David Pearce: Art and diplomacy on Twitter

David D. Pearce served as U.S. ambassador to Greece from 2013 to 2016. In this guest post for Philhellenes, he explains how his work as a diplomat, his love of Greece, and his passion for painting all found expression through the medium of Twitter.

I always had the habit of drawing, but it was only about five years before getting to Greece in 2013 that I started the watercolors.

When I served as ambassador in Algeria 2008-2011, security restrictions severely limited weekend travel and outside activities. So in my free time, I began the methodical study of drawing, perspective, light, shade, and color. I also copied the works of painters I admired, especially Winslow Homer.

Painting quickly became my favorite pastime. I love the zen of it. I chose watercolor because it is a difficult medium, and I like a challenge. If you make a mistake in watercolor, you have to live with it. So you adapt. You figure out how best to turn what happened into an opportunity. Diplomacy is much the same. Things seldom go as planned. You need to be ready to adapt and find solutions that fit ever-changing situations.

When I left Algeria, I continued painting on assignment to Afghanistan as Assistant Chief of Mission 2011-2012, and then again after I arrived at my posting as Ambassador to Greece in 2013. I did very little exhibiting, and no selling, of my work, despite the urging of some friends. I did hang a few pieces in the residence. Since leaving government, I have been building a small website to show some of the watercolors. I have made a few available for sale as prints and I am considering offering up some originals soon as well.

Not long after I arrived in Greece in 2013, the public affairs counselor in Athens, Todd Pierce, pressed me to start a Twitter account. This was in line with Department of State efforts to encourage chiefs of mission to engage actively in social media messaging. Not without misgivings, I agreed. In short order, it became clear to me that growing my very modest little Twitter feed would require more flavor and content than U.S. policy pronouncements and photos of official U.S. activities. But what?

Pierce encouraged me to Tweet my watercolors. He noted this would lend the feed a much more personal tone, and felt it would have some appeal because the works reflected a deep personal interest in Greece and Greek culture. This was true enough. I had had a special affection for Greece ever since my first visit as a Classics student in 1971. I still found it hard to believe, though, that there would be much interest in my paintings.

I was wrong. The paintings became by far the most widely played aspect of the Twitter feed, more popular even than the official U.S. business – imagine that! I should not have been surprised. Greeks are justifiably proud of their history and culture, and they respond with enthusiasm when others show they share that appreciation.

“If you make a mistake in watercolor, you have to live with it. So you adapt. You figure out how best to turn what happened into an opportunity. Diplomacy is much the same.”

Naturally, my first, and favorite, subject was the Acropolis. No matter how often I went out in the city, I never got over the thrill of seeing it bulk over the capital. I thought of it as the numen, or presiding spirit, of the polis.

The painting below is a view of the Acropolis from the Kolonos Agoraios. It grew out of a springtime walk in the Agora. If you climb up to the Temple of Hephaistos you are standing on the Kolonos Agoraios, a rocky outcrop overlooking the Agora. And you are rewarded with this stunning view.

Watercolour study of the Acropolis by David Pearce
Acropolis Kolonaios [click to enlarge]

The next image is my Red Acropolis. It illustrates the earlier point about turning accidents into opportunities because it began with a mistake. Thinking I had ruined the painting, I hit the paper hard with a strong cross-stroke, annoyed at the prospect of having to throw it out. But I liked the effect, so I did it again, and again, adding more and more bright, analogous color. The result, Red Acropolis, represents for me not only the emotional fire and independence of the Greek experience, but also the cultural solidity and self-confidence that anchors it. One of my happy accidents. The Greek Post Office honored me with a special presentation print of this painting as a Greek postage stamp just before I left the country.

Watercolour study of the Acropolis by David Pearce
Red Acropolis [click to enlarge]

The trouble with painting the Acropolis is that no one image can possibly convey the different feelings that it inspires. So I did many views in many styles. This one I call the Abstract Acropolis. I first did an underpainting in watercolor and then repeated the underlying tones in slashes of oil pastel above. If you stand back from it and squint a bit, the structures of the Plaka and Hadrian’s Library begin to emerge.

Abstract watercolour study of the Acropolis by David Pearce
Abstract Acropolis [click to enlarge]

Greece is about much more than Athens, however. So, naturally, I took my sketchbook and camera with me whenever I traveled, always looking for potential paintings. I tweeted out both paintings and small sketches, some with handwritten notes on them. My first trip outside the capital was to Corinth, whose spectacular location had thrust it into the middle of events throughout Greek history. The pen and ink/watercolor piece below is of the magnificent Doric columns of the Temple of Apollo, another subject on which I did several takes.

