Santouris, strategic arson, rusting Fiats, never-ending nomenclature, unfixed felines, formidable bosoms, dynamite fishermen, mercy killings, grieving geese & the austere glare of the Cyclades.
N ektarios shot a wild goose on the beach at Abram one morning in late September. For the rest of the day, its mate wandered along the shore or swam across the bay, all the while calling for its dead consort, lamenting its loss in a distinctive, plaintive honk. At sunset, a perfect, rosy sunset, Nektarios’ brother, Yiorgos, went down and shot it. Geese mate for life, so I suppose that the second goose had to be shot. Also, the noise was beginning to get everyone down.
That night, I couldn’t sleep. I am not sure why—the fate of the geese, maybe, the hard, narrow bed, too much sleep in the day, too much wine, not enough wine—so, around midnight, I got up and drove back to town. At home, I looked up “geese in Greece” on the internet. They had killed a pair of lesser white-fronted geese, the rarest goose in Europe and an endangered species. The next morning, I drove back to Abram and told Vasso, Nektarios’ wife, that the geese had been on the protected list. She looked uncomfortable and said that she would tell her husband. I suppose she did, because I noticed that he was much less friendly that day. There was a goose stifado on the menu for lunch, but I couldn’t bring myself to eat it.
Abram is a small, pebbly bay on the northwest coast of Naxos, about three-quarters of an hour from chóra. It faces west and lies at the end of a dirt track about a mile from the main road, bordered on both sides by high, jagged rocks; to the left, as you look at the sea, there is a chapel on the promontory and a beautiful thirties-style bungalow, which I have always coveted. The same family once owned almost the whole valley leading down to the sea, but, in the fifties, they had to sell some of it after the father, Epinondas, blew off one hand in an accident fishing with dynamite, which made it difficult for him to work.
The redeeming light of Naxos causes all its other shortfalls or deficiencies to pale into insignificance.
His wife, Eleni, the matriarch of the clan, was several inches taller than him, with a formidable bosom. Epinondas and Eleni had several children, including two sons, Nektarios and Yiorgos, now both in their forties, who used to run the place with their wives. Now Nektarios did it alone, though Yiorgos was usually there whenever I went. Nektarios was married to Vasso, a woman from Melanes, and they had one daughter, a chubby ten-year-old, Elenitsa, who had recently discovered a talent for the santouri, the eastern form of dulcimer.
Yiorgos was married to Ioanna and they had three children: Epinondas, a good-looking young man who had inherited his father’s Mr. Punch nose and had recently got married and produced a baby; Eleni, who was studying biology in Athens; and Yiorgos, who was then about twelve. In Greece, traditionally the eldest boy tended to be named after his paternal grandfather, and the eldest girl after her paternal grandmother, which made for a never-ending supply of Sofias, Elenis, Marias, Yiorgos, Yannis and Costas, etc.
The family still owned a sizeable chunk of land where, during the summer months, they ran a simple pension, really just a taverna with rooms, and where they grew grapes for wine, cochinelli, a delicious soft rosé with a sherry-ish taste. They prided themselves, justifiably, on maintaining the simplicity of the place, on respecting the beauty and tranquillity of the valley, and they tried to be self-sufficient. Nektarios and Yiorgos went fishing for the taverna, and most of the fruit and vegetables came from the garden. Recently they built a small church next to the riverbed, so now there were three churches within view.
When the north wind blows, it is too rough to swim at Abram. It is always difficult enough to get into the sea on the stones, and when there are big waves it is all too easy to fall and slip. But when there is a south wind, the sea is like glass and you can see all the way to the bottom. At these times, it is my favourite place to swim.
Geese mate for life, so I suppose that the second goose had to be shot. Also, the noise was beginning to get everyone down.
I first came to Abram in 1988, before the road along the north coast was made up. Then, it was just red earth, and you would arrive back in town caked in dust. I liked it immediately and promised myself that, one day, I would come back and stay. And that is just what I have done; every summer, when the kástro is overrun with tourists and tour groups, I like to escape to Abram for a couple of nights. It is very peaceful there. At night, you hear only the roar of the sea and the cry of birds.
Which is why this business with the geese was particularly upsetting. I don’t suppose that Nektarios knew that it was an endangered species, let alone the rarest goose in Europe. Even so… But then, rarely a day goes by here when I don’t have to steel myself not to get upset over animals.
