|Oct/Nov 2007 Travel|
Photography by Sophia Condaris
All the way on the ferry from the mainland of Greece to Ithaca, a line from a Shawn Colvin song kept going round in my head: "I never saw blue like that before." It was my introduction to the warm and gentle Mediterranean, unlike the more stormy and sometimes shark-infested waters I was familiar with in Cape Town, where I grew up.
Heading towards the destination of possibly the oldest travel story ever written, and described by some as the most romantic, I felt I should read Homer's Odyssey, about Odysseus' ten-year journey back home to his beloved Penelope after the Trojan War, but I didn't have the concentration for the ancient prose, so I opted instead for a children's version, with pictures.
As my friend Sophia called me to the front of the ferry, to see the spectacular view as we came into the bay, it felt as if we were sailing into one of the illustrations in the book. Back in time, into a fairy tale.
Ithaca, meaning home, is the smallest of the Ionian islands west of the mainland of Greece. Just 29 km in length and 6.5 km wide, it is so small it doesn't appear on some of the maps. But despite its rich history, most people get off the ferry next door at the more popular and touristy Cephallonia, home to Captain Correlli's Mandolin. This island, with its rockier beaches and fewer tourist amenities, has not yet been spoiled by the tourist hordes.
Of the 2000 permanent residents, a large number are pensioners. There are few options for breadwinners, and the majority of men become sailors.
Sophia had spent the first five years of her life here, before her father's death, after which she and her mother moved to South Africa. What an idyllic place this must be to grow up, I thought.
I asked 13-year-old Alexi, Sophia's cousin, what he wants to be when he grows up. Anything but a sailor like his father, he said. A vetenarian, perhaps. What was his favorite subject at school? History, he said. And what were they studying in history? Mythologia, he replied. On Ithaca it is hard to distinguish between history and mythology.
Does Alexi enjoy reading? No, but he likes to watch television. Cartoons. I noticed the t-shirt he was wearing. Mickey Mouse. "What's mouse in Greek?" I asked.
"Pontiki," he said.
"Mickey Pontiki!" We laughed.
"The 24th of June, St John's day," said a little Ithacan guide book, "was the day the unmarried girls would find out their matrimonial future... At noon every unmarried girl would go down to the main well. Counting out forty buckets, she would throw the water of each bucket over her shoulder, while at the same time her eyes were fixed on a mirror that was placed on the well, where she would see her husband." I wondered what the fate was of the girls who didn't see their husbands. But the guidebook didn't say. It also didn't say what married women, whose husbands died prematurely, were expected to do.
The women of Ithaca seem to take their cue from Penelope, Odysseus's wife, characterized by Homer as an example of female virtue, prudence, morality, and conjugal faith and devotion and who, the story would have us believe, fought off unwanted attention from over a hundred suitors and waited twenty years for his return.
Katerini, another of Sophia's cousins, is one of these. Now in her mid-forties, her sailor husband died of a heart attack 15 years earlier. But until just two years ago, she wore only black. On one of her annual visits, Sophia encouraged Katerini to wear some color. Now she was wearing a green floral blouse with a black skirt. Still uncertain, it seemed, but tentatively stepping into a new wardrobe.
"Aunty Smiles," as Sophia called her, a neighbor from a few doors down, invited us to dinner. She also wore the customary black, and her home was cluttered with mismatched pictures on the walls, family photographs, and porcelain ornaments. "Next time you come back, you must come with your husband," she said to Sophia.
"Tell her," I asked Sophia to translate, "that these days women are less concerned with finding husbands and more caught up in their careers."
"Yes" she responded, "but it's nice to have a companion." A nikokira or homemaker all her life, her memories of the man she loved, she seemed to suggest, were enough to sustain her now.
In my more cynical moments, I couldn't help wondering if there wasn't a more practical, if subconscious, reason for the mourning clothes of the women of Ithaca. In a heavily patriarchal culture, a sailor's pension and the memory or idea of a husband might be easier than actually living with one.
Katerini was well known on Ithaca as an informal tour guide and was kept busy all through the summer months. Why didn't she start a business and sell her services professionally? we suggested. She laughed. It is frowned on, she reminded us, for women on Ithaca to work. Her husband had left her an adequate pension. Nevertheless, she kindly offered to drive us around the fourteen villages that make up the island.