Watercolour of the Temple of Apollo, Corinth, by David Pearce
Temple of Apollo, Corinth [click to enlarge]

One weekend, my wife and I escaped for a weekend break at Hydra, the beautiful island to which Leonard Cohen famously retreated, and where cars are still banned. In honor of this, I did this little abstract painting of donkeys waiting at the quay for a fare:


The Greek Orthodox church is, of course, omnipresent in Greece. In the winter of 2015, I got away to Meteora, which hosts the cliffhanging Monasteries in the Sky, one of the most spiritual and striking sites in entire country. That trip inspired this small pen and ink/watercolor sketch of Father Superior Isidros, who was kind enough to escort us around Varlaam Monastery:

Meteora, Abbot Isidros [click to enlarge]

Prospective visitors to Greece tend to think first of the islands, but if one tries other, less-traveled ways there are many treasures of natural beauty to be found in every corner. One of my favorite paintings is of this glassy lake in central Thessaly, at the foot of mist-shrouded mountains. Every time I look at it, I remember well the cool tranquility of the damp winter morning when I visited:

Watercolour study of a winter lake in Thessaly by David Pearce
Winter Lake Thessaly [click to enlarge]

As a lifelong Classics buff, I was thrilled to be living for an extended period in the land about which I had read so much for so long. One day, while re-reading a section of the Odyssey, I decided to try to sketch a Homeric ship. There were plenty of representations of 5th Century triremes, but I hadn’t seen many of these older craft. We knew they had dark curving hulls, oars, a single mast and sail, basic rigging, and a steering oar. I found a line diagram of such a ship, and the Greek names for its basic components, in an old text of Homer in my library. As an afterthought, I sent this little sketch, done for my own edification, out as a tweet, complete with scribbled notes in English and Greek. I was astonished at how many and how quickly people picked it up and retweeted it. Who knew there were so many Classics nerds out there?

Homeric Ship [click to enlarge]

For the most part, I kept my tweets of paintings apolitical. An exception came when the refugee wave hit Greece in 2015. I could not resist putting together a few pen and ink/watercolor images aiming at capturing some of the pathos of this flow of human misery onto Greek shores. This was a time when the philotimo (φιλότιμο) of the Greek people, especially on the islands, was on vivid display. Here is one:

Watercolour of refugees by David Pearce
Refugees [click to enlarge]

Many of the watercolors I tweeted out on my official account were not paintings at all, just small notebook sketches, like these:

Color study, Acropolis:

Watercolour study of the Acropolis by David Pearce
Acropolis Color Study [click to enlarge]

Blue Acropolis:

Watercolour study of the Acropolis by David Pearce
Blue Acropolis [click to enlarge]

Landscape, Thessaly:

Watercolour of a Thessaly landscape by David Pearce
Thessaly Landscape [click to enlarge]

Meteora – The locals called the unusual rock formation you can see in the background the “Finger of God”:

Watercolour of the 'Finger of God' in Meteora by David Pearce
Meteora, ‘Finger of God’ [click to enlarge]

Fort of Palamedes, Nafplion, from Nea Tiryns:

Fort of Palamedes [click to enlarge]


Watercolour of the port of Heraklion by David Pearce
Heraklion [click to enlarge]

I feel very fortunate to have been able to live for three years in Greece. My paintings were an effort to distill a bit of the beauty I saw everywhere, and keep the memory of it with me always.

Images and text copyright © David D. Pearce, 2018. All rights reserved.

Biographical note:

David D. Pearce lived and worked in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East for ten years as a journalist, and 35 years as a diplomat, including service as U.S. ambassador to Greece (2013-2016) and Algeria (2008-2011). He attended Bowdoin College and the Ohio State University School of Journalism. Since Mr. Pearce’s departure from government service in November 2016, he and his wife have divided their time between his native Maine and their grandchildren in Southern California.

A self-taught artist, Mr. Pearce has been painting actively since 2008. He recently established a website to display his watercolors: daviddpearce.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @daviddpearce.

Nigel Gibbions: Indecipherable Crete

I first visited Crete in December 2002 for the wedding of my friends Keith and Maria, who are responsible for the Philhellenes website. I have loved the island ever since. This is a record of that first visit.

My plane lands at 5am: dark palm trees and red sky. The wedding is later today and I must rest.

about my height
picture me
inside it
peeping out

The day after, my arms ache from circle dancing. I walk to the centre of Heraklion.

The Morosini fountain in Heraklion

narrow pavement
hard to dodge
the butcher’s hare

On the way, there is a display of religious icons inside a small church.

on the church wall

A stained glass window

This Venetian Fortress (Koules) once protected the harbour.

Heraklion harbour and its Venetian fortress

In the evening, I find a place to eat in the streets opposite Lion Square.

poppy seeds
on white linen
starry night

Minoan civilisation flourished here 5000 years ago: what traces remain in the Cretan psyche?

At Knossos
pine needles
between the stones
long ago

A view of two small kiosks from above

white bird
my shadow

Back in the present, I wait for a bus back to Heraklion.

A cat on a scooter

white sheets
dry on the line

Phaestos is the other major archaeological site on the island. The palace ruins sit high above the Messara Plain.

cool breeze
in my ear
a fertile plain

Cactus leaves against a blue sky

The meaning of the mysterious disk found at the site remains unknown.

The Phaestos disk

in the ruins
I found your wings
before we married

One day, my hosts, the newlyweds, drive with me to the Lasithi Plateau.

high plain
two planes cross
high above us

An antenna against a blue sky

Another day, I head west to Chania.

a round window
full of sea

The lighthouse in Chania

Throughout my stay, I spend time at the harbour. You can walk a mile out to sea here.

View of Heraklion harbour

wind cools
my forehead

On the last day I stay at the harbour for hours…

The breakwater in Heraklion harbour

the white boat
leaves nothing
in its wake

A ship in Heraklion harbour

Weeks later, back in England, I get ready to go out:

to tie my laces
cretan dirt

Cranes in Heraklion harbour

τοῖς ἐγρηγορόσιν ἕνα καὶ κοινὸν κόσμον εἶναι, τῶν δὲ κοιμωμένων ἕκαστον εἰς ἴδιον ἀποστρέφεσθαι

The waking have one world in common; sleepers have each a private world of his own.

