“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.”
“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.
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.