Austen Kark worked for the BBC for many years, being responsible for the 24-hour BBC World Service in English and later becoming managing director of Bush House and its BBC dependencies. On his retirement he resolved to fulfill a long-cherished ambition and try to buy a house (or, as it turned out, a flat) in Greece; he settled on Nauplion, a pleasant coastal town in the southern Peloponnese. Accompanied by his wife, the novelist Nina Bawden, he embarked on a lengthy series of tortuous negotiations with prospective vendors and bureaucrats. Anyone who has undergone a similar experience, as I have myself, will recognize it all. Estate agents are unknown in Greece (whether this is a good or a bad thing is, of course, debatable), so finding a place to buy depends on word of mouth. Some of of the houses on offer will be semi-ruins, and all will have multiple owners, family members all of whom must agree to the sale before it can take place. When a price is finally settled it has to be paid in cash; cheques are viewed with suspicion in Greece and are hardly used.
The purchase finally complete, the new owner must start to deal with officialdom: there are innumerable pitfalls here, with complicated layers of permissions to be negotiated at every stage. And then, of course, there are builders, plumbers, electricians and others to be found and supervised. Kark knew some Greek, though not enough for any sort of complicated or technical discussions, but he was extensively helped by an Athenian lady lawyer who spoke fluent English though with an uncertain grasp of verb tenses; he also could call on the services of a skilled engineer. Without their assistance his task would have been impossible. Eventually, and after several false starts, he became the proud owner of the top floor of a house in Nauplion. The only problem was that by this time two hand grenades had been found in the roof, presumably relics of the wartime Resistance. The bomb disposal squad dismantled the roof in their search for more hand grenades; none were found, but unfortunately it turned out that the roof had been holding the house together, and when it was removed the whole structure collapsed.
More or less undaunted, Kark agreed to participate in the reconstruction. Eventually this was achieved, and the Karks moved in; they now divided their time between Nauplion and London. This was not the end of their saga, however; living in Greece, though pleasant in many ways, has its own peculiarities and occasional drawbacks. Austen suffered a severe foot infection, which necessitated admission to hospital. The medical care he received was good but he failed to realize that nursing in Greek hospitals relies to a considerable extent on the patient's family, who attend round the clock in large numbers; the nurses employed by the hospital appeared to take little interest in the patients' welfare. Patients who could afford it sometimes hired a private nurse to look after them, but Austen was not aware of this until later, so everything now devolved on Nina.
Even before this occurred, Nina was less enthusiastic about life in Greece than was her husband and failed to acquire anything of the language; she seems to have gone along with the scheme largely to please Austen. This may in part have been due to some unfortunate experiences: during a heat wave in Athens she suffered heat exhaustion and nearly died, while at the end of the book she was struck by lightning during a violent thunderstorm in Athens, but fortunately was not seriously hurt.
Austen records all these experiences with abundant humour and verve; it is hard to believe that, as he tells us, he was suffering from clinical depression for some of the time. His knowledge of Greece and his love for the country are evident. One quite typical episode: as he and Nina are leaving their flat to return to London, a neighbour arrives with her apron full of walnuts for their journey. (Once, when I was cycling on the island of Andros, a woman gave me so many plums from her garden that I could hardly carry them.) Anyone who knows the country will enjoy this book.
Very sadly, there is a tragic footnote to this book: Austen Kark lost his life in the recent (May 2002) train crash at Potters Bar, just north of London; Nina Bawden was seriously injured but survived. An appalling waste of a life indeed.