02 May 2019
As I was strolling through the side streets and back streets of Rethymnon this week, I found myself once again photographing a colourful house that in many ways tells the stories of how life moves on in Rethymnon over the years, and how life moves on in Greece.
For the umpteenth time this week, I had climbed the steep hills up to the old Venetian Fortezza to enjoy the views across the town and out to the sea. Clustered around the base of the Fortezza, there are warrens of back streets with houses, each pretty and charming in its own self-contained way.
Over the years, this attractive house on a corner of Cheimarras Street, with its colourful façade, flowerpots and window is typical of the charm of these back streets on the slopes tumbling down from the Fortezza.
When I first noticed it back in 2012, a colourful but punctured bicycle stood outside Marylee’s House, and seemed like a metaphor for the Greek economy – punctured and jaded, and waiting for someone to see that it could roll on once again.
The house provided one of my favourite images from Rethymnon that year. I had the photograph printed on canvas and mounted for a wall in the house in Knocklyon.
A year later, the bicycle that had been outside Marylee’s house in 2012 had given way to a motorbike. I suppose time just moves on at a speed we never understand.
This year, there was no bicycle or motor bike outside the house … once again, perhaps, a metaphor for the Greek economy and politics, as things stand still waiting to see whether this month’s European elections results are going to influence the choice of a date for a general election in Greece later this year.
Marylee’s House stands on the corner of Cheimarras Street, a narrow street that takes its name from Himara or Himarë in southern Albania, known in Greek as Χειμάρρας, Cheimarras.
Since antiquity, the region of Himara has been predominantly populated by people who are ethnically Greek. Despite all the changes over time, that part of Albania has remained an important centre of Greek culture and politics in Albania, and the majority of people are Greek-speaking.
In classical antiquity, Himara was part of the Kingdom of Epirus, whose rulers included King Pyrrhus, who was a second cousin of Alexander the Great and who has given us the term ‘Pyrrhic Victory.’
Following the fall of Rome, Himara, along with the rest of the southern Balkans, passed into the hands of the Byzantine Empire.
When the Ottoman Empire overran northern Epirus from the late 14th century on, Himara was the only region that did not fall to Ottoman rule.
During the First Balkan War, the town revolted under Spyros Spyromilios in 1912 and expelled the Ottoman force in order to join Greece. The Protocol of Corfu, signed in March 1914, established the Autonomous Republic of Northern Epirus, which included Himara. During World War I, Himara was under Greek administration from October 1914 until September 1916, when it was occupied by Italy.
The region came under the control of the Albanian state in 1921, but there were revolts throughout the 1920s demanding respect for Greek culture and autonomy. During World War II, the town was captured briefly by the Greek army in December 1940.
Today, the people of Himara remain a majority-Greek population, but fear their culture, language and religion are constantly under threat.
An interesting Greek cultural figure from Himara was Pyrros Spyromilios (1913-1962). As a navy officer during World War II, he took part in Greek capture of his home town by the Greek military. After World War II, he became director of the Greek Radio Orchestra. In this role, many new music celebrities emerged in Greece with his support, including Nana Mouskouri, who was born in Chania and who sang for Luxembourg in the 1963 Eurovision Song Contest.
Spyromilios also agreed to allow the composer Mikis Theodorakis to use his ensemble, along with the popular bouzouki instrumentalist, Manolis Chiotis, and singer Grigoris Bithikotsis, in the Greek radio premiere of the Epitaphios, a setting to music by Theodorakis of the epic poem by the Greek poet Yiannis Ritsos. It was an innovative move at the time, and so had a lasting influence on modern Greek culture.
When I next return to Rethymnon, and walk along Cheimarras Street, I shall be watching out for Marylee’s House again, but also listening in my mind to the melody on Epitaphios and thinking of the naval officer from Himara who played an innovative role in modern Greek culture.
There is one signboard with two notices at the entrance to beach at Platanias, where I spent the past week.
On one side, it reads: Αρχή Ακτής, Beginning of the Beach.
On the other side, it reads: Τέλος Ακτής, End of the Beach.
The Greek might be translated more literally as ‘Shore’ rather than ‘Beach’, and perhaps the word Παραλία is used more often for beach in Greek.
In some ways, those signs also came to symbolise this past week in Rethymnon. I had come mainly to experience the Orthodox commemorations and celebrations of Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter.
But each day included a stroll along the long stretch white sands along the shore at Platanias, enjoying the sunshine, the blue skies and the deep blue sea.
Reading signs in another country and another language requires more than literal translations.
The hundreds of nails stuck into one old pole on the road leading up from Platanias to the hillside village of Tsesmes may have mystified many a first-time visitor to Crete. But they remain from the old notices that are pinned or nailed to any available space as soon as someone dies, but removed before the celebrations of Easter and the Resurrection began on Saturday night.
Death, denial and a white seashore are images that remind me of the poem ‘Denial’ ( Άρνηση) by Giorgos Seferis (1900-1971), first published in 1931 in his collection Turning Point (Στροφή, Strophe).
Seferis received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1963. After the colonels’ coup in 1967, however, he went into voluntary seclusion and many of his poems were banned, including the musical versions written and arranged by the composer Mikis Theodorakis.
‘Denial’ came to be the anthem of resistance to the colonel and was sung by the enormous crowds lining the streets of Athens at the poet’s funeral in September 1971. He had become a popular hero for his resistance to the regime.
Στο περιγιάλι το κρυφό κι άσπρο σαν περιστέρι διψάσαμε το μεσημέρι· μα το νερό γλυφό.
Πάνω στην άμμο την ξανθή γράψαμε τ' όνομά της· ωραία που φύσηξεν ο μπάτης και σβήστηκε η γραφή.
Mε τι καρδιά, με τι πνοή, τι πόθους και τι πάθος, πήραμε τη ζωή μας· λάθος! κι αλλάξαμε ζωή.
‘Denial’ (translated by Edmund Keeley and Phillip Sherrard)
On the secret seashore
white like a pigeon
we thirsted at noon;
but the water was brackish.
On the golden sand
we wrote her name;
but the sea-breeze blew
and the writing vanished.
With what spirit, what heart,
what desire and passion
we lived our life; a mistake!
So we changed our life.