Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Island of Lipsi

“Here, taste this,” Kostas holds out a bunch of grapes that he’s just pulled off the vine.

I pluck one of the sun-warmed grapes from the bundle, stick it into my mouth and mummer “Oh my god!” almost sensually. “That’s incredible.”

That is a 200 year-old vine,” Kostas says proudly, popping a grape into his own mouth. “We’ll make wine tomorrow.”

The farm house and vineyards. 
For a while now, I’ve been imagining this part of the trip, when I WWOOF on the organic vineyard on the tiny island in the Aegean Sea, as one of high points of the trip. I am not disappointed.

Coming to Lipsi was a bit of an adventure. There is only one weekly ferry from Athens to the island, and it didn’t come any time near the day I was supposed to start working. So I took a 10 hour ferry to Kalymnos, one of the nearest large islands. I spent two days there before the one hour ferry here to Lipsi.

On Kalymnos, the sea sponge diver’s island where the first scuba diving gear was invented, there were no cheap hostels, no couchsurfing options. So I found an Air B&B for the three nights I needed to stay there. The woman who rented the room in her house – I’ll call her Jane – was one of the kookiest ladies I’ve met in a while. In her 50’s and spending her life bouncing between Australia and the Greek islands, Jane is truly kind hearted and fun. She’s incredibly relaxed, thanks to the joint that is always in her mouth, and one morning talked to me for at least an hour and a half without asking me a single question about myself.

She wanted me to come out and party with her and her friends every night usually to go clubbing in the town on the island. I would politely decline, begging off because of too many days spent in cities within the last month, and sit on the back veranda of her house, reading, drinking wine and playing with the 6 puppies, all of different breeds, living there.

On my last night Jane did get me to go to dinner with her, where she ordered for herself a Cesear Salad, garlic bread, fries, fried rice and spring rolls, along with an ouzo. We were sitting with her friends, unable to talk because the music was so loud, when her sister walked in. “Fuck fuck fuck,” Jane started mumbling, pulling the joint out of her mouth and hiding it in her purse, “My sister is the biggest blab on the island!” Of course when only 8,000 people live on the island, I’m not sure how secret anything done in public can be.

The next morning, I get on the ferry to come to Lipsi, frankly a little relived to be on my way, when one of Jane’s friends from last night sits down next to me. He’s British, but has also been living on the Greek islands for more than 20 years. If he stayed out with Jane last night after I walked back home, he probably didn’t make it to bed till 5am. The intensity of the stale alcohol on his breath, mixed with sweat and the nausea I already have from the small boat and choppy sea does not bode well for the next hour. I stare straight ahead, feeling antisocial and maybe a little rude, but unable to look away from the horizon. He’s a tour guide – heading off to lead I tour, he tells me, on the island Patmos – so he gives me a quick tour of everything we’re looking at.

He points east. “That’s Turkey right there,” he says, meaningfully. “A whole other continent.

“Wow,” I respond, genuinely. “That’s insane!”

He shrugs, all of a sudden too cool to be impressed. “Well, come on, the line has to be somewhere, doesn’t it?”

Finally the boat pulls up to a tiny port, and I nearly jump out of my seat, “Nice talking to you, I have to go grab my bags!”

“Hey, seriously, you’re gonna hate this little place,” he says, dismissively throwing his hand in the direction of Lipsi. “Fake an injury on this vineyard, meet me here this afternoon. You’ll see.”

“I doubt it!” I say and run away down the stairs to disembark.

Kostas, my host, has told me to just get a taxi and tell them “Dimitris Farm – they’ll know where it is.” But there is no taxi to be found. The ten other passengers who have gotten off the boat all seem to know exactly where they need to be going, and no one is looking for a ride. I walk along the port, filled with tiny 3-person blue and white fishing boats, passed empty restaurants. I find a main square of town, such as it were, with a few tired old men sitting in the shade of their stalls, selling bracelets and wind chimes made of seashells. I walk towards one corner, where there are steps and shade, hoping a taxi will drive by eventually.

“Where are you from?” The old man sitting nearby asks in heavily accented English, gesturing to the opened seat next to him.

