Karpathos- Three days

Trip Start Jun 01, 2006
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Saturday, October 7, 2006

Combined Entry for Karpathos

The trip to Karpathos was a part of the 'roots' portion of this journey. I want to get to know the man who is married to my biological mom. Now, as with all blog entries dealing with friends and family, I am not going to share details that are in any way of a personal nature (if I can help it) so this in some ways will make bland reading- as much of the interest lies in the details and interactions, that you don't get to read!

Anyway. We drove in from the airport and got near to Fokia where Alekos lives and stopped for lunch at his cousin's restaurant. As I soon discovered, pretty much everyone is a relative of Alekos on this small island and cousins abound.

About Karpathos. It is a desert mountain that sticks up out of the sea. Long and rocky, the towns are scattered about with no rhyme or reason. Permanent population- 5,000. Now, when I say desert, please understand that it is indeed desert- rocks and sand with some scrub in places- no green, a few stunted trees. There are only olive trees where the land has been nurtured for years.

Our first lunch taught me nothing about eating on the island: I had some wine (local- tart and sweet) a huge salad and I forget what else- gigantic portions. I never finished half of it. From there, we drove to the house.

Alekos' house sits on a rocky promontory yards from the sea. Unfinished and sparsely furnished, it is still new with only a few pieces of furniture. He is proud (rightly so) of what he has done so far, with so much more to go. I met 'donkey' and dropped my bags. After small talk, I took the precipitous steps to the down to the sea. Literally cut into the rock with sheer drops I went down. Alex had been very sick the past few days and needed a nap so I went down to the tiny cove and sat and thought.

The day was 'bad weather'. Now to me, that means a blizzard. Here it means great winds rushing over the Aegean and creating waves. It was sunny, mid 80's, and the water was a brilliant blue. The wind, however, was enough to push a person right over and toiling down the steps, out of sight of the house where Alekos was sleeping, I was a little scared! The cove is isolated on three sides with sheer cliffs and the wind funneled in with huge force. The beach was all rocks and it was hard to find a place to settle.

I tried the water but didn't go far, not adventuresome enough and not a sea swimmer (nor a good swimmer) I spent more time in thought. Eventually, I spread my towel on the stones, smoked meditatively and let my thoughts wander and did some heavy thinking about the purpose of this portion of my trip. I spent about two hours there and returned to the house, a bit calmer.

For dinner, we crossed the wider bay to Alekos' cousin (of course) Hronis, and his wife Irenee, to have dinner with them. After introductions and talk (mostly in Greek). We decided to return to the same restaurant where we had lunch earlier and have dinner there.


Same waiter (a more distant cousin) was still working. We ordered, still not learning my lesson I go the lamb stew (they had killed it just the other day- fresh- and me trying new things.....) well, I got what seemed half the lamb! I ate some. I ate some beans. I ate some rice, I ate some bread. We had enough left over from my plate for three or four meals. Alekos joked that I had not been there long enough to know hunger and that you eat all you can whenever it is there.

Back to the house. Now, by this point I had already met the donkey, watered him, moved him (which means beating the iron stake with a rock until it gives way in the hardpacked dirt, then leading donkey to a new scrub area and pounding the stake back into the ground with a rock. My tender 'office' hands got a beating. Donkey's sole purpose is to drink water and eat scrub- he then shits and his shit is collected and worked into the sand around areas where Alekos wants to grow things). I also gave the stray dog some scraps. This dog had appeared a few days ago. Several months old, it was not fully grown and had huge paws and a beaten air. Alekos hoped it would leave but gave it scraps for now. He thought it was a hunting dog that got lost. We got ready for the night. I learned that toilet paper does NOT go in the toilet anywhere on the island- so there is a bucket next to the toilet with the evidence of all activity there for the viewing. Rustic indeed.

The next day Alekos got up and cheerful and seems to be feeling better. We had a huge breakfast - I kept protesting as more food was moved to my plate, but the protests were ignored! I moved donkey- tearing my hands a bit more as I pound his stake in the ground with a rock- I water him. We tie up the stray dog after feeding him and put him in the back seat of the car- pass by the female cousin who owns the 'store' (we stop there daily) and go to the cousin who owns another hotel to get me on the internet.

