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Monday, July 15, 2002

Travel

Myloi


The following is part of a work in progress entitled Freefall.

When I sit at day’s end to stare at the sunset-lit sea, as I often do now that it is summer, at least on those days when the wind is not shredding the grape arbor above my head – which it often does, blowing hard from the north over Kavodoros and tearing over the Ohi mountain range – I am time and again struck by the fact that distinctions have an eerie way of disappearing. From this balcony in the village of Myloi, the view on a clear day is of the port of Karystos, about a mile and a half below, and the hilly, horseshoe-shaped bay that stretches along the coast that dips into the straits of Evia, and beyond those straits the Attica peninsula; and beyond the peninsula’s end, to the east, the islands Makronisos and Kea jut out of the sea, Kea the more formidable for its circumference and peaks, Makronisos the more haunting for its history (long abandoned now, it was once a place of imprisonment for leftists, although there was in actuality no prison and no shelter for its inmates). On these breathless summer evenings, however, little can be discerned, and not much that is solid remains intact except for the eucalyptus and cypress trees and overgrown oleander that follow the distinctive downward wind of the stream that runs through Myloi. Beyond Karystos and the coastline, the world mutates into something that is no longer recognizable. Somewhere, I know, the straits end and Attica’s Hymettos range heaves itself upward, and to the east those two islands lie in the twilight, rise from the sea and claw at the sky, but it is impossible to know where, for a gauzelike shroud of ashwhite, the color of evaporation above the straits, the color of the Greek sky in heat, the color of raw cotton, envelopes everything. Fishing boats disappear into this, and when it becomes dark I cannot tell which light emanates from stars and which from the motionless vessels. It’s at such times that it seems, at least to me, that nature’s murky veil is more than some apt metaphor, for in reality no new dawns, no blowing winds, no aberrant weather patterns, are ever going to return certain things, not to mention people, that have truly disappeared.

In the town in which I grew up in New Hampshire there were once places with signs that read Gas Night Crawlers Fried Clams, where you could fill your tank and buy those worms and eat the freshest fried clams you’d ever tasted on the way to your favorite fishing spot. Gone. There was the Puritan Restaurant, named for those who were long gone, and it’s gone too. The Five and Dime, gone from everywhere. There were people like my grandfathers, who spoke of men as gents and of women as fine or bad, and who believed that a job was something you did for money and that real work – bricklaying for Eugene and shoe-sole cutting for Rosario – was what you were, the thing that made you proud: they’re both gone. The Attica peninsula, I assure myself, is still there, despite what I can’t see from my balcony these hazy summer evenings. As for the rest, it’s gone for good. And as for me, I’m what my grandfathers would have called transplanted, though I’m quite sure they would have used that word only in my presence and of course kindly, and with the knowledge that it was pretty much a feckless euphemism for something they probably wouldn’t have wanted to admit.

***

Karystos didn’t seem much of an eye-opener that summer I first came to southern Evia. There was still a direct ferry from Rafina then, bearing the variant spelling, Karistos. It’s gone and yet not gone, in the way things are never quite gone here; it’s now lashed – perhaps condemned, certainly decrepit, and rumored to have been repossessed by a bank that will neither sail nor sink it – to the town’s mole, sitting like the nautical relic it is and was, and the worse for disuse, for its windows are shattered and its hull blooms with amoebic rust. At any rate, from the Karistos’s deck that first journey here and at first sight, Karystos didn’t seem a pretty town for the concrete polikatikies (apartment buildings) plumbing a straight line along the one road that runs along its port. Upon docking, there was the stench of molten asphalt – the streets were being repaved – and a line of empty cafés and restaurants beneath the polikatikies festooned with plastic chairs and metal tables. There was nothing of the usual picture-postcard Greek island, no one greeting the almost-empty ferry (which meant no mobs pushing, shoving, and holding aloft cardboard placards reading “rooms to let”), and the information booth was closed – this, in high season. But a block behind the port were a jumble of small old buildings that the fishmongers and butchers and hardware-vendors and clothiers and shoeshop-owners had at that time of day abandoned for their siesta, leaving their doors mostly unlocked and their goods available for the taking. In their midst, on a corner behind a shuttered kiosk, was a badly overgrown archeological site littered with debris – blue plastic bags, discarded softdrink cans, bottles of all sorts, newspapers – surrounded by a fence from which a framed, weathered legend in Greek and English hung crookedly and explained that, when first excavated early in the twentieth century, the place was thought to be a Classical temple but proved in fact to be a Roman mausoleum. From its state of neglect, and from the fact that there was no entrance, it was obvious no one was impressed enough to quite care.

