Last winter I was living in Athens. Talk was all of deficit, Troika, national strikes. I borrowed a flat and learnt Greek. Four hours daily of tuition, five more of homework: my life was bound by verbs and the horrors of the accusative. My teacher Theodora was relentless. She said we were timetabled a ten-minute break every hour, but if it was okay with us she’d dispense with that. We would come to regret this.
I knew no one. The quiet in my flat was dense, as if it was muffled in wool. Adjacent flats were empty, and there was no Internet. There were ribald jokes in class when Theodora discovered that Ahmad, a Syrian, had found a Greek woman for pillow talk despite having a wife in Damascus. I didn’t have anyone for pillow talk. At weekends, when my language school closed, I went to bed in silence and woke in silence, then to bed again and to wake again, all in silence. A vista of emptiness yawned, reeking of boredom.
But I did have a companion, of a sort. GFB accompanied my every foray around the city. Whenever I opened his book, flakes fell off, but the spine, curling like an autumn leaf, bore remnants of the celebrated blood-red cloth binding and gold lettering: Hand-book Greece Ionian Islands &c. 15/- London. John Murray.
Published in 1854, it’s the world’s first guidebook to Greece, by which its author, the mysterious GFB, meant classical and historical Greece, many of these places ‘not yet reunited to Christendom’. Admittedly Pausanius produced ten topographical volumes back in the second century ad, and footnotes to Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage describe how to visit places mentioned in his topographical poem, but this was the first informative, practical guide. Suggested routes around Greece accompany essays on language, government, character, soil, the justice system, the economy, history, architecture, religion, plus tips on how and when to go. It’s a good read too. GFB was determined th
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