The town of Agio Galas, its Byzantine Church, and a lucky meeting

The northern part of the island of Chios has a slow and quiet, dying-out kind of feeling to it. It shouldn’t necessarily be a sad thing. Just the way things go, I guess. The ebb and flow of human lives – war, economic pressures, young people heading to the big cities… But I feel like it’s a sad thing. I’m weirdly prone to getting nostalgic about any change. I say weirdly, because I also seem to crave change – what’s next? what can I do now? where can I go next? who will I meet there? what can I eat there? what will happen? and so on. So this nostalgia thing seems to indicate that I’m very backwards looking for someone who seems to be always looking forwards, to the new thing. Maybe I just need to learn to be more present looking. Live in the now, as they say. But anyway, I have strayed from my story and into navel gazing.

Back to Greece.

We set off on a little driving tour of the northwest part of the island, taking the main road that loops from the largest urban center of the north, Volissos (pop. 160 – apparently it was 5000, once upon a time!), through a series of even smaller villages and back to Volissos. We had the road almost entirely to ourselves. As the day progressed, our attempts to hide from the road for pee-stops were becoming more and more half-assed (pun immaturely and gleefully intended!), because no one ever drove by. Half the houses in all the villages, including Volissos, are crumbling into ruins. But the lonely, falling down appearance of these places belies the cheery people we keep stumbling upon within them.

Here is an example of houses fallen into ruin, just 100 meters down from our new friend Maria's house.

Coming into town - the old Byzantine church down the slope on the left there.

Making a stop at one village, Agio Galas, about halfway around the loop, we thought we’d drive into it and walk down the hill to have a closer look at the interesting churchy-looking building with a tower on one side of it that we could see from the road. The streets inside these villages are not for the claustrophobically inclined. And once you start down one road, you just really, really hope it opens out into a village square fairly soon, because, in our poor visibility van, backing up is an even scarier proposition.


Our van. It feels very wide when you're in a very narrow road.

The road into the main square. We juuuust fit! People came out onto some stairs that aren't very visible here to the left to watch us leave town.










On this occasion, we decided Mom should get out of the car to shout warnings at me if I got too close on the passenger side of our van. Why not use the side-mirrors, you ask? Valid question. You see, the street was that narrow that the  mirrors needed to be folded in so we could fit. So there’s me, peeking out the driver side window, looking to see that I’m clearing the walls and people’s front doorsteps, and Mom on the passenger side behind the car, yelling, “Okay, you’re okay, yep, still got a couple of inches over here…stop! stop!! You need to steer left a bit now.” And so on. Some people came out to watch the fun. Excellent, an audience, just what I needed to ramp up the anxiety factor a bit more. Oh well, there was nothing for it but to carry on, creeping through, trying not to scrape people’s houses, especially now that they were watching.

Eventually, we emerged into a little square, where there were parked another couple of vans like ours and a pick up truck. Hm, so other people have driven down that little road too. I found that somehow reassuring. No other route coming off of that square would accomodate anything wider than a motor scooter, so there’s where we stopped.

The audience, two women, had followed us. One was quite old, and one not so old – maybe in her early forties. And man, were they cheery! Laughing fit to bust a gut, I tell you! The older lady came over to us, roly-poly, black skirt, shoes and stockings, black sweater, with a black headscarf tied under her chin, grinning and chatting away in Greek. The two women shouted back and forth to each other, much joking was happening, and speaking to us in Greek. We managed to convey that we were attempting to go to the church down the hill, and was it this way? (point down one narrow alleyway) Oh, dear. Big smiles, but heads were shaking. The younger woman told us, “no key.” All right, no problem; we tried to mime that we’d just walk around the outside then. Oh no, you won’t! Much amused chatter between the women, and then we were hauled back to road from which we had driven in by the old lady. The younger one left. The older one, continuing to talk to us, undaunted by our lack of comprehension, herded us down a narrow alleyway, occasionally tugging at our arms when we were uncooperative or appeared confused, and out onto the side of the hill, whereupon she took a seat, talking and laughing at us some more. When we made as though to carry on, she stopped us and pointed down the hill at some newer looking houses. There stood the younger woman from before, talking to some men, going back between one door and another. The old lady made the universal gesture of turning her hand in the air as though turning a key in a lock, and the penny finally dropped in our little brains. The other woman had gone off to get the key for us!

