Return to Xidera

It's amazing how after a few days of rain of Biblical proportions the island begins to look like Ireland. The fields that when we left a few days ago were parched and brown after a summer of sun are now a light shade of green as fall grass begins to grow. "Soon it will be time for the old women to pick the horta" says a village priest who we have picked up hitchhiking on the road between Fila and Skalahori. He is the priest of the village of Emboros, but he was born in Antissa where he is going today to see his relatives. He is old, bearded and overweight and breathes heavily in the seat next to me as if he has just run the last two kilometers. We drop him off at the lower platia in Vatoussa and we continue to the upper platia.

When we get out of the car we are called into the new cafeneon by Bobbis, the mailman, who buys me an ouzo. The boy behind the counter serves a meze of goat stew, tomato, feta and bread. Andrea just has a coffee. Bobbis has been delivering the mail in Sigri for the last month while their regular mailman is on vacation. He loves being a mailman, as would anyone who stopped in every cafeneon in every village on his route to have an ouzo with the boys. He is a musician, playing the bouzouki and baglama in his spare time, and also a painter. He amuses Amarandi by drawing cartoon charactors on a ciggarette paper and making a rabbit out of folded paper with ears that actually moved. But his real love is the Olympiakos basketball team. To him David Rivers is God. There has never been a point-guard like him in Greece. He closes his eyes and smiles and I can see that in his mind's eye Rivers is dribbling through bewildered defenders to make a reverse layup, getting fouled on the play and hitting the freethrow. In the cafeneon there are posters for the Panathiniakos team of last year including one of Dominique Wilkins taking a jumpshot. Bobbis notices me looking at it.

"The team is all foreigners and Wilkins is an old man", he laughs. "Anyway, they are all gone. It's an all new team." he tells me Greece is number one in basketball after the NBA. They pay big money for players here.

"Who has replaced Dominique Wilkins?" I ask him.

"John Salley. Another old man!" he scoffs.

Pamela joins us and the topic of basketball is quickly dropped for conversation about her house and the six year old boy in America who was suspended from school for kissing a girl. "Can you imagine? They are afraid in America when a little boy kisses a little girl". The mailman laughs and excuses himself because he has to go have lunch with his family. The girls go up to Pam's house to rummage through some old trunks while I go across the street to the old cafeneon which is empty except for the owner Tryphonos and an old man. I order a frappe and write a postcard to my friend Mitch in America, trying to squeeze the last three weeks into one paragraph. I realize that I have only one week left here and I can't imagine exchanging my surroundings for that of a small southern town in the USA.

We drive back to Xidera for lunch at Aglaia's. As usual the platia is filled with cars but Amarandi has been chanting for a parking place and our favorite spot behind the tree next to the young men's cafeneon is free. Everyone says hello and welcomes us back from our little journey. We dump our bags in the horrible house of the Yaya Stasa and go to the cafeneon. Panayotis greets me with an ouzo, then another,while his wife cooks us up a lunch of beans, fried potatos and salad. She asks me if I would like some of the fried sheep's liver and spleen that she had been serving me every night before we left, but Andrea asks if I can have some fried goat ribs like Panayotis and his friend are eating at the next table. Aglaia sends Panayotis to his butcher shop across the street to hack some ribs off a goat. He's reluctant to go and I feel bad about sending him but all is forgotten when he returns and they are cooked. Andrea and I eat an entire plate stacked high with ribs while having a long conversation with Aglaia and Gabriel, the man at the next table. I'm on about my tenth ouzo and have written off the rest of the afternoon. What the hell. It's my last day or so in Xidera. Let me live life to it's fullest. As we leave the cafeneon, Avglaia asks what we would like for dinner. I'm in such a good mood I order some sheep's liver and spleen.

Pamela is in a state of impending martyrdom. "How can you leave me here with all this work. I haven't had a vacation for two years and I have to fix up the house and it's not fair..." Andrea is busy working on the windows that she plans on painting tomorrow. She asks me to take a walk with her and look at the olive grove her family owns. They only piece of real-estate they have in the village of any value. It seems silly to be painting the frames and shutters of a house that could collapse any minute, but Andrea did not want to desert her sister. I warn her that if she was doing it out of guilt that she shouldn't bother because Pam will make her feel guilty anyway. I was right. Andrea should not feel guilty. Pamela's house is her cross to bear. She was desperate to buy a house in Lesvos and there is a certain amount of suffering that comes with trying to build or restore anything in Greece. As for Yaya Stasi's house, well Pam claims that they are coming to repair the walls next month. If they don't, by next s pring it will be a pile of rubble with freshly painted aquamarine shutters.

