DiscoverClassics

Odysseus' Island

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Worth reading 😎

Shall we pay a visit to the home of Odysseus? Not to worry, Jane knows a route that is safer and faster, yet holds all the adventures.

Synopsis

Odysseus' homeland of Ithaca, a breathtakingly beautiful island in the Ionian Sea, still attracts visitors who are intrigued by Homer's epic adventure. But can we connect today's Ithaca to the romantic island in Homer’s Odyssey? Was Odysseus a real, or a mythological figure? Architect and artist Jane Cochrane sets out to answer these questions. With the help of the eminent Classics Professor George L Huxley, Jane takes us on a journey of Classical proportions to uncover the ancient truth behind the island of Odysseus.

Interwoven with these discoveries is a touching and entertaining personal story of Jane's relationship with the island - one that started well over 30 years ago. Ithaca is brought into the present day with the exploits of Jane and Alec's gradual restoration of an ancient ruin as a summer retreat and the accounts of deep friendships made over the years with the island's tight-knit community. For romantics and academics alike, Odysseus' Island is a must-read for those who would like to walk the ancient Homeric paths in the footsteps of Odysseus.

Finding Odysseus's Palace: Jane Cochrane's Odysseus' Island


Once upon a time, a young student of literature sat in class listening to his formalist professor trying to blur the line between literature and human existence or reality. The professor said that whatever you have in a narrative has no connection with the outer world of that book. But this young student had trained himself to see art as 'a mirror of society' and the idea that it should be considered an entity on its own outside the society, author, or epoch that fashioned that art failed to sit well with him. That was probably his first contact with a pure formalist and he felt he just had to say something.


This young student got up and told the professor that he could not be right. Understanding literature often demands understanding the circumstances surrounding such literature and that literature is as much life as life is literature. He remembered that he had read somewhere that the Troy-site of the ten year Trojan War had been unearthed, thereby giving credence to the fact that Homer's The Iliad had not been woven from mere imagination but rather a product of true life experiences. But the good professor would hear none of it. He silenced the young man by declaring his position null and void before asking him to sit down so the lesson could continue.


That young man was me and although I have since come to understand a lot about the professor's approach to literature and art in general, my belief in the fact that our experiences are often the backdrop of our creative outputs remains unshaken.


I have since then seen documentaries on how archeologists, using the homeric verses, have traced the ancient city of Troy to a modern day city in Turkey and in no little way has this discovery amazed me. Homer's epics were in no way designed to be read as history (even Aristotle draws out this discrepancy in his The Poetics), but in the absence of a historian, modern civilisation has often turned to the artist for an understanding of the past. This is the position that Homer holds, and it underscores the important role of the artist in human civilisation.


Given such a background as mine, it seemed obvious that Jane Cochrane's Odysseus' Island would arrest my interest. The book is both a memoir and an archeological narrative about finding the actual location of the palace of the great ancient Greek warrior, king, and adventurer; Odysseus; who once ruled the small Island of Ithaca and its surrounding empire.


Many had hitherto believed that Homer's epics were mere fantasies cooked in the mind of a blind poet. But people like Heinrich Schliemann (a German 'homeric' businessman and archeologist) felt there had to be some truth in these epics and he pursued them, eventually locating the site of Troy but not really finding it because of the crude excavation methods he employed. Following this colossal find was the discovery the palaces of Agamnenon and Nestor (two great kings who played pertinent roles in the Trojan war).


These discoveries were monumental and it was inevitable that the human eyes would soon begin creeping about in search of Odysseus's palace as if it was the only missing puzzle in the game.


Alec, a British born Greek barrister and arbitrator, happens to be one of these pairs of eyes in search of Odysseus's palace. So, he sets out like Odysseus and his men (but with his much younger wife--Jane Cochrane--and her kids) from England on a journey to the Greek island of Ithaca. Little did he know that he would fall in love with the Island and even become a residence on it. Another thing Alex probably did not envisage was that like Moses, he would be gifted a view of the promised land without stepping a foot on it.


While I think Jane Cochrane went on to give too much background narration before throwing in the main subject (the search for Odysseus's palace), I love how she gets her readers immersed in Ithaca's olive tree filled landscape and the aspects of the Ithacan culture which has persisted into the modern era. The first half of the book largely qualifies as memoir while the second part is the archeological narrative itself. I think the importance of the first half lies more in the value it offers the writer. For her, it holds the memories of her beloved late husband without whom the archeological research would neither have taken place in the first instance nor have been completed by her.


The second half traces out Odysseus' palace using clues from Homer's The Odyssey combined with the works and efforts of other researchers. The second half is a fulfilment of her husband's dream and also a refutation of Robert Brittlestone et al (a group of archeological researchers who produced the book Odysseus Unbound) erroneous postulation that modern day Ithaca could not have been the same as the one which Odysseus dwelled in simply based on the evidence of two disjointed verses. Also, having come to dwell among the Ithacans for over two decades and even learning to speak the Greek language, Cochrane must have felt that she was one of them and saw the need to defend their right as the original Ithacans.


