I had never really thought of Greece before. If I had been asked to close my eyes and picture the country, I suppose golden beaches and a blazing sun would have come to my mind. Package-holiday makers, moussaka and Heineken bottles shimmering somewhere on a plastic table, like some grim mirage. But nothing deeper that that really. All this changed quite completely though when I met a unhappy-looking, beautiful Greek girl who had come all the way to teach for the summer in an cold boarding school in the English countryside. Within a year, I was with her heaving my way to the top of Mount Olympus, a ring in my pocket, and Greece ̶ the real Greece – its people, its places, its spirit ̶ indelibly fixed in my mind.
My introduction to Greece had begun in Athens. I crept into the city in August in the dead of night; the only souls to be seen the comic Evzone guards in their tasselled hats, pleated skirts and pompommed slippers, changing the guard in front of the parliament building at 4am with their pantomimic routine of a slow motioned raising of the legs, a twirl of the feet, a hoist of the rifle, a slap of the arms. I was in that drugged-like state from the travel, and with the thick blanket of heat that was wrapped around me even now at this early time of the morning, I felt I was viewing Greece as if from the centre of a dream. I dropped my bags and stood and watched for a while. Just me and the two white stockinged guards, their slippers slapping and squeaking on the empty marble stones in the centre of Greece’s capital.
Next day I woke to find a completely different city. The late morning heat mixing with the city noise and the traffic. The skips full of piled up rubbish and carrier bags of used toilet paper thrown on top – no flushing of paper down the drains in Greece – marinating in the hot sun. A cat working on one to tear it clean open. My skin was prickled and stung by the bright sun, flaming down through the dark-edged streets.
I was staying in the area of Exarchia, a world away from taverna scenes of moustachioed men I had previously pictured of Greece. Exarchia is the area of anarchy. Every spare space is graffitied over, and then graffitied over again. Everyone clothed in black. Arguments ringing out from the cafés as people drink their bitter Greek coffee, heads thrown backwards, jaws pushed forwards, smacked “tut”s emitted through puckered lips to emphasise disagreement with their companion’s views. Hands going round and round in small circles in contemptuous little windmill movements. We met a friend of the Greek I’d fallen in love with and had come all this way to Greece for. Evyenia was a sweet funny girl who, a year on, would become one of our ‘koubaras’ – bridesmaid in Greek, but meaning so much more than that here: once you’re koubara-ed, it’s a life-long relationship, a mafia pact. We sat and talked for hours, as all Greeks seem to do, usually over just the one coffee on the table, never being rushed or moved on by the waiters. When Evyenia finally got up to go to her job teaching in an under-5s playgroup, almost as an after-thought, this small demure girl in her flowery dress turned to us and said “Oh. I forgot – I’m to go on trial next month. For making Molotov cocktails, upstairs in our anarchist coffee bar.” She bunched her shoulders up and held up her hands, tilting her head and smiling as if to say what a silly triviality it all was and she skipped away down the street. I was left the bewildered Englishman. San tin myga mes to gala, as they say – the fly in the milk.
Later, over all the years I would live in Greece, I would often find myself left like this. Lost and bemused. I’d try to be polite and express some mild surprise and mutter something bland like “Oh, how strange… things like that don’t really happen in Britain you know,” as the most outrageous misdeeds took place in front of me. The response would always be the same: a shrug of the shoulders, a droop of the mouth, a snort through the nose. “Well…Here is Greece.”