I can't log in. Alex wants to send pictures of his beard to Mary and pictures of the cat to his grandson Stephan. I transfer pics to a CD but it doesn't work. During this process, we discuss the trip and it is only now that Alekos and I learn that there has been a miscommunication- he thinks I am staying for weeks! I leave in two days!

We leave the cousin's hotel and take the dog to the 'place where people come for water' tie it to a pipe and leave. American that I am, I have issues but keep quiet- it is his land and his way. I pray for the dog and worry about it all day.

Now knowing that I leave in two days, Alekos is more motivated- still sick, he wants to show me the island. So we drive to Pidaglia, the main city. He has to pay a ticket for driving without a seatbelt (which he still will not wear) and we pay the ticket, going first to city hall then the police station where I get to see that things are the same regardless of the country. People at the police station are not exactly kind and helpful, even to a native (who greets more cousins the entire time we are there). I find an internet café and send pictures off to Mary, check e mail quickly and we 'see the town'. The town is small but picturesque. As the main city, and port, it is the largest on the island, but still very small by our standards. They are working to improve it to attract more tourist business and there are new cafes', nightclubs, work on a new marina. Being 'end of season' things are quiet and winding down, few tourists on the streets. We have a gyro- now knowing my lesson I decline, forcefully, all other food. Then into the rickety old car and we drive.

I have to refer to the Karpathos book but we saw every single town on the southern end of the island- driving up mountains, down to seashores. Alekos was the perfect tour guide. Growing up here and having returned as a man, he has a running commentary for everywhere we go. He is proud of the island. Loves it here. And we pass cousins everywhere. I get plenty of history- occupation over the years, ending with Italians who were finally expelled by the British at the end of WWII.

Also I understand Alkos and the other inhabitants more as he tells of growing up in the stavril we see everywhere. His father killed in the war when he was 1, his mother raising the children alone in the one room stone hut with a thatched roof (and they are everywhere, mostly falling into ruin now). No shoes until age 9, no toys, herding sheep, hauling water. No childhood. The land is desert. We talk about desert and slip into what it was like living in a desert. He is nostalgic for the past, but would never live it again- but lives it every day as he drives past ruined olive groves and collapsing terraces. His life was hard beyond my dreams. He speaks, though, in facts, not stories. He must know what he says, but he doesn't embellish. The landscape evokes enough responses and questions in me, and that with his memories and descriptions the hours go quickly.

We end in Menetes, his hometown- well, the town he walked miles to as a child and where eventually his mother moved to after the children left home. We stop at "Manny's" for a drink. All day long, no one, no cousin, has recognized him with his beard, sunglasses and Australian outback hat- he takes boyish joy in fooling everyone. Manny, 33, recognizes him after a while and whoops Alex into his arms. We sit and I have a diet coke (first in months) and Alex a beer. They talk. Eventually Manny and I talk- he lived in the States for some years and has perfect English- we discuss Karpathos' potential- the beauty- the weather (it is 'bad' per the locals now, October, low eighties!) the need for American style marketing, Manny is building condos in a gated community, plans to open more restaurants, he is tired of the U.S. and will never go back. Karpathos is Eden and why did he leave? We talk for far too long.

We stop at "St. John the Baptist" church. Now, churches dot the landscape everywhere on the island. I was confused until I learn that each church is only used once a year- on the Feast Day of the Patron Saint of that church- otherwise they sit empty 364 days a year. I am not sure I understand quite the reasons for this, and it is quite foreign to me with my background. This church is special; Alekos and Hronis are benefactors to the church- I take a picture of the plaque that lists the benefactors, with him and Hronis as numbers two and three- hear about the feast last month- and he shows me around. He is very proud and rightly so for in a real way, this IS his church. He and Hronis and others built the retaining walls, paid for the special work, organize and run the feast. In some ways, this is better, each person and family has a real attachment to 'their' church. We go into the church and light candles, I for my Mom and Aunt- he, for I know not who, but think his mother for whom he was greatly attached.