Heraclitus, Fragment 89, c. 500 BC

Nigel Gibbions was born in 1965 in Chesterfield, England. He recently completed a degree in Theoretical Physics, after working as an IT consultant for many years. He is now studying for a PhD in Polymer Physics at the University of Sheffield. In his spare time he enjoys listening to music, and writing haiku.

Sharon Blomfield: Greek kindness

A plate of loukoumades

At Christmas, the season of giving just past, my thoughts quite naturally turned to my Greek friends, both those on the island of Sifnos and those in the rest of the country and far beyond. Many travellers to that country have said that there’s something special about Greeks and the hospitality they offer, and count me in agreement on that.

At the heart of the matter, I believe, is the concept of philoxenia, the obligation in the Greek culture to treat strangers as honoured guests. This obligation is so ancient that its origins are thought to lie in the belief that, you never know, these strangers that you’ve just met could well be gods. Zeus or Hermes, perhaps, disguised as ordinary human travellers. So ingrained is philoxenia in the Greek psyche that, to my mind, it has become who they are. Innately kind, generous beyond belief, and people who live every day by the philosophy that whatever you give away to someone enriches you both.

Travellers to Greece are often astonished by the spontaneous generosity they meet, I once read in a guide book, and astonished I’ve been. I’ve received endless offers of coffee or ouzo. Wine pitchers topped up with a wink. A lime once tucked into my hand by the grocer after I’d paid for my iced teas. A basket of Sifnos eggs to cook for my breakfast the next day. A home-made goat’s cheese. Sweet treats from taverna owners to end many meals – cakes, cookies, or yogurt with fruits. Or as in the photo above, fresh-made loukoumades, drizzled with sesame, cinnamon and warm honey from the hives near the house. On occasion in more than one taverna, a meal that I’m not allowed to pay for  … well, just because. That’s the other thing with Greeks. They express their love with their food.

I have learned so much in the time I’ve been going to Sifnos, and every time that I’m there, I find my reserved Canadian heart pried open a bit farther. That is in fact, I believe, why I feel such a strong compulsion to go back and so often. If I can distill into a few words what its people have taught me, it’s this: in the list of human virtues, it’s kindness that belongs at the top. Kindness to friends and to family, of course, and equal amounts to those whose paths merely brush against ours.

Imagine, I often think and especially these days, a world that lives by philoxenia. Smiles offered freely to strangers passing by, no matter how different they look. A compliment or words of encouragement to someone you’ve just met, someone who, you never know, may need it more than you can imagine right now. An understanding that we’re all humans in this life together and that whenever and whatever we share, we’ll each come away with much more. A world awash in kindness.

The ancient Greeks can teach us still. The modern ones, too.

Sharon Blomfield is Canadian a writer and traveller. She is the author of The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle, and she writes a blog about Sifnos. You can find out more about Sharon’s work on her personal website, and you can also follow Sharon on Twitter.

Marjory McGinn’s big fat Greek odyssey

Photo of Marjory McGinn with her dog
Marjory and Wallace

Marjory McGinn is a Scottish-born journalist and author, who has had a long connection with Greece, starting with a youthful work/travel year in Athens in the seventies. More recently, in 2010, she set off on a mid-life odyssey to the southern Peloponnese with her partner Jim and their crazy Jack Russell dog, Wallace. What was planned as a year’s adventure turned into four, living first on a hillside village in the Mani, and later in the Messinian peninsula. The adventure inspired her three travel memoirs, starting with Things Can Only Get Feta. She also writes a blog with a Greek theme and can be found on Twitter.

As a taster of her writing about Greece, Marjory has kindly allowed Philhellenes to reprint the following piece, which first appeared on her own blog. Writing after the controversial July 2015 Greek referendum on the EU’s proposed bailout terms, which caused another fiscal upheaval in Greece, Marjory suggests that the EU’s handling of the crisis has displayed a lack of understanding of Greek culture and history.

Why the EU must embrace the Zorba philosophy

Marjory McGinn

Anthony Quinn as Zorba, with Alan Bates, dancing the sirtaki in the 1964 movie
Anthony Quinn as Zorba, with Alan Bates, dancing the sirtaki in the 1964 movie

THE events of the last few weeks, as Greece has fought for a new bailout deal, have left us all in shock. They have shown us how oppressive and vindictive the EU can be and, in contrast, how spirited and stoical the Greeks are when under attack and fighting for their lives.

I don’t want to add any more to the voluminous public discussions. Greater minds than mine have debated all the political/economic issues of the crisis. As someone who loves Greece, I can only pray there will be a good outcome for the country, despite more austerity piling up against it.

What I have gathered from watching recent events unfold – the June referendum and then EU leaders, particularly Germany, acting like schoolyard bullies – is this: most Europeans don’t really understand Greeks, or their culture. It’s as if few of them have ever been to Greece.

What EU leaders have tried to do is shoehorn the Greek character into a northern European template. It won’t go; it never will go. It’s ham-fisted and almost laughable. Greeks have a different story, a different history and cultural influences. Greece is still the least European country in Europe, still leaning gently towards its old Levantine influences, which makes it the exotic, appealing, often chaotic and, sometimes, maddeningly different place that it is. But we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Greeks will never be cool-headed, flinty, northern European clock-watchers, which is why generations of foreigners have flocked to Greece for respite. Apart from its physical beauty, Greece still has the human touch, which is something that has been lost in many parts of Europe, and the UK as well, to a degree.

