Saturday, 19 May 2018

Whatever gets You Through

The weary walkers arrive home...

Just down the lane from our accommodation in Patmos, was an old single-storey cottage, in fact we looked out over its roof from our balcony. The kitchen door was just a couple of metres from the wooden gate leading into the 'avli' and each time we passed on our way either in or out, if the hour was right, old Chrissie (Chrisanthoula), a sweet and evidently once very pretty ya ya, would be sitting right beside the gate, her back to the house wall, walking frame parked before her, passing the daylight hours in frequent contemplation.

Once or twice, as we passed, her daughter and granddaughter were spending a few minutes with her, the tot "Chrissie" (named, of course, after her ya ya) toddling around while her mother and grandmother kept a watchful eye in case she fell over. Chrissie's daughter lived right across the lane from her mother, who we concluded must have been getting on for forty when she gave birth to her last daughter, the one in question. 

Chrissie's chair and her front door

It was a rare occasion that we passed and we didn't smell something delicious being cooked in Chrissie's kitchen. Although she had a walking frame and, to us looked quite frail, she told us that she'd only been provided with the frame in the past few months, after she'd had a fall in the house. It was a constant source of frustration to her as she didn't see herself as 'old' at all. She'd often be in the process of sweeping up the bougainvillea and oleander petals on the concrete floor of the avli with a long-handled brush and a sawn off plastic oil bottle for a dustpan, shuffling her frame along as she did so. She was nothing if not determined to keep going.

Once or twice, as we passed, she expressed frustration at not being able to negotiate the steps outside her gate without help and thus not being in a position to sweep up the dried leaves that would gather on them. So we'd set to and did the job for her, all the while with Chrissie saying 

"I'm so ashamed. I'm so ashamed, to be asking you to do this. I should be able to do it myself". 

Our response was always, "Not at all. It's no bother. In fact it's a privilege."

On the morning of the day before we were due to travel home to Rhodes, as we strolled down the lane, she not only greeted us with a 'kalimera', but she asked if we'd come in and share a drink with her. Although we were dead keen to get to the Petrino Bar in the square near the harbour for the penultimate time, we felt it only polite to accept, and so allowed her to lead us into the house. The interior was as one would expect it to be when the resident was around 80 and probably older. Lots of framed, faded old photos on the walls, from which glared serious-looking bridal parties, men in uniform and religious icons. You never smiled for a photo back in the thirties and forties in Greece. Maybe it had something to do with the kind of life people here were living at the time.

Pouring us a cold glass of water each and proffering a dish of her home-made koulourakia, she began to tell us a little about her memories. Yes, this house had been in her family since probably the century before last. Her parents, though, had brought her into the world in a cottage just beside the lane which leads over the hill to Meloi Beach. We'd passed that cottage, it's derelict today. If walls could talk, eh?

Prompted by a few questions from us, she related tales of military helicopters, deafening explosions from bombs, and prison camps. She told of executions and living off whatever they could scavenge from the land after the Nazis had confiscated all the crops that the locals had grown. When we referred to Agrialivadi Beach, she said all she could see in her mind's eye of that beach was the prison camp behind it, where locals were often taken, some of which were never to return to the village. She said that the occupiers at one time slaughtered all the domestic animals to feed the troops, leaving the locals with nothing to live on but the weeds they could gather from the fields and roadsides. She related, with tears in her eyes, about the time when the Germans blew up the fishing boats in the bay, right below where we were sitting and listening that very moment. Local fishermen lost their entire livelihoods in a huge bang that resounded around the hillsides surrounding the bay, and as she related this account she closed her eyes, saying that it was as though it had been yesterday. All that remained were charred splinters sticking out above the surface of the water.

She went on to explain how her father had tried to support the family after the Italians, then the Germans, had stripped the island of its resources, by growing sweet potatoes. Fortunately, when we asked her about the Greek civil war of 1945-49, she said it hadn't really reached these islands, remaining concentrated on Crete and the Greek mainland. Small mercies.

After we'd listened, spellbound, for probably around twenty minutes, we sensed that it was time to leave her to her thoughts. She was evidently exhausted from reliving her memories from all those years go, and we knew that she'd make no objection if we were to tell her thanks, but we'd best be going. So that's what we did, and she showed us out, wishing us a very good day and saying she hoped we'd be able to do it again.

Chrissie's generation is, of course, fast dying out. She must have been born, we guessed, during the 1930's. She'd lost siblings and neighbours in a brutal war when she was only a young child. Yet she looked out from those eyes with a gleam of contentment. Loss, yes, but not bitterness. Like most of her generation, of course, she's very religious, to the point of subjectivity. Despite all the island had suffered, despite all she'd been through, she said on several occasions, 

"But, we have protection. Saint John protects us. This is the island of St. John the Theologian. We're blessed."

I couldn't help thinking, for all the respect that I have for this remarkable old lady, what worse terrors could they have endured, before they decided that they perhaps didn't have this assumed protection? Maybe that's the point. It's not really if it's real or not. It may just be what gets you through.

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