Then we go to the community garden where the only fresh water spring on this part of this island is- the water is drying up- but it was here he got water and carried it over the mountain to his mother when he was a boy. Here he has a small garden, they can only be inherited, his comes down from his Great Grandmother I think- freshwater being so scarce each inch is precious and clearly demarcated. We pick fresh figs from the trees and eat them. Peaceful.

On the way back to the house, we stop by the pipe where we had tied the stray dog. Alekos is indeed right- knowing the ways of the village he is sure someone recognized the dog and took it to its rightful owners.

That night, it was back to Hronis and Irenee's hotel to discuss dinner. We had brought three dead quail over the day before. A cousin (of course) of Alekos was hunting, it now being quail season, and he had dropped off some quail. The birds were tiny, blood covered, in a baggie. They sat on my lap on the drive over to Hronis, and I again tried to remember that this is the natural way- but they were so small, just little dead birds on my lap! Irenee says she will grill chicken later, and we will eat all the lamb stew I did not eat the night before and we will have the quail. But first we go to take care of donkey.

Donkey greets me with happiness, I give him water. We feed scraps to the cat. We drive back to the hotel.

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Dinner with Hronis and Irinee at the Hotel

Irenee is exhausted from a hard day of running the hotel and sits for a few moments when we come in before she must start dinner. Hronis comes in, get the ouzo and smilingly breaks it open and pours glasses for he and I- he has been teasing me that I need to learn to drink ouzo, and this is the night. We sit and they speak Greek.

We watch the news- a plane hijacked in Italy I gather. Companionable silence. A car pulls up. Politicians? Alex groans softly. It is election time in Greece in a few weeks. People here are fined (I think I got this right) if they do not vote- and people fly in from Athens, America, wherever, to vote! So unlike the U.S. However with voting, comes politicking. Alekos has said earlier he refuses ever to discuss politics so the sight of the car must be especially disconcerting to him. Two men come in- loud- I assume politicians visiting for the vote. More glasses come and our dinner is put off.

The larger guy (never got names for either- I call him Joe) says yes to offer of Johhnie Walker- they break the seal- he is loud and starts to drink prodigiously. At some point later, he inevitably tells me the story that 65% of all English is really Greek. And then he elaborates- in great detail, loudly. His brother (I call him Bob) sits by me and sips the local wine. Soon huge arguing between Hronis and Joe ensues- politics. Irenee says nothing and stares at her hands for the next hours as they pass slowly- occasionally I catch her eye as either 'Joe' fills another glass with Johnnie Walker- Alex stares at the TV, answers only when spoken to, moves away from the smoke to try and get his cell phone to work. It got wet the other day and is a source of constant attention and discussion- sometimes it works, sometimes not. He will not be drawn into the conversation. The ouzo lowers, Johnnie Walker lowers- they 'Joe' and Hronis- yell. 'Bob' is uncomfortable but cant get 'Joe' to shut up or go, although he tries every half hour. 'Bob' and I talk a little but of nothing as the voices are too loud in the room for anyone to speak but the two arguers. The only residents of the hotel, a Swiss couple who 'showed up' without reservations to 'surprise' Hronis and Irenee come into the room at the end of their day- they are surrounded by noise (from two people) and I think are a little taken aback.

Hronis' family dog comes in, turns out she has had five puppies, one comes in with them- the Swiss lady holds it. More ouzo. Bazouki comes out- Hronis can't play but now in his cups, tries. I cuddle the puppy. The Swiss stay about 15 minutes and leave. The puppy nurses from the mother who does not want it to, but finally relents. The yelling goes on- the room is full of smoke, Greek voices, drunken yelling, bazouki music (desultory by Hronis), Irenee faint with hunger- my third ouzo on an empty stomach- the puppy sleeps in my lap as I watch fleas scramble about on his white head.

It is Greece at politic time.

Joe is a liar- I don't understand a word he says, but he smiles with his mouth, not his eyes and you can tell is insincere. Hronis is drunk, Joe is drunk. Joe has gone through half a bottle of Johnnie Walker, the ouzo is low. It is ten and we have not eaten. Joe wants us all to go eat at his restaurant now for dinner- Alekos says no (I thank him silently), we will do so tomorrow at decent time (he later states, the restaurant closes at 10- the staff would have to work late for us, he wont do it- he has worked in restaurants all his life- and he says a free meal is not worth it with Joe.)