Greeks have not been blameless in the way they have handled their economy, but I believe that it’s basically because they are different from their northern partners, their character has come in for a battering. They have been labelled as lazy, work-shy and corrupt, and these clichés have been echoed unfairly throughout much of the international media.

There is corruption, of course, as there is in every country, and there are complex reasons for it, but I believe that due to a weaker and not very independent media, the corruption and excesses of past governments have not been exposed as they might have been in western countries. Only now are we seeing more transparency in Greece, and the internet and social media has helped to expose wrongdoing where some of the press has not.

We forget that Greece has only recently emerged from a devastating series of occupations and political upheavals: 400 years of Turkish occupation; the punitive German occupation of the Second World War and the Greek civil war it spawned, and a disastrous military takeover in 1967 with a regime that lasted until 1974.

Greeks are bred tough like Foteini, a ‘traditional woman’ from the Mani
Greeks are bred tough like Foteini, a ‘traditional woman’ from the Mani

Four decades of relative calm since the 1970s is but a drop in the ocean for a country to re-invent itself. Until recent weeks, at least, the economic crisis was just another upheaval that Greeks have had to cope with.

During my time in Greece, I have found Greeks are among the hardest working people in Europe. In the last five years I met countless people, especially in the restaurant trade, who work more than 12 hours a day, seven days a week from May to October and in many areas like the Peloponnese will then do a long olive harvest in the winter.

Foteini, one of my farming friends in the Mani, who features prominently in both my books, is an unforgettable character and the toughest woman (a pensioner!) I’ve ever met anywhere. She harvests olives from her 200 trees, alone, every year, without fail, and rears a few goats to supplement her paltry farmer’s pension of 300 euros a month, which has been cut back since 2011. No pensioner in the UK would live like Foteini.

Not only have the Eurocrats tried to reinvent the Greek personality but they have also asked for the impossible, for a country to change its system overnight.

Andreas, one of our Greek friends in the Mani, who I wrote about in my second memoir Homer’s Where The Heart Is, put it this way during a discussion about the crisis in 2012, and I quote from the book (chapter 20): “The Troika moans at us… they say we don’t make changes fast enough in the government, and with taxes… but they want us to change centuries of customs and business in a few months. We cannot do it! Impossible!”

The recent events have proved him right. Impossible, and heartbreaking!

A favourite old friend, Artemios, from Santorini typifies the Greek character: generous, maverick and an expert at skinning prickly pears
A favourite old friend, Artemios, from Santorini typifies the Greek character: generous, maverick and an expert at skinning prickly pears

After a lifetime of visiting Greece and after four years living in the southern Peloponnese, most recently Koroni, in Messinia, I do not recognise many of the criticisms and cliches levelled at the Greeks. And nor do I feel they deserve the excruciating contempt and hatred that has been slung at them during the crisis.

Perhaps the main fault of ordinary Greeks (and not the dynastic elites or the shipping magnates) is not just making a mess of their fiscal spreadsheets, but in not putting money first in the way that other societies in the west do. In my opinion, this is a country that has put life to the fore, and people, with a belief in leventia (generosity of heart), parea (company), kefi (high spirits) filotimo (sense of honour).

I have found Greeks to be the kindest people I have ever met. When we lived in Koroni for a year, we befriended a couple who had a small holding (with a few goats and chickens) near to where we lived. Tasos and Eleni are warm-hearted and interesting people, whom we saw regularly and became fond of, along with their lovely family.

One day, after their long olive harvest, they arrived at our house with a big basket full of gifts from their farm: olive oil, olives, capers, goat cheese, herbs, and a bottle of their homemade wine. They simply wanted to show us hospitality, filoxenia, and make our stay more pleasant. We were overwhelmed by this gesture of friendship. It’s not the first time I’ve experienced this in Greece. Whether Greeks are in crisis or not, they never lose this generosity, or their indomitable spirit. The Zorba factor.

I believe it’s not Greeks who need to change radically, it’s the ‘other’ Europeans. They need to thaw and become more like the Greeks; get in touch with their inner Zorba. Perhaps then they’ll understand Greeks a bit better, offer a more reasonable fiscal blueprint for the future. And create a more compassionate EU.

As Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek, wrote: “A man needs a little madness in his life!”

The Eurocrats need to kick off their shoes, find a beach and dance on it. Opa!

© Marjory McGinn 2015

The front cover of one of Marjory's books about Greece
One of Marjory’s three books about Greece

For details of Marjory’s books about Greece, see her Amazon webpage.

Giorgos Vitsaropoulos: Photographing the Acropolis museum

The photographer Giorgos Vitsaropoulos has kindly given me permission to reproduce one of his photographs of the new Acropolis Museum in Athens. It is an evocative image, which beautifully contrasts the permanence of the ancient statuary with the fleeting human visitors — a contrast mirrored in the clouds passing across the deep blue sky above.

Photo of the New Acropolis Museum by Giorgos Vitsaropoulos

[Click on the image to view at a larger size.]

More of Giorgos’ work, including further images of the Acropolis Museum and shots for the Greek Tourism Organisation, can be found on his website.

