My talented writer and photographer friend is an enchanting and earthy woman who embodies the term “philhelene.” She embraced all things Greek a few decades ago when our family got to befriend her. This yoga lover also loves gardening and immersing herself in the Greek culture. She spent several weeks on the island of Icaria in an Greek language immersion course which inspired her to write a children’s book. I invited her to be a guest speaker at a Greek language class I taught decades ago at my church. She vividly described her experience and love for the Greek language and passed around many photos for my Greek School students to see. I am inspired by her drive to learn a foreign language and culture as an adult.
What inspired you to travel to Ikaria?
I was drawn to Ikaria because it offered classes on Modern Greek Language. The name of the school is the Hellenic Culture Center (Kentro Ellinikou Politismou). I had been to Greece several times with my best friend Renee and had fallen in love with the people and started studying the language and learning to speak it, but I wanted to immerse myself in their culture with no English spoken.
This was my fourth trip to Greece in five years and stayed for six weeks. I could have taken this class in Athens, but I want to immerse myself into the life of the beautiful people. And Ikaria is NOT a touristy island. It is known for being an “exile” island where Turkey often banished criminals. (update: HCC has moved it’s little school from the sea side village of Evdilos to a very small village just a few miles away in the VERY small village of Arethoussa. Courses are offered on Ikaria May-October. You may want to check out their site for more info.)
What did your trip itinerary involve?
A long flight to Athens, then a long ferry trip to Ikaria and my teacher picked me up in a very small car and then we drove 30 something miles to our small village. Oh my- the car ride! Definitely worthy of race car driver material. Curves at full speed and the only time we slowed down was to avoid a man riding his donkey. I was so car sick.
What excursions or museums do you recommend?
To me the whole island was a museum. It was like stepping back in time as it was not modernized or touristy. As part of our Greek language immersion class, we visited small villages all over the island, hiked the beautiful mountain/island trails, learned Greek dances, visited churches, attended lectures on works by Greek painters, poets and writers and learned how to make donut holes (loukoumathes) using local honey. We attended Greek festivals of dancing and we learned to show and prepare our own Greek dinner. We had to speak Greek to the little man in the store to buy our food.
We watched Greek films and listened to Greek music. On my own, I went on excursions and was most impressed with the self-reliance of the local village people. This comes from their families’ history and experience with war. They would have starved had they not grown their own food. So the old stone aqueducts they had built from the mountain were still in use. Water flowed down these to their gardens by the sea. So much produce! Excursions were available to islands of Fournoi, Patmos and Samos. I took an excursion to the island of Patmos and hiked to the top to the cave where it is believed that St. John saw God and wrote Revelations. We toured the cave where John lived and then hiked up to the monastery. There was a fantastic museum, small alley ways with shops and tavernas. A must visit.
What hotels and restaurants do you recommend?
Keep in mind these are the places located close to Evdilos. I am not familiar with other hotels on the island. Very few. These places are located close to Evdilos, a coastal village of 600 people. There are limited places to stay as far as hotels, but several family owned studio apartments near the beach of Kerame. That’s where I stayed along with several other students from Germany and Belgium and they have now become life long friends. It was so clean and fresh and complete with bedroom, bath, kitchen and balcony that overlooked the garden by the sea. We walked each day about a mile to class in Evdilos.
How would you describe the perfect Icarian meal?
I love, love, love. love briam with fresh Greek bread. “Bree-ahm” is made with all kinds of vegetables baked in LOTS of olive oil. I always ate a Greek salad with feta cheese and the funniest of all things…..there was only one little grocery story and I am addicted to Coca Cola light. I drank so much over my two week stay that the owner of the store had to order more. Of course, everything had to be shipped in by ferry. SO let’s just say I was the talk of the town for my habit! 🙂
Describe the vibe of the culture?
The culture was very different from anything you would experience in the U.S. or even in other places of Greece. Again, it was as if I was stepping back in time and I think due to its remoteness and history of an exile for prisoners and criminals, it is not on the radar of many. So it was common to see people riding mules, farming, building rock fences, and most interesting of all, I got to attend a Communist rally in the village. I was there during the Kosovo war when there was political conflict with America. I always passed as a Greek American because I could speak enough Greek, so I was not harassed. I was the only American in our group of students.
The island is very laid back and a great island to hike from village to village and REALLY experience what Greek culture is like. You won’t find big party groups, but more traditional festivals and old stone houses falling down that are for sell and some people buying and fixing them.
Describe a custom that you observed there. Did you incorporate any of their customs back home?
I use a lot of the Greek language and gestures such as saying “nosteemo” after a good meal. I respect their self-reliance and felt so connected to their farming and use of honey. And I make baklava every Christmas with filo dough in their honor. I so loved the fresh bread I bought every day from the bakery.
Were there any challenges in getting to your destination? What was the flight like?
Th flight to Athens is always a long trip. Ikaria is remote. You can fly from Athens to Samos and take a ferry or take a ferry from Athens. There is no easy way, but that’s what makes it so special. Few people will go to all that trouble to get to a Greek island so the island is not full of tourists, but full of REAL Greeks.
What did you learn about yourself from this trip?
That I was probably a Greek in a former life. 🙂 Seriously, what I learned was to see Americans through the eyes of another culture and their thoughts about us. As it was during a war in Kosovo, I experienced the negativity that America is the richest nation in the world. However, for me, I saw them as the richest people in the world with their simple lifestyle. It did make me sad how cultures view each other. So all to say, I did a self exam on my views about other cultures and have tried to open myself up to differences of opinions and respect them.
How did this trip enrich your life? Describe any experiences that made you grow spiritually.
I got to grow and l love the family that owned and operated the apartments. I fell in love with their children, little Alikn. (Alice). I helped them milk the goat each morning. They used that milk for their cereal and that was so funny because they used a Coca-Cola bottle to squirt the milk into instead of a bucket. Just fantastic and humorous. As a writer, it brought me closer to the legend of Icarus who flew to close to the sun and his wings melted; so he fell to earth and thus Ikaria was created. I felt so connected to my love of literature, experiencing an authentic life of another culture. I yearn to return there and wish I could fly on my own wings! 🙂
While there as part of our Greek immersion, I wrote a children’s story and took photos to illustrate it and still have it. It’s so precious to me; the memories and the wild billy goat that graces the cover. The title is called Billy Goat (Katsika) HA! As an avid gardener/farmer, I fell in love with their lifestyle and would love to live there in an old stone house, with a garden and a billy goat.
To summarize: Ikaria nurtured my body and soul with authenticity of a true Greek life for that island. It is not typical of other islands and so I experienced something unique that you can experience nowhere else on earth. I so believe in Mark Twain’s quote: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” ~ Mark Twain
Photos by Shannon Cavanaugh