When in Ikaria, do as the Ikarians...


3 SMALL KIDS, 2 CRAZY ADULTS, 1 YEAR TO TRAVEL THE WORLD POST 2: 8th September 2016, Ikaria, Greece. 

Ikaria. So similar and yet so different. There is so much about this island and its people that is utterly charming and quite a bit that could be seen as pretty irritating. It is all a question of how you view things. Because they are not going to change. Their modus operandi is one of acceptance. And you either fit in with them and accept the way things are or you don’t.

Like many southern European communities, the Greeks we have come across exude warmth and hospitality in a way that is so foreign to us, cold, repressed northerners with our ready-made, defensive ‘wit’ and our almost impenetrable sense of personal space. Here, whether you like it or not, you are counted as one of them. Your attitude towards life is presumed to be the same as theirs. And this has both benefits and disadvantages.

The benefits are that after just one week we already feel part of the community. We have had what feels like a rare insight into ‘real’ life on the island. (The children are actually largely to thank for this as, having no form of social restraint or boundaries they have been ‘forging’ relationships everywhere we go with Andrew and I somewhat meekly following in their wake). The disadvantages are that there is no attempt made to manage your expectations as a guest on this island, if that is the role you mistakenly assumed on arrival. So, if, as occurred the other night, there is a baptism taking place in the restaurant, and there is going to be a fully amplified band playing until 4am just below your balcony (Greek style = VERY loud), then this is just how it is. It is not mentioned to you in advance because there is nothing that can be done to change things. There is no explanation because why would there be? It is what it is and your routine will have to be adapted to the situation. It is assumed that you will join in. Or adapt. (We were actually invited to join the party but in true English, sheepish fashion, declined). Sleep here is not important. Or at least not within set time frames. There is no such thing as antisocial hours so there is no need for apologies. We are all the same here: guest, host, foreigner, local, child, adult.

The Ikarians define laid back: Greek time is flexible; Ikarian time even more so. Meals are when you fancy them, morning and night time are almost interchangeable. There is even a village here whose shops are open only throughout the night. The tourist ‘map’ we were given features only a handful of the ‘roads’ that actually exist which has lead to every one of our excursions across the island taking three times longer than it should. We could get annoyed. But what is the point. Time is not of the essence here – we have come across beautiful, hidden beaches, crumbling castle fortifications, allotments bursting with bright red tomatoes and 10th century monasteries through taking the ‘wrong’ route.


Photo caption: the orginal 10th Century monastery carved out of one huge rock (top left); the inside of the later monastery built 200 years later. It was absolutely gorgeous (top right); every wall was decorated with frescoes such as this. Here, the painting is Byzantine in style (bottom left); Here, the painting (this time of Mary) is more 'realist' - both styles were fashionable at the same time. Personally I love how Mary has been placed upon a chair (bottom right)

But this laissez-faire attitude also has its disadvantages. For example we have seen countless discarded vehicles, cooking utensils and electrical goods scattered by the road side. We even saw a long-abandoned JCB digger so dilapidated and rusted that the roadside vegetation had already started to grow around it. Communal spaces seem to serve the same function and often act as dumping grounds for unwanted goods (fridges, hobs, broken chairs, plastic cans, huge planks etc). And it doesn’t seem to bother anyone regardless of how unsightly or un-environmentally friendly this policy is.

Likewise, there is often only limited fresh fruit available on a restaurant menu. And yet every single time we have taken the car out on an excursion we return laden with pilfered fresh figs. Yesterday we went for a walk and within the space of 100 metres had helped ourselves to figs, apples, peaches, walnuts, grapes and blackberries. Why is no-one out gathering these? Or making things with them? I have only seen one fresh fruit tart, no compotes and no home-made jams or preserves. The same goes for fish: the only (albeit delicious) seafood we have been offered is prawns and squid. But what about the rest? It may be that the locals keep it for themselves so that there is not enough to reach the restaurant or it could be that things like figs are just so easy to come by that no-one thinks they are special enough to put on a menu. Personally, I think that whatever is a little out of the ordinary doesn’t get done. Hence there is a preponderance of honey and goat-related foods as both of these are ubiquitous. Multi-coloured hives are sprinkled all over the mountainside and goats of all shapes and sizes can be spotted both running wild across the island, perched on the most precarious cliff edges and road sides, as well as grazing quietly in their domestic pens. Goat meat, milk, cheese and honey are therefore plentiful. As is bread. And for the Ikarians, I assume that deviating from these staples is both unnecessarily difficult and unnecessary.