Howard Wettstein: The best vacation of our lives

Howard Wettstein and his wife took a vacation in Greece in 2008, and he has kindly sent me some photos from that trip. He writes, “Here are a few from the best vacation of our lives, in Athens, Milos, and Sifnos, in 2008. The power of Athens, for one who has studied philosophy, goes without saying. But the islands were wondrous. It’s painful even to think about the crises that are affecting Greece and the Greek people at the present time. Here’s hoping that it’s short lived.”

[Click on the images to view as a slide show at larger size.]

Howard Wettstein is Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Riverside. His research interests lie in the areas of philosophy of language and philosophy of religion, and his many publications include the books Has Semantics Rested On a Mistake?, and Other Essays (1991), The Magic Prism: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (2004), and The Significance of Religious Experience, and Other Essays (2012).

Istvan Aranyosi: A Greek geek

Photo of Istvan Aranyosi in Rethymno Crete.

Istvan Aranyosi writes:

“As a kid, in the 1980s, I was known to my parents’ entourage as a Greek geek, having read and reread the legends of Mount Olympus, then a bunch of books the local librarian was happy to provide me, all connected to Greek culture and civilization.

“Lately, I have been more connected to Greek culture as part of my teaching and research in philosophy. However, I was most impressed in 2008, during my first visit to Greece, when what I saw was straightforward, outgoing, and freedom-loving people, with good sense of humour and good sense of business. One night in Rethymno, Crete, a sea food restaurant owner spotted me among a large crowd walking by, exclaiming: ‘You are my customer!’ – a couple of days before, I had eaten in his restaurant the best sea food ever since.

“The picture shows me shopping for some saffron in Rethymno.”

István Aranyosi is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey. His research interests lie in the areas of philosophy of mind and metaphysics, and his publications include the books The Peripheral Mind and God, Mind, and Logical Space (both 2013).

Jennifer Saul: A young philhellene

Theo in sand

Jennifer Saul writes: “My son Theo was buried in the sand for the first (and surely not the last!) time in Crete. Theo continues to love Greek culture. For Halloween, he was Odysseus. He decided I should be a siren, and that his Dad should be the pile of bones on which the siren sits. How could we resist?”

Jennifer Saul holds the Waterloo Chair in Social and Political Philosophy of Language at the University of Waterloo, Canada.

Diana Probst: Sketching the gods

Diana Probst is a professional artist based in Cambridge, UK. Diana has kindly given me permission to reproduce some of her sketches of ancient Greek sculptures. Below the images, Diana adds some remarks on her choice of subject and the influence of Greek culture on her work. First is a sketch of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory.

Nike by Diana Probst

Diana writes: ‘I could never be the artist I am without the influence of Greek culture. The development of statuary from the stylised Egyptian traditions to the fluid, lifelike stone work of the city states created work that I love to look at today. This is one of my earliest sketches, the lines solidified to allow me to recreate it in ink with no tonal work. To get there, I had to sit in a cast museum, surrounded by images that were two thousand years old. The Aphrodite of Knidos was not just ground-breaking, but also heart-breaking.

‘I chose a Nike as my subject because the drapery appealed, but I was surrounded by hundreds of examples of beauty and drama, made by the urge to create those things in stone. I love the results of this work, and they are firmly within all the work I do. I owe my style to Praxiteles and Phidias, via the Renaissance and the blurred eyes of archaeologists.’

Next, a study of Laocoön

Laocoon by Diana Probst
Laocoon by Diana Probst

Diana writes: ‘I drew Laocoön on a busy afternoon, with at least a dozen groups of people coming through the Cast Museum. The most interesting was the group of young teens in school uniform who stopped to talk about what I was drawing. One insisted on me sketching her, so she has gone down for posterity next to the priest who insisted the wooden horse should not come into Troy. On the whole, I prefer the statue, but the school children were refreshing in their approach.’

Finally, a study of a young warrior

Warrior by Diana Probst
Warrior by Diana Probst

Diana notes, ‘The warrior is an unidentified young man, but the statue is a good one. He would have had a shield, but that did not survive.’

More examples of Diana’s work, some of which are available for purchase, can be seen on her website.

Charles Fernyhough: The goddess Athena

Detail from black-figure ceramic amphora depicting the birth of Athena from Zeus' head,

The goddess Athena sprang, fully armed, from a bump on her father’s head. Other versions of the myth associate her birth with water, with a stream or a lake, which may reflect her origin in the earth goddesses of the pre-Hellenics. In Greek mythology, however, she is a virgin goddess. In Book Seven of the Odyssey, she appears to Odysseus as a little girl in pigtails, hugging a water jug. The poet tells us that she retains her grey eyes, and yet her divine disguise is not compromised: Odysseus does not recognise her. Our daughter Athena was also born with grey eyes, for me at least the ultimate vindication of our name-choice. A prophecy had been fulfilled, and it was just one of the things I was delighted about. It took a few weeks for me to be relieved of this delusion, and have it gently pointed out that all babies have blue-grey eyes at birth. Iris colour is determined by the presence of isolated pigment cells called chromatophores, which only begin to develop in the first few weeks of life. In the newborn, light passes through the unpigmented front layer of the iris and is reflected back with the red frequencies absorbed. The same happens when light passes through a body of water: the longer wavelengths are absorbed, and the water appears blue-grey. The poets are therefore correct: eyes are like water-pools. There is a scientific basis for everything, if you want to look for it.

