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Profiles of Greece
Nicholas Econopouly

April 30, 1964

Last Monday, satisfied with seasick pills, I want to Pireaus and took the island steamer to Patmos. It was a wise precaution. The seas were unusually rough and the tourist deck and the shelter from were soon peaked with a humanity desperately in the anguish of the illness. The pills worked find and the honor and glory of Northport High remains untarnished. I wondered why the steamship company didn't distribute the little pills as people came aboard.

The Island of Patmos, one of the chain of the Dodecanese, lies in the eastern Aegean a short distance form the coast of Turkey. Altogether, it is about a 12-hour boast trip and we arrived at 10:30 p.m. Disembarking involved climbing down a ladder to a motor launch waiting below and then making then last 300 yards to the dock huddled against other unhappy passengers, with the wind biting and the spray flying. Upon landing, I ran to the hotel -- it was bitter cold and as usual I had come well prepared with a sport shirt and sport jacket. The hotel manager informed me cheerily that there were no vacancies in the building, nor were there in the island's only other hotel. My immediate impulse was to lunge at his throat. My second impulse was to order a cop of Turkish coffee, sit down and take stock.

The picture changed a entirely a few minutes later. A man walked in and offered to provide me a room in his home -- he supplemented his income, as do many families on the island, by renting to tourists. I accepted the offer. The room turned out to be a large one with a comfortable bed, immaculate, the walls spotlessly white and with a balcony looking across the harbor. Price? Sixty-six cents for the night.

Early the next morning I made my way down to the platea and into a cafenion. There the proprietor introduced himself, told me about his friends in Toledo ("Do you know them?") and offered to contact Isidoris and his family for me. We sipped coffee and talked, were alter joined by the police chief and several other islanders. They told me that hundreds of Patmosians had migrated to the United States, that most of them seemed to have concentrated in Jackson, Mississippi and in various cities and towns in Texas. (The Police Chief added hastily that no one from Patmos had gone to Dallas, although a few people from other Dodecanese islands had.) They spoke of their concern over the Cyprus situation, particularly because of their proximity to the Turkish coast. They talked with great respect about Mr. Emanuel Evangelou, a local elementary school principal and teacher I would meet later. They described the Kamitsis family as good and decent people doing their best under very difficult circumstances. They were hopeful and optimistic about the future of the island: increasing tourism would make a vital difference in adding to an economy which until then had been based on a little farming, a little fishing. They spoke warmly of American, the help that had come from there -- from relatives and from various relief organizations -- in the form of food, clothing, financial help. They described this help as the margin which made survival possible. Athens and the embassy marches seemed far away and many years ago at that moment.

The cafenion proprietor suddenly stood up, ran to the door, motioned to a man walking across the platea -- and a moment later I met Mr. Kamitsis. A few minutes later he was joined by Mrs. Kamitsis and by Isidoris, who brought a bouquet of flowers. We chatted awhile in the cafenion. I met friends and relatives of the family, we were joined by Mr. Evangelou (the teacher-principal who, with Isidoris and Mr. Kamitsis, would be my guide) and after a time we made our way to Isidoris' home. There Anna, Isidoris's four-and-a-half year old sister, was waiting for us.

The Kamitsis home is situated close to the platea. It is a stone and cement structure painted white. It has two floors -- the Kamitsis family lives downstairs and two upstairs rooms add about $150 a year to the family income by being rented to tourists. The furnishings are old and simple and one room serves as a living room, dinging room and bedroom for the family. The other downstairs room serves as a kitchen for Mrs. Kamitsis and a workshop (furniture-making) for Mr. Kamitsis. The interior walls, like the exterior, are white -- the house, despite its cramped size by American standards, is a livable and homey place, clean and very attractive. It has electricity and an outside toilet with running water.

