History Lessons in Corfu

The boat we took to Kérkyra, the island also known as Corfu.

In the morning, while the Germans, Americans and Brits sleep off last night’s dinner, the ladies are out among the gardens. Over faded dresses and threadbare slacks they wear reflective safety vests, they carry brooms and rakes. As they chat about last night’s TV show, the state of their kids and husbands, they clear the paths and flower beds of twigs and fallen leaves, and by mid-morning they’re gone.

During these same morning hours, I wander the formal gardens facing our hotel in Kérkyra (“Corfu,” to non-Greeks) to snap pictures of its many statues. Uniformed and besuited Worthies, carved in marble, are scattered through the winding paths. Famous generals and prime ministers, scholars and bureaucrats, all of them men, all of them briefly astride History.

Kerkyra is parked just off the coast of Greece, in the Adriatic, which makes it a geopolitical prize. And so, for centuries the Great Powers each took their turn. Venice installed its Worthies and ruled for centuries. The French had two goes at Kerkyra, the second time led by the megalomaniac Napoleon. After they ousted Napoleon, the Brits stayed on for a bit. Then they decided Kerkyra wasn’t worth the trouble and, following Greek Independence, “gave it back.”

But it was a 19th century view of independence. Out for a run one day, I pass the Mon Repos Palace where Prince Phillip (William and Harry’s grandad), of wholly German stock, was born in 1921.

One of the many Worthies in the Corfu Public Garden, where only nobles were once permitted to walk.
This Worthy has a fierce and warlike disposition. Note the cannon at his feet.

This one sits atop the highest pedestal.

* * *

A few days before our arrival in Kérkyra, we were staying in the town of Kalambáka, beneath the monk-haunted mountains of Meteora. One evening, as we were walking toward the agora to scope out a taverna for dinner, a Dutch woman turned to me and confided that she always felt nervous speaking with Greeks. She would eventually have to reveal her Dutch background, and might be blamed for the punishing austerity measures Greeks endured after the global financial crisis of 2008. Tens of thousands of Greeks were left homeless, families went hungry, suicide rates spiked. As society went into freefall, the public safety nets vanished.

The Dutch woman, a retired chief executive of a global consultancy, said it had all been very unfair. I, too, remember the news stories, and the unspoken judgments: Lazy, feckless, corrupt, irresponsible. They had it coming.

In Canada, among Greek friends, we looked at each other guiltily. Wasn’t there some truth to the charges? We traded our own stories of maddening bureaucracy, reckless spending and tax avoidance.

“But Germany was mostly behind all those austerity measures, wasn’t it?” I asked the Dutch woman.

“Yes, but a Dutch Eurogroup president carried them out,” she responded. “Greeks would remember this.”

I reassured her, without any real knowledge, that it was water under the bridge. Greeks are hospitable people, so how could anyone possibly blame her? We had all moved on.

It was not a good answer, but it was the best I could do. We found a taverna and our group ordered an excellent dinner, with a couple of litres of local wine. It was a memorable evening with much laughter.

The enchanting Liston arcade, beside our hotel. It was designed along the lines of rue de Rivoli, in Paris, and built during Napoleon’s occupation of 1807-14.

The front window of a beauty parlour, also enchanting.

A burden on society

Objectively speaking, Uncle Pavlo, who lived with his family a few blocks from our apartment in Park Extension, was a failure. After arriving in Canada, he started several businesses, but they all went bust. As for steady work, he never managed to hold a job for more than a year or two, often just a few months. He’d work long enough to qualify for government benefits, then quit or arrange to get fired. He did that for years, supplementing his meagre UI cheques with the odd part-time job, always for cash. He bought a car, but then lost his license for driving while drunk.

By my high school years, Uncle Pavlo had settled into a tolerable routine. When the UI forms arrived each month, he’d find me at the back of my father’s small store. I was usually at the meat counter, eating a sandwich of warm Greek bread, mortadella and cheese. And beside me, always, a sheet of butcher paper with a tomato cut into wedges and a handful of olives.

“Sorry to interrupt, Bárba Spyro,” he’d say, handing me a pen and his UI forms.

Between bites, I’d tick off the boxes. Yes, he had been available to work. Yes, he had looked for a job. No, he had not succeeded in finding one. Sign here. Date there. I suggested that his kids, both of them about my age, could just as easily fill out the forms. Nope. The cheques kept coming, so why tempt fate?

Meanwhile his kids needed winter boots and school supplies. Money was always short for rent and utilities, for bus tickets to get my aunt to her factory job. There were never vacations.

I also remember several other things about Uncle Pavlo. For instance, he was a good cook and taught me several classic dishes, including tas kebab. When he had a few dollars, he joined his cronies at various Greek dives in Montreal, where he was a legendary drinking companion. He could be hysterically funny. When Uncle Pavlo was “on,” with a beer parked on the table in front of him, he would hold a room for hours. On Saturdays he played the fiddle in a Greek dance band. Sometimes I watched him practice, his thick, nicotine-stained fingers confounding all expectation, as they raced up and down the fingerboard to conjure a maiden eagerly skipping along a mountain path and into the arms of her lover.

Until the day he died, Uncle Pavlo called me “Bárba Spyro,” a common endearment for an elderly gentleman. He began calling me “Bárba Spyro” when I was in grade school. I must have been a serious kid.

* * *

Later in the day, roaming the narrow lanes of Kerkyra, we come across a yiayiá with her broom. It’s such a common sight throughout Greece that, after a time you scarcely notice them. Ancient women eternally sweeping their front steps as a cat sleeps under a pot of basil.

The Ant and the Grasshopper

No one knows what Aesop looked like, but in sculptures he is always ugly and troll-like. According to ancient accounts, Aesop was a former slave. Some place his death in Delphi, maybe in 6th century BCE. But the history is murky. We really don’t know much about him. Even Aesop’s existence is in dispute. The first and greatest fabulist may have been a fiction himself.

One of Aesop’s best-known fables, “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” has been endlessly retold, reinterpreted and illustrated to suit every age. You know the story.

Winter arrives, with howling vengeance, and Grasshopper makes his way to Ant’s snug little cottage. Hungry, cold and bedraggled, seeking shelter, Grasshopper bangs on the door. The door opens a crack, then swings wide to reveal Ant, who is wearing bunny slippers, a green woolen housecoat lined with thin-striped red satin, and a warm nightcap. Behind him, a fire blazes on an iron grate. Ant surveys the shivering Grasshopper, grimaces at the fat drop of snot trembling at the tip of a red nose. Ant clucks his tongue.

“Well, will you look at that. While I slaved all summer long, while I prudently stored up food and provisions to tide my family through the winter months, you, Grasshopper, you sat lolling on a sunny rock and sawing at your fiddle all day. Without a care in the world, eh? Now, here is the day of reckoning at last.”

And with that, Ant slams the door in Grasshopper’s face.

A man studies the photographer.