Perhaps, in naming her Athena, we had made a sort of purchase, an investment in some of these ready-made myths. Otherwise, choosing a name for a child seemed like an utterly arbitrary decision, pointless in its specificity, like insisting on a particular day of the week for an appointment twenty years in the future. We already had our own myth about our daughter’s creation. It involved a stove-warmed room in our house in County Durham, shortly after our return from the first of our heady Cretan holidays. There were other occasions that might have been responsible — we could still feel the sun on our skin, after all — but this one shone back at us through memory with the right amount of quiet magicality. We seemed to want to tell a story about her, as if that might justify her, as if her mere presence here wasn’t enough. The goddess would not have existed outside the stories. Our daughter, on the other hand, was a thing of flesh and blood, who was there at night when you went to sleep, and would be there, you hoped, when you woke up. We worried about cot death, of course. We had heard that Sudden Infant Death Syndrome was caused by pillows and duvets. We went to great lengths to protect our daughter from these dangers of the modern world. If a pillow or duvet-corner ever touched Athena accidentally, Lizzie would gasp almost audibly, and rush to bat the offending article out of the way, with as much urgency as if it had been a trailing electrical cable, or a letter impregnated with anthrax.

The bump on Zeus’s head came about in an unusual way. Zeus had made love to Metis, a Titan, and then heard that the child she would bear would grow up to rule the gods. Zeus’s way of dealing with the pregnant Metis was to swallow her. But the child, Athena, was determined to be born, and fought her way out, fully armed with sword and aegis. In Crete that year I had been reading Ted Hughes’s translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. When we drove along the northern motorway, Mount Ida rose above us, parched by the ravages of summer. Zeus had been raised there. The light on the sea seemed eternal, and we felt as though we were outside time, that we could have ceased to be material and simply dissolved in that brilliance. At Falassarna I stood in a rockpool up to my knees and watched a young woman run naked into the water. She was about a hundred yards down the beach, too far for anything but a thumbnail memory. All I could be sure of was the fact of her nakedness, and that alone made her beautiful. She had a quick happy shyness about her, so different to the confident Germans on the south coast. She looked too pale to be a tourist. There was a friend there as well, and I saw them laughing as they waded into the shallows, eurhythmic ghosts from another century, caught on silent film. She, too, was a myth, one of the true ones. I could love her, dream of her, because she wasn’t really of this earth. I waded out of the rockpool and swam after her, trying to make my nude pursuit look natural, but she was lost among the anonymous wet heads that bobbed and dived in that part of the sea. A little while later I saw her back at her camp beside the rocks, mortal again, a towel wrapped around her shoulders, her head tipped back to laugh quietly and kindly, as though she had just played a trick on a child.

In the Introduction to his translations, Hughes points out some reasons why Ovid’s tales have a particular resonance for our times. We stand at a particular point in history. The old pantheon has fallen in on men’s heads. The mythic plane has been defrocked. At the same time, Hughes writes, the Empire is flooded with ecstatic cults. It is at sea in hysteria and despair, one extreme wallowing in the mire, the other searching higher and higher for a spiritual transcendence. Ovid’s tales of metamorphosis, continues Hughes, establish a rough register of what it feels like to live in the psychological gulf that opens at the end of an era. For us, the era is modernity. Our crumbling Empire is Reason. The need for spiritual transcendence is as great as it was in Ovid’s time.

Like all good scientists, even lapsed ones, I interpreted this passage strictly in terms of my own obsessions. Hughes’s psychological gulf was a crisis in psychology itself. It was the gulf between the pop psychology of self-help books and therapy fashions, and the more or less rigorous empirical work of those who actually sought evidence to support their theories. I had turned my back on a science that was under attack from all sides. Public confidence had been battered by the BSE disaster, and a perceived arrogance about genetic determination. The modern myth-maker was Freud, and what Freud offered was the story. Therapy, in all its watered-down versions of Freudianism, was about telling a story about yourself. No one read novels any more, because everyone had their own story — constructed at great expense with the help of an analyst — and didn’t need anyone else to write one for them. The sales figures for my own first novel seemed to prove this triumphantly. If this scepticism was directed at science in general, then it was felt in scientific psychology in particular. The “narrative turn” in psychology had elevated the personal and subjective above the quaint old methods of the first experimental psychologists. The only people still doing behavioural studies weren’t psychologists at all: they were biologists and geneticists. Freud had won. His all-conquering vaguenesses had permeated every area of thought. Never before had a psychology taken root so pervasively in the absence of any empirical support. But these days you didn’t need empirical support — you needed a story that sounded right. And if you dared suggest that science could offer an objective truth about reality, you were told that science itself was a myth, a clever toolkit of fully-adjustable rhetorics, just one more product of the human need to tell ourselves stories about the world.

One of the most important first steps in the development of narrative psychology was, paradoxically, taken by an old school empiricist. Sir Frederic Bartlett, FRS, first professor of Experimental Psychology in the University of Cambridge, conducted a series of experiments in the 1920s designed to shed light on the brain’s capacity to organise incoming information. He presented his subjects with a North American Indian folk-tale called The War of the Ghosts, which involved supernatural goings-on quite alien to his Cambridge subjects. By looking at the errors his subjects made in their retellings of the story, Bartlett found convincing evidence that people assimilate an unusual story to existing knowledge structures, in much the same way that Piaget’s infant assimilates new objects to existing schemas. Recent work on cognitive “scripts” supports Bartlett’s conclusions. When we go into a restaurant, the context automatically activates a script, or prototypical story structure, for the events — being shown to a seat, handed a menu and wine list — that can be expected to unfold. But these are stories that are shared by everyone in the culture. Even Bartlett, the arch-empiricist, knew that his work posed a problem for objectivity in psychology. Some scripts are shared, but most are unique to the individual. Everyone’s stories are different. How can we generalise about human mentality, when everyone cuts the world according to a different plan?

