Wedded to the mantra that money is better spent on experiences than on the latest roll-out from Apple, we visited Ikaria, the deliciously isolated and funky island in the Aegean Sea. It so happened that all four of my grandparents were born on this hardscrabble terrain between 1890 and 1895, before landing at Ellis Island.
From the time I was small, for my amusement and enjoyment, they indulged my fantasies about this dusty gem, a 35-minute flight from the capital city of Athens, but within sight of the coast of Turkey. (Funny thing: Ikaria is not even labeled on the map in the seat pocket on our Olympic Airlines flight.) My grandparents waxed poetic with tales of English pirates, abject poverty and deadly diseases.
While Ikarians are proud of their stubborn, independent streak — the 8,000 residents are unabashedly Ikarians first, Greeks second —- nature has smiled on its dry, unforgiving terra firma. And if their pigs, sheep and goats could talk, they would be in complete agreement with their owners. Even the thick canopy of olive, fig and lemon trees would weigh in. Athens, the locals will tell you, is too far away for policy-makers to worry about what happens there. Not terribly unlike the oft-repeated lament in Laurel when referring to our respective, far-flung county seats.
Of course, rugged individualism is always of deep value, a rare prize. Not so fast. Reporter by reporter, scientist by scientist, curious visitor by curious visitor, Ikaria has been busted. Exposed. A victim of c-h-a-n-g-e, the world's inherent constant. A hot-button question echoed through its craggy, ancient cliffs, silent valleys and sky-blue surf: Why are so many residents living to 95, 98, even 102? Funeral directors would have a built-in market here. Except they don't.
If you ask the ordinary islander about the longevity issue, the consensus is that there's something in the soil, something no other island around there has been blessed with. Maybe it has something to do with a chemical compound that doesn't even appear on the periodic table. They'll also make dramatic, non-verbal points by waving one arm in a circular motion while gently poking you with an index finger. "We walk everywhere," one old guy explained. "We don't worry. Nobody here even wears a watch."The most essential key to survival, he went on, is the premium that's placed on being with others. No, not the sickening artifice of social media. He was talking about daily doses of face-to-face interactions and engagements.
Look at how this goes down. Birthdays are ignored In Ikaria — and all of Greece — replaced by Name Days. Name Days commemorate the veneration of patron saints. In cozy villages, that means if your name is Vasili or Maria, maybe, and it's your saint's turn to be honored, you can expect a parade of visitors beating a path to our door. This customarily begins early in the morning and can continue for the next 24 hours. In exchange, you set out mezze (little bites) of food. You sip wine. You swap gossip. You talk about how Athens doesn't care about you and how that's a good thing. And you know you will meet up again at one of the regularly scheduled village parties.
We met a lady named Thea, who runs a humble little inn and restaurant overlooking the turquoise sea. A native of Detroit, she said she grew weary of the American way and moved to Ikaria. Her husband, Elias, an island-born farmer, grows and supplies all the meat, produce and wine for her customers. Farm-to-table craze was here a lot earlier than it was in the states, she proclaims. As for the village parties, Thea likes to say that "we take our time here. The Ikarians don't drink to get drunk. We eat, we drink, we talk." In fact, the locals have a habit of adding a few drops of water to the wine in order to keep a buzz going longer while savoring the moment.
The island's signature dish, Thea explained, is soufiko. This is a simple stew fashioned from wonderfully fresh and fragrant ingredients like zuccchini, eggplant, garlic, onions, peppers and tomatoes. It's like the most memorable stew you've ever had, only better. Everyone we asked said they eat it almost daily. Soufiko, Thea said, propping a leg up on a weather-worn bench, is part of the Ikarian family. "This is what we have available from the old days and we continue doing it."
In her car on the way back to our hotel, Thea said moving to such a remote spot near the border separating Europe from Asia was revelatory. She recalled, in the early days of her life there, temporarily going without electricity. She and Elias, interested in watching the news, hooked up a line to a car battery in order to tune in the news on TV. There is still no full-service hospital, and the island is in desperate need of a doctor. "Coming here taught me," she noted, her tone growing reflective. "I learned that I don't really need a lot of stuff in my life. I can go without and I can still be happy."