While I was caught by the level of political interest and the debates that seemed to go on – just as they did 2000 years ago high on the hill of Pnyka, still hanging over the city today – the roots of this modern day dissatisfaction were pretty clear. High unemployment, habitual accusations of corruption, failing services, and always the sight of large numbers of policemen gathering together, lounging on motorbikes, insouciantly eyeing the public with a sort of slumbering menace. The tension could be felt everywhere. As I climbed the Acropolis, on the unavoidable tourist trail, winding my way up the path to the Parthenon – the famous pediments and columns above looking the colour of smoker’s old brown teeth – I noted how at every turn a policeman appeared to be looming over or aggressively moving on shrinking figures they felt shouldn’t be there. Men who appeared to be doing no harm, as far as I could see. Becoming bored of watching this relentless roughing up, I took to asking each mirrored-sunglasses wearing, groin-thrusting cop I passed, quite unnecessarily, “Acropolis?” pointing to the most famous wonder of the world behind me. Each batsos turning annoyed from his work bullying his particular immigrant, to grunt confirmation and irritably wave me along. The strain on the city was clear. As we later skirted round the large Omonia Square – Unity square – now stripped of its centre-piece monuments, looking run-down and bare, just a hang-out for depressed migrants and slinking drug dealers, I passed neighbouring streets where poverty was clearly visible – well-dressed men and women rifling deep in litter bins. Distress flowing out into the streets. The flags of the Golden Dawn far right-wing political party flowing above.
The atmosphere felt clearer in many ways as I was taken out of the city, past the gnarled olive trees that line Greek roads as lampposts do in England, and down towards that wonder of the modern world, the Corinth Canal. A great sight of slow fat ships passing through the eye-of-a-needle channel, leaving a rip of white behind them, as we passed over into the Peloponnese and down the long route to my future family’s home. The journey hugged the blue Ionian Sea to our right – and the Greeks even have a word just for the blue of their seas and skies: galano. Mountains rose up on our left, parched high ground. And a donkey, travelling impassively for hours in front of us on the back of a heroically unroadworthy falling-apart pick-up truck, nose in the air, ears flying in the wind. Our car bounced along behind on the potholes down the road like a boat out on a rough sea.
The road was long and I arrived tired and apprehensive at the family home. The house was shaded and cool and decorated in stone and dark wood against the white light of the Greek sun outside, as many Greek homes seemed to be. However, unlike many of the Greek homes I was later to see, this one at least didn’t have the common touch of the knitted white doilies hanging over every surface in the house to keep things clean and tidy. Some of the older residents in Greece even ludicrously place their large doily – their semedakia – over the top of their TV sets, completely obscuring the top half of their viewing experience. The parents, loud and chaotic, clasped me warmly and I had little time to consider any nerves at this first meeting as, within the first five minutes, they were removing their clothes, bundling me into a car, and taking me out to the beach. I found myself half-naked, wimpily frolicking in the surf with the prospective in-laws on our very first evening together, as the sun set into the sea with an explosion of reds and blues and pinks and greens. But this seemed right – completely in keeping with what I’d felt so far in the country: Greek life seemed to me to be a life with its clothes off. Life unencumbered. A life with the doors and windows left hanging wide open.
We drove back for a dinner of rabbit, caught by the father, Vasilios. Gruff, bald as a shiny dark pebble, Vasilos hardly had a word of English whatsoever. I was told he burst into tears as a boy when his mother would march him by the hand to his English lessons at the frontistirio – the private after-schools that pretty much all students are sent to for extra topping-up lessons, so poor and ramshackle are many of the Greek public schools and state education as a whole. As expected, all meals in Greece seemed a big deal. The murmur of simmering food coming from vast iron pans. Every dinner accompanied by a piece of feta the size of a house brick on the side. Olives rolling everywhere, homemade olive oil from their small olive tree plot kept in big dark barrels down in the basement. A bathtub for treading grapes for the bottles of homemade wine. I heard the family say things like, “How many people are coming for dinner? Four? Better cook for 12 just to be sure…” And when there were only just small piles of leftover food that had proved too much for the diners left on the plates afterwards, they would wring their hands with guilt and say to each other “Gamoto! Obviously we didn’t make enough…”
I was once sent out with orders to get bread, but found that ora koinis isyhias – the ‘time of common quietness’ – had fallen. Work stops, the background din of Greece dies away, the towns all fall into one huge siesta. The baker had left warm fresh bread on the sill of his dilapidated shop for those stupid enough to be up and still wandering around town, a hand written card left next to the bread on the window: leave whatever coins you want. Greeks get very intense about this quiet time. You can hare around the streets on motorbikes without helmets, smoke cigarettes wherever you like, triple park on pavements, no one will stop you – but have your radio on between 3pm and 5pm and you might just find the neighbours have called the police. It is understandable though, the Greek afternoon sleep is truly one of the greatest experiences you can have in life: falling deep under the dark surface of consciousness as the intense white glare outside gets too much, waking later to find that, while you were out of it, the afternoon has rearranged itself into a pattern of rich colours and the heat tamed itself into something more manageable. Life begins again.
