First day in Ikaria

July 10, 2006

Prior to coming to this lovely island for our third straight summer, we spent a day in Athens of the sort that you can only do when you are on vacation. That is, after leaving our hotel, we spent several hours looking for a CD with the violinist Yiannis Zevgolis. The instrument museum shop was closed, so we went to two very loud CD stores near Omonia Square, and still didn’t find it. Escaping the hellish traffic and faseria of Omonia, we ducked into a…Starbucks!, not that we would ever patronize Starbucks, but it was the nearest place that we could be quiet and not have to deal with cigarette smoke. It is ironic to me that the Greeks, who love their children dearly, are slowly killing them with secondhand smoke, when they’re not killing themselves first.

OK, then we had the rest of the day to catch our ferry. When else can I say that I’m just going to do nothing for 6 hours until I leave? From experience, we had decided that the only way to go overnight (or on any long ferry ride) was to splurge on a cabin, again because it ws quiet, and the air was pretty much smoke-free. (Although there are non-smoking sections on the boat, they are open to the other, smoking sections, so they’re pretty much useless. This is similar to the non-smoking cars on trains, which have an upper, non-smoking level on a car above a smoking level! Of course, all the smoke rises to the second level. Maybe someday this will change.

Anyway, the cabin was heaven, and the ferry ride was uneventful. If you haven’t taken a ferry boat, it is difficult to describe the feeling as one waits for the enormous cargo door to open slowly in front of you, revealing your new island destination.

Mihali, the director of the Ikarian Center where we study Greek, picked us up. We caught up on some news and quickly arrived in Arethusa. The school setting is quite beautiful, with mountains across the valley from the cabins, and the Aegean with Hios and Turkey in sight on the horizon. The cicadas produce the best white noise, and the quiet is otherwise deafening. It is difficult to imagine a better setting for studying Greek intensely. In fact, with this year’s additon of a working kitchen, many groups could use this as an ideal retreat, if the transportation could be afforded. It would probably work better for Europeans.

We were soon joined by the other students for this two-week course, some Spaniards and a fellow from France. Already here from last week were a German woman we’d met two years ago, an Austrian woman, and an American, Emily, who is going to Yale and already speaks 5 languages at the age of 20 or so. In other words, everyone wipes the floor with me in tha language department. To be fair to myself, I am definitely better than I was when I first started, and I can understand what’s going on much better as long as people pretend I’m about 4 years old. Seriously, though, I do get by.

Once we unpacked it was off to the mountains for a hike. They don’t waste time here, although they understand the meaning of taking your time. We drove to Armenistis, on the west end of the north side of the island and took about a 3-hour hike up into the mountains. Ikaria is greener than many islands, and still has running water from streams and springs at this time of year. We passed many lovely pools once we got some elevation. If I ever come here for a longer time, I would like to hike around the island. They’ve got a system of paths in place that makes it pretty easy.

We hiked back down to the beach, where some cooled off in the crystal clear and impossible blue of the Aegean. Then, we had to have our meal, of course. This consists of seemingly countless dishes of a wide variety of foods over the next several hours. There were 12 in our parea, so we had a large sampling, much drinking of excellent retsina, and a lot of fun. These kinds of meals are de rigeuer in Greece; I wish Americans would get this concept; you don’t really have to DO anything.

We drove back to Arethusa and rested for an hour. Then I taught everyone the main dance of the island, Ikariotikos, because in one hour we were going to a wedding in the next village (this is not a typical day, in case you are wondering, but as long as there are fun times to be had, we take advantage of them). I can teach no sweat in English, but it was a challenge in Greek, as I had to ask how to say “lift your heel” and other esoteric phrases sutiable for dancing and not much else. Still, everyone pretty much got it, and I was glad to contribute in this way.

Once we finally made it to the wedding, nearly two hours after it was supposed to start (this is typical), some us stayed in the plaza restaurant to watch some of the World Cup final (being as my mother’s family is from Naples, I of course was rooting for Italy, which later won, amzingly enough), and then we went to the plateia and sat down with about 400 other people (the entire village comes to these weddings), and were served food over the next several hours (don’t go to Greece if you want to lose weight).

THe band was only so-so in my opinion, but after a desultory set of bouzoukia, they finally pulled out a violin and started Ikariotikos. This got the bridal party up dancing (in all the paniyiri we ‘ve gone to here, no one starts dancing until they play this dance). Things continued with other island tunes, and when they played Ikariotikos again, my fellow students and I danced and had a good time. Sandra & I also danced a waltz and a polka. These European dances are required for any social occasion where there is dancing, and included the “Fox” and a tango. We finally left and went home around 1:30, marveling on a terrfic and very full first day.