On the Gulf of Messinia

It’s evening. From our hillside terrace we look down across olive groves and cypresses to the calm waters of the Gulf of Messinia. The light is golden; the heat has finally gone out of the day. Our landlord, coming up the hill in his tractor, waves a greeting. It’s blessedly peaceful.

We arrived on Monday after a mildly eventful flight from Paris to Kalamata, via Munich and Athens. There was a delay in Munich, so we got to Athens late, and there’s only one flight a day from Athens to Kalamata, on a little propeller-driven DC-Havilland.

But there were ground staff at Athens waiting just for us – they rushed us to a bus, into the airport, through immigration and security, and into a car organised to speed us across the tarmac just in time to catch the plane.

Try getting service like that at Sydney airport.

Only one problem: the luggage didn’t make it. But they got it on the next day’s flight, and sent it out to us by taxi.

At Kalamata, centre of the Peloponnese olive-producing area, our friends Jim and Marjory were waiting for us. They’re journos who’ve made their home here for the past two years. All four of us worked on The Sun-Herald in Sydney together years ago.

They’re great friends to have. Through their connections we’ve found our  immensely liveable accommodation. At the village the whole family turns out to greet us – a heartfelt Greek welcome. There’s a platter of fresh fruit in the fridge, cherries and apricots and peaches, they’ve left us a bottle of their own olive oil, and one of them ducks out to pick us some luscious ripe tomatoes and a cucumber.

The son-in-law has a little English, I struggle with my few words of Greek, but Alex as always manages to communicate with everyone without knowing a word.

It’s going to be a good place to unwind, a change of pace from our dash through London and Paris. We’re just five minutes from the beach – it’s shingly, but the water is crystal clear and 25 degrees. We’ll swim morning and evening.


On our first night we go with Jim and Marjory to the taverna down the hill, run by relatives of our Greek family. We eat on a terrace overlooking the gulf, the view even more spectacular, with the Taygetos mountains behind us and Kalamata lighting up across the water as the sun goes down. There’s a big Greek salad and delicious little kefthetes meatballs, souvlakia of pork and chicken and the best dish of okra I’ve ever tasted. To wash it down we try the local organic wines, a white and a rosé. They’re light and refreshing, nothing like retsina, and Marjory tells me we can stock up on them at the local shop for three euros a litre. The meal for the four of us, wine included, comes to just over 40 euroså. The fruit at the end of the meal is complimentary.


Next day we go into Kalamata to sort out our internet connection. The young techies in the telecom shop find that there’s a compatibility problem between the mobile modem we’d ordered and our upgraded laptops. We can fix it, they say, but it will take at least half an hour. Would you rather have your money back? No, we say – we’ll leave the laptops with you and go to the café on the corner. It’s 35 degrees and we’re sitting there with our lemonades, refreshed by jets of cold air streamed from the edge of the awning above us, when two of the IT team come racing up, carrying the laptops, with smiles on their faces – they’ve solved the problem but need our passwords to reboot, so they’ve come to find us.

These are hard-working people, and they’re go-ahead, even in the rural areas. Half of the village here is on solar power. The olive producers have a cooperative that manages oil production to a very high standard and develops new products. Just south of us the village of Stoupa has a ground-breaking self-managed environmental policy to ensure that biodiversity is maintained and that its waters remain pristine. There is a mix of the old economy and the new that ought to work. True, the bottom has dropped out of the world market for olive oil, but the farmers try to diversify. One local has even cleared his olive trees and put in a 200-panel solar energy farm, selling back to the grid.

Don’t tell me the Greeks don’t work hard, or that they don’t work smart. The problem is at the top. The corrupt politicians of Athens and the bankers of Europe have a lot to answer for. 51% of people under 25 are now unemployed, and 20% of the population as a whole.


Back in London at the British Museum we picked up some of a brilliant series of Very Short Introductions, little books by Oxford University Press (three for £10). Among them was Classical Mythology by Helen Morales of Newnham College, Cambridge. It’s a thought-provoking, unstuffy look at how myths from Greece and Rome live on in changing forms.

She begins with the two-euro coin and its depiction of Europa, the daughter of Phoenix, riding a bull. In the legend, which has come to be known as “the rape of Europa”, Zeus sees her, fancies her, changes himself into a bull, seduces her and takes her off to Crete. The figure of Europa has come over the centuries to stand as a symbol for Europe itself, and Morales, writing in 2007 before the present crisis, relates how she has been used as a symbol for the European Union. Europa and the bull are there in Aligi Sassu’s mural for the European Parliament; they were used to encourage Germans to vote in European elections; they formed the theme for a comic strip devised by a PR firm to popularise the EU; and they were used, in a sanitised version, in a German children’s book Die Euro Kids. Young readers were told: “Without bulls there would be no Europe.”

The rape of Europa is a pretty strange myth to symbolise European Union. Morales asks presciently: “Does it say: joining the EU means ‘we’re shafted’?” Her answer back then was no: today it looks a bit different.

That classical mural in Brussels is going to look pretty embarrassing if Greece is forced out of the Eurozone.

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