Finally Joe and Bob leave- Joe drunkenly. Irenee starts to re heat the lamb stew I did not eat- it is too late to grill other food. Hronis sulks. He is now very drunk and tries to talk to me. I placate as best I can as Hronis does a perfect drunk Greek and tries to tell me that no one loves him, he has no friends, his life is shit- we discuss- I knowing that discussing this or anything with a drunk is futile, but no I don't want to ignore him. Hronis tries to impress me with all his languages (seven by his count) Alekos sits behind and rolls his eyes, Irenee cooks and rolls her eyes. I explain I am doing somewhat better in French- we switch to French. Hronis can't get the words out- Alex interprets the French, pretty damn perfectly, to me.

Food is served. I just eat salad and bread. Irenee and Alex have chicken soup (Alex's stomach is still bad). Hronis eats the huge portion of lamb stew, and drops his fork, spills ouzo as he tries to pour- gets tears in his eyes as he sees the world mistreat him. He tells me he has learned I will not be there for weeks- and he is sad. I thank god for my Irish genes!

We get up, I give Irenee a hand (knowing it is not Greek, but I cant help myself!).

In the car back Alex is pithy but gets each person with perfect accuracy. No judgment- just statements about the characters of the evening. I check donkey in the dark. Alex says he is sorry I leave so soon. I go to bed and this night sleep with the window wide open- and the flies, as promised, come in the night. I have no clock and at some point have to get up to close the window in the middle of the night. I look out- a billion stars, the sounds of waves- otherwise silence.


Today Alex wakes me. Up to now he has said, no schedule- but he is up, wants me up, calls me. "Tom, get up. This day is for you. It is a perfect day calling for Tom. Get up" I do. It is a perfect day. The 'bad' weather is gone. I now know 'bad' means windy. The sea is glass. Alex cooks another giant breakfast- feeds me honey from a spoon like child- it is from a local hive and tastes dark and rich, more like molasses.

I go out and donkey greats me with great braying. I pet him as dust flies from his coat and he leans against me. I give him water and Blackie the cat runs with me as I walk the rocky fields.

I want to finally talk to Alex this morning about Mary (my biological mother). I go in to the house, but somehow, it does not feel the right time so I dress and come over to Hronis beach where, while still just a rocky beach, there are chairs and umbrellas. Alekos promises to come for me with Hronis in a few hours so we can 'do something'. I keep assuring I am fine on my own as I know he needs rest.

The water is perfect- it is hot and sunny. I try to write down as much as I can as quickly as I can as my battery is low- I realize all this is choppy in style as written, and more so as I edit out so many many details. I will not have time, I am sure, to write again until much later. I do not try to write with style nor beauty- I just need to get this all down. I sit on my chair and stare at Aleko's lonely house on the cliff and have my thoughts.

Some hours later Alekos drives over to the beach in his car. He and Hronis come down to the beach to stare at me with my laptop. They had planned on taking me out on the water in the small Zodiac boat, but it has a leak; it has had a leak most likely for many weeks. So today, they are going to fix it. This involves staring at the boat for a long time and talking in Greek. Finally Hronis scrapes the small spot on the boat with sandpaper, applies some glue, puts on the patch, weights it with rocks and we stare at the boat (expecting it to do what?) for many more minutes. Then we sit on the rocks a few feet beneath the boat.

Its blisteringly hot and sunny. We make desultory talk while Hronis smokes (he does 3 packs a day). Eventually I putz at the waters edge. Somehow, Hronis and Alekos agree that they should do more work on the beach beneath the Zodiac. Beach is a misnomer here- beach simply means smaller rocks than the bigger rocks. So we all wade in and begin to clear out the larger rocks from under the water beneath where the Zodiac comes in to rest. As we work, we begin to build a small quay. Alekos says this will be useful so that Mary can get in and out of the boat without getting wet. I look very doubtfully at the pile of rocks we are creating and doubt it would hold up with the weight of a person. But we work. I think when you have three guys sitting on a beach with nothing to do and little in common (including language) very soon they will find a project to do. Hronis and Alekos are like little boys and seem to take great joy in the work- vying to see who can move the biggest rock, exclaiming over shells they find, pointing out fish as they swim by. We work together like this for a hours.

