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There is an island out there waiting for you

by Jan Wheatcroft

 

I first came to Greece in 1973 with my husband and two young sons. We thought we would find a different way of life full of adventure and perhaps get life’s juices flowing again. I am no longer sure why, but we did have our VW bus packed full of strollers, a folding baby bed, diapers and other necessities of family life.

We had planned on settling in Sicily, but my husband refused to ask for directions when he got lost in the north of Italy so we followed the path we were on, which took us into Greece. I fell in love with the life and, in the end, returned over and over again. 

I wanted to live on an island. I loved the potential isolation of being surrounded by water and living in a limited space. Life seemed small and intimate and held in time and space. The first island we stayed on was Crete and the town was Agios Nikolaos.

The village was built around a perfectly shaped harbor, rather roundish and was the influence for my choice of island villages to live in after that. The life suited me well. I loved the challenges, getting to know new people, a new language and the easygoing rhythm of the daily life. My husband did not feel that way.

After nearly a year away we returned to the US and he found a job in New York City. Ultimately, it was not a good choice for me and we returned to Greece after a few years. I discovered the Aegean Islands, mainly Samos where the boys, and I lived for there for many years. They went to school. I worked (unofficially) teaching ESL and helping in the early days of tourism. We lived in the town of Pythagorion, which had a perfect harbor. 

I loved the smallness and familiarity of the relaxed village life, so we stayed quite a few years. My memories are of small islands just beginning to meet tourism and to try to fit into the new way of life that tourism business brings.

At first the change was minimal, then more airplanes began bringing tourists from all over Europe. People rented out rooms, the hotels sprang up, then bigger hotels were needed to accommodate tourists. The lovely area around the perfectly shaped harbor became overcrowded with bars and cafes, each a replica of the one next to it. Eventually, I went home.  

I have visited many Greek Islands since then; some for just one visit and others every year over many years. I prefer the smaller, more isolated islands, especially those without an active airport.

Once in low season I visited Santorini, a very popular island that is all blue and white and very much used to tourism. It was beautiful but had the feel of visiting an isolated Athens with all the fancy trappings of jewelry shops, up-market restaurants and glorious sunsets that filled the streets every night with visitors watching for the last drop of gold.  

I found Skopelos and Skyros large enough to be interesting and quite enough to remind me of why I loved the Greek Islands. Skopelos has no airport so one has to arrive by ferry from the mainland or by catamaran from the neighboring island of Skiathos.

Over the years, I enjoyed the company of a lovely family and watched their children grow up. I sat in the harbor in a local cafe and wove my small tapestries on a homemade wooden loom while I watched the fishing boats and tourist yachts sail in and out. I returned to this lovely place year after year feeling happy that it was protected from too much change because of the challenge of just getting there.  

Then there is Skyros—a lovely island with its central mountain shaped like a white wedding cake and with very old traditional villages. I have spent many lovely weeks over nine years enjoying visiting the two centers for personal development—one in the village and one in the countryside on the sea. There are just enough visitors to keep life busy but not too many to bring great changes.  

When people ask me which islands to visit I am interested in knowing what it is that they are looking for. Do they have fantasies like I did of a perfect island? Or are they satisfied with seeing those islands visited by people who are unaware of the pleasures on the little known islands that one arrives to by a ferry and sees a life slowed down by tradition and time? Those tucked away places with cafes that are filled by older men with their worry beads and a preferred drink and some choice meze of a few olives, a sardine or two and some cheese? Where the streets are freshly whitewashed and large tins are filled with bright flowers?

The traditional way of life still exists on some of the smaller, isolated islands; it just has to be searched for until one finds that perfect island where a harbor awaits, the fishing boats bring in their catch, the food is fresh and good and the white washed buildings sparkle in the sun.