A few minutes later, she (her name turned out to be Maria) joined us where we were being held by the first woman, flashed the keys, and took us off to the church. We got quite the personalized little tour, learned a couple more Greek words, and saw inside a very eccentric little church, in which one small, dark room led to another smaller, darker room, and then led to an even darker cave with a dripping stalactite inside, under which buckets had been placed to collect the water. Turns out that this stalactite, which looks a quite a lot like a woman’s breast, is representative of Jesus’s mother, Mary,’s breast, and this water, dripping from its nipple-like tip is very holy and healing. This was explained by Maria, our serendipitous tour guide, using a few English words and a lot of gestures, with the wide earnest eyes of a believer and the occasional laughter of a very happy person. All of this tour was conducted by candle light, each of us clutching a couple of little candles, and Maria also swinging incense that she had lit and put inside a little metal container with holes in it. (I am no doubt displaying my religious ignorance here – I expect that little incense holder has an actual name.)

On the way back to our car, we talked a little with Maria, with our few words of Greek, and her few words of English, and told her we were staying in Volissos until June.  As we got close to the square where our car was, we stopped at a little house with some cats and a pretty purple plant growing outside it that Maria said was her house, and she invited us to come back to the village and have coffee with her one day. I hope we do. I want to learn some more Greek words first though.

The lovely Maria, leading us back up the hill after our cave/church tour.

Running Errands With Stamatis

I was called up for water duty a couple of days ago. Through gestures and the word water, Stamatis indicated that he wanted one of us to go up the mountain with him to get fresh water after lunch. He may be well into his 80’s, but Stamtis isn’t  meeting life as a feeble old man! He’s out gardening most days, drives to Chios town at least once a week, insists on carrying the heavy items to and from the car, climbs small walls rather than walk to the stairs… it’s impressive.

Anyway, yesterday, at around noon he came to us, indicated (once again, mainly gestures) that he was cooking food, and would bring it down for us all to share out on the patio. He plonked a head of lettuce from the garden down on the counter, pointed at me, and said, “Salata”. So I made some salad. Stamatis brought down his vegetarian stew, and we all had a very healthy and tasty lunch. A brief discussion between Mom and me and it was decided that I would go on the water run this time. The tap water is actually fine to drink, but Stamatis is very health oriented, and likes his mountain spring water best.

Mom said the whole task would be complete in about an hour. All right, we head out. Stamatis puts me in the driver’s seat. He tells me I’m a good driver, and I have learned to regret this opinion of his. He now prefers me to drive, and has taken to putting the car down the driveway, which means I get the unnerving assignment of backing it back up that narrow, slightly crumbly hill. He comes and fetches me out of the house to do it when he wants to go somewhere.

Stamatis talking to his daughter via skype on Mom's computer after we returned home from our water fetching/show and tell trip.

Anyway, we head off! Two kms down the road, we stop at the gas station, and while gas is being put in the car, Stamatis exits, and disappears. A minute later, a young man in mechanic coveralls appears, and tells me in halting English that Stamtis is sitting at a table waiting and I should park the car and come. I see. I guess we’re taking a little break. I find him and two young men and a young woman, sitting at a table outside the gas station shop. I am handed an orangeade, and a straw, and experience flashbacks to being 4 or 5 and sitting around with the grownups at a coffee shop while their chatter swirls around me.

It develops into one of those interesting situations you sometimes find yourself in amongst a group of speakers of another language to yours where you know that they are talking about you, right in front of you, but you have no idea what they are saying. On this occasion it was a very amusing conversation. To them, I mean. There was much laughter. Stamatis reached over and slapped me affectionately on the knee a couple of times, smiling away, as though to say, “isn’t she hilarious?!” He could be telling tales of our ridiculous panic at ticks, my awkward leaping attempts to pick good lemons, or just marveling at how foolish we’ve been to come and take on a menagerie of animals for free. I just smiled back and said, “yeah, I have no idea what you guys are saying…” I get the feeling he thinks of me as a little kid sometimes. I’ve been the recipient of a couple of pats on the head as well.

On the way back we stopped at his family’s house for more visits with Greek speaking people. To be fair, there was a little bit of English amongst this group, but not enough for a conversation. I was given a glass of souma (some kind of locally brewed liquor – I’m a big girl now, graduating from orangeade!) and put on a couch between some children and a smiling woman, where I repeated my role of conversation piece, Stamatis speaking and gesturing at me, everyone else looking at me, nodding thoughtfully, asking questions, Stamatis answering. Good fun!

Sad tales(oh, sad tails indeed) from Chios

Dear little Rosy, curled up in the plantpot.