Irenee comes down and yells at Hronis in Greek. Appears he has missed an important call from a travel agent; the agent has called several times and here he is playing in the water! She is about to cook us lunch (it is 3 in the afternoon) so chastened we all troop up. (Of course, Hronis could never admit to being chastened by Irenee but he has to handle this call). Up we go and sit on the veranda of the hotel and I watch the water while the Hronis handles business for the next hours.

He puzzles over account books. Uses a calculator, smokes non stop. Alekos stares at him with no expression. Irenee stares at him with dour expression. Hronis ponders. He then calls travel agent and they argue. He hangs up, stares at the account books again and shakes his head and doodles. This goes on for an hour. I don't know where to look or what to do. I lay on the concrete (Alekos does not like this, that is for animals). But its cool and I can stare up through the palm fronds at the sky. The heat gets intense. A few cars drive in and go to the rocky beach. They all comment on how late the season is this year (it is October after all and only in the 80's without a cloud in the sky- the sea is like glass, why would people come here?). Hronis doodles. Alekos actually nods in and out of sleep. Irenee starts to cook our dinner: Liver and Quail. I wonder how I will ever pull this meal off.

Hronis smokes more. A harpoon fisherman goes out into the water, his girlfriend (cute) fishes topless from a large rock- Hronis and Alekos pay a little more attention. They talk in Greek a little bit- desultory. The account books stay open but no longer examined.

I go off to the side of the hotel at the cliff and play with the puppies. My favorite puppy runs to me and the mother dog bites it viciously several times- still it comes to my lap. Others try to come, mother dog bites them viciously as well. Hronis in the distance is yelling at Irenee (and possibly Alekos)- he has screwed up. I go back with 'my' puppy (whom I now love and want to take with me- but I know I cant and am torn with not touching it at all or giving it all the love I can in a short while). The mother dog paces in front of us- she will no longer let the puppies nurse- no one seems concerned- it will work out one way or another. Hronis goes in for more cigarettes. The heat gets worse.

Hronis returns, smokes and finally (it has been almost two hours) puts the account books away. The mother dog continues to attack her own puppies- I only cuddle the one I have in my lap and recognize how futile it can be to get involved. Irenee goes in and continues to cook.

I hate liver. I can think of little I hate more: in fact, since I don't eat things I hate, I cant even think of the taste of what I hate because at my age, I simply haven't eaten them in twenty years. Hronis smokes. I pet the puppy, Alekos watches women on the beach through binoculars.

At six, lunch is finally ready and we go in. It is liver. It is the quail that sat on my lap the other day. I have been putting out more and more that I eat little, and am mostly vegetarian- I hope this will help. I thank god this is not a culture where the honored guest gets to eat an eyeball or something worse- but the liver (huge slab) is plunked on my plate- I get the biggest piece. And being where we are, liver is a great treat. A minuscule quail body part goes on my plate. I am told to take first portion of everything thereafter and when I do, the bowl is grabbed from me and three times as much (salad, French fries, bread) are slapped on my plate. I have a warm beer I have been nursing outside for over an hour. Everyone digs in while the dogs leap at the glass doors from outside and the flies buzz around us.

There is no conversation. The liver is too good! I take a bite- remember to chew with mouth open, don't breath. I nearly gag but a piece goes down. I wash it with warm beer; NOT a good idea. I alternate liver with other things: salad, bread, French fries, beer, anything to discover what combination reduces the likelihood of my gagging. I discover there is no good combination. We eat in silence. I ask Irenee how she cooked the different things. Bottom line- she cooked the liver in a pan with breadcrumbs in oil. Then she took the quail, sliced them open and peeled off the skin (feathers and all) and dropped them in the oil in the pan where she had cooked the liver: all agree this is the best way to eat quail. I eat my quail. The others eat everything including all but the largest bones- I pick off bits of meat (flavored with liver) and try to hide the bones somewhere- but the plate leaves me no hiding space. The only saving grace is that everyone is squeezing lemons onto everything- so I take extra lemon, squeeze it on my liver (continue to chew, mouth open, don't think about it, don't insult, keep going, try to see how large a piece you can swallow whole without chewing- keep your mind off of it- think of Survivor Island (they have a Greek version- apparently the franchise has one in each country), sip warm beer. I hid quail bones inside the lemon. I finish the liver.

