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Love among the Greek wildfires My family gathered while our homeland burned

From Homer onwards, Greeks have been associated with fire (Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)

From Homer onwards, Greeks have been associated with fire (Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)


August 9, 2023   4 mins

The first time I saw my younger brother Phillip, he was lying in an incubator in St Thomas’s Hospital, London. He was slightly premature, and purple-faced and tiny. What struck me, though, was the blanket he was swaddled in: white with knitted holes, corrugated yet strangely vulnerable. I knew then, aged just five, that I would do anything I could to keep him safe.

Almost 41 years later, Phillip, now a successful businessman, flew into Athens from Los Angeles to get married as parts of Greece once again burst into flames. Wildfires began on 18 July and spread quickly over the following weeks, adding a further complication to an already complicated wedding.

Since late last year, there has been an ongoing, and fraught, North American-Hellenic culture clash, as my LA sister-in-law Christina struggled with the communicative and organisational foibles of Maria*, one of Athens’s most elite wedding planners. Eventually, she had an epiphany: she would hire an LA wedding planner to “help” the Greek one.

Enter Alania: optimistic, fastidiously groomed and possessed of remorseless focus. “Leave it to me,” she beamed over Zoom. “I’ll sort it out in no time.” One week later, she reappeared. Bereft. “I don’t know what to do,” she said forlornly. “She just won’t listen.”

I told Christina that Greece is not LA; that the planning would inevitably be chaotic, but that this is normal and everything would be fine on the night. And it was. What I did not realise was how it would make me think, not only of family but of nation.

When you are a Best Man, you have various vague, small responsibilities and a single, large, clearly defined one: the speech. Over time, I have given several Best Man speeches, and, as a writer, which is to say a minor egoist, addressing an audience who has no choice but to listen is my idea of an enjoyable evening.

But this one was different. This was the hardest speech I ever had to write. My brother and I have not had a traditional family background (distant, often absent parents and so on), but through it all there has always been the two of us. And even when we are apart, living on different continents, we are together. How, then, do you give a speech about your baby brother — the person you are closer to than anyone else in the world?

The answer emerges from the understanding that weddings are about many things. They are about love and partnership and friendship and family, but they are also, I think, about something else equally powerful: the passing of time.

Greece is a country that is inescapably tied to the concept of time because it is inescapably tied to history and myth, and therefore of course to memory. It is also perennially associated with fire. Homer speaks of wildfires in The Iliad: “And as when consuming fire falls upon thick woodlands and the witching wind beareth it everywhither and the thickets fall utterly as they are assailed by the onrush at the fire.” Thucydides is even clearer, writing of “times past in the mountains when dry branches have been rubbed against each other a forest has caught fire spontaneously therefrom and produced a conflagration”.

In modern times, fires have become an accepted part of life here. Even before the Second World War, farmers would harvest wood to start tactical fires each spring to reduce the risk of larger fires in the summer. Since 1961, the fires have increased. A weak state is one factor, but so too is climate change. 2007 saw Greece experience more wildfire in one summer than any European country over the previous decade. Since then, it has experienced several, with one in 2018 claiming the lives of 103 people, which I remember covered parts of Athens, where I was living at the time, in pungent smoke.

As I stood up to make my Best Man speech, I saw our dad telling me and Phil about the brilliance of Greece — often deploying facts of questionable veracity (Athens being a world fashion centre was a prized example of the genre). I saw our mum preparing huge vats of Persian rice in our kitchen in London. I saw our stepfather, Rene, lifting Phil up onto his shoulders as we walked through Highgate Wood. For some reason, the memories did not have sound. But they didn’t need it. Everything was totally clear.

Then I told some stories. Of how Phil turned our garage in Swiss Cottage into a smoking den for all the teenage Jews within a two-mile radius, and of how every so often I’d had to go down and bellow at them to shut the fuck up. And then there was the five-figure sum Phil once spent on a mattress (after being assured that as part of the deal, people would be dispatched every six months to “service” it). Amusing and sometimes sad memories; wins and losses; Britain and Greece. Taken together, they form coherent life stories.

