Category Archives: the ikarians

Landscape 3: Rembetiko

All day it had rained, interrupting a hesitant summer that was late already. I pulled out a sheet of rolling paper, picked a tuft of Golden Virginia tobacco with my thumb and finger tops, and rolled a thin tsigaro. I struck the match against the box and lighted the cigarette with its flame. I inhaled a breath of relief, squeezed my left eye and looked around. The house of the community was filled to the last seat. New seats were passed along over the heads of people waiting for their drinks, cocktails in white plastic cups or cans of Mythos, at the bar, three tables covered with a white bed sheet. A half crescent of chairs was lined up on stage with microphone standards at waist length. Three socialist red curtains hung from the ceiling against the back wall, the stage lightened by six colored light bulbs, green, red, yellow, blue, yellow, red, hanging from a thick black electric cord. The pie baker walked to and fro, occupied and nervous, with a wasteful haste. The petrol man sat quietly at the far end table of the bar with the bottles of tequila and Red Label Johnny Walker. He greeted every familiar face with a broad Ikarian smile and dark frowned eyebrows. I recognized the doctor with his long pony tail, his droopy eyes, who studied the high number of cancer occurrence on the island. The room filled with smoke, leaving a hazy air of ashy smell and the tones of a lost era of open markets, crowded streets, tiny waterfront tavernas, passenger ships and refugees disembarking. The melancholic ruffling of the bouzouki, the bass of a classic guitar, the tearing of the violin and the soothing of the accordion, dancing away on the clouds of drifting mist in the early morning.

BBC Documentary on Rebetika Part 1

Landscape 2: Hush

There were no children squealing like piglets while being dragged to the slaughterhouse. There was no pop from a tennis ball slammed by a wooden bat, no short tired laughter. There was no shrill of horny teens being chased into the water. A few hundred meters squatted in the sand, two men sat like desert nomads, motionlessly conversing, in the sand. Further, a girl bend over her boyfriend on hands and knees, her lips kissing his hairy chest. On my other side, a group of chubby boys and girls wobbled like drunken cherubs into the water, attracted to each other by the sheer gravity of their fat wrapped constellations, an obese figure in bikini figured heavily at the water line, like the sun around which these planets of kids circled. But the strange thing was, I heard not a single sound. Higher up the rock, a topless man, hammering the planks for his terrace roof, not a single beat of sound. Even the sea, rolled its waves ashore tacitly. A single cloud hovered still above. A conspiracy to not disturb me.

Landscape 1: Puppy Love

I gulped down the last bottom of my glass of strong black wine, the local Homeric variation of home brewed wine on the island, and payed the bill, three Euro. I imagined to put down three silver drachma pieces. Would it not be better to still pay in ancient coinage? It is a wishful make-believe that everyone shared. It was night, the constellations guided my way home. The sky, the air, the tree and the road, everything was covered in pitch darkness. But in heaven the stars shone brighter than I ever saw before. I searched for Big Dipper and recognized its handle, the straight cup shape in the sky. The black blanket of night was pierced with flickering holes, a full view of curious eyes that spy on us. I walked up the hill, crossed the bend in the road and passed the trash bins. My eye fell on a carton box and the speckled white puppy head peeking over the edge.

Sarcophaga (Flesh Eater)

Most flesh flies are respectable eaters of carrion, but some have fallen to a state of resorting to feces. The sarcophage of this specie of flies stands not at the end of its life, as we humans might believe to be the proper custom, but at its beginning. The cradle of the flesh fly is a piece of rotting flesh or dried excrement, such is the humble start of its toddlers. The larva are verocious, eating their way into or out of anything edible. The womb of their conception literally a crime scene in which these murderous creatures find a home. They are carriers of common illness for man. It can hardly be a surprise that the fates of man and flesh fly meet.