Finally, I love the fact that Jane Cochrane cherishes her husband and treasures his memory to have committed the wonderful moments they spent together into her book. I also love the way she was able to naturally melt to become one with the landscape and culture of Ithaca. The book is a good read but I wish the author had not deliberately starved us of a great opportunity by not providing coloured print pictures of the various wonderful topography of Ithaca as described by Homer and which she visits with her grandson in the quest for Odysseus' Palace. And if this book doesn't make you feel like visiting Ithaca already, nothing else will.


Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy 2020

Reviewed by

Talking about books is what I know how to do best. With over 50 reviews on various online platforms, you need not fear that I shall deliver.

Synopsis

Odysseus' homeland of Ithaca, a breathtakingly beautiful island in the Ionian Sea, still attracts visitors who are intrigued by Homer's epic adventure. But can we connect today's Ithaca to the romantic island in Homer’s Odyssey? Was Odysseus a real, or a mythological figure? Architect and artist Jane Cochrane sets out to answer these questions. With the help of the eminent Classics Professor George L Huxley, Jane takes us on a journey of Classical proportions to uncover the ancient truth behind the island of Odysseus.

Interwoven with these discoveries is a touching and entertaining personal story of Jane's relationship with the island - one that started well over 30 years ago. Ithaca is brought into the present day with the exploits of Jane and Alec's gradual restoration of an ancient ruin as a summer retreat and the accounts of deep friendships made over the years with the island's tight-knit community. For romantics and academics alike, Odysseus' Island is a must-read for those who would like to walk the ancient Homeric paths in the footsteps of Odysseus.

Introduction

My husband Alec Kazantzis first came to the Greek island of Ithaca in 1975. He immediately began to search for the Palace of Odysseus. The palace was thought to have stood on one, or other, of two known ancient sites in the north of the island.

He and I first came together to Ithaca in 1982. We bought and repaired a ruin in the remote village of Kioni. We were the first foreigners to do this. Alec spoke in Greek to the villagers in this isolated traditional community and I recorded some of these conversations in the little blue exercise books that Greek schoolchildren use. Together we shared their old stories, their grape picking and their winemaking, and I too began to speak a bit of Greek.

In 1994, Greek archaeologists from the University of Ioannina began to excavate one of the two sites on Ithaca previously pinpointed before World War Two by archaeologists from the British School at Athens. But simultaneously, several high-profile theories claimed that the centre of Odysseus’ kingdom lay in the neighbouring larger, and richer, island of Kefalonia. Alec was watching this situation. When, in 2010, the archaeologists on Ithaca announced their discovery of the Palace of Odysseus, their conclusions were energetically challenged. Around this same time, Alec’s health began to deteriorate, and I became his scout. Back in London I researched the archaeology on the island, and soon I was hooked.

Alec’s death, on April 11 2014, was sudden and shocking. After his funeral, and a memorial service, I closed down his maritime arbitration business, and dealt with his will and probate both in England and in Greece. These things were both time-consuming and tricky, which was lucky in a way. The intense mental activity required prevented me thinking of very much else.

As I completed this work, I looked again at the row of blue exercise books sitting on a bookshelf at our home in London. They recorded the changes in the village of Kioni and the island of Ithaca over the period of thirty years that Alec and I had been visiting. As I wrote up these stories I listened to a BBC series The History of the World in a Hundred Objects. Following this format, I decided to describe a few objects, all dating from well before Christ, which can be seen in the two museums on Ithaca. I felt these provided a direct link between the modern island of the same name and the ancient hero Odysseus. They prove, I believe, that Modern and Homeric Ithaca are one and the same, and that Ithaca was the true home of Odysseus.

As this subject area is tricky, I searched for someone more expert to check the detail of my conclusions. A recommendation from Professor Robin Lane Fox led me to the home of another professor, George L. Huxley, an eminent classicist, philologist and archaeologist, and an expert in precisely this field. With his help I was able to grasp the arguments underlying the Kefalonian claims. He also pinpointed the particular areas in Ithaca that scholars have associated with the texts of The Odyssey. They fitted so perfectly that I began to agree with the many scholars who have suggested that, to make such accurate observations, Homer himself must have visited Ithaca.

Meanwhile, archaeological work on Ithaca came to a halt and the main archaeologist died. It was practically impossible to obtain information about the excavation. Finally, I managed to complete Alec’s search and to locate, with some certainty, the Palace of Odysseus described by Homer.

CHAPTER 1. NOSTOS

As we set out for Ithaca, in the summer of 1982, the omens were good. The boat was small, but our skipper was competent and the sea was calm. Clouds of tiny fish shimmered below its glistening turquoise surface. As we headed for deeper water, the wind blew up. Alec hid behind the heaps of yellow fishing nets and the small boxed motor, chatting in Greek to our skipper, but I stood with my two teenagers in the bows. The waves smacked onto the small craft, drenching them with cooling spray so their straight blond hair hung in strings. Their sodden clothes clung to their slim shapes, silhouetted against the sea. We passed several desolate inlets to the north of the island before turning into a deep quiet bay. In the distance a scatter of pitched-roofed houses clustered round a harbour. They were wrapped around by an amphitheatre of steeply sloping hillsides, thickly covered in bushes of many different greens. When we reached the village, our skipper tied up amongst the other fishing boats at a small stone jetty.

