Neurotic in Paradise: Capitalist Hangover on a ‘Red’ Greek Island

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It was several years ago during a brutal winter in Bosnia that I first learned of the existence of the remote Greek island of Ikaria. Prior to the pandemic, Sarajevo was one of my regular stops as I pursued a life of frenzied international travel, avoided permanent residence and, more importantly, avoided my hideous homeland, the United States.

On this particular visit to sub-zero Sarajevo, I alternated between falling outside on ice and sitting in my apartment looking at pictures of summer scenes on the internet. And it was because of this last pastime that Ikaria entered my consciousness, through a spate of articles praising the rugged beauty of the island and the extraordinary longevity of its inhabitants.

A 2013 Guardian broadcast, for example, starring 100-year-old Gregoris Tsahas, who enjoyed a pack of cigarettes and more than a few glasses of red wine a day, traveled four hilly miles between his home and his regular cafe, and never been sick once minus a bout of appendicitis.

A 2012 New York Times Magazine essay told the story of Stamatis Moraitis, who was 97 or 102 years old and had returned to his native Ikaria from the US in the 1970s after being diagnosed with cancer. He recovered without any treatment other than gardening, winemaking, and playing dominoes after midnight with friends—and outlived all of his American doctors.

No one has discovered the exact secret of Ikar’s stamina, but it seems to be a combination of slow living, social companionship, olive oil, wild sage tea, goat’s milk, outdoor work, afternoon naps, therapeutic wind, and sexual activity into old age – not to mention the sheer sophistication of the physical environment. As if that wasn’t good enough, it gets even better: Ikaria is known locally as the “red rock” in reference to its communist tendencies, which were only reinforced in line with the island’s service as a place of exile for Greek leftists in the mid-twentieth century.

I myself wasn’t very concerned with making it to 97 or 102, but I found the prospect of immortal wine-drinking island communists extremely inspiring. After walking around in a tizzy my whole life, I thought I should probably slow it down and see what it was really meant to be. My first attempt to visit Ikaria in 2020 was thwarted by the coronavirus, but on June 12, 2022 I arrived by ferry from Athens in the small Ikarian coastal town of Armenistis.

My plan was simple: I would take a month to relax, sort myself out, and become an extremely calm person who—fueled by goat’s milk and communist vibes—was constantly napping and reading books by the sea.

It looked promising at first. The terrace of my attic apartment afforded expansive views of the Aegean Sea and a bay below, where the water was a bewildering array of shades of blue. I took walks through the hills, smelled the scents of island plants and flowers and drank half a liter of homemade wine in the taverna, above which lived a man who looked about 90 and was often swimming or tinkering on his scooter.

The man had lived in New York, he told me, and invited me along the road past his farm for some apricots. A younger Ikarian — who had also tried hard in life in America and promptly repatriated himself — said wryly to me, “Ikarians are very bad at capitalism.”

Unfortunately in Armenistis it soon became clear to me that I happened to be quite good at it. Although I wanted to relax, indoctrination dies hard. I effectively began to apply a capitalist mindset and work ethic to leisure.

It wasn’t enough to chill on the beach with a book; on the contrary, I definitely had to be the best beach book person ever, exuding grace and harmony with the serene backdrop, even as I raced to meet my daily page quota. I had to be the best island walker, island planter, taverna visitor, sea swimmer, and so on at the same time, despite fully acknowledging the counterproductive nature of my approach. Leisure became a chore and/or competition, and the vicious circle was only exacerbated by my increasing excitement about clearly not being able to relax.

I was also well aware that this was a grotesquely privileged kind of torment – and that the vast majority of people in the world could not spend their time neurotically in paradise. Whenever it seemed like I wasn’t going to complete all the countless tasks I had set myself for the day, I would have palpitations of the kind that defined my teenage years in the US. At the time, the need to excel in all the academic and extracurricular endeavors to achieve perfectly “well-rounded” status in college applications had done some on my nervous system.

On June 29, I attended one of Ikaria’s famous panygiria – feasts that honor saints and often last all night. These festivities were incompatible with my schedule, given my habit of waking up before the crack of dawn feeling like I was beating the rest of the world. Still, I went to the village of Pezi, up the mountain from Armenistis, to celebrate Saints Peter and Paul.

I chose to hitchhike and was picked up first by a Norwegian couple looking for a gas station and then by a young Greek man on a motorbike. He swung calmly around the mountain arches as the sun set over the sea, and I dug my fingernails into his shoulders and let out shrieks of several decibels.

Hundreds of people were already at the outdoor party, eating goat meat, drinking local wine and dancing to the music of a tireless four-piece ensemble. Concentric circles of dancers turned round and round with folded hands; to the side, a gray-haired man made an energetic leap to encourage a man and a woman who were crouching on the floor in front of him and clapping.

In the beginning I was left wallowing in the existential pain of having no culture, community or, I concluded, even identity, except that I was a cog in the capitalist machine. But eventually I had had enough wine that none of this mattered, and I broke into the outer circle and grabbed a hand on either side of me. We moved around at dizzying speed, holding on for the best life and feeling preemptive nostalgia for this moment of fleeting eternity.

I tried to leave the panygiri at 1 am but was told by the Greeks at my table that I would never find a lift at such an early hour. I finally left at 2:30 am and was escorted half way back to Armenistis by three men in a car. Two women in another car took me the rest of the way.

The next day I developed a huge rash that started under my right arm and spread down my side and down my back. I hurried to the nearest pharmacy in Armenistis, which also served as a barber shop and where I had bought a beach towel with a giant lion on it. The owner’s daughter glanced and stated that it was the work of the Ikarian white moth, which, she said, must have come into contact with me on the panygiri.

In response to my next petrified question, she looked at me with a mixture of amusement and extreme seriousness and replied, “Of course you’re not going to die, you’re in Ikaria.”

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.



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