Island of the Greeks

Visiting Ikaria, the strip of land where my ancestors lived and thrived before emigrating from Greece to Maryland, is like coming home

  • Popular Armenistis beach on the island of Ikaria in Greece.
Popular Armenistis beach on the island of Ikaria in Greece. (Courtesy of Tony Glaros,…)
January 17, 2014|By Tony Glaros, For The Baltimore Sun

IKARIA, Greece — — This quirky island, snug in the wine-dark northern Aegean Sea, came alive with tantalizing tales my grandmother spun when I was young. The narratives, some real, others not so much, were a balm.

On school nights, they kept me up past my bedtime. Colorful characterizations of pirates and poverty; of mineral springs said to heal arthritis; and tales about Costa, a goat who wreaked havoc in her native village. Ikaria, I learned then, was also the birthplace of a humble dish called soufiko — a cocktail of fresh veggies crafted by cooks expert in the art of farm-to-table dining.

Wedded to the mantra that money is always better spent on rich experiences than on PlayStation 4, I traveled to Ikaria last summer for a two-week pilgrimage to explore my roots. As the plane circled the island's small airport, my wife pondered my Hellenic back story.

"It's amazing," she said, "that all four of your grandparents were born here on this forgotten land. Did any of them know each other as children?"

I explained that each of them was born in different villages. Then there was the reality that the craggy mountains along the spine of the island promoted xenophobia — the fear of strangers. Island culture dictated that unless you were born and raised in the same town, among their pigs and olive groves, you were an outsider. Once in America, the Greek immigrants stuck together. When my relatives grabbed jobs washing dishes in their uncle's coffee shop in Highlandtown, they met other Ikarians.

The cab ride from the airport introduced us to the Atheras Mountains, towering peaks covered with ancient growths of oak and pines. With one heart-stopping turn after another, something resonated: I sprang from roots that formed a microculture, a lifestyle built around hardy forebears on a slip of land 30 miles from Turkey.

While Ikarians are proud of their stubbornly independent streak — the 8,000 or so residents are famously Ikarians first, Greeks second — nature has smiled on this unforgiving land. The ruling class in Athens, they say, is too absorbed fending off civil unrest in the streets to worry about what happens on their small island.

But recently Ikaria has been having its close-up. Reporters and scientists have swooped down on this isle that has existed only in the abstract hollows of my mind to find the answer to a question: Why are so many of its residents living to 98, even 103?

'We don't worry'

We booked a room in Armenistis, on the northwest side. The hamlet, particularly in the summer, is a beehive of activity. Like many Ikarian towns, it has at least a handful of intimate bars that cater to weekenders from the mainland.

One of the most popular is the Carte Postal, a cafe-bar with a hip vibe. On a breezy Saturday evening, my cousin, Viviane Kratsa Glarou, was dancing through the busy kitchen, making sure there were enough clean dishes and glasses.

Pausing, the former college professor said, "Life is very small, very short. Life is not stressful. And if it is stressful, then it's in your head." The Ikarian approach in a broken world is one that she embraces: "Having friends, meeting with people of all ages, so it won't make you feel old. I am a proud Ikarian!"

Ask any islander about the longevity issue, and the consensus is that there's something in the soil. Perhaps it is a chemical compound that doesn't appear elsewhere. They'll also emphasize their points by poking your chest with an index finger.

"We walk everywhere," one old man said, balancing himself on a cane. "We don't worry. No one wears a watch." The key to survival, he said, is the premium placed on being with others — a diet of social engagements — not the artifice of social media.

One evening, after a repast of succulent baked goat and soufiko, we visited Kostas Moulas, a cousin. Like Glarou, he's an example of how Ikarians tether themselves to the seasons.

Standing like a giant teddy bear in blue overalls, he stuffed my backpack with lemons and figs. Hopelessly nosy, I asked about his marital status.

"I sent her to the mountains with the goats," he said with a shrug, pointing up. "She's like … my sister."

Festivals and friends

Birthdays, said Sophia Stenos, the manager at our hotel, are ignored in Greece, replaced by Name Days, which commemorate patron saints. In these hill towns, that means if your name is John or Maria, maybe, and it's your saint's turn to be honored, you'll have to brace yourself for an onslaught of visitors.

This begins early in the morning and continues for 24 hours. Hosts set out the appetizers, or mezze. You sip island wine. You gossip. And you know you will meet up again at one of the island's regularly scheduled festivals, called panigiria.

Here, "you don't freak out worrying about the time," Stenos said. "If you say you'll meet at 5 and you end up coming at 5:30, it's only half an hour later. Nothing's going to change in your life."

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