Monday, July 13, 2009

Global Greece Through the Eyes of Greek Australian Writer Katherine Kizilos: 'The Greece that has always been there is the Greece I go back to.'

Greek Australian Katherine Kizilos is an award-winning Senior Writer for The Age Newspaper in Melbourne, Australia. Katherine writes regularly on social and cultural issues across the various sections of the paper. In May 2007 she won the Victoria Law Foundation's Tony Smith Award for reporting that promotes understanding of the work of the courts for her report on Victoria's Koori courts, "Law and a new order".

In her book, The Olive Grove: Travels in Greece, 1997, Katherine writes about Greece "with an insider's understanding, describing generous people,passionate politics,and breathtaking landscapes of a country that is frequently visited but rarely explored".

One of the reviews by an anonymous reader on, had this to say about The Olive Grove:

Sparked by childhood stories told by her father and a natural curiosity for the truth, Kizilos retraces the steps of her father to find the heart and soul of her roots. This entails a journey of not only the mainland, but several small islands and villages where the past struggles violently with the future.

Told in a concise and vivid way, she is both straightforward and philosophical. In contrast to other travel accounts, Kizilos' writing is accessible and often emotional because she is both a journalist who understands how to write for the public and a woman who feels life.

Because she travels to several "unknown" places in Greece -- not just Athens, Mykonos and other popular places frequented by tourists -- readers looking for something off the beaten track can appreciate her more.

Recently, one of her articles in The Age, written back in September 2005 but still relevant came to our attention and we enjoyed it very much, feeling that it really does represent how many of we Greek-Somethings feel about Greece. We have reproduced it here for the benefit of all our readers but you can click on the link at the end of the article to read the original. Thanks very much Katherine!! Keep on feeling like that!!

Ode to an Absent Friend

The Age - Melbourne September 2005

Sometimes, when you love a person who is far away, you carry them with you. When you meet again, the interval when you were parted disappears; it is insignificant. My visits to Greece are like this.

Years go by between visits, yet whenever I return, I feel at home. Melbourne is my real home, the place I was born and where I live and work. My feelings for Greece are separate from all that; they have their own independent life.

And like an absent friend, the Greece I remember is not static but always changing. Almost 30 years have passed since my first visit. The country that I saw then is, in many ways, quite different to the Greece of today - a place where even the shepherds carry mobile telephones, and where remote mountain villages are being kept alive by a tide of immigrants from neighbouring Albania. My idea, which cannot be proved, is that some essential qualities - the cardinal Greek virtues, if you like - are somehow able to survive the tides of politics and economics. The Greece that has always been there is the Greece I go back to.

A glass of water

Greece is not the poor country it was in 1978, the year of my earliest visit. Its poverty provided my first, and strongest, impression of the country then. Poverty was responsible for what I didn't like in Athens: the labyrinth of crowded, ugly, cement apartment blocks stewing under the nefos, the heavy cloud of pollution that choked the city. But it seemed to me then, and still does now, that this poverty was also what made the people so strong and direct.

Maybe it is a mistake to draw a connection between a person's lack of riches and their capacity to be open-hearted. I noticed both on my first trip to Greece and have placed them together ever since. If it is a mistake, it is one that other people have also made on visiting Greece.

In The Colossus of Maroussi, Henry Miller describes arriving in Athens in the months immediately before World War II. By day he was overwhelmed by the heat; he ventured from his hotel room in the evening, about 11pm. Walking the streets, he was moved by the sight of couples sitting together in cafes, talking softly and drinking glasses of water. These glasses of water, and the couples who sat before them holding hands, appeared to Miller to be sainted things.

He wrote: "The dust, the heat, the poverty, the bareness, the containedness of the people, and the water everywhere in little tumblers standing between the quiet, peaceful couples, gave me the feeling that there was something holy about the place, something nourishing and sustaining."

Greeks have a fine capacity to make a ritual of everyday blessings: a cup of coffee, a midday meal, an evening stroll - days revolve around these simple acts, which become rich because of the attention that is paid to them. This is not easy to explain, but it can be experienced when you are there, if you are open to it.

An Australian-born Greek I know, who visited Greece for the first time as a young man in his 20s, once described to me a visit he made to his uncle and aunt who lived in a poor village on the rocky ground near Argos.

"We sat inside, and then my aunt prepared lunch. After lunch, we moved the chairs into the courtyard and sat outside."

He did not mention what they talked about, or whether the neighbours dropped by, or even what they ate. Just the sitting together, the sharing of the meal and moving the chairs inside and outside.

How did he like it?

"I loved it. It was beautiful."

But to return to the glass of water. Even today, when a Greek talks about offering a glass of water, it is understood that this is a humble gesture, but also the essence of hospitality. A mere nothing, but everything. I once heard a Greek say of an old woman who had recently died: How could I forget her? When she had nothing, she offered me a glass of water.

The mountains and the sea

Old people in Greece retain the sense of the land that they acquired in their youth, before cars became commonplace. My Uncle Apostoli, for instance, who is now in his 80s, did not buy his one and only car until he was in his mid-50s. He and his wife Katina, who does not drive, have spent most of their lives walking up and down the mountain where they were born.

This is healthful, but it also means that their sense of the place runs deep. Each bend in the road holds a memory, and so do the olive groves, the cherry orchards and the vineyards that grow on the surrounding valleys and hillsides. The land that belongs to the villagers does not comprise one continuous plot, but many different bits and pieces on various sites, acquired over years. Each piece of land has its own name and history.

