My first impressions of Greece are that of snow, stone and dark waters – not quite what you would stereotypically expect of your first visit to this country. Yet I presume to think that Greece in winter is the truer Greece. Thanos, the owner of Thraka Publishing House and my host in Larissa, takes me on an evening ride from Thessaloniki down south. I wait impatiently to see the huge black mass of Mount Olympus, and there it is, together with a picture-perfect crescent moon above it.
In Larissa I stay alone in Thanos’ flat high above a square surrounded by some of Larissa’s most frequented cafés – and there are many cafés in this city. Around noon, they are full to the brim of people sipping all kinds of coffee, enjoying the sunnier days that came after the initial icy shock. After one o’clock, it is time for something more substantial: tsipouro (grape brandy), which also includes nibbling on a selection of small dishes freshly made and brought to your table. Larissans appreciate their time with friends and colleagues and know how to enjoy it. After returning to my temporary home to translate, read and write I am enthralled by the rosy glow of the sunset reflected on the snow-covered mountains in the distance.
Almost every day, I meet new people – or rather, I am introduced to them by Thanos, a guy who seems really well-known to cultural workers in his city. Talking to the older and more experienced ones, I exchange ideas and my respect for their efforts to enliven the city and to keep things going. Talking to the younger ones, I notice similarities between their situation and that of the young people in Croatia: for both, politics seem to play too significant a role in their lives, while economically, their status and perspectives are modest. I meet young poets of around my age, good poets whose books I would have liked to have been able to read in their entirety.
I feel quite special in Larissa, as everyone seems to give me privileged treatment when it comes to experiencing the cultural side of the city. The director of the Diachronic Museum, Mrs Sdrolia, gives me a private tour of the many interesting and sometimes touching ancient artefacts found beneath the rich soil of Thessaly; at the Dance School I am allowed to see a snippet of their wonderfully soothing contemporary dance practice; on a Sunday, I am invited to see a play in the Thessalian Theatre by its very director, Mrs Spanou, who proves to be an excellent conversation partner as well. The show is in Greek, so I understand only a word here and there; Thanos outlines the main points of the plot for me, in whispers, but I am impressed by the movement and visuals on the stage, and a day or two later I feel compelled to write a poem.
Towards the end of my stay, days get truly eventful. One morning, Thanos and I visit a Larissan high school and read our poetry to the students – many of whom seem genuinely interested – later talking about literature and language and answering their questions. The main event at the French Institute is well-attended and I am happy to hear my poems read out by my Greek hosts in translation and to interact with the audience who, once again, seem interested in poetry and never bored.
After a weekend spent on the cold shores of the Aegean Sea, in Paliouria and Platamon (with the impressive views from its windswept castle), where Thanos took me to see another impressive and currently almost deserted bit of Greece, we have the honour of giving an interview in the ancient theatre of Larissa – the place where, as Mrs Sdrolia remarked, poets had not stood for two millennia.