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.
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.
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.