When I awoke today I knew it was winter at last.
The mountains pressed close to the little island and the colours had seeped out of the landscape, only the brilliant shades of the bougainvillea still held the vibrancy of summer.
I walked down the old coast road to the supermarket. Once the main road to Neorion, it is now little more than a donkey track, and weaves reassuringly between some of the old stone houses of Poros now more and more frequently interspersed with the new breezeblock apartment buildings.
Still, it was easy to lose myself in the past as the first wood fires of winter threw their smoke into the sky and the new crop of oranges and lemons bobbed in the breeze.
The fig trees, much loved in the summer for their leafy shade now stand awkward and redundant, soon to drop their leaves and become stark statues in the winter landscape – but only until one day when the first green shoots can be seen on the branches, bringing the messages of spring and the promise of summer to come.
There are few people about today, no sign of Eleni on the balcony of the hotel, though the door is open so she can’t be far away. One shout and she would appear, eyes sparkling with laughter and curiosity. But I am in a hurry and don’t call out for we have the whole winter for the chats and the gossip which make up such a large part of the island life.
The supermarket is busy and hums with the bits and pieces of conversation half heard coming from behind the fruit juices. I slip easily into Greek, forgetting the earlier agonies of trying to remember the word for cheese and then not daring to ask for some because I had no idea how many grams I wanted. Now though, there is even time for a joke before I slip out and head for home. Gina meets me by the little church and insists on escorting me back. She is a tiny blob of a dog belonging to my Albanian neighbours and she has a personality way in excess of her size.
I call her the ‘levitating ball of fluff’ for she leaps very high from virtually a standing position and with her coat brushed she is almost as wide as she is long. Her daily visits result in the rugs and furniture flying, for she has limitless energy and closely resembles a whirling dervish.
Today she is in one of her more responsible moods as she escorts me safely to the bottom of my mountain. And then, suddenly I have the answer to the problem I have been considering all morning, the problem that precipitated the walk to the supermarket. Where shall I start this Odyssey of island life, my very own Iliad? Of course, I must begin at the end, well an ending anyhow. I must start with a leaving!
You can depart from Poros in many ways but most of our visitors prefer to do it by boat, leaving the faster Flying Dolphins to the people who live here and are anxious to reach their destination, knowing that they will soon be back. But some people do not know if they will ever be back and so it is best to leave slowly, savouring the last sight of this magical little island. You stand there watching the cubic houses of the old town slowly merge into a picture from a child’s colouring book. The blue dome on top of the clock tower stands out like a beacon as it gets smaller and smaller, and it seems as though there is a cord tying you to the place, a cord which stretches as the boat moves away, faster and faster now, tearing you from friends and memories and dreams. And something else, but what? A sense of belonging perhaps? Familiar places pass, the pretty bay of Neorion, with the bus trundling down the hill to the local tavernas where newly made friends still sit drinking coffee or beer for they are not leaving yet. Love Bay, so aptly named (!) and Russian Bay with the little island of Daskalion sitting low in the bay, its tiny church a brilliant white against the blue of the sea. Next comes the point light, sleeping soundly in the hot sun whilst a friendly herd of goats cluster round its base for company.
And now… but something is happening for the boat is turning and within seconds Poros has gone and the cord snaps. You stand looking back in disbelief. Was it ever really there, this fantasy island in the Saronic Gulf? Well, if you never come back you will never be completely sure!
Almost without thinking now you find yourself moving away from the back of the boat, into the bar maybe with its noisy computer games and that throb of Greek conversation which never seems to stop. Or perhaps you just move to the side of the boat and watch the dotted villages of the mainland slide away. Certainly by the time you reach Methana your mood will have changed and you will have started to think about the rest of your journey home.
‘Home’ – such an emotive word.
Is it really just the place where your heart is? I think not. Home is also the place where you understand the culture, the traditions, the history and, of course, at least something of the language. I have lived in Greece for quite a number of years now and somewhere during those years it has begun to feel like home. The first ‘leaving’ was terrible but the first ‘return’ – well, that was something else.
The excitement really starts to build once you are safely aboard the boat in Piraeus.
I suppose the Flying Dolphins are better for your return, for you have been suffering a form of impatience to be there that they are most able to satisfy, but we left on the boat so let us return that way.
As the clock ticks onto the hour you hear the rumble of the engines and the slight vibration as they settle into a rhythm and almost imperceptibly you slip away from the quay leaving the other ferries behind teasing you with their images of Crete and Santorini and Mykonos.
The Pappastratos sign provides a familiar landmark until that too slowly fades and you are leaving the hustle, bustle and noise of the big city behind. Ahead lies the open sea, foreground the huge oil tankers framed by the hills of Salamis.
Then they too disappear and you find yourself looking ahead of the boat towards the outline of Aegina already visible on the horizon. Aegina, the home of the Temple of Aphaia, and Aghios Nectarios and Pistachio nuts. Well, we’ll visit Aegina later.
Now there is just the image of the tiny white church on the harbour front and the remains of the Temple to Apollo, no time to see any more, for the Greek boats only stay in harbour long enough to set down and pick up passengers and cars in a heady mixture of shouting and engine revs. What seems at first glance to be chaos quickly resolves itself into a highly efficient operation and we are soon on our way to Methana.
It is not unusual to find entertainers or raffle ticket sellers on a Greek ferryboat, together of course, with the ubiquitous seller of lottery tickets and instant success. So sit back now and enjoy the music or the patter of the raffle ticket seller – the Greeks will. And before long, the faint smell of sulphur tells you that you are nearing the spa town of Methana with its healing waters and its’ (hopefully) dead volcano.
And the excitement is really mounting now, next stop Poros, and you will be back, back on the little island whose images have haunted you the whole time you’ve been away. The Poriotes say that once you have been here you will always come back and here you are! First the headland light, the ever- present goats grazing peacefully at its foot.
Then the tension mounts unbearably for the boat starts to turn and for a split second there is the thought that the island will not be there, waiting, as you have imagined a thousand times. Perhaps after all it was just a dream. But no, slowly but surely the pyramid of the old town builds before your eyes and the blue dome of the clock tower stands out against the back drop of the mountains. Time seems to hang suspended for a moment and then picks up speed. Russian Bay, Love Bay, Neorion, all flash by until the loud speaker warns you that you must be ready to disembark.
You plunge into the shadowy depths of the hold, claim your luggage and stand with the other returning pilgrims as the door drops down revealing a close up of the harbour front before it crashes down into the quay and you are there. Kalos oriste. Welcome to Poros!
What follows is a highly personal, totally biased glimpse of a small Greek island, its people and its way of life – with occasional forays into the highways and byways of Greece itself.
On Understanding Greece.
I have always said that Greece is like an artichoke – you pull off one leaf and there is another, and so you go on, round and round, until you reach the heart. Or do you?
Well, sitting this morning in one of the harbour cafenion I saw no reason to change my opinion. It was the first warm day of what may well turn out to be the summer, and the first tourists, totally unsurprised by the heat, were striding around, their little white legs and bare arms already showing signs of early sunburn. The islanders of course were still wrapped in their layers of winter clothing or hiding in the shade, already complaining of the sun.
I listened to the intrigues of the market traders chattering on around my ears, providing a fascinating background of sound to the coming and goings of the shoppers and the tourists.
Occasionally a half sentence raised itself above the general cacophony of sound, hinting at darker political intrigues or the rumour of someone’s downfall on the Chrimatisteria ……the Greek stock market.
Given Greece’s history, and especially that of the last 100 years, it is hardly surprising that there is a sub text to many an ordinary conversation, whilst often even the mouths remain shut, a slight movement of the head or an arm can communicate a wealth of information to the perceptive eye.
Look at the recent history of Greece from the time of the Turkish occupation, through the Second World War and the ensuing civil war and you begin to realise how survival itself often rested on these talents. And along side all that went the need to slip into the shadows, under no circumstances could you afford to draw attention to yourself, for to stand out from the crowd could result only too often in torture or death, or both. Even now many of the older generation run from a confrontation and seem threatened by the slightest argument.
Not so the majority, however, to whom argument is the stuff of daily life. I suppose not all arguments are about politics, though it often seems that way, and I certainly think the one I witnessed one particular warm summer afternoon had more to do with politics than anything else, but my Greek was not good enough to be sure.
I think it was around six in the evening and I was up in Poros town, but about to set off for Askeli to shower and change. As I entered the little main square I saw the one bus just leaving and I decided to take the water taxi instead. I leapt into the half full boat that I thought was about to leave. But once seated I became aware that it’s owner was some way down the line of boats and involved in an argument which was becoming noisier by the minute. There were signs of impatience amongst the waiting Greeks and one or two shouted down the line for our owner to hurry up. Reluctantly he left his adversary and moved back towards the boat, only to turn round and continue the argument yet again. There were more complaints from our boat and it’s owner returned, but just as he bent to start the engine, some insult from the harbour front sent him running back. One by one the Greeks started to leave quickly now until only I and a couple of tourists remained, loyally sitting there. Eventually I too gave up the ghost and set off to walk.