Despite the polikatikies and current building mania – in true Athenian style – that dominate this town of 5,000 people, I’ve come to quite like Karystos. It has hidden charms, and some not so hidden, for there are a good number of neoclassical homes, and some nineteenth-century Bavarian architecture (the city was planned and designed by one of Otto’s architects, which is why all streets run in straight lines and meet at right angles). This is a town in which you can buy nails and real charcoal and just about everything else loose and by the kilo, in which if you buy a hammer (or a hoe or rake), you then also have to buy the wooden handle, separately and by length (by the centimeter), and then watch the merchant put them together. There are shops in which you can buy tack and horseshoes at the same time and in the same place you’re buying salted mackerel, lentils, rice, lamp oil, olive oil, baskets, chairs, plastic buckets, brooms, or local wine. There’s almost as much donkey and mule traffic as there is of the vehicular kind, and, when the gypsies are around, you can buy a handwoven basket from their women under a palm tree by the Venetian bourtzi (tower) or a good (or bad) horse from their men in the middle of the marketplace. There’s a museum (always empty) with fine archeological artifacts from the area, and a remarkable library (also always empty) whose collection specializes in local history and the area’s flora and fauna.

There’s a lot to be said, I think, for a town whose people seem not to want the Karistos gone from where it is rotting, and who pay it as little attention as they do the disregarded Roman mausoleum in their midst. A lot to be said for a place in which the twenty-first century rubs up against last year and the year before that and then the century before that and then five or ten centuries before that, without so much as a chip on, never mind a shrug of, anyone’s shoulders. And there’s something to be said for a place in which a merchant whose store is computerized can, because it is, determine the mix of colors in the shade of paint I want and then mix it, as well as sell me whitewash and lulaki (a crushed blue powder to tint it) and a half-kilo of screws at the same time the horse-sellers are trotting their geldings and mares up and down the street that is the heartbeat of the marketplace, a block removed from the harbor where the Karistos sits – all the while calling me by my first name, which is not the name my grandfathers knew me by. For I have become the person known as Elena – no last name – to acquaintances and merchants in Karystos, and to many of my friends and all but a few of the residents in Myloi.

Melanie has usually proved just too much for most provincial Greeks, not to mention villagers, despite its Greek origins; I prefer Elena to the more popular and more common Eleni anyway, for the accent remains on the first syllable, and it has stuck. Not that I didn’t try in Myloi to revert to my given name, but when I was met with blank stares and the repeated pos? pos? (what is it? what?) upon introducing myself to its residents, I quickly settled on Elena once again. Maggie (whom the villagers call Margarita), transplanted from Wales and a longtime Myloi resident, calls me Melanie, as do a few Athenian weekend residents, the village electrician, and Nikos the postman: to everyone else, I’m Elena, though after four years Panayis and Sofia have taken to calling me Melena – a nice, if original, blend.

I, whoever I am, however – Melanie, Elena, Melena – cannot buy the proverbial cup of sugar here, and neither can anyone else at the small, empty storefronts that sit the village’s uppermost square (called by the locals, to tzami, the mosque, where there is no longer a mosque but was once, and so the name lives on). There are no longer any small shops (bakalika) to sell staples. The stores are not gone, though, the way the Puritan Restaurant on the main street in my home town has been long gone; they’re still there, with cardboard piled against the insides of their windows, next to the now-closed community center that once held Myloi’s records, which now reside in Karystos’s town hall. The one-room village schoolhouse isn’t gone either, though Myloi hasn’t had enough children for almost a generation to warrant a teacher; and though it’s long been closed, the place is whitewashed and its windowframes and door are painted, Myloi’s children (who attend school in Karystos) play soccer in its yard, and, on the first Wednesday of every month, its door is unlocked for the doctor who comes to the village and sits behind the teacher’s desk to write out prescriptions for anyone who has come to see him.