In Platrithias, we visited the Folklore Yard, established in 1957 by eccentric Ithacan-Australian journalist and poet, Efstathios (Stathis) Raftopoulos.
Born on Ithaca in 1921, Raftopoulos moved to Australia in 1934. He followed his father who had gone to Australia in 1922 and his grandfather who emigrated in 1885. He served in the Australian military forces in WWII as an entertainer known as Rafto the Magician. And he began writing and reciting poetry from the age of sixteen. Like so many, however, he returned to the island for the summers.
According to the Ithacan Society, Odysseus, there are many young people in the Ithacan diaspora who would like to return to the country of their ancestors for a better quality of life, but the Greek Government discourages them. The same desire is expressed by many retired persons, but they avoid it because of the lack of medical facilities. Presently there are almost as many Ithacans living in Australia (1 827) as on the island itself. With 1,443 in the U.S., and 1,026 in South Africa.
Platrithias is an uncharacteristically fertile area, where the Melanidros or "blackwater" spring, having therapeutic qualities, is said to have restored Homer's sight. According to Homer, this is where Odysseus lived before he left to fight the Trojan War.
At the Kalamos Well, we drank the only water we'd been able to drink on Ithaca that didn't come from a bottle. The plaque read:
Welcome Stranger to Kalamos Well
Bend and drink from your cupped hands its ice-cold water
Breathe in around you the holy fragrance
And you shall return again to Ithaca
The Folklore Yard is home to a number of statues of Odysseus and company and is like a cheerful graveyard. One gets the impression that Raftopoulos felt Odysseus and Penelope needed a symbolic burial ground where people could come and pay their respects. But instead of tombstones, they are accompanied by plaques with often quite amusing dedications. One such proclaims:
The only monument in memory of a lunatic
In Memory of
My Mother Hariclia 1900 - 1956
My Father Spiros 1893 - 1982
And to all Parents of the World
I wondered why in all their sailing, the Greeks had never colonized another country. There are no third world countries that speak Greek. Nikos, a teacher, explained. "The Greeks are a peace-loving people. They travel. But for them, there is no place like home." This seemed to be confirmed by Stathis's final plaque:
This obelisk I dedicate to the memory of past generations who for a thousand years cultivated the soil of Ithaca, to remain here till the end of time.
Our last stop, before we began the descent down rocky roads dominated by goats, was the gift shop, where Alexi called me. We had few words between us without a translator, so he simply pointed to the t-shirt on the wall, alongside Pokemon, and smiled: "Mickey Pontiki."
On our last night, while everyone else was engaged in conversation in Greek, with Sophia saying her goodbyes, Alexi and I watched Quentin Tarantino's True Romance with Patricia Arquette and Christian Slater. The blood and gore at the end of the movie made me think of the scene in Homer's epic, where Odysseus slays Penelope's 108 uninvited suitors. I wondered if the motherfuckers and cocksuckers had been tamed in the Greek subtitles of Tarantino's movie. I was slightly shocked that Alexi's parents were allowing him to watch it, but I realized also that the violence was probably no more than mythology to him. No more real than Mickey Mouse or Pokemon.
When Odysseus returned to Ithaca after twenty years, Penelope, having grown accustomed to his absence, regarded him warily as though he were a stranger. He knew there was one thing that could prove his identity to her though, and he mentioned their bed, which he had built himself, with a rooted and growing olive tree for one of the corner posts. Only by cutting down the tree could the bedstead be moved.
After a brief, joyful reunion, however, he warned her that the spirit of Tiresias, the blind prophet, had foretold that one day before he finally came to rest in his own home, he would have to take an oar over his shoulder and set out again on his voyaging. This time it would be a land voyage, wandering from city to city, until he met a man who had never seen the sea or a ship and mistook the oar for a winnowing fan. Then he should plant his oar in the earth, and so he would finally be free of Poseidon's wrath.
But did Odysseus ever meet a man who had not seen the sea? Homer toys with us and leaves it at that.
Looking at Alexi now, though initially I had envied him his childhood in this peaceful place, I saw that reality would come all too soon for him. Leaving home becomes a reality for us all at some point, but for the young men and women of Ithaca, who wish to be independent of the sea, and to be something other than a sailor or a sailor's wife, leaving home means more than just leaving your father's house. It usually means never being able to finally return. This was a higher price than I wanted to pay for the idyllic years.