Monday, July 4, 2011

Letter from Crete, by Kristina Olsson

The man in the hotel in Chania, the old port city of Crete, is telling me about old olive trees. I’ve heard a rumour that the oldest in the world is up the road, in a village called Kolymbari, where it rests its ancient roots - 2,000 or 4,000 years old, it depends who’s talking - and still produces olives. Yes, yes, says the man, and shrugs, and pushes out his bottom lip in the Greek way. It is very old, but there are many old trees. And then tells me the story of one that grows in a rocky field owned by the local banker.

People go to this banker for loans of money, and when they do, he dispatches his assistant to the olive tree that grows from rocks. If there are olives on that tree, the man says, they get their money. Meaning, if that tree is bearing, so will every olive tree in Greece. It will be a good year, both for olives and for loan repayments.

I wonder briefly if the Greek government has ever sought the advice of the Chania tree – or perhaps the services of its owner in these dark economic days. The week before, in Athens, we’d watched nervously as the mood on the streets grew angrier. Police and protesters began to organize around the central squares between our hotel and the Acropolis. The air was humid with anticipation. Everyone we spoke to seemed filled with a quiet fury, at the government, at themselves. All that money that disappeared. The shopkeeper shook her head. We didn’t even notice. But a Greek Australian on the bus saw it differently. No one paid tax for so long in this country. He raised black-grey eyebrows. That probably makes it easier to overlook what the government does.

We were due to fly out to the island of Kythera on the day before the general strike and marches, though in truth, we would have liked to stay, in solidarity with the beleaguered Greek people. But we’d already been robbed once on the subway, and besides, my sister had some solidarity of her own to cement on Aphrodite’s island. She’d already waited 62 years to do it, and even a revolution wasn’t going to stop her now.

She’s come to Greece looking for biology, for family, for blood. Not for love - even though this is the goddess’s island - or not love exactly. Perhaps the traces of it: resemblances, resonance, the mirror of eyes like hers. A part of her DNA is on Kythera; she wants to gauge how much. She wants to know if habit and disposition can leach from rock and sea, if geography can shape a person more surely than skin.

And I wanted to be with her as she searched, hoping for the last piece of a long family story I’ve been writing to fall into place.


Though I didn’t know it until we were teenagers, she and I have different fathers. The Swedish man we both called Dad met our mother when Sharon was four. She remembers picnics with Mum and Dad in grassy fields outside Brisbane, and a feeling of being included, being wanted. Her biological father, Minas, or Michael, one of thousands of men who had left Kythera for Australia in the first half of the 20th century, had never acknowledged her existence, though he’d been married to our mother for eighteen months when Sharon was born.

But it’s not Minas she’s looking for here, not in flesh and blood. He died fifteen years ago in Sydney, still refusing to claim her. And besides, she has her father, he’s right here in Brisbane, she’s always said that. What she’s looking for is the Greekness that might have passed to her, survived in her, to work out who she really is. Why is she the only one amongst us who loves to fish, who loves backgammon? She’s hoping Minas’ family on Kythera can tell her, if she can find them. If she can convince them she is his.

On the island we stay in a traditional house in a traditional village propped on the side of a hill. Like many others, the village is only half-alive; many of its inhabitants live elsewhere now – Australia, America, Canada – and have for a long time. Along the twisting lanes, stone walls crumble away and arches and doorways are held together with bougainvillea vine, the remnants of abandoned lives visible through gaps and missing roofs. The houses peter out to groves of olives and oranges, to wide fields empty of everything but gorse and broom, wild figs and aniseed.

Kythera is the least developed of the islands that stud the seas around Greece. It is no Santorini, no Mykenos, with their pulsating nightlife and slick marinas. When Minas left here in 1939, many of its people were still peasants with a subsistence lifestyle, growing olives and herbs and fruit. Kythera’s chance to bloom shrank with the rolling waves of migration. But the men’s departure – many of them to Brisbane – was their only hope. They got jobs there, earned money to send back, sponsored uncles and nephews to come. But the mass leaving stilled the island’s heart.

On our first night we sit on our rooftop terrace at sunset and listen to an errant rooster crow the end of the day, rather than the beginning. But we drink to Sharon’s own brave start: next day we’ll set off to find people with a name she owns but was never given.