Myloi – though I knew nothing about the village then, that first time I came to southern Evia – was the eye-opener Karystos wasn’t. Here, 40 kilometers or so from Athens and four from Karystos, was a verdant village nestled into a ravine whose shaded stream raced, gurgling along, despite the impressively arid, rocky mountain range that rose behind it into the clouds; a village without so much as a store or kiosk (though it had then, as it does now, three tavernas); a village in which the only soul I saw that first morning I walked through it was mounted on a liver-colored mule. There was the castle looming above it to the west, the Ohi massif to the north, a rocky hill shaped like a whale’s nose cutting off the view to the east, and the sea below; there were olive and fig and pomegranate and mulberry trees, and the smell of roses and dust and jasmine. Chickens scratched about unpenned, unaccompanied goats grazed the hillsides, dogs barked, cats crouched. There were vegetable gardens everywhere, and the plots of green wheat, I could tell, had been scythed, for what remained as stubble was as uneven as the whiskers on a badly shaven drunk. There were a few pickups – invariably red, invariably dented and listing – as well as a few new cars and a couple of vans and a number of four-wheel drives, parked in front of homes that could have been 200 years old and before others that were built (in the worst blocky, Athenian style) 20 or 30 years before. The whitewash on many stone walls had faded, cement had been poured and scored over what had once been stone-inlaid paths, and said paths were overgrown with fountaingrass and berry vines and low-hanging branches.

There was nothing above the village, as far as I knew then, but the spiny reach of the parched Ohi mountain range. There was nothing about the village – with its crumbling, abandoned mills, its eyesore modern homes nestled next to beautiful, old, whitewashed stone houses, and without so much as a café – that made it anything but unremarkable. The mills for which Myloi was named closed after mid-century, last century – and only one has been converted into a house, the rest having become stone hulks of their former selves and now mostly walls. But whatever remained of the mills – like those storefronts – unused but not torn down, along with a broken column placed on the edge of a cement playground about as big as a matchbox, touched me. This was neither the New World into which I’d been born and in which I’d been raised, where what’s past – pace Faulkner – is indeed dead, nor was it the Old World in which the past – again, to turn Faulkner on his head – isn’t even past. A year later I returned expressly to find a house to rent, to transplant myself, and I found this place, from whose balcony I now stare at the sea.

No one can say how old this house is. Not my sometime-neighbor Yiannis, a retired plumber who, with his wife Anthoula, lives most of the time in Athens: he was born in this house, though, and he does remember that the largest of its then-three rooms was always closed to children, for that’s where his mother kept the preserves he and his siblings sometimes tried to raid in the middle of the night. We had a spoon among us, he once told me, and we were as quiet as children can be, which is why we were always caught dipping into the candied figs or bitter-orange preserves or candied quince. Vangelio, who owns this house – it was her prika, her dowry, a place bought for ten gold pieces by her father from Yiannis’s now long-dead mother, a house Vangelio did not want as she did not want her marriage, which has lasted more than half a century – cannot say how old it is, but she tells me the kitchen with its beehive fireplace was built by her husband Panayis almost 50 years ago. Before that, all cooking was done outside, rain or shine, which means there was no heat within these walls.

Panayis broke down the uppermost part of the stone wall that sits the street for part of the kitchen’s construction, but most of the room was built with stones he hauled with a mule from the forsaken Turkish homes below the ruins of the Frankish castle that sits Myloi’s westernmost hill. When the Turks left this part of the world after Evia’s secession by treaty to Greece in 1833, their stone homes were, as needed, cannibalized; they themselves had probably done the same, in part dismantling the long-neglected, crumbling Frankish castle, and perhaps in part diminishing the massive scree hills above Myloi that hold the detritus left behind by Roman quarriers some twelve hundred years before the Turks arrived. At any rate, Panayis built the kitchen and fireplace by hand, reassembling the stones he took from wherever he could, and he eventually opened an interior doorway that links the kitchen with the rest of the house without having to go outside to enter into it.

Stamatis Bitsikos, before his death at the age of 87 this year, recalled for me that when he was a child he knew the old man who had been born in this house and who died in it after living his entire life here. When I questioned him as my closest neighbor and as one of Myloi’s oldest elders, he told me: That old man was close to 90 when I wasn’t yet 10, and I remember him well. The house you live in, given my age and his age when I knew him, is at least the combination of our ages. Maybe it’s been there for two centuries. But more than that, I cannot tell you, for I don’t know things beyond my memory.

No one knows because no one remembers, Vangelio tells me. Maybe my grandparents would have known, but we don’t, for we weren’t born then, she adds. Baolina, my 84-year-old neighbor, says the same: We don’t know, because we weren’t born then.