The Flood of the Mountain

The glass pane shudders in the wooden frame as the ripples of a sound wave hit the windows. The explosion in the clouds closely above speeds through the air. Thunder for the human soul that is shaken in the blast. The clouds are so thick and dark that I do not see the flash of lightning that announces it. I humbly shiver, my head pivoting on the thin needle of the vertebra, is shaken, my shoulders cramp toward my ears. Inferior is the brain here. Hale is released from the same clouds that are fog, that are air, that are rain, that are wind, the gods icy breath. The rain rattles the earth, the concrete ceiling of my house, the walls are drenched with water seeping through the invisible cracks, saturating the walls, within minutes water penetrates the cement. The light bulbs flicker, then, they too, give way. The hail stones hit the ground so fast, they jump up capriciously in unpredictable direction, hit the glass, hit the stone, while the rain, still, pouring, flooding. The houses of the village are gone, the sea and the horizon have disappeared, all absorbed, gorged by the hellish bright fog of the heavens flood. The mountain is washed from the earth canvas. Three nights and three days, every hour seem to last. I offer an incense of strawberry wood and olive branches, kindle the flames of the fire that stirred quietly before me. My only solace, my single hope, rose into the damp atmosphere of the chimney. On the crown of the mountain, it is not the sea that I fear, it is the heaven, broken open above, the sky of the mountain Ziggurat.

The Cave of Zeus

from the breath of Cronos
is born the island of the goddess
where the lemons grow
departing from the spring of aria
a string of sheep bells
rings from the steps
fleeing before me
leading to the cave of Zas
white steps reflecting the light
the sun rays slide
along a wall of virgin stainless marble
the narrow path of worship Continue reading

Man of Sorrows

The plumply built officer clicked the plastic clasp of his belt together, his holster resting against his fat hips. He put his mirrored sunglasses on and stooped to lock the door to his γραφείο. His face still resembled a youth in his twenties but the rest of his body already revealed the aubergine posture of the man in his forties to be. On his office door hang an aluminum plaque with black letters spelling διαβατήριο. It was eleven thirty in the morning. The small and skinny colleague with the childish face sat behind the reception desk and rolled back his office chair. A small electric heater was placed under the reception desk for the cold winter days. This morning was not cold and winterly, the light was bright, the sun creped through cracks and filled the room through the open entrance. On the wall behind him, between the door to the commandant and the passport office, hang a silver icon in a wooden frame of Christ as a Man of Sorrows. He reached for his fanny pack, scrambled and took out four mobile phones. He chose one while placing the other three on his desk. His short fingers tabbed on his phone keys looking for a phone number or browsing new messages perhaps. After a minute, he placed all phones back in the fanny pack. Then the reception officer and the passport officer followed each other out the front door.

Next to the port’s old ferry landing, a long staircase led through a narrow alley to a two storey white washed building. At the top of the hill, in the left wing of the ground floor the police station was located, the right door led via an unfinished staircase to the tax office where I had picked up my ΑΦΜ, my tax number, a few weeks earlier. The unevenly plastered walls of the police station were colored bright blue, including the police cell. Behind the dark green bars a bearded man with uncombed hair and fiercely white eyes stared at me. The man looked authentically Icarian, a mountain rugged glance perforated with silent friendliness. I walked to the visa office at the end of the room, and waited in the door frame directly next to the prison cell. The prisoner and I stared into each other’s eyes, I smiled, he threw his shoulders in the air and smiled back.

‘I am Albanian and I do not have a visa,’ he lightheartedly explained.
‘That’s a problem,’ I sighed disgruntled.

I recognized the young officer’s face, as he quickly looked up. He stood bent over in front of his desk, as he was about to leave. He too sighed, realizing his whole morning would be spent behind his desk on horrific paperwork instead. Visa are a punishment for everyone who has to deal with it, the person applying for it, the officer processing it, the officer enforcing it, the worker being denied one, the good natured Albanian in the cell without one. The only people who took a wicked pleasure in immigration restrictions, the prohibition of movement, were most likely the people who never set foot outside their periphery of comfort and learned about the possibility of immigration from their television sets. The idea of having to leave their home was so dissettling to their settled rigid minds that something needed to be done to ease their disgruntled hearts. And so, the police station in Agios Kirikos this morning was filled with men of sorrows.

As he set down again, he simply beckoned to give him the required documents. I pulled out the papers from the catalog envelop and handed them to him. I walked out to the main room and sat down on one of the wooden chairs against the wall, prepared for a numb long wait. The Albanian prisoner was speaking loudly in fluent Greek on the phone, as if the person on the other side of the line couldn’t hear him well.

