The Greek House

Swiss painter Christian Brechneff's story – a beguiling mix of genres, from travelogue to art guide – is the next best thing to actually going to a Greek island.

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    The Greek House,
    by Christian Brechneff and Tim Lovejoy,
    Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
    304 pp.
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“I believe there are places that have real power, places where the connection between nature and man is absolutely direct, without thought of any kind, places that penetrate you so deeply that they become part of you,” writes Christian Brechneff in his newly published work The Greek House: The Story of a Painter’s Love Affair with the Island of Sifnos.

For Gauguin, that place was Tahiti; for John Muir, Yosemite; for O’Keefe, the Southwest. And for Brechneff, a Swiss painter of Russian lineage, it was the Greek island of Sifnos – “a small island of the past, a living tradition captured like a creature in amber.” For 30 years, beginning at age 21, on that starkly beautiful yet backward island out in the middle of the Aegean, the author lived, painted, and grew to eventually become more and more ... himself. (His mother was a Jungian analyst.) 

Leaving the uber-conventional confines of Basel, Switzerland, confused about his identity – both national and sexual – the author takes flight and eventually finds himself on a remote Greek island. Standing there on the deck of the ferryboat, heading to this unknown land in the Cyclades archipelago, he recalls every sight and sound and contour, even the very odor of first contact: “I could smell for the first time the delicate scent of the island, like a package of spices and herbs suddenly spilled open in the palm of my hand.” 

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Forever inspired by the magic of Sifnos, Brechneff returns year after year, through graduate school, through failed love affairs with both men and women, through professional zigs and zags, to the place where it was “impossible to be depressed” in order to recharge his battery and to paint, paint, paint. 

Then one day, five years after his first visit, an islander, out of the blue, offers to sell him a house. The little whitewashed spiti (domicile) in the middle of an ancient village didn’t even have running water or electricity. But Brechneff was enchanted, and being an all-or-nothing sort of person, he borrows the money from his parents ($7,500), and just like that, the tall, blonde, 27-year-old Adonis the islanders called calo pedi Christo (good little Chris) becomes a Sifniot. And for the next 25 years, as the proud owner of an island home, he rides a roller coaster of agonies and ecstasies, from painting beautiful morning sunrises in his new addition to managing lying property managers; from growing fruit trees to dealing with psychotic neighbors.

"The Greek House" is a mix of many different genres – travelogue, memoir, international real estate guide, anthropology, art – the kind of book that bookstores will have the devil of a time categorizing. From beginning to end, we see the rare and magical sights of a culturally pure island world as told through the eyes of a painter with its shadow-casting mountains, fig trees and olive groves, sheep and goats and mules and donkeys, dovecotes (“little stone pyramids worked together as in a house of cards”), and "crowning every peak ... monasteries and their churches, white, white against the blue, blue sky.”

And, of course, there are the people – treacherous shop owners, fearless taxi drivers, wicked spinsters, jocular widows, world-renowned artists, spoilsport ex-patriots – a full and lively cast of characters. But please, don’t call them charming! (Snake charming maybe.)

For example, when Brechneff’s neighbor, the spinster Aphrodite and her mother Evangelia with whom he shares a courtyard wall, come over ostensibly to talk about one of the many renovations projects Brechneff has recently completed on his house, it soon becomes obvious that, well: “Then out of the blue, as her mother went on talking, Aphrodite, not so young anymore and never pretty, started to unpin her hair and let it down, shaking it out over her shoulders, a fairly terrifying sight, with her mustache and this long, thick graying hair, a grim, dark-faced wild woman, half Medusa, half Madwoman of Chaillot.” 

Brechneff wants to tell it all, and he does, unfortunately, detouring the reader through way too much information (in the slang sense of the phrase) as he splices in maudlin letters to the folks back home and wistful/regretful reminiscences of sexual misadventures that all feel forced. But there is an extraordinary freshness and youthful vitality to this book that transcends even its own flaws by virtue of the main character: the island of Sifnos.

By the end, both Brechneff and his beloved island have grown completely apart. Sifnos, 30 years later, like Brechneff himself, has completely changed. It’s not so much that yachts and tourists and real estate agents have invaded, big time; rather, it’s that the tall blonde, the islanders’, adorable calo pedi Christo, has grown up.

Returning to the island after a long absence, his longtime friend, Apostolos, picks him up at the ferry and is driving him to his house. Realizing Brechneff is alone again, Apostolos says to him: “Christo … you need a wife.” Brechneff describes the moment: “[I]t was like a slap. Not a hard one, but hard enough to bring someone to his senses. Me. Suddenly everything out of the car window looked different ... strange, unfamiliar, foreign. And in a flash I realized that I had no place here, that I was living in someone else’s world. “

He sold the house in 2007, the same year as his civil union to Tim Lovejoy, Brechneff's longtime partner and the co-author of "The Greek House." 

If you can’t make it to a Greek Island this summer, "The Greek House" is the next best thing to being there.

Richard Horan is a novelist and nonfiction writer. His most recent book is “Harvest: An Adventure into the Heart of America’s Family Farms.”

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