I can’t recall exactly when we hit the first linguistic snag, but it must have been within days of me moving in, lock, stock, barrel, toddler child and household goods. In mild frustration, Kyrie Panayoti leaned out the kitchen door of his apartment, and shouted in the general direction of the apartment block next door, a distance of about twelve or fifteen feet away.
Almost immediately, a woman’s head with an old-fashioned kerchief tied around it, appeared out from one of the first floor (or second floor windows) – and that was my first introduction to Penny. She was English, married to a genial Greek accountant named George. She was slightly older than my own mother, her two sons were teenagers. Penny had been the British equivalent of a State Department employee, and in that capacity she had been assigned to various British consulates in Europe until she came to Athens, met and married George, and settled down into tidy domesticity in the three-floor, three-flat apartment building next to Kyrie Panayoti’s. Penny’s mother-in-law lived on the ground floor, Penny and George lived on the first – or second floor, exactly opposite mine – and George’s widowed brother and his two children lived in the top-floor flat.
I rather think Penny missed speaking English regularly, anyway – and we became excellent friends because of a mutual love of books and mad passion for Greece, ancient and modern. A love for Greece in general, on the part of us English and American eccentrics is one of those inexplicable things – rather like enduring affection for an exasperatingly self-centered boyfriend with one or two bad habits. He’s devastatingly handsome, scenic in all the right ways, erratically but theatrically devoted – but just when you have given up all hope and resolved to cut him off – he does something so heartbreakingly gallant, at something of a cost to him and with no thought of personal gain – that all is . . . well, not forgotten or overlooked (until next time). Anyway, I loved Greece, being a history wonk, and cheerfully overlooked all kinds of disincentives . . . a very real terrorism problem, endemic anti-Americanism, and a certain slap-dash approach to everything from driving habits to telephone company service. No exaggerating there: getting a phone in Greece in those days was . . . interesting, and supposedly took years, well above the time that any Americans serving at Hellenikon AB were prepared to wait. Kyrie Panayoti’s flat and Kyria Yiota’s each had a telephone jack. Mine might have had one also; I never cared enough to look for it. But there was only one telephone between the two families. They passed it between themselves, I guess according to need. Many was the time that I heard someone calling between apartments, and observed the telephone being hoisted or lowered past my kitchen window, in a plastic market bag at the end of a long length of rope.
Among the first books that Penny advised me to read – was Gerald Durrell, who wrote about his childhood in Corfu in the 1930s. He was Lawrence Durrell’s little brother; I rather think that Dad must have been a child like Gerald Durrell; entranced by wild animals of whatever sort, to the mystification of his parents – eventually being a zoologist and all, and giving us all the very best nature-walks ever, as the four of us grew up.
And the second of Penny’s recommended authors – Patrick Leigh-Fermor, especially his books about Greece: Mani and Roumeli, respectively southern Greece and Northern. Penny’s redoubtable mother-in-law was from the Southern Peloponnesus – the Mani. I read them both, traveled down into that part of the country when I could, and read the first of his books – A Time of Gifts – about the journey on foot that he had made at the age of 18; as the title goes, “On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube” in the fateful year of 1933. He took a little more than a year to make that journey, but writing about it took up the rest of his life. I bought a copy of the second installment, Between the Woods and Water as soon as it came out, the year after I had left Greece. At the time of his death earlier this year, the last installment of that journey was unfinished.
Of Patrick Leigh-Fermor’s greatest adventure? He never really wrote about that himself, although in certain circles his exploits as a British SOE agent during Crete in WWII became legend. He another SOE officer, in a daring strike by Leigh-Fermor’s band of Cretan guerillas kidnapped the German officer commanding the whole island, spirited him across the Cretan hills and mountains, and had him evacuated from Crete to North Africa. His co-conspirator, W. Stanley Moss wrote about that in his own book, Ill Met by Moonlight – which was made into a movie, in the days when movie-makers appreciated such real-life exploits. One of the grace notes to this adventure is that Moss and Leigh-Fermor left documents behind; clearly explaining that it was British commandos who had taken the general-commanding, so no point in going all reprisal-ish on the local Cretans. (Didn’t much help, though.)
About thirty years later, a Greek television version of This is Your Life reunited many of those participants. And Patrick Leigh Fermor lived for most of the rest of his life in Greece, regarded with awe and wonder, almost as a local saint.