I asked for ouzo with my dinner but the furrowed look of disapproval I was given showed I’d made an error.
“Tsipouro,” I was told. “This is what you should drink. Ouzo is for old people and tourists…”
“Ochi, ochi!” – No, no! – said another “Raki. We drink raki in the south. Tsipouro in the north.”
So a glug of raki was handed to me and my back thumped as my grinning host nodded at me to drain my glass. It was strong and took my breath and my eyes bulged as I swallowed it down, but I couldn’t really tell any difference. But everyone seemed to hold very strong views on the subject. For a country so laid-back that it often seemed to be only just about hanging together at the seams – “Halara, take it easy” said perpetually here, if ever some fool looks dangerously close to breaking into unnecessary action – Greeks seem to work themselves up to an incredible passion for their victuals.
Coffee. Greek, of course: elliniko cafe. The Greeks have even bothered to come up with a word just for the froth on top – kaimaki – and obviously the thicker and cloudier the kaimaki, the better. Some of the older Greek women told me they could read my future in the mud and grains left at the bottom of the cup, like the clairvoyant char women with their tea leaves back in Britain. Water. Water seems an inherent and essential element for the Greeks too. Because of the heat? The salted food? Whatever the reason, the Greeks seem to cherish water. Old men savour and smack their lips in the cafes over the glass of water served up with every meal and every coffee. Everyone seems to be a connoisseur of water, able to talk at length on the qualities of the local nero, closing eyes and appreciating all the flavours they can detect. Greeks direct visitors to the best places on their island to find water and anxiously ask if the water is good when visiting somewhere new. I would see them every day sat on old chairs out in the sun, raising their glasses of water up to the sky – the angled light congregating – as if offering a benediction.
Having been force-fed at the family home, I was to be taken off to another beach by my nifi, my soon-to-be sister-in-law, who wanted me to meet her boyfriend. We set off for her car, my eyebrows briefly rising at the sight of the family’s next door neighbour – a giant elderly priest with huge flowing beard, black robes, kalimavkion hat and colossal jewel-studded gold cross round his neck – as he glided silently along the path as if on wheels. “Skordo” the ever-superstitious Greeks mutter to themselves when they see a priest out of church, in the street or browsing in the supermarket. Skordo meaning garlic, and garlic being hung everywhere in Greece to ward off the bad spirits. We met Kostas, the boyfriend, looking like a shipwreck survivor. Thin, in loin cloth with frayed beard, skin burnt deep from the sun, next to his tent of sticks and canvas on a beautiful stretch of beach. This beach is one of the few breeding homes for turtles in Europe. Kostas’ job, it appeared, was to sit on this beach from May to October, stick in hand, waiting and watching for anyone walking down the sand near the turtle nests. If spotted, he raced towards them, hollering and shouting, then returned to his shack and his bottle of Fix beer. It seemed a great life.
Greece has resisted too much commercial exploitation of its beaches. Hotels and mega-resorts are quite rare and the coast is protected against privatisation. Despite tourism providing one of the solitary, vital incomes into the country, the beach is a preserved utopia. Miles and miles of beach left alone for sleeping, for gossiping, for nude bathing, for couples making love – not stopping as I walked past, the apologising Englishman. Except here. A huge bar had been built right on turtle beach: lights flashing and a disco pumping into the night, with shrieking guests tumbling and spilling down to the sea. Kostas, who had been a lone figure patrolling this beach for years, now wore a haggard look as his peaceful life with his slow moving friends had changed sadly and forever.