Acknowledgements: This article is an extract from a pre-final version of the author’s The Baby in the Mirror (Granta Books, 2008). Paragraph 4 incorporates and adapts quotations from Ted Hughes’ Introduction to his Tales from Ovid (Faber and Faber, 2002).

© Charles Fernyhough, 2012

Charles Fernyhough is a British writer and scientist. He has written two novels, The Auctioneer (1999) and A Box of Birds (forthcoming), and two highly praised works of popular science, The Baby in the Mirror (2008), an intellectual biography of his infant daughter, and Pieces of Light (2012), an exploration of the psychology of autobiographical memory. He is also Reader in Psychology at the University of Durham, where he conducts research on private speech and child cognitive development — topics on which he has published extensively.

Victoria Hislop: The tragedy of my beloved Greece

Victoria Hislop with two Greek actors

My passion for Greece began the day I first went on holiday there 30 years ago, and has intensified ever since. I have been at the “party” that Greece once was. Now I am sharing the hangover. And it is desperately painful and sad.

I travel to Greece most months, to give talks on my novels, to work on adapting The Island into a 26-part miniseries for local television, and to research writing projects.

I have learnt the language well enough to appear on live television, and over the past five years have become so much part of this country that on arrival I do not always have to show my passport. I also have a house in Crete, which means I pay taxes. I can’t vote — which, in some ways, I am glad about, as I would be torn between a series of equally nightmarish scenarios.

The problems have been brewing for years, but what feels like potential meltdown arrived in Athens very suddenly. Last week, I went to a favourite restaurant in the city centre. It used to be heaving with customers until 2am.

At 10pm on Thursday, the place was almost empty. Restaurants where you once had to book tables a week ahead are now struggling to survive. The bouzoukia, live venues that are a quintessential part of Greek life and where musicians used to play four nights a week, are now mostly open for one. I never thought the Greeks would stop going out. Staying in isn’t in their DNA.

The bars are still full, as these are where people go to argue about politics and the future of the country. There does not seem to be any other conversation worth having. One friend, a leading Athenian journalist, told me how at least half of her friends are without jobs and money, and how anger is growing. Many people, in Athens at least, are at breaking point. “We don’t care any more,” she told me.

Suddenly, I can feel how dangerous the mood has become. My friend Maria, who voted for Pasok, Greece’s main party on the centre-Left, in the recent election will shift allegiance to the communists; she has been driven to this after her salary dropped from €2,500 a month to €1,000. She is weary and disillusioned.

A 40-year-old fashion writer for a glossy magazine, Maria has seen the quality of her life disintegrate. She feels broken and angry. “For the next issue, we’re focusing on punk — because that’s where the country is at. Anarchy could happen.” At least the riots have stopped, for now. As the country waits for new elections, Athens is strangely quiet. When I was last in town three months ago, I joined a peaceful march to get a feeling for the popular mood.

Up close, it was scary. The Greek police are quick to fire tear gas, and I felt things could erupt at any minute. The quiet on the streets now is even more eerie.

The Greeks are a very proud people, and feel humiliated by what has happened to them. At least once a day, someone will bring up the national debt and, in the same breath, how much Germany still owes Greece in outstanding reparation for their occupation during the Second World War.

Many people have lost their jobs, but the statistics do not reveal the thousands who still have jobs but have not been paid for many months. They are stuck: they have no income, but if they leave, they have no hope of recouping what they are owed. It has left a huge proportion of the country with no money to spend. As a result, retail businesses are going down all around us.

I’ve watched men in suits fishing in bins. The worst thing is when they do not take anything out, because someone has beaten them to it. People I know report their children’s poorer schoolmates fainting in class from hunger.

There is now an urge to end the corruption that has helped to destroy this country. Friends with businesses tell me that bribery has long been an assumed part of business life. I have listened, open-mouthed, to stories of tax evasion, often in the form of brown envelopes full of cash given to government inspectors to reduce a bill; sometimes, the pressure to hand over these bribes is tantamount to blackmail.

On a very small scale, I have witnessed it in restaurants when the credit card machine is “broken”. “We can only take cash,” says the owner. Dozens of times, I have watched a €20 note slip into a pocket, knowing that the government will not see a cent of it in tax.

The past few months have seen new taxes being imposed as existing ones rise. People are exhausted and confused by it all, and if their businesses survive at all, it is down to their determination.

Greek children are all too aware of the crisis into which their country has plummeted. Apart from having parents who are constantly anxious and talking about the “krisi”, schools are running short of money. I have discussions over Skype with a school in northern Greece, and during the winter I noticed the pupils were wrapped up in coats and scarves. There was no money to heat the classrooms.

There was no budget for schoolbooks either. When I heard about the problem eight months ago, I asked my Greek publisher if we could start an initiative for authors to donate copies of their books. Even though I wanted to help, it has not been possible. There are layers of bureaucracy, but often very little organisation.

The mood in places far from Athens is not quite so bleak. I have been given so many gifts on my current trip (books, wine, pieces of embroidery, pens, olive oil and more) that they have had to be sent home by ship. Even when Greeks have very little, they give — and their generosity is humbling. In a city in the north, Alexandroupolis, I was given a vintage necklace, with old beads and coins. “Ah,” said the woman who had made it, touching a drachma coin. “I might need that back.”