They might as well say (which the villagers would, were they asked) that they weren’t born during the Persian wars or when some Venetians after the Fourth Crusade’s sack of Constantinople returned here and erected the Frankish castle, or when the Romans quarried in this part of Evia for more than 400 years that greenish-black marble of which they were particularly fond. They might as well say they weren’t born into the Ottoman empire, whose Turkish pashas here directed the creation of the irrigation system the villagers still use, or when Greece’s first king, Otto, very early in his reign, sailed to the bay below and insisted that the climate and environment were far more agreeable than that of Kifisia, a now-rich Athenian suburb which was then a wilderness with howling wolves, and directed his architect to create the modern town of Karystos.

They would say they weren’t born then because this is their way of dating: there were things that happened within their lifetimes, within memory – the Asia Minor disaster, the German occupation and consequent famine, the civil war, the dictatorship (1967-74), pre- and post-Andreas (Papandreou’s government) – and things that happened before them. Things that happened within the elder villagers’ lifetimes are never dated by year, but by event, since years mean little to a people who can’t read and have little with which to measure the daily habits of their agrarian lives other than seasons, marriages, births, deaths, holidays, and historical interruptions. And so it is that we know only that my kitchen was built less than 50 years ago, and that this house – because of Stamatis’s memory – has been here as long as it has.

The house’s stone architecture is traditional, and unique to southern Evia. Its northern wall is backed deeply into the steepness of the slope on which the village rests; I can place my palm at the lowest point of its flat roof if I stand on the street. Its four rooms face southward and open three doors onto a large balcony, which in turn roofs the bottom story, a series of storage rooms that were once used to stable animals as well. The ceilings in my four rooms are the height of two tall men; the ceiling beams are of cypress and chestnut, as are the crossbeams, and the fill between them are roughhewn slats. The flat roofing above the ceilings was originally dirt and clay, but an expanse of reinforced cement, sometime in the last 30 years, was poured on top of them. There are three tiers of terraced land; a lemon grove and the vegetable and herb garden sit the first tier, olive trees the bottom two, and everything is enclosed by stone walls. The wall from the first tier rises some 16 feet, and ends three feet above the street, making it a good resting-place for villagers going to and from the cemetery that lies beyond this last cluster of houses.

This coming and going at day’s end is traditional, though it has lessened since I first came to live in Myloi almost four years ago. At that time, the village women whose dead lay in graves would come at each day’s end to light small oil lamps above their tombs. Now I and neighbors closest to the cemetery do this for several of the women, for in these few years the elderly have grown remarkably older. In the beginning, before I came to be part of this small, aging community, the women would come and call out to me, not so much in greeting but because I was a curiosity, a xeni – a stranger, a foreigner: in Greek, the word is the same, you cannot be one unless also the other. And I was Other, among them. But that was then, and this is now.

I am still, existentially, a foreigner, for I can’t – and wouldn’t – shed the past that created me. I am made of those long rides with Rosario driving and my grandmother Rhea snapping her Juicy Fruit gum and singing Que sera, sera over and again; I was formed in those mornings when I sat around watching Eugene fry homemade donuts and listening to him – in the richness of a language no longer spoken – describe for us children, and eliciting our howls of laughter, how some dumbbell of a buddy once lit a handful of firecrackers and sat them on his head to blow his hat off so as to scare the bejesus out of a good woman from Merrimack (just to impress, mind you). I come from a world the villagers never knew. But, like the villagers here, I am also made of memories of love and hate and misunderstanding. That my memories are not theirs, and theirs not mine, matters little: I live among them and, in this place, we all gaze at the layered leftovers of the many pasts that sit and look back, sometimes squarely and at other times obliquely, right at us. There’s a comfort to this, for where I come from what came before is gone; where I come from everything, it seems (both physically and intellectually), has been torn down, destroyed once and for all. In my hometown, the corner-stores and restaurants and shops were long ago lost forever to malls or bulldozed in the name of urban renewal, the fishing holes landfilled to make way for trucking depots.

There are times, to be sure, when I feel I’ll always be a foreigner, a stranger; there are times when I feel I’ll never really fit in anywhere, never mind here. But distinctions even in Myloi do have an eerie way of disappearing, and those times seem as insubstantial as the obscured Attica peninsula this evening, for it has come to pass that here I am occasionally reminded that I (Elena, Melena, Melanie) have managed to lay down roots, no matter how fragile or how tenuous; that I have become (as Rosario and Eugene would have politely put it), a successful transplant. I am reminded of this from time to time because these days the villagers sometimes date things “before you came” or “after you arrived.”

Melanie Wallace is a novelist and frequent contributor to greekworks.com. Her latest novel, The Housekeeper, was published by MacAdam/Cage in April.
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