The harbour was the centre of the village. There was a taverna, a church, a shop, and a mint-green hut where the legal documents were stored. By day, when the sun blasted down from a clear blue sky, old men sat in the shade of a large eucalyptus tree. They chatted as they played backgammon, or clicked the beads of a komboloi through their fingers. Little old widows darted to and fro in the shadows between the houses. Their worn black dresses were mended and their cardigans darned. In the morning, after the bread was baked but the old wood-fired oven was still warm, they carried wide round dishes of herb scented hand stuffed tomatoes, peppers, or aubergines to the communal bakery behind the church. This was a place unaffected by modern life. A place where time moved slowly.

It was August, the height of the tourist season but, back then, we were the only tourists in Kioni. When we came back from the beach we showered and ventured out for supper in the taverna. The room was dominated by a black barrel-shaped cast iron stove from which a stove-pipe rose, turned at right angles and looped its way across the room suspended from the ceiling by knotted wires. It left through a broken pane of glass above the entrance door. Behind the stove Aphrodite, the proprietress, hunched over a cauldron. It was balanced precariously on a two-ring tabletop hob linked by a tube to a large Calor gas canister below. From there she screeched orders at her husband, who leaned languidly against the outside wall. He seemed oblivious to her commands. We peeped inside her cooking pot, according to Greek custom, and came face to face with fish, that only that morning had been swimming in the sea. Their heads, bones and tails were all on show amongst a collection of roughly chopped onions, garlic, carrots and potatoes. At home the teenagers and I were vegetarian. I always insisted they eat fish or meat if it was offered, but Aphrodite’s fish soup proved rather a sticking point. The teenagers joked about it late into the night. Luckily she also served sumptuous chips fried in hand-made local olive oil and tomatoes and peppers stuffed with rice, onions and herbs, all cooked in the village bakery. On feast days her husband turned the carcass of a whole goat on an iron spit above a half barrel of smouldering charcoal and Alec, who was a keen meat-eater, tucked in with enthusiasm.

The taverna was the centre of village gossip. Immediately the villagers gathered round and questioned Alec.

“How do you speak Greek?” asked one old man.

“I was born in England, in London, but my parents were Greek and we spoke Greek at home,” he replied.

My teenagers and I stood by and watched. Alec and the old man were both of medium height and skinny, but Alec was particularly thin. When he took off his shirt his chest had a hole in it.

“Like a polo mint,” I told him.

They both had large ears, and Alec’s were particularly prominent. They both had thick fingers, another Greek characteristic. Alec was fifty-two when we first got together, nine months earlier, and I was a few days short of my fortieth birthday. The age difference worried him, but I assured him that it didn’t matter to me.

“I prefer someone with a bit of maturity,” I said.

Now, I think, Alec had brought us to this quiet and beautiful place to cement his relationship with my children. We didn’t understand his conversation, which went on in Greek, but when we sat down he explained that the questioning had followed a predictable pattern.

“Where do you live?” the old man had asked.

“I live in London.”

“What work do you do?”

“I am a lawyer but I specialise in arbitrating in shipping disputes.” “Which boat brought you to Ithaca?”

The fisherman’s boat was called the ‘Moby Dick’. I had puzzled over the name, which was spelled Mpompy Ntik.

“Is this your first visit to Ithaca?”

Alec had been to Ithaca once before in the 1970s, when he stayed in

the main town Vathi in the south of the island. The island, which is some fourteen miles long and four miles wide at its widest point, is squeezed in the middle as if someone had twisted the two ends in opposite directions. A narrow isthmus joins the north and the south parts of the island. On that first visit Alec had searched without success for the remains of the Palace of Odysseus, but nobody seemed precisely certain where it once stood. Yet the feel of the place fascinated him and, seven years later, he brought us to Kioni, in the north of the island. The village was as remote as could be. You could say it was at the end of the road but, at that time, only a dirt track existed to the village. We came by sea, as others had arrived there from time immemorial.

The people of Ithaca were still recovering from a succession of tragedies. During World War Two, the island had been occupied first by the Italians and then the Germans. The horribly divisive Greek Civil War followed. Finally, in 1953, a terrible earthquake had left only thirty houses standing in Kioni. Newly built or badly repaired houses were still interspersed with ruins. Dotted amongst them were pre-fabs the English had put up as a temporary measure. The villagers told us that after the earthquake, with nothing left of the village, the able-bodied had left for Australia, South Africa or the USA. They left the elderly to live precariously on small pensions from their time as seamen. Those who were left kept boats and did a bit of fishing and some grew vegetables for themselves. They tended their vines and made wine and later, through the winter, they picked their olives and crushed them into oil. The daily lives of those left on the island ran on as they had for centuries. Maybe millennia. This was a village cut off from the modern age. It was lost in a previous time.

By day, we marvelled at the purity of the light and swam in the jewelled sea. At night, the silence was broken only by the regular poop-poop sound of Scops owls and by the occasional barking dog. At dawn, the cockerels woke us with their crowing. After the hurly-burly of our crowded lives in London we felt we had arrived in paradise. The villagers went on with their questions.

