Monday, 5 October 2015


“The Sophists’ paradoxical talk pieces and their public debates were entertainment in 5th century Greece. And in that world, Socrates was an entertainer.” - David Antin

I was looking through my archive of digital photos at the weekend and came across some of Pireás (Peiraieus for the classically minded) from several years ago when we had visited Greece. Pireás is the port of Athens, 12 kilometres southwest from the centre of Athens, and lies along the east coast of the Saronic Gulf. It has a population of just under 200,000 people and is a lively, colourful, beautiful municipality. The photos brought back some fond memories and a sense of wanderlust and nostalgia. It has been some years since I have travelled to Greece and I am certainly missing visiting the country of my birth.

Most people would be familiar with Pireás from the 1960 Jules Dassin movie “Never on Sunday”, starring Melina Mercouri, Jules Dassin, Giorgos Foundas, Titos Vandis and Despo Diamantidou. This was a hit movie worldwide and established Melina Mercouri (1920–1994) as a screen legend, but also typecast her a little as an “independent woman of easy morals”…

Mercouri the now legendary Greek actress plays Illia, one of the good-time girls of the port of Pireás. Every day, Illia swims at the pier, entertaining the dockhands and attracting business. On Sundays she never works and has an open house with food, drink and song for all her friends. Homer Thrace (Dassin), an amateur philosopher from Middletown, Connecticut, arrives in Pireás to investigate why Greece has fallen from her ancient greatness. He meets Illia and immediately decides she is a symbol of that fall, so he sets out to study the reasons behind Illia’s decline and to elevate her to her ancient forebears’ greatness. If he can achieve this, he thinks, Greece can do the same and achieve another period of greatness. Unbeknownst to Illia, he gets the money for the books and all else he gives her from Mr. No Face (Alexis Solomos), the local vice boss who wants Illia retired because her independence gives other whores ideas. Whose spirit will prevail? Homer’s classical ideal or Illia’s earthy and hedonistic reality?

The film constitutes a variation of the Pygmalion plus “hooker with a heart of gold” story. The viewer is gently submerged into Greek culture of the 1960s, including dance, music, and language (through the use of subtitles). The signature song and the bouzouki theme of the movie became hits of the 1960s and brought the composer, Manos Hadjidakis, an Academy Award. It won the Academy Award for Best Song (Manos Hadjidakis for “Never on Sunday”). It was nominated for the Academy Awards for, respectively, Best Actress in a Leading Role (Melina Mercouri), Best Costume Design, Black-and-White, Best Director (Jules Dassin) and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay as Written Directly for the Screen (Dassin). Mercouri won the award for Best Actress at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival for her role in this movie.

Having seen this movie again recently, I was amazed at how much Greece has changed since 1960 when the movie was released. Even though I left Greece with my family in 1970, my memories of the place then are vivid and I can say that looking at the film I can recall much of what is depicted as what I left behind when we emigrated. Comparing that to what I saw the last we visited some years ago and what I see now on cable TV, it is definitely chalk and cheese. Some things have changed for the better, but unfortunately much more has changed for the worse. Financial woes notwithstanding, Greece has become less Greek and more foreign – “cosmopolitan” carries a positive meaning (and I would argue that Athens at the very least was very cosmopolitan in the 1970s when we left). I think Greece has become “foreign” in the sense of “globalised”, with every negative aspect of the word “globalisation” you can think of.

Watching the film made me nostalgic for the Greece of my childhood. A place where it was safe to walk the streets at all hours of the night, where neighbours knew one another and cared for each other, where one had many friends, where one could enjoy life while having little, where one’s worldly possessions may have been few, but were certainly of good quality and made locally by craftsmen who had learned their craft from their father or grandfather. Where food was fresh and tasted wonderful because it was brought to the market by the growers themselves, the very morning they had harvested it. A place where national pride was stronger than pressures of global capitalism, and the financial aspirations of the majority of the population were modest. A place where happiness was more widespread…

Much is made in the film of Illia’s sense of morality, which clashes with Homer’s ideal of morality and ethics. In that sense, I can recall my own family’s sense of pride, morality and “filótimo” (sense of honour and social justice). Some things then were never even considered, much less done, because of these cultural and ethical guidelines dictated by “filótimo”. And somehow it was a better, happier society because of that. I think that this Greek “filótimo” is one of the things that is dying a slow and painful death in Greece now, and the country is in a poorer state because of this – economic crisis or not…


  1. Lovely description of the Greece of your childhood...gone forever. Sad we have lost so much in busy modern day life...not just in Greece.

  2. One of my favorite films... Nice review, Nicholas and I enjoyed your nostalgic description of your country of birth.