We spent several hours, both that morning and in the evening, in the living room. Isisdoris brought me a letter he had received from Northport; his mother told me about how delighted they had been to receive it. She showed me a jacket Isidoris had received from Northport students and Anna brought out a toy set (wheels and sticks) still in good condition. Out also came an old Northport science book -- Isidoris and I thumbed through and in my pidgin Greek, I explained some oft h illustrations to him. In turn, in behalf of Northport students, I gave Isidoris a two-volume biographical encyclopedia -- he was ecstatic. And so was Mr. Evangelou -- both of them pouring through it, reading the text and studying the illustrations. Anna got a set of American crayons -- they're not available in Greece, nor is there anything like them -- and five books of drawing paper; she plunked into a corner and began drawing colored circles. We talked. We sipped Turkish coffee. They asked about Northport and I asked about Patmos. I took pictures. And through all of this, Mrs. Kemitsis kept bringing out food; olives and cheese and fish, then salads, fried potatoes, more fish, several toasts -- to each other, to Northport, to Patmos -- with ouzo. This was filotimo again -- through hard-pressed to provided themselves with food, it would be useless an unkind for me to refuse and it would be a blow to their sense of pride in their hospitality. We ate and talked and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly.

Then came that unforgettable trip around the island. First, we went to the monastery, constructed in the 11th century. It is situated at the highest point on the island and seems to physically dominate it. We went into a little chapel, with its intricately carved doors, altar and ornaments, the ancient icons, the silver ornaments, the smell of incense and the monks chanting the liturgy. With its conclusion, I suddenly and uncomfortably found myself surrounded by monks; I soon found myself at ease as they asked about what part of America I had come from, did I know this man in Chicago, that man in Houston. And then the tour through the monastery, conducted by several monks. First stop was the treasury room, which had never been raided by pirates and which was only rarely shown to visitors (Mr. Kamitsis had seen it only once, when he was seven years old, although he is active in the life of the monastery.) There we was fine Byzantine jewels, jeweled crosses, silver and gold ornaments, magnificent embroidery, rare icons. Then to the library, with its shelves of glass-enclosed cases filled with rare and ancient books dating back into the middle ages. I was led through the monks' living quarters, then down into the ancient baking rooms with the huge oven in which the bread was once baked. Here, too, is the huge 15-foot long trough where flour, milk and butter were once kneaded into dough by monks with their bare feet. The monastery itself is built around a tiny courtyard, about the size of the Northport High School library. From here, through arches, go narrow passageways n all directions, up narrow staircases, criss-crossing -- and all painted white. It is a place in which it is possible to become helplessly lost in a matter of seconds.

We descended from the monastery to the cafe where St. John received the Revelation. A monk pointed to a crack in the rock where St. John is said to have heard the voice of God. The monk pointed to a slope in the rock where Prochorus wrote as St. John dictated to him. Later, near the harbor, Mr. Kamitsis pointed to a rock which, according to the belief of the villagers, was once a sorcerer called Kynops; St. John turned him into a rock because he was a nuisance to him when he was baptizing converts. The ancient monastery dominates the island from its physical site at the top of the mountain; it also dominates it and the life of the villagers in an emotional and intellectual sense as well. Radios in the cafenions broadcast the chanting of the monks from other parts of Greece as they move through the ritual of the pre-Easter week; islanders walk through the streets listening to the chanting on their transistor radios. Conversation, frequently has to do with events in the monastery, about religious lore, how a particular chant developed. The Kamitsis family, as are many other families, is deeply involved in the life of the monastery, Isidoris chats comfortably with the monks, as do the father and mother and the religious life of the island is profoundly important to them. They are very devout people.

I enjoyed all of this, found it immensely fascinating but I did not find it as stimulating and exciting as two other highlights of my visit: 1) the stunning and breathtaking beauty of the island itself and 2) Mr. Evangelou and the miracles he has accomplished, particularly in his elementary school.

