Evia by Sara Wheeler

1992. 290 pages. Tauris Parke Paperbacks.

From: I bought this book.

For the challenge: 2nd Reading Challenge

In a nutshell:

Evia: Travels on an Undiscovered Greek Island is the first book of British travel writer Sara Wheeler.  (She is perhaps best known for her later book about Antarctica, Terra Incognita.)  Evia (also known as Euboea) is a rural, mountainous island stretched out alongside the eastern coast of mainland Greece.  Sara Wheeler first became acquainted with Evia after a time of living and working in Athens.  Years later, she decided to travel the whole island.  This book chronicles the months she spent traversing Evia.

Review:

In the preface of this reprinted edition, Sara Wheeler states that she had for many years declined publishers’ requests to republish Evia.  Looking back as a more experienced writer, she views her debut book as earnest but structurally problematic.  She wonders if readers will find her “meaty – and undigested – slabs of history to their taste.”  But she finds value in her depiction of life on Evia, and for that reason, we now have this reprinted edition.

I am so glad she consented to this reprint!  Writers can be their own worst critics sometimes.  I became interested in Evia when Wheeler described a vivid memory of an island monastery in her book Terra Incognita, which I read earlier this year.  As when choosing a real-life traveling companion, choosing an engaging and likable travel writer is very important to the enjoyment of the journey.  Once you’ve found a good travel writer, you’ll want to go with them wherever they go.  Wheeler is such a writer.

In her Evian travels, Sara had the distinct and enviable advantage of speaking the language.  In many rural villages she visited, she caused quite a stir: a solo British female traveler who spoke Greek!  It always warms my heart to read of strangers offering hospitality to travelers and Sara experienced some outstanding hospitality.  She was even made a sort of godmother to a newly christened baby at one point.  This was especially remarkable considering Sara is Anglican and practically the whole island is Orthodox.

Indeed, Sara was implored to convert to Orthodoxy by many islanders along the way, particularly the nuns with whom she stayed on several occasions.  Her unmarried state was also of great concern to her new Greek acquaintances.  Not only that, but a number of residents apparently never had seen freckles before and thought that something was wrong with Sara’s face.

Though admitting some annoyance with the nosiness, Sara gamely took on all that was thrown her way.  I liked how her travels did not have a strict itinerary, but were open to some whims and unexpected opportunities.

The depiction of life on Evia is warm: I was most moved and fascinated by the way Wheeler captures the fading traditions and slower pace of the island villages.  And yet Wheeler is not uncritical.  She doesn’t excuse inequality of gender roles and narrow minds.

I will say that Terra Incognita is the better written book.  Those “undigested slabs of history” that Wheeler describes in the preface?  I definitely noticed them and they could be a bit of a slog.  (Classics nerds will find a kindred spirit, however.) But the anecdotes and descriptions of Wheeler’s travels more than made up for those denser passages.

I really enjoyed sinking into the pages of Evia over my vacation.  I always find it refreshing to read about how other people live in the world and how they view people from outside their own culture.  I often discover that other cultures contain something I wish mine had more of: palpable community, or amazing generosity.

I will conclude my review with a couple of excerpts, just to give a taste of Evia:

‘I’m lighting a candle for my wife.  She died on 31 May exactly 10 years ago today.  We must pray for her,’ said the old man.

‘But it’s 13 June,’ I said unhelpfully.

Palaioimerologitis imai‘.  He was a follower of the Old Calendar, which meant he was 13 days behind the regular date.  There is a sizeable contingent of these people in Greece, even though they are officially excommunicated.

p. 32

Sister Kalliopi and Sister Magdalini went for the jugular.  They had spied a small Bible in my room, and it had given them an appetite for a fight.  ‘Why don’t you become Orthodox?’  And off they went in a spirited attempt to convert me.  On this occasion they were deflected by the splash of the monastic cat falling into the reservoir (a regular occurrence) but subsequently I was not to be so fortunate.

p. 62

Someone shouted that the car had arrived, there was a terrific scuffle, and Vangelitsa and her parents processed out of the house and shot off to the church, with all of us in pursuit, honking furiously.  In the main square everyone thronged outside the church, and once the bridal party, by now including three little bridesmaids, was arranged inside, we swarmed in.  There were about 250 guests, on the whole dressed fairly casually, including a few with shirts open to the waist and gold medallions languishing on hirsute chests.  Most Greek services are fluid affairs (not least because there are no pews), and this was no exception, as people came in and went out, chatted amongst themselves and greeted long lost relations.  The priest did request quiet at several key moments, but everyone carried on as if he wasn’t there.

p. 276


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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Evia by Sara Wheeler

  1. Travel isn’t my bag at all, but I’m glad you enjoyed this. I like to see an author improving during the course of her canon, as any artist should- stasis, I think, can kill off an audience.

  2. There are people who are on a different calendar? On a different calendar and they’re always thirteen days behind, forever, and it means they’re excommunicated? That is…that is amazing. That makes my day. I kind of love it when people decline to play along with the strictures of regular time. This book sounds interesting!

  3. If you were to recommend a travel-writing book to a total novice, which of the ones you’ve read recently would you recommend.

  4. Lit Omnivore – it was rather fascinating to see both the growth and also what stayed the same with Wheeler’s two books. For instance, in both books, she always brings with her and references the writings of travel writers who had been to the place before her. They are kind of her companions.

    Jenny – I know! The Old Calendar thing was really fascinating and as Evia has all these pocket, remote communities, Wheeler encounters many such idiosyncratic cultures.

    Erin – I would recommend Susan Jane Gilman’s Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven. It’s travel but it’s also got a bit of a thriller element to it. Another great book is Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods which is a humor/travel combo.

  5. This sounds like a lot of fun. I love good travel writing, and I’ve always wanted to go to Greece. You’re right though — finding the right writer to go along with is a big part of a successful travel book.

    I’d recommend Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven too — that’s one of my favorite travel books.

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