Greeks will always demand their time at the beach, of course. No matter how tight finances are, no matter what extraneous issues there might be. “Ta bania tou laou” – the swims of The People – it’s a sacred thing. “We can’t have an election in the summer,” I heard politicians on TV say. “We couldn’t possibly disturb the bania tou laou…” And summer brings out a competitive side too – a regular conversation in Greece, even with passing strangers, seems to be to ask the number of swims someone has had, and then desperately hope to be able to name a higher figure than whoever it is you’ve just met in the street or the local mini-markets. I even heard them do this with the number of ice creams they’d eaten over the summer. I watched as groups of Greeks named islands they’d been to, getting more and more obscure, each one in the group shrugging, determined to remain unimpressed, naming an even more remote and uninhabited island as their favourite. My Greek and I, however, were to take off on a different type of trip. A road trip heading inland instead.
First, we took care to make sure we were not setting off on a Tuesday. Someone told me Tuesday is considered a day of momentous bad luck in Greece. Constantinople fell to the Ottomans on a Tuesday in 1453, Greeks have been wary of Tuesdays ever since. Many will do very little, hiding out, waiting for this grim day to pass, before getting on with the rest of their week. We hit the roads though and I was slightly confused at seeing petrol stations and garages selling just the little metal buckle of a seat belt by their tills. Do they wear out more regularly in Greece than elsewhere? Then I was shown the trick. Drivers buy them to fix into the seat belt holder to stop their car beeping at them to plug in their belts, so they can be free to drive happily unencumbered by anything as tedious as safety regulations. And they sell these, officially manufactured in packaging, at service stations all along the motorways. What a country. The road we took sent us past many roadside churches, from the regal and grand to the broken-down and squat. I watched all the elderly drivers passing by, crossing themselves furiously as they drove past each church, like scratching chimpanzees sat in their seats. The cicadas in the fields were in full voice. We passed through villages with old men outside cafes sweating freely and happily, the pavements being hosed down and smelling of wet dust and jasmine and citrus all mixed up.
We stopped at the site of the ancient games at Olympia, where the ideal of the physical and moral potential of man was first laid out. The modern town now is a terrible, tacky, affair of the pocket with the tourists crowding the restaurants and nick-nack shops. But the site of the games lies beyond, composed and secure. I ran the ancient track, contemplated the stones and plinths with the blue sky sweeping through the columns. I then stood in the museum, eye-level with Hermes’ gloriously sculptured but unthreateningly proportioned marble cock and balls. Someone told me that the ancient Greeks made their statues with small penises as big ones were seen as the sign of a fool, more beast than man. The rough satyrs and the scenes of drinking and gluttony were shown on painted vases with images of great erections, but even Zeus amongst the gods was depicted with a small appendage. A small penis meaning intellect and control in the ancient world. I thought of this as I watched the modern-day sweating hirsute Greek man arguing about something at the door of the museum. “Se grafo st’ arhidia mou!“- I’m writing you on my balls! – he shouted as he mimed a chopping motion with his two hands down to his shoved-forward crotch at the lady guard on duty.
Past the port city of Patra and, after crossing the long glistening white Patra road bridge, we were back over the Gulf of Corinth once more, and onto the northern Greek mainland again – this time heading north. We stopped and consulted the oracles at Delphi – I quietly asked the old hidden Pythia high priestess of ancient lore if I was doing the right thing being here and the plans I had in my mind. No sign came back that I wasn’t, so we carried on through the ancient mythical area of the Roumeli – central Greece – now known as the states of Sterea Ellada and Thessaly, and it was in Thessaly that we finally arrived at our destination. The home of the immortals.
