Ireland is my old flame, but I’m in love with Greece now

Life in a bankrupt state with a refugee crisis is not barrel of laughs, but Corfu is home

Richard Pine in Greece: Here my weekly shop costs €75; in Ireland that would barely put the butter on the bread

Richard Pine in Greece: Here my weekly shop costs €75; in Ireland that would barely put the butter on the bread

 

Living and working in a country that is bankrupt, politically chaotic, in hock to international moneylenders and at the centre of the worst refugee crisis since the implosion of the Roman Empire may not sound like a barrel of laughs.

But Greece is so much more than the sum of its tragedies. I came here, to the island of Corfu, here in 2001 with no misgivings, on a one-way ticket, having cashed in my severance chips from RTÉ.

Crossing borders is always dangerous. Between past and future, between the “you” who was and the “you” who will be.

People who go to islands are either running away from something or rushing to embrace something. I was doing both: leaving a country that had become too difficult for comfort and going towards something I intensely wanted to do: to establish an international seminar on the arts in the name of the brothers Gerald and Lawrence Durrell, who had lived in Corfu in the 1930s.

Psychologically, it was important to move away from Ireland, even though it meant leaving loved ones and quite a few roots. Ireland had become inhospitable in an indefinable way. Greece was welcoming, in an equally indefinable way. It was also a challenge, culturally, linguistically, environmentally. I took it on as a full-time job.

When you get over the culture shock, which starts with the unfamiliar alphabet and the completely different mindset, parallels between Greece and Ireland become immediately apparent: the village where I live has all the vibrancy that one finds in a village in Connemara.

Athens is as boring and dirty as Dublin, although it does have a metro that goes all the way to the airport.

Life here could never be described as self-indulgent. The financial collapse and the current refugee crisis make sure that we can never be self-satisfied. The border crossing to Europe is far more traumatic for the refugees than mine ever was.

And of course there are the same evils as in Ireland: bribery and corruption, the bureaucratic nightmare, cronyism.

We also have terrorism, the legacy of the fact that, since independence, Greeks have never decided what kind of country they want. And that is something worth reporting to Ireland.

The villagers among whom I live know that I’m a writer, but until my book Greece Through Irish Eyes came out, last year, they had no idea what I did with my time. That book was a labour of love and, like the monthly Letter from Greece that I contribute to this paper, was the result of an urgent need to explain this country to Irish readers.

One of the misconceptions is that we sit lounging all day in permanent sunshine. Yes, I can sit on my terrace for eight months of the year, but the other four bring torrential rain and amazing thunder and lightning storms that knock off the electricity and water, just as an Atlantic storm does in Connemara.

Here my basic weekly shopping costs €75; in Ireland that would barely put the butter on the bread. I buy peaches and sweet red peppers for €1.50 a kilo. Plus tomatoes that taste like tomatoes before air miles were invented, and chicken that your neighbour raises for the pot.

Like most country folk I have lemons, figs and oranges in abundance on my own trees, plus grapes from several elderly vines, complementing thyme-scented honey from my friend Tomas, taverna-keeper extraordinaire and local secretary of Syriza.

Village life is intensely miniature. The national troubles are never as significant as anxiety about the year’s wine crop or olive harvest. I love to see wood smoke rising from every chimney; I love to find myself in the morning queue at the boulangerie. I love it when my neighbour chides me for sitting up until 4am – “you writers!” These small things make life liveable.

There are drawbacks: you can’t drink the tap water, so you buy it in bottles: nine litres for €1.60. That works out considerably more than the mains water, for which everyone pays unhesitatingly – a mere €90 a year. I don’t know why the Irish complain.

I bought a bog-standard bungalow with no view. I can in fact see nothing but olive groves, unless I go to the end of the village street, and there is Albania. As my colleague Denis Staunton has remarked, I live on the periphery of the periphery. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Athens? No thanks.

The terrace is my place of work, bounded by fruit and olive trees and roofed by vines. At night, the mating call of the scops owl and the scent of jasmine. Underfoot, wild oregano and mint yield their fragrance. In the hottest months – July and August, when it can go uncomfortably over 40 degrees – one can sit out until 2am or 3am. Sounds good, doesn’t it? But I still have to earn a living.

Being alone allows me to work a 16- to 18-hour day. The Letter from Greece and programme notes for the National Symphony Orchestra sustain a connection with Ireland. Then there are books and, thanks to having a portable skill, freelance editing. Plus guest lectures (pro bono) at the Ionian University.

There is constant traffic between Ireland and Corfu. There’s a small but lively Irish community. I get all the latest Irish novels. I grab every Irish film. RTÉ Player brings me images from Ireland. But they are from a far-off country, where I no longer belong as I once did. It’s like a visit by an old flame when one has fallen in love with a new one.

In any case it would be impossible to live in Ireland on my RTÉ pension. Would I commute? Impractical. A life lived in two places is not a life.

Of course I return for short visits. I’ll inspect my newborn grandson in May, and I’ll be giving a lecture in memory of Brian Friel in August.

What do I miss? Reading the print edition of The Irish Times in Neary’s of Chatham Street or O’Dowd’s in Roundstone; the Royal Irish Academy of Music; Books Upstairs; and Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Galway. And, although I no longer drink it, Guinness.

What don’t I miss? Starbucks, the Luas and Michael Noonan.

And what’s my wish list? A greater awareness of Greek food and wine in Irish shops and restaurants; more Greek writers getting translated into English; to set up a workshop here for chamber orchestras; a state visit by Michael D. Not much to ask, really.

The ultimate border crossing is, of course, death. They say that home is where you want to be buried, so that gives me my definitive answer: here.

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