From Thessaloniki, With Love: Canadian Authors in Greece

Toronto International Festival of Authors in Greece 2018

(L to R) Maxime Raymond Bock, Deputy Director Christine Saratsiotis, Alissa York and Shari Lapena

“From the taxi that brought me from the airport to Thessaloniki, I looked into the distance, in the heat, at dark, undulating mountains, at stocky houses under ochre sandstone shingles, wondering what surprises awaited me in a country of which I knew only a few philosophers, and the somewhat intricate families of its mythical gods. I looked for points of reference that might draw me closer to these unfamiliar parts, and I was excited to come speak about a literature that, I suspected, would be equally as unfamiliar.”

—Maxime Raymond Bock

This past May, our director, Geoffrey E. Taylor and deputy director, Christine Saratsiotis, took three Canadian authors to Thessaloniki, Greece for the Thessaloniki International Book Fair as part of our International Touring programme. Upon their return, we asked Maxime Raymond Bock, Alissa York and Shari Lapena about their most surprising travel experiences and general perceptions of Canadian literature in Greece.

Language From Canada - Between Two Languages and Many Cultivars - credit Thessaloniki Book Fair

Language From Canada – Between Two Languages and Many Cultivars panel featuring Maxime Raymond Bock, Shari Lapena, Alissa York and moderator Stefanos Tsitsopoulos. Photo credit Thessaloniki Book Fair.

On the Thessaloniki International Book Fair:

“It was fortunate timing for me, as my first thriller, The Couple Next Door, had been published in Greece only a couple of weeks earlier. I had the pleasure of meeting a representative of my publisher, Editions Klidarithmos, in person, something that would not have happened otherwise. Together we visited various bookstores in Thessaloniki and did an arranged signing at Public, the biggest bookstore in the city.

The Thessaloniki Book Fair was busy and well attended. There seemed to be great interest in Canadian literature and Canadian writers. They were especially interested in Maxim, as he is a Francophone writer and they were celebrating Francophone writers this year at the festival. We did panels at the Book Fair, and afterwards, a team of documentary filmmakers interviewed each of us for a film they were making about the Fair.”

—Shari Lapena

“At the Thessaloniki International Book Fair, we encountered further proof of life: booth after booth of beautiful books surrounded by the people who make them, read them, need them. The host of our panel, journalist Stefanos Tsitsopoulos, wanted to know how literature works in our nation(s)—the French and English of it, not to mention all our other tongues. A film crew making a doc about the fair asked for more along the same lines, so Maxime and I nutshelled the bittersweet scene in a Franglais blend. If only such collegial co-operation were the national norm.”

—Alissa York

“It was literature that brought me to Greece, and it was, after a detour of a few millennia, thanks to the language—to words like “acoustics,” “melancholy,” “skepticism,” “dactylo,” “diapason,” [“tuning fork,”] and countless other words derived from ancient Greek that allow me to perceive the world—that I was able to find myself in this place … And the Francophonie was the guest of honour at the 2018 Thessaloniki Book Fair. An unexpected opportunity to feel at home while so far away.”

—Maxime Raymond Bock


At Pinewood (an American International School)

On visiting the American International School:

“We started, as storytellers often do, with the children. At Pinewood, the American International School of Thessaloniki, I and my fellow writers Shari Lapena and Maxime Raymond Bock had the pleasure of addressing an attentive crowd. I’ve never seen so many hands go up for a Q&A. Some of the students came up afterwards, including a Russian boy who asked if serious literature was dead. No, young man, never. Not so long as one such as yourself frets over the question. Not so long as he or she reads.”

—Alissa York

“Many enjoyable things happened in Greece with the IFOA team. Meeting with Pinewood College students, interviews and panels at the Book Fair on the differences between Canadian and Québec literature, book donations at the Canadian Embassy (it’s good to know our books are travelling and might find unexpected readers on the other side of the Earth). We also visited, in the dark mountains I’d observed on my arrival, incredible archaeological sites. It’s difficult to remain unmoved by the tomb of Philip II of Macedon, Alexander the Great’s father. Pella, the city he ruled—whose agora, complete with thermal baths, a pottery workshop, and several exceptional mosaics, is slowly being revealed by archaeologists and is accessible to visitors—provokes us to observe and consider the smallness of our lives on the scale of history.”

