It’s only when you find yourself in an extreme situation, far from home, that you truly learn what you’re made of. For instance, if you’d asked me six months ago how I would respond to having a seventy-year old Greek man attack me violently with a stick, I’m not sure how I would have replied. Now I know the answer.
“Ow!” I yelled as the first blow landed. “Ow! Stop!”
He didn’t stop. He swung harder. The next blow took my elbow and I felt a great deal of pain, followed by a worrying degree of numbness. He yelled like a Spartan defending Thermopylae. My sobs didn’t deter him. He raised his stick again and I learnt exactly what I’m made of: I’m made of chicken feathers and cowardice and I fled squealing like a soaked cat into the blue Greek dusk.
The old man’s name was Kiriakos, and he lives at the harbour in a town called Armenistis, on the north coast of an Aegean island called Ikaria. Six months ago I packed my suitcases and left Cape Town and moved to Ikaria in order to live longer.
Ikarians live longer than anyone else in the world, apart from some old Japanese women in Okinawa. Life expectancy on Ikaria is ten years more than America or England, and they stay remarkably fit. Levels of dementia are barely a third of the European average, and they’re still spry and athletic into their nineties, scampering up and down the hillsides like young goats. When an elderly Ikarian attacks you with a stick, it’s no laughing matter.
To reach Ikaria you travel on a ferry for hours and hours through the hazy purples and floating islands of the Cyclades as twilight turns to night. You stop at Naxos and Mykonos and watch people disembark to their island holidays of beach bars and whitewashed hotels with blue wooden shutters. Then you keep going.
There are no tourists on Ikaria. It is poor and mountainous and the people grow their own vegetables and keep their own goats and chickens. There are villages but other than three weeks in August, they’re almost empty. Almost no one on Ikaria speaks English and I speak no Greek. I was expecting to be lonely. I wasn’t expecting to be assaulted.
Officially I moved to Ikaria to find some special secret to living long and living well, but honestly I came here for the same reason most of us go anywhere: we travel to find out about other places, but also about ourselves. Who are you, when you’re all alone on a remote island with no friends, no TV or WiFi? Who are you when you’re cut off from the people you know, the sights and routines and habits of home?
Everyone has certain ideas of what it’s like to live on a remote Greek island, and almost none of those involve sticking your arm down a used toilet bowl. It’s a strange thing about the Greeks: they invented democracy and literature but at no point after that did they get round to inventing pipes more than 5cm in diameter. Not to get graphic about it, but their toilets can’t handle toilet paper.
People warn you of this but it’s easy to forget, especially after a long flight and ferry ride, when you’re finally at rest in your small rented cottage. When the water started backing up in the toilet bowl, I remembered. I closed the bathroom door and paced around for a bit, hoping it would go away. I peeked. It wasn’t going away.
I wondered what the Greek word for plumber is. The truth is, there’s no Greek word for plumber or for electrician because the Greeks never use plumbers or electricians. Plumbers and electricians are for soft Anglo men who can’t grow a decent beard. When a Greek man wants to redo his wiring, he puts on a white vest and takes out a hammer and an old penknife and does it himself. True, this is why many Greek houses burn down, but when they do, Greek men just build them up again themselves.
I did not want to make a kind of hook out of a wire coathanger and stick my arm down the toilet bowl to flail around in the hope that the blockage was in the first section of pipe. I did not want to do that at all. Back home, I would have called a plumber then left the house and not returned until all my dirty work had been done for me, but I wasn’t back home. Could I go another six months without ever using the toilet in the house again? Probably, but damn it, this is why I’m here: to see who I am when I’m not at home. So there I sat on my first night on a Greek island, up to my shoulder in toilet, fishing around, trying not to splash.
At least I’ve learnt one thing, I thought, as I abandoned the coathanger and scrabbled blindly with my fingers. I’ve learnt that in this world, you must rely on yourself.
A few weeks later, over ouzo with Lefteris my neighbour, I told him about that first night.
“Ehhh,” he said, disgruntled. “Why you no call me for help?”
“Are you a plumber, Lefteris?” I said in surprise.
“Ehhh, what plumber?” he said dismissively. “When you need help, you ask your friend.”
“I’ve only just met you, Lefteris.”
“Ehhh,” he shrugged. “You are a person. I am a person. So then – are we not friends?”
I started to realize that the first thing I had learnt was not in fact true.
I’d been expecting to be lonely but every day someone would call me over for coffee, or try share their lunch, or slap the backgammon board in challenge. I was too awkward to join them. We didn’t speak the same language. What could we say? Wouldn’t it be excruciating? What did I have to offer? I turned down so many people, I expected the offers to stop coming, but they didn’t.
On one of the Saint Days there was a panagiri– a festival for the whole village, where people bring homemade food and homemade wine and share it and musicians play and the whole village young and old dance till sunrise. The whole village except me. I stayed home, awkward and English. I didn’t want anyone to feel they had to keep me company at the festival. I didn’t want to intrude or be a burden. I’d traveled across the world to find myself, but now that I was here, I seemed to be determined to stay my same old self. Two people knocked on my door. They’d come to bring me to the panagiri. I politely declined but they didn’t understand what I was saying.
With heavy feet I followed them to the town square and they pulled up a chair for me and gave me food and wine and the party went on around me. No one bothered me or bothered about me. I was there, I was part of the village, and I didn’t have to perform and neither did they. I began to understand – I am a person, and they are people, therefore we are friends, and a friend doesn’t stop being your friend just because they have nothing to say. Who you are is who you are, and that is your business, but we are here together.
Every evening I walk down the hill to the harbour in Armenistis and swim off the side of the stone sea wall. I leave my towel and clothes beside a particular streetlight and Kiriakos the seventy-year-old Greek man watches me from his porch like an old hairy hawk. The first time he came down and started yelling at me as though I was trying to steal his car, although it turns out that’s the tone of voice in which the Greeks say everything.
Later someone explained that he keeps an eye on that streetlight because there’s a wire that comes loose and he doesn’t want anyone to electrocute themselves. Everyone agrees that someone should fix the wire, and everyone’s keen to give it a go, but they’re waiting for Yiorgos to finish painting his house so they can borrow his ladder.
This week I emerged from the sea and dried myself and shook the pebbles from my shoes. There was one stubborn pebble so I stood on one leg, shaking and shaking the shoe, leaning with my other arm for balance against the streetlight, shaking and shaking.
I suppose to Kiriakos it must have looked as though I had seized the electric wire and was jerking and spasming. When strong current passes through a chap, his muscles clench and he can’t easily let go of the wire, so if you are springing to his help, the best you can do is beat at his arm with your wooden stick in the hope of jarring it loose.
There isn’t a doctor here in Armenistis, but the good folk of the village seem to have done a pretty good job of strapping me and splinting my wrist and keeping me anaesthetised with retsina until they can put me on the ferry. Kiriakos has a new nickname: they call him The Armbreaker. He is very proud of it.
If you are lucky you find yourself when you travel, but when you are even luckier you find that who you are means less than simply that you are, and that others are, and that you’re together. I don’t yet know what the Ikarian secret of long life is, but I think that’s part of it.
Financial Mail, January 2019