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The International Writers Magazine: Greece

Tales of Samos - Part I
Brian H. Appleton

Sometime around 1968 I started spending summers in Samos. I fell in love with that Island. Unlike much of the rest of Greece it was not arid but rather lush and green. In fact there was a hillside restaurant called Idthroni or nightingale where the streams passed under your table and between your feet and the cool breeze lifted your spirits as they brought you Tzadziki and olives and bread and tomatoes and ouzo…

It was long before the tourists had discovered it and there were no hotels and only rooms rented out in family’s houses. There was only one flight a week or you came by boat.

On the way cutting through the waves, we were joined by dolphins leaping into the air for joy while the ship’s speakers blared bouzouki music "Delfini Delfinaki" no doubt. Everyone would rush to whichever side of the deck the dolphins could be seen from with great excitement like they were seeing their long lost brothers that Dionysus had transformed. We passed the island of Ikaria too, where it is said that Ikarus fell into the sea after flying too close to the sun. Everywhere antiquity embraced us demanding to be counted as still among our living conscience. And the Aegean world was one of light blue and white like the colors of the flag…the whole polychromatic spectrum of the world reduced to just two hues. We knew better since the first time to stop at Ikaria which was a mineral water health spa filled with wraithlike patients dressed in white sheets like a scene from Tartarus.

Samos, when we arrived the first time, a long table of instant friends and grilled fish and retsina was waiting at the beach of Karlovasi for us the guests of honor whom cousin Ted Christou had only met on the passage a few days before warning us to call him at the post office it we got bored in Ikaria.

What an enchanted world was Samos, so many unique things like the water tunnel chiseled from two sides of a mountain by design of Pithagorus for whom the town of Pithagorion was named. Yet another engineering feat of the ancient Greeks, the two bores met in the middle with no appreciable error without the aid of lasers. He did not want the town to die of thirst if it were under siege. I imagined, looking out at the low sky and endless expanses of the light blue sea, how he had come up with his theorem of triangulation.

One day I came across a curious looking blonde haired and blue eyed Greek who sat with his legs dangling in the entrance to the water tunnel to catch the cool breeze blowing out from it. I hailed him and he noticed the raven’s feather in my hand and said he had dropped it a little earlier. I asked him how he had come to have blue eyes and blonde hair and he laughed and said that all the first Samiotians had had blonde hair. I had heard that the Dorian Greeks were Celts so I believed him. He said that Samos meant "heights" in Phoenician. He had left home many decades before and emigrated to Rio De Janeiro and although he loved thee weeeman of Braozil, he was glad to be back to the home of his childhood. He explained to me that he was cooling his heels because the Squedra de las Muertas had been after him for his debts and had burned down the night club he had had on a boat in the harbor. My goodness, I had not expected such a colorful character in the mouth of Pithagoris’s water tunnel but why not…

Samos also had the remains of the temple of Hera, which had been the largest Hellenistic Temple ever built. Samos had the best Muscat grapes and sweet wine I had ever tasted. Even the French waxed ecstatic remembering alas the sweet Samos Doux. Another curiosity of Samos were the large European Chameleons that I found in dry gulches and along gravel road beds which were as long as your forearm and just as impressive as any found in Madagascar with that watch spring coiling tail and the independently orienting eyes and the color changing and the foot long tongues.

