Language and all the hemispheres

“Blindness separates people from things;
deafness separates people from people.”

-Helen Keller

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Two years ago, one of my students started school without any language.  No signing and no spoken word.  He was bilaterally implanted (two cochlear implants), but hadn’t had the therapy, consistent usage, or mapping (when the audiologist adjusts settings according to her auditory needs) necessary to make them successful.  You could stand behind him and shout his name and he wouldn’t turn around.

He lived in a nameless world.  Objects had no labels.  He couldn’t recognize his name in spoken or signed language.  He didn’t understand transitions: why we entered or left rooms — and he didn’t understand classroom behaviors: why his classmates lined up or sat down or couldn’t touch certain objects.

Within the first two months of school he learned his colors, some numbers, some letters, the sign names of teachers and himself, and various classroom objects.  He loved learning.  It opened up his world. He would enter the classroom and run to the whiteboard and point at numbers and sign them.  He grabbed a book with pictures of objects labeled with the corresponding signs and he twisted his hand into the shape of the hand in the photo.

He would copy-sign everything I or an interpreter would sign to him (even if we were explaining something and not asking for it to be copied).  He mimicked our lips and attempted sounds.  At home, his parents didn’t sign with him, and he didn’t understand spoken words — his brain still hadn’t made enough connections to identify sounds with words/concepts/objects.

He was so excited to communicate, to share a system of signals that allowed him to express his ideas and understand ours.   We went on a field trip to a pumpkin patch, and he sign “pumpkin, pumpkin, pumpkin” over and over.

The videos that occasionally circulate showing a deaf child or adult hearing for the first time don’t show the whole story.  They show a very exciting start and potential for using listening and spoken language — which is amazing — but they don’t show the hours of auditory-verbal therapy, speech therapy, and other interventions that are required to help a child’s brain learn to interpret the signals it receives.  Adult patients who are implanted after being profoundly deaf since birth will likely not learn to understand speech, but might find other uses (eg. hearing their baby cry in the night).  Adult implant recipients who had hearing and then lost it later in life will have a much better outcome in terms of understanding speech — “They learn to associate the signals from the implant with sounds they remember, including speech.”  (https://www.nidcd.nih.gov)

Understanding language through audition (hearing) is not as simple as an on-switch.  The first three years of life are crucial in the development of receptive and expressive language, as they are at the height of the brain’s neuroplasticity – the ability to create changes in synaptic connections and neural pathways that shape and restructure the brain.  After three, those pathways and connections can still be developed and an auditory-oral language can be learned, but the “success” rate and speech intelligibility are likely to be much lower.

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I worry about my students with limited communication.  I worry they won’t ever catch up to grade level.  But more than that, I worry about how limited language — something I take for granted — will isolate them from meaningful relationships.  When they cry or hide under a table because they are upset but don’t have words to explain why.  When they are beyond that and know how to say “happy, sad, excited, angry” but can’t explain further.

I have to remind myself that words aren’t the only part of a relationship.  Words aren’t the only way to communicate.  That even if they eventually fall short of a fluent language grasp, they will still be able to give and receive love.  But it is frustrating.  It is reductive.  I want more for them.

**

I have other students with varying degrees of hearing loss who are excelling in their regular ed classrooms.  Their implants and hearing aids allow them to access sound.  They are getting A’s and B’s and the educational impact of their hearing loss is nuanced, and not immediately apparent.  You can’t hear it in their speech or always see it in their grades.  (But there are impacts.)

**

It’s a great big beautiful wonderful world.  It’s not all easy to understand.  There are questions. But there is beauty in the questions.

All the Hemispheres

Leave the familiar for a while.

Let your senses and bodies stretch out

 

Like a welcomed season

Onto the meadow and shores and hills.

 

Open up to the Roof.

Make a new watermark on your excitement

And love.

 

Like a blooming night flower,

Bestow your vital fragrance of happiness

And giving

Upon our intimate assembly.

 

Change rooms in your mind for a day.

 

All the hemispheres in existence

Lie beside an equator

In your heart.

 

Greet Yourself

In your thousand other forms

As you mount the hidden tide and travel

Back home.

 

All the hemispheres in heaven

Are sitting around a fire

Chatting

 

While stitching themselves together

Into the Great Circle inside of

You.

-Hafiz

 

Not Okay.

As a 15-year-old in the Middle East, my friends and I used to make bets on how many cars would beep at us on our 10 minute walk to McDonalds.  Not because we were cocky pedestrians, but because we were young women walking unaccompanied by men, which, apparently, equated to beeping and shouting and gawking.  My 15-year-old dresscode tended to be an oversized t-shirt and jeans.  When I left the house I always had my shoulders and knees covered, out of respect for a culture that valued “modesty” — and also because if I didn’t the harassment and stares would be much, much worse.

We found the beeping stupid — when has that worked as a pickup for anyone? — and mildly amusing.  The stalking was less amusing: cars following us as we picked up our pace and eventually turned into a stranger’s walled entrance, pretending it was our home so that they wouldn’t know where we lived.  The beeping, stalking, and comments were a daily part of our lives; so daily that they didn’t seem of any particular note.  I sensed my vulnerability as a girl/woman, but I did not equate it to sexism or harassment.  I thought of it as a weird extension of flirting, just a way to show interest.