We stood staring up from the valley, one September morning, at the immense rising mound of Mount Olympus. Initially the lower reaches of the mountain were an easy stroll in hot thick sunshine, full of woods with birdsong and butterflies and deserted pools where we could swim in the water alongside breast-stroking frogs. The smell of open flowers and thyme and oregano hanging in the air. But we climbed higher. The paths got harder and started to rise vertically. Rocky landscape slipping down the slopes beside us. As we climbed higher still, the vegetation thinned out. Paths of clouded rocks, scraggy grass and trees clinging to the mountain side with roots like vulturous claws. I started to notice several stone circles that had been made along our path. As they became more elaborate, some even accompanied by offerings and small pyres, I asked about their significance and was a little taken aback to hear they were pantheons, shrines, made by those climbing this route to give honour to Zeus and the other 11 Gods of this parish. I was told there are Greeks today who still believe and pray to the ancient Olympian gods. People who live their lives by the antediluvian traditions of the old gods and call their religion Dodekatheism or Olympianism. Still believing bearded, vengeful, lusty Zeus is here, hiding himself as a bull, or a swan, or morphing into a ray of sunlight, destining and guiding their lives.
The climb was long. Limbs ached, progress slowed. Light falls fast in Greece, so fast you can even see it – you can time the sun as it falls down the sky, like a drop of orange paint running down a blue wall. We were in real danger of being stranded here in the high uplands, as daylight started to give out. This part of Olympus was the area back in the 1920s that Giagoulas and his infamous gang of bandits hid out while preying on hikers, robbing the rich to give to the poor. So much did they terrorise the country, that mothers today still tell miscreant children “Eat your vegetables or Giagoulas will get you…” Well I certainly didn’t want him to get me, so we strained and sprinted and scrambled our final push to the top: 10 hours, 3,000 meters and 20 degrees celsius lower from when we had set off from the sun-drenched small town of Litochoro below us.
The wind was hard at the top. Snow lay in patches on the loose rocky ground. The highest peak – Zeus’ Throne – was a wall of slate grey in front of us as we stood on a high ledge. It was here, enervated and exhausted, that I fumbled for an engagement ring. I tried to look the valiant romantic hero but, utterly tired, I more resembled an old Greecian statue kicked in the privates as I made my proposal to join this new Greek life forever and turn this new Greek family into mine. For reasons best known to herself, this free-spirited girl from this other world agreed, and we raced, hugging and grinning, to the refuge for climbers at mountain’s top.
“I’ve just got engaged!” I announced loudly as we burst through the door, to all the climbers in their climbing gear, eating their fasolada heavy bean soup, lamps strapped on their heads. They turned to look at me, slowly contemplating my words, and went back to their chewing. “Perastika” one muttered to his plate – get well soon. Clearly, they thought the over-excited Englishman hadn’t brought a Greek speaker to the top of Olympus with his odd intention of proposing marriage. But they were wrong. My fiancé of five minutes launched into a heated Greek attack on their rudeness. Shouts and gestures rang round from all sides of the room, chairs thrown backwards, hands waved in faces. I started to regret the turn of events racing out of control in front of me, as I saw us not being taken in for the night, left to fend for ourselves outside. But then suddenly bottles of retsina and tsipouro were brought out of a cupboard. Laughter, backs slapped, congratulations given. “Vion anthosparton!” – have a life covered with flowers! “Marrying a Greek girl – are you some sort of crazy man?” the men cackled as we spent the night with this crowd, drinking and toasting under a million stars – the clearest sky I had ever seen in my life – on the very roof of Greece.
Next morning, the cold air, sharp as a blade, cleared the lingering hangovers as we headed down the slopes. Far, far below us the Aegean Sea could be seen, brilliant in the sun, and beyond, Greece’s second city. Thessaloniki.
