Halcyon Days in Greece Roaming the Island of Corfu

By Middlebury Campus

Author: Edward Pickering

The British zoologist Gerald Durrell led an itinerant life studying the fauna of Africa, Australia, South America and elsewhere.
He recorded his adventures and expeditions in several wonderful volumes of books that permanently endeared him to the reading public.
“My Family and Other Animals,” one of his earliest and most beloved works, gives an account of the most formative experience of his life– the five years he spent as a boy on the Greek isle of Corfu, a slip of land west of the Greek-Albania border.
Depressed by England’s gloomy weather, the Durrells (a fatherless family of five) set out for Greece in 1934.
The family had previously lived abroad (Gerald was born in Jamshedpur, India) and took the relocation in stride.
Readers with wanderlust will delight in Durrell’s account of life on Corfu, from his first glimpse of the island to the moment of his departure five years later: “Then suddenly the sun shifted over the horizon, and the sky turned the smooth enameled blue of a jay’s eye. The endless, meticulous curves of the sea flamed for an instant and then changed to a deep royal purple flecked with green. The mist lifted in quick, lithe ribbons, and before us lay the island.”
As the title implies “My Family and Other Animals” portrays both young Gerald’s family and the animal life he encounters on Corfu.
At times, the two are indistinguishable. Gerald’s brothers and sisters squawk as ferociously and raucously as the wildest bird that young Gerald captures.
On Corfu, Gerald, largely absolved from schoolwork, discovers his true passion in life: zoology. Gerald races through the isle’s olive groves and along its cove-dotted shoreline in pursuit of game large and small: lizards, tortoises, praying mantises and everything in between.
He amasses a veritable menagerie, including a pigeon named Quasimodo and a gecko that clings to his chamber ceiling at night.
The procession of animals that file through Gerald’s life provides the book with much of its vitality.
Durrell’s observations and descriptions of them are never disappointing or dull but always fresh. He peers within the crumbling wall of the sunken garden beside his villa and discovers beetles “rotund and neatly clad as businessmen, hurrying with portly efficiency about their night’s work.”
The island provides a backdrop to Gerald’s capers, a living, breathing presence that Durrell masterfully evokes. The island’s very name, Corfu, conjures visions of paradisiacal isolation and clemency of weather.
As a young boy, Gerald lived the dream of countless aging career men and women. He and his family adjourned the business of ‘getting by’ and withdrew to a sunny Mediterranean isle.
Moving through a strawberry-pink villa, daffodil-yellow villa, and snow-white villa while on Corfu, the Durrell household always remained within hailing distance of the sea.
Immediately beyond their home dwelled a community of sympathetic peasants.
Along his rambles, Gerald’s interactions with the peasants mark some of the book’s most surprising and delightful episodes.
Easily overlooked, these episodes remain muted in comparison to the riotous adventures of Gerald’s animals and family.
One day Gerald descends to the flats by the sea (an area he tags the Chessboard Fields) determined to catch Old Plop, a tortoise of legendary age.
Instead, Gerald spies “a pair of fat, brown water snakes, coiled passionately together in the grass, regarding me with impersonal silvery eyes.” Gerald dives after them into the mud and pins one.
When he emerges, he notices a stocky, brown peasant watching him — a prisoner, it turns out, who has rowed over from the off-shore prison islet of Vido.
The two keep company and at day’s end the prisoner gives to Gerald his prize pet, an enormous black-backed gull christened Alecko. Episodes and asides of this sort litter the book.
As serene and steady a presence as the olive groves they tend, the peasants emerge from and recede into the fabric of the island’s natural environment.
At one point, Gerald encounters the miraculous Rose-Beetle man, a peasant with a “fairy tale air.”
Suffice it to say, the Rose-Beetle Man walks with a halo of live beetles flying about the crown of his head and tortoises slung across his back. He is simply unforgettable.
Throughout the book Gerald’s experiences confirm the precept he advances early on in the narrative: “There was not a single peasant house that you could visit and come away empty.”
The appeal of Durrell’s book lies in its winning combination of locale and perspective.
The reader explores a wondrous place through the eyes and hands of an unusually impassioned observer.
Young Gerald delves into the living minutiae of Corfu, at times as keen as a darting lizard and at others, as meticulous as a ponderous tortoise.
This light read demands little more than an appreciation for things natural and a longing for lands distant.

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Halcyon Days in Greece Roaming the Island of Corfu