When I was just a few years old, our family went on our first proper summer vacation. I remember being quite confused about the concept of a rented villa. This was, after all, my first time ever living in a new “home”. My mother tried to explain: “this is not a real home, we have borrowed this for the summer”. But for a child, home is not a housing contract, but a state of mind. A child doesn’t think of a home in terms of ownership or tenancy, but in terms of experiences. I had already become attached to the villa’s outside porch, a cheap generic 70s design which however utilised the island’s most famous worldwide export: marble. The beautiful stone was so abundant on the island that it had come to be regarded as much less of a decorative feature and more of a simple structural “bricks and mortar” building material: often cut in massive quantities into rectangular slabs like French fries, and stuck clumsily on various surfaces with cement. The concrete “glue” was so sloppily applied that it was often left to solidify as it oozed out through cracks in between the marble slabs, like grey ketchup being squeezed out on the side of a burger. The late 70s weren’t exactly known for the most elegant architecture.
It was also in this rented house’s porch where I first saw water coming out of a garden hose, like liquid glass. My parents had to grab the hose repeatedly out of my hands after I would spend hours making rainbows in the sun, not realising that this tends to result in a localised flood. It was in this “borrowed” house also where I was first surrounded by the smell of a fig tree as it quietly spread its dark foliage over the garden. This grotesque 70s concrete villa was beautiful in my heart, giving me my first summer memories.
Next to the villa was a beautiful patch of “leftover forest” that had luckily been spared during the onslaught of concrete through the seaside village, 30 years before the village eventually gained the reputation of a tourist disaster zone. The forest patch I’m sure was eventually replaced by either another example of brutalist villa architecture, or a “quickmart” where sunburned humanoids can purchase nylon beach umbrellas, plastic bottles of water, fake RayBan sunglasses made in Taiwan, factory-made Viennese wafers and cigarettes. The forest had been living on borrowed time, on its way to becoming another borrowed villa.
In fact, the entire lush forest of the island was sitting on the world’s whitest marble. Quarries had been established since antiquity. Known as an Athenian colony, the island was actually first settled by immigrants from Paros who founded a sculpture school there. The location soon became known far and wide for its pure, crystalline snow-white marble, big pieces of which were loaded onto ships and carried all the way to ancient Athens and the Roman Empire to be carved into sculptures. Today the same exact marble is featured in American department store home furnishings catalogues where it aspires to become kitchen tops or luxury wall fittings. The journey through the island’s meandering highways occasionally reveals short glimpses of the numerous quarries cleverly hidden away from the tourist view: dark green pine forrest will suddenly be interrupted by pure yoghurt-white cliffs where the mountain has been eaten away by a giant dessert spoon. You can see trees still hanging on for dear life at the edge of the white cliff below, much like in a cross-section of a pine forrest-topped cheesecake waiting for its next calving. Down below, in the most ancient of quarries, a white beach has formed with waters bluer than the Caribbean due to the pure coral-white sand.
From borrowed villas to “immortal” marble statues and fire-resistant kitchen tops, marble is a showcase for humanity’s deep insecurity about death: we admire the permanence and durability of stone, and have created stone copies of ourselves on pedestals throughout our history so that we can last into eternity as motionless, speechless figurines. We have tried in vain to own the one most important thing that is only available in borrowed “format”: our life, our time on this planet.
The paradox of ownership is that it is delusional. We don’t really own anything, it is all borrowed. We just don’t want other humans, or other species, to make more use of their “borrowing rights” on the planet. Countries may be fighting over the ownership of the Elgin marbles of the Parthenon, but in the end it all belongs to Earth. And it will eventually be reclaimed by Earth. Our planet is a borrowed holiday villa, but we are leaving it messy for the next guest.
George is a chemist, molecular biologist and food scientist. You can follow him on Twitter @99blackbaloons , join his mailing list, or read his books
9 thoughts on “Borrowed Planet”
Well George, you continue to produce pieces that flow so easily yet manage to contain memorable thoughts. Delightful to read but prone to activate much envy in readers like myself even though I consider envy a very undesirable state. I’d like to believe that it takes you quite some time to wrestle down an essay but somehow doubt that’s the case.
Anyhow my problem. Am looking forward to your next piece!
Writing takes practice and is never easy, however as with all art forms there are tricks in finding the balance between channeling and at the same time setting free your creativity, and you discover these in the process. I never know where my essay will end up exactly from the start, and although this used to bring me apprehension I now have incorporated it into the creative process. I usually just know that there is something interesting in a particular story, something specific, personal, but which I can later relate to a bigger picture. It is like pulling a thread, or trying to open a floodgate. It takes some effort and concentration in the beginning which can take days, as you try different things to open it. But I don’t try to channel the water in a specific direction. Once the flood gate opens I follow the water and it just leads me. this is the easier part. Hope this makes sense.
A thought provoking read about ownership that has much wider implications in geopolitics. I think fear and security are also behind this desire to cheat death. To find some permanence in an ever changing world.
Thank you. Fear, trauma, survival…in capitalism and consumption we found a drug to distract us from thinking about and accepting our own mortality..
That is correct, George. Purchasing an item that we may or may not need can be addictive. Those short term dopamine hits distract us from our mortality.
I loved reading this. It reminded me of my grandparents, my mother’s parents, who came to USA from Italy. As a young kid, I loved eating figs off the fig tree…nothing like a fresh fig. In the winter, they would wrap the fig tree for protection from the winter elements. There was also an apricot tree which he shaped into an umbrella. We would sit under it, eating fresh apricots and drinking ginger ale, mixed with just a shot of wine. (I guess that was the original wine cooler and we never knew it.) Poppop wanted us to learn how to handle wine, even though it was only a shot glass size in the ginger ale and only one drink only like this. It was all a part of the “good manners” during holiday and Sunday dinners. I have their marble coffee table in my home…..it is beautiful, early Italianate/French Provincial marble. I do miss those days sometimes, of class, fine dining and homemade/garden food. Although, I still fine dine, experience many cultures and enjoy/cook organic sustainable food. I guess my grandparents set me up for a good classy (& modern) life, that I relish and enjoy today. My parents continued those traditions and introduced us to the modern mosaics as well. Wow…this piece of yours pulled all of this out of me. Thanks for the memories and the forward moving experiences. Maybe someday our paths will cross and we can enjoy a classy, yet modern meal. Tutti a tavola a mangiare e bere. Óloi sto trapézi gia fagitó kai potó. Todos a la mesa comen y beben. Ciao. Peter DiMaio
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Wow, I feel so happy I managed to remind you of all this! Your Italian side sounds amazing. Where in Italy was this? Was it a village? I’m quarter Italian by DNA so I have a soft spot for the country
Great, every body thats still alive shld read this and pass it on down the line!
Thank you for your kind words