**

Several of my friends have been raped (by both strangers and boyfriends).  Those are the ones I know about.  All of my female friends have been sexually harassed or assaulted to varying degrees.  All of them.  I don’t mean unwelcome smiles or “Hey girl” type pickups.  I mean strangers following you and saying impossibly crude things and you don’t know what will make them go away: a smile, a phone call to a fake boyfriend, staring blankly ahead.  I mean bosses who are inappropriate physically or verbally and if you speak up it might mean your job.  I mean dates who decide that they’d really like to go a little or a lot physically farther, barreling through any world’s version of consent.  I mean long-term boyfriends or spouses who have no problem overpowering the person they are supposed to trust and respect.

**

There is #notokay hashtag trending on twitter where women are sharing stories of sexual assault.  It is horrifying.  It is pervasive.  It is real.

**

In her book, “Self Made Man,” Norah Vincent dressed as a man for a year as a social experiment.  Early on, she noted the difference in eye-contact she received as a “man.”

“I had lived in that neighborhood for years, walking its streets…As a woman you couldn’t walk down those streets invisibly.  You were an object of desire, or at least a semi-prurient interest to the men who waited there…If you were female and you lived there, you got used to being stared down because it happened every day.

But that night, dressed as a man, I walked by those same stoops and doorways…I walked right by those same groups of men. Only this time they didn’t stare. It was astounding, the difference, the respect they showed me by not looking at me, by purposely not staring…

That’s what had annoyed me so much about meeting their gaze as a woman, not the desire, if that was ever there, but the disrespect, the entitlement. It was rude, and it was meant to be rude, and seeing those guys looking away deferentially when they thought I was male, I could validate in retrospect the true hostility of their former stares.

But that wasn’t quite all there was to it. There was something more than plain respect being communicated in their averted gaze, something subtler, less direct. It was more like a disinclination to show disrespect. For them, to look away was to decline a challenge, to adhere to a code of behavior that kept the peace among human males in certain spheres just as surely as it kept the peace and the pecking order among male animals. To look another male in the eye and hold his gaze is to invite conflict, either that or a homosexual encounter. To look away is to accept the status quo, to leave each man to his tiny sphere of influence, the small buffer of pride and poise that surrounds and keeps him.

I surmised all of this the night it happened, but in the weeks and months that followed I asked most of the men I knew whether I was right, and they agreed, adding usually that it wasn’t something they thought about anymore, if they ever had. It was just something you learned or absorbed as a boy, and by the time you were a man, you did it without thinking.”

**

According to a UNICEF report, there are 24 African countries that still practice female genital mutilation.  This is a procedure performed on females — from infancy to age 15, in which the female genital organs are mutilated for non-medical reasons.  Among other lifelong issues, FGM often results in a lifelong pain during sexual intercourse.

“Psychosexual reasons: FGM is carried out as a way to control women’s sexuality, which is sometimes said to be insatiable if parts of the genitalia, especially the clitoris, are not removed. It is thought to ensure virginity before marriage and fidelity afterward, and to increase male sexual pleasure.”

**

Trump’s “locker room” talk was not an isolated, old conversation.  It is part of an ongoing culture of rape, sexual exploitation, and sexual harassment that sometimes feels permanently embedded in our world.

Language matters.  It shapes ideas.  It creates dialogues.  It incites action.

I didn’t plan on writing this because there are SO many blogs and tweets about this issue, from people with much more eloquent and powerful stories and thoughts.  But I truly believe that language, dialogue, and support matter.  So I’m adding my voice to the masses of Americans — of people — who are demanding change in the way our society treats women.

The one where we got married

He proposed in a garden, standing up. He liked the symbolism of standing over kneeling, the two of us journeying life side-by-side. So he proposed while standing, in a wild part of a plantation in Charleston.  And then he got on one knee.

“Martin…stop.  Stop.  STOP.”

He turned his head and saw the tram of sun-glassed tourists halted twenty feet behind him.  He was blocking its path.  I didn’t want a public proposal.    So he got up and we walked to the side of the path and along the untamed grass, as far from the tram as possible, avoiding eye contact.  Nobody clapped.  They thought they had witnessed a rejection.

I said yes, of course.  And maybe a few other things. And there was sunlight and water and we walked and I stared at the ring and we took photos of peacocks and photos of ourselves and listened to Judy Collins and if our faces didn’t hurt from smiling, they should have.

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**

When we discussed it before we were engaged, I was worried about getting married. I was worried because as a single person, everything was open. I had infinite paths, infinite options. I could move to the south of France and finally learn French. I could work on a cruise ship for nine months. I could spend my summers in Hollywood auditioning for films. I could join a commune. I could make documentaries, volunteer at orphanages, spend winters in the Middle East.