—Maxime Raymond Bock

“We also visited Pinewood, an American International School in Thessaloniki. Our panel there before a large crowd of high school students was very enthusiastically received. The students asked many questions about writing and what it is like to be a writer, and kept us afterwards for many more questions.”

—Shari Lapena


Maxime Raymond Bock, Alissa York, Deputy Director Christine Saratsiotis and Director Geoffrey E. Taylor.

On Greece’s food and nature:

“An exchange of discoveries, in short. A traveller can’t just take, but must also know how to give. Even if they can offer the country they visit only very little in return. I found few points of comparison in our respective folkloric clichés. Olive oil or pork rinds? Ouzo or caribou? Sirtaki or square dancing? A Mediterranean climate or ceaseless snowstorms? None of these comparisons eased my sense of displacement.”

—Maxime Raymond Bock

We were in Greece, so we ate and drank exceptionally well. Thessaloniki has to have one of the highest concentrations of excellent restaurants in the world. Or maybe it’s just that Geoffrey and Christine know all the best places to go. Knowing no Greek at all myself, I sat back and watched as Christine, a native Greek speaker, ordered, and Alissa seemed to pick up the language with ease. We dined in the city, we dined on the beach—it was all glorious.”

—Shari Lapena

Throughout our time in the city, the local wildlife made itself known. A flock of feral parakeets among the sycamores, the Euro-chic hooded crows with their dove-grey bellies and backs. Morning and night, the air was alive with swallows, their echolocating cries. There were cats, of course—a sharp-eared silhouette slipping across a rooftop, and later, a trio of rangy kittens hanging off their mother’s teats. The dogs were easier to spot—big strays winding among the tables in the Ladadika, an olive oil district turned centre of café life. Our waiter confirmed that a large toffee-coloured male was the boss of the local pack. “Is nice dog,” he told us, flashing his teeth in a grin. “But sometime . . . extreme aggressive.” I’d like to have heard the entire tale, but the guy had plates to clear.”

—Alissa York

Toronto International Festival of Authors in Greece. Photo credit: Alissa York.

Alissa York at the archeological site of Pella. Photo credit: Alissa York.

On Greece’s ancient history:

“We were also fortunate to do some sightseeing. We visited the remarkable archeological site of Pella, the ancient Macedonian capital dating from the 4th century BC. Walking through the ruins it was easy to imagine going back in time. The scent of flowers was heavenly, and there were poppies everywhere. You could almost imagine Alexander the Great riding a horse down these lanes. We also visited Vergina—the site of the tomb of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, and saw the many treasures recovered from the tombs.”

—Shari Lapena

But the highlight of my trip, which also concerns writing, I could not see. It is still buried beneath the ground. Northwest of the agora, the ruins are protected from the weather by a large awning and delimited by fences—shamelessly criss-crossed by the stray dogs that accompanied us on our visit. These are the ancient city’s archives. From behind the fences, I saw pieces of collapsed columns, stones, a profusion of poppies; I imagined the papyrus and engraved plaques yet to discover and decipher. Perhaps there are still commercial or administrative records, political decrees, poems and songs, mythic tales that will challenge our knowledge of this place and its history. That’s what most impressed me on this literary trip. What has not yet been read.

—Maxime Raymond Bock

“The dogs that shadowed us around the archeological site of Pella seemed docile enough. We stood in the footprint of the House of Helen, so named for the pebble mosaic still in situ on its floor. Parts of the stone story have worn away, but it’s clear that the face (body, mind) that launched a thousand ships was taken by force. One plaque refers to “the abduction of Helen”; another calls it “the rape.” And why wouldn’t the noble Paris “take” the woman he wanted? He was only modelling himself on his victim’s father, the swan otherwise known as Zeus. (How did Yeats put it? “A sudden blow: the great wings beating still / Above the staggering girl . . .”)

The stories we tell ourselves, the stories we’re told. Just one short week in Thessaloniki gave me so many, ancient and new. In the airport on the way home, I bought myself a bracelet of blue and white beads, suddenly afraid I would forget. Now I can tell the place and its fables over to myself, counting along the beads. Close my eyes and see the swallows careening over the city—or maybe those rows of children from around the world, their hands raised and waving, something to say.”

—Alissa York

Maxime Raymond Bock, Alissa York, Shari Lapena, Christine Saratsiotis and Geoffrey E. Taylor.

From Thessaloniki, With Love