Friday, 6 September 2013

‘I hope for nothing, I fear nothing, I am free’:
visiting the grave of Nikos Kazantzakis

The grave of Nikos Kazantzakis on the walls of Iraklion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

Δεν ελπίζω τίποτα.
Δε φοβούμαι τίποτα.
Είμαι λέφτερος.


– Νίκος Καζαντζάκης

We climbed up through the narrow streets of Iraklion in the warm afternoon sun yesterday [Thursday 5 September 2013] to visit the grave Crete’s most famous writer, Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957).

Earlier we had lunch in a side street near Aghios Minas Cathedral with Manolis Xrysakis, a long-standing friend since the mid-1990s.

Manolis and his family in Iraklion and Piskopiano are proud of their kinship with Nikos Kazantzakis: they are descended from the sister-in-law of ‘Kapetan Mihailis,’ the eponymous hero of the Kazantzakis novel based on his father’s adventures and published in English as Freedom and Death.

One balmy summer’s evening with the Chrysakis family in Piskopiano, Manolis’ uncle, the late Kostas Chrysakis, pored over old family photographs, postcards and letters, sharing childhood memories of his famous “Uncle Nikos.”

Kostas Chrysakis treasured his photographs of his uncle’s funeral. They show men in traditional island costumes, like Dirk Bogarde in Ill Met by Moonlight, in a procession led by robed Orthodox priests through the very streets we traipsed up yesterday afternoon.

Although Kazantzakis was denied church ceremonies in Athens, when his body was flown to Crete by Aristotle Onassis he lay in state in Aghias Minas Cathedral in Iraklion, and a priest officiated at the burial, giving lie to the popular claim that Kazantzakis had died an excommunicate.

Kostas claimed that when the Vatican and the Archbishop of Athens demanded the excommunication of Kazantzakis following the publication of The Last Temptation of Christ, the Patriarch of Constantinople insisted that the Church of Crete was independent.

The author’s grave on the bastion above Iraklion is marked by a simple cross and an epitaph carved in his own handwriting, with his own words:

Δεν ελπίζω τίποτα.
Δε φοβάμαι τίποτα.
Είμαι λέφτερος


(Den elpizo tipota. Den fovamai tipota. Eimai leftheros, “I hope for nothing, I fear nothing, I am free”).

The writer’s grave is on top of the great walls and bastions were part of the Venetian defences of the city they called Candia. Two of the great city gates have survived to this day: the Pantocrator or Panigra Gate, also known now as the Chania Gate (1570), at the western edge; and the Jesus Gate or Kainouryia Gate (about 1587), at the southern edge. At the south-west corner of these great walls, the grave of the author of such great works as Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ is on the Martinengo Bastion.

Below the bastion is a monument to Iraklion’s partisans who resisted the Nazi invasion of Crete during World War II. From the top of the bastion we had splendid views.

To the south is Mount Iouktas – it looks like the head of a man in profile and so is said to have given rise to the Cretan legend that this was the head of the dead and buried god Zeus.

Looking across the city and out to the Mediterranean from the grave of Nikos Kazantzakis on the Martinengo Bastion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

To the north, the roofs of the city lay below us, pierced by the dome and the baroque towers and turrets of Aghios Minas. Beyond, the blue of the Mediterranean stretched out to meet the blue of the sky on the horizon.

The simplicity and the quiet spirituality expressed in the setting and epitaph on the tomb of Kazantzakis reflects his personality and style and his life and work.

Some years ago, I wrote about Kazantzakis and his brief love affair with the daughter of an Irish rector, which he recalls in his autobiographical novel Report to Greco. At his grave yesterday, I recalled how he prefaced this novel with a prayer: “Three kinds of souls, three kinds of prayers: 1, I am a bow in your hands, Lord, draw me lest I rot. 2, Do not overdraw me, Lord, I shall break. 3, Overdraw me, Lord, and who cares if I break!”

It was late afternoon when we walked back down through the streets of Iraklion, stopping to admire the Church of Saint Matthew, which was once attached to Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai, and the small church of Aghia Paraskevi.

The monks at prayer … an image from the exhibition of paintings of Mount Athos by Efthymios Warlamis in Saint Mark’s Basilica, Iraklion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

After coffee in Lion Square beside the Morosini Fountain, three of us visited an exhibition of paintings by Efthymios Warlamis in Saint Mark’s Basilica, “The Holy Mount of Athos.”

This is a unique exhibition dedicated to the Holy Mountain of Athos, including the monasteries, the chapels, the sketes or small monastic dependencies, the landscape, the Orthodox monks and their ritual life.

The exhibition includes 72 original paintings by Efthymios Warlamis, a wooden simantron which is used to call the monks to prayer, and a sound room which recreates the effect the monks singing their daily prayers.