More than that though, I wanted to live a significant percentage of my adult life overseas – and he was a U.S. boy with a hometown and a love of American football. He enjoyed traveling, but he had never lived in another country for long enough to be considered a TB threat (three months, as it turns out). I insisted that seeing a place meant living in it, not playing tourist for a week or two or seven. And maybe it seems dramatic – but going through the jolt of a new place, the gestures and laughs of communicating in another language, the weeks of waiting for a shipment; all the navigating and exploring and perspective: these are embedded in me as surely as the peace he feels when he returns to his hometown.

**

He told me he wanted to live overseas. He told me loved me and wanted me to be happy. And there was a sincerity in his voice and an eagerness in his eyes, and I realized he wouldn’t make my world smaller. He would open it up.

And then a few days later I freaked out again and accused him of trying to trap me in Middle America for the rest of my life. (Because my mind is not as tidy as a neatly concluded essay.) Eventually, though, I realized I would rather discuss my hopes and dreams and fears with him in a random American city than wander the world by myself with them rattling around in my head.

And also, I felt like this:

LISTEN WHEN I LOOK AT YOU MY BRAIN LOOKS ALL STUPID AND I JUST WANT TO KISS YOUR FACE AND CUT PAPER SNOWFLAKES TOGETHER.

-Letters to Crushes

The many strange birds

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Trump has followed us here, of course.  He trailed us in Stockholm, bussed through the Baltic States, and into our Airbnbs, a wildly gesticulating shadow slipping in and out of our conversations with strangers, acquaintances, hosts, friends.  They want to know where he came from, why he has such strong support, where it will all end.  We have the same questions.

And then we move on.  We discuss the past and present maternity leave in Vilnius (it used to be three years at 100% of salary), the historic sites in the States — our Serbian host had been an exchange student with an American family who took her to all 50 states — and the German knack for exporting nudity to off-the-map locales (at this point, Martin refers to all speedos and nudists as Germans).  We chose to Airbnb partly because it was an inexpensive alternative to hotels (our rooms have ranged from $18 to $60 per night, averaging $40), and a step up from crowded party hostels (is this adulthood?).  But also, we were excited about the social aspect — meeting locals, learning a bits of language, and sharing stories.

On Magganitis, we have a private loft studio, but it is one of several units in building, one of which houses our host, Stella, and her 28-year-old son who walks around with an acupuncture needle sticking out of his forehead like an underdeveloped unicorn horn and a 24-year-old daughter with long wavy hair and a perpetual smile. The kitchen is outside; a toaster oven with three burners that can be turned on a the same time but have to have the same heat setting, which means if you want to boil water and lightly sautee a sauce at the same time, you’re faced with sloooow water or scraping a crusty sauce layer off the bottom of the pan.  There are four other self-contained units being rented, and we find ourselves sharing scraps of meals and conversation with them, which sometimes evolve into planned dinners and beach excursions and invitations to visit in the future.  We have the privacy of our own space and the option of hermiting, but we enjoy the small, shifting community of travelers: teachers, writers, scientists, doctors, directors, retreaters.

**

“My dad says that Germany has changed from being a place people want to flee from to being a place they want to flee to.  I think this is just about right,” our German neighbor tells us.  He says that only 10% of the population is anti-refugee, and this sounds low to me.  He is here with his girlfriend of 12 years; they are 28 and 29, high school sweethearts who researched the Greek islands, looking for something beautiful, non-touristy, relaxed.

Her name is Mira which is strange because the protagonist of the book I’m reading — my brother’s sci-fi automaton novel — is also called Mira.  I am convinced it’s not her name, that I heard wrong and my brain has thrown the book character as a substitute.  She has curly brown hair and a mediterranean hue to her skin.  She has a quick, unrestrained, laugh and a ready smile.  His name is Thiemo, pronounced Tee-mo, and for a while I think it is Tebow, like the football player.  It is sometimes strange how the mind insists on contextualizing information.

They tell us about the national guilt in Germany, about how strongly the effects of the war are felt, about how in the 60’s, young people were being educated about the war and confronted their parents with their activity during that time.  His grandfather was a prisoner of war in England when he was 17; mine was a prisoner of war in Germany when he was 18.  We have long discussions about history and politics and economics and healthcare.  He is a chemist, finishing his phD and researching a dissertation on oil alternatives.  She calls herself a “peepee doctor” and laughs — she is a urologist, and does surgery on bladders and kidneys, and she says slicing into people doesn’t make her nervous (I ask, I have to ask.)  She talks about reconstructing a bladder out of other body tissue (I forget which), and how she works 10 hour days and doesn’t always have time to eat, so she grabs candy from the candy bowl for energy.  She doesn’t want her hands shaking while she is in surgery.

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**

We meet Mira and Thiemo around the same day we meet another couple who also live in Germany.  They are married, but don’t wear rings.  He, Michael, is easygoing and thoughtful, quick to make a joke, but also quick to engage in serious conversation.  His wife Anna is more reserved, but certain subjects flip a switch, and she enthusiastically tells us about the healing powers of the local hot springs which, among other things, flush out kidney stones.  Mira, our resident urologist, mentions that drinking lots of water will do the same thing, and Anna smiles and vaguely accedes the point, jokingly accusing Mira of reducing the magic of Ikaria.  But Anna is serious about healing and health and the Ikarian way of life — in her first few weeks here, alone, she learned to dance like a local, and wandered through the island, feeling out different villages.

