A Greek idyll built of sweat and laughter

As Europe dismantles borders and bureaucratic barriers, more Britons buy property abroad and more of them write about the experience, though the results are not always uplifting to read. Indeed many of those who insist on setting up house far from home seem to be the types G.K. Chesterton had in mind when he reversed an old adage to assert: «Travel narrows the mind.» What lifts a book above the ruck of jeremiads bemoaning the irretrievably foreign ways of the foreign places their authors have chosen to settle in? In the case of John Mole’s «It’s All Greek to Me» (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2004), it is the humor of the author who, as he says, dreamed of «a little whitewashed house with a blue door and blue shutters on an unspoiled island in a picturesque village next to the beach with a taverna round the corner» and wonders why he ended up with «a tumbledown ruin on a hillside with no water, no electricity, no roof, no floor, no doors, no windows and twenty years of goat dung.» Mole and his family had lived for some years in a leafy outer suburb of Athens; when he was due to be posted elsewhere, the family agreed to keep a bolt-hole in the idyllic Greece of their dreams. His book relates the effort to transform the ruin into somewhere approximating to the dream, with the help – and occasional hindrance – of the local villagers. The risk in such a tale is the stereotype of heroic outsider pitted against canny locals, but though Moles paints with a broad brush, he is too fond of his fellow humans to see them as caricatures. Clear-sighted about their ways and foibles he is, however, and just as perceptive of his own. His archetypal villagers are balanced by a doubtless exaggerated portrayal of himself as an archetypal Englishman, too buttoned up to say what he thinks and chary of physical contact, though this image is undercut by his sensual response to the beauties of the place. The real contrast is not so much between Greek and foreigner as between villagers and townies. The locals may lack finesse, but they are seasoned participants in all of life’s cycle, while the incomer, though a much-traveled, highly educated businessman, witnesses his first death, first exhumation, and first slaughter of an animal in his adopted village. Village life is not all gloom and doom, of course, and Moles is no shrinking violet. He joins in the gossip while downing ouzo at the cafe, attends local festivities, and tries – apparently without success – to haggle Greek-style with the tradesman he employs to help him work on the house, a task made no easier by the pitfalls he encounters in his ongoing struggle with Greek. Mental spell-check Anyone who has ever experimented with a foreign language has his own repertoire of cringe-evoking blunders. Moles cheerfully reports the outcomes of his valiant attempts to communicate in what he presents as terminally fractured Greek. At least one villager recognizes the need to perform «a mental spell-check» whenever talking to his English neighbor, whose increasingly fraught requests for a room fall on deaf ears because he is actually asking for a tomato. A business talk with a roof tiler founders when the tradesman departs abruptly, disconcerted by the Englishman who, mangling the words for reed and tile, has ordered a squid and onion roof. And, as Moles acknowledges, his version of events may be flawed: «When you are an outsider it is easy to live in a parallel universe unrecognizable to those who live on the outside.» While Moles transforms the house, his wife and their four children aged under 10 stay in Athens and visit at weekends, when conflicting expectations sometimes lead to tension, but are always resolved in laughter as the tight-knit family uncovers the humor in the most unlikely situations. We learn local lore as told to the curious but highly skeptical children, who are ever ready to puncture any inflated notions Moles might have. Though he sometimes turns the tables, as when, «ever mindful of the opportunities for indoctrination,» he compares his own efforts to remove mountains of dung from the house before it can be made habitable to Herakles’ labor of cleaning the Augean stables. One of the children inquires what Herakles had done to be given such a task. «We looked it up and discovered that it was because he had murdered his wife and children. They did the washing up and went to bed without argument that night.» In fact Moles is very much a faux innocent abroad, who displays a winning gusto for life in Greece and an engaging willingness to get his hands dirty, doing everything from digging cesspits to cleaning hundreds of old roof tiles with a wire brush, to create an idyll which, more than 20 years later, is still a family haven.