Imagine being able to leave everything behind, pack up and take your work with you to live in southern Greece? Imagine being able to do this twice in your life.
Well that’s precisely what Scottish Australian journalist Marjory McGinn and her husband Jim, along with their crazy – but lovable – terrier Wallace, did. And after writing two best sellers about the unforgettable experience (Things Can Only Get Feta and Homer’s Where The Heart Is), McGinn thought it only fitting to complete her travel memoir series with a third instalment, A Scorpion In The Lemon Tree.
While venturing to Greece is always a good idea (in my opinion at least) deciding to momentarily relocate in 2010, and again in 2012 amidst the worsening economic crisis, the couple’s decision wasn’t always looked upon as the brightest idea.
But timing really in everything, and though a serendipitous decision for the writer, her resulting memoirs were welcomed by philhellenes the world over and the Greeks themselves, as a timely reminder of everything that is right and beautiful about Greece and its people, while also providing a timely commentary on the impact of politics on the general populous.
Now back in the UK, Neos Kosmos reached out to the writer to find out more about her experience in the Peloponese, the experience of writing her third travel memoir, and the state of Greece today.
In A Scorpion In The Lemon Tree, your love of Greece is even more evident than in your first two books. What is it that you love so much about life in rural Greece in particular?
How long have we got here? Oh, everything really. I love all of Greece but rural Greece has a certain simplicity and rawness about it that is unique and it is a part of Greece that I think hasn’t changed that much and has kept faith with its customs and its past. It can also be challenging though: scorpions invading your house, rats in the attic, both of which I wrote about in my latest book. I love rural people, especially in southern Greece, like the tough, eccentric goat farmer whom I became friendly with in the Mani, Foteini.
In this latest book I also met a few new rural characters in the Messinian peninsula, like the generous couple nearby, Tasos and Eleni who brought us a great basket of produce from their farm to try: wine, olive oil, capers, cheese, to name but a few things. And there was the lovely rural priest Papa Theodoros, who was also an artist, who invited us to his village home one afternoon to see his rather ‘unusual’ paintings.
Throughout the book you talk about the experience of writing your second book Homer’s Where The Heart Is, which must have been an amazing experience to do so while living in the region of the book’s setting. Did you spend any time in Greece while writing the third instalment? If not, how did you go writing the travel memoir from a distance?
I did start writing the third book while we were living in the rented villa in Koroni, Messinia. We were there for 14 months and during the long, stormy winter I had plenty of time to finish the second book and then start the third, though most of this book was eventually written in England where we are currently based. I had kept a diary while in Koroni and made a lot of notes so writing the book in the UK wasn’t that difficult. I had also taken hundreds of photos while there so I had those to refer to while I was writing.
How has it been for you and Jim transitioning back into life in the UK? Have you continued to stay in touch with Foteini in the village?
It was difficult leaving Greece and returning to the UK in 2015 and no less so than leaving the Mani in 2012 after our first three-year odyssey. That was probably a bit harder actually because we had made a lot of friends by that time in southern Greece and many expected us to put down roots there and stay. Many people said: “If you love Greece, then why not stay forever!” If only life were really that simple. We had family commitments in the UK and other reasons to return. We will always go back to Greece though for short or long holidays when we can.
I do keep in touch with Foteini. I write to her sometimes, and call her on her village phone. She rarely ever hears the phone ringing which I had mentioned quite a few times in the books so when I do finally get an answer it’s a bit miraculous. She always shouts down the phone and in the background I can always hear goats bells, and the sound of motorbikes buzzing through the village. Lovely!
Since moving back to the UK it has been a turbulent time in Europe, and politics in particular. What did you think of the Brexit vote result? What impact do you think this will have on Europe?
I think the Brexit vote was a good move for Britain. I think there had been a lot of frustration in the preceding years over our ties with the EU and the fact we had lost our ability at times to make decisions for ourselves from banal issues like whether supermarket bananas were the wrong shape (yes really!) and in keeping with EU trading standards, up to more serious judicial matters because a decision made by a British court could be over-ruled by a European court. I don’t know how Brexit will impact on Europe, or even the UK. We are a long way from actually leaving the EU. I think it did empower other disgruntled European nations to consider doing the same thing. I know that some of my Greek friends applauded the British decision. One friend wrote just beforehand saying she hoped the UK would vote for Brexit. “I wish Greece could do the same and escape from the oppressiveness of the EU but we can’t, we are a small country.”