Michael* is a director, and he tells us about meeting Andrea Bocelli for a commercial shoot he directed.  He tells us how Bocelli doesn’t view his blindness as a handicap and gets frustrated at the question. He gallops on horses and drives a speed boat and embraces life.  I tell him about the Deaf community and the controversy over implants and aids — why perform invasive surgery when there is nothing wrong with us? We are just different.

**

Anna recommends a restaurant on the beach with wonderful fresh seafood, and our group decides to make the hour drive to eat dinner and watch the Germany-Italy football match, played at every tavern and restaurant with a television.  The trek is, of course, bumpy and wild, but we discuss our love stories and our happiness at being here, away from the robotic grind of civilization.  We have invented youth and love and adventure, and it’s fine if this isn’t really so, because we are happy, and we have our music on the radio and time, all of the time, in our hands, coursing through our bodies, a non-renewable resource that feels renewable on Ikaria.

The hour ride it is worth it when we step out into the soft wind and walk down to one of the wooden tables outside the restaurant.  The waitress clips a tablecloth to the table to keep it from blowing; our feet are on the sand, the ocean is teasing the beach with its waves, and the stars are winking out of a deep blue.

We decide to get lots of dishes to split, and all of the dishes look amazing, and Anna keeps recommending various seafood dishes even though she’s vegan, and the waitress thinks we are goofy, but she just smiles and writes and suggests more.

**

“Working with a great actor is amazing,” Michael says.  “You tell him what you want, and he gives you three completely different takes, and they are all great.”  He tells us about different dynamics with other actors, and how the most important part of directing actors is the prep ahead of time where he discusses the vision of the film and motivations of the actors.

His first Hollywood feature came out last year; he spent three years working on it (60 days of shooting), but wasn’t given full creative control.

“Hollywood doesn’t understand…they think that everyone just wants more action,” he says, and tells us that he wasn’t able to follow his vision, and had to pick his battles with the producers who were always at the shoot — and initially he wasn’t proud of how the movie turned out.  He wanted it to be smart, contained, true to the story it was based on, but after an initial focus screening with pretty good results at 75%, the producers decided to pump up the action.  After having the second unit director film extra footage, injecting superfluous action into the film, the next focus group gave it the same overall rating.

Now, a bit removed, he says he is proud of the film, of the experience, and he knows how to approach the next feature.  But at the moment he is working on a personal project; an inspirational short — a drama about overcoming race and poverty based on a true story.

**

Our food arrives. And arrives. And arrives.  We’ve ordered grilled cheese and breaded cheese and tzatiki and beetroot salad and regular salad and octopus and squid and fish and grilled meat and eggplant.  And it all tastes fresh and newly invented, like every other version has been an attempt at recreating these.  We eat and eat and are stuffed, but we need just one more Souvlaki plate and the meat is juicy and tender and it makes you want to close your eyes like a person singing “Killing me softly” and really, really meaning it.

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**

“You are from a rich family,” Jerry, said downing his ouzo, and it wasn’t so much a question as an assertion.

“No, no. Just regular.” Martin and I both assured him.  But he said it again, and kept boomeranging back to it throughout the night.

While we have been on holiday — five weeks now — unspeakable things have happened around the world.  We have been in our holiday bubble — similar to our home bubble, but with less news and internet — and each time we read about a massacre, an attack, or a murder, we are silenced, saddened, and eventually we brush it off.  It is a blessing and a curse, our age of information.  Sometimes there are actions we can take, money we can donate, places we can volunteer, letters we can write.  But some things we are up against: ideologies, poverty, economic disparities, insane people — we realistically cannot do much except talk and know that talk is often useless.  That people are entrenched, and to an extent, so are we: think about your strong beliefs and how easily they would be changed; certainly not through one conversation or 10 internet posts.

So I walk around compartmentalized, grieving for those who grieve, while rejecting the heaviness of the mantle — because I can.  Terrorism and shootings have not happened to me or my loved ones, but they brush the fringes of my life: Newtown is half an hour from my family’s home in Redding.  My cousin knew the brother of a girl who was shot at the Batman premier.  I grew up in the Middle East.  I have black friends, black students.

And me?  I am so happy.  On a daily basis.  I am in Greece with a man who I look at and am overwhelmed by how much I love him and his brown beard and searching eyes.  I get to squint in the sunlight at the beach and meet charming people and dance until 3:00 and eat.  And even back home: I love my job, I lived in a beautiful neighborhood, I have a supportive family, nobody makes crazy assumptions about me based on the color of my skin (except that maybe I glow in the dark because I am hella pale.)

Sometimes I avoid learning about the atrocities because I am tired of feeling helpless.  Of carrying a weight that I cannot shift individually.

So when Jerry asked if we were rich, and he meant financially, we went the instant American favorite of: Middle class! Not rich!

Not us.

 

 

The one where we are inducted into our village

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I met Socrates today,” my husband said with a grin. He had lugged five books across Europe – after lecturing me about bringing one purse – most of them philosophy, so the comment wasn’t entirely strange.