‘Can you send a fax to the police station, that I am working at the house.’
‘Yes, yes, to the police station, I am at the police station.’

A fragile old man with an unshaven face weathered by sun and wind, and wearing a green jacket walked in, turned his face around, and bellowed to the Albanian: Ρε το μαλάκα! You idiot! What did you do now? Laughing loudly, the old man walked up to the cell and placed his hands on the bars at ears’ height. He held out a cigarette to the Albanian and offered him a light. A cloud of smoke twirled up from behind the bars as the aroma of tobacco spread across the room. I had to think of Ali Pasha, the Lion of Ioannina, who was so terribly feared, and the only other Albanian I knew. Ali Pasha was an Albanian warlord who had allied himself to the Turks but had become a liability. The Turks decided to pursue him and he became a prisoner on his own island before killing himself. What good reason was there possibly to lock this friendly, working man with his fierce white eyes up in the island’s only prison?

The visa officer stepped out of his office.
‘Religion?’ he asked.
‘Uh … no religion.’ I replied.
‘No religion?’ and he disappeared again.

The island had been a prison in the past to others, also without religion. The now revered composer Theodorakis spent some time in Vrakades as an exile, a noteworthy footnote to the island’s chapter. And others had been sent to the island during the civil war of the late 1940s when the democratic government of Tsaldaris turned Icaria into a penal colony for communists. It had given the island the epithet of κόκκινο νησί or Red Island, a name that was protested at the time, but now many on the island took pride in it. But the young officers at the police station now were not the cruel men who controlled the prisoners population then, and the prisoner in the cell now was not a revolution fighter but simply an Albanian working man, and now the exiles were left wing youth from Athens vacationing in the summer at Livadi beach or at Nas. I wondered if the current wave of hostility against immigrants in Europe would also turn with the tides of history, and seem as absurd as the Albanian man behind the dark green bars in his blue cell.

From the far room I heard the short clicks of a stapler, then a little later, dull forceful blows of documents being stamped. I imagined the jerking movement and the concentrated expression of the police officer. A middle aged man with plain jeans and an American baseball cap walked in the station and knocked on the door of the διοικητής, the commandant. As he turned the door handle, he peeked his head through the crack. A man with slickly combed black hair, hamster cheeks and a jolly glance in his eyes, walked out. The commandant’s uniform fit his posture better than any of the other officers, the light blue stiff collar of his shirt stood as straight as firm, a signature of his character that allowed him to rise up the ranks throughout the years. ‘Ali,’ the commandant shouted as he walked up to the cell, ‘I will go and eat something, but I will bring you something to eat, okay.’

From the Rise to the Run

The slow radiants of the sun fell still weakly into the room through the open window above the head end of my bed. I rolled over toward the light, turned my head in the pillow and felt a cool breeze of air. It was the gust of wind that made me realize that I was awake. It was the first realization of the new day. The slow rise of aurora’s carriage at the western slopes must have awoken me. Maybe it had been the singing of the birds. The birds too were awake and a harmonious cacophony of chirps came from the highest branches of a Turkish pine.

Our bedroom’s window faced the east. From the mountain top’s ridge the sun slowly announced its rise. The days seemed shorter than they really were, as the sun rose later and sank sooner behind the mountains. I listened to the meditative disharmony that reminded me of Stockhausen’s spiral saxophones and shortwave receiver. The chaffinches hid in the tree’s roof and I could only distinguish the echoes of each other’s rivals marking their territories.

I couldn’t decide what had awoken me and undecided I lay daydreaming. One of many ways in which the brain displays its incapacity to register reality correctly, even within the limited margins of human perception, there was no reality that we were capable of linearly perceiving without the falsifications of the mind. Any logical system could only be defined within its own premises, knowing there were an endless number of imperceivable other systems following their own logic, and all being far from the truth. In consequence, the human mind was mistakenly conceived to be rich and complex but it was just incapable to be simply consistent and it was predictable only because its errors were endless.

This incapacity for truth was probably why there existed such a word in the first place, being without representation in the outer world, and why it played such a mesmorizing role in the imagination of human kind. Every generation, every era, men searched truth, they found it, priests called it god, scientists called it science, philosophers preferred simply truth, but it was all the same joke. And new men came, and searched for a better truth, namely their own falsity. This was their cycle of suffering, truth.

