The power of place

by Jan Wheatcroft

I have moved house, city and country quite a few
times. Some of the places I have lived in have made
a big impression for various reasons such as weather,
activities in the area and the person or people I was with
at the time. However, one country had the power to give
me intense joy and influence my life and that country
was Greece. Actually, it wasn’t the country of Greece but
a few of the islands of Greece that made such an impression.
My first introduction to Greek island living came from
reading Lawrence Durrell’s accounts of his life on the islands
of Corfu, Rhodes and Cyprus. I was swept away by
his intense feelings and his description of island life but
those years had passed by the time I arrived in Greece.
Then I read his brother Gerald Durrell’s account of growing
up on Corfu and even if exaggerated, sounded delightful.
In 1973, I was traveling with my husband and 2 young
sons throughout Europe visiting family and friends and
driving in our orange VW bus. My sons were 4-and-ahalf
years old and 8 months. We arrived in Bremerhaven,
Germany to visit friends, drove to Gothenburg, Sweden
for more friends, and then took a boat to England to visit
relatives and then over to France and over to Italy. The
plan had been to slowly wend our way to Sicily for the
winter warmth. However, my husband made a wrong
turn and refused to stop and ask for directions so we
found ourselves in a different direction and eventually
ended up in northern Greece.
Since we wanted to pass the winter in the warmest
place we could find, we decided to take a boat to Crete
and we spent many months there. That, I think, was the
beginning of my Greek island love affair. In the beginning
we lived in the town of Agios Nikolaos, which had
the most perfectly shaped harbor, which would influence
my choice of islands forever. Later, we moved to the
south side of the island to the town of Irrapetra, which at
that time had no harbor; the boats were pulled up onto the
sand after each fishing trip.
Having 2 small children influenced our lives, but we
were free to do and see what we liked at our own speed.
We met a few other ex-pat families traveling in vans and
camping out on the beach, unlike our stay in a rented
apartment where I could cook. I loved our Greek stay. I
loved meeting the fishermen, the cafe life, the winter sun
and the harbor life of fish and boats. I loved the men on
donkeys selling their produce and being recognized and
greeted as I wandered around the town on daily walks. I
loved learning a smattering of Greek, however, my husband
and I were not getting along and he left in the VW
for Italy. The children and I stayed a bit longer. We all
met up at our friend’s house in Switzerland and eventually
returned to New York where my husband found a
job and we lived for 2 years.
I pined for Greece and the islands and, after 2 years,
we returned, hoping that it would make a positive difference
in our lives. From the deck of a fishing boat, we
sailed from the island of Lesbos until we neared the island
of Samos where a group of dolphins led us to the
harbor. I knew I had found my island.
The marriage didn’t last but the children and I stayed.
This was 1976 and Greek island life was just emerging.
Samos had a few hotels but we went to a small town,
Pythagorion, which had only one hotel. We rented 2
rooms overlooking the harbor. This was another perfect
harbor, originally named Tigani or “frying pan” due to
its round shape. A few cafes and restaurants were open
around it edges where the men sat and chatted and
clicked their worry beads and the fishing boats came
back in the early morning to unload their fish. People
crowded around to inspect the catch, women to buy for
their meals and cats for the scraps. There was shouting
and laughter and life moved slowly but predictably.
There was a daily rhythm and a seasonal rhythm and we
became a part of it. The children played with the local
children, who welcomed them.They quickly learned
Greek. I sat in the Zacharoplasto (sweet shop) and forced
myself to learn as much as I could using an old Greek
When school began my boys went along with the other
children. We bought our bread from the forno (ovens)
daily and were given eggs by black-dressed old ladies
who watched over the children keeping the “evil eye” off
of them. I bought my fruits and vegetables in season from
the men on the donkeys. I went off with the local women
to collect horta (wild greens) in the mountains and fields,
and clams where the sweet water met the sea. I learned to
sit with the women and cut up old clothes into strips, roll
them into balls and take them to the weaver in the next
town to be made into rag rugs. We gathered olives and I
learned how to cure them for the winter. I sat and listened
to the local gossip, jumped off the rocks into the sea with
the children to swim, and watched as they caught octopus
and sea urchin to share with the swimmers. Thus I lived
a Greek life as much as possible.
Island life is different than life on the mainland, even
if it is all Greece. The island isolated us, we lived in our
own space and had to give thought as to the weather in
order to go back and forth to the mainland. At that time
our existence was a line of rocks bordered by the sea.
Life was far more simple, and intense.
We often danced wonderful Greek dances, into the
wee hours of the morning, as we were toasted by other
dancers with wine, beer and the breaking of plates—real
plates, glasses and bottles, not the plaster ones used today.
There was fire in those dances. My heart was opened and
my senses were overjoyed. My life felt simple and earthy.
The boys and I settled down into the rhythm of daily existence.
They studied hard, played and roamed the village
with their friends, carefully watched over by the old
ladies in black who reported to me on a daily basis.
Nothing escaped their eyes.
Life was cheap. I gave English lessons, painted signs
in English as tourism was just beginning and helped sell
in local shops when the tourist boats arrived in port. We
sat at the harbor and inspected the yachts as they tied up
in the port, I learned to play tavli (backgammon) and entered
into fearsome duels with the local men in the cafes.
We watched the Sunday ritual as the men, washed and
dressed in their best, escorted their wives and children
for the volta (harbor walk) to have coffee and sweets and
show off their finery while young people flirted and
passed each other back and forth around the harbor.
Hotels were built, airplanes flew directly in from other
European countries and people added extra rooms to
their houses. Summer tourism took hold quickly. Still,
the difference between the frenetic summer season and
the quiet winter season was great, and life maintained the
old rhythm that we had originally entered into, so we
stayed a while longer. Eventually, we returned permanently
to Claremont and a chance for the children to have
American schooling.
I cannot speak for them but those years just living a
Greek island life colored all future existence for me.
Living is an intense adventure. I savor the daily
rhythms, the contact with people, the meaningless chatter
that is so meaningful. I am sure this can occur anyplace;
one doesn’t have to go to a Greek island. But I
did. I was surrounded by water, the smell of the sea, and
a beautiful harbor, and involved in a life dependent
upon the seasonal changes. It was intense. It changed
my life. I am glad for it.


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