In 1971 halfway through fourth class and enthusiastically exploring the limits of a ten year old’s “autonomy” my schooling was all of a sudden interrupted. It was the year two Australians were crowned Wimbledon champions and the United States landed a fourth crew on the Moon. I would not travel so far or so high, but take flight I would. Mother upon hearing from my old and irascible teacher Mr K. that I was “shocking” became visibly despondent and decided that if there was to be any hope for her errant son he needed to be “sent away”. Father for one, was none too happy with the idea that his “only begotten” would fly the coop a lot earlier than expected. I was to leave for Greece post-haste to live with my Aunt and Uncle and two older cousins, where I would continue with school during the latter part of the seven year Greek military junta. My new home for the next twelve months would be in the port city of Piraeus made internationally famous by Manos Hadjidakis’ film score “Children of Piraeus” in Never on Sunday (1960).
The first few weeks were entirely miserable. I missed my home. I missed my parents. I missed my friends. And the little transistor radio I brought over with me, to listen to the doyen of rugby league callers, Frank Hyde on 2SM, was to my shock and horror not working! In spite of everything, not surprisingly perhaps given the resilience of a young child, I would slowly find myself getting used to this strikingly different environment. The little shop-front home that Aunt M. had refurbished to sell an odd assortment of school supplies (to make ends meet after Uncle N. was ‘decommissioned’ from his high naval post by the junta), was situated on a marvellously named street Aghiou Orous (Holy Mount). Providence would have that many years later I would spend long periods of time on the Holy Mountain itself, the famous monastic community in Northern Greece.
Next door to our little home lived an old couple. One afternoon there was a commotion, a wailing of young and older female voices. A large crowd had gathered. The old man had passed away in the morning, “died suddenly in his sleep”, they said. I peered through the window and there he was in full view lying in wake. He was the first dead person I had ever seen and the first time I beheld that other, more terrifying, face of God. Up the road lived a gypsy family in a ramshackle of a place, the youngest daughter was a fiercely attractive rebel, she was two years older than me and I would be very happy to see her. A few streets down the famous (occasionally riotous) taverna with its big underbelly of Greek culture, which for a little kid, was a world unto its own. At my new school, no doubt on account of my ‘alien’ place of origin, I was made the class captain. During the weekdays we would salute the portraits of the Colonel’s and on Sundays in strict parallel lines marched to church.
Mother would come to Greece early in 1973 to bring me back and so together we would make a second return journey to Australia (ten years earlier we had voyaged to the old country on board the broken-down ocean liner Ellinis). Along with our suitcases on this occasion, I can still remember, we also packed a large carton of books. The assorted collection included cookbooks, an encyclopaedic etiquette manual, and a variety of popular magazines. But what particularly caught my attention was the stack of beautiful looking hardcovers. These books were thick and bound in fine colourful cloth. In gold lettering on the front and spine were printed the title and name of the author. I rediscovered these treasures a few years later crammed in a wardrobe and it seemed to me, if the creases on the pages were any indication, they had been read or at least had been thumbed through. These finely crafted volumes were translations of classics into Modern Greek. Amongst the mix where Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Hugo’s Les Misérables, a collection of Shakespeare’s plays, an anthology of Plato’s writings, and Kathryn Hulme’s The Nun’s Story . This last title was made famous by Audrey Hepburn’s portrayal of Sister Luke in the popular film directed by Fred Zinnemann (1959).
And it was probably from this time onwards that my love for books can be traced.
I was proficient enough in my second language to make an attempt at these classics when I entered high school, for I have nowhere mentioned the riotous years spent in Greek afternoon school, and how unimaginably horrifying when the classes happened to fall on footy training days! Of course, the sheer thickness of these handsome books, not to mention their subject matter, quickly discouraged me but for one exception, The Nun’s Story . It fascinated me for some reason which would be entirely inexplicable if not for the byzantine atmosphere which permeated our home. It also proved to be quite the omen given how my life would afterwards evolve. I skipped over the words I could not understand and in a short time had completed my first serious work of literature. And in Modern Greek to boot!
Hulme’s book was based on the real life story of a devout young Belgian named Marie Louise Habets, daughter of a famous surgeon. In 1926 she entered a religious order, the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary. Following in the footsteps of Habets, Sister Luke who in the novel similarly to her real life counterpart worked as a nurse in the Congo would also depart from the institutional religious life. Though at times thinking of themselves as “failures” neither lost their faith, nor assumed that giving up the habit meant ‘divorce’ from God. Would Maximilian Kolbe, for example, who volunteered to die in the place of a stranger at the Nazi death camp in Auschwitz, been any less of a divine soul if he had taken “off” his cassock the night before? In the novel Sister Luke confidently voices to her chaplain that God already knows the motives which drive us. “I have given too many cups of water in His name and He knows I would go on doing it, whether working for Him as a nun or as a war nurse.” Martin Edmond, the author of that deeply thoughtful contemplation of Collin McCahon’s temporary disappearance in Centennial Park, would speak for most of us when he writes, “…in every life there is a mystery that can never wholly be divulged. We all take secrets with us to the grave and the most profound of those secrets is who we really are.”
We too often place a greater emphasis on the externals, choosing to forget: “For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you” (Matt. 7:2). Perhaps if this can be paraphrased in modern terms, I can think of nothing which comes closer than the words of Vikram Seth in the last paragraph of that magnificent memoir/ biography of his beloved Hindu Uncle Shanti and German Jewish Aunt Henny (Two Lives, 2005): “May we see that we could have been born as each other.”
And so we returned and I would go straight into sixth class at my old primary school on King Street, which was directly across from the Reno.