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Grandma’s notebooks of life on the move

The last time I saw my grandmother was on a hot Friday afternoon in the summer of 1998, somewhere in Halandri. Her passing, which came as a gentle release for her, was eerily in tune with her equable temperament. Grandma had always lived in the shadow of her husband, whom she adored till the day of his sudden death. My grandfather was a lovable teacher from Karpenisi, whom everyone cared for and who left in his wake a gentle wash of kindness and unselfishness. Grandma was a teacher too, but the spotlight was always trained on Grandad. As long as they both lived, the two of them were absorbed in his stories and achievements and knowledge. And when she was left alone, she collapsed to the extent that the little we knew about her life became even more blurred. And that’s more or less how things would have remained if, a few weeks ago, I had not come across a series of notebooks with stiff covers, stowed away in the bookcase of my parents’ home. It took me a while to work out that those neatly kept, two-color notebooks with the fine handwriting were my grandmother’s travel journals. She wasn’t just my grandfather’s devoted spouse, after all, but a person with enough curiosity and zest to fill hundreds of pages. Leafing through Her travel impressions cover the 15 years from 1965 to 1980. When they retired, it was the fashion to take group trips abroad by coach or plane. Grandma recorded in meticulous detail everything she observed, from the first gathering at the airport to their return to Athens. Her writing is lively and she is well-disposed, never complaining even when things go awry, as on an April 1970 trip to Barcelona via Geneva. Bad weather grounded the flight from Geneva, making them miss a day of the Spanish tour. She simply notes the event, without comment. Leafing through the notebooks, I couldn’t help wondering for whom she wrote them. For herself, to start with; her creative spark needed an outlet and it seems that writing was her forte. But from the way she wrote, it’s clear she sought an audience. She could never have imagined that in what must have seemed to her the space age of 2010 she would find her audience among Kathimerini’s readers. Then I think of the unprocessed wealth of information, of ideas, of the way her experience conveys the atmosphere of that time. «The entire plain we passed going from Skopje to Belgrade is ‘former Macedonian Serbia,’» she writes, unaware of any danger. «On the way to Rome, we find many civilized villages with apartment blocks, electricity, televisions. The people ride bicycles; [there are] beautiful gardens, many flowers; flowers even on the sidewalks, many azaleas, beautiful lines of trees, store windows with lavish displays. All that we see in the villages and suburbs of Rome.» In 1966, televisions were by no means common in Athens. Grandma couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw their hotel room in Lisbon four years later. «How lovely! I don’t know what to admire first. We’ve never seen such plumbing, such furniture. What lovely big rooms! From the balconies of the fifth floor we marvel at this immense city. What greenery; what rows of trees; what buildings!» Russia The journey to the Soviet Union was of special interest for political reasons. Grandpa had been a communist in his youth and an active party member. When the German occupation of Greece came to an end, he disagreed with the decisions made by the new Communist Party leadership and resigned. In 1976, when they went to Moscow, they voted for the Center Party. Grandma’s view was fairly pro-Soviet, which doesn’t surprise me when I recall my first political memories of the early 1980s. In April 1976, she wrote: «When talking about Russia, something we should not leave out is that ordinary goods are available in abundance. Goods that signify ostentation and luxury are generally unavailable, almost absent from the market.» Despite her good intentions, which we can probably put down more to her character than to her political convictions, she asks: «Is the Soviet Union a paradise?» «Certainly not,» is her blunt reply. «But it isn’t hell either. It has imperfections, as all well-meaning Soviets we spoke to admit, even party cadres.» Immersed in the pleasures of reading, I think how Grandma’s notebooks would make sought-after exhibits in a notional museum of the 20th century. Now I can see that she did leave something in her own wake. Now we know.