Sweat and Sage on the Isle of Samos

WE almost lose count of the times we have traveled to the green isle of Samos. Years ago we had our first flight from Athens in a small propeller plane: We went over the isles of Paros and Ikaria, with Turkey rising up on the horizon, then down above the wooded hills of Samos, over Mount Kerkis, and swooped at last along the small runway at Pythagorio (ancient Samos). As we drove from the south to the north of the island, there was an almost-instant impression of a leisurely, donkey's-trot pace of life.

The village we came to was quite unsophisticated, with friendly, old-fashioned family shops and no supermarkets. When the fruit-seller's donkey walked in the door of the Hellenic Bank, the clerks rushed out, not to chase it away but to buy grapes and peaches. When we came that first time the season was over, we were the only guests in the newly opened hotel, and almost the only tourists. We sometimes used the erratic bus service but mostly went by foot along to the great sweep of shore at Potami.

Back then the new road leading along the cliffs toward Mikro Seitani and Megalo Seitani was, happily, not even thought of. We climbed a narrow stony track, up and up into the olive groves. Everything then was a voyage of discovery. We walked over a carpet of russet grasses, under pines, and past the century-old dry-stone olive terraces. The hazy autumn light enfolded us like a golden garment, and hoopoes called along with blackbirds.

One day, into the stillness came a far-off swishing sound, a tinkling and jingling. Following it, we came upon a man cutting swathes of sage; two donkeys were tethered beside him, snuffling, shaking their ears, and clinking their harnesses. The man was so absorbed in his work that it took a while for him to become aware of the presence of strangers. He was lean and brown, with a face creased and furrowed by the seasons and outdoor living, yet he looked somehow ageless.

His first act was one of Grecian hospitality: He poured water for us from a flask, watching us while we drank as if sizing us up. We had arrived from Scotland, weary and longing for a leisurely holiday of walking and swimming, but mostly we wanted to just sit under the olives, reading and writing.

The water we drank must have had something in it of perpetual youth, for never before or since have we had so energetic a holiday. This Greek, Dmitri, had no idea of where we came from; tourists were to him an unknown breed. He only knew the race of toilers. His conception of life was summed up in one word - doolya (work).

He might look ageless but he was not young, and he could do with helpers. We fitted the bill. There was no point in saying that we were on holiday and wanted to rest. What were holidays? What was rest? They had no meaning for him.

There we were, Ariel or Caliban to this Samotian Prospero, cutting sage, rosemary, lavender, thyme, oregano, wild marjoram, and a host of herbs that were unknown to me. Farewell to all thoughts of sweet idleness. We were taken up into a world of blazing sunshine; of mingled fragrances; of blue and golden light, birdsong, and the tranquil munching and jingling harnesses of Ariera and Arietta, the donkeys.

We were allowed brief rests to drink the spring water of Samos. We knew very little Greek then, and Dmitri not a word of English, but somehow or other, wonderfully, we communicated. As we talked on those breaks, we began to understand his dreams of those ships that would sail from the port of Vathi or from the little harbor at Karlovasi and go over to the Piraeus, and then all over the world, carrying his herbs - "our herbs," he sometimes added magnanimously. Then, remembering, he would spring to his fee t and shout "doolya!" We would repeat Ariel's "I must obey, his art is of such power." He smiled, not understanding a word but liking the sound of it.

Every day we were ready to climb the steep track from Potami, up to the olive groves and the fields of sage. We became increasingly skillful, tying up bundles of thyme, marjoram, and lavender and stuffing them into sacks that hung from the donkeys' wooden saddles. The final proof, if one was needed, of the power of Dmitri's art was that, forgetting a lifelong terror of heights, I was able to ride sidesaddle on Arietta as she descended the sheer rocky tracks along the cliff's edge. With Dmitri holding the

bridle, there was no danger of flying over Arietta's tall ears and falling down to where the sea churned on the rocks far below.