Living on Naxos means, effectively, that I live in the country. Although I live in the kástro, at the top of the chóra, which means “capital” or “principal town,” it is a very rural town. Most views are of the hills or the sea. You don’t feel that you are in a town. For several years, I lived in the country in England, near Oxford. I hate big cities and I like country life. I have always been drawn to a kind of fantasy “good life”—chickens and free-range eggs, fresh vegetables from your own garden, a degree of self-sufficiency—but the weather got me down in Oxfordshire and I am too lazy and too spoilt to put in the necessary hours of hard, physical labour.
Naxos is perfect. It is rural, but soft rural, at least where I live. The terrace outside my bedroom looks down onto a patch of waste ground, which the archaeologists are slowly excavating and where donkeys are hobbled to graze when it is green in spring. I even once saw someone riding a horse bareback down there. When the green turns a dry, dusty brown, usually by mid-June, old men gather dry grass in the early morning to feed their animals. Two English women abandoned a rusting, old red Fiat Panda there. It was a year, maybe two, before the dimos (municipality) removed it, if indeed it was them, though I had spoken to them about it and taken pictures.
Their treatment of animals often seems shocking: when a donkey reaches the end of its working life, its owner throws it off the top of a cliff.
And then there is the light.
Much is made of the famed Greek light, to fos, and having lived now for over ten years in the austere glare of the Cyclades, in what Gerald Durrell describes as the “bright, looking-glass world of Greece,” I can testify to its power, its life-affirming qualities. Never again do I want to live where the prevailing colour is grey. The redeeming light of Naxos causes all its other shortfalls or deficiencies to pale into insignificance.
In Naxos, I find that I can lead the kind of idyllic life that I dreamt about as a child. I live in close proximity with nature, with animals, not just my myriad cats, but also the animals with which I come in contact through the Naxos Animal Welfare Society. (This is not always idyllic, but I manage.) I would never have dared to have so many cats in England. Here I barely paused before acquiring more, one after another, to add to the two I brought with me from London.
I realised recently that I am never happier than when nursing a tiny kitten back to health. Recently, walking to the beauty parlour, I found a kitten in a dusty parking lot by the road. He was just standing there. When I threw a fresh fish under his nose, he didn’t move, so I understood that he was very ill. Now, after a trip to the vet, flea spray, antibiotics for his respiratory condition and antibiotic cream for his eyes, he is thriving in my yard. He will lose an eye, but otherwise he will be fine and ready in three weeks to go to his new home in the country.
There are usually stray dogs roaming down below, and abandoned puppies. Often, tiny kittens are found near or even in the rubbish bins. There is always a plethora of kittens and puppies, either because people don’t want to spend the money to have their animals neutered or spayed, or because they can’t be bothered.
At night, you hear only the roar of the sea and the cry of birds.
My friend Katerina, who lives in Athens, says that the Greeks have a bad relationship with nature generally. They are somehow at odds with it. Certainly they seem to have a disregard for their environment; they build recklessly and thoughtlessly. The terrible fires of summer 2007 have been blamed on arson, caused by people wishing to build, which they are not permitted to do, on forestry land. If they destroy the forests, then perhaps they will be able to build on the deforested land.
The American writer Edmund White once remarked that he thought the Greek flag should depict a cement mixer. Or maybe two. More recently, John Lucas, in his evocative memoir, 92 Archaron Street, described Greece as a building site. Their treatment of animals often seems shocking: when a donkey reaches the end of its working life, its owner throws it off the top of a cliff.
Living in Naxos, I have had to struggle, not very successfully, to get used to the sight of animals in distress and to realise that I can’t save them all. I have lost count of the number of upsetting incidents: the kitten marooned on top of the Hadjiandreou house, wailing for days on end; the cat happily playing in the hedge near Halki one minute, flattened by the bus the next; two tiny puppies, their eyes not yet open, abandoned by the rubbish dump; dogs chained up in the boiling sun with no water; the man who collects the rubbish beating his overburdened donkey with a stick. I have learnt to harden my heart and turn away, though I stopped saying good morning to the garbage man (who has anyhow now been replaced by a small motorised pickup).
She never appeared to get any older, maybe because she already seemed quite old enough.
