“Really, people always think that Greek family members really like each other. No way. We just don’t have no other option.”
It’s a hot afternoon in mid August and my beloved travel companion and I are tripping over our toes to keep up with our host Faye. We just arrived at the island of Paxos and are still getting used to the steady ground under our feet, the beauty around us and the unmatched energy of the small, curly brunette with the big smile that seems to know everyone on the little island. She shows us the spacious apartment that we can use during our stay, just behind the small harbour of Gaios. “Make yourselves at home, I’ll pick you up in the evening”, she tells us just before she disappears.
“Who is she?”, we wonder.
It had been the amazing Bert Kisjes who, again, directed me to a village of his Cultural Village network and introduced me to Faye. Both of us had somewhat forgotten that we asked her to host us -and my questions- at the most insanely busy week of the year. Mid august! What were we thinking. And even though I repeatedly asked Faye to be honest, bad timing is bad timing, she didn’t want to hear a no. Bert had asked and thus we were coming. So here we are, staying in one of the apartments she normally rents out.
Paxos has enthusiastically participated in the Cultural Village activities over the last 10 years. Especially the elderly project ‘Anchise’, set up with the Italian and Dutch villages, turned out to be a great success. The Paxi elderly visited the village of Wijk aan Zee and vice versa. Many stories were shared: personal histories, about life in the village and reflections on the future of the villages. And of course, new trans-European friendships were made. Faye has written a book about it, as a result of the numerous meetings the island and other European villages had organised over the year.
In the evening we learn about the islands history at the small museum. In the art gallery we listen to the local youth rehearsing for a music event. One of the kids, an 16 year old girl, tells us about her future plans. “I’m not sure about what to study, but I know for sure I will be an activist. There are so many things in our world we have to change. I cannot watch it and do nothing”. After her disquisition of the problems of the Greek economic policy, she is called for – the band wants its singer back. Again we wonder: “Who is she?”
The following day after breakfast, we wait for Faye to pick us up. Reading the stories in Fayes book kept me up late, and I wonder who she is planning us to meet. Maybe one of the old lighthouse keepers? Or the lady who, as a young girl, saved a boat full of the islands aristocracy that got into trouble at sea, when she was secretly swimming instead of fetching water at the well? When Faye turns up at the apartment, she is in a hurry. “Nikos is waiting for us at the square”.
“I miss people to talk to. To really talk to. About life, philosophy, about politics. People die, people leave. Now I am one of the oldies at the island.” Nikos’ start is a little err, negative-ish. But then the former sailor and carpenter moves on, about the specialness of the island and its inhabitants. About the importance of the cohesion between generations. How he feels that the “I” becomes less meaningful then the “We” on Paxos, and how important this is to him. “I have to show my grandson how to live his life. I think I am better at that now, then I was as a father”, he says with a smile on his face. “I really feel the responsibility to leave something good for the next generations. Me, Faye, you, my grandson: we are all ambassadors of our generation. We have to be the best example!”. He is dead serious again. But then, with a cheeky smile: “I want them to only tell good stories about me at my funeral”.
Faye is translating, and we talk a little about the Cultural Village Project and the exchange with Wijk aan Zee. “We are not really that different.” Nikos surprises me with this statement. “Really. I made some good friends there. Yes, well, we live with family while the Dutch live alone – and are possibly more lonely.” His eyes get a little muggy when he tells about the Dutch grandma who told him she sees her grand kids on their birthdays and with Christmas. “If I don’t see my grandson for 2 days, I get very sad! But to be honest: here on Paxos we don’t have an elderly home, so we don’t live there. 40 Years ago a family would still sleep together in one bed, from grandma to the newborn. So who knows what will change?” And I remember what Faye told us in our first minute on Paxos. No other option but family.
When we say thanks and goodbye to Nikos, he tells us how much he would like to see one of his ‘Wijk aan Zee’ friends again. So in the afternoon I call Bert to see if we can organise a small Skype reunion with some elderly in Wijk aan Zee and Paxos. Bert is busy with the program around the photo exhibition “Rimpels” (wrinkles), but of course he manages to bring together some of the participants of the Wijk aan Zee Senior Circle. Unfortunately, the celebration of Assumption Day -and my name day : )- that brings the Bishop of Corfu to Paxos, throws a spanner in the works. All of the elderly ladies are preparing the celebration, and then the men… Siesta, I suppose.
In the evening Faye takes us to see the sunset and we spend some time with her husband at her home on a Paxi mountain. Then we hurry back to Gaios – her mother is almost back from mass and we will have dinner together. If her mother is anything like her daughter – or vice versa – this promises to become an interesting evening. And it is. As we sit down at the Italian restaurant of one of Fayes friends, her mother, very fancily dressed (the Bishop!) starts her story without us even asking. And for the next 2 hours, we will only open our mouths to order another glass of wine or fill them with delicious tagliolini.
The grande dame of Paxos – I think no other name would suit her – has been spending her life as financial accountant, chief of the local Red Cross, Mother, Grandmother and with several other societal activities I would have written down if I wasn’t too busy listening. Because of this, she knows 1) everyone on the island and 2) everything that is going on the island. She knows of the man that drowns over the loss of his wife, the child that get just a little too much physical attention and the family that is eating only once a day because of financial problems. She is the one that gets a knock on the door when someone needs help – in any way. The loss of her husband, ten years ago, made her wonder herself: what is the reason of living? But still having this important contribution to society – and again, the grandson – keeps her going.
And that is, for those who want not only the story but the analysis, for me one of the most intriguing lessons I learned on my trip so far. Old age is bound to come with loss. The loss of loved ones, the loss of independence, the loss of physical strength. This loss will undoubtedly hurt: often not just a little, nor just for a little while. But if there is one thing that will help to keep going, it is this: being an active part of society. In any way that is possible and fits best to the person. Be seen or heard, write or sing, help or assist, learn or teach, listen or speak up, build or create, give and take. Connect. And be mindful of the thought that this will happen naturally, because unfortunately often it won’t. Society will not always automatically be including the dependent or grieving ones, thinking they may not have any value to add or are just on the receiving end. So here, I think, is a responsibility for both society, or communities, and the individual.
WI guess we have to make something of life, even when old. Or older. Like Nikos, who still enjoys making furniture together with his son. And Faye’s mother, who never closes the front door in case someone needs her. And many many many other people I’ve met over the last 6 months.
Ps., One more month to go! (And a lot of countries left to blog about. Yup, I’m a little behind on schedule :-/)
Greetings from Maribor, Slovenia,