A Greek Cypriot medical colleague of mine sometimes pays us a social visit, and I ask her as a favor to recite Cavafy in Greek, a language I do not speak or understand. The sound of the poetry alone is to me beautiful: but knowing it in translation, I am able to catch a word or two. The experience moves me deeply for reasons that I cannot quite analyze.

Her husband, as it happens, is a Greek from Alexandria, also a doctor, born in the year of Cavafy’s death. His has been what to me seems a dispiriting trajectory in life, from the capital of memory (in Lawrence Durrell’s phrase) to an English suburb where memory is abjured: from a life of cosmopolitan cafés to one of attention to the banal and mostly imaginary ailments of the bored and unhappy. But I suppose that everywhere, looked at aright, is exotic: it is the quality of the observer, not what is observed, that is important. Perhaps the Greek Alexandrian...