No matter how often one reminded oneself the adage of Apollo’s temple at Delphi, to know thyself, man would never be capable to know oneself, simply because the brain would prevent it. So now, I believed the breeze awoke me, maybe it did, maybe it didn’t, it had been licking my face all night and I had slept like a baby, and the only condition that had changed was the light. The same was true for the birds, but they did not wonder about truth. They had been up at dawn long before I opened my eyes and sang their song without thought. Perhaps the bird words were full of truth. And the changing of the light, the end of darkness, one could not tell one second apart from the next. It could have been pure randomness. What else than apparent chaos, the volatile chemistry of the body that governed the capricious will, could have woken me.

There was spring in the morning air. I had planted some seedlings a week ago, tomato in white plastic cups, aggurki makri or cucumber and piperia florinis or red peppers in earth colored pots. I had placed the pots and cups in the window sill. The white stems of the tomato and cucumbers had broken the surface of the ground and rose up toward the light. Along the side of the road purple lupin reminded me of the thyrsus of Dionysos, yellow white daisies and yellow gorse covered the bright landscape as if gold dust had fallen down, grains of the sun spread violently across the universe of the back garden, settling on the wet winter soil. Here and there a single blood red poppy disturbed the pattern, already signaling the advance of spring and progress of time ahead. But these signs were deceiving as well. Winter was not over, rain would torment the island again, fierce winds wrap the houses in long whistles, sucking out every last degree of warmth, the electricity would be lost again.

The Steep Path to the Fortress

Out of the fog that danced in the mountain air with the gaiety of solitude, I saw arise the small chapel of Agios Dimitrios Stavri. Although nothing but a small chapel of simple solid stone coarsely hewed from the mountain rock, it stood on the top of the road on a pedestal of climbing rock with such might and awe, that it grounded the faith of man with unshakable firmness. I stood still and admired this mystical appearance out of the clouds. Agios Dimitrios and Agios Georgios, patron saints of the Crucades, were widely venerated on the island, which was for the longest time, occupied by the Ottomans. This island was the frontier, it was deserted, it was barren, it was impenetrable, it was vulnerable. I was on my way to the castle of Kastro tou Kosikias and the chapel of Agios Georgios tou Drogana..

I looked around me, peeked in the distance, and saw the mountainous landscape of Ikaria flow before me. I took the unpaved road that lead away from the asphalt of modern life and the populated coast and followed a stony dirt path deeper into the protective womb of the island.

The vapor in the air had risen from the immaculate Aegean sea below to the mountain tops hundreds of meters above the coast line, and enclosed me from the inhabitable lower parts of the island, while the clouds were driven further up the steep sides by a strong northern wind. Hidden by the waves of hard stone and a potent maquis green of shurbs and trees, here and there, I encountered flocks of wild goats tacidly grazing the gray pastures, fleeing my intrusion.

I walked up the dirt road that meandered into the mountains. At a less steep part of the hill, I left the road and crossed through the shrubs. Everywhere I stepped, my feet landed on dried goat droppings that covered the landscape. Maybe as short ago as twenty years, the landscape was covered by a dense forest that in long past centuries had protected the Ikarians against pirate invasions as well as the Ottoman census. But the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy that provided subsidies to subsistence farmers on the island per goat has catalyzed a boom of the goat population that had destroyed the century old habitat.

I turned a bend in the road, and there towering high above the surrounding plain and mountains, I saw in the distant height, the castle of Koskina. Nothing more than the dilapidated walls of a ruin, once a Byzantine fortress, now only the restored chapel of Agios Georgios was clearly visible, while the castle walls around it had dissolved into the rock from which it once rose. I hoped to find here at least a clue, but maybe even parts of the treasure. The fortress was the most obvious place to seek, because it was a fortress, and thus it must have been build to protect something or someone. For this reason, I decided first to set out for the castle.

At the foot of the mountain, I looked up at the impressive climb. At the side of the road, hidden between shrubs and stones, the remains of a small round building, a guarding tower perhaps, or a shelter against the sun for a shepherd or a farmer tending to his vineyard here on the small stretch of plain cultivable land.