Photo by @szeptankinatury
The saying goes ‘man plans, God laughs’ and it’s particularly true here. Determined to keep the promise I’d made the day before, I decided to visit Chora hoping to examine the local architecture and the numerous cultural imprints it bore. Excited to shed light on this forgotten element of the island’s history, I got up early and marched straight to town. First thing’s first though - I popped into the cafenio Panayotis and I’d been to the day before and ordered a small flat white. I got approached by the same waiter who served me yesterday but somehow today he looked a lot more stylish and a little old-fashioned. I looked around, then outside and thought I was dreaming. To put it simply, Chora looked like all of its residents had suddenly time-travelled back to the 1930’s. Sitting next to me were three very sophisticated ladies in vintage dresses slowly sipping their coffees, the cafe’s owner wore a stylish grey apron, even the confectionery opposite us had changed its logo to reflect the era. ‘What the heck…?’ I thought and looked down my shorts; you know it’s time scoot when even a cake shop looks better than you. I took some money out of my purse and hurried over to the counter to pay. Before I managed to say a word, I heard a hissing ‘You’re late!’ behind my back and got pulled into what looked like a dressing room of a film set. Two ladies whipped out a bunch of clothes and a pair of canoe-size shoes and shoved them in my hands. ‘Wear these and go back to the set please.’ Within minutes I was transformed into a vintage version of myself, pushed out of the dressing room and onto the film set. Yes, that’s right! Apparently I was about to become a movie star now… Trudging along in my giant shoes, I tried my best to maintain composure as my future Hollywood career blossomed before my eyes. I sat down and continued drinking my coffee with the rest of the extras when suddenly I heard a click of the clapper board with Η Μικρα Αγγλια written on it. A ‘Camera, action!’ followed shortly after.
I decided to raise to the challenge and drink my coffee as gracefully as possible. I held the cup in a dignified manner trying not to look directly into the camera and, though I did my best to stay in the moment, in my head I was already on the red carpet in Cannes. Suddenly, I realised I’d lost a shoe. ‘Darn it!’ I thought and proceeded to poke my foot around in an attempt to locate it trying not to lose my cool in the process. Fortunately, the footage didn’t last more than a minute. ‘Nevermind’ - I cheered myself up. ‘Best to keep it short and punchy!’
* * *
It’s needless to say my plans to explore the history of the island’s architecture went up in flames again. I had to find out what drama I’d just become a star of. The film’s title was ‘Mikra Anglia’ and, though the plot seemed rather trivial; two girls falling for the same man, the historical background was anything but.
* * *
Between 1930-1940 Greece was immersed in chaos and extreme poverty, torn by constant wars and yearning for independence. The fall of the Ottoman Empire initiated Megali Idea, a nationalist plan to resurrect the great Greek state encompassing all of its former land as seen in the classical period and moving the capital back to Constantinople. As a result of various political games, Greece gradually recovered its lost territory and, having allied with the neighbours, it won two battles of the Balkans expanding further. Pursuant to the Treaty of Versailles, it continued to gain strategic territories and grow stronger. Yet the dreams of most Greeks were larger than Constantinople itself. The attempt to claw back the city ended in fiasco and such was the end of the Great Concept. Furthermore, Greece was forced to give up Smyrna; a port city in western Turkey which at the time was the country’s main trading route. Following the Treaty of Lausanne, Greece recovered some of its lost land, including Smyrna. As the two nations mixed, 1.3 million of Greek Orthodox Christians were made to return to their mother land. Exhausted and stripped of their lives possessions the errant wanderers were at the mercy of the locals who were far from sympathetic towards their ex fellow countrymen. And so ended the presence of Greeks in Asia Minor, which lasted nearly three thousand years.
Greece, whose population at the time was merely five million, was under immense pressure to provide food, employment and shelter for the newcomers. The growing crisis and lack of political stability deepened the omnipresent grief among the citizens.
Following the victory of the monarchists, the decision to banish the charismatic Elefterios Venizelos and replace him with King Goerge II was made. However, the king’s prompt withdrawal from political duties gave rise to military rule causing further chaos, disfunction and dissatisfaction.
The islanders tried to find peace living the only way they knew how - their relationship with the sea went back generations. They were voyagers and merchants who traded with all nations of the world. The sea comforted them, fed them and, eventually, made them wealthy. It soon became somewhat of a tradition which, among others, had its roots in Andros.
The local youngsters, who proved unskilled in the production of wine, cheese or olive oil, would train to become sailors, marine engineers, officers or captains in the local maritime academies. The really ambitious ones would work extra hard to buy their own ships. The money that followed was enough to enjoy a lavish lifestyle or at the very least support a family and live comfortably.
The sailing industry bloomed generating business opportunities for aspiring entrepreneurs, in this case private employment agents, who matched work seeking captains with ships. The agency network grew fast becoming a compulsory mediator between the seamen and vessels. Eventually, no marine personnel could embark on a ship without a placement charge which became so high, men were kept at sea for years to pay it back.
Sadly, the emotional costs of this enterprise were even higher; children did not see their fathers for years on end while wives yearned for closeness (one of the characters in the film says: ‘Girls, we married photographs!’ and it was true for the real people too).
Unaided, the women ruled in the house with iron fists. The wives of seamen were tough, tenacious and adaptable; not knowing when money would come through, they learnt to plan ahead well enough to cope with life’s challenges and keep the family as happy as possible.
Realising the wealth of these prominent families, some salesmen overpriced their products and consequently, many women were made to report on their expenditure to avoid getting scammed.
Any messages, letters or finances were handled by London based companies as taxes there were lower, hence the name ‘Micra Anglia’ (or ‘Little England’) which stuck to Andros for good.
Alongside large transport ships, there were also smaller ones carrying fruit from southern to northern Greece - Mother Sea fed all. Those who chose not devote their lives to the sea produced olive oil, wine or were farmers exporting oranges and lemons while others produced silk. Andros was resourceful and financially creative and soon came to be known as the island of the wealthy.
The social lives of sailors’ women consisted mainly of knitting, cooking, gossiping, and singing songs. Left to battle everlasting concern for their husbands’ wellbeing, they found comfort in sharing both memories and fears. Would their husbands ever return? If so, when? The sea was dangerous; storms, equipment failure, war zones, diseases and, of course, other women were all real threats. These issues did not concern ordinary people; their lives, problems, wages, and happy family lives were far removed from those of the residents of glamorous Stenies. They were the elite of Andros bent on maintaining their prominent social status and amassing fortunes. This pragmatic approach to marriage often resulted in young girls tying the knot with their cousins and arranged marriage broke countless hearts. It was γυναικοκρατια (‘Ginekokratia’), or ‘Women’s Rule’, the Penelopes of the modern era, a closed society of the rich and unhappy.
* * *
A small chapel built for Agia Talassini, the patron of sailors, stands proudly on the shores of Nimborio. It is where the departing men were bid farewell to and returning ones welcomed. It is also where the Penelopes of Andros lingered in solitude praying for reunion with their sailor men. Many would perish while on duty and to commemorate them, their widows would lay their wedding bands in shrines inside the chapel and wreath-laying ceremonies were held at sea. They were never to remarry.
Mirta, praised be your name.
You who guard the Sea
Standing on a stone fence,
As slender as an amphora,
A straw hat in your hand.
Elytis, „That who is worthy”
When ‘Mikra Anglia’ was finally released, I rushed to the cinema to witness my Oscar-worthy performance. I waited patiently in my seat when finally, in a single scene, far in the background and only for a split second a bare foot appeared on the screen. I’m guessing it was mine when I desperately poked around for my shoe under the table. And such was the end of my Hollywood career…