Faith, Recklessness, and Courage (Christmas in No-Man’s Land)

Border between Greece and Bulgaria

Border between Greece and Bulgaria

There were three men against the back wall with AK-47s.  They were unshaven, unmoving, and looked as if the last time they smiled there was blood on the ground.   They glared at me and there was an even chance that I was the first American they’d ever seen.  Communism had just fallen and, since no system of law, order or enforcement had yet taken its place, these men had become all of those things.

They were guarding the ‘businessmen’ that I was meeting with in a rural village in Bulgaria, businessmen who were money changers, importers/exporters, and a rural ex-party mafia rolled into one.  I was here to sell a tractor, the first modern western tractor in the country as far as any of us knew, and though I didn’t want to be negotiating with ‘businessmen’ like these, there was no choice.  They could move large equipment; they had money; and they had protection. Continue reading

Living Forever on a Greek Island

Skopelos

Skopelos

After the first few weeks, I didn’t know what day it was.

By that, I don’t mean that I didn’t know if it was a Monday or a Tuesday. I didn’t know if it was a Monday or a Saturday. The only day I ever knew that summer was Sunday, which was marked by church bells and the voices of the psaltes (singers) in the nearby churches.

Once the churches quieted, that day unraveled like every other day, until again, on some seemingly distant and arbitrary morning, the psaltes would be heard and I would know it was Sunday again. Continue reading

The Sacred and the Desecrated

The Rockies, Greece & Ireland

The Rockies, Greece & Ireland

One evening, while cruising the wine-dark sea off Psathura, a deserted island in Northern Greece, I thought that an epiphany was at hand.  This may have had something to do with the heat and the ouzo, however, because that epiphany proved as evanescent as the breeze and remained unknown.

What happened in Psathura isn’t unique though, this sort of encounter with the world’s majesty that transcends the everyday and seems sublime.  It’s happened to me at other times as well: in the Rocky Mountains, and on the Sea of Cortez, and upon the wavering greens of Western Ireland.  It’s occurred on bicycles and horses and surf boards.

It’s likely to have happened to everyone who chances upon this post.

I thought of these encounters when I heard this quote from the Kentucky poet Wendell Berry: “There are no sacred and unsacred places; there are only sacred and desecrated places.”

Those few words have changed my way of thinking.  Like our innocence, every place we encounter is indeed sacred unless proven otherwise, and we trespass upon the sanctified daily.  It’s a humbling, lifting and affirming way of passing through the world.

And I’m beginning to think that was the epiphany that hung in the breeze off Psathura.

You can buy ‘THE LAST ISLAND’ here.

Sunday Morning Comin’ Down (in Greece)

On a Sunday morning in the large amphitheater of my Greek Island village, the male voices of the psaltis from three distinct churches could be heard concurrently.  In the Carnegie Hall-like acoustics of the village, their unamplified chants arrived at nearly the same tone and volume to the house, located high on the village curve.  The effect, however, made the timeless medieval melodies discordant and jarring.

But there were rewards for the patient xenos eavesdropping from above.  If you listened long enough, there came times when the trinity of chanted prayers harmonized unexpectedly and melded into something more sublime and beautiful than any single one of them could have been.

And I thought, there it is in a song: the history of this island, a place where fishermen, cooks, wives, builders and farmers lived together for 5,000 years, sometimes in competition, sometimes in harmony, but almost always in an unenforced and organic equality.  They ate and drank with each other, bought and sold from each other, and married each other.  Their lives were limited, perhaps, but contentedly circumscribed.**  But that was before the European Union and, later, Hollywood discovered the island, before the drachma became the Euro, before the new port and trawl nets and so many pale tourists with fat pockets.

There aren’t enough fish anymore; the few small fishing boats that remain are largely ornamental.  Successful tavernas swallow their less sophisticated rivals, bringing in food and even fish — fish! — from the outside.  Rooms that were once rented by local families have given way to hotels.  In short, the interdependence of the villagers is gone.  A few grow rich, while others, having lost their livelihoods, go to work for them.  It is what we in the restless West understand as the way of the world — almost without thinking about it.  And it is what many call progress — again, almost without thinking about it.

I’ve been coming every summer for over 20 years and have seen the changes in snapshots.  The hope is that one day the tide will, somehow, rise in the tide-less Aegean and lift all boats — but so far that isn’t the case.

So far, the changes have made the villagers like those discordant psaltis on Sunday mornings.  They compete with each other in way they didn’t have to previously, knowing that in the future there will be a few amplified winners and many more losers.  And the not-so-small miracle of the resounding harmony that was this island for 5,000 years will be lost forever.

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** I suppose I could be accused here of romanticizing village life from a safe distance — but I take my lead from two novelists, Leo Tolstoy and Nikos Kazantzakis, who both concluded that the so-called simple villager lives a full life and knows all one ever needs  to know.

You can buy ‘THE LAST ISLAND’ here.

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