Friday, September 5, 2014

The Inauguration

August is a busy time on Lipsi Island. Not only are the grape and fig harvests in full swing, but the island is also crowded with tourists and the weather is beautiful yet hot, a confluence which seems to mean sleeping goes onto a back burner.
The days are so hot that it’s not until the sun sets that you can begin to cook food. After dinner everyone goes into town to congregate. The ouzeries along the port are filled with people drinking and snaking on fried octopus and other fresh seafood until all hours of the night and morning, enjoying the months of hustle and parties. There is even a club opened for the summer months.

Lipsi village and port in the early morning
On the last Saturday in August, the town celebrated the inauguration of the first new mayor in 28 years, as well as the end of the Italian tourist season. In the month of August nearly every voice you hear on the beach is speaking Italian – the island was occupied by Italians during the Second World War and now it’s a very popular holiday destination. In September, when the weather is more manageable, as Jenny our British housemate tells us, the tourists from the UK and other northern countries arrive.

It was a surprisingly chilly night: an incessant breeze was coming in from the north and I was wearing jeans for the first time in a month. As we left the farm and began the steep walk up and down the hill to town, we could already hear the music in the square two kilometers away. We arrived into town and were greeted with round after round of “Kalispera” from neighbors and friends who have stopped by the farm in the last few days.

Lipsi is truly a small community. Within a week I feel as though I’ve seen, if not met, nearly everyone and it’s nearly impossible to go anywhere in town any time of the day without running into at least several people you know. Abby, another American who has lived here more than a year sighs wistfully as she speaks about being anonymous again. Making everything more complicated, everyone seems to have one of just a few names. Kostas will take out a bottle of wine in the evening and say “This is from Manoli’s vineyard.”

“Manoli who we saw today in line at the petrol station?”

“No –”

“You mean Manoli who owns the restaurant?”

“No, no. One of the other 45 Manolis living here.”

Of course, to be fair most of the American women who are on the island right now seemed to be named Katie, so maybe this goes both ways.

Once the summer tourist season is over, most of the restaurants in town close for the winter, the tourist shops and street stands shutter. It’s just locals, goats and fishing boats left and only the bakery with 24 hour WiFi remains opened consistently. Even now, there is a single gas pump on the island and it’s only opened for fuel from 11:00 am to until 12:30, three days a week. The import and EU costs of gas are so high, it would cost Kosta nearly $200 to fill up his 4-door Suzuki. Luckily there’s only so much driving one can actually do on the island.

The four of us from the farm sit together at the ouzerie next to the water, order wine, ouzo, octopus and other small plates. It doesn’t take long for four women to become very intimate in a space like this: sharing small rooms with creaky beds, picking figs and stomping grapes together in the sun, no internet and phone connections to distract ourselves, late nights with long walks from the farm to town and back again. We have very quickly become close friends, sharing and laughing about a little bit of everything, but always inevitably we seem to circle back to love. How we’ve found it, lost it, woven it into our lives, cut it gently or sharply from our hearts. Our hopes and fears. Somehow there was a push for each of us to come to this island, this lonely crop of hills in the sea, and in some way, love has to do with it for each of us.

Catie, from New Jersey, has a theory which she told me on my first night here: you can’t come to Lipsi and not get kissed. I laughed and shook my head. Romance abroad has not only not been my goal, I’ve actively recoiled from the offer of it more than once already. Well, all I’ll say about that is you laugh at fate and you get proven wrong.

Me, Jenny, Abby, Catie and Genevieve 
Our table at the ouzerie gets bigger and bigger, we get sufficiently cozy from wine drinking, and we walk across the port to the square where most of the town is gathered to dance and drink more. There’s free wine being passed out, a fiddle, piano and drummer and circles of Greek dancers spin round and round, people slipping in and out throughout the upbeat 10-15 minute ballads. We stand on the sides watching, until one song ends and a well-dressed man in a button-down shirt and neck tie takes the microphone and begins singing. People step forward and start a solo, spinning, arm waving dance before him, looking otherworldly in the bright lights.

After watching this for a few minutes I ask Kostas if the new mayor is around anywhere, anyway.

“That’s him singing,” Kostas nods towards the well-dressed man smiling out at the crowd, like any good politician. “We’ve got ourselves a singing, dancing mayor.”

The mayor sings a few more ballads and we sip at wine from the sidelines, watching the locals of all ages and sexes come forward to dance, either spinning in the center, clapping their hands, or kneeling along the side of the circle, clapping encouragingly. The slower songs end and with a faster paced opening, people rush into a circle, hands clasped together and held high, the mayor at the front of the line. Genevieve and I look at each other, set our wine and purses on the ground – it’s really so small a place you can leave any amount of expensive electronics or your drink around and not risk anything being taken or dropped into it – and break into the circle, learning the simple steps in just a few turns.

Something that I think is wildly missing from American culture is space to dance without being overly sexualized. When I was a little girl we had friends and neighbors who would gather every few months at the town hall and play the fiddle, banjo and drums and call out dance steps. My memories of these Wild Thyme Dances are utterly gleeful: spinning round a room full of skirts, bells, laughter and community. There were May Pole dances in the spring as well, tying and weaving long ribbons round the tall pole, skipping and ducking around your friends at the end of the long North Woods winter. At some point around middle school these events petered away and now every time I visit Europe I feel the astounding lack of tradition in my own culture and wish for more Wild Thymes.

In Greece there was a taste of this, smiling across the circle. You feel a part of something in moments like this, even if you can’t understand the language everyone seems to be shouting around you, holding hands and stepping in time with strangers. Even ten minutes of the same step, round and round, didn’t feel boring.

We were out until 2:30 am – almost unreal for me, tending to be a bit of a sour puss when it comes to staying up late at night. I have to work to change my internal clock here, but it seems to be haoppening, at least for a few weeks. Which I guess is all the people of Lipsi are doing anyway, because in the winter everything goes quiet, the hills turn green and lush, the people sleep through the long nights.

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