Ted, who during the winter had been a welder in Detroit, shared his love for his island with us. He and I actually walked from Karlovasi to his village of Platanos and speaking of heights, from high atop the mountain ridge where it lay you could see the two tallest peaks of Kirkis and Kavounis. In Platanos, the first thing that strikes one is that the town square is a triangle and in each of its angles grows a 1000 year old Plane tree. At the side opposite is a spring house so famous for its fine water that it is said that Aristotle himself drank from it. Samotians had so much local pride. They had songs from Samos and songs form each village. One song that every Greek knew was "Samiotisa, Samiotisa, rodthia ke tria dafilaaah, Samiotisa…" about the beautiful girl of Samos whose cheeks were red like roses. We discovered early on that if one arrived August 14th that Platanos was having its wine festival and that each village staggered its festival for a different day so that one could go from village to village and attend them all. One year we missed the party by one day and the colored lights were still strung up about the town square triangle. The mayor decided that they would throw the part again in our honor since we had missed it and that is precisely what happened. I remember my buddy and I were sitting at a little table on the plaza with two of the most beautiful girls of the village and their fathers. Their mothers had long since gone to bed. That night we watched 90 year old men dance in the middle of the square and bend at the waist only, to pick up shot glasses of ouzo holding the rims between their teeth then standing upright again and tilting their heads back to down the contents all with no hands. We also got a donkey drunk with a bottle of ouzo all his own and he did somersaults for us. A little before dawn those of us who were still standing formed a long line arm in arm and walked down the path along the cliffs singing folksongs all the way to where the silver moon cast a swathe of light a thousand feet below right down the middle of the green night sea to the shore like a path for Aphroditi to tread upon the surface of the water…speaking of cliffs and walking on water, there was the legendary Papaleonidas, a wandering hermit whom many different villages traded lore about. He though he could fly and would step off cliffs much to the detriment of his poor body.

I remember or I should say hardly remember one wine festival we went to at Pagondas which lasted four days. I can still picture an Orthodox priest from another village participating merrily in the festival. That is the town that Ted’s uncle Perryandros was from and I had such a crush on his daughter Katerina until the day she married a guy that looked like trouble the way he forgot to put traps in the sinks of the new guest house we stayed in and he had an eye for flirting with foreign tourists.

I recall Pagondas had a row of old men sitting on a wall wearing baggy black jodhpurs and black vests with embroidery on the front like you never see anymore in Greece. One summer several years later my girl friend and I spent the better part of a day walking our bikes up the mountain from Ireon, the beach for Pagondas. When we got to the top Perry met us and took us to his home and ceremoniously sliced up for us a large Karpoosi (watermelon) upon our arrival with great aplomb never mind that was all he could afford to offer us. After our visit we literally coasted back down the long hill and almost made it all the way back to Pithagorion without ever having to pedal past the large repositories in the flat plain where I had helped crush white grapes with my bare feet the previous autumn.

The walk that Ted and I had taken from Karlovasi to Platanos had been an amazing experience in itself. In the interior there were villagers who had literally not seen a foreigner since World War II. They regaled me with stories about the war like it had been only yesterday. "Right in the crook of that tree a young Englishman, no older than yourself was shot dead by a German sniper. He fell right here!" Each one had a story.

I remember farmers running to meet us as we walked and begging us to help ourselves to the figs in their fig trees. Immediately a long forgotten picture floated into my head of my family back in 1954 driving an old white ford down out of the mountains of Crete with storks flying in circles high over head and down we arrived into a large plain of jade green vineyards off into the horizon. Suddenly a white dot appeared to be moving towards us in a curious way like an amoeba without definition. There was no other living thing for miles. Finally a young woman smiling and laughing and huffing and puffing all out of breath descended upon us with her apron full to the brim with clusters of large green grapes which she insisted we take. She had so much joy in the giving and sharing of nature’s bounty with us.

Another scene from my walk up the mountain with Ted I can always picture in my mind as we staggered up a steep incline, looking up to see an old man on a white horse coming down holding rope tethers to five white goats walking in front of the horse. He looked regal like a tribal chieftain and in complete command of his world.

Ted knew a lot about the history of his island. He taught me that Samos under the command of Lykurgis had been the first to rebel against the Ottoman Empire and in fact they won their independence and had been an independent country for a few years with their own flag and currency and he showed me a brown glass soda bottle from that era with the insignia of the nation of Samos.

