You imagine the world might be difficult to assimilate for a child, while we have seen it all, or seen worse, or greater. But here we are in our sixties, on a Greek island in November expecting the same old thing, but experiencing surprises and novelty beyond expectations, despite 40 years of visiting.
On Sunday 1st, we find ourselves in the Panda Rei bar listening to live Rebetiko music for the first time in 40 years . Why? I don’t know. Perhaps it was always going on but we accidentally avoided it by going to bed too early? All this time I have counted out the strange rhythm and came to describe it as alternating bars of four and five. Suddenly, I see the singer clapping her leg in a slow three followed by a quick three. 4 and 5 do not make this 9. This 9 is not made of 4 and 5, but 6 and 3.
The guitarist smokes and sips whiskey through the set, and the audience eats, gossips, or morosely examines the ceiling. I alone seem to care about the scales and modes (or ‘dromos’ as they are known) and I’m straining over the chatter to pick out the sequences of intervals: natural seconds, flat seconds, and sharp seconds, that make up the Doh Re Mi of each of these ‘simple’ nursery rhyme songs.
On Monday morning (2nd) the quayside is quiet. Costa, who hires cars with wheels that fall off, points out there are no boats on the water. We notice he is right. He laughs when we ask why. They worked all summer he says. Perhaps they fancy two days off? The people and the government each feel entitled to money from the other. Resentment and disarray seem permanent as the sea and sun.
It takes us two days to transfer some money between accounts in Greece’s new post-functional economy. It may take us longer to get home in a ferryboat strike. I don’t fancy the pirate strike breakers’ boats and risking the pickets’ wrath.
After the estate agent we visit what I call the ‘Office of Unresolvable Problems’ (OoUP). The agent has lost our key (though he is not sure if he had a key) and has also forgotten the asking price. The OoUP had informed him that a forestry certificate is necessary for the contract, but now we think the €500 two year application process is not needed for the sale. This is all hard to assimilate, because normally the guy that mugs you offers neither an office nor a business card.
At the OoUP, Niko tells us the forestry certificate can be circumnavigated by additional clauses, or by not mentioning it. So from this week people will start viewing our house. To lose a house after 45 years is like losing a parent – how much change can we make before losing our bearings?
He also mentions that his grandfather’s and father’s olive oil plant has fallen to him. Come by and see he says. So, after further visits to banks, shops, and cafés, we go to watch him preside over the processing of his first harvest.
This is more than I can assimilate. A clutch of scruffy workers are gathering in a yard that we have driven past unknowingly for decades. There are heaps of 40kg bags and walls of stacked crates of freshly picked olives. It’s the 2nd November and the harvest is coming into an old wooden shed where, bolted to a freshly floated cleanly painted concrete floor, are heavy pieces of process engineering plant and a 3-phase distribution cabinet. The new and the old meet here.
We wait from start to finish to watch bags cut open and poured into a funnel set into the floor. After being quickly separated from their stalks and leaves, the olives rise into a washer and move on to be heated and crushed to loosen the oil from the other matter. The heat comes from a furnace fed by the crushed stones of previous harvests. Three farmers unload their crops into these machines which end up churning in three separate long troughs with horizontal screws. One at a time, each farmer’s batch is emptied into the centrifuges and finally we see brightly coloured opaque olive oil pour into a stainless steel bath. Poured into a plastic bottle, the first sample is given to us in the ear rattling din of the shed.
Stepping outside, the late, low autumn sunshine is pushing through the heavy laden musty air. All around are scruffy workers smoking and talking and waiting while their harvest and their labours are turning into oil. Among them is an untidy ‘Papa’ – an orthodox priest, whose workers have brought in his crop. You can bring your own crop – from one tree, to a whole orchard. Six litres from each 40kg bag which in turn comes from ??? trees.
I realise that this is the annual payday. There should be a ceremony. The papa should give thanks to The One who sent the sun and rain, and made the olive trees. The first tenth should be put aside for the poor. The good news of the year’s crop coming to fruition (or liquidation) should be announced and acknowledged in song, accompanied by olive bread, and wine.
We attend the millennial continuity of the harvest cycle, standing in peasant footprints of today and of the ages. Law-giving parliaments are symbolically closed and re-opened by kings, but this ancient food-making life-giving ceremony was ever only seen by peasants who now depart into the long warm shadows of the mountain with a golden green treasure that few will see, or taste.
Though it’s simple, it’s a lot to take in.
On Tuesday 3rd we go to town for a few errands and settle into reading after a late lunch at a traditional taverna. Actually this taverna is steeped in tradition. In the hands of a fourth generation who own, cook, and wait, we are served fish from across the street, with a soup (Patsas) of pig’s stomach with vinegar steeped in garlic. Horta – Rathikia – wild greens from the mountainside soaked in oil and lemon. A carafe of local retsina is on the side.
We’re enjoying the food, the skill, the learning, of how many generations? An apple is sliced and sprinkled with cannela (cinnamon) and home made grape jam.
Eventually we rise and amble along the waterside, but we forget our plans and are drawn out along the broad pier to witness the most sensational sunset we have ever seen. Being the second day of a strike, the quays are empty of the diesel dirt of the clanging ferryboats and their cargo of minor polluters. The stage is set. Cleared, quietened. Prepared.
The sky has a low ceiling of dark blue grey clouds flecked with deep fiery orange. The glowing embers are thrown out across an expanse too wide to see without turning to see one extent, while missing the other. It’s literally too big to take in. At the base, between the darkest cloud and the purple grey wash of the mountains, the pattern seems to explode from a clear patch of luminous turquoise sky. A handful of others share the port with us, all holding cameras or phones aloft; our arms are all lifted up in response to this divine ariel kaleidoscope, reserved as it is on this appointed day of inaction, only for those who are willing to go aside, and be still.
An image on this scale cannot be captured. We look into our viewfinders and review our images, only to return our gaze to the sky before we lose this special moment. This could be the greatest sunset we’ll ever see. What a simple but difficult lesson – while we attempt to store what cannot be stored for the future, the life we have must be lived now. Now, in this moment.
Wherever we are, whatever we think we are doing.