The islands with all their minimum and lampblack
the islands with the vertebra of Zeus
the islands with their boat yards so deserted
the islands with their drinkable blue volcanoes
“The Gloria” Axion Esti, Odysseus Elytis (trans. Edmund Keeley & George Savidis)
It is the Greek Easter weekend and it feels important to leave the city – despite forebodings of bad weather, and the 48 hour strike. After all the weather and the strikes have been relentless this winter, and resilience has been one of the ways we’ve coped. It turns out the boats will leave but only after midnight. And the weather, S tells me, is supposed to let up for Thursday and Friday even if there are predictions for more rain over the weekend.
Patmos is special, the island imbues a rare harmony with its gradual hills, terraced in rock fences and its Xora crowned by the monastery that stands above the whitewashed houses and narrow “sokakia” and alleyways still reminiscent of the Venetian years. In early spring the hills are touched in green, colors from yellow swathes of daisies and chamomile to poppies and “lambri” as the locals call the bushes of topped lavender. The sea, visible everywhere, hugs the coastline in its varying shades of azure and cobalt blues, these colors as much an indication of the time of year as the temperature. It is the island where St. John the Divine had his apocalyptic vision and dictated it to Prokopis, his young apprentice.
The ferry was surprisingly crowded given that these are not easy times to be shelling out money for tickets, and the strike meant no one could be sure that it would in fact end at midnight. It did though, and around 12:30 or so, we left the port of Piraeus for the long 8 hour ride that had us arriving on Patmos in the early morning. S hadn’t slept very well on his floor mat, and I’d slept deeply if only for a couple of hours scrunched into two seats with my sleeping bag. “Μεγάλη Πέμπτη” (Holy or Maundy Thursday) on Patmos is the day of the “Νιπτήρας”: the monastery monks’ reenactment of Christ’s washing of his disciples’ feet. The ritual is a tradition on the island often attended by visiting politicians and ministers. I didn’t expect to see any politicians this year. Most were afraid to show their faces in public for fear of being the target of thrown yogurts, or worse. The morning was chilly. S and I sat at the only café that was open. The owner smiled and said, “Of course” when we asked if he had eggs and coffee. Skala, the port village, was still waking up. A cluster of men having their coffee sat at one of the tables, other than that there didn’t seem to be anyone else around. The morning’s sky still had some of its winter color — bruised blue shades of light and dark reflected the sea’s almost-purple waves. The light was crisp, with a clarity it never has during summer’s thick-sun days.
Being on the island felt like… I’m going to try hard not to sound cliché, too much seems to be riding on this, I mean Greece, already so loaded with nuances, from antiquity to Aegean holiday romances, and now in its present catastrophe, there is this: an island (and islands) of gorgeousness in the midst of the tragic and ugly. As S and I were taking in the sea and eating our eggs, I suddenly noticed another person in the almost empty square, and of all people it was Petros Kostopoulos, the Lifestyle King, a symbol of the blatant materialism of the 90s. I suddenly swallowed very deliberately. Here was the man, with his Jack Nicholson looks whom I had confessed to friends that I sincerely hoped would go bankrupt one day and find himself decrepit and uncool. His ever-so-coolly misogynist editorials in Klik — the magazine he founded that launched a whole Lifestyle movement — helped derail the priorities of at least two generations who bought into the seductions of image over essence. Such seductions as large 4-wheel-drive contraptions that seem always to suggest much smaller issues, were suddenly everywhere, Cherokees and Land Rovers driven by dudes in designer sunglasses with beautiful escorts, looking absurd as they negotiated Athens’ narrow streets and nonexistent parking spaces in vehicles that were clearly not designed for European cities.
Kostopoulos looked a lot older than his 50-something age. He had been one of the names in the news, a man who owes money and has not paid his employees in months though he publicly and indignantly said he was the one with money owed to him, the person who would vouch all his savings to save his employees. I don’t always keep up with the ongoing barrage of names and episodic dramas constantly in the news, but I did ask a friend about the details when I’d heard Kostopoulos’ name mentioned; she said she heard he was about to declare bankruptcy. So here he was on Patmos for Easter. It seemed incongruous, but maybe it wasn’t. “apokálypsis” means to reveal something hidden – so what was revealing about a symbol of what went wrong with Greece in the past 20 years, maybe the hidden emptiness of those seductions was now visible? I watched him pass our table. From behind he looked like a man close to 60. He still had his swagger, his Nicholson look, but this was the untouched picture, the Lifestyle King who was real rather than photo-shopped, in one of the country’s, if not the world’s, most naturally beautiful places during the Greek Easter weekend.
S and I drank our coffee and went up to the Xora to dump our bags and walk to the main square where the enactment of the washing of the feet was taking place. On the path were strewn sprigs of “lambri” as the Patmians call the topped lavender blooms with their sweet camphor scent. A Patmian woman explained it grew naturally and abundantly this time of year. “Lambri,” Greek for “brightness,” a word heard repeatedly on Easter Sunday to express the “light” or “brightness” of Christ’s revelation if you’re a believer, is also a perfect metaphor for this Greece that exists outside the mistaken lifestyle choices of people like Kostopoulos — here on the island was a more organic, hospitable Greece. Part of the magic is that the Patmians themselves understand this; they are the first to tell you that Patmos is “a small piece of paradise,” “a seed of glory,” and generously share its wealth. Maria leaves eggs at the house. Xristodolos brings me a bouquet of Calla lilies and the topped lavender “lambri,” and when I look stunned he says to me, “It’s a gift. I’ve been given gifts in my life, so why can’t I bring one to you?”
I think rebirth, more than birth, is rightly celebrated as the more miraculous occasion. Certainly in Greece Easter is the holiday whose rituals, from fast days to the dying of eggs, are followed, even by the secular, with a love for their symbolisms. Symbols all the more resonant as Athens’ hopelessness, its abandoned lives and neglected futures, threaten to poison any hope for change. The courage of sacrifice comes, too, of a faith in better days. It’s the Easter lesson, the deliverance of Πάσχα or “Pascha” the passing, or Passover, of the spirit that promises another birth in its passage through death. I stared at the Byzantine frescoes in the chapel of Zoodohou Pigis (“Life Source”). Swaths of red wound down one of the walls, a brilliant, falling stream that ended in the mouth of a beast. What looked like human heads were in the animal’s open mouth. The various ravages, small and skeletal, of human figures, were caught in a tumultuous apocalypse. The frescoes were magnificent depictions of the torturous fate of humankind. They were also violent and beautiful expressions of imagination.
The chapel went dark before the resurrection at midnight. As the church bells start to ring throughout the island, priests tell the gathered people to come forward and take the light — “Να πάρετε το φως.” We’re told it is holy, flown in from Jerusalem. We move toward the alter where the priest lights the first wicks in darkness. Touching our “lambatha” candles to the person nearest us with a lit flame, the petaled light spreads. As we leave the chapel others come up to light their wicks, wishing “χρόνια πολλά” (many years) and saying “Χριστός ανέστη!” (Christ is risen). The small alleyways and island “sokaki” start to fill with candlelight. People cup the flickering wicks so they don’t blow out. It’s a windy night. My flame goes out and I find someone nearby whose flame is still lit. People lean into each other, relighting their wicks as they blow out, trying to keep the flames burning. The idea is to reach home with the light alive.