First, the island setting. It is a small island (population: 2800) with a wildly irregular coast and a rugged and hill terrain. Two things strike you immediately: the brilliant whiteness of the little square houses and the greenness of the vegetation around them. There is some water and the Patmosians make the best of it. Higher up in the hills water becomes scarce and vegetation sparse. Mr. Evangelou described the white houses as "our very worst disease" because "we may be short of food and clothing but a way must be found to keep the houses white." The "disease" is developing into a godsend, as it has on Mikonos; it is one of the important reasons tourists are attracted to Patmos. The little platea has three great green trees in the middle. Around three sides are little shops and hops, all a sparkling white; on the last side is the harbor lined with green trees and the brilliantly blue Aegean. A walk through any of the narrow winding streets is filled with surprises: the whiteness of the houses and the walks may suddenly be punctuated by a shop window filled with gay colored toys or a brilliant flowering vine climbing a white wall or baskets of tomatoes and spinach, their colors accented by the surrounding white. At one point, I stood looking across a small wheat field, golden and swaying in the breeze; below was the tree-lined harbor and to the right the white house of Skala; above the barren slopes of the mountain on whose summit sat the monastery, surrounded by the little whit houses and blue, too, and plenty of donkeys patiently plodding their way through the streets. From higher up can be seen the island of Samos, with its great mountain Cerceteus, seeming to be floating on the sea. In all directions, other islands of the Dodecanese chain and off in the distance the coast of Turkey, all dominated by the blueness of the Aegean. It has to be seen to be believed; it is a miracle that fades monasteries and all of the great wealth and patient dedication within to insignificance by comparison. At least it did for me.

And now the other miracle: Mr. Evangelou and his good works. He is a man of fifty-five years and now in failing health. He is fascinated by archeology, reads with a passion. He began teaching on the island of Leros, a few miles away. Within a few years he developed a dismally poor and inadequate one-room school there into one of the finest in Greece. But along with this, his great excitement for books led him to collect them and to read them, old books and new books, hundreds of them, many of them rare and valuable. It is necessary to listen to the man talk intensely about books to appreciate the dimensions of the tragedy which struck him. Nazi soldiers, during the occupation, seized his library and used the books as fuel for the stoves. "It was a terrible blow to me. I had to leave Leros and get away from the Nazis. I came to Patmos where there were only two comparatively mild Nazi officers occupying the island. That was 23 years ago!")

On Patmos, he found a school housed in a stable, dirt floors and all. Children wore potato sack for clothing and they sat on boxes or the dirt floor itself. Then, according to several islanders, Mr. Evangelou began his campaign, first with the Nazi officers, then with whomever would listen once the war was over. He argued and pleaded and demanded; he prodded the islanders, wrote to government officials, contacted friends in America and Italy and wherever they might be. I visited the school on this, his final year before retirement. There are 200 children in attendance in the school. The large class has 30 pupils. Two of the classrooms are separated by double moveable walls; they're soundproof Mr. Evangelou told me and they're opened for triple-class sessions. The school is well-stocked with maps and globes, microscopes, green blackboards. It has a fine library with 1,000 books. It has running water and toilet facilities. Classrooms are large with light pouring in through the large windows; they have tile floors and brightly painted walls. In the evening, adults come to the school to learn how to read and write, to learn mathematics and science and hear Mr. Evangelou talk about archaeology; it is one of the adult education programs in Greece. Around the school are magnificent flower gardens; they are planted and tended by the children, who do the work before and after school without supervision. And then the biggest surprise of all: the two-acre vegetable garden. It is, in fact, a small experimental farm. Seed is brought from other places and other countries, tested here; other islanders are encouraged to try what works well here. Lettuce, spinach and carrots are now grown on Patmos -- they were once considered impossible to raise there. The vegetables that are grown by the children are then taken to the village and sold; the money raised is used to buy books and equip the school. ("Don't the local grocers complain?" I asked Mr. Evangelou. He replied that they didn't, that their children were involved in working in the gardens.) Last year profits from the vegetables were used to buy a small gasoline engine which is used to pump water for irrigating the field. While looking at the neatly planted rows in the farm, six boys from the neighboring island of Leros came, introduced themselves to Mr. Evangelou, said they planned to stay on Patmos until after Easter and asked if they might sleep in one of my classrooms. Mr. Evangelou opened the building for them. (He had some misgiving about this, however. The young people of Leros had a reputation for begin an unruly bunch and he hoped they would not in any way damage the school.)