The fires were a dim light on various horizons as I went from a conference on Crete to the wedding in Athens. I thought about them midway through the reception when the sky erupted into plumes of variegated colour, and I saw Alania streak across the venue like a designer-clad Springbok. “They’ve started the fireworks early!” she roared, “get everyone over to look!” It was an impressive sight no doubt. After about a minute, though, word came through. “Hmmm, it turns out they’re someone else’s fireworks,” she said thoughtfully. “You can tell everyone to go back to their seats.”

Thirty minutes later, ours were launched. Thankfully, they were noticeably better. And as I stood and watched, I reflected on all the things that could have been done with the $20,000 that had just burst into light.

In March 2021, our father passed away and, later that year, wildfires destroyed the olive trees in our ancestral home in the Mani in the Southern Peloponnese. Then, I reflected on memories of loss, of the almost literal burning away of our family roots. Two years later, another seminal family event took place as fire once again engulfed Greece. This time, though, it was not loss and death they heralded, but the birth of new (wedded) lives and their celebration. What has burned must necessarily regrow. New and often stronger.

And so it will be with Greece. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced that anyone who had their trip cut short on Rhodes due to the fires would a get a week’s holiday next year at the government’s expense. New memories will be made. There will be at least some relief to the trauma, and the political questions that will inevitably follow.

As for the wedding, it was, in the end, a triumph: for our family and friends, for Phil and Christina, and, of course, for both wedding planners.

 

*Name has been changed.


David Patrikarakos is UnHerd‘s foreign correspondent. His latest book is War in 140 characters: how social media is reshaping conflict in the 21st century. (Hachette)

dpatrikarakos

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J Bryant
J Bryant
10 months ago

I recall about three years ago Aris Roussinos wrote an Unherd article about the effect of the Greek fires on his family. It was understandably a somber piece.
David Patrikarakos reminds us that, even amid destruction, life goes on. There is always hope. Perhaps the climate doomsters would do well to bear that in mind.

J Bryant
J Bryant
10 months ago

I recall about three years ago Aris Roussinos wrote an Unherd article about the effect of the Greek fires on his family. It was understandably a somber piece.
David Patrikarakos reminds us that, even amid destruction, life goes on. There is always hope. Perhaps the climate doomsters would do well to bear that in mind.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
10 months ago

I wonder if the demise of small farms has left too much of the landscape completely untended. All those farmers would clean out the deadfall and knock back the brush for the safety and convenience of their families. (You can’t shoot rabbits if you can’t see them.) Not so, anymore. This effect must be happening all over Europe.
A wonderful essay; much appreciated.

Last edited 10 months ago by laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
10 months ago

I wonder if the demise of small farms has left too much of the landscape completely untended. All those farmers would clean out the deadfall and knock back the brush for the safety and convenience of their families. (You can’t shoot rabbits if you can’t see them.) Not so, anymore. This effect must be happening all over Europe.
A wonderful essay; much appreciated.

Last edited 10 months ago by laurence scaduto
Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
10 months ago

Very well written, heartfelt essay.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
10 months ago

Very well written, heartfelt essay.

Mark Goodhand
Mark Goodhand
10 months ago

Are they still called “wildfires” if they’re started deliberately, by people?

Mark Goodhand
Mark Goodhand
10 months ago

Are they still called “wildfires” if they’re started deliberately, by people?

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
10 months ago

It seems that Greece is yet AGAIN about to plunder the EU ‘Piggy Bank’.

Who was that wretched Frenchman who let them into the EU in the first place? *

(* Nation of Pericles indeed!)

Spyros
Spyros
10 months ago

This comment is rude, crude and I really don’t understand how it relates to Patrikarakos’s rather heartfelt writing.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
10 months ago
Reply to  Spyros

Diogenes of Sinope would understand it even if you don’t.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
10 months ago
Reply to  Spyros

Diogenes of Sinope would understand it even if you don’t.

Spyros
Spyros
10 months ago

This comment is rude, crude and I really don’t understand how it relates to Patrikarakos’s rather heartfelt writing.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
10 months ago

It seems that Greece is yet AGAIN about to plunder the EU ‘Piggy Bank’.

Who was that wretched Frenchman who let them into the EU in the first place? *

(* Nation of Pericles indeed!)