The Village

So this is Greece and this is my village. I want to introduce you to some of the people here and explain a little about our life. A fishing village in Greece is the dream of urban people everywhere, supposedly timeless and unchanged, as if these were desirable qualities.
Traditional dress for the name day of a local church.

    Maybe such places exist, but only in the barren dreams of people made impotent by the thirst for money, youth and success. We are not like that here. Maybe we are unique, but I feel that we are real,that we have found something about the possibility of living in harmony with a difficult landscape in a difficult world.
    I have tried to portray our community as it comes to terms with change and deals with the burden of history. Wherever possible I have tried to allow the people to speak for themselves. If there are mistakes in style, or in substance, then the mistakes are mine, for I am restricted in technique and running out of time
    The visitors' perception of our village is limited. To them it is always hot and always sunny. The smarter ones recognise that it is nearly always windy too, but not much more. Those of us that live here have to be more observant. We have to travel by boat so we care if the wind is north or northwest, or even north northwest. We know it is often calmer in the morning than in the afternoon when the weather comes from the south and that, when it is from the north, there is often a lull around dusk. We inform our neighbours and ask for advice before we set off on a long journey by sea. We do this because our weather can change in half an hour and we know that if something goes wrong then someone from the village will look for us if they know where to look.
    In the winter, if we are lucky, it will rain. If we are very lucky it will rain early and several times. Then we say that the rains are useful and we know that our crops will grow and there will be green across the island throughout the year. Two crops are particularly affected by rain: wheat and olives. In many years the winter rains are so poor that nobody plants wheat at all. A whole cycle of traditions are held in abeyance; the ploughing, the sowing, the reaping and the separating of the wheat from the chaff. Of course, the flour made from our own wheat and ground in our own windmills makes the bread baked in our ovens that much tastier.

The Village fountain. Designed by the villagers themselves, its painted ceramic tiles show scenes from life now and in the past.

    Each of the stages of growing and harvesting, processing and baking is accompanied by its own traditions, with its own songs and words. Many of these words and traditions are known only to the women and it is always with great pleasure that we see young girls learning from their mother, grandmother and sometimes, sitting in the shade of the oven, learning from their great grandmother too. Good winter rains bring us good harvests and at the same time our culture and our knowledge of the old ways springs up from the soil anew.     If it rains in late October or early November we are especially pleased because the rain cleans the olives before we pick them and that makes life easier. Our olives are small and bitter, but they make fine olive oil and we produce soap too. Some olive trees have their own names. We know when they were planted and we know which of our forebears planted them and we talk to them as we pass by. When we had the big fire and the pine forests and olive groves burnt, we had problems with women who went into the fields clinging to loved trees that were doomed. We had to drag them screaming and weeping back to the village. We did not lose any women, but we did lose many olive trees. Over the years we have planted them again. A sign of renewal and hope and a wish for subsidies from the European Union.
    Through the winter we are fearful of the Sirocco, the south wind that can do so much damage to our boats and even to the houses in the village. Many times we have sat in the cafe watching a storm when a big wave has come over the mole, over the beach and the road and dumped water, sand, stones and muck right among us. We lift up our feet as the water swirls under the benches and tables and then it subsides and Anna comes, waving her broom and shouting at us for being so stupid and at the sea for being so evil. It doesn't take long to brush away the stones and at least the toilets get cleaned. Winter here can be cold; not every day, but for days on end.     Our houses are cold too. Not many of the new ones have chimneys and concrete is not as good an insulator as limestone or slate. When the sun shines the women sit outside and the men fight in the cafeneion for the next sunny spot, otherwise doors are closed and the village too. Much work is done in the winter; building, carpentry and farming too, but there are not so many of us here to do the work. Much of the village is empty, as our children go to school, or to university, and their families follow them to the south of the island or to Rhodes or Piraeus, or maybe to the United States. Grand parents and great grand parents follow too and visit hospitals and old friends in far away places. I have never been to Baltimore, but it must be strange to the people there that Greek restaurants open in the winter and close in the summer so that their owners and their families can come here to swim and fish and have fun.
    Springtime can be the best season. The sun starts to warm our backs in the fields as early as February and within a few weeks our fields and mountains are filled with flowers; green leaves appear and herbs as well. There are red poppies and white neragoula and narcissi too and those of us who walk in the forests marvel at the tiny bee orchid, its flowers mimicking the bumblebee to attract pollinators. Migrant birds appear; the small passerines, beeeaters and rollers, hoopoes and birds of prey. From the cliff tops it is possible to see eagles pass by; beating a passage over the sea, heading north against the wind, flying close to the waves to give them lift.
     Booted eagles, short toed eagles, golden eagles come to join our resident Bonelli's. We see black kites and longlegged buzzards and once, huge and beautiful, an eagle owl heading north to the Russian steppes. Cuckoos pass by and swallows, swifts, alpine and pallid, and then we wait for the first tourists. These always catch us by surprise. The rooms have not been cleaned since October, the sheets are not washed, we have only half painted the house and of course the rubbish brought by the winter storms has not been cleared from the beach.     But we are glad to see tourists; they bring laughter and fun and sit in our cafe and our restaurants and we renew old friendships and start new ones. Springtime is a season of change for us.      

