Monday, May 04, 2015

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 3 … Growing up in Greece.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 3 … Growing up in Greece.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

(Third in a series chronicling my travel year 1985)

Before leaving home, I had taken care to equip myself with an American Youth Hostel card.

Why not?

Youth is relative, and I was only 24 years old upon departure. The card cost a nominal fee, and promised to “open the doors” overseas at youth hostels affiliated with the international governing body. In fact, it probably paid for itself during my first three days on European soil, in Luxembourg City, Basel and Milano – and yes, this frenetic pace was part of the plan.

The objective all along was to fly into Luxembourg, but to begin the trip in earnest in Greece, which required making a very long journey south and east, first by train to Bari, Italy, then by overnight ferry to Patra, Greece. All of this transit was covered by the Eurailpass, although first it was necessary to learn how to use the rail pass – and validate tickets on the trams, ride the subways, interpret restaurant menus without a translator, navigate local customs, and so many other tasks for which I was utterly unprepared.

It didn’t take long to realize that while I’d been correct in imagining the first few days in Europe as a learning curve, or a spring training of sorts, it was wildly unrealistic to think mere days would suffice. Meeting Europe for the first time produced catharsis and panic, paralysis and ecstasy, all in equal measure. Consumed with self-doubt, I’d first kick myself for perceived inadequacies and stumbles, but then look through the train window, see the Alps, and feel a deeper satisfaction than I’d ever experienced.

It was stimulating and exhausting, both mentally and physically, and I slept a lot, at least when the stereophonic snoring in 16-bunk hostel dorm rooms didn’t interfere.

The fourth night was spent napping on the deck of the ferry, and then, come morning, finally I was in Greece, debarking and checking into a cheap and nearly dilapidated hotel so very archaic that a reincarnated Henry Miller might recognize the room just as it looked the last time he visited. After all, it was Miller who bore much of the responsibility – the blame – for attracting me to Hellas.

So who was he, anyway?


Henry Miller was an iconic American writer who died in 1980 at the age of 88 in, and is remembered chiefly for his once-banned novel, Tropic of Cancer. Miller spent the last years of his long, active life portraying a theatrical version of himself, offering entertaining vignettes for an ever-eager media, and brazenly enjoying his late-blooming notoriety as only an ex-bowery urchin could.

Just before his death, wizened but with a twinkle of naughtiness still flashing in his ancient eyes, Miller appeared on camera as historical “witness” in Warren Beatty’s film “Reds” (probably my favorite movie), observing that while clueless moderns had trouble believing that old rascals like him ever had sex, they most certainly did, and a lot of it, too.

For someone as renowned for his bawdiness as Miller to pen an entire book with nary an explicit mention of the horizontal arts will come as a surprise to some, but The Colossus of Maroussi is just that volume.

Written and published as World War II made ready to welcome the United States as participating/liberating belligerent, it recounts Miller’s months-long holiday in Greece in 1939, a respite coming at the conclusion of his Depression-era tenure as a Parisian urban expatriate, and immediately prior to his relocation and reinvention as tree-hugging primitive in California’s Big Sur.

Ostensibly, Colossus is a travelogue about Greece as a country caught in transition during the middle of the 20th century, with one foot in the grubby present and the other very much rooted in an epic (and generally exaggerated) past. Much of Miller’s narrative focuses on a larger-than-life Greek poet and raconteur named George Katsimbalis, and therein hides a significant clue, because as readers have understood virtually since release, the book actually is all about Miller.

Miller describes Katsimbalis with a mirror’s eye view, and he imbues the entire Greek nation with his own quirky prejudices and eccentricities. Like so many Western tourists before and since, he experiences an exotic but impoverished country and rather smugly concludes that in poverty resides inner beauty and universal wisdom, when all the locals really want are dependable electricity, flush toilets and access to pre-sliced, mass-market white bread.

On the more positive side, Miller offers some of his best pure writing in Colossus, describing Greek pastoral scenes and the country’s colorful people joyfully and without guile, his trademark glee in sensuousness and eroticism deployed not to titillate readers with sex, but to provide them with the imagined means to smell the flowers, taste the moussaka and feel the ocean breeze. He thought it was his best book, and in the sense of descriptive imagery, he may have been right.

When it comes to politics, economics and mankind’s “larger” issues, Miller might safely be described as a non-participating Luddite libertarian. He has no time for society’s persistent and petty constraints on human expression, and little use whatever for “ – isms” of any sort, and yet he inhabits a time and place in which these considerations are the dominant daily theme. As such, Greece is his necessary escape, and he seems to find in it the perfect milieu to absorb his own point of view as reflected back at him.

Yet, perhaps even Miller recognizes his own exaggerations and glibness. He presciently decamps from his personalized Hellenic dream just before awakening, thus avoiding the multitudinous Greek nightmares to follow: Wartime horrors, post-war ideological battles, coups, squabbles and the wrenching upheavals and dislocations familiar to those world cultures eager to join the “modern” world he so detested.

Miller died a few years before Greece joined the European Union, its entry symbolizing the country’s belated arrival at the continent’s pageant. It’s a marriage now turned sour, with a highly uncertain future. Helena Smith of The Guardian writes:

On the rollercoaster ride that is the debt-stricken country’s epic battle to stay afloat, many had hoped that Syriza would also provide solace. But five years after Athens was forced to be bailed out by the European Union and International Monetary Fund (IMF) – accepting the biggest rescue package in global financial history – Greeks are not sure what to think. What they do know is that after five years of dancing to the tune of austerity – of making the sacrifices necessary to keep bankruptcy at bay – they are, like (Tasos) Nyfadopoulos’s dangling man, once again staring in to the abyss.


For all its flaws, "The Colossus of Maroussi" was essential and compelling reading, and I cannot underestimate its profound influence on me during the early 1980s. Upon request in 1984, the Greek tourist office in New York had mailed a huge package of brochures and maps, and as I read Miller’s account that winter, I plotted his progress with their assistance. At the time, Ernest Hemingway meant more to me as a writer, but he hadn’t written about Greece. Spain would come much later.

There I was, finally in Greece, well aware that the intervening decades would render dated Miller’s descriptions unlikely, and this much was true. Many things had changed, but happily there were moments of timelessness when the pre-war mood still jibed, and when, not unlike the writer, I stood at Mycenae, Epidaurus and Delphi, brushed off the dust from the journey by bus, and felt the weight of millennia … when I’d hear a tinkling bell and see a shepherd’s profile on a hillside, and later devour tomatoes, cucumber and feta doused with oil, kick back a cool beer or tumbler of Retsina … watch the grizzled old men nursing their cloudy drams of ouzo at breakfast … and then be reminded that back at the hotel, one was officiously instructed to keep toilet paper out of the commode lest the too-narrow sewage pipes became clogged.

After two nights in Patra, I boarded a train for Athens.



The PC: Euro ’85, Part 1 … where it all began.

The PC: Euro '85, Part 2 ... Hitting the ground crawling in Luxembourg.

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