“I fell absolutely and terminally in love with Greece,” acclaimed Australian poet and writer, Jena Woodhouse, told Neos Kosmos in an interview about her lifelong exploration of the Hellenic ideals, the myths and values of this ancient civilisation, and the joy she found living there.

At times, the ability to truly value what we take for granted requires a fresh outlook, an invaluable gift offered to us by Philhellenes such as Jena Woodhouse, who is celebrated in the recently published milestone edition of the Antipodes Periodical.

Images, scents, and the ancient spirit permeating the several places she has lived in and visited in Greece, are captured in her vast collection of poems, and stories, fuelled and intensified with the powerful feeling of nostalgia, and longing, that only distance can bring forth.

The Queensland-based poet who spent 10 years living in Greece, says that though she misses Greece terribly, it’s not a sad feeling, but a joyous one, since she’s internalised so much of what she experienced there that it remains fresh in her memory, and she can relive places and events quite readily.

“My time in Greece is interwoven with my daily life, and flashes into mind in frequent moments of recall, bringing a glow of pleasure at the recollection, which seems to be almost outside time.”

Her first encounter with the Greek culture was when she was still a child, listening to the ABC radio programme, The Argonauts, and discovering the ancient gods and goddesses in the myths retold in her primary school readers, instilling in her a deep desire to become a classical archaeologist.

“That didn’t happen, because there was nowhere in Australia when I finished high school, where you could study archaeology. There were Classics departments, but you couldn’t actually study archaeology as such. Until a few years later, when Professor Alexander Cambitoglou arrived at the University of Sydney, and things got moving.”

Instead, Woodhouse was planning to save up money to get to Greece, and see if she could be taken on as a volunteer at an excavation site, but this did not eventuate. It was by chance that she finally arrived in Greece years later, in 1985, just passing through but ending up staying for eight months.

The whole family was in South Eastern Europe, specifically in former Yugoslavia, where her husband, a Proto-Indo-European linguist was researching the south Slavonic dialects. Not being able to access their funds in the banks of former Yugoslavia, they drove to Greece to the Emboriki Trapeza in Thessaloniki.

“We crossed the border at Nikaia. It was October, it was autumn, and it was fairly desolate. When I looked around me I thought, ‘Is this really Greece?’ It wasn’t how I imagined it.”

But when she found herself suddenly in Stagira, the birthplace of Aristotle, she felt that it was destiny.

“When we reached the junction to turn back north again, I grabbed hold of my husband’s arm who was steering the car, and said, ‘No, no, go back.’ And he did.

“It was a visceral feeling. A kind of life changing moment. I didn’t want to leave. But I hadn’t been planning to stay either. And I never imagined that finally, I would get the chance to spend eight months in Greece before returning to Australia.”

Wanting to experience authentic Greek life, Woodhouse responded to an advertisement in the Athens News, to look after a villa and some animals in a remote part of Kos.

Accompanied by her two children on a year-long break from school, she embarked on this journey while her husband continued his research in the Balkans and Eastern Europe.

“I stayed there with the children and the animals, and about 100 trees to plant on the hillside, and with instructions to finish another cottage that the landlord was building.

“It was the happiest time of my life.”

She didn’t have time to write when she was there. “I was too busy chasing the animals,” she laughs describing her life in this isolated place, and how she would ride on an old push bike into the port, which was ten kilometres away, in winter, to get food for her children, and herself.

“I’d pedal with the wind in my face all the way to the port. And then back, with the wind in my face again!”

Loaded down with food and huge bags, once she arrived to the top of the mountain -so steep that her nose touched the gravel- the children would sit and eat everything, sending her back the same windy track the very next day. Their closest neighbour was a shepherd family living several hills away.

Enchanted by Greece, the poet returned with her young son a year later for a few months when she received an Australian Greek travel award, and then to live there permanently from 1993 until 2001.