Springtime can be the best season.
The sun starts to warm our backs
in the fields as early as February

By mid May the last Sirocco has ceased to blow and the summer wind, the Meltemi, is blowing strong from the north. The artichokes are ripe by now and the beehives double in population every week or two. But it can be hot, far too hot. So we work in the early morning, when the sun is not strong and the tourists still asleep and the women bake bread at five in the morning and their low voices mix with wood smoke as we sleep on roofs and balconies.
    The summer wind is always from the north and it never rains, but you will not see us working in the fields. There is some activity however on the mountains around Avlona or in Saria, as bee hives are moved to catch the thyme as it blooms. A good season will bring reward and in this part of the island more than ten tonnes of honey is produced and tourists can buy the real thing rather than the cheaper varieties imported from Crete, or Denmark, or China. In the cafeneion Anna will advise on the coolest place to sit and where to catch a cooling breeze. But by August there is no room for any of us in the cafeneion as the village is full of visitors; Italians and French and Germans too, as well as our own people returned from exile. So the hotels are full and most of the houses are occupied and doors and windows that have been closed for months, or even years, are open once again. Lights are on at night all over the village and there is a smell of mothballs and sun tan lotion. Guitars are played on the beach until the early morning and it could be anywhere but here. So the people, who come for something unique, find only something recognisable all over the world a holiday atmosphere. Perhaps they are satisfied.
    No matter, this time passes quickly and by the middle of September the crowds have gone and the restaurant owners are pleased to see you and we can go diving without being followed by a flotilla of Italians hoping for us to lead them to the big fish. And now there are kingfishers, a pair on each bay, speeding back and forth exactly half a metre above the sea. They sit on rocks and dive, neatly to seize atherinos, the little fish that cling to our shores in late summer. Where kingfishers come from and where they go I do not know. I have asked ornithologists and they cannot tell me. I have never seen a nest, but I think they breed here, late, in the rocks and in the cliffs. Soon they are gone too and the passerines pass by at night, hunted and harried by Eleanora's falcons as they hug the coast heading for Africa. The swallows head south in late September and October and then the eagles and falcons arrive in Saria and seek ever more powerful thermals. They go higher and higher until they can see the weather to Crete and even Africa and then they are gone. Herons and egrets stay for a while, then one late evening, or on a bright night, we see the silhouettes of skeins of birds going south and summer is gone.
    We are back to autumn again and peace in the village, but the olives need to be picked and crops planted and there are ripe figs to be gathered and so much fruit. We need to fish to fill the freezers, for the winter storms will come again from the south and deprive us of sea bream and silver bream and red and grey mullet, palamida and tuna. And of course we must fix that room and paint the house to be ready for next season.
    As for me, the time I like best is the onset of winter. Sometimes, when the rains come, it is still warm enough to sit on my balcony at night, in the dark and listen to the drops singing on the roofs outside and smell the freshness of the pine forest, a glass of whisky in my hand and a head full of memories. Or it can be cold and windy and then it's time to go to Anna's and squeeze through the door and sit inside and watch the men playing cards, or tavli. An ouzo is called for now and I listen to the shouts of the men and the storm outside and watch moisture trickle down a windowpane. Then I know that I am really in the first chapter of a fine novel by Kazantzakis and I am glad.