All has not been sunshine and happy dogs and loveliness since I arrived. The first two days were. I was in a state of more or less continual good cheer from Thursday until Saturday evening. And then it all went very, very badly for a while. On Saturday night, Mom had gone to sleep and I was in my bed reading, drifting close to sleep myself when the dogs set up a racket of barking up at the top of the driveway. After a couple of minutes, I opened the living room window above my bed to call them down, and they quietened down for a bit. Then I heard the barking start up again from the other side of the house. And it just sounded too urgent to ignore. I got up and went out and there was Perrita barking up a storm, and Rosy was lying just a bit further along, in the dark, on the patio. When I walked over to her, I could see she was foaming at the mouth, had had diarrhea and her whole body was spasming. I called to Mom then, in a panic, and she woke up immediately and came out. I wasn’t very calm at all. Seeing an animal in that kind of distress and feeling helpless is horrible.

Mom ran back into the house to call Fotini, a woman who is a friend of Galatea’s, the woman whose house and dogs we’re caring for, and she said she’d come soon. Meanwhile, I was wandering around looking for Hera in the garden, and I found her, in a similar state a few meters in. By the time Fotini and her boyfriend, Nick, arrived with an antidote for the poison, it was too late, and both these sweet dogs had died. I was a mess. Crying and hand-wringing and pacing and other such useful activities were my main contribution at this point. Fotini and Nick were exactly the right people in that situation. They were calm and kind, and they explained that this is a thing that happens here sometimes, dogs being poisoned, sometimes deliberately, sometimes by accident because the poison’s been put down for foxes. Nick told of a dog he had seen poisoned that they managed to save by forcing it to drink salt water to make it throw up, and by giving it a shot of the antidote, something I gather many dog owners here try to keep on hand. They put the two dogs’ bodies together, and said they would come back tomorrow to bury them. Fotini said she would call Galatea tonight to tell her what had happened. The fourth dog here, Hermes, was already inside because he’s a bit sick and so we brought Perrita in as well for the night.

An hour later, Galatea had spoken to Fotini and she called us to talk about it. She was understandably heartbroken and angry, and filled with regrets that she hadn’t prepared us for that horrible possibility. She also sent us to drive around to see if the lights were on at a house of a man who she suspected might be the culprit. Not really seeing the point, but willing to do anything she asked to help ease her sense of helplessness, we set out in our pyjamas at midnight to look for the house. I’m not sure if we found the right house or not, but it turned out that that little outing served another purpose in the end.

As we were coming back home, we passed a house that is our next door neighbour, 150 metres down the road. Outside the gate sat a yellow labrador. Something caught my eye about him, and when I braked the car and looked more closely, I saw a massive amount of drool coming from his mouth, and he looked trembley. We got out of the car to have a better look, and sure enough he was shaking and couldn’t walk straight, and I felt sick with dread to think that another dog was about to die in front of me. I ran up the driveway to the door and rang the bell. The man who answered spoke enough English to understand what I was on about, and he hurried down to look at his dog. He knew the signs, and I asked if he had the antidote, but he raised his hands and shook his head and said no, drew his hand over his face, and then walked over to his dog to pet his head.

But we had antidote! Fotini had left us extra. We drove back in a frantic hurry to get it. There was a problem closing the door to the house, so Mom stayed home to sort that out so that our dogs wouldn’t escape into this newly dangerous, poison-filled world, and I ran back to the neighbour’s with the antidote and the needle. Turns out, the man, whose name is Dimitri, is a doctor and he knew how to inject his dog, no problem. This was fortunate, because I couldn’t have done it – I was shaking almost as badly as the sick dog. His wife had come down by that time and her English was very good. I told her about the salt water trick to make the dog throw up, so she rushed off to the house to bring some down. Dimitri poured it down his dog’s throat, and 5 minutes later he threw up a lot of food. The next day when we looked on the driveway at the contents of the dog’s stomach more closely, we could see the signature bright blue of the poison, just like Nick had described. In the end, that dog pulled through, and he is fine and healthy and happy again, just as a dog should be.

The next morning, Perrita was walking around the yard and she showed up at the door with a piece of ground beef. Mom called me outside, and then she picked up the meat with a tissue. When she turned it over, there was a tablespoon or so of that bright blue crystalline substance again. It’s quite a shock to the system to see that – it’s so deliberately malevolent. Now, spotting small pieces of that shade of blue on the ground still makes my heart lurch – and there are a lot of water bottle lids lying discarded on the ground that are of that particular colour. Anyway, Perrita hadn’t eaten it, but we watched her closely for the next couple of hours. We also called Fotini to tell her about it, and she came over, collected me and Dimitri, and we went off to the police station. It being Sunday, we had to stop at the policeman’s house to tell him, and then he came and met us at the police station, still dressed in his sweatpants. The hour or so that followed was a wash of Greek, and I understood very little that went on. Dimitri and Fotini told the whole sad tale to the policeman, and showed him the meat with the poison that Perrita had found. The policeman hand-wrote a report on a piece of blank paper. He got Dimitri and Fotini’s full names and I feature in the report as “lady guest of Stamatis”, Stamatis being the name of Galatea’s father. There was an actual computer up on a shelf in one corner, but I don’t think anyone uses it in their day-to-day work there…

The police station. I spent a very uncomprehending hour here.