At one point as we walked through a thicket on the outskirts of the next village, he stopped and listened with his head cocked to one side and then signally me to remain silent he took of his coat and stalked something invisible slowly positioning himself and then suddenly flinging his coat down like a blanket as a covey of Greek partridges burst into the air startling me as they went. He missed but he told me he had often caught partridges that way as a boy. I remember in that instant Ted telling me that we might as well kill ourselves right now because life doesn’t get any better than this. Then we came upon a pool of water under some oak trees high up in the mountains and from holes all around the banks the eyes of land crabs could be seen on the ends of their stalks. Strange to encounter crabs so far from the sea and so high above it. A bit further on we came into a ravine in which a river flowed. It was narrow and at the tops of the walls were solemn rows of cypress. Ted turned to me and said:" Believe it or not this river once ran red with blood." He proceeded to tell me a story that probably only he and the cypress trees were live witness to. During the war, the Italian soldiers who were not hardliner fascists had been quite friendly to the Greeks in Samos. They used to say: "Una Facia, Una raza…" and in fact they had given the villagers food and even munitions. They had arranged to have airplanes make parachute drops into this ravine at night to the waiting Greeks and Italians below. Somehow the Nazis had gotten wind of this and they had arranged an ambush. Just as the parachutes of parcels started coming down out of the sky, the Nazis revealed themselves at the tops of the ravine walls and removed burlap covering shiny silver machine guns on tripods which then began to rip killing everyone in the ravine but him because he was such a small child and low the ground and they must have missed spotting him in the darkness…it was hard to believe as I looked at the bubbling stream over the river rocks, the breeze in the cypress and the clear blue sky that this was a tomb and the scene of such atrocity.

Ted went on to tell me that when the Nazis were in retreat at the end of the war that they were evacuating in small boats to a troop ship in the harbor of old Vathi, the capitol of Samos and the American bombers had flown in low at dawn and surprised and sunk them. His family had actually taken in and cared for a young German soldier who had been wounded in that bombing until he was well enough to escape. I find that there is a profound humanity in the Greeks…. A profound Christianity although they will brag about how in the old days they had 12 Gods but now they only have one as if a little disappointed. I think that the main tenet of forgiveness is the gift that Christianity brought to humanity and helped to civilize worlds even so brutal as my Viking ancestors...a simple carpenter and fisherman from a village like one of these, who learned to turn the other cheek… On another occasion we were sitting in the square with a relative who had lost a leg. It turned out they had been fighting on opposite sides in the civil war and here we were all sitting together in friendship. I remember my land lady in Pithagorion, the summer I left Iran after the revolution, when all the reprisal was going on and she said:"What is the matter with these Iranians, don’t they realize that each victim creates revenge and leads to more killing and execution?" It is amazing to think of how the Greeks, the sons and daughters of Pericles, were able to rid themselves of the colonels in a bloodless coup.

We walked into a village with completely empty silent streets like a stage set and rounding a corner we came into the main square which was not even paved but hard packed dirt. There in the middle was a long table like the last supper, with the village priest at the head talking inaudibly to the village elders around him for all the world looking like Christ and his apostles. They didn’t even notice us. We were headed out the other side of town when suddenly Ted stopped dead in his tracks, as if he were remembering something long forgotten. He scratched his head and finally said: "Come with me, I think I know someone here." We walked down a side road to a small cottage. There was an old lady sitting on her front porch. Ted went to her and after saying hello; he explained to her that during the civil war he had been 9 years old and a messenger on the side of the communists. By day they had hid in a cave up the mountain and by night he had come down to her house and she had fed him and taken care of him for many months this way.

She started crying. She told us: "I believe you but as you can see I am blind and I have lost my memory due to old age as well so I can neither see you nor remember you but I believe you….."
I will never forget that old woman’s tears for as long as I live.

When we finally got to Ted’s village of Platanos, we met his old adopted parents whom he called Theo and Thea. They had raised him to manhood as he had been an orphan. They were so kind to us. I remember one day Theo came from his fields carrying a basket of pinto beans and with great pride he went about giving handfuls away to every fellow villager he met. The villagers were of such great cheer. They told me that during the war everything had been bombed flat except the church which they considered a joyous miracle and undaunted they had rebuilt their town. Theo had a donkey of which he was very fond. Some winters he could not afford to feed it so he would sell it to a friend and then buy it back in the spring. I remember it was so rocky that the donkeys were fitted with solid shoes like metal plates to protect their feet from getting poked by sharp stones…

To be continued…

  Brian Appleton March 2008

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