Photo caption: road-side figs just ripe for the picking (right); the kids were adamant that they had found the REAL billy goats gruff (top left); multi-coloured bee-hives and goats grazing in between them (top right)

No doubt this partly explains why the island is a member of the exclusive club of global blue zones. Here, and in four other locations, people live longer and healthier than in any other place in the world. One assumes that a large part of this is due to lack of stress (over and above a healthy diet and a sense of being valued by the community). And having witnessed how this pans out in daily life I would agree. As one that is famous for doing rather than being, I get it but I don’t get it. As the weeks go by I may become more and more like them. Or not. Either way, what I think doesn’t matter a jot. Because Ikarians aren’t really that bothered whether you fall in with them or not!


Photo caption: that block of cement is a road. The cliff edge beyond and to the side of it are just that. Roads are very narrow with few passing spaces. Driving is terrifying (top left); scraggy bushes and towering Cyprus trees (top right); the island's ruined fortifications up to which we actually attempted to drive (bottom left); another cliff-edged road with a gradient that would be described as a black run if it were part of a ski resort. Driving was so scary I insisted we get out and walk to inspect the (now ruined) castle. I felt safer on two feet (bottom right). 

This is also an island of physical extremes and varied vegetation: barren rocky outcrops rising threateningly out of the water, cool pine forests, olive groves and terraced vineyards interspersed with towering cypress trees and tomato allotments, heather-covered tundra and megalithic formations that look like they have only just been forced up out of the ground by some giant mole furiously digging up the earth beneath them. We are staying on the greener, northern side which until yesterday was buffeted by what felt like gale force winds. Great for would-be kite surfers but not so great for kids who have only just learnt how to swim properly. Amazingly however, the children have not batted an eyelid and have blown me away with their stamina for repeatedly being knocked over and under by scarily strong waves that are far larger than themselves. This has meant for quite stressful beach time – we haven’t felt able to take our eyes off them for one second – and yet the kids have emerged from the experience as super strong swimmers that aren’t phased by anything. So having avoided the beach nearest to us until yesterday because it resembled a white, foaming inferno, today things have changed entirely and the very same water resembled a peaceful lagoon. It meant we were finally able to see the true colour of the water which is of the most gorgeous turquoise hue.


Photo caption: the path to the beach with the craziest blue sea I have ever seen. Created by a landslide, one had to tackle these boulders first (top left); all of the nicest beaches require considerable climbing skills which the kids are picking up very nicely = another homeschooling lesson (top right); our newest find - a hidden jewel of a beach, tucked away from the main one and only accessible by climbing down over the rocks (bottom left); Seychelles beach - created by a landslide (bottom right)

Another highlight of this week was the local panighieri (spelling?) – a village festival which is held once a year and centres around the eating of goat (of course), the drinking of lots of local wine, and dancing to a traditional band until past daybreak. The youth of the village are in charge and the purpose is to raise money from food and wine sales which is then spent on improving communal infrastructure such as road surfaces and lighting. The entire community is present from babies to centenarians and all take part in the traditional dancing. Coco, Xanthe, Andrew and I joined in and quickly learnt to imitate their steps (I count this as part of our homeschooling) but there was no mistaking who the real dancers were. It seemed superficially easy but was actually subtly difficult: lots of half steps and hip and knee-swaying - learnt in school from very youngest age - which passed clean over our head. We were all balls of sweat by the time we retired at 2am to be “lulled” to sleep (or rather in and out of it) by the hypnotic Ikarian melodies. The band finally came to a stop at 7.15am. I have no idea how they kept up their stamina during their energetic 10 hour shift. Perhaps something to do with their symbiotic relationship with the dancers themselves who also didn’t stop as long as the music played.


Photo caption: the girls getting ready to dance with their new partners: Polish Lisa who runs breakfast, and Australian Melissa from the next door room to ours (top left); BoboMama getting stuck in (top right); the first, money-raising part of the village festival - eating and drinking at one of the many wooden tables temporarily lining the streets (bottom left); 6.55 and still going strong. Just the locals left (bottom right)

So on the whole I think we have, so far, managed to live by the motto we set out with on this adventure: “to live like locals”. We have danced with them, eaten and drunk with them, been treated by them (for a mystery jellyfish sting) and shared stories with those like-minded tourists that are also drawn to this slower pace of life. The kids too have adored running around as though they own the place – petting the cats and dogs that come with each new visitor, “helping” the staff and absorbing stories and affection from the wide range of nationalities that share our space (Australian, American, Hungarian, Polish, Greek, English). Their confidence never ceases to amaze me and whilst I feel a bit guilty about not having yet fully started our official “home schooling” programme of reading, writing and maths, I know that this invaluable interaction with such a varied slice of human life in terms of age, attitude, background and nationality, will be even more valuable to them in the long run.

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