Coming to Greece in 2001 stripped everything from me: language, family, friends, work, culture, points of reference and sense of self. I arrived five months pregnant with two small children after my husband took a job in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, with the expectation of finding a cosmopolitan city where we could settle and I could find work. We put the children into a local Greek school so that they could learn the language and integrate. After a while, I went to the university to learn Greek myself and we threw ourselves into exploring the country.
I don’t know when or how the realisation dawned that our expectations of our new life in Greece were off kilter, but I do remember neighbours who wouldn’t acknowledge we existed years after moving in, struggling to entertain boisterous boys in a badly insulated house where it’s against the law to make any noise between 3 and 6pm, and feeling baffled by a school system which finishes at noon and depends on grandparents and paid help to fill in for working parents. I also remember one day curling myself into a ball in the corner of a downstairs room where I hoped no one would hear me and crying so desperately that it felt like retching.
At that point, as hard as it is to conceive now, I had no knowledge of mosaics. In a previous life I had been a journalist with a deep interest in the Arab world and language and I had assumed that once things settled and I had a better understanding of my new environment, then somehow I would be able to pick up more or less where I’d left off when the boys were born. But that, for a variety of reasons that extend beyond the scope of this post, wasn’t possible. I had to take everything I’d known and loved before arriving in Greece, quietly pack it away and start again from the beginning.
I’m not easily daunted and I don’t mind things being tough but this was tougher and more daunting that anything I’d done before. I loved words, but I had no language. I loved work but I couldn’t leave the house with small children, a baby and no support system. I was about as frustrated, lonely and trapped as it was possible to be until the day I sat down on a beach and everything changed. I was sifting through handfuls of pebbles as the children played next to me and I had a full-on halleluya moment. With a certainty that I can’t explain, I decided then and there that I would make mosaics.
At this point, of course, I really had no idea what mosaics were, I wasn’t an artist and I hadn’t made anything much during the previous 25 years so it’s a little odd in retrospect that it struck me with such utter surety that this is what I would do. I was younger then and still naive so I thought in my younger, naive way that all it would take would be to find a class, apply myself and away I would go. Right? Wrong. Things in Greece are never as easy as that.
Alison Scourti, a mosaic friend from Athens, recently wrote a comment on CMA in which she mentioned my work and added: ‘all this [has been] done on in what has often been a local environment enmeshed (no pun intended) in its own time honoured practices’. Delicately put, Alison, but ‘time honoured practices’ is a euphemism for super-glue-stuck in the old ways.
If you want to learn how to make mosaics in Greece prepare yourself for learning how it was done 1,000 years ago, with match-head sized tesserae, a hammer and hardie (fair enough), rabbit skin glue (why?), a total aversion to the concept of andamento and a conviction that the only real way to work is the indirect method cast in concrete or (very rarely) to use the weirdest substrate of compressed seaweed you are ever likely to meet. And that’s if you’re lucky. If not, you will end up spending weeks and weeks going to classes and sitting in a corner and never learning much of anything at all because mosaic techniques are treated like state secrets during the Cold War – never to be divulged to outsiders.
So I went home and I practiced. A lot. The children were still tiny and inbetween wiping noses and mushing up carrots and changing nappies and finding lost bits of lego down the back of the sofa I used to creep down to the garage where I had a table in a corner and add another tessera to the piece I was working on. Often just one, but that one was enough to give me an enormous sense of satisfaction. For one thing it made the day (and my life) feel that they had progressed infinitesimally forward. I had achieved something – hurray! Now that I understand more about creativity and the focus it requires, I can see that that sense of achievement partly came just from stopping the nose wiping, however briefly, and just being still for two minutes, or five or maybe even a glorious fifteen.
My first influences were the Byzantine church mosaics which surrounded me in the UNESCO city of Thessaloniki and the ceramics from the same era with their lovely naive dancers with flared skirts, strangely etiolated animals and stylised plant patterns. I made horrible mosaics but I loved the medium and I kept on going. I would try and get my Greek mosaic teachers to consider radical concepts like spacing between the tesserae or new substrates but was derided for my efforts so I bought mosaic books and went on various weekend courses in the UK, with Emma Biggs, Martin Cheek and Lawrence Payne although I was so overawed by being in the presence of such big names in the mosaic world, that I could scarcely function.
Anyway, I carried on practicing. On and on and on and eventually we gave up the idea that Thessaloniki would ever become home and moved to Athens to put the children in a Brtiish school. It was a good decision even though my husband stayed behind and commuted down at weekends and I arrived with still-young children without knowing a soul. The difference between life in Thessaloniki and life in Athens is that here I encountered kindliness. That’s really all one needs in life and I prized it.
By and by, my mosaics evolved. I become more interested in Roman mosaics and took the family to visit as many sites as they could tolerate and then some more. Greece is a fertile ground for mosaic lovers. Almost everywhere you go, every museum, every ancient site, has at least one example of the ancient art and that’s not even counting the modern examples that decorate the facades of a large proportion of contemporary churches.
With the move to Athens, I met new people. It was like stepping out into the wider world again. There was Alison who made wonderful contemporary mosaics and others who lifted my spirits and my horizons and whose ideas and interests influenced and changed me. I felt comfortable; the silt of low self confidence shored up during the years in Thessaloniki slowly washed away. In recent years I started to write this blog and explore the online mosaic world which opened up a whole new source of support and inspiration. Writing brought me back to where I’d come from and so mosaics returned to me what I’d lost. As I became happier, my mosaics got better. My goal with making mosaics had always been to sell but visiting a friend’s photographic exhibition of exquisite, heart rending beauty at the Cycladic Museum of Art made me realise that I needed to shift my goal to aim for something else and sure enough once I did, the mosaics sold themselves.
In a week’s time I will be heading back to Edinburgh after 15 years in Greece. Two of the boys will be at university in the UK (one will be studying Arabic, so maybe I didn’t pack that bag of pre-Greece loves away as quietly as I thought ) and the third will be at a nearby school. I have rented a tiny studio space not far from our flat in the city centre and my parents live down the road. I don’t know if this next phase of life will be temporary or permanent – there is a lot still to decide – but I know it’s time to move forward and to experience what it feels like to be living at home again. My first few days back at home will be spent doing a lime mortar master class with Joanna Kessel of Edinburgh Mosaic Studios and Dagmar Friedrich of Spilimbergo. It will be something new and unfamiliar – much like everything that lies ahead.
Coming soon. Part II: Guide to the Mosaics of Greece.
In addition to mosaics, I learnt a few other things while living in Greece (in no particular order):
Using a parking bay correctly is an art.
To pity the dolefulness of octopi.
To understand that the definition of cooking is to look in the cupboard and work with what you have.
That the first hours of the day are the most precious.
That however much you want to or try, you cannot be other than who you are.
That loneliness is like grief, it’s doesn’t end but you learn to live with it.
That only some people will forget you when you’re not with them. Others remain true.
That you can relearn the language of beauty.
That the definitions of home are multiple and varied. It’s not a place, but it can be. It could be one person, or many. It can change, or stay the same and if you’ve never had to think about it, you’re lucky. Home is layered sediments of place and people and memory. Mostly, it’s not knowing but being known.
That friendship changes everything.
COMING SOON: Greece, Mosaics and Me. Part II. A Comprehensive Guide to the Mosaics of Greece.