I was sitting outside the little shop down the road, and the owner came out and started talking to me. His name is Socrates.”

Is he old?” I couldn’t help myself.

No! He’s like our age!”

Socrates, it turned out, was the unwitting key to our induction into Magganitis, the southeast village we chose to stay in for the bulk of our time in Ikaria. It is a tiny community with a small port, and it is separated from the rest of the island by bouldered mountains. In 1987, a tunnel was blasted through a mountain to create a road connecting Magganitis to the rest of Ikaria – before then, boating or hours of hiking were the only options for seeing family and friends on the other side of the island.

Our first few days on Ikaria were spent in Kampos, near the main port of Evdilos, with a nice bustling community, the island’s main grocery store, and a cluster of shops and restaurants catering mostly to tourists. Terry, the shaggy-haired Australian Ikarian, had been somewhat aghast to learn we were about to spend three weeks at Magganitis.

What will you do?” We looked at each other, smiled, and shrugged. It’s a question we’ve gotten quite a bit – What are you going to fill your time with for a month in such a quiet, comparatively secluded location?

Well. Write and hike and drink red wine and meet our neighbors and hitchhike to festivals and swim and dance. I don’t know that we would want to live so remotely all year round – we both appreciate city life: diversity, public transport, theatre, concerts, interesting architecture, the energy of a thriving city. But we have absolutely no problem slowing down for a month or two or more. And while Ikaria is not a tourist destination or a party hub like other Greek islands, it still attracts tourists; Greek and international alike, especially in recent years since its spotlight as a Blue Zone – people come here to heal, relax, step back, and partake in a bit of that Ikarian cup of life magic.

**

Terry told us, early on, that when fishermen have a good catch, they hop into a van with loudspeakers and drive up and down through the villages shouting “fresh fish” in Greek through the speakers. They do this for bread as well. And so, on a sunny afternoon, I heard the loudspeaker in the distance and tried to figure out where it was parked so that I could buy some fresh fish (hoping it was the fish guy and not the bread guy, although I never turn down fresh bread). I shaded my eyes on our terrace and looked out towards the port. The sound was coming closer, and I realized he would soon be on our street. I had assumed it would be more of an ice cream truck situation where they park in a central spot, but it was more of a keep driving until someone flags you deal.

I ran outside and waved, and the weathered fisherman – tan, always so tan – hopped out, opened the doors to his van, popped the lid on a white cooler, and showed me piles of sardines on ice, their round eyes staring lifelessly like in crafts for toddlers. I realized, standing at his van, that I didn’t know how to cook a whole fresh fish, but I smiled and pointed and asked for two and he said “two kilos?” and I said “no, no…two fish” but he shook his head and said “six euro for one kilo” and I asked for half a kilo and ended up with six staring sardines piled into a plastic grocery bag.

**

Whatever we do, we have to make the world a better place,” Anna* is turning around from her passenger seat, explaining her philosophy as we fly over rocky roads in their compact rental car. Her husband, Michael*, is nodding in agreement as he shifts gears and the car jolts around a corner and up the mountain.

But you have a meaningful job,” she says at some point, because we are talking about why we are all here, how she is restoring her health, and they are getting inspiration for a creative project.

When I tell others what I do, that I work with deaf children, this is a pretty common response – it sounds so rewarding, so meaningful. And it is rewarding. Because it is children and it is children who need, maybe a little – maybe a lot – more than other children to learn, to understand, to grow. But sometimes it doesn’t feel rewarding. Because you have three low level children who cannot communicate with hands or words and it is hard to see progress day-to-day, week-to-week, even month to month. Or you have higher level students who are growing, progressing, but they don’t like being pushed and they would rather play the icebreaker game from your first session long after the ice is broken and melted.

And sometimes it is a job, and you are just trying to get through the week so that you can relax and have headspace and go three hours without thinking about an IEP meeting and signatures and correct note taking.

The funny thing is: I generally love my job. I get to move around all day, working on different problems, interacting with kids, coming up with creative (and not-so-creative) ways to teach a concept, or integrate learning with a game for motivation. I get home before five, even with an hour commute. I don’t have to worry about a corporate ladder or big project deadlines or crazy office dynamics (for the most part:)). But it is still a place where I have to go in, follow rules, create output, produce results, constantly interact with others, and these can be draining.

**

GAH REELA PA NOSHI!” The old man is shouting in the direction of my husband, who looks around and gives him a questioning look. “MASH DREE LO FI!” He shouts again, like an inebriated Gandalf guarding a bridge. The words are jibberish to our phrasebook Greek ears. Martin is now fairly certain the man is shouting at him, at us, and he leans down to where the man is sitting and says “Sorry…we don’t speak Greek.”

We are outside of Socrate’s cafe. It is 9:30, settling into a proper darkness, and the night air swirls in gusts of warm wind every few minutes. On the way back from the beach a couple hours previously, we had passed the then-empty cafe and waved in at Socrates, sitting in a plastic chair by himself. We went for a chat and asked if the cafe was open. He gave a non-committal shrug – Socrates is a man of few words – and went behind a counter, lifted a dish towel from a mixing bowl and showed us the fluffy balls of dough piled within. He then turned to a large pot on the stove, removing the lid to reveal hot oil.