Most Greeks are not making jokes about the currency. I have to keep a sum of money in my Greek bank account, which I was obliged to open when I bought the house. The hefty taxes that are randomly imposed on home owners these days are removed by direct debit, so the funds need to be there. It seems disloyal to remove them.

With eurozone banks on the brink, friends have asked me to help take their savings out of Greece. Three friends offered to fly to London with their life savings in suitcases — €40,000 in one instance — so that I might keep it in my account. I wanted to help, but then I considered the consequences if something happened to me: the money would be lost under my name, and they would be left with nothing.

Tourism could help to save Greece, but the Greeks need to nurture and treasure the assets that the gods gave them. This is a country with beautiful landscapes, blue sea, culture, history and wonderful food. But one of the problems now is that the mood is so glum that when tourists come, they will not see the best of the country.

In Athens, they will be driven from the airport by a taxi driver who spends the journey on his mobile phone (illegal), smokes (illegal), and breaks the speed limit (illegal). If they live to tell the tale, they will see boarded-up shops, graffiti-covered walls and people going through the bins. I hope that visitors can see past the dilapidation to the eternally ravishing aspects of Greece that are beyond politics and time. This could help the country to survive. I was touring Greece last week talking about my novel, The Thread, which describes the traumatic, often dark, events of 20th-century Greek history — occupation, civil war, earthquake. It is a tale about the Greeks’ ability to survive, and they need to brace themselves now, just as they have before.

Unusually for May, it poured with rain last week. From my balcony, I could see the crowd that had gathered in the ancient marble stadium for the handing over of the Olympic flame. After several hours, the clouds parted and an intense rainbow appeared.

Greece always delivers drama. It is always larger than life. I hope for the sake of everyone in this extraordinary country that the rainbow was symbolic and that Greece will soon find its pot of gold.

Victoria Hislop is a British author. She has a deep love of Greece and has written two best-selling historical novels set in the country — The Island (2005) and The Thread (2011) — the first of which was dramatized for Greek TV with great success. The image above shows Victoria with two actors from the production.

This essay was written in May this year, shortly after the first, inconclusive general election in Greece, and it originally appeared in The Telegraph newspaper (link to Telegraph version). It is reproduced here with the author’s kind permission.

Stuart Franklin: The Greek landscape in flux

Stuart Franklin is a world-famous, award-winning photographer, and former president of Magnum Photos. He has kindly given me permission to reproduce his photograph of the deserted village of Anthochori in Arcadia, which appeared in his book Footprint: Our Landscape in Flux (Thames & Hudson, 2008). ‘Anthochori’ means ‘village of flowers’.


Stuart has commented on the image:

‘To the ancient Greeks, Arcadia was a rural idyll. Instead of a lush, bucolic landscape, I found one devastated by the hunt for fossil fuels. Sixty per cent of Greece’s electricity is derived from lignite (brown coal). This involves bulldozing whole landscapes to feed the nearby power station. In Megalopolis I found Greece’s second largest lignite mine. The village of Anthohori in Arcadia was wiped off the map – the church of Santa Maria was all that remained’ Source.

It’s a wonderful image, rich with metaphors for the condition of modern Greece. I don’t know whether Stuart intended it, but what strikes me is the visual echo of countless photos of the Acropolis. The Anthochori hill is a modern sacred mount: tiny, accidental, and fragile, and with an ambiguous message. Is it a superstitious folly or a gesture of defiance to materialism? Either way, it’s gone now.

Many thanks to Stuart for supporting philhellenes.org. He adds a personal note: ‘I love Greece and the Greek people, remember growing up looking at the grainy black and white pictures of Leonard Cohen and Marianne on Hydra from the “Songs from a Room” album and longing somehow to escape from school, and exams … and travel. So I did!’

Stephen Fry’s modest proposal

Stephen Fry is, in his own words, ‘a philhellene who believes that any debt Greece may be in now is as nothing compared to the debt we owe Greece’ (email to the site editor 12/3/12).

In December 2011, Stephen wrote an article entitled ‘A modest proposal’, in which he reflected on our Greek heritage and argued for the return of the Parthenon Marbles from London to Athens, for display in the new Acropolis Museum. Such an act, he argued, timed to coincide with the UK’s hosting of the Olympic Games, would be a beautiful gesture, demonstrating gratitude to, and solidarity with, a country that has given the world so much and is currently suffering so greatly:

Greece made us. We owe them. They are ready for [the Marbles’] return and have never needed such morale boosting achievement more. And it would be so graceful, so apt, so right.

What greater gesture could be made to Greece in its time of appalling financial distress? An act of friendship, atonement and an expression of faith in the future of the cradle of democracy would be so, well just so damned classy.

It would also, Stephen notes, be the perfect way to honour the memory of the late Christopher Hitchens, a fellow philhellene who argued vigorously for the return of the Marbles.

I urge everyone to read Stephen’s passionate, eloquent, and witty piece and to get involved in the campaign for the reunification of the Marbles. Greeks are tired, dispirited, and deeply worried for their children’s future. The restoration of the Marbles would be a powerful expression of moral support, which would lift Greeks’ spirits and boost their confidence. As Stephen emphasizes, it is right thing to do, and this is the right time to do it.