Greek-born Professor Efthymios Warlamis is now based in Austria, where he is the Director of the International Centre for Art and Design in Schrems, and Director of the Waldviertel Art Museum.

I have also visited his ‘Alexander 2000’ exhibition in Thessaloniki in 1997 and the exhibition he brought to Dublin Castle some years ago. It would be wonderful to see this exhibition in Ireland too.

An early dinner with our friend Despina was cut short by the need to catch the bus back to Rethymnon. It seems this holiday is coming to an end too soon.

● The exhibition in Saint Mark’s continues until Sunday 15 September, and is open 09:00-13:30 and 18:00-21:00 (Saturdays, 09:00-13:30).

Dublin church commemorates 1913 workers Lockout

The current edition of the Church of Ireland Gazette [6 September 2013] carries the following three-column news report on page 3:

Dublin church commemorates 1913 workers Lockout

A seminar to commemorate the 1913 Dublin Lockout will take place in Whitechurch parish Old Schools in the grounds of the church on Thursday 19th September, at 8.00 pm.

The seminar will focus on the Revd R.M. Gwynn and his medical doctor wife, Eileen, who are buried in Whitechurch graveyard. Mr Gwynn gave significant support to workers during the Lockout.

The speakers will include Archbishop Michael Jackson who will address the subject of ‘Gwynn, the Educationalist’; Canon Patrick Comerford, who will talk on ‘Gwynn, the Priest’, and Padraig Yeates will give a talk about ‘The Lockout 1913’.

The evening – a local contribution to the centenary commemorations of the Lockout which occur in the autumn – will start with a short commemorative ceremony at the Gwynn grave in the church grounds at 7.45 pm, followed by the seminar.

The Church of Ireland has established an Historical Commemorations Working Group (HCWG) to enable a wide range of interested parties to discuss and reflect on many of the significant political and constitutional events which dominated public life in the period 1912-1922.

The HCWG has orghanised a one-day symposium on the 1913 Dublin Lockout in Liberty Hall, Dublin, on Saturday 16th November, from 10.30 am–3.00 pm (Gazette, 7th June, page 3).

In the Greece that few tourists ever
wander in, I still need to pay in cash

A worn and battered sculpture on Tsagri Street in Rethymnon speaks of the present sufferings of Greek people (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

There are two images on parallel streets off Tsouderon Street in Rethymnon that speak to me of the present crisis in Greece, which goes far beyond a matter of budgeting and the economy.

At one end of Tsagri Street, a worn and beaten sculpture appears to portray the suffering Greek people today. The figures in it are bowed and beaten, yet appear to be helping each other to shake off the chains of oppression. Some days ago, a passer-by seems to have a placed a sprig of laurel on it, as if to say the Greek people can yet be victorious.

The former Commercial Bank of Greece branch is abandoned and the oranges and lemons are rotting on the trees in the garden (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

In Kastrinogianni Street, a narrow side street leading to Mitropolis (Cathedral) Square, there is a small, overgrown, abandoned graveyard. Beside it, the former premises of the Commercial Bank of Greece (Εμπορική Τράπεζα) are locked and empty, the windows are broken, the garden is overgrown and the orange and lemon trees in a once elegant garden are rotting on the trees, with no-one to pick the fruit. It is says so much of how Greek commerce and banking have turned sour.

Yet, in what seems to be a statement of economic patriotism, a large proportion of the tourists in Rethymnon this month are Greeks who are on stay-at-home holidays or “stay-cations.”

Despite economic and financial problems that continue to have a severe impact on every walk of life, the Bank of Greece says revenue from tourism rose by 18% in the first half of this year, to €3.3 billion. Part of this is due to the resilience of the Greek tourist sector, which remains tenacious in its efforts to attract visitors and works hard to develop the whole package on offer to potential holiday-makers.

Across the board, Greek hotels have cut their prices by about 10%. Restaurants and tavernas in Rethymnon are offering better value, with special deals for two. The concept of an “early bird menu” is a difficult one for Greeks, who have always enjoyed dining late in the evening. But restaurants are working hard – so hard that even at 11 at night or later I see young couples, who have worked hard all day and all evening, collecting toddlers from grandparents to bring them home at the end of a long, hard-working day.

Red, open-top buses are a new effort this year to improve the tourist attractions in Rethymnon and in Iraklion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

But there is more to it than working harder and longer hours. New ideas are also being pushed with vigour. Rethymnon is a small city, but now there is a red open-top bus circuit around the town, and visiting some of the local villages, leading from the seafront every hour on the hour. In Iraklion, the island capital, there are two competing operators, running city tours on red open-top buses and on sleek new yellow buses.

In the hills above Rethymnon, a small convent with a new lease of life thanks to the innovative and creative attitudes of the nuns of Agia Irini, is co-operating with tour operators, opened the doors to tourists not in a money-making exercise but because Russian tourists have expressed a particular interest in visiting this working nunnery and a special devotion to the convent patron, Saint Irene.

