Flying backwards for a moment

by Jan Wheatcroft

I just received a treasured birthday present from my younger son. He transferred all my old Greek cassette tapes that I could no longer play onto DVDs and sent them to me.

I lived on the island of Samos in the ‘70s. This was the music I listened to in the tavernas at the bouzouki evenings when we danced and partied. These were the songs that poured out of cars and trucks as they passed through the villages. This was what I listened to on my tape deck in my small house. I consider those years as my years of passionate living. Everything I did seemed to be with great highs and lows. And now, listening to these wondrous tapes brings back the memories and feelings in great waves. 

During this time, I lived with my two sons in a small, very old house that was originally built for the Greek families who were thrown out of Turkey (visible from our Samos harbor). We had one room that held two cots for the boys, two tables and chairs for them to work at, and room for them to build with their Legos and play with their friends.

My boys went to the local Greek school. I taught English, painted signs in English for the tourists who were just beginning to come to Greece in greater numbers and did my tapestry weavings, which I sold to many of those same tourists. The boys spoke great Greek and I learned enough “street Greek” to be able to communicate. Every afternoon, we did English lessons and they worked on their extensive Greek homework. 

Now we are getting close to the Easter celebration. Greek or Orthodox Easter is often at a different time than Catholic Easter. This year it is later. Listening to this music, I can see the women whitewashing the stone walls and sides of the houses so that the streets almost glow with the clean whiteness.

In those days, most people gave up many of the regular foods for Lent and a lot of grains and beans were eaten. Every family took part in the preparations at the church and in the homes, cleaning and scrubbing everything, arranging flowers and preparing for the parading of Christ through the village.

Of course, the highlight was midnight when the priest announced that Christ has risen. Bells rang and boys threw the small bombs they had carefully made onto the freshly whitewashed walls leaving their Easter marks. Then came the eating, drinking, partying and dancing as well as the roasting of the lamb or goat. Village celebration was really the best and many city-dwellers returned to their home villages to celebrate with family. These are some of the memories that began to return as I listened to my Greek music.

I find that I can still understand a lot of the words and their meanings. The songs I loved then are mostly about love, sadness and pathos and are sung by husky-voiced women and silken-voiced men. They are romantic and I remember why I loved living there. I loved living on an island—a piece of land totally surrounded by water and a bit isolated from the rest of the world. To get off the island was a project. Our island had an airport and one could fly back to Athens, but the cost for the three of us was high. There were ferry boats with many stops along the route and often very rough seas, making the journey rather unpleasant.  However, a calm sailing could be relaxing and wonderful. Each island had its own personality, flora, fauna, traditions, foods and recipes. I found that each island held its natural prejudices of “them” versus “us.”

“They are thieves,” it was said of those from the neighboring island Ikaria and we were told to watch out for our possessions on the ferries. But there was comfort in being swaddled in the protective world of one’s home island. We were known to the islanders of our village and cared about. People shared everything with us—food, stories, invitations and their time. I became familiar with the personality and the life that awaited me each time I moved to visit or stay on different islands.

My greatest passion came from the music and the dancing. Greeks put themselves totally into the activities they are involved in and their happiest times are during the celebrations, feasting and dances. In the days I lived on Samos, we would go up to the dance taverna where there was a big, cement area surrounded by tables. At one end was the stage where the bouzuki (similar to a mandolin) players sat and played. A singer would join the group and sing sultry songs.

Sometimes a dancer danced the sexy, gypsy-like dances that made the men shout. Dances were paid for by someone in a group and only the people from that group were invited to join in. Many a fight would start if an outsider tried to participate.

To add to the passion, people threw their plates, bottles and glasses as the emotion rose, and young boys rushed out to sweep up the broken glass. But still the dancing continued. I loved these dances—the passion, the emotion—and often I just let go and swayed along with my friends when it was our turn to dance. I can visualize that time so clearly as I listen to Marienella singing about “today and tomorrow” in her husky tones. This was a time to lose oneself to the music and the movement.

Times have changed now and only cheap plaster of paris plates are used, sold to those who have a desire to break. For me, the spontaneous and passionate flinging of a plate one has just eaten from is far more “real” and exciting. 

I have seven DVDs that I can listen to as I remember those wonderful days of more freedom and passion than I have ever felt, either before or after. The later years when I returned to Greece each summer and stayed on the islands of Skyros and Skopelos were happy and wonderful times. However, there is nothing like the first awakening of a life that is so different and rich and becoming immersed in the total experience of a different type of life.

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