The air is cool in the mountains tonight. We can smell people's wood-burning stoves. It's a smell I remember from my childhood. A smell I have missed until now, and not realized it. We walk through the upper village. From the doorway to an enclosed house and garden, a girl steps out and greets us in English. We are surprised. Her accent is strongly Australian. Her name is Christina and she lived in Sidney until she was six years old. She is now twenty. We ask what she does in the village. "Nothing!" she exclaims. There are no jobs and her parents won't let her leave so she watches TV all winter long. She says that she spends two months of the summer with her older sister in Erresos. We urge her to escape and have a life, or at least come to the cafeneon with us, but she's not allowed to go to the cafeneons. "It would be a scandal" explains Andrea. "And then they could never marry her off. She'd be tarnished goods if she were seen in the cafeneons." It's a sad story. Christina is tall dark and beautiful. Peopl e talk about the decline in American society because of the decline of the family, but here is the other extreme. Because her parents want to protect her Christina is denied a life of her own. The closest she will come to freedom will be the few short months between the betrothal, and the wedding, when she might be able to go to Kaloni for a wedding dress, if she doesn't have to wear her mothers.

In Avglaia's there is something extaordinary brewing. There are foriegn visitors unconnected with the village. He's a German named Olf who owns the Vesuvious bar in Erressos and she's Eleni, a Greek social worker from Megara. She asks if I know where her town is."Of course. That's where all the chickens come from". She laughs. I know because I remember driving past Megara on my way back from the Peleponisos and marveling at the mile upon mile of chicken coops. Avglaia is setting serving after serving of salad, fried eggplant and lamb liver and spleen, before them, and they don't know that until they tell her to stop, she will keep giving them food. It's not my job to tell them either and if he's got a bar in Erressos, he can certainly afford it. By now I am allowed to serve myself ouzo from the giant bottle on the counter. I don't know if Avglaia is keeping score. It will be difficult because if I am too slow to pour for myself, Panayotis does it for me and that usually means it's on him. Andrea, Pam and Amar andi join me but Amarandi is overtired and shows outright hostility towards me, totally forgetting my speech about the cafeneons and pity. She does everything she can to aggravate me, stepping on my feet, climbing on me and then punching me. The expressions of the old men turn from pity to total horror. Finally I can't take any more and give her a slap, not hard enough, because she hits me back. I slap her again, and this time she cries and the evil spell is broken. Pamela takes her home and puts her to bed. I feel bad but I can't think of any other way of getting the message across to stop. Anyway, the inhabitants of the cafeneon all look relieved that it's all over, and the evenings festivities begin. Dinner is delicious, not that I was at all hungry, but it serves it's purpose of soaking up all the ouzo. I don't seem to be getting drunk, though I probably finished off a quart or so, but I'm feeling good and having fun. So is Andrea. She is animated and roaming around the cafeneon like a stand-up comedian, mostly because it's too painful for her to sit. One by one as it gets later the old men excuse themselves because they have to work early, before sunrise, until the only one left is Adonis.

"Don't you have a job?" I ask him.

He tells me to come to Pterounda tomorrow to see his job. He owns an olive-oil factory and they are preparing it for the harvest. I tell him I will be there. The door suddenly opens and one of the men drops a hedgehog in my lap. It's curled in a ball with only it's long fox-like nose showing. We go to take him home so we can show Amarandi in the morning. We stop to show Thanasis who pours a handful of salt on the poor creature's face."If you put salt on a skadjofiro, he cries", he says, but I don't see any tears, just a terrified hedgehog that now has salt on it's face. We take him home and put him in the courtyard, while we watch him from the house. When he is certain we are gone he uncurls himself and scurries around, exploring and looking for a way out. I think he's too big to fit under the gate but when I wake up to go to the bathroom a few hours later, he's gone.