We rode along to the bay at Mikro Seitani, then, finally, to the loveliest shore of all at Megalo Seitani. The rare monk seals still bred there in those days. Here Dmitri lit a driftwood fire and boiled water in a black pot, stirring in sprigs of sage and brewing up ptisan. We drank it along with fresh-baked goat cheese, tomatoes, and olives. We had time to swim, then "doolya!" - back to cutting sage and thyme.

In the late afternoon, with the mysterious blue twilight gathering, we returned to what Dmitri called his "pharmacy." It was a large barn filled with hay and herbs, where, in the last war, Italian soldiers had slept. One of them, sick for home and for peace, had written, ironically, on the walls: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.... (It's sweet and proper to die for one's country.) We piled up our perfumed packs, the latest cuttings, and called, in parting from our Prospero, "Till tomorrow!"

"Doolya!" was his unfailing reply.

When we got back to our hotel, bedraggled and sun-scorched, our host stared at us incredulously. "Where have you been all day? Working? That's no way to spend a holiday! Who is this Dmitri?"

Days passed. Our vacation time was running out, and Dmitri had begun to take on a thoughtful look. We had managed to convey to him that we had to return to our country. He had quite other plans for us. Where was Skotia anyway? He had never heard of this small, cold, sunless land in the north. Far better to stay on for the warm winter in Samos. Besides, there was the grape harvest in Idroussa, the olive crop to gather in Pagondhas, sage still to cut in Kalivia.

On our last evening, just when we had begun to pack, we were called down to the reception desk: Someone wished to speak to us. We hardly recognized our Greek Prospero in a fine brown jacket.

"I have come to give you your pay, since you insist on leaving," he said grandly, looking around the shining, brand-new hotel, unimpressed. Our pay was a bulky, sweet-smelling bundle of herbs. "I'd like to buy some of your sage," the hotelkeeper said, his hand moving toward his pocket. Dmitri halted it in midmovement. "You work for these," he said. "You don't buy them!"

We walked with him as far as the barn, which stood on the shore. A storm was brewing and the sea was rising. "Poseidon is at work," Dmitri said with satisfaction, as if he and Poseidon had been weaving spells together.

Waves came surging over the breakwater, soaking us in spray. "If by your art you have put the wild waters in this roar, allay them!" we said. Dmitri smiled, as always, at our quotations with their fine strange sound.

When we shook hands, bidding him goodbye, we sensed that he was sorry to lose not his most skilled workers but perhaps his most willing. "Poli doolya!" he called back to us, adding something else. But he had vanished, swallowed up in darkness, and his voice was carried away by the howling gale. He could have been repeating Prospero's farewell to Ariel: "I shall miss thee, but yet thou shalt have thy freedom." We would miss him; we had grown used to one another in those autumn weeks, bound closely togethe r in the joy of shared work.

The next day our plane was delayed. We sat waiting in the little airport at Pythagorio. Perhaps Dmitri was right after all: We would winter in Samos; no plane or ship would ever venture forth at this season. Toward evening the wind dropped, and a tiny black speck appeared above Mount Kerkis, flying nearer and nearer. Soon we were off, across the storm-tossed Aegean.

OVER the years we have come again and again to Samos, finding quite different delights, but none so wonderful as that first encounter with a magician in the fields of sage. We had the good fortune to know the island before the great wave of tourism invaded it: A time when the rough old tracks twisting among the hills were the only ones; when donkeys were the best and surest means of transport; when monk seals safely bred, untroubled by speed boats and the noise of transistors; when jackals might still be

glimpsed high on Mount Ambelos.

We were lucky to have enjoyed those gentler days, that simplicity of living, lost perhaps forever. We need only the faintest sniff of sage to be transported back to that enchanted season of working for our Greek Prospero, and to hear again the echo of his relentless "Poli doolya." For there's more work.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Sweat and Sage on the Isle of Samos
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today