I am making these,” he made dough-rising gestures with his hands. “You know them? With honey.” Yes, we knew them – loukoumades – and I was agreeable to the idea of trying them freshly made. “They will be ready in around one hour.” We told him we would be back.

An evening at Socrate’s cafe fit perfectly with our plan. We’d been wanting to plug into the community more, make some local contact, but the town was semi-abandoned by the nocturnal Ikarians during the day, and we had been staying in at night or visiting with our Airbnb neighbors who lived next to and below us. Martin launched a new plan of action: we would go out for wine every night at a local place until we made friends. Tonight would be Socrates and his puffed honeyed donuts. Apparently the cafe specialized in whatever the chef decided to make. Tonight was loukoumades.

**

So here we are, returned to Socrates’ cafe which in the last hour and a half has transformed into a meeting place for half the town. White metal circular tables are filled with customers drinking wine and water and ouzzo and the donuts, chatting, relaxing…and, in the case of our new friend, shouting.

WHERE ARE YOU FROM?” He shouts at us over wind and conversation, slurring happily, and Martin leans down and shouts back “GEORGIA.”

Where???”

Atlanta, Georgia!”

What?”

They’re from Atlanta!” The three men behind him, seated on chairs and a small wall surrounding a tree, lean over and yell into his ear.

Ohh.”

He tells us to sit and stay and we find some chairs and the waitress comes out and asks, in perfect American English, if we’d like a table, and we say yes. The wind is coming at us steadily, loud in our ears, but we soon realize that Jerry, the shouting gentleman, is somewhat hard of hearing, which, combined with his slurred accented English makes for a lot of shouted repetition on both sides. He demands that we visit him tomorrow, because he likes us and we are very nice and all we have to do is walk up the hill asking for his name and they will point us the way until we find him. He says his wife hasn’t come out tonight, that she doesn’t like coming out much, that she’s rough so he will bring her food.

He asks what we are paying for rent and tells us it’s too much and there’s a place we need to visit tomorrow at nine which is nearby and very nice and we can save 10 euro a night and that’s a lot of money. We tell him we’ve already paid for our stay. He insists that we save the 10 euro a night. We tell him again we’ve already paid. He can’t hear us and shouts again that it is too much.The lady next to him, curly-haired, early 50’s is rolling her eyes at his more dramatic bursts of passion.

We discover that she lives in Chicago – originally from Ikaria, but raised in Chicago, and visits the island over the summer. Her house is across the street from the cafe, large and long with reddish shingles. Her daughter is the waitress and owner of the cafe (Socrates’ wife?), and she has been living in Ikaria for a few years, running the cafe, but is planning on moving back to the States. The lady’s other daughter is getting married in Ikaria at the end of the month and we are invited. It is the day we are leaving, and I am sad to miss one of the fabled weddings – everybody makes food and serves and the town comes together to set up and take down and dance all night.

Another man, his face lit up with a wine smile, tells us he is a violin player, another Ikaria-Chicago-Ikaria fellow who is now settled in Ikaria. He tells us he has two boats, one built by hand; shows us a picture and offers to take us out on a day without so much wind. He tells us to come over tomorrow so that he can show us his garage and his violin. Ask our host Stella where he lives, where the violin player is, and she’ll know. He tells us how to drive while drunk in Ikaria – just get a 4×4 and put it in drive but don’t touch the gas. You can’t do this in the States, he says, because if you only go 5 km/hour, you will get in trouble.

It is important to have children young. You know children will be embarrassed to be dropped off by their father if he looks old,” he says to Martin. “I don’t have children, but I know this. You want a long time with them.” We laugh and I look at our alcohol supply and wonder if maybe we need a little more.

Jerry is friendly-shouting at us, insisting that we will never, ever meet such wonderful people again. He will die here, he says, and Martin says “Not for a long time,” and he teaches us a toast in Greek that we keep practicing and the curly-haired lady is shaking her head and saying that it doesn’t really mean anything, it’s his own toast. I lean over and ask Martin if he’s drunk. “Of course!” I am confused because there doesn’t seem to be any alcohol in front of him and I thought he was toasting us with water – I later find out that ouzzo, 40 proof, is clear like water, and he’s been downing it. Jerry sees us whispering and declares that we have secrets and I shake my head and Martin leans over and tells him we have lover’s secrets and of course Jerry doesn’t understand him, so Martin is shouting that we are lovers and I am certain that he has not had enough red wine to be shouting this and maybe this is my life now.

There are handful of Chicago Ikarians around the cafe, and the curly-haired lady tells us that they have a tight community in Chicago – they have events and live near each other and she met her husband through the group. There is also a family from Atlanta and I am reminded of how small our world is now – we are on the far side of an isolated island in the Aegan and we are meeting fellow Atlantians.

We are taught how to order red wine and they insist we practice on the server, which we do before telling her that we actually don’t want more, we are just practicing, and she laughs. When Jerry leaves, hitching a ride with what appears to be a random car, he grabs Martin’s face, clutching his beard, and announces something.

