A Greek Tragedy – Life in a village on Samos Island

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Samos is one of the Eastern Aegean Sea islands. It is the greenest island of the group and its economy is based on olives, wine, fishing and, to a certain extent, tourism. For a small island it has a big history which includes, according to mythology, the goddess Hera being born there.  Some of the best scientists and philosophers in ancient Greece originate from Samos including Pythagoras of Pythagora’s theorem, Aristarchus the first person to conclude that the earth revolved around the sun and Aesop of the famous fables.  But my personal favourite is Epicurus who claimed that the principle of life is to satisfy the needs of the stomach and who’s advice the Samians have embraced wholeheartedly.

It was from this island that my friend’s family originated before they emigrated to Australia. He returned to the island many years later and discovered his mother’s family house abandoned. They rebuilt and now use it as a holiday home. The house has spectacular views over the town and port of Karvalossi and on a clear day Turkey can be seen in the distance (it’s 1 km across the water). The village where the house is located is a long steep walk up hill or, for those with a heart condition, a short drive. Locals in their 70’s put me to shame by bounding passed me as I gasp for breath and take numerous breaks to ‘admire the view’/have a drink of water/collect firewood (any excuse will do) before commencing my crawl upwards. If anyone is considering climbing Mount Everest this is the place to go into training.

The first time I arrived on the island and stayed in the house it was apparent that the place needed a good spring clean. It was to say the least a little grubby. The lounge rug had 5mm of hair covering it, cream curtains were grey, soft furnishings had unsavoury stains on them, cupboards were dirty and the bath – well use your imagination.  Apparently friends of the family often borrowed it and cleaning was obviously not on their agenda.  So being a bit of a Hugh Hefner I cleaned the house from top to bottom and discovered by chance that the way to ingratiate yourself with the women of a traditional Greek village is to scrub the doorstep until it shines. Thanks to my cleaning frenzy I became the favourite foreigner out of all the visitors and ex-girlfriends that had stayed there over the years – because according to local lore the slobs hadn’t even whisked a duster around the place.  The women showed their approval by often stopping to speak to me as I laboured away, bringing gifts of lemons, homemade biscuits or whatever fruit was in season from their orchards. They spoke Greek and I had no idea what they were saying but we still managed to agree that it was about time the house was given a thorough scrub.

Since then whenever I visit the house the first thing I do is clean. First, because the local women love me for it and I get free food. Second, scorpions sometimes take up residence when the house has been empty for some time and it pays to flush them out before they sting anyone. They won’t kill you but it bloody well hurts. Third, other visitors who use the house still don’t do a good job of cleaning and tend to leave half used lotions, potions, broken toys and other rubbish lying around. On one occasion a friend of the family staying in the house before us left dirty stained sheets on the bed and a heap of sexual aids in the bedside cupboard including half used lubricating gels.   Next time I find anything of that nature I plan to send the offending articles back to the owner via the postal system. Hopefully he’ll some explaining to do to customs and excise when they open the package up.

Unfortunately, the elderly woman who lived next door to us in Samos must have been the exception to the rule when it came to village standards of hygiene. The husband was sick and bed bound, she was eccentric and their house was a health hazard. When the wind blew in our direction the smell of fish, cat crap, rancid food and unwashed flesh from next door wafted through the house. To pass the time of day she used to sit at the bedroom window which looked out onto the street below. This allowed her to keep her husband company and busy body the neighbourhood at the same time. She had the voice of a fish wife so there was no need to walk downstairs to have a conversation with passing neighbours as she could shout her complaints and dislikes about others down to them.

Early one morning we heard the usual shouting from next door. But this time Vasos was calling out for my friend to come quickly. Braving infectious diseases he entered the squalor and found her with her husband who had passed away in the night.  As he helped her organise funeral arrangements the family gathered outside the house, sat in the street sewing a shroud for the corpse and kept vigil over an empty coffin propped up outside the house.  The coffin was not occupied because it had arrived before the funeral directors, who were late. Which was inconvenient for the street because as the day progressed a new smell added its unpleasant odours to the foul ones already emitting from the house.  By evening there was still no sign of anyone from the funeral parlour so a DIY laying out of the corpse was carried out by some of the locals and my partner.  Balancing the open coffin on their shoulders they walked precariously down the road to the local church where they left it over night – after putting the lid on of course. All a bit undignified really.