The Avenue Nikis on the front at Thessaloniki could be the Brighton promenade. Tall buildings of flats and apartments line the road stretching by the sea along to the White Tower – the emblem of the city, though, of course, not actually white – where cosmopolitan Thessalonikians go to be seen, to drink coffee, to watch old Greek tragedies in the modern new theatres. Above the centre of the city, perching on Eptapyrgio Hill – Thessaloniki’s own Acropolis, meaning ‘seven towers’, though, of course, there are actually ten – is Ano Poli, the old town. A completely different area of the city. This is the remaining part of Thessaloniki that survived the Great Fire and the later, equally ruinous, council planners’ butchery. Traditional architecture, mazy small streets opening into classic old squares. Thessaloniki is a rare Greek city to have held on to these old, beautiful but dilapidated homes ̶ looking distressed through age and character rather than the grim new-build buildings around the country. The owners of the new buildings that go up around Greece, so I’m told, will leave the hint of another floor being built in their property, a staircase leading nowhere, or a few columns lying around unfinished as no tax has to be paid on your house if it has not been completed. That one column will lie there, unerected, till the very end of time.
Old friends of my now newly engaged girl, my kopela, had arranged an evening for us to celebrate in an old bar in Papafi Street. Musicians living around the city, they arrived with bouzoukis, baglamas, guitars and violins. Endless glasses of tsipouro were drained. I shared my paidakia, my lamb chops, with one of the bearded friends and fastidious English manners were trounced by typical Greek straightforwardness… “You’re not eating this are you?” I gestured to my final piece, hoping – expecting – a no, my fork hovering ready to take it. The man didn’t even look up, the ambiguity of trivial English politeness completely passing him by. “Eh? Oh… yes…” The food swallowed in a flash. Sharing food is the mandatory way of eating in Greece, but this man obviously didn’t feel the dropi – the shame that Greeks say of eating the final piece. Often this shame will bring attendant bad luck too, so many times you will see just one lone hunk of meat sat on every plate at the end of the night. However, drink the last from a bottle and there is no shame; in fact, you will find tha s’agapaei i pethera sou – your mother-in-law will love you. Rare to happen in Greece, apparently.
The music started. Rebetiko. Music from the dark hearts of the Greeks. The Greek blues. This is as far away from the cheap plate smashing music as you can get. Originating around the time of the Great Population Exchange in the 1920s, in the port areas of Pireaus and Thessaloniki, the centres of huge immigration from Turkey and the east. The sounds were mixed with Greek, Balkan, Jewish cultures to create this extraordinary outsider music. Coming from the downtown hash cafes, with tales of love, lost love, pain, poverty, intoxication. Songs from the edges of society. We stayed late. My final woozy view of Greece before my flight home later that morning was this local tavern, hidden in the streets of Thessaloniki, filled with smoke and song, the locals plaintively singing the sad but inspiriting numbers from Greece past.
One year later, I was stood outside a barber’s shop in a quiet shaded square on the heat-baked island of Samos in my wedding suit. The sun dripping down on me like thick honey. The barber nowhere to be seen. I was due to be married in the town hall in a little less than an hour. I called to the stout old lady arranging flowers on her stall in the centre of the square “Pou einai…” The word for ‘barber’ deserted me. I mimed a pair of scissors above my head. The old woman looked vaguely concerned but offered only a shrug, jutted out her chin and then, having shouted something indeterminate, disappeared. I found myself all alone, aside for a sleeping stray dog lying next to me looking stone-dead in a patch of midday sun. I was feeling increasingly uncomfortable and aware of my rumpled state in the rising summer heat. Suddenly, from nowhere a moped appeared, haring fast round the corner with the fat old flower seller on the back, beaming and clutching her arms tight round the young driver, the barber, in front. She had gone to his house and woken him up for me. “Natos!” she shouted, pointing happily at him “Natos o barberis!”