Cruelty to and neglect of animals seemed endemic. Possibly it is just as bad in other countries, including England, but here it is much more in your face. It is impossible to turn a blind eye. Maybe it is because Naxos is smaller. Everything seems to matter, to be more intense. The foreigners, residents and tourists, mind much more, of course, and they complain constantly about the treatment of animals. Before the 2007 local elections, the Naxos Animal Welfare Society wrote an open letter (which was also published in Naxos Life, a local English-language newsletter) asking each of the three parties what they proposed to do about the stray animals. Only one bothered to answer, and that party was not elected.
There was also a feeling that nature should be allowed to take its course, but the results were heartbreaking. There was always something. Recently, I found myself having to drown a tiny kitten.
This is what happened: the priest’s eldest sister’s cat had had kittens.
But, first, a little background.
Father Manolis, the Roman Catholic priest, is the fifth in a family of six, four of whom live on the island and three of them up in the kástro itself. His eldest sister, Maria, was in her eighties. But she never appeared to get any older, maybe because she already seemed quite old enough. She was tiny and skinny, barely five foot, with a hump, her body twisted by osteoporosis. She usually wore cotton print dresses—what I think are called, or used to be called, housedresses—and socks and sandals, with a cardigan if it was cold, though sometimes, for special occasions, such as, say, when the archbishop was here from Tinos, she got dressed up in a coat and skirt and looked surprisingly smart. Her hair was, I suspected, completely white, but she dyed it a strong reddish-brown. When the dye grew out and before she got round to re-doing it, there was a patch of greyish white at the crown of her head, creating a tonsure effect.
In summer, every morning, she went swimming at seven-thirty down by the port with her younger sister, Eirini, and a few other old women. I sometimes went at that time too, and I liked the sight of them all gossiping and swimming sedately. I read somewhere that Greeks counted their swims (yearly, or seasonally, that is, not all the swims of a lifetime). It was true. Maria often used to ask me how many swims I had had and then would tell me that she had had ten or twelve or however many it was.
If they destroy the forests, then perhaps they will be able to build on the deforested land.
After her swim, she would return to the kástro to carry out her duties. Many of these involved the various Catholic churches: she used to be responsible for cleaning them (though recently another Maria, Maria Konsta, who is also my cleaning lady, has taken over because old Maria is now almost blind), for polishing any brass, for arranging the flowers and so on. She also made the hosts for communion. The special press that she used fascinated me; it sat by the telephone in her house, which I welcomed any excuse to visit.
I don’t think that anything, except for the installation of electricity, had changed there for decades. The stairway was a clear, light, bright green, the colour made from tinting lime-wash. A wooden dressmaker’s dummy stood at the top of the stairs. She still cooked on an open fire, as well as the standard two gas burners. She made lunch and supper for Father Manolis every single day except when he was away. Her world was Naxos. I don’t know that she had ever left the island, but she wasn’t naïve and she had the same droll way of looking at matters as the priest, her brother, did. An elderly American, Dean, who rented a tiny flat in the kástro, sent her a huge, thigh-length tee shirt from the States emblazoned with the words “I LOVE NEW YORK.” The expression of wry amusement on her face as she opened the parcel was something to behold.
Eirini lived in a beautiful big house opposite Maria’s. She had been married—her husband, who was much older than her, died a couple of years ago at the age of ninety-six. Maria Konsta came to tell me, and she said that I should go to pay my respects. Yannis was lying in an open coffin in the saloní. He was yellowish in colour and he looked as if he were made of wax. It was a shock to see him lying there; I wasn’t expecting it. He wasn’t the first dead person that I had seen, but nonetheless…
The stairway was a clear, light, bright green, the colour made from tinting lime-wash.
Maria was very sweet and gentle; the phrase “she wouldn’t hurt a fly” might have been coined just for her. She loved her cats. They were her children. Eirini was short and stocky. She was tougher. You could tell simply by looking at her. And she had travelled, often with the Naxos Women’s Group. A few years ago, they went to Morocco. Eirini loved it.
One of my favourite sights in the summer used to be to see Father Manolis, his two eldest sisters and any relatives who happened to be visiting sitting on the stoop outside Eirini’s house, gossiping, talking, passing the time of an evening, Maria’s cats milling around their feet. I would see them as I made my way down to the paralia and stop to exchange a few words. By the time I came back up, they were always in bed.