Pamela and Andrea are going to paint today. My job is to occupy Amarandi. After yesterday I'm sure that Amarandi would rather be occupied by anybody else but me. To test the waters we go for breakfast. She's another person. I teach her that if she says Yassoo to people, they smile. She tries it once and it works. She is happy with the results and tries it on every old person who walks by, elliciting gigantic smiles on everyone as they say yassoo in return. She even eats all her eggs. Just as we are leaving, a gypsy woman and her child, a boy Amarandi's age walk into the cafeneon begging for food or money. The woman says yassoo back to Amarandi but does not smile. Amarandi wants to know why Gypsys don't smile back when you say yassoo to them, and we embark upon another dialogue about these mysterious people with such good ears. I tell her that maybe she is not happy because she is so poor. We continue the conversation on our way to Vatoussa where hopefully we can change some money at the post office. On the wa y we pass the gypsy families camp on the outskirts of Xidera. They have taken a clear plastic tarp and stretched over a corner where two stone walls meet, and layered the interior with blankets. Amarandi again tells me she wants to be a gypsy and live in a tent with lots of blankets.

The Vatoussa post office won't change our money so we have to drive all the way to Kaloni, Amarandi questioning me all the way. We pass through a huge black storm cloud on its way to Xidera and the western part of the island but it doesn't rain.

When we reach the peak of the mountain we look down upon a spectacular view of the bay of Kaloni. The clouds leave shadows that seem to be floating on the sea, while the sun reflects on the waves. We decend into the valley and then onto the busy streets of the town. The first bank is packed with people and we search for an alternative which we find down the street and is only half as full. We are able to change five-hundred dollars very quicky, buy an ice-cream, and get out of town in twenty minutes. We head towards the beach town of Skala Kaloni and wander the steets looking for a fish store so we can buy sardelles pastes for the old guys at the cafeneons in Xidera. I ask a woman for directions and she tells me that there are only fish trucks. Her husband is a fisherman and has not gone out in several days because of the weather. There is a very strong wind blowing on the bay and many of the fishing boats are missing from their berths, probably taken ashore for the winter. We go back to the Medusa restaurant where I tell the old woman that her sardelles from last week were delicious and then ask f she has any more. She sells me a kilo for a thousand drachma, and though I am not really hungry, we have lunch there anyway. Amarandi eats a whole plate of fried squid, while I eat something called agragarides, which translates to wild-shrimp, but look like small deep-fried lobster tails, except you eat the whole thing, shell included. We are joined by one of the village idiots, a shepherd who claims he has eight children. Another village idiot sits at the next table. The first is toothless, the second has only two that look like fangs, protruding from the side of his mouth. An old British man shows us pictures of his grandchildren and strikes up a conversation. It's his first time in Lesvos but he has been several times to Corfu. "Anywhere you go in Greece is the same", he tells me with a voice filled with authority. Yes, it's the same if you are in a beachside hotel where you spend two weeks basking in the sun with o ther tourists, eating souvlakia every night at the nearest restaurant and then going for drinks at the bar which is as Greek as your local pub in Dorset. Sure all Greece looks the same when seen from a resort which except for the menu and the help might as well be Acapulco, Nassau or Portugal. But for the most part, tourists don't want Greece. They want somewhere they can relax, swim, sun, drink, eat and maybe even get laid, and they want it to be cheap. The fact that it's Greece is irrelevant.

But he wasn't a bad guy, just a little naive, like many of his countrymen who swim in the great big murky shallow bay of Kaloni, unaware that beyond the mountains are beaches with clear blue waters that look like the travel brochure pictures that attracted them in the first place. In comparison this beach could be Blackpool on a good day.

Amarandi and I take a walk on the pier where a small ferry from Mytilini, the Erresos II is docked. We speak to the owner who tells us that once a week he goes to Turkey. Then he does a three day trip around the island, staying overnight in several places. They are stuck in Kaloni because with the wind blowing in through the straights they can't get out.

After stopping to buy some pom-pommed evzone shoes we get back in the car. I have promised Amarandi a trip to a playground and rather then a return to the sun baked one in Kaloni, we drive back to Vatoussa where it is shaded by giant pine trees. We pick up an old man hitching to Rhema and drop him off on the road to Vatoussa's upper village. Amarandi is confused, remembering the priest we picked up yesterday. "Why did he not look the same?" she asks me. I explain that this is a different man.

We had been discussing war. She had asked me what soldiers were for and I was trying to explain the concept, using her and her friend Natalie fighting over a toy as an example. When big people do it and there are alot of them, it's a war and then they get the soldiers to fight for them.

We arrive at the playground which happens to be next to the old church and the graveyard which we visit when she tires of the swings. I explain that there are bones under the marble slabs. Some of the graves have photos of the deceased and I tell her these are the people whose bones are in the vaults beneath our feet. There are three small buildings that are filled with boxes, each with the bones of the dead. I explain that in Greece, because there is not a lot of land, they only let people be buried for a few years. Then they dig them up and put them in boxes so someone else can be buried there. The doors to the church are locked but we find an entrance to the upper balcony where we are able to look down at the old icons and wall paintings. It's a beautiful old church made of wood and stone with murals on the ceiling. It must have been a marvel of it's time. Now they use the large cathedral in the center of the village.