We had chosen to marry on the island of Samos as this was where a young man – my soon-to-be father-in-law – while carrying out part of his compulsory national service in the army, had fallen in love with a girl studying the traditional Greek style of ceramics – my soon-to-be mother-in-law. Samos is a real Greek island. Far from the mainland, like a rock flung miles over the Aegean Sea. Turkey is clearly visible off its eastern shore, perhaps almost even a swimmable distance away. Life seemed slower here, sweeter, easier. People going about their lives relaxed, moving at a perpetual summer pace, fat with time. In ancient history Samos was considered so richly fertile and blessed that they said that even the birds here produced milk. “Kai tou pouliou to gala…” The old proverb now only crops up as a slogan on the gaudy signs of Greece’s biggest supermarket chain. The registrar of marriages in Karlovasi in Samos worked from an office straight out of the 1950s. No computers, papers flapping under old desk fans, desperate to be set free, wedged down tight under paperweights. The old clerk seemed to have never faced the problem of an Englishman wanting to marry here before. He scratched his head under his huge picture of Kolokotronis – the Greek general who drove out the Ottoman Empire – and hit on a plan. “We’ll make you a Samosian…” he decided and I watched as he set about creating some fabricated documents that somehow showed that I had been born and bred in Samos. He seemed inordinately pleased with his schemes.
A few days later and I – now a Samosian, despite having only been on this island for the briefest time – was in a large aureate hall, on my new home island, in front of the Mayor of Samos, waiting for my bride. My mother-in-law stood behind me, spitting lightly on my head – “ftou ftou ftou…” This was for good luck. To keep ‘The Eye’ away from me. The Eye – To Mati – is the malevolent effect that comes from people staring at you because you’re too beautiful, or too clever, or too aggravating, or too annoying. Or maybe just because you’re standing like a fool in front of a large wedding crowd of gabbering Greeks, not really having much understanding of what’s going on. Symptoms are headaches and fatigue. The prevention is to wear a brightly painted eye around your neck or, as I was now experiencing, to have someone close rain a shower spit down on you. There is also a spell: To Xematiasma. A prayer that is said three times with a glass of water and a glass of oil. After each saying of the spell the spell-sayer places a finger in the oil and then let the drops fall into the water. If the oil disperses, so will your headache. This sorcery was once told by my wife’s grandmother, her yiayia, to her as a girl. But this is no good, she can’t do it herself, it only works if the spell has been passed down from a woman to a man.
My gynaika finally arrived at the town hall, and her father, who must have planned this moment since she was a child in his arms – though probably not with an uncomprehending Englishman involved – sweetly still went through with the long traditional Greek declaration… “Sou paradido tin kori mou...” – I am delivering you my daughter… Even though I could only nod, bovine-dumb, and try and look suitably thoughtful. Friends who had come from England mixed, a little stiffly at first, with the Greek family and friends. One friend of my new family, with a house on Samos, was the daughter of the great historical poet, Yiannis Ritsos. Ritsos’ poetry is full of politics and identity and struggle, banned at first but now celebrated throughout Greece. His daughter was here now keeping the English contingency happy, trying light-hearted conversation – tipikotites – that the Greeks believe the Brits are so keen on: chit-chatting about the weather.
“What do you call the English?” I once asked my wife.
“Yes, ok, we don’t have the olive sun-kissed beauty of the Greeks and all that sort of thing, but what’s the name for us?”
“Ugly. That’s it. That’s the name for the English. In plural. One Uglos, a country of Ugly”.
As we sat on the boat taking us from the wedding in Samos to the party on the next island along the chain, Ikaria, I looked at my English friends – suits off, shorts on, white legs out – and felt perhaps the Greeks had got it right.
We were soon disembarking on the wild and weird island of Ikaria – named after where that famous, shortest, one-manned flight took place. I had vague misgivings about being here on the land of Icarus and my just launched marriage – Greeks are, after all, a very superstitious people. But then everyone forgets that Icarus also flew. Even if my life here in Greece did start to fail and fall at some point, it would surely only mean the end of what had still been, however briefly, a triumph.
