For our June interview, we are a pleased to welcome author and painter, Christian Brechneff. Christian has just released The Greek House: The Story of a Painter’s Love Affair with the Island of Sifnos.
GIB: When did you first fall in love with Greece?
CB: On May 19th 1972 at 3.00 in the morning, I sailed into the harbor of Kamares on the island of Sifnos, and I fell in love with the island that very first night sleeping there on the beach. The night was very dark, the village sound asleep after the ship, the Kalymnos, had sailed on, and I went for a swim in the soft Greek sea, discovering, with each stroke of my arms and kick of my feet that I was surrounded by phosphorescence, but phosphorescence such as I had never seen. Afterwards, toweled off and cozy in my sleeping bag, exhausted but wide awake, I stared up at the black mountains rising around me and the amazing sheets of bright, bright stars in the sky, and I knew I was going to love this place and that this place was going to love me back and take care of me. Young and romantic as I was, I was sure those two mountains at the harbor entrance would be like two giant arms holding me tight. Sifnos had magic for me from the first moment.
GIB: How did you start writing?
CB: In The Greek House we have about a dozen letters I had written to my parents from Sifnos in the early Seventies. Those letters help give the book an authenticity and freshness; without the letters I don’t think I would have had the same book, and certainly would have been more hesitant about taking on such a task. I did write an essay for my previous book: Homage, Encounters with the East that gave me some confidence, particularly as the publishers, [Glitterati Inc., New York] accepted the first draft. In the late Nineties, I had a great friend who works in the publishing world [Simon and Schuster] stay with me on Sifnos and after five days he turned to me and said:…”Christian you really ought to write down what has all happened to you here – your life on this island….” and I did start thinking about a book. But it was only once I sold the house that I was really free, and ready, to write about Sifnos. And I started work on The Greek House in 2007.
GIB: Have you written any other books?
CB: Homage Encounters With The East [Glitterati,inc, N.Y. 2007]
GIB: How do you feel about Greece’s current plight? What do you think the outcome will be?
CB: I find Greece’s current plight very sad, but it was pretty much totally self-inflicted. I never was for the Olympics that soon; Greece was not ready for all that money to be spent and borrowed and it is still paying a steep price for its moment of glory. All those new buildings are already falling apart or are empty. The one thing I noticed most while visiting Sifnos in 2011 was the silence: no trucks, no construction, no cars. It was a total shock, but of course quite wonderful to someone who had first known and fallen in love with the island when the island had no cars and no roads and no construction.
Greece went totally haywire in the early twenty first century. And of course no one ever saw a bill. Paying taxes did not exist, and corruption was everywhere. The money for a septic system on Sifnos, millions of euros, simply disappeared. Sifnos to this day still does not have a septic system.
I experienced the greed and the collapse personally through my gallery in Athens [one of the 3 very best in those days] that folded from one day to the next, supposedly because of tax problems, but who really knew. One of the partners went to jail for life due to embezzlement [not at the gallery but at his job].
But, of course, it is the very poor and the young who suffer most, and it is sad. I know the little pension I wire my former housekeeper every year means the world to her.
I am not sure what will come of the austerity measures being imposed either. Looking at history, Hitler`s rise to power had a lot to do with the financial hardship inflicted on the Germans after the First World War. A similar rise in fascism and racism is on the rise in Greece. It is actually frightening.
GIB: What’s the funniest experience you ever had in Greece?
CB: Not an easy question…..so many funny and touching moments…[in my book]
My girl friend at the time  went off one day to try to find the pharmacy to buy condoms. Once she found it – it was in the pharmacist’s own home, hidden like some secret clinic on a side street – she had to explain in sign language – she spoke no Greek at all – what she needed, and that she needed “extra large” to the horrified pharmacist and to gales of laughter from his other lady clients. She never went to the pharmacy again….
I also remember my mother [a Jungian psychologist] visiting my neighbor Aphrodite, whom everyone in the village went to chase away the Evil Eye. There she discovered, to Aphrodite’s horror, and my mother’s fascinated amusement, that she herself had the horrible gift. We laughed and laughed, but my mother was not so sure.
GIB: What are the best and worst meals you’ve ever had there?
CB: I have never had a bad meal in Greece but the best is certainly the fresh lobster I bought from the fishermen on the beach in the early Seventies that was cooked just for me at the taverna there.
GIB: What’s your single most cherished memory of Greece?
CB: Lying on “my rock” below Chrissopigi on Sifnos, all alone -“forgetting the year it is….” – time standing still…..I was there every year,… a very meditative and magical rock.