Samos: An Aegean Isle of Contrast

WHEN we go to Greece we never wish to linger long in Athens. "Try not to breathe!" Athenians say ironically, for it is one of the most polluted cities in Europe. We leave it at dawn, flying off into a rose-red sky, over a maze of Aegean islands, back to the isle of Samos. We pick up the threads of last year, old friends, familiar places, as if we had never been away.Certain friends have a small weekend retreat at Megalo Seitani, and last May we went there, not by foot along the rough mule track on the cliff-edge, but by boat. In Greece, it seems natural to see everything in terms of myth, so our expedition to Seitani became Jason's quest for the Golden Fleece, our small boat the 50-oared Argo, "the finest of all ships that ever braved the sea" built by Argus of seasoned timber from Mount Pelion. We read the "Voyage of the Argo," by Apollonius of Rhodes, and recited the names of Jason's crew: "First I name Orpheus, ... Admetus, King of Pherae, ... Lynceus, with the keenest eyesight in the world, Zetes and Calais, children of the North Wind and - best of all for us, an islander, proud Ancaeus from Samos, who could boast skill in seamanship... ." We set off from the port, past the headland where soldiers keep watch on the old enemy Turkey, lying close over the Aegean, across the bay of Mikro Seitani. Then there it is, the wide horseshoe sweep of the shore of Megalo Seitani, under towering Mount Kerkis. We have entered a life of Biblical simplicity, drawing water from a deep well and carrying it to the house, hidden among flowering olives. Every now and then, with a tinkling of bells, riders come down from the hillside, followed by their goats and dogs. They pause to greet us for talk: How little is needed here for happiness, they repeat. It is more than an island truth - it is universal. A neighbor's voice echoes along the shore: "El-e-ana, Grigor-ee, Dimitr-ee!" Her children never hear her. They are lost in the bliss of childhood, fishing off the rocks, and rowing in their father's boat. We can't keep out of the jade-green sea. There is such magic about the place that if a seal's dark head rises from the water. we are ready to believe it belongs to Poseidon. A blackbird sings, but it might well be Orpheus, whose voice enchanted mountain rocks and streams. At supper we are joined by Kostas and Nikos, who came with us in the Argo to install the first electricity in Seitani. Now, their work completed, Kostas switches it on. Let there be light! An end to paraffin lamps! Instead of the Golden Fleece we have a golden globe of gleaming light. Over a meal of fish, caught by our host, cheese and fruit and fresh-baked bread, we talk of the old days in the island. Those were better times, Nikos claims. Kostas believes in progress and has no regret for the passing of the gentler light of old lamps, their quiet purring sound. They both agree in one essential: As long as kindliness of heart and hospitality remain in Samos they need not fear the future. Before we sleep, we walk along the beach, listen to the old Aegean, look up at the eternal stars , and think how little has changed. On Sunday morning we swim before breakfast, then climb up the hillside to the small church in a cave, Aghios Nikolaus, where a Greek Orthodox priest holds a service at least once a year. It is so still up there, only the faintest quiver of leaves, that we half-expect to find Jason and his crew stretched out under the olives, persuaded by proud Ancaeus of Samos to call in at the loveliest isle in all the wide Aegean, to rest awhile from rowing. The sun dips, the long Sunday afternoon is at an end, time to pack up and leave our little paradise. The children, Eleana, Grigori, and Dimitri, now half-asleep, must return to school the next morning, while we must fly back to Athens. The Samos holidays are over. WE are met at the airport by our friends' daughter and go by taxi to her flat in the district of Patissia. There, standing in the street, I have a sudden sense of loss, not just of sweet island air, but something else, horribly tangible. In our taxi, now fast vanishing into the infernal labyrinth of Athenian traffic, sits my handbag, stuffed with treasures. I can only exclaim, as Greeks do: "Ti tha kanome! What's to be done!" No Ariadne will appear with guiding thread to lead us through this modern maze. The best-laid schemes of mice and men.... Our projects of visiting the Benakis museum, of seeing the golden mask of Agamemnon yet again in the archeological museum, have all to be scrapped. Instead of climbing up the marble steps to the Parthenon, we go up a very different stairway, that of the police station in Patissia. The sultry heat increases every minute, along with an oppressive odor of sweat, grime, and the human misery of big cities. A fierce-eyed, scarlet-faced police officer sits at his desk, scowling across at a furtive-looking youth, then down at a pile of identity cards. He turns on me a glare so piercing that I begin to feel a criminal myself. A lost handbag! Perhaps I stole it! "What was in it? Why did you leave it in a taxi?" he demands. I try to remember and call to mind a Greek grammar book, a dictionary, sunglasses, a bottle of perfume, a collection of pebbles from Potami, sprigs of sage and lavender, souvenirs of island life. The furtive youth sidles off down the stairs, the officer turns back to me. "No money? No passport?" "A far more grievous loss than that," I reply. He sits up. "What is that?" It is my most precious possession, a notebook filled with what I wrote in olive groves and on pebbled shores. "Is that all!" I must fill in a form with my name, age, address, and occupation. I or my friend must phone "Lost Property" next Tuesday. I am dismissed, feeling part of the criminal population of Patissia. No more taxis for us! We take the train to the Piraeus, hoping to find fresher air, to see ships sail from the great port and dream of our little Argo. Instead we land in yet another labyrinth. A market spills over streets and pavements. Stall holders with dark, Levantine faces shout down their rivals. "Fresh peaches, pears, strawberries!" they howl. A blind beggar woman limps through the crowd, holding out a bowl and chanting a litany of her griefs in a high, shrill wail; a black-eyed Russian from the Black Sea ports tempts us with samovars and opera glasses. "Watch your purse!" our friend whispers. All the pickpockets of the Piraeus may be closing in on us. On our return journey to Patissia the train is furnace hot. A political trial is taking place in Athens, watched daily on television. The very air bristles with anger and resentment. An oily-haired, ragged gypsy woman suddenly rounds on her neighbor, a stout Greek sweltering in a tight gray striped suit. "Look at him!" she screams. "Look at me! How does he pay for clothes like that?" He protests, she attacks, scoring point upon point over her victim, finally demolishing him triumphantly as if he and his gray suit were to blame for all the present scandals. A young man with dangling earrings, and a tangled, dusty beard, takes over. He denounces everyone in Athens, in Europe, the entire globe. We are suffocating in squalor and corruption, soon we will be overcome by petrol fumes and political filth - we h ave barely a year left to breathe in. The tension, rancor, and shouts of doom make our heads spin. We feel that we have lived here not for a day but for years. Time is relative, we can play with it, change it at will. We fly out of the airport again at dawn. In a half-waking, half-drowsing state I hear echoes of the police officer's accusing: "What have you lost? Why did you lose it?," hear the venemous fireworks in the train. I count not sheep, but the half-remembered pages of my missing notebook. It all comes drifting back and with it come s sleep. I hear the lap and surge of waves at Seitani, the splash of our oars. Without the dark how do we know the light, and without noise how do we prize the silence? Contrast is the whole essence, the stuff of life.

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