“Where did your parents come from?”

“From Kastoria in Northern Greece.”

“Oh, a lovely place! Do you still have relations there?”

Many Greeks have strong feelings of rootedness to the island of their origins but Alec’s parents didn’t come from Ithaca. He was only a visitor. Yet Ithaca has a particular tradition of homecoming stemming back to the return of Odysseus. A hero of the Trojan War, Odysseus, who the Romans later called Ulysses, is the main character of Homer’s epic tale, The Odyssey. He is said to have come from this island. Alec had brought with him a copy of E.V. Rieu’s Penguin Classics edition of The Odyssey. One evening he read aloud the passage where Odysseus’ son Telemachus questions the goddess Athena when she appears disguised as a man on his home island.

‘But tell me honestly who you are and where you come from. What is your native town? Who are your parents? And since you certainly cannot have come on foot, what kind of vessel brought you here? How did the crew come to land you in Ithaca, and who did they claim to be? And tell me the truth – I’d like to know – is this your first visit to Ithaca?’

(1: 168-178 Rieu)

Telemachus’ questions were hauntingly similar to those the islanders were still asking now, as if little had changed here in three thousand years.

By day we settled into a conventional seaside holiday. At that time the pebbly beaches of Ithaca were covered in flotsam and Alec made a large collection of washed-up shoes he discovered amongst the debris. I wonder now, over thirty years later, if the sea-shoes chimed with his feel- ings about his own life at that time. I was a lone parent of some standing but only two years had passed since Alec’s first marriage had shattered, and his feelings were still raw.

“Each single shoe,” he said, “is an emblem of past dreams, now lost and wrecked.” Their huge platform soles fanned out in layers and thin straps unwound and stiffened into contorted snakes. “Once long ago,” he said, “each shoe carried a young girl high above her natural height totter- ing out to find her man.”

My children and I helped Alec with his sea-shoe search. We found dozens of singletons amongst the piles of seaweed, driftwood, and old plastic tubs along the seashore. We picked suitable stones and built a specially designed ‘museum’ on that steeply sloping beach. Each shoe had its own display stand to show it off to its best advantage. As the children of two architects my teenagers knew exactly how to do it.

At this time, when he was feeling a bit at sea with his life, Ithaca, with its long tradition of nostos, may have exerted a particular pull on Alec. The Greek word ‘nostos’ means ‘heartache for homecoming’. It is the root of our word nostalgia. Homer’s Odyssey tells the story of Odysseus’ homecoming to Ithaca. It is known as a ‘nostos poem’ and perhaps there was something about this particular island that tied Alec back to his own Greek roots. He was always carrying a big fat book and The Odyssey epic was particularly important to him. He could even have he felt it tied him back to the origins of civilisation itself. Perhaps his sea-shoe collection was a symptom of his need, at that time, to reconnect with the past, but this is surmise and now it’s too late to ask him.

Towards the end of our holiday, an old man we hadn’t met before approached us. Panayiotis Païzis had recently returned from South Africa, where he had lived since his late teens, to organise and repair his property on Ithaca. The few foreign tourists who visited Kioni at that time mostly dropped by in a yacht. So the old man’s eye fell on us landlubbers and he decided we should buy a house from him. We were curious, and had time to spare, so we went along to have a look. We followed him up the hill at the back of the village. Panayiotis was asthmatic. He wheezed and coughed as he struggled along in front of us. We climbed up and up, around hairpin bends, higher and higher above the harbour. A tatty old dog, snoozing in a pool of sunlight in the middle of the road, twitched an ear as we passed. Chickens and turkeys jostled and scratched amongst the hostile stems of prickly pears in the dried-out gardens on either side. In the upper part of the village the headland topped out. This part of the village was called Rachi.

“Rachi is the Greek name for that part of the upper human back which slopes around the shoulder,” Alec explained. “In this case it describes the shape of the land.”

Old people were sitting in a row on a bench. They leaned their backs against a battered stone wall. Men and women sat close, side-by-side, chatting amongst themselves. A few just gazed out to sea. Their clothes were clean, but darned, and their rugged faces had seen life. As we approached, they halted their chatter and greeted us with the utmost cordiality then, almost immediately, they turned to interrogate Alec in much the same way as the villagers down by the harbour. They asked him his name, how he spoke Greek, whether this was our first trip to Ithaca, which boat had brought us, and the rest. Alec answered their questions and we shook a hand of each in turn.

Then the old man led us along a narrow earth path, cut into the side of the steep slope of the mountain, which led towards the house he wanted to show us. We walked in single file, sometimes clambering over stones tumbled from the broken walls to our right. Above them, ancient olive trees grew on neglected terraces, their exposed roots huge and twisted. To our left, the land sloped steeply down to the harbour. The sun still shone down there, although up here we were in shadow. Rubbish had been tipped down the hillside. A dog leaped out barking and set off the mournful song of a donkey. The old man was gasping for air. Three hundred yards along the track he stopped in front of a gaping, bulging, semi-detached stone ruin. It towered, deep grey and ominous, at the top of a slope of scree.

“This is the house where I was born,” he said.

