicles 2, she said, “carries on in the same vein, with so much more fun.”
Ekaterina’s video got me to thinking about my own collection of books about Greece and when I went to my shelves and tallied them up, it was many more than I imagined. There were the guidebooks that started me off on this grand adventure, among them Frommer’s Greek Islands and a well-thumbed copy of The Cyclades: Discovering the Greek Islands of the Aegean. A Greek phrasebook/dictionary, Learn Greek Without a Teacher, plus Instant Greek and the more realistic Learn Greek in 25 Years. A copy of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin whose movie version convinced from its first scenes that this country needed to be in my future. Sailing the Wine Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter by Thomas Cahill, a title that springs to mind every time the ferry I’m on is on is sailing in or out of Piraeus. A new book in 2019, Eye, by Marianne Micros, a collection of short stories exploring the mythology, folklore, Greek culture and old-world customs that have fascinated her all her life. This book was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, one of Canada’s top book prizes and, as she lives near me and her writing and mine have brought us together in person several times, I was extra thrilled.
Sadly, I never met Lawrence Durrell. I would have liked that. He sends me into fits of guffaws while I’m reading The Greek Islands, which a thoughtful friend gave me as a gift to celebrate my own first book launch. I of course never met J. Theodore Bent either whose 1885 account of his archaeological expeditions in The Cyclades or Life Among the Insular Greeks was recently reprinted. Though I feared a book so old was likely to be filled with dusty, impenetrable prose, it was anything but and I could practically see the author’s raised eyebrows as he told of the cure he’d observed on one island for a dreaded childhood illness. If summoning the priest and scratching the child with her fingernails didn’t do the trick, the mother was to go down to the shore and at sunset gather forty round stones brought up by forty different waves, take them home, boil them in vinegar and wait for the cock to crow, upon which the evil phantom would disappear and the child would be left whole. I’m sure that he, Lawrence, and I, keen and respectful observers all but not above a chuckle at what looks odd to our outsiders’ eyes, would share a good laugh at that tale. Ekaterina too. She likes to have fun. As for Marianne, she’d be off, I’m betting, to write another tale.
Then there are my books from Sifnos. There’s the Sifnos Cyclades: Tourist Guides, my first purchase ever bought in the island’s bookshop. I consider this book a treasure because I did meet its author, the late and distinguished historian and teacher Antonis Troullos, quite unexpectedly one morning as I was walking past his house in Apollonia when he invited me in and showed off his shelf-full of books that “I write about my island.” I treasure too Traditional Recipes of Sifnos by Ronia Anastassiadou, a collection “of the most characteristic dishes of Sifnos, the way they were described by old housewives and men with a good relationship with the kitchen.” It is, as she hoped, a book I open often, one that has taught me to make revithia, caper salad and I hope will give me a good relationship with the pasteli I plan to try as a Christmas gift this year. Another one I love, both the book and its author, is 100 Days of Solitude by Daphne Kapsali. In it, she set out to discover if she was actually a writer and whether she could survive on this small island after the tourists had gone home. Definitively yes, on both counts and I always look so forward to seeing her whenever I arrive. Ronia, too.
And these are only the beginning, really, of the books about Greece that I own. There is Maeve Binchy’s Nights of Rain and Stars which our Canadian travel agent, after she’d booked our flights that first time, insisted we had to read. One that I’ve discovered since then, The Messenger of Athens by Anne Zouroudi. I’ll need to make room for more of this author’s as she opens a window into a side of Greek island life so different from the one I’ve experienced. I’ll need space too for a book of photographs from Sifnos of past, my next planned purchase at the Sifnos book store, and a novel an author on a nearby island has promised me he has underway.
There will be, I sense, more shelf-building in my future. More writing too. This muse is a powerful one.
Ekaterina Botziou’s What’s on My Greek Bookshelf (You’ll find my books at the 12-minute mark.)
Follow Ekaterina’s Youtube Channel