“The United States,” I smile and drop my bag, but keep my eyes on the road.

“Ah! Very nice!” he says, and gestures to the chair again, though this seems to be nearing the extent of his English.

We sit quietly for a few minutes. I keep getting up and looking at the road every time I hear a motor, but it’s always a scooter with tanned people in bathing suits, heading to some beach or another.

“Where you go?” The man asks, gesturing again for me to sit. “Please, please!” he says.

“Really, thank you, I’m OK,” I say, smiling as much as I can, not wanting to miss any taxi that might go by. “I’m going to Dimitris Farm.”

“Kostas!” The man says, happily.

“Yes! Kostas!” I nod, happy for the small island, suddenly.

Arriving at the farm.
“Very good.” The old man nods. And suddenly a taxi pulls up, and of course he knows Dimitris Farms. “Kostas!” He says happily.

There is always a moment of anticipatory panic when you knock on the door of a WWOOFing farm, or a couchsurfing host: you just don’t know what you are about to walk into. But once the door opens and I can drop my bags, I’ve not yet been disappointed by my experiences.

Greek music is playing from inside the shop. Out on the porch wine bottles, vinegar bottles, sun dried figs and olives are lined up. Three other young women are sitting around, chatting in English. There’s Catie, from New Jersey, Jenny from Britain and Abby from Santa Cruz, who worked on the farm last summer as a WWOOFer and just never left – she now lives elsewhere on the island. Genevieve, a French-Canadian, arrives from her day beach hopping soon after.

Kostas himself speaks English with an American, even Midwestern accent, which, though I really loved Silke and Martin, is a great relief after Germany. Seeing other WWOOFers on the farm is also a relief. My first WWOOFing experience of the summer was quieter, one of reflection and quiet at the beginning of the journey. Here I'm glad to have other people to stay up late, work and cook with every day. Kostas tells me he spent most of his childhood and early adult years in Ohio, before moving back to the family farm on Lipsi. He gives me a cup of tea and has me sign in - I'm the 178th WWOOFer.

No, I don’t think I’ll be leaving on the next ferry back to Kalymnos.

The beach just over the hill from the house
Lipsi is picturesque in so many ways. Dry and arid this time of the year, yet the ocean is around every corner when you need to cool off after your shift. The hills are spotted with vines, fig trees, olive trees, goats and sheep, their bells tinkling gently from every field. Outside the village there are no street lights and the stars are simply majestic – better than I’ve seen in years, even at home in Northern Minnesota. It's a great relief to be away from cities and have routine after a month of bouncing from capitol to capitol and spending my days in museums and walking tours. Not having to repack my bag for 2 weeks is a glorious feeling. 

We're surrounded and steeped in myth and ancient history as well: This is the island where Calypso kept Odysseus captive for 7 years in the Odyssey, and the next island over is where John received the Book of Revelations.

The grape harvest at the base of the hill
where Calypso's castle stood. 
Work is different, but also very similar to most farms I've been on. The vines on the farm range from 1 year to 200 years old, and the first harvest of the year finished a few weeks ago. We pick figs every day, looking especially for those that have fallen on the ground and can be sun dried for a week then baked with sesame. There are olive trees that will be ready for harvest in a few months, the late harvest grapes on Kostas’ vines will be ready at the end of October. After the long working days in Germany, and general confusion about exactly how much I was expected to work, the schedules on the fridge, with shifts and expectations, are a relief.

On my first day, Genevieve and I were sent to the neighbors to help with their grape harvest all morning. We arrived and were given sheers and buckets, then went out to cut bunches of grapes from the vines, most of them already shriveling and raisin-like from the heat. (I know so little about wine making, here espeically - I was surprised to learn that these were still good for wine. I always thought grapes needed to be juicy and fresh for that.) We were surrounded by deeply tanned, mustached men, shouting in Greek and laughing at one another, bobbing up and down in the hot sun. We finished before it got too hot in the afternoon, had lunch and walked to the beach. It is all almost too picturesque and beautiful to be real. 

Suffice to say I'm very happy to be here for the next two weeks.

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