Panayiotis Païzis peered out at us through round steel-framed, thick-lensed spectacles. Their arms rested on large low-slung ears. His thin white hair was greased and combed back smoothly. Although he had lived most of his life in South Africa his English still wasn’t good. He told us he had worked there as a carpenter but, in spite of this physical job, he wasn’t muscly and I could see that this dusty work hadn’t been good for his asthma. He was wearing a formal suit and tie while Alec was wearing a sporty shirt and very short shorts. For Panayiotis this was work, but for Alec it was a game, or so I thought.

We scrambled up the fallen stones to the broken door of the ruin. It creaked open into a windowless ground floor workroom built into the hillside. Inside it was cool. As our eyes grew accustomed to the dusky light, we saw around us the remnants of a life lived on these islands for hundreds of years. Across the back of the room stretched a grape-treading area behind a low wall. From the base of the enclosure a carved stone spout once took the grape juice into a circular stone-lined pit about a metre deep in the earth floor, a kind of wine well. We dipped a tin can into the liquid at its base and smelt the sharp vinegar smell of the old wine. Against a side wall stood a battered wooden washstand with a hole in the top for the long-vanished bowl. Above it a nest of rusted iron bands, once used for wine barrels, hung from a large nail hammered into the wall. Nearby stood a rocking cradle, handmade from the same strips of steel.

“My mother rocked me in that cradle when I was a baby,” said Panayiotis Païzis.

To the right of the door was a massive container hewn from a single piece of stone. What strength must have had been needed to move such a stone down the mountain and what skill was needed to carve it out.

“My family used it as a container for olive oil,” the old man said.

At one corner of the room an area was partitioned off with a flimsy wall, its daub plaster had crumbled to reveal rough horizontal laths. In the enclosed area, the floor was roughly paved with flat stones, though the rest of the floor was just earth, and there was a makeshift stone hearth. It was some kind of a kitchen, perhaps. I set out through a broken doorway into a roofless, bramble-filled side ruin, but the old man called me back.

“There could be snakes out there,” he said.

I had already found another square stone container and, across the corner, a massive stone bread oven.

An open-tread wooden staircase, steep as a ladder and rotting, led up from the main room to a trap door in the boarded ceiling. The old man went ahead. As he opened the trap, a shower of droppings fell down and a flurry of bats flew away. We crept gingerly after him into the room above where light shafted down through a hole in the roof. A heap of tiles lay below, around a corresponding rotten hole in the floor where the rain had come in. The whitewash on the walls was flaking to reveal a strong blue colour. In some countries, that blue paint is said to discourage mosquitoes.

Panayiotis Païzis stood with his back to the wall, but Alec and I wanted to see what lay in the second room to the front. We skirted around the edge of the broken floor to a room with a boarded ceiling painted pale grey. A crack in one wall was big enough to put my fist through, but we gasped as we looked out through the shattered upper window. The view was breathtaking. In the centre of our vision, above the cobalt blue sea, was a mysterious island with a band of white at its shoreline. It was floating like a ship.

“Would it be possible to mend this ruin?” Alec asked me.

Nearly all my working experience as an architect had been with existing buildings and I particularly liked a fine old ruin. But this one would be a challenge.

“Well, in England we might be able to strap the walls together and reinforce the stonework,” I replied, “but here I am not sure. We are in an earthquake zone. I would have to ask the advice of an engineer, and not just any engineer. He would need to be a specialist.”

We scrambled down the stairs and emerged into the light. Panayio- tis Païzis’ ruin was set into the steep hillside and a long flight of irregular stone steps followed the land up beside it. We climbed the steps, leaving the ruined house to our right. To our left he pointed out another patch of overgrown land, where a neglected almond tree and an ancient olive stood in a field of thistles and brambles. He wanted to include this in the sale. Higher up, to the right of the steps and behind the house, we found the ‘water sterna’. This huge underground water cistern had been used to collect the winter rainwater from the roof of the house. From the top it looked like a well surrounded by a paved area. The top of the sterna was ringed with a carved stone like a huge dough-nut, its inner hole grooved over hundreds of years by the ropes of buckets drawing water from the chamber below. I wondered if it still held water, so I dropped a stone into it. It landed way below with a dull echoing thud. No water.

“You would need to mend the water sterna,” the old man commented.

In the early evening light, we walked back down the rickety stone steps and stood with our backs to Panayiotis Païzis’ ruin. We looked down at Kioni harbour with its jolly tiled roofs, its church, its taverna, and the town clerk’s mint green hut. The stone ruins and little pre-fabs that interspaced them were not so obvious from up here. On the slope below us, small seed-eating birds twittered in huge untended olive trees, their sound mingling with the high-pitched bleat of cicadas. The air was scented with wild thyme, sage and catmint. We gazed over the peninsula behind the harbour to the magical island floating on its white shoreline. The faded mountains of mainland Greece stood silently beyond it. We had turned our backs on the ruined house but the old man broke into our reveries bringing us quickly back to earth.

“You can have it for a million drachma,” he said. It was about £6,000.

“Are you interested?” insisted the old man.

Alec stood there quietly. He was thinking.

“It is possible,” he said.


