Introducing ‘Letters from Greece’

Starting with the Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens famously published his novels in the daily press, in weekly or monthly installments. He thus pioneered the serial publication of narrative fiction, which became the dominant Victorian mode for fiction publication. This format allowed him to get feedback from the audience, which he often used to modify his characters and plots accordingly.

Now publisher The Pigeonhole has re-created this concept for the digital age, by bringing out a series of books divided into sections called ‘staves’, which can be read on a tablet, iOS device or a PC. The process is interactive, as it allows the inclusion of photographs, extra ‘margin’ notes, and commentary from readers. It can function like an on-line book club.

Amongst the books on offer, my curiosity was naturally aroused by Letters from Greece, a series of essays on various themes, all describing what it’s like to live and work in Greece today. The series is curated by literary agent Evangelia Avloniti and features a line-up of writers and photographers who, if one is to go by the staves so far, are top class.

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I enjoyed all the staves, which were very different in tone and style but each fascinating in its own way; but I thought I would include here an excerpt from the first one, Florina: Where Greece Begins, because it struck a particular chord.

It is by award-winning writer Peter Papathanasiou, who was born in the northern Greek town of Florina and was adopted as a baby by a family in Australia. He describes a visit from Australia to see his brothers and combines this with the story of his grandfather Vasilios, an Orthodox Christian refugee fleeing for his life from Anatolia during the 1923 population exchange with Turkey. As Peter Papathanasiou puts it:

The war was over. With the return of their triumphant army, the Turks had started taking all able-bodied Orthodox Christian men into labour camps. If the Greeks dared return to march on Ankara, the Turks’ prisoners would be executed in retaliation. Vasilios was not interested in being human collateral.’

 

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Vasilios walks from Smyrna to the Aegean Sea, leaving his family behind. He wants to get to Greece.
Reading this together with the refugees’ stories one sees every day in the press reminded me how history repeats itself and how we can never take anything for granted. I have chosen to feature the part where Vasilios arrives at the Aegean shore, after four months on the road. I hope you will be as moved by it as I was.

 

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‘Vasilios could hear screaming in the distance. It was a sound familiar to his sunburned ears. After four months on the road, it was also a sound to which he was numb. But there was something about this scream. The timbre was higher and lighter, the duration longer. It was not a wail of agony or distress. It almost sounded happy. Vasilios tried to remember the feeling.
The seasons had changed. Winter had become spring and the rebirth had made the countryside burst with wildflowers and new grass. Vasilios had collected orange seeds from the road and stored them safely in his jar of Anatolian soil. Climbing to the top of a lush green ridge, he saw the Aegean Sea. It was the bluest, sweetest sight. People threw their hands in the air and ran the final mile to the water. Vasilios sprinted.
A sea of humanity saturated the waterfront. He arrived at the port breathless. His clothes were rags, his skin black. He could barely hold down his bread ration for hunger. He had run out of notches on his belt and started constructing his own with a rusty nail. His pockets were also considerably lighter for all the Turkish guards he had bribed with a fakelaki.
Vasilios had trudged the last hundred miles with a hole in each boot and bloodied soles. One out of four travellers did not make it. Some might say they were the lucky ones spared the scene at the docks and aboard the boats bound for Salonika. Emaciated, diseased Christians clogged every dirty corner. They turned potato sacks into makeshift clothes and old rubber tyres into shoes. Vasilios found the waterfront warehouses crammed full, saturated with refugees. The stench of human filth made him retch. There was no space to lie down and sleep, and no toilets. Elsewhere on the docks, shanty towns had sprung up, refugees sheltering in oil drums and beneath metal sheeting. Diseased cats were everywhere, all bones and patchy fur.

Boats were left floating off the coast to prevent the spread of smallpox, typhus and cholera. After two nights on the docks, Vasilios was eventually herded onto an overcrowded boat that looked like it would sink at any moment. He was quarantined for a week on an island whose name he did not know. It was there he got his first taste of what it meant to be ‘coming home’. Bowed with despair, he was spat upon by the native Greeks from their upper windows as he shambled past. ‘Tourkosporoi!’ they jeered him; ‘Seed of Turk!’ The mere fact he had lived in the Turkish state made his loyalty to Christianity suspicious. He did not fight back or even plead his case. He had neither the energy nor the spirit.

 

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The same welcome greeted Vasilios in his new village. Its name was Florina, and it was so far into the Pindus Mountains that Vasilios could smell the Albanians from across the border when the northerly wind blew. He watched as mosques became churches, minarets torn down, crosses erected. The native Greeks were suspicious of his odd dialect. They ended up going to different churches and kafenia and even used different water pumps. The Muslims who had left were a known quantity. Vasilios’s kind, though Christian, were still alien.’

 

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The photographs of Florina then and now were kindly provided by Peter Papathanasiou. He took the recent ones himself.

To check out The Pigeonhole, click on the name in the text above.

6 thoughts on “Introducing ‘Letters from Greece’

  1. Very moving. Note the self -definition of ‘Christian’ compared to ‘Greek”. Once again, belonging or not was defined by religion, not ethnicity. Btw, the population exchange is extremely well described by Bruce Clark in his aptly titled book “Twice a Stranger:

    Liked by 1 person

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