Travel Tales: The alleyway

The late Jan Wheatcroft

by Jan Wheatcroft

On the island of Samos, Greece, I lived in a small hovel of a house built into the old Orthodox Church and entered from a very thin alleyway. I walked along this cobblestone passage to throw my garbage into the sea, the only way to dispose of refuse at the time.   

I was preparing to go by a small fishing boat or kayiki to a neighboring island that was only reachable by local fishing boats. I, along with a few others, had been invited to a local wedding on the island and it was to be very traditional, with village folk dancing and the music made on the old instruments rarely seen any longer. All the old customs of visiting both the bride’s and groom’s homes to watch them publicly being dressed and prepared for the marriage were to be performed as well. My children were included in the invitation. We would stay there sleeping in the rough for a few days. 

As I returned from the tossing of the garbage, a neighbor, Kyria Eleni, stepped out of her door to invite me into her kitchen for a cup of Greek coffee. She was a widow, bent with age and a hard life, covered from head to toe in black clothing. I dipped my head to enter her small room and then sat and watched her make the coffee.

She took a small copper pot with a long handle and then poured enough water for just one cup, which she placed on a single burner heated by bottled gas. She added a scoop of powdered coffee grounds and two scoops of sugar and stirred the small pot until the mixture came to a boil. The pot was removed for a minute to let the bubbling settle down and then was placed on the fire for a second time and again brought to a boil. Then she poured in into a small cup and handed it to me. I drank it slowly, savoring its strength and its sweetness. Homemade coffee was always better than that from a cafe.

When I had finished, she took the cup from me and as I stood up to leave she said, “Sit. Sit quietly and I will read your fortune from the grounds.” I have always enjoyed having my coffee grounds read so I happily sat and tipped the cup upside down onto the saucer and let it rest. After a few moments, Kyria Eleni picked up the cup and studied the patterns that had formed. She smiled and said, “You will have visitors from America. They are coming to see you.” I smiled and thanked her both for the coffee and the fortune she had seen in my cup. However, I knew that no one was coming. Who did I know in the States who would visit me on my small island in Greece?

I gathered my boys and our bags and we went down to the harbor. We climbed onto the fishing boat and attended the wedding on the tiny island of Agathanisi, also known as the goat island. 

This small island is very dry and barren. The village is at the top, a good hard walk up. Small huts and fishing boats lined the simple harbor at the bottom. All our goats for Easter meals came from here as well as a great deal of good fish. We climbed up to the top to the only cafe on the island, which was being readied for the wedding festivities. Suddenly someone called my name and shouted that I had a phone call.

The cafe had the only phone on the island and I was surprised that someone was calling me. It was my neighbor Eftihula, calling to tell me that my cousin Patty and her new husband had just arrived and were looking for me. The coffee grounds had told the truth. Eftihula arranged for them to come to the island on another fishing boat. They would arrive in time for the wedding. 

We walked to both the groom’s house and the bride’s house to watch each of them being dressed by family members and friends. Each stood passively as they were clothed in island finery, and then money was tossed onto the beds for good luck and prosperity in beginning of their new life together. The boat arrived and Patty and her new husband Alan had arrived in time to participate in the wedding festivities.

In the church, the bride and groom were walked around with double crowns held over their heads, and large candles were burned. It seemed very fitting that my cousins had just said their vows and now they were able to celebrate at a local Greek wedding.

Afterwards, everyone walked the few steps to the cafe where the villagers had prepared wonderful food to share and each guest was given a small bag of sugared almonds as a gift to remember the day. The musicians played their traditional stringed instruments and dancing went on late into the night. 

I asked Patty why she hadn’t let me know she was coming. She said she had sent me a letter but I had never received it. It didn’t matter. Everyone was made welcome, beds were found, food was abundant and swimming was right in front of us for all the days we celebrated and rested. For them, it was a special way to begin a honeymoon, one they have always remembered.


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