That takes me into my next question; what do you make of the state of Greece today? Do you think they have any hope of coming out of the crisis stronger?
I hope the country comes out stronger but there are people there who wonder if Greece will come out of it at all! There’s still a long way to go. I feel that Greeks have lost confidence in yet another government that they believe has let them down. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has a difficult task, it’s true, dragging Greece out of this crisis but many Greeks are still appalled that he had signed the country up to more austerity after promising in his election pledge to ditch austerity. There is nothing left for Greek people to give. Their wages and pensions have been cut to the bone and new taxes continue to be levied. The health service and schools are in crisis. I mentioned in A Scorpion In The Lemon Tree that I had met a young Greek teacher in Koroni (married with two small children) who was teaching foreigners Greek and he had not been paid by the education department for about a year. I have heard that he still hasn’t and, sadly, he has now lost his job. This is not uncommon. Tsipras is now arguing that the economy won’t heal without serious debt relief. But how he will go about securing it will be interesting since none of the EU partners seem keen to consider it, and Germany is not anxious to rock the boat before its general election in 2017. I do think Tsipras’s government has tried to bring about much-needed reforms and clamp down on tax evasion but it’s hard to see the economy growing enough to bring Greece out of crisis any time soon. I certainly hope it does though. In my humble opinion, I think Greece has now suffered enough.
Since leaving Greece in 2015, have you been back to the Mani and Koroni to stay in the palio spiti, or what is now Margarita’s Cottage?
We haven’t been back yet but do intend to go, yes. I don’t know how I will feel about Margarita’s Cottage now though. It’s quite cute despite being old and traditional and the owners have renovated it a bit and made it more comfortable. Anyone who reads my third book will know that it was a bit of a nightmare to begin with especially with critter invasions. Renting accommodation in Greece is not easy, I tell you. You have to make compromises sometimes, especially when you have a dog with you. And things always go wrong. In the second house in Homer’s Where the Heart Is an earth tremor during the night broke half the floor tiles in the bathroom and left it a complete mess. You just can’t predict things like that. But we have been lucky in our odysseys to have had some interesting properties with awesome views of the Messinian gulf (which Margarita’s Cottage also had) and met some wonderful people.
Having lived and worked in Australia, have you thought about coming back?
I wish! For what it’s worth, Greece makes me a little nostalgic for my Aussie childhood: the climate, the laid-back attitude and in Koroni there were hundreds of eucalyptus trees. I expected to see a koala now and then but it hasn’t happened yet. I can see how Greeks settle so well in Australia now, it’s not such a big leap from one place to the other. And all those milk-bars in Oz are just kafeneia crossed with zaharoplasteia!
Having completed your three travel memoirs about your time in Greece, can you share any projects that you are working on at the moment? Will you continue to share your love of all things Greek through your Big Fat Greek Blog?
I have a couple of other books in mind now with a Greek theme. I am currently writing a novel this time, set in southern Greece and have a plan to write another non-fiction book about other Greek adventures. I still write the Big Fat Greek Blog on my website though I’ve had much less time this year. I never seem to run out of things to say about Greece since it continually inspires me and in the next few weeks I will write a blog about some of the highlights of the Messinian region and curious things as well, like the spooky ‘Hand of God Tree’ mentioned in the last book.
And finally, I must ask; how is Wallakos (Wallace) going with his health? He’s such a lovable character.
Thanks for asking about Wallace – lots of people do and I think in some ways he has really stolen the show. Recently I wrote a Facebook post telling friends that Wallace had just turned 15 and that he was not always in very good health. A friend read it and sent me a gift for Wallace, a fabulous knitted rug for his bed in Greek colours, blue and white. It was a sweet gesture and he was well pleased – I think. He has touched a few readers hearts with his mad antics. I don’t think he will ever go back to Greece, sadly. But what an adventure he’s had there, more than anyone could imagine.
To read more about Greece and to purchase Marjory McGinn’s travel memoirs, including ‘A Scorpion in the Lemon Tree’, visit www.bigfatgreekodyssey.com/, www.amazon.com.au/ (with free international postage) or www.bookdepository.com/