Twas on the isle of carefree that I met him
Darrel makes his first friend on his new island home, and discovers that a friend of one is a friend of all
I have been on my Greek island for a little over a week, and I’ve made my first friend.
Ikaria is known for being a friendly place. The people here routinely live to be 100 and there are many theories why, including the rigidly enforced local tradition of afternoon naps, but the one the locals prefer is their sense of community. They are self-sufficient here and look after each other in lean times. The economic crisis didn’t really affect them because they don’t have much money anyway but none of what they have is from loans or from tourists. They take care of each other but they aren’t sentimental about it. When they greet in the street or in the small town square of Agios Kyrikos where I’m writing this, it isn’t all shouts and hugs and pinching each other’s cheeks, as though they were Americans or beastly Italians. It’s a smile and a nod and a handshake and some quiet eye contact; they care too much about each other to have to keep performing how much they care.
In Athens before I came here I rented an apartment from a 70-year-old Aphrodite named Vivian. She lives in Athens and her husband lives on Ikaria. They love each other very much and from what I could see they speak at least 50 times a day on the phone but she has things to do in Athens and he likes to drink coffee on the island with his friends, so they live apart and visit from time to time and their marriage is very happy. I told her I was looking forward to observing the island’s sense of community and she pshawed me.
“Pshaw!” she said, or a Greek word to that effect. “What observe? You will be part of the community.”I told her I don’t speak Greek and that I’ll only be there a few months but she waved that away. In Ikaria, she said, everyone who sets foot there is a resident. Even if you only stay three days, for those three days you are Ikarian.
This morning I was starting to feel a little melancholy. There’s nothing wrong with feeling melancholy. It happens to us all, especially if we take the time to feel it, and it’s my birthday on Friday, which always makes me a little low. I used to like my birthday when I was young but its charm has waned with repetition.
I sat in the square and watched the people disembarking from the ferry in the harbour, strings of Ikarians coming home from the mainland for the orthodox Easter weekend (which is a week after the rest of the world’s Easter weekend). Friends and relatives were greeting each other and sitting in the sunshine over small cups of coffee so strong that if the cups were any bigger the coffee might well grow sentient and acquire the power of speech. I was supposed to be writing but instead I watched people and felt melancholy.
A man approached me. He had a magnificent hairstyle, like a sort of square crash-helmet. He asked me if I played chess. I had seen him in the square before. He carries a clipboard and counts how many cars are parked in the free parking in front of the square facing the sea. He writes down the count and takes it on the hour to the man who sits behind the counter in one of the cafés. The man behind the counter takes the count and studies it with every sign of interest and nods seriously and gives him some small coins in exchange.
I told him I did play chess but not very well, and he pulled a face in disappointment. He plays chess very well, he said. He has the Garry Kasparov chess programme and he practises it every night after he has finished working in the square. He asked me what I thought of his English, and I told him truthfully that it was very good. He nodded proudly. “I learn English on the Internet,” he said. “I use it for psychology.”I wasn’t sure what he meant by that but I asked him if he wanted to sit. He shook his head. He was working, he said. He can’t sit when he is working. He asked what I thought of his English. He told me that he learns it on the Internet. He told me he has the Garry Kasparov chess programme.
In Nikos Kazantzakis’s Zorba the Greek, Zorba explains that every village has its simpleton. Sometimes he calls him a simpleton, sometimes he calls him an idiot. You may not like the use of the word idiot, but it’s not a description, it’s a job title. If there are no candidates for the job, the villagers appoint someone to be the idiot. To be the village idiot does not imply any diminution of respect: everyone is part of the community, and all play an equal and loving part in forming the whole.
He asked my name and I told him and then I asked his and he said his name was Steve, which was a surprising sort of name. We shook hands solemnly and made a sort of date to play chess and Steve said: “We are friends. I go now”, and then he went back to counting cars. Steve had many conversations over the course of the day – brief, intense conversations with passers-by in which I detected not a trace of humouring or patronisation.
When I had been sitting there a while, the owner of the café brought me another coffee. He put it down in front of me with the roughness that is affection here. I tried to indicate that I hadn’t ordered it. “Beh,” he said, waving me away. “Steve’s friend.”