The task of tending to this land, and of providing for their family is their pride, but has also been their burden. The villagers stayed on the mountain while their brothers and sisters travelled overseas to make their fortunes. The ones who left Greece are envied and pitied for the adventure they made of their life. Envied for their fortune - if they were able to make one - and also for the freedom of being released from the mountain and its gravity and toil. Pitied because most of the people who leave are still bound to the place; it always remains a part of them.

The idea that the land carries a person's history and can provide their nourishment and solace is strong in Greece. When Greece was a peasant economy, there were practical reasons for this. But there is another reason, which can sound sentimental to say aloud (particularly to someone as outwardly gruff and sceptical as my Uncle Apostoli) but which is plain and obvious to any visitor: the overwhelming beauty of the place.

Why so much beauty is concentrated in such a small area, and what effect it has on the people who live there, are questions without answers. In Greece, vistas of the mountains and the sea are endlessly juxtaposed, with dazzling effect. The light is limpid, the colours intense. If you arrive by plane from Australia, you are rewarded with the sight of the sun rising over the Aegean and its islands; hundreds of mountains floating in the sea. It is astonishing to look down and find that Greece is more beautiful than you remember it to be.


Many orderly and predictable events take place in Greece. The new underground rail system in Athens, for example, is handsome, well-designed and a model of efficiency. All around the country, bread rises and is baked in thousands of reliable bakeries. Well-dressed children go to school and do their homework and play soccer in the park when siesta time is over. Church bells ring on name days and everybody visits their parents at Easter. In many ways, Greece is still a traditional society, which means a Greek is more likely to follow custom and convention than an Australian - because here it is easier for a person to cut loose and declare themselves free of all ties than it is in Greece.

For all that, the Greek reputation for madness is not unfounded. Public drunkenness is rare, but it is not unusual for people to yell at each other in the street (and then, perhaps, to embrace), to push in, to smoke too much, to become argumentative, or to buy you, a perfect stranger, a meal for no reason except that they like the look of you and why should you be sitting there all alone on such a beautiful evening? If the ability to strike up a spontaneous friendship is a sign of madness, then the Greeks are barking.

Greeks can also be exasperating, particularly in banks and government offices. As a rule (with honourable exceptions) the melancholy facts of bureaucracy and paperwork do not bring out the best in the Greek people. There may be historical reasons for this, connected to the long years of Greek subjugation under the Ottomans and the sense it gave them that any official - even a bank teller or a post office clerk - is a powerful person who can use his influence for personal advantage.

My own experience is that everyday dealings in Greece - shopping, ordering coffee, asking for directions - are unpredictable. You can never tell where the simplest exchange will take you. One can be met with great kindness or exasperating rudeness, sometimes in dizzying succession.

Whether or not you like this is a matter of temperament. On a recent trip to Greece, my son, who does not speak Greek, witnessed a long and intense conversation between a husband and wife as we travelled down a mountain together in a car. He watched their hand gestures, listened to their raised voices and their laughter, and wondered what it was all about.

Peas, I told him. Green peas. They are particularly good this year. Nick wants Sophia to buy more peas.


The word for summer in Greek means good weather; Greece is sold as the land of eternal summertime, a good-time place that you leave when summer is over. In summer, the population of Greece doubles; by November the Greeks mostly have the country back to themselves. This means, for instance, that most visitors do not see how good Athens can be in the winter, with its wonderful shops and restaurants. They do not see what Greece is like when everyone is back at work.

I had a friend who enjoyed Greece so much in the summer that he was determined to live there all year round; his plan was to open a bar on the island he loved best. I think he lasted six months. He complained that the island was cold in the winter and dreary in the off-season. And he found that not speaking Greek, which had been no obstacle during his summer holiday, was a huge disadvantage when trying to set up a business. He blamed the Greeks bitterly for this failure. Greece was not forgiven for having a workaday self.

But it is in this working Greece, this parallel place where there are all seasons, where Greek people can be found. And they need to be found, and talked to, if you want a living, breathing sense of what Greece is.

This is surely true of all places, not just Greece. And it can be difficult to know a people, particularly if you do not share a language (and Greek is a difficult language, as Greeks are proud to explain to you).

Not everyone will want to find this other Greece, and perhaps that is just as well. And not all those who do find it will like it there; Greece is not for everyone. But my own bias is that Greece is worth the effort. It is a land lovely beyond imagining and the people who live there belong to the place and will welcome you - if you are open to them and willing to take them as they are.

Click here To read the original article

Click here To buy the book -The Olive Grove on


  1. i've always wanted to write about that precious glass of water always found on the tables of greek cafes - lovely way to express it

  2. Greece certainly changes in summer... that's why everyone loves it. In order to stay for the winter like the friend mentioned, you need to be prepared to deal with lots of obstacles (whether linguistic or practical) and be patient, especially when it comes to government offices. There will always be someone to help you out though, even if that's a stranger... and that's the beauty of this country.

  3. I spent a good part of my sabbatical last summer in Greece, tracing my roots and visiting the villages of my grandparents. I have felt a warm, tighter hug around me since walking where they walked before making the journey to the United States. It is a feeling that is difficult to describe, but done so eloquently here.


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