When we got back to England we were busy. We both had full time jobs and teenage children to care for but we often talked about Ithaca. Something about it had caught our imagination. The following year, in the summer of 1983, we went back. This time we came in a larger group with Alec’s sister Helen, her writer husband Gerry, and a group of six teenagers: theirs, Alec’s, and mine. We wanted to cement these wider family relationships. We didn’t stay in Kioni, but in the neighbouring village of Frikes.

This time we hired small boats so we could reach more distant beaches. Alec brought watermelons to eat, so wasps besieged our picnics. The teenagers raced to the sea to escape them and, at our favourite beach, swam to a rocky outcrop far out in the bay. After a scramble up the barnacled rocks they reached a tiny chapel and inside, although it seemed miles from anywhere, they found a bottle of olive oil and a small oil lamp burning. The local people were guarding their memories and someone had come out by boat to keep the flame alight.

One day three stout women stripped off their clothes and wallowed in a lake of rotting seaweed behind our favourite pebbly beach. We tried to hide our interest as they ran for the sea covered in mud like shiny black hippos. Later they emerged clean, dried off, and pulled themselves into old-fashioned flowered silk dresses fitting their ample bosoms as tightly as sausage skins. Then they approached, greeted us warmly, and asked Alec in detail about himself and his family according, it seemed, to Ithacan tradition.

“My mother came from Frikes,” the lead woman said. “When I was a child, she told me this seaweed purifies and tightens the skin like nothing else on earth. Now I live in Athens but I come back every year and bring my friends to bathe in this pool.”

A few days after our arrival that second year, as Alec was steering

our little boat ashore, we saw from a distance the same old man standing by the harbour wall. Panayiotis Païzis was waiting for us. Alec leapt out to shake his hand, leaving the practicalities of securing the boat to me. Panayiotis was puffing and wheezing from his seven-kilometre walk to Frikes along the dirt road from the village of Kioni, where we had stayed the previous year. Alec led him across the road and sat him down at a table in front of the only taverna in Frikes. He offered him a Greek coffee, a glass of local wine, or a bowl of olives, but the old man turned them down. He had more important business to discuss. As I joined them he was saying.

“I have been waiting all year for you to come back to buy my house in Kioni. Until you buy it, I can’t repair my other house down by the harbour, or return to my wife and children in South Africa.”

He got up from the table as soon as he finished his speech. We watched his back as he tramped off into the distance, a sad but determined figure.

For over three thousand years since Odysseus finally returned to Ithaca there has been a tradition that people come back. The old man had expected that we would too, and he was right. He had discovered we were back on his island and come to make his case. Alec’s minimal show of interest had been enough, it seemed, for him to wait all year for our return. We were filled with guilt.

We began to turn Panayiotis Païzis’ suggestion over in our minds and to discuss it with Alec’s sister Helen and her husband Gerry. Alec began to think about the legal side of things. It was not encouraging. There was no system of land registration on the island. Ownership of land was just known, not centrally recorded, and we could see this created problems. All over the island, even in the most remote parts, we found rocks where people had painted their initials in red paint to indicate their ownership of the surrounding land. Sometimes the ownership of land was just based on the area of ground below the branches of an olive tree; the land itself was deemed of no value whereas the olive was the basis of the village economy. Then there was the principle of joint inheritance by every one of a man’s descendants. Alec, Helen, Gerry and I had all heard of English people who finished the repair of their houses on other islands only to receive a visit from a Greek neighbour who said, “Thank you very much for all your hard work, and now go home as this house is mine.”

Panayiotis had told us he could give us absolute ownership.

“I once had two brothers,” he said. We knew that either of them, or their children, might have a claim to his ruin. “But,” he continued, “they were both killed in Australia in their twenties before either of them married or had children. Nobody but me myself, and my children, have any claim to this house and I can guarantee these rights will be handed over to you.”

We wondered how we could be sure of this. Alec and I walked from Frikes along the dirt road by the seashore and up the hill into Kioni to have another look at Panayiotis’ ruined house. At the end of the footpath, the old people were still sitting on their bench, observing and commenting. They were still looking out to sea just as they had the previous year. They sat where their mothers and fathers sat before them and their grandparents sat before that. Once they had been to school together in the little school building down by the harbour. Now it was closed. There were no children left in Kioni. The old people gossiped about everything that went on in the neighbourhood, the village, the island, and the world. They turned over every small item of news received by letter from their families overseas. They were waiting for them to return. They commented like the Greek Chorus in the ancient plays by Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus, and we soon began to call them ‘the Greek Chorus’.

When we reached Panayiotis’ house it looked as formidable as ever, but there was no denying the view was spectacular. Alec left me there to measure the ruined walls, the garden, the dry water sterna, and the steps. I dropped plumb lines down the walls and measured their height and the angle by which they leaned from the vertical. I took a film of thirty-six slide photographs. Meanwhile, Alec knocked on the doors of each of the neighbouring houses in turn. Everybody was at home and they welcomed him with traditional hospitality.