This isn't all. Mr. Evangelou has raised funds to help students attend high school on a neighboring island -- there is none on Patmos. Forty out of every hundred elementary school graduates from Patmos now attend high school, a small miracle in itself. Two students are now attending the university -- on scholarships. Mr. Evangelou has raised funds to buy 13 sewing machines: they're in homes where people share in their use. He has poked and prodded islanders into action. It is he who has been urging Patmosians to expand their homes, take in tourists -- and he has helped them in raising the funds to do it. I heard him say to one ma: "When are we going to go out and look for an engine so you can start irrigating your fields?" When he walks through the streets, people bow their heads, greet him with obvious respect and affection: "Good evening, teacher. How do you feel today?" Mr. Evangelou is also the island representative of the Save-the-Children Federation. He is a man who can do very, very much with very little. His philosophy -- a little help and a lot of self-help -- is precisely that of the Federation. They have worked well together.

Perhaps this is the point to tell you a little more about the Kamitsis family. Let's start with the father, Mr. Kamitsis. He is 47 years old, a thin and slight man in poor health. He is a skilled furniture maker, has an impressive collection of tools and his work, to an amateur like me, seems to be of an excellent quality. His problem, however, is that he has been made jobless by the technical revolution -- even here in rural Greece. People today buy furniture turned out by machines on a mass production scale; there is no demand for the fine work of craftsmen like Mr. Kamitsis. His poor health prevents him from working at the few hard labor jobs that are available. He seems deeply discouraged. He has also grown cautious and conservative with time. He is less willing to take risks; for example, he had serious doubts about adding the two tourist rooms -- "let's not risk the little we have." He seemed like a kindly and friendly man but a desperately unhappy one.

Mrs. Kamitsis: she is a dynamo, an unusually energetic woman. She works hard at keeping her house immaculate and in good running order. She does the cooking, washing, often takes on jobs like painting, making minor repairs. She is anxious to add two rooms to the house. She admits there is some risk involved but with four rooms she reasons that the family will be in a position to beginning living at a more adequate and secure level, not be dependent on others and be able to educate the children. She is anxious to take the risk. She is a thin woman; when she talks, she impresses you with her enthusiasm and energy. She is the driving force in the family and she is holding it together.

Anna: she is four-and-a-half, a pretty child, energetic, with a big and bright smile. She seems alert and quick -- Mrs. Kamitsis said that Anna always seems to get the last word. The father complained that she is a little too independent, wanders off through the town exploring it. A very friendly little girl. She had a wonderful time with the crayons.

Isidoris: very thin but in good health. Seems to be a very cheerful boy. His teachers consider him very intelligent. He is obedient and respectful; he spent much of the day running on errands for his parents and Mr. Evangelou. He is very religious and is often at the monastery. He asked questions about Northport -- he seems confused about who his benefactors are. He likes to read. Very likable in every way.

That's it. I'm very enthusiastic about the work of the Save-the-Children Federation -- Miss Sposato and the G.O. made an excellent choice. We can also be very proud of the part that Northport students have played in helping this family, an act which became very vivid for me during that one-day visit with them on Patmos.

I left at 10:30 Tuesday night, again by launch to the steamer, again fortified with seasick pills, again with strong winds an d stormy sea. This time, though, I bought a berth, went to bed and asleep. Returned to Piraeus and Athens the next day in bright and calm weather. A trip that had started in a very ominous way ended with some pleasant memories and under very happy circumstances.

Easter, rather than Christmas, is the more spectacular religious holiday in Greece. There have been signs of preparation all week. Houses and shops on Patmos had been re-whitewashed. Chanting could be heard coming out of transistor radios. A goat stood disconsolately on the upper deck of the Aegean steamer, periodically crying out in protest; a girl was taking it Athens for the family feast there. In Athens, the barrel merchant whitewashed his home and shop; so did the owners of the sweet shop, a cafenion, the plastic shop. The goatherd who leads his flock past the apartment every morning and every evening had an increasingly diminishing following: 15 goats and sheep early in the week, five by the end. The barrel man slaughtered his goat and an interested young audience, including Matthew and David, watched as he strung the intestines on a line. The central market, its hundreds of stalls and carts piled high with food, was a bedlam of activity as men and women descended on it to make their purchases for the coming feast. A four-piece band fought its way through the crowds, leading beggars who called on the Easter generosity of the crowds.

