“Give 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.