Born in an ugly countryside in Northern Italy – boiling paddy fields in spring, fog in winter – I left early to study in Milan later and then avoided anything even vaguely green for decades. I lived in Cairo, Bombay, Delhi and other cities with far more people than trees. I moved around too much to look at plants, let alone take care of them.
Then three years ago, in April, I came to Greece for the very first time, a few days before turning 50.
The first thing I fell in love with Athens was not so much the Acropolis – I haven’t’ been up yet but I am still agog when I see it from a distance and I know all the tiny alleyways and cats below it – as the bitter orange trees, the nerantzia, which you can’t eat, but the most experienced and less lazy use to make jams and sweets with their peel.
Between April and May, you walk in the shade of shiny leaves and golden spheres. The tree-lined streets are covered in a carpet of white petals, their fragrance makes the air as thick as honey.
Bitter oranges have a long rebel history of being used – when green and rock-hard, as projectiles by demonstrators – against German occupation forces, junta policemen during the dictatorship, and riot police these days. After the “crisis” began, cleaning crews tried to remove the fruits in the city centre, in an attempt to deprive protestors of ammunition. They still do in some ‘hot’ areas, like the anarchist and more and hyper gentrified neighbourhood of Exarcheia. Anyway, the nerantzia give me joy with their being bullets and candies.
Two months later I decided to stay in Greece: I let go of my life in Milan, sold my tiny city pad overlooking a grey and trafficky street and moved to a small island in front of Athens. Grigora as they say here, which means fast – and sounds like it. I have always been quite fast in taking big decisions – moving home, changing country, getting rid of whole libraries, adopting a new language. And usually, they turn out to be good.
So there I was in a proper house surrounded by one thousand square meters of pefkia and fistikia – pines from Aleppo and pistachios from Persia. Jasmine, bougainvillaea, and honeysuckle in the front garden. All of a sudden I realized I was born in the green after all, and it made so much sense to be there again. I promptly planted three olive trees.
And then the pandemic started, two days after I the renovation works were completed.
I had to learn to slow down. I was on an island, surrounded by water, and I couldn’t go anywhere, not even to the mainland, Athens, who looked at me every night with its twinkling lights when I went for a ciggie on the balcony. Is-land. Is earth, in English. I-sola. Alone, in Italian. Solitude was something I knew already, and it wasn’t a big problem, because otherwise, I wouldn’t be a translator. But this was different. I had to learn the time of plants.
I soon met the anemones. The Greek word anemone translates quite literally into ‘daughter of the wind’, and indeed, the plant is affectionately called ‘wind-flower’. I learnt that
in local folklore, they bring good luck. It is also said to foretell rain when its petals close and it is well known that fairies like to sleep under them.
I started looking at plants and flowers with the same attention we usually reserve for a work of art This reminded me of Nabokov in Speak, Memory: “I discovered in nature the non-utilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception.”
There are two types of jasmine everywhere: the delicate, lace-like one with small flowers, that looks fragile but climbs indomitably on every surface, and the sturdy African one, with big fat thorns and juicy petals, which has the same fragrance but it’s not even jasmine – it’s a shrub called Carissa macrocarpa. It seems to be very happy even far from Africa, but after all, we are not that far. The fine hazelnut dust that regularly sweeps over the island with the southern winds – and lands on floors tables chairs giving them a soft pale desert tint – is actually Sahara sand, so tout se tient.
I started noting down all the different hues of the bougainvillaeas – only walking around slowly I realise how different they were. Not only the size of the little lantern – it looks like paper! – is slightly different in each plant, but the whites are golden or silvery, the crimsons turn towards purple or red, the yellows can be pale and delicate like a butterfly and the oranges like plump apricots. I read there are more than 300 species of a bougainvillaea in the world, but I’m perfectly content with the dozen or so I see every day.
And the honeysuckle: every April it grows and grows under my nose until October at least, so fast that sometimes I feel I can see it moving if I look at it carefully. How can it be, I wonder almost every day. The bees love it and zip around it all day, together with the cicadas that in the summer chime in for their grand daily concerts.
In Greek mythology, Daphnis and Chloe were lovers but lived far apart and could only be together when the honeysuckle was in bloom. So Daphnis went to the Aphrodite, the goddess of love, to ask if it could be made to flower for longer, so they could enjoy more time together. And, voilà, the trick apparently worked and the honeysuckle does bloom from spring to the fall (as it often happens with Greek gods and goddesses, there are many different versions of this myth – I just picked the one I like more).
In spring, taking a short walk from home in the forest nearby I meet literally hundreds of wild purple-blue irises, whose name comes from the Greek goddess of the rainbow. In May 1932, while visiting the island of Aegina, Virginia Woolf and her friends were presented with flowers by local children, who gathered around “pressing irises & yellow poppies”.
And then in September when I walk down to the rocks for a quicks swim, I pass by a small street bordered with graceful eucalyptuses – solid silver patchy trunks and light grey-green leaves – and then I start picking fruits and nuts from the many abandoned houses: lemons, grapes, figs, almonds, pomegranates, pistachios, walking and eating, walking and eating, just being as Whitman said.
May 21st 2022