On time and longevity and curved roads

IMG_9180.jpgGive me two minutes, and I’ll have this done for you,” the tanned, mid-40’s Ikarian woman said with a smile, and began chatting on the phone. Martin and I sat on a couch in the small car-rental office, watching a video of the nicest beaches in Ikaria. The camera flew along pristine lengths of rocky coast that gave way to soft sand enclaves.

Two minutes ended up equating to an hour of chatting; to each other, to Terry (who had driven us to town), and to the random villagers who popped in for one reason or another. We were offered refreshments, and we relaxed and waited, and eventually got our car, leaving Terry to “maybe stick around town for a bit, see if there’s anyone I can bug.”

Ikaria is a Blue Zone; one of five places in the world that has a large percentage of residents living into their 90’s and beyond. It’s more than life expectancy though; it’s a quality of life – lower rates of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and hardly any dementia. The island homes an older population who are active in their communities, on their farms, and at the frequent festivals where young and old share food, wine, and dance until dawn. Buettner, the researcher who coined Blue Zone and studied Ikaria, came up with a few theories to explain the key to the residents’ longevity: the sense of community, a lack of stress, the plant-based diet, plenty of sleep.

If you pay careful attention to the way Ikarians have lived their lives, it appears that a dozen subtly powerful, mutually enhancing and pervasive factors are at work. It’s easy to get enough rest if no one else wakes up early and the village goes dead during afternoon naptime. It helps that the cheapest, most accessible foods are also the most healthful — and that your ancestors have spent centuries developing ways to make them taste good. It’s hard to get through the day in Ikaria without walking up 20 hills. You’re not likely to ever feel the existential pain of not belonging or even the simple stress of arriving late. Your community makes sure you’ll always have something to eat, but peer pressure will get you to contribute something too. You’re going to grow a garden, because that’s what your parents did, and that’s what your neighbors are doing. You’re less likely to be a victim of crime because everyone at once is a busybody and feels as if he’s being watched. At day’s end, you’ll share a cup of the seasonal herbal tea with your neighbor because that’s what he’s serving. Several glasses of wine may follow the tea, but you’ll drink them in the company of good friends. On Sunday, you’ll attend church, and you’ll fast before Orthodox feast days. Even if you’re antisocial, you’ll never be entirely alone. Your neighbors will cajole you out of your house for the village festival to eat your portion of goat meat.”

**

To be in Ikaria is to be taken out of time, which, in itself is its own sense of eternity. When you are living in a conversation, in a moment, in a plate of garden greens; when there is no set time to start, no set time to end, no set time of any particular concern – it is a strange, floaty feeling, anathema to all our Western sensibilities. It is a difficult adjustment, sometimes, realizing I don’t have anywhere I need to be, anything I need to do; that I can sit and read as long as I like, that it doesn’t matter if I am up until 2:30 sharing life stories, or that I was planning on going out, but I’d rather nap. It is strange that our only pressure is daylight and temperature – if we don’t get to the beach early, it will be too hot to go hiking before mid-afternoon. If we start a hike now, we might not have light coming back.  It is strange, too, that we have successfully suspended our lives.  It is not like a perpetual weekend because there is no Monday hovering black on the horizon.  There is no need to get errands and shopping and socialization and rest squeezed into two, or ten days.  We said, when we came, that we wanted to go long enough to feel like were living here, and we’ve done that. 

Initially I couldn’t help attempt bits of structure, of schedule – we will go for a walk and then we will write, and then we will eat lunch. I wanted to stop the free fall of timelessness; create a dozen tiny parachutes of concreteness: without someone or something needing me at a certain time, I was losing purpose. And of course I am on vacation; this is not my day-to-day. It’s not that Ikarians live completely beyond time. They garden and create and earn money and have mouths to feed and certain stresses. They are not without strings. But their relationship to all these things is different. It is relaxed. They sleep in. They take afternoon naps. They sit outside in shaded seats and have long conversations with their neighbors. 

A girl we meet who lives in Germany tells us that when she first arrived she spent a long time trying to figure out the meal times here.  She couldn’t figure out when they had breakfast, tea, lunch, dinner.  In Germany, she said, there are fairly set hours.  In Ikaria she kept passing by empty restaurants during the middle of the day, and she was confused.  Finally she asked someone who told her: “We eat when we’re hungry.”

**

A Russian girl staying in a room beneath us — the one who told us about eating times — has been on Ikaria for five weeks. She has delicate features, long brown hair, simple bracelets wrapped around thin brown wrists. She looks like a model, like she has stepped out of a magazine and it is hard to believe that she is not airbrushed. She is quiet, and before we meet, I occasionally hear her moving around softly, awake when it is light, turning in at sundown, around nine.

One morning she is talking to our landlord, Stella, and asking about seeing a doctor, concerned that she has broken a toe. Stella bustles about, makes some phone calls, and eventually gets some information.

You must go now I think.”

OK, I will eat and then I will go.”

You will eat?”

Yes, I haven’t eaten this morning.”

He is only…a short time.”

OK, how long do I have?”

He is here for one hour I think.”