New franchises are offering everything imaginable made from or with olives (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

New franchises have opened across Rethymnon, selling every imaginable product made from olive oil and olive wood, from soap to kitchen utensils, and a range of ancillary goods, including kitchen towels and mugs. The branding is clever, but it also provides continuing employment in farms and villages throughout Crete, and boosts the image of one of the mainstays of the Greek agricultural sector.

Whether franchises like this are sustainable is another question, but many people are willing to invest their money and their time in the hope of developing something worthwhile. Certainly, they feel there is no point in leaving their money in the bank and projects like this might give some hope to their families.

Archaeological and museum staff state their case outside the Loggia in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The public sector cuts have hit tourist services and public transport too, so that there is no longer a ferry service between Rethymnon and Pireaus. But, despite widespread strikes and protests against austerity measures that have closed tourist attractions such as museums and archaeological sites, the Greek tourism sector is working hard not just to keep its head above water, but to develop and prosper.

Greece has received €240 billion in international bailout since 2010, but the Greek tourism sector represents up to 15% of this country’s €190 billion economy – in other words, tourism in one year is almost as important as all the bailouts over the past three years.

In the first half of this year alone, revenue from tourism rose by 18% to €3.3 billion, according to figures from the Bank of Greece, and the forecasts expect the number of visitors to Greece this year to reach 17 million, up 1.5 million from 15.5 million in 2012.

It is no wonder that the Finance Minister, Yannis Stournaras, could tell Parliament in Athens last week that Greece is on target to raise its GDP this year, mainly thanks to tourism.

Meanwhile, for tourists in Crete, there are few signs of economic doom and gloom, and where there are signs of action among the public sector workers, many tourists fail to notice them or cannot read the signs in Greek. And most visitors cannot read the aggressive racist graffiti from the extreme-right Golden Dawn targeting foreigners.

Any short-term fears tourists may have about currency and financial stability are allayed when they find the ATM machines are working and plastic can be used in virtually every shop and outlet.

The ATM machine is working well at National Bank of Greece next door in Tsouderon Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

But I’m still paying in cash for everything. I’m using the ATM in the branch of the National Bank of Greece next door in Tsouderon Street, and am paying with cash in shops, restaurants, periptera and for tours and buses.

Tax evasion among the rich and the elite was so endemic in Greece over the generations that it was undoubtedly one of the factors that contributed to the collapse of the Greek economy.

However, as I insist on paying with cash rather than with plastic, even for large transactions, I am not encouraging tax avoidance or tax evasion. Many businesses in this present climate find plastic payments are immediately swallowed up by the banks to pay off overdrafts, business loans and mortgages. On the other hand, cash payments leave businesses with the choice of paying suppliers and workers immediately, when suppliers are demanding cash and many workers in the tourist sector are seasonal and vulnerable.

Predictions say 40,000 small businesses in Greece face closure this year. They need all the support they can get. The local seasonal workers and farmers cannot wait. The banks can wait. The hedge funds can wait. The German banks can wait.

Derek Scally reported in The Irish Times last week how one German bank has received German government guarantees of €124 billion and has counted up losses of €9.3 billion. One German bank costs more than half the total €240 billion that Greece has received in aid to date. But no-one in Germany is hollering about the German banks in the same tones they use when talking about Greece.

A voluntary clinic on Kastrinogianni Street, where queues form at the end of the working day and no questions are asked (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Meanwhile, as Greece remains in financial trouble and is expecting to receive more international assistance, the tourists in Crete are unlikely to stroll further along Kastrinogianni Street, where – at the opposite end to the abandoned premises of the Commercial Bank of Greece – local people who have lost everything, including their dignity, queue each evening outside .a crèche which doubles after the working day as a voluntary clinic.

At the end of the day, doctors, nurses and hospital workers offer a free clinic. They say this is not charity, because everyone is entitled to proper health care as a human right. They ask no questions, and they undertake to intervene with hospitals if further care is needed.

Last week, the newly-appointed Health Minister, Adonis Georgiadis, made his views clear on Mega TV when he told protesting health workers: “We should have fired you so you can understand what is really happening.”

He has since conceded that his outburst was “excessive.” But he seems not to realise that health sector workers may be the only people who truly see and hear what is really happening in Greece today.

Can you buy everything at Nama? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

There is a shop called Nama in Metropolis Square, at the end of Kastrinogianni Street, and another one in Paleologou Street, both a few steps from where I am staying on Tsouderon Street.

Both shops seem to sell everything, including beads, which I imagine were once a form of currency in some places, and hats, once used to pass around for a collection. But I am sure my humorous take on the name of this shop, so close to these symbols of despair and desperation in Greece, is lost even on Irish tourists, for few tourists in Rethymnon ever walk through this part of the town.