Later that evening, showered and changed I returned to Poros Town to eat. It must have been around eleven thirty when I re – entered the main square intent on returning to my bed when I heard an all too familiar sound. The same boat from early evening sat, half full of weary tourists whilst it’s owner stalked back and forth; the same adversary shouting back down the line. I shrugged and walked to the waiting bus, there are some arguments you simply cannot win.
Only twice have I ever attempted to enter into a political discussion here and I have promised myself I will never do it again; not because of fear for my own sanity but because of the quite awful furore it produced between the people around me.
Not for nothing was alcohol banned on the night of the final speeches before an election --- and that was until only a few years ago. Of course like most things in Greece, this never presented a major problem and if you sat in a cafenion, the white wine appeared in the water jugs, the beer in the coffee pots and the whiskey in the tea cups.
I don’t suppose any of the local police were fooled but, provided everyone behaved themselves, they were prepared to turn a blind eye. After all livings had to be earned and on a night, often in winter, when almost all the local people were down in the main square the opportunity to earn a little extra cash was too good to miss.
Election speeches here rouse powerful passions, and a debate that rumbles round the packed tables of the cafenia.
The candidates are mostly listened to with respect, but later the blood rises and to have been sitting at the wrong café table can cause problems and a serious argument. Politics are a part of the lifeblood of island life, together of course with sex, football and the weather.
You can hear the discussions echoing around and around the centre square, though it is often unclear which particular subject is arousing the passions, for the same vocabulary seemingly works for all topics.
It is easy to find yourself sitting amongst a group of Greeks listening to a conversation about the previous evening meal, only to find, when you venture some comment on a particular succulent steak, that the entire dinner table has exploded with laughter. In retrospect it is easy to guess why, but when your Greek is still somewhat hesitant then the potential for deep embarrassment is unlimited.
As you can see, the hazards of social conversation at a Greek dinner table are limitless …… though you may just have pulled off another leaf from that artichoke.










