Things happen. Despite the months of meticulous planning and anticipation, my trip to the Greek island of Karpathos did not play out as I had imagined.
"Life goes on," Michalis said, dropping an armload of brochures and maps onto our table of scant leftover Greek salad, zucchini flowers, and stuffed grape leaves on which my friends and I had just feasted. An only child and business co-owner with his mom, he had raced from his beloved aunt's funeral after her untimely death to simultaneously greet us and send us on our way.
A stiff breeze blew through the rustic, open-air taverna where I had envisioned lively bouzouki music and laughter filling the night. Instead, paper napkins flew amid equally fluttering and seemingly disconnected conversations about ex-pat Americans living on Karpathos, endangered frogs, shipwrecks, and a proposed U.S. military base. I was unsure how to react.
"No worries." Michalis must have sensed our confusion over an unspecified itinerary and the lack of grieving time that our visit imposed on his family. "We'll all get together this winter and cry and tell stories. This week we've got some great activities for you. I'll see you in a couple days."
With that, we were on our way.
The rising sun cast a pink glow on the chalky hills as the pirate-themed ship rumbled out of Pigadia harbor and chugged up Karpathos' rocky eastern coast. Racing clouds scraped the island's spine where white-washed villages and red-domed churches perched high above the turquoise sea. Cares dissolved in the day's warm breezes and I quickly fell into the Greek approach of living life in the moment.
Nicholas stripped down and led us off the anchored ship through knee-deep, crystal-clear water. An accountant by education and training, he had volunteered to start guiding visitors during the tourist season.
"There used to be a beach here," he said, framed by a sheltered, rocky cove.
I wondered how a beach could go missing. "What happened to it?" I asked.
"A cyclone washed all the sand away." And then in a matter-of-fact utterance that became the catch-phrase of our trip, he added, "But whattaya gonna do?"
He disappeared himself, and a few minutes later came back with a handful of shells that he had scraped off the rocks. About the size of a nickel, each oyster-like, iridescent shell contained a shiny creature, some of them still wriggling. Considering my options, I chose a patelie that appeared motionless.
"Slide it off the shell and swallow it whole," he instructed.
The glob had a fishy, ocean taste with some grit mixed into the slime.
"Might be good with lemon," I said, trying to be diplomatic while declining seconds.
Back on the boat, I dried off and began putting my socks and shoes on.
"Not yet," Nicholas said. "We have one more stop, for jump-swim."
"I don't jump-swim."
"We'll push you."
That evening in town, the island's ubiquitous stray cats, whose lives hung by a thread, circled our dinner table waiting for a sardine to drop. Despite the complex history of repeated invasions and mingling of other cultures, or perhaps because of it, the Greeks always had a humorous take on life and a story ready. I particularly enjoyed the more subtle, self-aware philosophizing from people who might otherwise be written off in a less inclusive society as introverts with nothing important to say.
The night lingered, the wine flowed, and the stories came. Our new friend Anastasia unleashed a torrent of family tales that had me laughing so hard that tears were rolling down my cheeks.
Brought to Greece as a nine-year-old kid from the States and bullied for her imperfect Greek, she was now a young adult. She had a bi-cultural perspective that wasn't all that uncommon among the revolving door emigration and re-patriation still occurring today. No topic was taboo.
"Is she alright? Is she going to live?" Anastasia recounted fondly, and perhaps with a little too much levity, how her aunts had asked, sobbing and pushing their way with baskets of food into the tiny hospital room where her 94-year-old grandmother lay dying.
"Anastasia, you're too skinny," Aunt Sofia said upon seeing her.
"I'm not too skinny."
"Eat. We made all these dolmadakia," her aunt said and then began taking food to people in other hospital rooms.
"When are you getting married, Anastasia?"
"Let her be," her dad said. "She has a good job and is happy."
"We watched that American movie you told us about," her uncle said. "The Big Greek Wedding, or something like that."
Relieved that her relatives might recognize the silliness of their badgering, Anastasia asked, "And so... did you like it?"
"I thought you said it was funny. It's just a documentary."
True to his word, several days later we met up with Michalis, dressed in black and unshaven, officially in mourning. But there was a mischievous twinkle in his eye as he explained how he had arranged to see a special Micenaean burial scene at the Archaeological Museum of Karpathos.
Typically, museums in Greece are closed on Mondays. But worthy of a trick by Homer's cunning Odysseus, Michalis had called the guard at home and told him that I was an important American archaeological writer who needed to see these centuries-old artifacts immediately. The ploy worked. The government employee grudgingly came to the building on his day off and unlocked the doors.
The Minoans from Crete had established settlements on Karpathos long before the gods and goddesses that we normally associate with ancient Greek history entered the culture. Then the Micenaeans arrived and co-existed with the Minoans. I wandered around the exhibit space in the small three-room museum. Although broken pieces were glued together, the burial box, vases, jugs, and other artifacts comprising the interior of a tomb from the fourteenth century B.C. were amazingly intact. They suggested elaborate funerary rituals in which the dead never really leave us and simply need olive oil, wine and honey in their new state.
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