First Alec visited Maria. She lived alone. Neat featured and intel- ligent she welcomed him into her sparse kitchen. She went outside and lowered a tin bucket into her water sterna so she could offer him fresh water with a saucer of homemade fig jam. Next, he visited the little house opposite. There large Cassandra smiled broadly, revealing her three remaining teeth. Her skinny husband, Dimitris, joined her in insisting that Alec sit down and make himself at home. They offered him a sweet Greek coffee (which the English might call Turkish) and, when he refused it, a glass of wine. All three neighbours agreed immediately that Panayio- tis alone owned his ruined house, as well as the ‘garden’ on the far side of the steps. They all knew the sad story of his two brothers, childhood friends of theirs, who both died young in Australia. These two had never returned.

Back in Frikes, we discussed Panayiotis Païzis’ ruin with Helen, Gerry, and with whichever children felt like joining in. This became a conversation not just about the old house but about the villagers too. They were very self-sufficient, and this was necessary. There was no mains water supply to either Kioni or Frikes, so the winter rain, collected from the roofs of their houses, had to last them through the summer. There was no rubbish collection, so rubbish was rotted down or buried or, as we had discovered, sometimes just thrown down the hill on the edge of the village. In the dry summer weather, it wasn’t safe to light a fire. The only telephone in Kioni was communal. It was placed in a small mint-green wooden shed with a heavy pantiled roof down by the harbour. The shed doubled as the Town Clerk’s office and housed dusty heaps of ancient documents and manuscripts.

Alec and I were attracted by the simplicity of the villagers’ lives, but Gerry was less sure. In England, he and Helen lived in a remote part of Devon that was already quiet. We loved the August weather but Gerry found it too hot. In Ithaca ragged mongrels begged at our taverna table and this disturbed Gerry. At home he had a pedigree dog, which he took for walks on nearby Dartmoor. He was too polite to come right out with it but we sensed Gerry thought we were mad to spare a second for Panay- iotis Païzis’ suggestion, so Alec and I tried to pin down what attracted us to Kioni.

It was more than its peace and exquisite beauty, we thought. It was something about the way the society worked in the village. It seemed stable, permanent, unchanging. The shared hardship and isolation of the people had brought them a degree of cohesion, co-operation and self-reliance which, if it had ever existed in England, would certainly now be a thing of the past. We felt that Kioni, so cut off from city life by road, rail or air, nevertheless contained all the elements of a perfect existence. Here, beside the ever-changing sea, was the church, the shop, the bakery, and the legal office. Everybody knew about births, deaths and marriages, of the even-handedness of the mayor, of the severity of the priest, of loves and betrayals. The village had its history, its festivals, and its rivalries. Everything needed was here.

Yet I couldn’t entirely agree with Alec.

“It is stunning here. Just perfect,” I said. “I can’t think of anywhere I would prefer to be. But all the same, there are lots of beautiful places in the world. If we buy this ruin on Ithaca we’ll always have to come back here for our holidays and, who knows, we might feel like going somewhere else some day? Besides we’ve just spent all the money we have, and a lot we don’t have too, on our place in London. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to indulge in these fantasies.”

Alec didn’t argue, but he didn’t take much notice of what I said either. He just went on quietly talking about Ithaca as if it had somehow got under his skin. I’m not sure what Helen was thinking. She kept her thoughts to herself.

We compared the larger village of Kioni with smaller Frikes, where we were staying that second year. Frikes was cold in winter, we had heard, and torrents of water filled a dry channel, which came down through the valley behind. Sometimes the land behind the harbour flooded. Kioni had over a hundred people living there through the winter whereas Frikes had less than a dozen permanent inhabitants. It seemed to us that Kioni had a more solid social structure whereas Frikes wasn’t much more than a harbour where a small ferry from Lefkas came in daily. The local simpleton pretended to guide it in. He wore a hat, blew a whistle, and cried out “Mitsotakis, Mitsotakis!” (Mitsotakis was a right-wing politician in Greece at the time.) The sailors humoured this self-appointed port official as they manoeuvred the ferry up against the harbour wall.

The island was a paradoxical place. The local people were poor, yet many had seen the world travelling with the Greek merchant navy, or working for Aristotle Onassis who used the island as his main recruiting ground. They were almost completely cut off, yet they were well travelled and seemed very much in touch. They were rough yet sophisticated. They had a confidence coming from knowing who they were and where they belonged. They were friendly and welcoming and, of course, it helped that Alec and Helen could speak their difficult language.

Alec and Gerry were competing in bird spotting. By day, we watched red kites flying above us and in the evenings we listened to the strange calls of Scops owls. Alec saw a bright blue kingfisher skimming over the rocks. Gerry saw a hoopoe.

One evening Alec scrambled up a rocky headland and watched an eagle soaring over the hilltops. At supper he read us a passage from The Odyssey

.

‘Zeus the Thunderer urged two eagles into flight from the mountain-top. For a while they sailed down the wind with outstretched pinions, wing to wing. But as soon as they were directly over the meeting-place, where the sound of voices filled the air, they began to flap their wings and wheel about, glancing down at the faces of the crowd with looks of foreboding death, Then with their talons they clawed at each other’s cheeks and neck, and so swooped eastward over the house-tops and busy town. The people stared at the birds in amazement, and asked themselves what was to come of it.’