 
Poros.The week of Kreatini. [Meat Week]
The second week of Carnival here in Greece is called Meat week because its’ Sunday is the last day on which meat can be eaten before the Easter Fast. But we decided not to wait for the very last minute and set out to enjoy ourselves on the Saturday. Giogios, our Dance teacher had asked Sue, Andy and I if we wanted to go out after the class with he and his girl friend. Of course we took little persuading and 22.00 hrs. found us climbing the old streets of Poros to what used to be Drougha’s and is now run by Theo but in much the same traditional way. Inside is still the same huge log fire and the food seems still to consist of what was freshest in the market that day. We had Fava and Beetroot salad with a pungent Garlic sauce. Of course there was the ever- present Greek salad, and Gigantes and finally a huge platter of lamb chops cooked on the open fire and suitably singed. It was delicious, the wine too, fresh from the barrel and lightly chilled in the cold night air. It all slipped down easily and, together with the excellent company quickly produced the Kefi that is an essential part of all Greek celebrations. So it wasn’t long before the dancing started and George was shouted to his feet. He danced beautifully and people were still calling ‘Bravo’ when the music for the Hasapiko started and Giorgios pulled Sue and I to our feet. With George’s guiding hand on our shoulders and a few whispered instructions to help we danced well, and people’s faces were a picture as we walked back to our table, I loved it all!
By this time we were chatting to the people at the next table. They were not from Poros but lived in the mountain village of Arachova near Delphi and were here for the weekend only. But it was one of those evenings when people instantly become friends for life and so we all went off to one of the harbour bars to continue the evening there. A bottle of champagne was bought to celebrate the dancing and we were invited to Arachova anytime. Of course we all vowed we would go and Giogios and I said we would dance to seal the promise but the music was never right and the disco took over. Heaven knows what time it was when I finally walked along the icy harbour front, a half moon throwing sharper shadows than the street lamps, but just as I was beginning to think longingly of a warm bed a friend drove past in his car and delivered me safely to my door. It had been another of those memorable Poros evenings and I was only glad that I had been there to enjoy it.
Poros. April. I know it’s the 30th. April today because tomorrow is the 1st. May and I must make my wreath of flowers. I have made the base, rather successfully, though I say it myself, and tomorrow I must go and collect the flowers. We are just about recovered from Easter when, as usual, rather too much food was eaten and far too much wine drunk. This year I was invited up to a friend’s house….well, farm, in a valley right on the top of Kalavria. The views are stunning up there, it’s on the way to the temple, and on a clear day you can see as far as Athens and just about make out the Parthenon. The house is old, quite simple, with odd bits added on from time to time, and it is all smothered in vines and bougainvillea and looks romantic blending in with the background of pine trees and eucalyptus. It was a beautiful day and the food and the wine tasted amazingly good out in the warm sunshine. Greek music came pouring out of the T.V. and in the short breaks for adverts you could hear other music played loudly at various homes across the valley.
It’s difficult to go far without hearing music on this island and after a while it seems to enter into your blood stream and become part of you. When you reach somewhere it hasn’t penetrated the silence is awesome until you become aware of other sounds, the sighing of the wind, the singing of a single bird or someone far away exchanging a piece of gossip with their neighbour. Sounds travel for miles here and often come at you from odd angles.
So lunch was noisy and full of chatter too, until finally this slowed down and the food stopped coming and the wine glasses stood half full and unwanted on the table. Someone was going back down the mountain with a car so I said my goodbyes and thank you’s and begged a lift back. The sounds of other people’s Easters drifted across to us and several times we caught a glimpse of people dancing, but the kefi was going out of the day and siestas were beckoning. I slid into one of those deep, dreamless sleeps which are an essential part of Mediterranean life and enable you to bounce up an hour and a half later ready for whatever the world has next on offer. Today was no exception and mid evening found me down in Poros town sitting in a cafenion in the main square watching several friends less restored than I, endeavouring to start on the night’s celebrations.




