Not being Greek orthodox I had no idea what to expect when I was invited to the funeral. So I was a little apprehensive when the bells rang out calling family, friends and acquaintances to pay their last respects. The first surprise was that on entering the church we were given unlit candle tapers which we were expected to pay for. The second one was the sight of the corpse in an open coffin over which the widow was wailing very loudly.  The ceremony commenced and as the smell of the body started to compete with the burning incense and the air thickened with cloying candle smoke I nearly passed out.  Moving to a seat near the open door I recovered quickly which was fortunate because I would have missed the best part  if  I’d fainted.    The brother-in-law staggered into the church so drunk that the grieving widow had to break off her wailing to find him a seat to slump in.  Delving into a plastic carrier bag he produced a can of beer, cracked it open, drank it between bouts of sobbing then proceeded to fall asleep.  As I was trying hard not to laugh two labourers wandered into the church disappeared into the interior and returned carrying a very large ladder.  As they walked past the coffin and the now snoring relative to get to the door the candle sellers started to walk around the church, snuffed out the half used candles and collected them – presumably to resell.  By this time I was spluttering into my hands trying unsuccessfully to contain myself.  Finally it was over and as I emerged into the fresh air a piece of cake was shoved into my hand.

“What’s this for” I asked in a horrified tone, thinking there was no way I could swallow anything with the smell of the death still in my nostrils.

“It’s to sustain you on the walk up to the grave yard for the next part of the ceremony” my friend replied with a grin.

I looked down at my kitten heel shoes which were totally unsuitable for a hike and sighed.  No one had told me that there was a second act.

29 thoughts on “A Greek Tragedy – Life in a village on Samos Island

  1. Great story! Love the way you saw things. Somehow funny despite the grim paragraphs. ;-) To tell you the bitter truth, some of these “customs” are new to me as well. I saw the “candle thing” for the first time a few weeks ago at a memorial service at my village. In Athens it doesn’t happen, or at least I haven’t seen it. I tend to think that it has to be some kind of token towards the church for performing the service, not in the form of paying, but rather saying thank you (it may sound odd, but really it isn’t) . But I could be wrong. I asked and some said it was the first time they saw it, while others claimed it is an old thing. I will look into it!

  2. So pleased you ticked my beginning blog. We arrive in Samos 30th May stay a week and then off to Turkey for a couple of weeks. Thank you. Thoroughly enjoyed.

  3. Thank you for visiting SkySense…because it led me to your blog and your blog is wonderful! I live to travel, but have not (yet) been as brave as you to just go and see and do … but I’m workin’ on it! Look forward to reading the rest of your adventures!

  4. Thanks for stopping by my blog; I’ve been exploring yours a bit and am really enjoying it. I can relate to a number of your experiences, including this one. Last year my daughter and I stayed on the island of Chios for several months, house-sitting. Close to where you were – it was a magical place:)

  5. I like your Greek-story. I was in Turkey in November and I could see Samos in front of me. They are so close and so similar – Eagean people, landscape and food.
    Thanks for liking my post.
    Best wishes and a good 2013.
    Karin

  6. My boss of 30 years is probably the kindest Greek and I could picture this scene as I have been to his village once. I guess that is country life – there is always a character like that wherever you go.

  7. Ahh. now I understand where Epicurious.com gets its name from…..

    I’m off to Corfu in about 6 weeks and I’m preparing for it by reading Gerald Durrell’s books. They’re wonderfully evocative….

  8. Reading about places you’ve traveled is extremely inspiring. This year I’ve been hit with this intense desire to see the world, but I don’t really know where to start. Any suggestions?

    • Where do you dream of going? What are your interests? What is your budget? Thailand or Malaysia are always a good place to start – cheap, safe (on the whole), great beachs and people, the North is amazing for a cultural change, food generally good, Once you have gained confidence Loas, Cambodia and Vietnam are good value as well. Then the world is your oyster to coin a phrase, Stay in backpacker accommodation, meet people make friends and travel with them. I hope you get to live your dreams :)

      • My budget isn’t very big, but I’m hoping to save over the next several months. I didn’t consider Thailand as an option originally, but now that you’ve mentioned it I’ll definitely look into it. I think the place I’d like to travel to most is Italy. Thanks for your quick response! I can’t wait to read more of your posts:)

      • Italy is wonderful – now may bne a good time to travel in view of the economic climate you may get more for your money against the EURO!

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