In a kafeneon in the high clifftop village of Mitata, an old man named Michaelis serves us strong Greek coffee and cheese and complains that no one in Greece wants to work. That’s the trouble, he says. He listens to Sharon’s story, the names, Minas Preneas, Yiannis Preneas, Adoni, Panayotis. Then: yes, this is the village of your family. But not any longer. He takes us up the road to the local priest, who goes through names and connections and directs us away to another village, Agia Pelagia, and a seaside taverna where the owner may know some more. The owner may, in fact, be her first cousin.

We take the nerve-racking drive along twisting roads barely wider than our waists. In truth they are old donkey trails smeared with asphalt, clinging to hills over vertiginous drops. The view reinforces a kind of Grecian paradox: this is an island of shocking beauty, with its beaches and cliffs and whitewashed houses, but its dry fields look hungry, hard-bitten, and a melancholy attends its scattered villages and its ruins. As I drive I think back to Athens, the forces of history held in the raised fist of the Acropolis, and anguish in the faces marching below it.


The tables of the taverna at Agia Pelagia shuffle into the sand of a picture postcard beach. The water is an astonishing blue. We ask the waiter for old Yiannis. He looks confused. Yiannis is dead, he says. A long time. It’s his son now. Adonis.

Adonis, yes. Sharon and I exchange glances. She says, if he’s the right Adonis, he’s my cousin. If he has an uncle, Minas, who went to Australia. She takes a breath. I’m Minas’ daughter. It’s the first time she’s said it.

The waiter is nonplussed. At any rate, Adonis is away tonight, in Piraeus, and his wife Marina is out. Sharon tells the man we’ll wait. We choose a table in the sand and order tzatsiki and lamb.

Twice in the next two hours, the waiter returns to us. Marina is coming, he says the first time, but she’s running late. He shrugs and turns back to his tables. We eat nervously, watching the sea darken, and feeling our early wash of optimism drain away with the tide. But perhaps the waiter senses our uncertainty, because he comes back and says in a different voice, Marina is coming. Please don’t leave.

And there she is, shortly after, a fair-haired, fifty-something woman with eyes that crinkle when she smiles. She walks towards us. My sister stands, takes several steps. I am Sharon, she says. Marina’s lifts her arms towards her and says, I am Marina. Your cousin.

Over the next few days people gather at the taverna. They’re shy at first, gently probing, trying to understand how and where this woman fits, how a part of their precious, scattered family could exist for sixty years without their knowledge. Could be lost to them. I watch as comprehension builds and connections are made, and the conversations become more clamorous. The tears and laughter as family trees are sketched, photographs handed around, phone calls made. My sister smiles shyly in the middle of it all, explaining, nodding. Showing off photos of her beautiful granddaughter. She looks like a Greek girl! the women shriek.

One afternoon, I leave them to it and wander down the esplanade, look at the souvenir cups and teatowels and fridge magnets that hardly vary from shop to shop. It’s quiet, even for June. It won’t be a good summer for Kythera, a storekeeper says. He’s been watching a television screen behind his back counter – there’s not much else to do – but Greeks everywhere are watching and listening now. They can’t help it: their capital is boiling over, fury and betrayal distort faces and speech, and they’re remembering last year’s terrible violence when death stalked the protests.

In the next shop two women pause to watch the breaking news, shuddering as tear gas clouds the screens and batons are raised. They tell me stories of life in modern Greece: hospital patients supplying their own sheets and dressings, sons unemployed for years, people bartering the extra tomatoes from their gardens for oranges, for bread. But things are worse in Athens, they say. Here at least we can grow our food.


On the day we leave the air is full of promises made and a gentle rage that Sharon is leaving, just now when they’ve found her. It’s only been three days. She clutches addresses, photographs of a grandmother she never knew, gifts. The women touch their palms to her cheeks. Old Irini says in Greek, don’t be lost again. The other women repeat it through their tears.

Three days. Time enough to be lost and found, exiled and reclaimed. We watch their faces, so fierce and tender, until they’re out of sight. Don’t be lost again. As we drive through the empty fields we know they’re talking not just about Sharon but about Greece, their Greece, because they too are lost, Greece is lost, sold off, bereft. They don’t know if and when it will ever be theirs again.

Kristina Olsson is a journalist, writer and teacher. Her most recent book The China Garden won the 2010 Barbara Jefferis Award and was shortlisted for the Nikita B. Kibble Award.