Writers’ retreat on Paros helps generate culture

The invitation came over the loudspeakers in the square: «EKEMEL, the Municipality of Paros and the community of Lefkes invite all residents to the opening of the Home of Literature.» If you didn’t know the details, you would have hardly believed your ears. Until recently, Greece was not part of the networks that offer hospitality to writers and translators, demonstrating in practice that writing sometimes needs greenhouse conditions, namely protection. The Home of Literature in Lefkes on Paros is the former Xenia Hotel. Inaugurated two weeks ago, it already is full of writers and translators from around the world. It didn’t take much to turn it into a guesthouse. All it needed was the chance, but successful meeting between Catherine Velissaris, now head of the National Book Center (EKEBI) and then-head of the European Translation Center (EKEMEL), and Yiannis Ragousis, a mayor with a rare sensitivity toward cultural matters. Residents’ involvement and the participation by the women of the former capital of southern Paros also helped. They made local delicacies – «loukoumades,» «pastelli», «samota» figs – and offered their homemade ouzo, «suma.» They cut gladioli from the Monastery of Ai Yiannis tou Kaparou and volunteered to clean the rooms. None of that can be taken for granted, especially in a society like ours that still sees writing as a luxury, a hobby. But the women of Lefkes have grasped the spirit of the times better than anyone. They understand that Greece can no longer rest on its laurels as a tourist destination, that the easy game of tourism is over. Only by generating culture can Greek identity be highlighted without compromises. If, in a few years’ time, Paros, the life of its inhabitants or – by extension – Greek life and the modern Greek identity spring effortlessly from pages written in the Paros guesthouse, then those who have worked for the guesthouse will have every reason to feel proud. And if the guesthouse acquires a library, a full schedule of events and – why not? – publications, then the old Venetian road that links the farming villages of southern Paros with the port will be able to boast other, directly intellectual connections. I have often stayed in writers’ retreats abroad and I know in what sly ways the surrounding atmosphere percolates into written work. For example, if Jeffrey Eugenides hadn’t written «Middlesex» in Berlin, would the German capital have played such a large part in the novel? The Germans are good at promoting their culture by offering hospitality to writers. Let’s hope the Greeks learn how to do the same.