Letters From Santorini: Lessons Learned

I’ve been at Atlantis Books for a month now. A roof has been painted, shelves stocked, many books sold, and a truly ridiculous quantity of feta cheese, olive oil and local white wine has been consumed. Numerous books have been read, ranging from Batfords Modern Chess Openings to the First Circle by Solzhenitsyn. 10,000 words of fiction have been written.

The temptation is of course to stay forever. Why not, after all? I’ve nothing that ties me to England. Why return to get another job, have the same old stress, nagging dissatisfaction, ethical struggles and romantic disappointments? This temple of books offers a simple and honest life. There is an appeal in that.

But I won’t outstay my welcome – Atlantis Books isn’t a place where people should live long term. It has been tried in the past, and it hasn’t worked well. The space shouldn’t belong to anyone for more than a few weeks or months at a time. We come, we have our time, and we go again, making room for the next person to be involved. This is the way it should be.

So, staying forever is out, and in any case, life here is not perfect. There are people that I miss and opportunities that I don’t have whilst I am on the island. But many things are very right here. The way of life, the ethos of the shop, is something inspiring that is to be admired and emulated. The challenge is to see if some of the things that I have learned here can be applied elsewhere, if I can take them with me like tiny talismans for the mind and soul…

Xenia – Xenia is a very important concept out here in Greece. You could translate it as ‘hospitality’, but you’d be missing some subtleties. Kindness and openness to strangers, the giving of gifts and charity to those around you, especially to visitors and guests. The Odyssey is obsessed with the concept. Pretty much the entire plot consists of moments of true xenia (Odysseus and Nausicca, or Menelaus and Telemachus) and corrupted or denied xenia (the Suitors, the Cyclops, Circe).

English society is polite but not friendly, suspicious rather than trusting, sensible as opposed to generous.  But that way lies isolation, loneliness, and a slow death of the soul. There is much to be said for trust, generosity and hospitality.

Simplicity – Simple living, simple pleasures. An economy of resources. Own less, use less. Create a space and inhabit it, don’t accumulate useless possessions. A straight line is the shortest distance between two points. Efficiency and simplicity have their own particular beauty, like the flawless motion of a dancer or a boxer. The temptation is to bloat, to become obsessed with the more expensive and more numerous pleasures and possessions. But there is no need – everything should be just so.

Love and Courage
– Too often, we do things because we feel we ought to, or because we are indifferent and take the line of least resistance. What’s the point? You should always choose your actions, and if you choose to do something, do it with love and determination. That’s what has built Atlantis Books. Not knowledge or experience or luck, just a passion for an ideal and the courage to see it realised.

That’s how to handle the stuff you want to do. For the stuff you have to do, you’ll need to rely on courage alone. Courage is after all, as the Hagakure says, just the process of gritting one’s teeth. A life must be directed through passion and determination, not by submission to cultural force.

These are some of the keys to a better life. These and books, of course, and chess, and writing and creativity and wine and nature and good company and all the rest of it as well. Life is wonderful here, but it is also fragile and fleeting. A haven rather than a home, a place to relax and enjoy and then leave without regrets, but with lessons learned.



Filed under Letters from Santorini

4 responses to “Letters From Santorini: Lessons Learned

  1. Joe

    Back in the real world anytime soon?

    Seriously though, I was just thinking this morning how much I dislike the expectation that everybody should act like best buddies. Don’t knock politeness, it’s how we keep other people at a proper distance. I’d much rather treat my friends like friends and be indifferent to strangers; it’s not suspicious, it’s respectful.

  2. hey joe,

    don’t confuse realism with pessimism.


  3. Joe

    Erm… did I?

  4. zentimo

    (Other Tim here)

    The implication of “Back in the real world anytime soon?” is that the way of life described is not necessarily undesirable, but it is unrealistic. Hence my cousin’s comments, I think.

    Why not be friendly? What is there to be lost by it? I’d rather live along with the assumption that most people can be trusted (which they can) and that most people are interesting and friendly if you give them a chance to be (which they are). You leave yourself open to the occasional dodgy motherfucker or nasty piece of work, but they are a rarer breed than is commonly supposed.

    It isn’t about treating everyone like best buddies, just about responding with trust, hospitality and friendliness as a default (not exclusive) position. Or at least, such is my thinking…

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