Maria had two female cats. Alexandra, the younger one, had a litter sometime in July, four happy, healthy kittens. All throughout the summer, tourists came to photograph them playing. Then the older cat, Burratina (apparently, burattino is “puppet” in Italian; Father Manolis, a Jesuit who had studied in Rome, liked to speak Italian), produced three kittens.
Two days after the second litter was born, I looked down from my front terrace to see some tourists sitting on the steps outside the little church dedicated to St. Anthony of Padua. They were cuddling a tiny black kitten whose eyes were not yet open. “We found it in a plastic bag in the dustbin. There were two of them, but the mother came and took the other.” I ran to Maria’s house to ask her what was going on. She didn’t answer me and looked away, but Eirini just said that tourists were welcome to the kitten.
Recently, I found myself having to drown a tiny kitten.
Later that day, somebody told me of another tiny kitten mewling round the rubbish bin, its eyes not yet open. I called the president of the Naxos Animal Welfare Society, who told me that if I took the kitten to the vet, he would put it to sleep. But the vet wouldn’t be in his office for another two hours. In the meantime, the evening volta of tourists was beginning to wend its way up to the kástro.
I set off in the direction of the dustbin next to the so-called Venetian Museum, an enormous mansion that, when I first started coming to Naxos, was lived in by Kyria Andrea, the mother-in-law of Sofia, my Greek teacher. Since her death, it had been transformed into a folkloric museum by her younger son, Nikos. Throughout the summer, concerts and displays of folkloric dancing were staged outside in the courtyard below with lavish (and free) dispensing of local wine and kitron, the green or yellow sweet, sickly local liqueur.
Halfway there, I met a French tourist cradling the tiny kitten in her hand. The kitten and her hand were about the same size. There were a couple of young children with her. I said, “Give me the kitten. It’s too small. Take the children down there, where there are some bigger kittens for them to play with.”
“Why can’t we take it back to its mother? Or give it some milk? Who does it belong to?”
It was too difficult to try to explain what had happened and why there couldn’t be a happy ending. From my expression, she understood quickly, gave me the kitten and hurried the children away.
Yannis was lying in an open coffin in the saloní. He was yellowish in colour and he looked as if he were made of wax.
I had brought a bucket with six inches of water in it and a big stone. A friend who knew about these matters had told me to put the kitten in the water and then put the stone on top of it. I put the kitten in the water, but it struggled, so I kept my hand on it, pressing it down. It struggled for seven minutes. All the time I was crying and praying to God to forgive me. At the end, it stopped struggling and just floated in the water. I went inside, flushed it down the lavatory, poured a large drink and spent the rest of the evening in tears.
I didn’t go to church that Sunday because I didn’t want to look Eirini in the face. I knew that she was behind this. Maria would never put living kittens in a plastic bag in the rubbish. I couldn’t bring myself to look at Eirini for three weeks. I could still feel the kitten’s tiny body moving under my hand. The kitten had looked like a foetus. The drowning evoked horrible memories of miscarriages (of which I had had two) and dead babies.
Nearly two weeks later, Burratina found her remaining two kittens. I don’t know where or how they had survived, but they had. Now their eyes were open. Eirini wouldn’t dare do anything to them now. When I heard that they had turned up, I felt sad all over again. Maybe I needn’t have drowned the kitten. But, then again, there were too many cats in Naxos.
When the dye grew out and before she got round to re-doing it, there was a patch of greyish white at the crown of her head, creating a tonsure effect.
Sometime after this incident, a friend and I took Maria’s two adult cats to the vet to be spayed. Maria insisted on coming too. It was just as well that she did. The cats were semi-wild and only she could handle them. The Naxos Animal Welfare Society paid for the operations—somewhat reluctantly, highlighting another potential problem. Maria’s cats were not technically strays, but she could be persuaded to get them spayed only if she did not have to pay. Now we had the kittens to deal with. Of the first litter, two were male, two were female. I hadn’t looked closely at the others. They were too small and, as you might expect, Burratina guarded them fiercely.
This was all in the space of a couple of months.
- Now a house has been built on part of that land. The archaeologists have given up. ↑
Lucretia Stewart is the author of three books (Tiger Balm: Travels in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia; The Weather Prophet: A Caribbean Journey; and Making Love: A Romance). She lives in Naxos, Greece. This is the first chapter of a book on Naxos; it was a finalist in the Spring 2019 Travel Writing Contest.
Lead image: Vera Barus