The church is the focal point of Easter celebrations. For this, our apartment is ideally located on the fifth floor (called the fourth in Greece) of a building facing St. Thomas Church and the little park which surrounds it. Our balcony looks down on the park and church; another balcony faces Mt. Lycabettus. And we are high enough to catch sight of other celebrations at dozens of other churches throughout the city.

On Maundy Thursday people came to the church by the hundreds to listen to the chanting and view Christ's coffin (which had been covered with flowers). The ceremony ended and the crowds left quietly and walked to their homes. On the evening of Good Friday the crowds began to assemble at the church once again. They began arriving at 8:30, in groups of three and four. By 10 o'clock several thousands had arrived, filling the church and flowing out into the park. A few minutes later the first lighted candles appeared, then more and in a matter of moments thousands of candles, held by the worshippers, swayed and flickered in the darkness below. With the candles lit, the funeral procession began. Young men carried the coffin as priests led the procession, still chanting, the choir boys directly behind. Then came the congregation, holding candles, streaming behind. Slowly the procession moved away from the church and into the street; other candles appeared in house windows, on balconies and the scent of incense floated in the air. Up and down streets, the procession moved, the candles and the chanting giving a magical quality to the event. In the distance another candle procession moved down Mt. Lycabettus. Soon the procession returned to the church, the coffin was replaced near the altar and the people left for their homes, moving out in all directions from the Church, their candles still burning. To arrive home with the candle still lit is to invite a year of good luck; a few may not have been playing the game fairly, for candles could also been flickering from the interiors of taxis.

All of this was nothing compared to Saturday's events. There was excitement in the air as women made preparations to end the fast. A small platform was constructed in the park, to hold Christ's coffin. Church bells tolled throughout the day; the bells on St. Thomas would ring to be answered by another church in the distance, then another, and another. People moved in and out of the church all day, bringing flowers, making preparations for the exciting time that would follow. At nine o'clock people began to arrive for the service, in small numbers at first. By 11 o'clock the church was packed and so was the park. The previous night there had been an air of solemnity but tonight there was excitement. We could hear the crowd from the balcony this time -- we could barely hear the chanting. Young children ran about and ya-yas tried to corner them; an occasional flare would shoot into the sky or fireworks would explode. At a few minutes before midnight, the priest lit the first few candles held by worshippers on the front steps of the church; lighted candles spread in all directions, until thousands of them twinkled and floated below. Occasionally we could hear the cry "Kyrie eleison," ("Lord have mercy.") from below. And then it happened. We heard the cry "Christos anesti!" (Christ is risen." Bells tolled wildly Rockets and flares flew into the sky from all directions. They came from the crowd below, from balconies, from rooftops and it was instantaneous. Wherever there was a lighted church tower, fireworks flared up until the sky was filled with color. Below, there were bright red and green flares on the ground; candles swayed as friends greeted each other: "Christos anesti!" -- "Chronia Polla" ("Many happy returns") filled the air. Incense and smoke from the fireworks clouded the atmosphere. And then, slowly around the edges at first, the candles moved as people began to leave for their homes. The candles moved outward, into the streets. They moved more quickly now -- the fasting was over and people were rushing home to eat. It was over. The rejoicing had begun.

Neighbors invited us over for the traditional liver-and0intestine soup at 12:30. It is a heavy soup, more like a stew, rich and tasty. We ate, toasted each other with Samos and retsina wine ("Chronia polla!" - "Chronia polla!" "May your children live long and happy lives!" "Much happiness in America -- and a quick return!" "Chronia polla!"), ate cheese and oranges and apples. In the background, bright and cheerful Greek folk music had replaced the solemn chanting and classical music of the previous week.

Today we have been invited for a traditional lamb dinner. If a family has only one lamb (or a goat), it will be saved for Easter Sunday. In all the villages and on all the islands, spits are turning and meat is roasting. The king will visit army camps, greet the soldiers, sample the meat cut for him from the lambs roasting on open fires. Family reunions, men performing the intricate male dancing, singing and drinking in the tavernas, cries of "O-pah!" "O-pah!" as the dancing reaches a frenzy, all this part of the celebration, too.

Late in the night, the population, thoroughly exhausted, will finally go to rest. The Greek Easter celebration, both quietly solemn and intensely wild, will have come to an end.

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