I don’t know if anything will happen. I have my doubts, but at any rate, even though this country has apparently got a real problem with this kind of callous treatment of cats and dogs, as though they’re vermin, it also has some really good-hearted people who do care and do see it as a problem.

I won’t go into the whole nightmarish next 24 hours, but will just briefly say that Perrita got poisoned as well. We injected her with the antidote, but couldn’t get the saltwater into her, so she needed more antidote, which we didn’t realize or actually even have, even if we had known, and so the whole night was touch and go, and it was a sleepless and emotional night with Perrita lying beside my bed slowly and tenuously recovering. We got some more antidote the next day and, when we saw her descend into the shaking and staggering again, gave another injection of it to her, and she improved immediately. Right as rain within 5 minutes. It’s amazing to see.

It’s been 4 days now, and no more incidents. A man came from the Forestry Services yesterday, called by the police, he told us, and said if we have a good rain, it will deactivate the poison lying around the neighbourhood. Otherwise, it will take months to lose its potency. We had a very thorough, drenching rain today. So that’s good.

Hera and Rosy will be much missed. They were sweet, lovely dogs who wanted little other than to catch stones and lean against people and cats affectionately. I think Hermes and Perrita, especially her actually, miss them still. I know I do.

Hermes, smelling the world passing by through a hole in the wheelwell of the van, and Perrita, in her basket.

Good bye Ireland, hello Greece…

March 9, 2012
I have arrived in Greece! Yesterday morning I flew into the Chios airport. I had fallen asleep on the plane shortly after take-off from Athens, and only woke up and looked out the window as we were dropping down towards an island, the sky pink with sunrise, and the island looking like a painting, all stripey with different greens from the organizing hand of humans farming or orcharding and wall building, little collections of buildings marking small villages, turquoise water along the edge. I thought, Jesus, that’s pretty, and wondered if Chios would be as pretty. It turns out that it was, in fact, Chios.

Mom picked me up from the airport and we went into town to run some errands she had. I got a sim card, we went for coffee, bought some food. I was so tired though, that I kept tripping, and there were points where I was thinking, is it legitimate to climb under this table here and go to sleep? Just for a few minutes? Eventually we left town, and drove the 45 minutes to our home, over the mountains in the center of the island to the village we live just outside of. We’re on the northwest side of the island, a ten minute walk from the beach. The house is tiny, but cozy and pretty, and surrounded by Stamatis’ garden, and olive and orange and lemon trees.

The bedroom, and bathroom through on the other side.

Kitchen from living room area

Living room (and my bedroom area at the far end) from the kitchen area. We have moved the tv, since all the programs are in Greek anyway, and put it away. The ipod dock is there now.

I had a necessary nap and then in the late afternoon, we took the four dogs for a walk. Their personalities are distinct and they like different things (rock-catching, running, staying close to the people), but they are all very happy about EVERYthing. Dogs are good role models. Judge no one, love everyone, and be thrilled to be alive.

Four VERY happy dogs!

It’s strange leaving one house sit, off to the next. Handing someone’s home back to them is an odd feeling, because it’s been your home, and your life, but actually, you were just a temporary place-holder. Do you offer them tea in their own house? Do you bother to tell them of the systems you’ve developed around household situations? (For example, there was a sort of tea towel cycle-of-life that we had implemented, but Brendan probably had his own system or just wasn’t as fussy, so we didn’t tell him about it. He’s not a fuss-budget, unlike the Boueys.) I found myself feeling nostalgic and sad even looking at the bowls in the kitchen that we’d used for our porridge and soups and salads, never mind the cats and neighbours and friends that we were leaving.

However, on to the new life: Mom has been here for three weeks, and so she’s settled in, has friends here and new systems for chores. This house is smaller than the last, so we’ve had to do some rearranging of furniture to fit me in. There are only two rooms really. A kitchen/living room and a bedroom. And a bathroom of course, which i made fairly immediate use of for showering, because wearing the same socks for two days inside rubber boots while you travel around warm airports leads to very, very bad smelling feet.I don’t recommend it.

The village, Volissos, from the road above our house. It still has its castle on top.

Inside the village looking up to the castle.

On the road above our house, looking out towards the Aegean. It's difficult not to feel happy here.