Poros. Summer.
It was Magda’s idea to go to Sirocco for the Bouzouki. We had been out to dinner and were sitting having a late night drink when a friend of hers passed by and told her it was the last night of the summer up there. So we finished our drinks and set off along the harbour front, round the headland and finally up the steep, white steps into the open-air nightclub.
A hundred memories of other summer evenings briefly flooded my mind but then the music reached down to take us high into the night sky and hint at the evening ahead. It was only 1.00am and early by bouzouki standards but there was already enough atmosphere to hold us and make us glad we had come. I think, between us, we knew everyone there.
The kefi was good, but only just beginning to move up to that level which is necessary for a really great evening, so we settled at the bar with a drink and sat exchanging greetings with new arrivals and generally doing our best to help the atmosphere along. It really wasn’t long before one of the girls got up to dance the Sheftalia. She was from one of the villages high up the mountain and was with an older man who obviously adored her. She danced beautifully, every movement controlled by the music and she was loudly applauded when she sat down, her companion escorting her to her seat watching, warily, for covetous glances from the younger men in the room. After that the pace of the evening quickened. Some of our best dances were there that night and the energy seemed to spin from one to another. Tassos, Yiannis, Takis, Vangelis, and finally Theo, who almost ran into the other dancers as the kefi soared. Theo is a self-taught musician who writes his own songs and almost lives for music. He danced divinely, taking over the room, applauded and encouraged by the other dancers. We sat on our bar stools forgetting the discomfort of the metal fames and as Theo flew we flew too. Then I became aware of Magda pulling at my arm. “Anna” She said. “Come, its time to go.” I looked across the rapidly emptying bar and then peered at my watch. It was 5.30am and already the glow of dawn was creeping across the night sky over Askeli bay. Someone, if not us, had danced all night!
Poros. 28th Oct.
It was Oxi Day today……the day the Greeks said ‘No’ to the Italians and sided with the Allies in W.W.2. At the first Italian invasion a relatively small group of Greeks, badly armed, single-handedly forced the Italians back over the Albanian border, only to face another, more determined invasion in the depths of a terrible winter. Many died fighting bravely, until they were slowly left with no choice but to flee to the mountains and continue fighting as Partisans. Today is to honour these men and all the others who have died fighting for Greece, and in a way it is like the British Remembrance Day, though there are no red poppies. There are ceremonies all over Greece, some more like a Military Parade, others, as here on Poros, simpler but equally moving. I always try very hard to attend for it is a big day here in Greece, but, more importantly, the men who died, died for my future too, and that of my family and friends. So this morning the bare feet of summer were forced into shoes and the T-shirt and jeans replaced with something more respectable and I joined family groups and excited children, all heading for our main square and the War Memorial there. This year I sat with Andreas and Maria in one of the Harbour cafes surrounded by friends and familiar faces. Then, as the ceremony started I remembered another year. It had been hot then, too, and I stood with Takis and Georgia, watching Leda as she marched past carrying the Greek flag. It was a solemn and moving moment but, as we kept the two- minute silence, the mid morning ferry boat pulled into the harbour immediately behind the line of Dignitaries and I knew it was going to hoot. With something approaching horror, I felt the laughter rise up inside me until my stomach was in knots and my suitably respectable face in danger of splitting into a wide grin. Then I looked up onto the prow of the ship, and there, standing so proudly to attention was a little old man, a small Greek flag in his hand. The laughter turned to tears and they streamed down my face. As so often in this country, tragedy and comedy walked side by side.










 


E X C E R P T S
F R O M . “ C O M I N G . S L O W L Y ”

B y . A n n e . I b b o t s o n

Copyright Anne Ibbotson 2003 all rights reserved

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