Opening the Door

by George Kounoupis

Off the coast of the Peloponnese in southern Greece, a small island mourns.  It has lost one of its favorite sons who, while adopted, loved the island as much as it loved him.  And so this November 2016, Hydra Island mourns the great Leonard Cohen.

It was my great pleasure and honor to have represented Leonard Cohen and his family for several years with regard to legal matters in Greece, including his beloved house on Hydra Island.  Even now, after his death, “Cohenites” from around the world plan their annual weekend gathering on the island to celebrate his music and writings. Mr. Cohen’s enduring love for his house in Hydra Greece led me to reflect on my experience in owning a summer home in Greece.

I am fortunate to have a small home in the southern Peloponnese, nestled in olive groves and overlooking the blue Aegean. In front of my balcony is the crystal blue sea Odysseus sailed on and behind me the orange grove covered plain of Sparta. I hesitated to buy it until a good friend asked me,” What price do you put on the memories you will make with your family there?”  Also, I was moved by author Frances Mayes, after reading her book Under the Tuscan Sun, about her buying an old villa in Tuscany, in which she stressed the value of being in a place where you “walk out of your footprint.”  I have met Frances Mayes, and she gushed about how much she loved the Peloponnese region of Greece.   For Leonard Cohen, his home in Hydra Greece (off the coast of the Peloponnese), was the driving force of his creativity and inspiration.  For me, a lesser mortal, the house in Greece regenerates and revives my spirit so that I am psychically able to continue to practice law – often an extremely toxic occupation.  It is the medicine of the highest order.  Sometimes in life, we need to dare to open a new door.  Cohen valued his Greek house due to its essential “otherness” – and so do I.

And so, in 1960, Leonard Cohen was struggling to write novels, books, poems and lyrics. Exhausted, drained and desperate for inspiration, he found himself wandering the gray and rainy streets of London.  He saw the door of a branch office of the Bank of Greece and decided to go inside. Seeing the tanned clerks, he asked about the weather in Greece.  He had never been to Greece.  Upon hearing what the weather was like, he left for Greece two days later.

After arriving in the port city of Pireaus, he took a ferry to Hydra, a beautiful Greek island in the Saronic group of islands, which even today bans motor cars and motorcycles.  He discovered many artists in Hydra, including American, British and Australian writers and poets.  He spotted a house on a hill overlooking the Port of Hydra.  It was an old, traditional sea captain’s house built in the 1800’s.  With $1,500 in inheritance money from his grandmother, Cohen purchased the house.  Cohen often said that this purchase in 1960 was the best decision he ever made.  As his lawyer, more than half a century later, I can attest to that fact from a financial investment viewpoint.  However, Cohen, I know, was not reflecting on the financial return of his Hydra home.  He was reflecting on the priceless gift of sunlight, inspiration, and renewal.

It is not the easiest thing to purchase a house in a foreign country.  Even for me, a lawyer also licensed in Greece, there was red tape and tribulations.  Additionally, accessibility can be an issue for some homes overseas, although the world is getting smaller every year.

There may be currency fluctuations against the Dollar or the real estate values may plummet (as they have in Greece due to the crisis). In addition to the legal and building permit and zoning bureaucracy and uncertainty, local contractors and workers may not respect contracts or quotes leading to protracted litigation that can last for years. In Greece for example, there is no title insurance and a legal title dispute can take ten years in the courts. “Caveat emptor” is the rule and I will say, in a self-serving fashion, local trusted legal counsel is a must. On the other hand, local real estate taxes(if any)often are a fraction of the taxes on a summer home, say, in Florida or the New Jersey shore.

And so Leonard Cohen became at home with the rhythm of the small Greek island, its coffee houses, the markets, the fishing boats and the donkeys carting vegetables and fruits for sale. Ever present in Hydra in the 50’s and 60’s was a bohemian and diverse assemblage of actors, poets, musicians and painters including Sophia Loren, Alan Ladd, Melina Mercouri, Tony Perkins, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Joan Collins, Richard Burton and Michael Cacoyianis (of Zorba fame). Cohen immersed himself in the creative process on his sun- filled terrace overlooking the sea, finding his creative fuel and drive. He fell in love with his muse in Hydra and often said that the livable pace and tranquility of the island “made cities less frightening”. One day he was upset to see telephone poles and wires outside his window. He was distraught at this encroachment of civilization until he saw that birds came to the wires. This scene inspired him to write “Bird on the Wire.”  “Like a bird on the wire …I have tried in my way to be free”.

This Summer I will visit Hydra and like hundreds of others lay a wreath at the door of Leonard’s house. It is now owned by his also talented son Adam and his daughter Lorca. What is the value of owning a home in a foreign land?  The place itself can become the poetry of your life.  In return for the headaches, you may find your soul. In the end, few have said it better than Leonard Cohen in “Hallelujah”:

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.

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