I relay this information to Martin; we better not get injured because our village is tiny, remote, and apparently the doctor, wherever he is, has limited hours. Martin is not concerned. I am generally not concerned, but, like insurance, it is nice to know that there is nearish medical attention in case of emergency.

We have been driving a car – one of the rare automatics available to rent– over and around and through the island, marveling at the greenery, at the small clusters of villages, at the endless water that melts into the horizon at certain hours, making us feel like we are in a blue dome. The roads here are constant curves, and the choices are incline or decline. Many of the mountainside roads are unpaved, bumpy dirt affair without railing, barely wide enough for one large vehicle; two small ones in a pinch. Scooters are the vehicle of choice, and the locals speed helmet-less up and down and around curves as though they are all 19. I was initially nervous about driving, worried about inevitable collisions on one of the curves; asking Terry about how drivers drive here, wondering if they beep when approaching a blind curve on a narrow mountain road the way they do in Yemen and Oman. Nope. Everyone just wings it and swerves and slows/stops to let another car pass when necessary.

**

Our first evening here, we stopped at an outdoor restaurant on the way home. It was called “Pappi’s” and was tucked next to the road, up some stone steps leading to a terrace with tables and chairs, shaded by a living roof of vines and leaves and hanging grapes. A small group of French tourists was at one table, and we took another, uncertain of being seated or how to order. A smiling Ikarian woman came out: waitress, cook, and restaurant owner. She explained that she only had Greek menus, and that her English was limited.

Come with me to the kitchen. You can choose what you want,” she beckoned.

The kitchen was small with a couple ovens, several burners and counters covered with pots and pans. She opened the lids on different pots and showed us various Ikarian dishes. Home grown potatoes cooked in a goat cheese sauce, eggplant casserole, goat in tomato sauce, spaghetti, fresh salad greens from her garden, including wild roots. We picked a few dishes, ordered some homemade red wine, and went back to our seats. When she brought the food out, it was all fresh, rich, and somewhat extraordinary. We ate too much, but our bodies weren’t angry like they are when we eat too much greasy processed food.

**

Once a day I tell my husband we can never leave.

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Ikaria Day 1

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We disembark and immediately see Terry, “pretty much the biggest guy there” (his words) in the small crowd of people waiting. I want to film our entry into the island – the culmination of 18 months of dreaming – but can’t find my phone. Martin is surprised at the breadth and height of the island – he had envisioned hiking across it with our packs when we moved to the other side of the island (I had shot this down as being too strenuous for my imagined holiday, but the idea lingered like a cold and was brought up every time we discussed island hiking.)

Terry is tall of stature and round of girth and he “looks so Greek but sounds so Australian” (as Martin puts it). His car is a small, manual, little beater that he drives with the windows down. He explains customs — no festival if there’s been a death in the village in the past 40 days — and points out old growth forests as we make the short drive to the house he and his brother-in-law had built. He isn’t terribly positive about the part of the island where we will be staying for the bulk of our visit — hard to hike, need a car, “different,” but Martin says he’s heard great things and he begrudgingly agrees that anywhere on Ikaria will be nice.

The house, like much of Ikaria, is on an incline, and it is not so much a house as a compound of suites, created as a rental property. The structure is white with a flat roof and an expansive veranda with a view of the ocean to the left and mountains dotted with small homes to the right.

We unload and he offers to take us to the grocery store, a Carrefour express; simple with a few cash registers — the biggest grocery store on the entire island. Everything else is local and tends to be a bit more expensive. Groceries were generally similar in price to the US; the only eggs left were from local farms and were .40 eu each!  We bought lots of veggies and fruit, local yogurt and honey, one beer, two 3 eu bottles of black (red) wine — Can we take it down to the beach? Oh yeah, no drama, no drama.  His standard response to most questions, including leaving our doors open, renting a car, popping up to his place for a visit. There is no drama on this island.

We’ve Airbnbed a studio, and it’s a spacious room with a mini-fridge, toaster-burner, and a tiny T.V. mounted on the wall, semi-angled towards the bed. Terry tells us they subtitle, so we might catch some English shows later. (We never manage to get it to work, but this is no great loss. The AC – mankinds pinnacle of invention – works, and we are content. )

The Ikarian personal yogurts we bought are, at one euro a pop, pricey little treats, but they are divine. We split one, mixing in some local honey, and the tastes are fresh and light and sweet, and Martin has drizzled in enough honey to negate any of the health benefits of the yogurt.

Everywhere on Ikaria is a view. The ocean and coastline, the ports, the garden restaurants and hills covered in old growth forests. When we eventually get a car (days 2-8), we drive across the island, over peaks and along narrow dirt mountainside roads, and the coastline views from the top are breathtaking. Some of the mountain roads are paved, and on three of these we eventually drove by old roadbuilding equipment…apparently a one-time use type of situation.

We walk through the village and down to the port which has a few restaurants with tables set up along the water. We are clearly foreigners with my Irish skin and our limited Greek (not that we would have gotten away with much – the island has about 8,500 residents at last count). It is approaching dusk when we head back towards our place, which, during summer, means around 9:00. We are starving.