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Seduced by Greece

by Jan Wheatcroft

I love traveling, especially to foreign countries. I love to revisit old friends and spend time in places I have loved. I so enjoy finding new places to go and to have new adventures.  However, traveling and living in a foreign country are two very different and wonderful experiences. 

I was lucky to go to an island in Greece and stay for a long time with my children. We just existed there in a very ordinary Greek way for a few years. My sons went to Greek public school and I helped make signs in English for businesses trying to attract their first tourists.

I taught English as a second language to children and adults. I worked in shops selling to cruise passengers on days when the ships docked in the harbor for a few hours. And I wove my small tapestries and sold them to the tourists. I would sit in the cafes at the harbor and weave, attracting the attention of tourists who visited for longer periods of time. They would happily buy my work.

Basically, I led a regular life. I bought food from the small shops and from the men sitting side-saddle on their donkeys with baskets full of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers shouting as they passed the houses, stopping to sell to the housewives (and the foreign tourist).

I sent my eldest son down to the bakery for the day and he would happily return home munching on the bread ends, which were my favorite part, too. I helped the boys with homework and we did lessons in English, studying writing and spelling so they wouldn’t fall behind in their American school studies. 

I loved the flow of life in our small harbor village. The changing seasons formed the basic pattern of our days. The church and its customs and holidays formed another layer. Weddings, baptisms and funerals with their customs created the “icing” that held it all together.

Our house was tiny, with one room that the boys shared. I slept in the kitchen. We had cold running water that we heated for baths taken standing in a plastic baby bathtub. Our toilet flushed with a bucket of water. I cooked on a hot plate fueled by bottled gas. In the summer, water was turned off at noon, so bottles and buckets were filled for daily use early in the morning. Once a week, I boiled water to scrub clothes, then I would hang them on our line.

We lived across the street from the sea and the boys could walk to school. All children stopped at the local snack shop on their way to school to buy a treat for mid-morning snack time. That was a highlight that they savored.

Our house was originally built for Greeks returning from Turkey. Our island was the closest to Turkey, and many of the returning Greeks came to settle there. The houses had been built quickly with the bare necessities but I always felt lucky to have lived there. Daily life was simple with plenty of time to visit with the locals to learn their ways. Shopping and cooking was often quite a social experience. Cooking often depended on what was available. The boys would get bored with what I created and would beg for a souvlaki or Gyro with fried potatoes. Even though money was tight it was a pleasure to see them so happy.

I loved sitting at the harbor watching life in its richness. Fishing boats came and went unloading their catch, selling to the waiting women and the restaurants. I watched cats sit patiently, waiting for bits and pieces to be tossed to them. My youngest son loved to fish and had great patience. He would spend hours with his friends holding a piece of cork with a “string” of plastic wrapped around it and a hook at the end. He knew how to make “bready bait,” like the other boys. If he ever caught anything I never knew it, because he didn’t even like fish. But he loved sitting at the harbor surrounded by boats and fisherman.

We all enjoyed it when the tourist yachts pulled into port and we could learn about their travels and home countries. I could sit for hours with my Greek coffee just being a part of the island and harbor life.

In those early days, the best way to celebrate was to go to a dance place for the evening with a group and  dance into the night. Tables were set around a stage where people danced. The bouzouki and guitar players sat, and a singer would stand while a belly dancer gyrated amid much shouting from the audience. Dances were paid for by a group and only those who paid were invited to dance . A person could join in only if invited.

Most were circle dances with the dancer at the head of the line leading the steps. Sometimes a person would perform a “soulful” dance by himself while friends came up to clap or hand him glasses of beer or wine. If an uninvited person entered the circle a fight could break out. Otherwise people in the audience would take the plates, glasses and bottles from their tables and smash them on the ground as the waiter swept up the shards. It was just like the film, Never on Sunday, which I loved. Going to a dance was a wonderful experience. I felt my blood flow and I was high on the experience. I could dance with wild abandon very easily. Walking home late at night was a good way to cool off after a night of dancing. 

For me, living in a small town in Greece was an enriching experience. Just hearing Greek music stirs up many of those wild feelings. Holidays and celebrations were different than what we were used to, but they were special.

We gambled at New Years, celebrated Easter with roast goat, red eggs and church services. On St. John’s Day, we watched as the cross was thrown into the harbor. The boys would then dive into the cold sea until one of them retrieved it. They would then parade through the village with the cross. We went to weddings and got our bags of sugared almonds. We were a part of the town and the life. We had been accepted. It was a wonderful period of time for me,  and I hope my sons will one day remember it as a rich experience for them as well.