Sunday, 20 October 2013

Assessing the Project

Assessing the Project

I had previously been able to imagine Takis at a certain beachside tavern, for being a foodie he’d often spoken about this particular restaurant down by the sea not far from the house. He’d told me that at the Argo meals were made from seasonal produce and that if you let the chef know what you wanted the day before he’d have it ready for you the next day. He’d talked of the spaghetti marinara made with local lobster, and of the fresh prawns served a la Greka, as well as the newly caught fried calamari. He’d raved about the sweetest moussaka made with eggplants from the owner’s garden, and also their imam baildi (slowly cooked-eggplants with onions, garlic and tomatoes), and then the local cheeses and wines or, if you preferred, Mithos (a Greek beer). If there is a paradise it did appear this taverna in Greece was a reflection of it for Takis.

                                   A Taverna in Lemos

Takis had said little about the house, even when he came back from that notable holiday. And when he got the idea of turning the house into a hotel he was cautious about telling me too much about the scope of the project or the house. After I’d asked him a few times about the condition of the house he told me it was pretty bad, explaining...

It all started with a watermelon   

The house is in a shocking state, but I didn’t know how bad it was till I saw it. Zoe and Costa only live in two rooms on the ground floor – a bedroom and the kitchen. You can’t use the top floor at all now, because the roof leaks. Something should be done.’
 ‘When you say the house is in a bad state, just how bad is it?’

‘Well, there’s a hole in the roof, and even parts of the middle floor get wet when it rains. One sister was sleeping up there and was OK, but my cousin was in another room and she had to move out into a hotel because there was a summer storm, and the water came pouring onto her bed from the floor above.’

But then came even more shocking news.

 ‘On the plane on my way home I was considering the idea a bit further. I’d immediately thought it could turn out to be a very good business scheme, but I realised it would only work if I could buy out all the other family members. To develop the property I’d need to have full control of the project. It might present difficulties, to buy them all out, but as most of them don’t visit the house anymore, and anyway do nothing to maintain it, several may be willing to sell. As well, by buying them out I’d be able to assist those members of the family who might need some financial help.’
‘How many people are we talking about?’

‘Probably about thirty or more by now.’

I took a deep shaky breath.

‘You see the house is on a land title called exathieretou, meaning that everything is passed on to the children and by them to their children. You see, Papous had nine children and since then these have had children. This is the way property is usually passed on in Greece.’

 After I had recovered from that news he resumed his campaign to persuade me that it was all a good idea. He said that I should go with him next time to see the house and the island and I would be completely won over.  It was 2002 when I went for my first visit to Lemnos and got my first view of the house. It was winter when we arrived by taxi at the front door.
‘Most of these old Venetian houses are empty now,’ Con our taxi driver told us, ‘but in July and August the owners will come back for their summer holidays.’ Then getting out of the car and opening my door he announced, ‘We’re here; this is The House.’ He pointed to a flight of stone steps rising from the pavement. At first glance the building looked imposing, but on closer inspection the ‘mansion’ turned out to be less impressive. The stucco was stained, all the windows were boarded up, and a very dilapidated balcony hung above the front door.’

However, I needed to put any misgivings aside for I had pledged that my first job, when assessing whether we should take on this assignment, was to measure the rooms and do a photographic survey inside and out.

‘So out I went, through the now open back door and onto the terrace. Here I took photos of the terrace’s huge uneven stone paving slabs. Then, going out onto the rough pasture that was the garden, I stood near an old stone shed and looked back towards the house. I took some more pictures. I could now see that, though the house had a strong square shape, there was little symmetry about the placing of the windows. Perhaps the three floors had been built at different times. Also there was an obvious later addition on one side. As a consequence the house looked less classically proportioned than some of the others in the street. Its exterior mouldings were less defined and its shutters were plainer. One might say that these differences added character, but there was no getting away from the fact that, with its stained stucco and broken shutters, it looked very run down. I shook my head. This was more than a ‘Grand Design’ in waiting.’

I took photos and measurements but the house was not an encouraging sight.

 ‘Peering up the staircase we were troubled to see that the top newel post was badly bent, under pressure from a sagging ceiling above. We cautiously ascended the stairs, and in order to better see what we were doing Takis opened the shutters in a couple of the rooms. Now we had enough light to make out the litter in each room: old furniture, battered pictures and broken ornaments. The house had three floors, so we climbed the second flight of stairs and found ourselves in a lofty top-floor apartment. With its higher ceilings, these larger rooms gave more of the feeling of grandeur one would expect of a ‘mansion’. Each of the front rooms had three or four large windows, and I could imagine that once opened up the rooms would be filled with light. But right then, shuttered and gloomy, and with floors that sloped precipitously towards the centre of the house, they didn’t offer an inspiring sight.’
The roof had a hole that let in the water into the top two floors. The garden was a playing field for local children and dogs.


 ‘Carefully we walked towards the shuttered double doors that led out onto the balcony above the front door. These doors had an extra seal, so that no one would inadvertently exit onto that precarious ledge. However, Takis managed to open one, and immediately, there before us lay an enchanting view. What a great outlook these rooms would have if renovated, overlooking the red-tiled houses of Myrina, the old Venetian fort and the blue waters of the Aegean beyond. '

 The only saving feature was the views from the top floor. 

‘We retreated, closing and re-barring the balcony doors, and in order to feel more secure we clambered downstairs to stand again on the ground floor. However, we’d glimpsed that view, and now, excitedly, we discussed the wonderful living space that top area could be if restored. '
This had once been a family home. Could it be that again?
‘On the other hand, as I wandered around, I was interested by the evidence of this having been a working home for a large family. Behind the house were two ruins, one of them revealing an old, very large, brick oven. The chimney of the oven appeared to be still intact, though a tree was growing up through the roof of the room next door, and most of the outer walls of the structure had tumbled down.
I could imagine what the house could look like clean, gleaming and loved. But could we bring it back to that state? Before we arrived, my imagination had been filled with images from magazines. I’d pictured a house rustically decorated in country-colours. I could even imagine a Mediterranean terrace outside, and a garden filled with paved paths and olive trees. But now I’d seen the reality, and I was not an incurable romantic. It would take a lot of money, time and effort to bring off that kind of restoration.’

Books to interest those visiting Greece for the first time

Charmain Clift’s, Mermaid Singing (Indianapolis, 1956), tells of living with her husband, another Australian writer, and her children on the island of Kalimnos in Greece, with a sponge diving community.

Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek, translated by Carl Wildman (Faber and Faber Ltd.,1961). In some ways this book shocked me, but it did prepare me for what it might be like to live in a small very tightly organised Greek community.

Vanishing Greece (Conran Octopus, 1991). This is a photographic essay on Greece by Clay Perry introduced by Patrick Leigh Fermor who, like Clay Perry, had conducted a passionate love affair with Greece over many years. Elizabeth Boleman-Herring, another philhellene, has written the text. All three are aware that by the end of the twentieth century the landscape and the traditional way of life may have changed irrevocably.

Greece Text by Simonetta Crescimbene, Design Patrizia Balocco, (Tiger Books International, 1994).  Many beautiful pictures that inspire admiration and give pleasure, but sometimes emphasising its ‘unspoint character’ unlike the sadness that visits the text of Vanishing Greece’.



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