In her short piece, ‘Mad Love Goes to the Beach,’ Lisa Samloglou engages all five of her reader’s senses as she chronicles her internal struggle between her childhood love of the countryside with her rebellious teenaged preference for the city. She allows us to see the lush green of the landscape outside of Athens, smell the sea salt as she walks along the beach and picks up shells, hear the cicadas hum late at night, feel the fresh dirt of a self-planted garden beneath our fingertips, and taste the sweetness of figs and watermelon.
Mad Love Goes to the Beach
I grew up in the city. Longer stays in the countryside were scheduled for school holidays. Sunday excursions to the outskirts of Athens informed my school compositions with the title ‘ A Sunday with my family’, a topic that throughout elementary school our teachers felt compelled to ask us to write about. The best among them were to be read out in class. So, some of my excursions were verbalized for children who did not share my good fortune. Back in the 60s, my parents could afford even a car to take us, my brother and myself, for privileged breaks from the urban monotony. They were also anxious to initiate us to another landscape, my mother’s natal environment, the one she was deprived of early in her life, as her parents had moved from a mountain village to the city to chase jobs and educational opportunities for their children.
At school we were taught about the green bean o fassiolos in depth, to the point it became a joke for my generation. In our narrow balcony at home, my mother grew in pots roses, basil and gardenias. She would water them carefully at night, not to disturb the neighbors at the flat below with dripping mud.
We used to chase fire flies, may beetles, butterflies in gardens that hosted our curiosities. I had developed a technique to catch a butterfly with my bare hands. I would put it in an inverted glass to observe it closely. Then, I would let it free. I never collected butterflies or stamps.
As an adolescent, bored and rebellious, I stopped following family excursions. I was clinging to the city nurtured by it through an umbilical cord. For the next decades I lived almost enclosed in its walls. The mountain and the fields came to repel and frighten me as an entity both strange and alien whose language and habits I utterly ignored.
I discovered nature later in life, when the city had grown chaotic and over-populated. We had aged, the city and me, but in diametrically opposite ways. While I was happily surrendering to maturity, my city, Athens, insisted to claim youthfulness and vigor. In my eyes it was a tired, a decadent city, enclosed in a bubble of extravagant affluence. As far as I was concerned, the magic was lost. My curiosity had expired.
It was time to reinvent myself – starting as an ardent walker I ended up an explorer; giving in to change I ended up with my own garden. I learned to plant tomatoes and eggplants. I attended to flowers, even to homeless ones, left in the streets to dry out without water or new soil.
In the previous anonymity of just ‘green’ I started discerning hues. Watching the buds in their process to maturity and withering, some glimpses of the throbbing circle of life became three dimensional and tactile.
Every summer now is full of sensational instants: the song of cicadas playing in the background. Summer has the taste of figs, the smell of watermelon, the translucency of white wine grapes.
What before was a gallery of paintings depicting still life became a series of tableau vivant bursting with life.
My element, however, has always been the sea – sea is penetrating, sea is demanding, for attention, for engagement. One cannot stare at the sea for long without stripping feet off shoes to take a walk along the beach, bare soles sinking in sand or pebbles, absorbing all this wetness, ambushed by a shudder, the most welcomed unfamiliarity.
A promenade in the countryside fills one with fruits and aromas that can be carried back home, while a walk on the beach is an exercise in rejoicing the ephemeral. These in situ installations are performances to be cherished on the shore: a piece of wood carved by the ocean, a rusted sheet of metal bleeding on a rock. There is no gallery of odds to provide space for such ‘useless paraphernalia’.
Once in a while I pick up a shell or a pebble, an artifact made by the erosion. I have an urge to hold it in my palm, to hide it away, it seems unique and precious, irreplaceable, unforgettable, the one my gaze has distinguished from million others on the shore, because it felt as if it was addressing me, it was there for me, it was nodding to me.
This is how the flame for passion ignites, the way of the surrealists. Initiated into their manners, seduced by their spirit in my early twenties, I had just to open again the pages of ‘L’Amour Fou’, of André Breton to connect again, with their ghosts, with who I once had been. Purpose and meaning was invested again in my wandering.
Strolling on the beach I no longer collect shells. I know, a time will come when I will throw them away, as I have done so many times in the past. Away from water, from light, from the instant, these odd found objects lose their magic spell.
I photograph and take their images with me. There is no restriction as to the number of objects and compositions out of metal, wood, straw, tires, to be found on the beach, on the rocks, and taken home in a photograph.
I stand in front of these found objects as I would have examined them in an exhibition, in a gallery. With a gaze that has been trained in the city; this is my way of seeing. It is the gaze that assesses, evaluates, compares, detects, distinguishes. It is a scanning gaze, the eye of voyeurism, the gaze that spies through shop-windows, in mirrors, in frames, in canvases, in graffiti. It is the eye that desires and envies, wants to possess whatever is demonstrated, publicized, commercialized.
I walk between these natural constructions as if they were made by the hand of an artist who had put them up there, without title, without signature or name. I hang captions at each work, and titles. I baptize them. How do we remember if we do not give names?
As I baptize them, I get into the mood to classify and catalogue them. This attempt at registering them is a movement against the erasing done by the water and the wind. Mine is a synergy with the waves that bring them up on the surface, throw them on the shore, push them out, into revelation, away from loss and oblivion. Mine is a synergy with the time, that chisels, bends and matches them together, the rope with the schinos [i].
Later on, seeing my photographs on the screen, I observe that each one is given a name, an identity, a value, a substance, it is saved out of anonymity. There are here, gathered and preserved as found.
This is how I trace my way back to ‘the mad love’, ‘l’ amour fou’ of the surrealists.
The words of Breton haunt me:
“ Do not allow the streets of passion to grow green behind you, this is the point.
Nothing lasts less, in art, in sciences, than this will for commitment,
for plunder, for harvest “.[ii]
[i] my translation from the Greek edition: André Breton, ‘O Trelos Erotas’, transl. from French ‘L’Amour Fou’, (1937), by St. N. Koumanoudis, edited by Dimitris Kalokyris, published by Ypsilon/Ypsikaminos, 1st edition, (Athens, December 1980) p.36
[ii] schinos: the evergreen shrubs in Mediterrenean, the mastic tree, landmark of the island of Chios. The effect is lost in the English translation, but I wanted to transfer the image as well as the similarity in sound and spelling to the ‘rope’, sxoini, in Greek.
Samloglou’s remembrance of chasing butterflies allows us to recall our own childhood, but her assurance that she always released them from her clutched hand rather than holding onto them forever reflects her overall tone of the piece: we are happiest when we are free. Thanks for reading, see you next week!