Brexit, Birmingham and beaches were the key features of my summer holiday in Greece. Cousin Ruth guided us round Athens, its peninsulas, and the Peloponnese villages and coast, drinking, eating and arguing about the perils of politics, austerity, Brexit and recalling childhood memories of the Ennals clan back in Birmingham, Walsall to be more accurate. I hadn’t seen Ruth for nearly fifty years (it seems she had a madcap but interesting life waltzing between England and Greece) so I had forgotten she had a strong west midlands accent which was really odd to hear as we found each other in arrivals.
Are you, Kate?
You have a Birmingham accent!
You are so tall!
I was eight when she last saw me, and had grown somewhat since! So, having established who we were, off we went into the city and drank lots of Greek wine. It’s a family thing.
I like Athens. It is a big, lived in, somewhat down at heel, city. Big, black Greek graffiti adorns every possible wall. Police on big motorbikes, guns prominent, perch on corners, while the Greeks sit in cafes, drinking cold, iced coffee. In the middle of the city sits the Acropolis (not yet adorned with graffiti, thank God) sweltering on the hill. It was good but not half as good as some of the other ancient antiquities that we saw in our explorations of the country (Ancient Messines is a wonderful site, see photo below). I really enjoyed sitting, in the balmy night (40 degrees centigrade), on the balcony of my aunt’s flat, observing the neighbours across the road: the canary in its cage, the bent palm plants, bougainvillea blooms, the man in his vest eating, the bearded fella and his girlfriend watching TV, the woman in the flowery house dress, sweeping the floor.
What I liked best: Diavolitis, the Peloponnese mountain village where Ruth’s family come from. A lovely villa, with wooden floors, twelve foot high ceilings, and scarlet window shutters which you fling open in the morning to a cock crow, blue and green mountains, red terracotta roofs and the scent of lemon trees to welcome the world into your heart. A few miles away, the coast line of tavernas, anchovies, olives, salads, wine, and a thick, placid sea brimming with salt.
I also liked Thessaloniki to which we travelled on a graffiti blue train with no air-conditioning which overheated in the forty degrees. Saloniki, as it is known, is a city of marble pedestrianised boulevards, beautifully ornate buildings and mosaic squares, full of sunken antiquities. There were Greek Orthodox churches everywhere. We went into St Demetrius, a pretty red and white bricked building with a rotunda and mosaics. A christening (baptism?) was taking place and the church was crowded with tourists. People crisscrossed each other, kissing the portraits or statues of Christ on the lips, breathing love and religion, crossing themselves, lighting candles, breathing in the fumes of sanctity. There was talking and praying, bowing and buying from the shop, chiming and chanting. A busy place! Inside the Ayia Sophia, next door, a dark, gloomy basilica was filled with streams of criss crossing light, as though cast by the hand of God. The furniture was carved, heavy, dark, ornate, and religious paraphernalia was stuffed, as if in an attic, everywhere: golden and garish portraits, confessional boxes, staircases leading to heaven, nooks and crannies all around; bronze stained candelabras hung from ornate, mosaic ceilings. I like kitsch, so it worked for me.
In Thessaloniki I fell in love with Ataturk and wished that I’d known him when I visited the house where he was born. It was a plain white villa with a neatly curated exhibition of his life with an extremely life like model woman in the corner to whom I apologised for blocking her view. When I realised she was not real, I found myself impelled to continue to address her for she looked so life like. Ataturk seemed to know what was right and what was wrong… for him, as a child, and for the world as a man. He was intelligent, gracious, gentle, clever, a natural leader. He will join Shakespeare, my father, and Gore Vidal at my proverbial dinner table. I do need to think about the women guests. I am really not sure how to partner those three. I think Jo Cox would be pretty ideal, may she rest in peace, and may her children forgive.
Which leads me back to the British referendum. On the 23rd, two hours ahead, I stayed up to listen to the results coming in. On referendum night, over our dinner of sardines and tomato salad, I remarked to Jerry that post referendum, the newspaper columnists would be bereft of news. How wrong I was! The next day, as soon as any Greek heard us speak, we were pounced upon and it was demanded of us to explain. We are from Ireland, we said, with some relief.
Everything that could be said about the Brexit and its fall out has been said. There is nothing new that I can add. Before the referendum, we had an extended family internet colloquy where aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces put forward their very different point of views. Afterwards, my daughter asked some-one to tell just why this vote was a good thing
“I’m struggling to see any positive outcome from the Vote Leave. In fact it gets more miserable as I’m just meeting more and more secret racists pleased to say no to immigrants (despite having Irish/Indian parents…) and watching political egos tear any political ideals apart. So the Leave Voters – any future positives? Because I’m definitely not seeing the social unity or the democratic power of the people coming together to work to make a better England…Although I am now enjoying the pleasure of passport control flying back into London from home.”
It is sad that people have taken the Brexit vote as an opportunity to vent their racism. I hope that it is stamped out quickly by both the opinion-formers, the police and that people don’t just wring their hands as by-standers when they see or hear that happen, but intervene and have the courage to say something. Britain has had an amazing multi-cultural history and different peoples from different cultures and countries have lived side by side, if with some tension, for many years. It would be a tragedy if the people followed the lead of their politicians and began behaving in the same way.
I think Brexit was a vote of anger for many in Britain. People are disillusioned. There are no jobs, opportunities, crap education, and little hope in the future for the swathe of people in the Midlands and North that voted to leave. I don’t know if more people in the UK will lose jobs now: it seems likely. Corporations will move (Easy Jet has indicated this already) and the financial sector will leave and the educated, middle class will follow. It seems sterling will be damaged (it already has been). Personally, I believe people need the summer to reflect on the implications of this vote and manage it carefully. But I am now applying for an Irish passport and we will transfer any pensions we have in the UK rather more speedily than we might have done.
My daughter asked, what is the positive side? It could lead to positive action to defend democracy and political beliefs. What can we do? Join the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn certainly needs to overcome the corporate leaning, middle-class, self-interested MPs that have the majority in Parliament. We need people to get involved, fight the political egos, and participate in democratic politics. We need people to commit to politics, and engage. A big ask, I guess, for young people who seem to be forced to work 12 hour days in order to be able to enjoy a comfortable life style. I sometimes wonder if that is the ultimate aim of the big corporations: make people work so hard, stress them out so much but pay them well, so that they become dependent with no time to participate in society, other than child rearing.
Another thought has occurred to me. Having lived in Ireland for nearly 25 years, as an English woman, I have never really engaged with the culture of Irish politics or felt the right or ability to get involved. Fortunately, I worked in community development and was able to engage with my political beliefs there. But when people live abroad, do they engage less with a political system in which they were not reared? Do they feel less responsibility for the society they live in?
Well, I have to un-pack and take solace in the Greek ouzo and olives I brought home, and get out my Ouija board. I want to talk to Ataturk.