"Why are the graveyards next to the church", Amarandi asks.

"Because they think that they will be close to God if they are next to a church".

"But God is everywhere." says Amarandi. Then she asks, "Is God even in Yew Nork?"

Andrea, Pam and Amarandi go visiting while I play hearts with my computer. When it gets dark I make my way to Avglaia's with my sardeles pastes. I split them up between her's and Thanasis cafeneon. She is surprised to see them on the counter when she comes back from the butcher shop with some lamb ribs, but she realizes where they came from and begins peeling and distributing them to the old guys. I cross the street and join the crowd at Thanassis and pretty soon Andrea and Amarandi come in. Thanassis explains to me that in December everyone picks their olives and takes them to Adonis' factory. Now I wish I had gone. He seemed kind of insulted that I had not shown up and since he will be doing his other job as a carpenter tomorrow, I am out of luck. We return to Avglaia's for dinner. I probably eat thirty sardeens and have about ten glasses of ouzo, but I'm feeling so great that I order a plate of goat. We discuss our big plans for Xidera. I tell the villagers about when we were in the tourist-trap town of Ba tsi on Andros and everywhere we saw these signs that said 'Come see the unspoiled village of Katarini and eat in it's very inexpensive taverna'. We had gone up there and though it was dark and we could not see how unspoiled the village was, the food was excellent, simple and cheap. I tell Avglaia that we can do the same for Xidera. I will drive around putting up posters in all the tourist towns and get some action happening here. "Already Thanasis is planning to change his cafeneon to a rock-club" I tell them.

I wake up at five in the morning and can't fall asleep. My soul feels tortured. I love it here, I love this life but I can't keep it up. If I drink anymore ouzo I will be ready for AA by the time I get back to the states. If it only gave me a hangover or made me feel somewhat shitty in the morning it would be easy to stop, but I awaken refreshed and praising the glory of sunshine, or rain or even nescafe. Pam wants us to help her with a list of things but I plan to tell Andrea that we need to leave for Athens tomorrow. There are things I have to do to prepare for my next trip here, not to mention friends I want to see. "I love Athens", I tell myself, but leaving Mytilini seems like some kind of sin against nature.

My thoughts are interupted by a strange noise in the yard. Someone or something is lurking out there. Some demon attracted by my mental anguish and confusion. I know that I am being watched, I can feel it's eyes penetrate me. I gather the courage it takes to peer out from under my blanket and face whatever it is that God or the devil have in store for me. It's the turkey from the garden next door. Every morning he apparently climbs up on the wall and takes a little walk around our courtyard which adjoins his. He's making a strange clucking sound like a one sylable gobble. I hear his feet walking across the frame of the metal gate. He must be close to Pamela's window. I wonder if she realizes that every morning this bird walks over and watches her sleep. Perhaps he is in love. I hear him making his return trip as his little feet clatter on metal again. Later when I emerge from the outhouse, I startle him while he is trying to look in from the roof. He gobbles and I gobble back. The excitement is enough so that I fall asleep finally.

Andrea agrees to leave. We replace the newly painted shutters and I organize the car. Saying goodbye is tough in Xidera. Today Thanasis cafeneon is full of old men. As we walk in to say goodbye, one at a time they stand up, shake our hands and wish us a good winter. It's a beautiful ceremony made all the more touching because as I look into the eyes of each old man, I don't know if he will make it through the harsh mountain winter. Everytime I visit there is someone I don't see. It's ridiculous to think that they moved away. They've died over the winter, and probably some of these nice old guys, many of whom I don't know their names, though they all know mine, will die. We say our family goodbyes and drive out of town. I begin thinking about Xidera, the old men, the cafeneons and Aglaia. Though they look like old men, they are children it heart. Most have never lived anywhere but the village, some have gone elsewhere but returned. They talk about simple things and when they smile you can still see the childre n in their eyes. Aglaia in her cafeneon, cooking food for them and serving ouzo and coffee is like the den mother and they are a bunch of cubscouts. The cafeneons are their club houses. There is no sign saying GIRLS KEEP OUT, because it's understood. It's a boys life, and these are little boys grown old. I should know. I'm one of them.