Hronis slaps another piece on my plate. I protest. I wait a while then slice off about ¼ of the piece and return the rest to the platter. I get cold stares from all. I eat my piece of liver.

The table cleared, back out to the veranda. Irenee cleans the kitchen. The men stare at the beach. I take my towel and say I want a few more minutes at the beach and go down to lay on a chair.

I come back as night falls. We sit for a while and finally Alekos says we are going and we drive back. Donkey gets water, Alekos begins to water his plants now that it is dark. I take a shower and stare at myself in the mirror. By this point my hair is long- after swimming in the ocean and having it fly in the wind- I look like a 18th century nobleman with a yellow wig who has been out in a storm- my hair literally stands on end. I'd like to blame the liver (which I can still taste). So I shower. I go out and sit in the dark on the veranda watching the sun set (spectacularly) over the mountain and the first stars come out.

Alekos comes out and sits down and says I am smart to do this. We sit in silence for a while watching the sun set and listening to the waves. He offers me ouzo. I figger, what the hell, last night here, lets see what happens. He gets two glasses and puts them on the railing between us. He can only drink a little because of his medications. I ask what he is taking and we begin to talk.

Throughout the ensuing conversation I keep my eyes fixed on a star that I have come to like. It twinkles red and I like to think it is Mars. It is my focus point. Alex tells me about his various ills and we talk about healthcare and money. It is totally dark except for a very bright moon over the sea and the stars as they come out- a light behind us back in the kitchen sheds just enough light to make us each a silhouette. I go for broke and ask "What was Mary like when you met her?". Without a beat, he goes off into a long story.

We then talked in the dark for several hours, sipping our ouzo and getting questions answered. I later wrote a great deal about this for my own private thoughts.

My ouzo has hit me, although only one drink, it has been hours since eating and I tell him I am a little tipsy. He gives me more ouzo even though I say no.

He then asks what it is I really do for work. I try to explain...the conversation from there moves off to insurance companies and all companies screwing regular people. He doesn't trust big companies and we talk on about the world and business. He asks me where I will live and I talk about the job in Ohio or going to North Carlina. He is keen on info on North Carolina and thinks it is a good place to go.

My red star is almost gone- I am tired and after a bit go to bed. I stay awake for hours harassed by a fly.

Last day- I was up at dawn. After an hour or so Alekos awakes and I hear him stirring; after a pause he says through my door "Tom, get up. It is a perfect day. A perfect day for you. I have never seen such a perfect day. Get up and see the water." He wants to drive into town to buy eggs for breakfast- I demur as I do not want all this food. So we eat yogurt with local honey, dry toast from a bag, instant coffee and he cuts up an orange and feeds it to me. He pulls out cheese slices and shows me the cost, $11 euros a pound, everything is expensive, and puts the cheese on the dry melba toast, puts quince jelly on top and I eat it.

We look at a Greek navy boat in the distance through binoculars. I have to leave in a few hours so I pack a bit, we move donkey who is braying, and he takes me to the beach. I come to the beach to write, he brings the foot pump to try and start the Zodiac and before he can do anything his phone rings- his half brother is at the house, so he goes. I can see him, Hronis and the half brother on the porch, talking and smoking. The half brother wants to build a hotel on the land on the other side of Alekos, it will ruin the peace but it is not his land.

I am alone on the beach. I am burning in the sun (I think I am writing like Hemingway lately too- short declarative sentences!). I write about our conversation of the night before. Ohh, another car is going up the drive to Alekos' house, I wonder who this is? The battery on the computer is almost gone- I have no idea what time it is.

Still not sure what I have learned. In time perhaps this will sort itself out in my head. I wonder if I could have lived to old age without knowing anything of my past- but I am glad that I have found out more.

Last night, pretty much predictably, Alekos said "Blood is blood. You have the blood."
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