I jumped into one of Panayotis’ convertibles and immediately became speechless - the leather seats, flashy dashboard and roaring revving resembled a rocket more than a car. ‘Are we going to Chora or into space?’ - I asked wide-eyed. He smiled smugly. Fortunately, we drove slowly enough for me to be able to appreciate the surrounding area - green hills, neighbouring houses and the omnipresent flora and fauna. I noticed an interesting theme running among the houses - they were all blocky and simple. Panayotis seemed to have read my mind - ‘This is so that you can add your own box when you can afford it. As well as those, we tend to build houses with red roofing - whatever one can afford. The northern part of Andros is full of stone homes. Those properties belong to Albanians who colonised the island centuries ago. There are still many of them here today.' - he said taking a sharp turn. His unfastened seatbelts smacked against the car window. We drove on in silence. The emerging area was vibrant with olive tree plantations, gardens full of lemon and orange trees, and goats roaming the hills.
- Not a bad view you have here. - I broke the silence.
- Don’t let it fool you. There are bigger and more dangerous hills in Andros which have claimed many lives over the years. They are full of well kept secrets and reckless curiosity could cost one their live so be careful because nothing is what it seems. Our history is complex to say the least; Greek islands were once ruled by many peoples - Ionians, Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Goths, Normans, and Venetians. And don't even get me started on the five-hundred years of Turkish occupation. At one point, the Cyclades became almost completely deserted due to mass immigration caused by pirate raids. To escape slavery people fled the islands and settled in the main land. Those who dared to stay would build ‘secret cities’, like Syneti, well hidden from the sea. In the mountains there are numerous man-made caves which protected the locals from the enemy. Nowadays they’re mainly used for storing olive oil, wine, or as storm shelters but the world is unpredictable... Who knows when we’ll need them again…
* * *
As luck would have it, I didn’t get to see much that day. We ended up in central Chora on an alley filled with cafeterias, shops, and Greek takeaways. The atmosphere was very pleasant; coffee tables sticking out onto the sidewalk, waiters running around, locals laughing and shouting to each other cheerfully (yes, that’s right - Greeks don’t talk, they shout, even when they’re right next to each other. The general rule is whoever shouts the loudest is right).
- Kosta! - Panayotis yelled out of the blue. - Are you celebrating today or what? χρόνια πολλά, old friend! Kosta waved as a ‘thank you' gesture. ‘Tell me friend,’ - Panayotis continued with a sly smile - ‘why did Constantine become a saint? Was it because he murdered his own wife? It could have been a good reason.’ - his jokes were getting worse by the minute.
- You’re noting but a rotten heretic. - Kosta hit back. It was about the crucifix! He gave us Christianity. Can’t teach the likes of you!
- Which crucifix are we talking about? The original or the modified version? You know, selling parts of it turned out to be quite lucrative for the papades, haha!
In response to this blasphemy, Kosta reverted to a famous (and very rude) hand gesture well known to all Greeks which I shall not explain on here.
* * *
Opposite our cafe was a lovely shop selling herbs, honey, handmade sweets and local wine - their fragrance filled the air mixing with that of freshly ground coffee. I inhaled deeply… Panayotis had spotted a friend of his and, losing himself in a friendly chinwag, promptly forgot about my existence. Sadly, my knowledge of Greek prevented me from partaking in the conversation and, since my ability to remember names left a lot to be desired, I could only hope to distinguish his friends by the colours of their kombolói. Despite the fact I didn’t speak Greek, I was always asked about my opinion on different matters to which I always replied eagerly with ‘Ναί’ (and hoped for the best…). I promised myself I would learn Greek.
- You need to learn the language, you know. It’s the only way to become part of the local community; look at them all... Can you feel that sense of unity? A shop owner ensures his business is his clients’ second home and they repay him with loyalty. Drinking coffee elsewhere by a regular could be taken as an act of betrayal and end the friendship between the two parties, and often even between the fellow regulars too. The Kafenio is a big deal in the lives of Greeks. Here they laugh, weep, complain, and find comfort in the fact that others are in the same boat as them. They drink with others to process their fate. This little coffee shop is in fact a brotherhood of souls which long for comfort in this ever-changing world. Each kafenio has its regulars who flock together based on their political or social views. If one wants to go shopping in the morning and the shop is closed, one might need to look for their shop assistant in one of the kafenios. It helps to know their social or political views to locate them quicker. - he chuckled. - You have a rough road ahead of you, kid. - he said half-jokingly.
* * *
After an eventful afternoon came evening. We returned home and sat on the porch. Panayotis sat on the stairs and lit a cigarette. ‘The hypocrite!’ - I thought and lit one too.
- Which part of Poland are you from? - he asked quietly.
- Do you know Poland?
- I used to sail a lot when I was young. I was a marine engineer. I’ve been to Gdansk, Gdyna, Szczecin and more. - he pronounced the words with a cute accent.
- So nice to hear that. - I got excited. Suddenly, I felt more at home.
- At the time Poland was communist. We would disembark from the ship to have some fun in the harbour and trade. Many of us sold dollars. Your militia tried to hunt us down but thankfully I never got caught. I would stick the cash up places no-one even dreamt of checking… Wanna know where? - he asked seductively.
- No thanks, I’d rather not! - I replied in horror.
- I’ll tell you! When I was young I used to have big, curly hair - Panayotis rolled his fingers as if he was rolling a banknote and pretended to shove it where his hair used to be. - Smart, huh? Actually, I did get arrested once… - he suddenly remembered. - Thankfully, the captain intervened and I was out the next morning.
- What did you do? - I asked curiously.
- You won’t believe. I couldn’t believe it myself! I… crossed the road at a red light. It was 2am and there was no-one around. The cops hid behind a periptero… Oh, you know, a kiosk or whatever you call it. I refused to pay the fine so they put me in a very uncomfortable can where I spent the night. They got me, the bastar…
- Ah, so your memories of my country suck! - I cut in. Panayotis' was in laughing spasms. I'd never known anyone who found jail that amusing.
- Not at all. There were nice moments too but… - he paused and smirked.
- But? - I raised an eyebrow.
- I’ll tell you one day over ouzo. - he winked and chuckled. Men!
A while later my Greek landlord left. I decided to have a look around; I was lost in an idyllic landscape filled with fresh greenery and magnificent flowers, and through their fragrance I felt the promise of the perfect summer coming. Somewhere near a small town full of interesting and turbulent history waited to be discovered. I promised myself that next time I would visit Chora by myself.
I turned around and faced the house. Out of nowhere a glorious horse rider appeared in the distance, his silhouette floating gently through the spots of violet and pink beamed onto the hills by the evening sun. He was an elderly man with long white hair and a large moustache riding back home that peaceful evening, his white puff sleeves shirt was dangling open half way down his chest. His left hand controlled the rein while his right hand rested victoriously on his hip. The windy road ahead finally swallowed him up but he did leave a lasting impression on me. He looked nothing short of Kolokotronis, the Greek war hero, on his way back from Dervenakia.