Ikaria has a crazed feel about it. Once we were away from the handsome crescent harbour – with its cramped clutter of old buildings, watching with inscrutable faces as the incomers step onto their island – the interior landscape turned red and rocky. The roads beyond fringed with spiky, arrowed plants. The residents all supposedly live well into their hundreds around here, with their longevity secrets desperately sought out by emulous visitors to the island. Ikarians also seemed winningly odd. Eccentric. Time seemed to be of absolutely no concept here at all – not a single Ikarian wears a watch, many shops don’t open up until well after midnight. The island also regularly bursts with flashes of light as Ikarians like to stand at upper windows of their houses holding mirrors as ferries pass by the coast, tilting them to reflect the sun so as to send their friends on the boat a goodbye message as they sail away.
We had just arrived though, the island still a mystery to be discovered. We had been met to be helped from the harbour by Giorgos, the brother of one of our two koubaras. Some of us loaded into cars for the drive on towards the wedding party, the gledi, but the English group were nervously piled into the back of Giorgos’ beaten-up old van. The convoy made its way through rolling hills with a cacophony of blaring horns, as the ‘Ugly’ were thrown from side to side in the van as each corner was taken by Giorgos in happily reckless fashion. Every car horn in the procession was repeatedly blasted, and old lady Ikarians leaned from their windows as we passed each tiny stone village to shout and wave handkerchiefs for good luck at the newly-weds. “Kai kalous apogonous!” – Have good descendants! Kids ran up behind the cars. Men in the fields looked up from their animals for a moment, noted the newly married strangers and raised tools in salute. Ears ringing, disoriented, we arrived at Yaliskari, the location of the wedding party. A red ball of sun gently flopped into the sea.
We had chosen to be here on Ikaria as, again, there was a family history associated with this island. It was on Ikaria that my future wife’s grandfather was exiled after fighting with the communists during the Greek resistance to the German Nazi occupation of the country. Poignant visits to the prison camp by my mother-in-law, whose father was taken from the family for many years, were for later though. The party got underway. Wine flowed – we were, after all, on the island where Dionysus, the God of drink and bacchanalia was born, and the island which has the most famous panagiri in all the country: festivals where whole villages are out drinking, eating and dancing. There was a band in the taverna where we set up the wedding party playing traditional Ikarian folk music and the Greeks and the English formed a large circle attempting Ikariotikos dancing: arms clamped on shoulders, steps and kicks, swirling up the dust from the taverna’s old stone floor. A goat and a pig had been freshly slaughtered just for us, making me squeamishly guilty, though not a single Greek understood this, greeting my meek words for the cursed fate of the animals with a knot of furrowed eyebrows. The long-bearded owner of this stone tavern on the rocks tumbling down to the sea where we were holding the gledi had forgotten the animals for the feast had needed to be dealt with, only remembering once he heard the pandemonium of car horns and shrieks coming over the hills an hour earlier. By a certain point in the evening, the owner was the most drunk of anyone at the party, genially indicating his support with a smiling, closed-eyed, thumbs-up as the English stepped over him to help themselves to more drinks from his cellar. My mother-in-law had moulded me a special Pythagorean cup for the occasion, and presented it to me during a drinking routine at the gledi, where everyone was made to dance with their drained glass on their head. Invented by Pythagoras of Samos, the cup allows the drinker to fill up with wine to only a certain point, if you try to fill it with any more wine it pours out of a hole at the bottom. Created to ensure workers 2000 years ago stayed sober, I’m afraid it was all rather too late for me.
As the gledi and the dancing and the music continued, and the sun slowly climbed itself out of the sea again and my very first day married into this Greek world dawned, I took a walk away from the party on my own and I looked out over the water. Stupid-faced with a new happiness, I thought of the country I’d joined, rolling away in the sun-bleached land behind me. I thought of hills, the ancient cities, the baked roads, the blue seas and skies, the people… And as I stood and stared, part of a poem about Greece by Ritsos that I had once been told came flitting into my mind.
A small bird that flies in the sun
If you look at it once, you will smile
But if you look at it twice or three times…you will start singing