For five years she did not set foot outside of Greece, busy doing several jobs; Teaching English, becoming an examiner for the British Council, a position that took her across the country, and eventually, transitioning into journalism, working for Kathimerini.

Jena Woodhouse at Ancient Mantinea. When she lived in Athens, she used to haunt archaeological sites, well known and less known, all over the country, whenever she could get away from her busy work schedules Photo: Supplied

“I had the best time working for Kathimerini. I adore Athens, the quality of the energy. Greek people and Greek culture have such vitality, and in Athens this is really concentrated.

“I was doing all this work, I was even writing and yet I never felt tired. I was kind of high on the place the whole time. It was just a joyous experience.”

Though she received several university degrees in Australia, the ultimate university has been Greece itself, for she became aware there of a way of being in the world that would, she believes, have eluded her here.

“How can I single out just a few places, when there are hundreds that made a lasting impression on me?” Woodhouse says when we ask her about her favourite places in Greece.

“I adore Crete, for its dramatic landscapes, its mythology, its people, its pride, its history, its music. Nikos Xylouris is a favourite, as is Mikis Theodorakis, and also Manos Hatzidakis. It’s a feeling, a sense one has of the spirit of a place. I was truly happy and at peace whenever I stayed there under the spell of its magnetism, trekking the Samaria, visiting Anogeia, Chania, the sites of the Minoan palaces.”

The list of places she loves would run to pages, each of them evoking in her different emotions, different sensory perceptions, but all having left vivid traces in her consciousness.

“The beauties and secrets of Greece are endless, and one lifetime is not enough, as Seferis said once, but just to mention a few, Kalymnos and its people, Mycenae, to which I return every time I am in Greece, drawn by the dark power of the stories associated with the House of Atreus; its Mycenaean warrior cult, the site in the imagination where myth meets history, truth transfigures story. My imagination was so fascinated by the savage stories centred on Mycenae that I composed dramatic monologues in the personae of the women: Klytemnestra, Elektra, Iphigeneia. Cassandra.”

In one of her most recent poetry collections “Bitter Oranges: A memoir of Athens”, Woodhouse vividly captures her life in Athens, the spirit of the places she lived in, the neighbourhoods, the people she encountered.

While she was living in Athens, some of her favourite Greek artists died, all members of an illustrious generation. Manos Hatzidakis, Yannis Ritsos, Melina Mercouri, Aliki Vouyouklaki, Odysseas Elytis, and others.

“The thing that struck me about their passing was that people felt it personally, as if a member of their family had departed this life. They gathered outside their residences to mourn and lament their passing and also to commemorate their lives. I remember standing with a rose in my hand at midnight on a cold night, in a queue kilometres long of people waiting to pay their respects to Melina Mercouri, who had flown out of Athens to New York with the words: θα σας ξαναδώ.”

“I was blessed indeed to find myself in Greece, where in fact I literally did find myself insofar as the potential I had to think creatively, to think and feel my way to a better self, truly did flourish.

“That was all thanks to the people I encountered and the cultural life I was introduced to, on several levels, from the simple pleasures of everyday life to an awareness and appreciation of the vast cultural treasury to which Greece holds the key,” she adds recalling the time she spent in Kalymnos, attending the annual summer school conducted by an incredible Greek lady, Maria Theodoridou, with the support of the Municipality of Kalymnos.

Maria Theodoridou invited students and teachers from many of the Eastern-bloc countries. “There was no cost to the participants, other than travel expenses. The only requirement of them was that they should pass on the gift, by doing what they could to support the propagation of Hellenism in their roles as teachers and students in the countries they came from, which included the Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Poland, Yugoslavia, but also Western European nations and even Mexico.”

Two major collections by Jena Woodhouse, which were exclusively inspired by Greece are ‘Eros in Landscape’ and ‘Passenger on a Ferry’, as well as the children’s novella ‘Metis, the Octopus and the Olive Tree’

Kyria Maria is a shining example of what women can achieve, she adds, describing how the lives of women both actual and mythical intrigue her.

