My first three weeks in Greece were spent on the island of Ikaria. Some of you have heard about Ikaria because it was featured in the news (CNN, BBC, and National Geographic) recently as a place where local people live the longest. When I arrived to the island, a large film crew was just leaving. They are part of a project called The Blue Zones which studies humans’ longevity and the reasons why in some areas people can live much longer than average. The reports painted Ikaria as a very remote, undeveloped island, in which people still live connected to the land. Some of the reasons they gave for the people’s health are that the Ikarians eat many wild greens, make teas from wild herbs, are not rushed and stressed, work outside or walk a lot, eat a balanced diet of local foods, and have a strong sense of community. After hearing this on my first day I had high expectations for the island. However, in my first days I ate no wild greens, felt the people were not kind, and wondered sadly through empty farm fields now filled with weeds. The island did not seem remote or magical to me – it seemed developed and very modern after coming straight from the Andes. Villagers did not greet me with soup or a potato as I passed their house and instead often ignored me or grunted quietly. Part of my disappointment is because the Blue Zone story exaggerated a good deal to make the news and a large part is because I simply had trouble adjusting to life in another new culture and way of life. After so many transitions this year I know that each country or drastically different place throws my emotions for a loop, but there is nothing I can do to stop this.
While walking back from the store with my yogurt Elias spotted me in his truck. He was headed to feed the animals and do some work on his farm. There were language barriers and I wasn’t sure if he had forgotten our meeting or what. However, everything seems to work out better than I could have guessed. He showed me all the parts of his farm (which jutted out over the sparkling blue sea!). We picked some plants along the walk and I harvested a sack full of wild oregano for the restaurant. Life is about the moments – not the days and there are few moments as beautiful as picking oregano and thyme while gazing out at the blue sea, with the wind in my hair.
Elias didn’t have time to show me many more plants, so I offered to help him work. This took him by surprise, but we were soon hard at work- digging and preparing the small fields to plant. After work I was fed a Greek feast by his wife and they refused any money. The next day our work continued: cleaning pig pens and planting tomatoes. After a hard morning work his wife made a picnic lunch for me (two homemade cheeses, local bread, cucumber, tomato, and local olives). I ran up the river which ends at the sea next to their hotel and dunked my sweaty body in the cool water. I ate every bite of the delicious food and fell asleep in the shade next to a rushing river. Upon waking I swam again in the cool water and frolicked naked up the valley. In the evening I worked again with Elias. As the sun set majestically over the sea we looked back on our work and enjoyed Elias’s homemade wine. Life couldn’t get any better!
I spent a few days with Elias and his wife Thea – working, running up the river, and feeling the calming powers of the sea. When I went to leave they would not accept a cent for the hotel room or all the huge meals they had fed me. At this time I became convinced of the Greek hospitality which everyone speaks of. People like Thea, Uncle Yiannis, and the other locals who I met during this week showed me what Greece has to teach me. They told me stories of the time they spent in America and how they couldn’t stand the life there. They hated having to compete with their neighbors over houses and cars, they missed the relaxed Greek life with less pressure to constantly work, and they longed for a community like the one which exists here in Ikaria. They may not farm much anymore – but they all still make their own wine, oil, and often cheese. Nearly everyone has a vegetable garden. They know which wild plants can be eaten and many save the ancient seeds from their garden – which are adapted to the harsh, sea conditions. It is very different from the agrarian lives of Peru or Ethiopia, but has a lot to teach me nonetheless.