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Sunday, October 20, 2013

Travels with Epicurus


Unsurprisingly, Epicurus's laid-back legacy survives more thoroughly in Greece's rural areas than in its cities. Aegean islanders like to tell a joke about a prosperous Greek American who visits one of the islands on vacation. Out on a walk, the affluent Greek American comes upon an old Greek man sitting on a rock, sipping a glass of ouzo, and lazily staring at the sun setting into the sea. The American notices there are olive trees growing on the hills behind the old Greek but that they are untended, with olives just dropping here and there onto the ground. He asks the old man who the trees belong to.

'They're mine,' the Greek replies.

'Don't you gather the olives?' the American asks.

'I just pick one when I want one,' the old man says.

'But don't you realise that if you pruned the trees and picked the olives at their peak, you could sell them? In America everybody is crazy about virgin olive oil, and they pay a damned good price for it.'

'What would I do with the money?' the old Greek asks.

'Why, you could build yourself a big house and hire servants to do everything for you.'

'And then what would I do?'

'You could do anything you want!'

'You mean, like sit outside and sip ouzo at sunset?'

This is just one of the many episodes in this charming little book which is a travel book, a witty and accessible meditation, and an optimistic guide to living well, all in one.

I started reading some of the ancient Greek philosophers while surrounded by the rocky, sunlit landscape where their ideas first flourished. Those were my 'SPA Years' of 1983 and 1984 - see here - which was my mnemonic to get the chronology right: Socrates came first; Plato was a devoted follower of Socrates; and Aristostle was a student of Plato.

Sitting in my favourite cafenion while playing with my kombolói, a loop of thirty-three amber beads that are known in English as worry beads, I was well on my way to becoming a Greek when I had learned that those kombolói had nothing to do with worrying but were all about time, about spacing it out, about making it last.

My time in Greece lasted for two happy years until that fateful day in April 1985 when I suffered from what I wrongly diagnosed as homesickness which brought me back to Australia.

All I have left now are my memories, my kombolói - and plenty of time to twirl them.