“Every culture has its heroines, and Greece has its fair share, known and unknown, sung and unsung. I met many women I admired and felt great affection for, like Kyria Evdokhia, our neighbour on Kos, the wife of the shepherd who lived beyond the neighbouring hills. I was reminded of my own mother by her life of rural hardship, which Kyria Evdokhia lived with such effort and uncomplaining dignity.”

Among the heroines of our time the one who burns brightest for Woodhouse is Lela Karagianni, from the Greek Resistance to the Fascist occupation of World War II and great granddaughter of Laskarina Bouboulina, the female admiral heroine who contributed to a free and independent Greece.

Adding to her list of modern heroines, are also two Greek-Australian women, “Helen Zachos, whom I heard speak at the Solomos Society in Brisbane some time ago, and Chanel Contos, an awesome advocate for the need to prioritise social issues affecting women in particular, and young people’s respect for themselves and others when engaging in intimate relationships.”

Of the Greek mythical women, the one that interests Woodhouse most is the body of mythology around the ancient figures of Demeter and Persephone, in which she finds extraordinary insights into the human psyche and personal relationships.

“The most dominant and pervasive relationships of my own life, and also the most complex, and often painful, have been those between myself and my mother and myself and my daughter, and this particular myth, with its variants and ramifications, has become a source of revelation and the basis of a number of poems.

” It seems to be in the nature of such myths that they can mirror the contemporary consciousness -not only in their own time, but throughout human history- as witnessed in the work of many writers and artists of our present time, such as Louise Gluck, Madeleine Miller, and also J. K. Rowling, who, in an address to the Harvard graduates of 2008, admitted her incalculable creative debt to her degree in Classics and her love of Greek mythology. These insights into the human condition are among the innumerable gifts bequeathed to us by the Greeks. The Hellenes.”

Passenger on a Ferry (poetry) published in 1994. The cover is a scene from Leros painted by Michael Winters, another Philhellene featured in the latest Antipodes periodical

Overcome and humbled to be among the 25 philhellenes celebrated by the Greek Australian Cultural League in the latest Antipodes periodical,

Woodhouse says that the GACL has been the longest and most consistent supporter of her writings about Greece.

“The only way I can thank them adequately is to keep writing about Greece and what it means to me. My love and boundless admiration for Greece and everything that name implies is shared by many, over many millennia. It is Greece and its profound thinkers and creative minds in every sphere of human activity that have shown humanity how we can, as individuals and collectively, become our best selves. The values we have inherited from this source, in all fields of human endeavour, have never been superseded. Greece gave birth to a culture of genius. My words echo what others have been saying for a very long time, but they also reflect what I have encountered and experienced. So to be deemed a Philhellene is to be endowed with a very special ταυτότητα – one that I was not born with, but one that has been given to me by the grace and generosity of Hellenism and Hellenes. It is something to carry in the heart and soul, a gift beyond compare and beyond imagining, and an honour to attempt to live up to for the remainder of my life’s journey.”

*List of publications to date:

Eros in Landscape (poetry) 1989

Metis, the Octopus and the Olive Tree (novella for children) 1993, 2nd edition 1994

Passenger on a Ferry (poetry) 1994

Hidden Desires: Australian Women Writing (anthology) 2006, compiled and edited by Christina Houen and Jena Woodhouse

Farming Ghosts (novel) 2009 (written while in Greece)

Dreams of Flight (short stories) 2014

Green Dance: Tamborine Mountain Poems 2018

The Book of Lost Addresses: A retrospective (poetry chapbook) 2020

On the Windswept Bridge (poetry chapbook) 2020

News from the Village (poetry chapbook) 2021

Bitter Oranges: a memoir of Athens (poetry chapbook) 2022

Forthcoming: The Wild Country of Time (poetry) 2024

New Work: The Secret of the Thunder God’s Mountain (novella for children) 2023

The Company of Birds and Trees (poetry) 2023