(2: 145-56 Rieu)


It was a sign that Odysseus would return.

On September 1, 1983 a lorry came to pick up the rented tables and chairs from the one taverna in Frikes. The short tourist season in Northern Ithaca was officially over. We wondered whether or not we would come back again. That night Helen made us an offer.

“I will lend you the money if you want to buy Panayiotis Païzis’ ruin,” she said. “You can pay me back when you can afford it.”

On the last day of our stay Alec walked from Frikes to Kioni one more time. He found Panayiotis Païzis and told him we would buy his ruined house.



When we returned to Ithaca in the summer of 1984, we brought with us the money Helen had lent us. Kioni looked just the same. The Greek Chorus were still sitting at the end of the track chattering about the slightest bit of news. Panayiotis Païzis was still waiting for us. He hadn’t managed to find anyone else to buy his ruin.

During the winter Alec had written to the Australian authorities who, in due course, sent him copies of the death certificates for both of Panayiotis Païzis’ brothers and confirmed they had no descendants. Meanwhile, I drew up my survey of his ruin. I took my drawings and photographs to the seismic design department of the engineering firm Ove Arup in London. I managed to catch the earthquake specialist on his return from Mexico where he had been assessing the effects of a recent huge earthquake. He considered my photographs, drawings and measurements in detail, and came to the conclusion that, with careful reinforcement of the existing stonework, it would be possible to save the old house and to make it safe. I was reassured by his assessment and incorporated his proposals into my drawings.

That year, we made friends with another Païzis, apparently not closely related to Panayiotis. Captain John Païzis lived down by the harbour in Kioni. He had returned to live in his home village after a lifetime abroad. Newly retired as captain of Onassis’ fleet, Captain John was an immensely capable, practical, energetic, and kind man. Everyone treated him and his wife Loula with love and respect, which they richly deserved. They had huge authority in the village and became our chief source of advice and information. Now they recommended a lawyer in the capital Vathi, twenty-four kilometres away on the southern part of the island. Taxis were cheap in Ithaca in those days and, like taxis in many Eastern countries, they filled up with as many other people as they could squeeze in on the way. The road had been newly repaired and now, although it was still narrow and precipitous, it was tarmacked all the way to Vathi. (See Map 1)

Vathi is a small town with a long deep harbour. In fact, the name Vathi means ‘deep’. The lawyer Kandiolotis was an elderly man who, like our prospective neighbour Cassandra, had very few teeth. Maybe he had none at all. We had noticed this was another feature of the island. Obviously there was a shortage of dentists, but we wondered if it might also be the result of a lifetime of drinking soft rainwater collected from the roofs. Alec handed over my drawings of the site and went through the legal details with Kandiolotis. They spoke in Greek and I couldn’t understand their conversation, but the lawyer’s office was pleasant with a spectacular display of shells and other sea ephemera. Sea-shoes were not included.

After the lawyer Kandiolotis had prepared the papers, we came again to Vathi, this time with Panayiotis Païzis, to register the purchase. Together we walked a short way round the harbour to the notary’s office. It was in a wooden shed with a heavy (much too heavy) pan-tiled roof similar, but a bit larger, than the legal shed in Kioni.

At first, as we came in out of the bright light outside, I could see very little. The atmosphere was strange. The shed had a musty tomb-like smell. As my eyes adapted, I realised we were looking down its length to a large, dilapidated and dimly illuminated desk at the far end. On either side, shelves dipped under the weight of mouldering ancient books, and papers tied with faded ribbons. Spiders had built elaborate nests amongst them. Stacked around the edges of the floor below the shelves were so many books, and bulging old files, that only a narrow passageway remained. Many of these ancient papers, we later discovered, were archives from the three hundred years of Venetian rule of the island from the end of the fifteenth century. At the far end of the hut a tiny, pallid, bespectacled head peered out from behind the papers piled high on the desk. It belonged to the notary.

The notary looked carefully through our two copies of hand-typed documents and discussed them at length with the lawyer Kandiolotis. Some handwritten notes were made. Panayiotis added his signature. The notary fumbled in the drawers of his desk and produced postage stamps of many different colours and sizes. He stuck them to each page of both documents and rubber-stamped carefully over each one. Alec took bundles of drachma notes from a carrier bag and handed them over. We all shook hands. The deed was done.

That evening Alec and I went for a meal in Aphrodite’s taverna down by Kioni harbour to celebrate the occasion.

“I bet some of our papers go missing from that notary’s office,” I joked. And many years later we discovered that had indeed happened. Luckily the lawyer, Kandiolotis, had given us a second copy.

Our friend the sea captain John Païzis came and sat down beside us. We didn’t need to tell him our news as he had already heard it on the village grapevine. He congratulated us saying:

“You have not bought a house, you have bought an extra ten years to your life.”

We hoped he was right.

About the author

By training I am an architect but, now I write, draw and paint. In the past I have mostly worked on existing buildings or taught in art schools. With my Greek speaking husband Alec Kazantzis I have been visiting the island of Ithaca since 1982. view profile

Published on December 13, 2019

Published by

90000 words

Genre: Classics

Reviewed by

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