Surely my tunnel vision obscures much of reality and my impressions are naïve at best from spending such little time on the island of Evia, so please permit me to indulge my fantasy a bit with you in my thoughts of this utopian paradise.
Located only an hour’s (magnificent) ferry ride from the great city of Athena across the Aegean Sea,
the island is quite large; it would take a day to drive its length. The landscape is mountainous, with windy roads serpentining through and over surprisingly harsh and dry contours. Rather than deterring from, the aridity of the area contributes to, its allure with the juxtaposition of the emerald sea and the barren cliffs.
The island is far from desolate as the environment might suggest. Along the coastal sections, there is a lively community of residents with few tourists but rather other Greeks visiting families, friends, or just coming to relax and enjoy the energy of this tranquil yet tenacious place.
Cafés border all along the water, but not in an obstructive way as seen on many waterfronts. Paved decks constructed from the island’s geology create an organic border to the sea’s surface. One is invited to sit under awnings and seats upon this surface and sip the potent traditional coffee during the day or sample from the edible creatures of the sea in the afternoons and late until the evening.
Contrary to the opinion that the people are parasitic and lazy, however, their attitude is laid back but their work is honest and hard. As this film states, “life comes before beauty”.
This island’s agriculture is limited because of the climate. Save for olive trees and cacti, I saw little in the way of planned plantings. Animals are raised on the island – many a goat wanders with its herder equipped with a bell that when many are together create quite a symphony along the echoing valleys – a particularly eerie experience when their presence is obscured by the mountains.
The village in which we stayed for one night and two days to document the whistling language festival, Antia, is beyond enchanting. As our hosts, Tzanavaris and his wife Maria, welcomed us into their home, I felt an immediate sense of belonging. Cliff dwelling societies must have some intrinsic nature that unites not only their habitats but also their hospitality.
Their home is a mix of modernity and tradition; rebuilt by Tzanavaris from the remnants of his father’s house, the small home has everything a person needs and in a much smaller and more efficient model than most want. He and his wife live more permanently in another, more lush island where they grow the most succulent fruits and vegetables I’ve ever eaten. Her capacities as a cook are also unbeaten as she fed us to the brim and beyond with delights such as breaded chicken with grasses gathered from mountain top fields, handmade pasta, and even goat’s milk ice cream.
The reasons for the invention of the whistling language are obvious: even today there is no cellular phone service so to communicate among the hilltop and valley settlements, one needs to be able to send a signal across a long distance. The drum culture is not present here as it is in Africa so the obvious choice is the existing one: send sound through the winds of nature’s flute: the throat. The distance between which the men and women whistlers of Antia and beyond can effectively, accurately, and intricately communicate is outstanding!
The following two days were dedicated to the first whistling language festival held in the village and then down below by the port. Over 500 people ended up participating in the festivities including representatives from a whistling community in the Pyrenees. Although I am eternally grateful for Sophie’s diligent studies of Greek, the French connection was personally beneficial as most people only spoke Greek but some, including Tzanavaris’ wife Maria, also spoke fluent French from past studies and time abroad so this allowed me to be able to communicate directly. Especially with Maria, this enabled me to make a deep connection, despite the short time spent with her, her way of thinking and her appreciation of life really changed my outlook on many things.
From beginning to end, the community’s generosity created a sense of royalty for our group of intrepid linguistic fieldworkers: two of us from SOAS, two from University College London, and one student who is from the island and will be attending NYU in the fall, the people honored us and provided opportunities for us to alleviate the intensity of the conference and festival work at every moment with local gifts, literature, dance performance, rebetiko (traditional yet underground string music with ethereal singing), sunsets and sunrises overlooking the sea from atop the mountains and down below from quartz caves, star gazing during long walks on piers, climbing rocks pretending to be a siren, swimming in crystal waters, TRXing from olive branches, writing with incredible views, discussions of donkey preservation, and above all, plentiful food and drink!!!
After a humbling conversation with Sophie on the ferry back to Athens, the perfect person with whom to share thoughts as she and I share the deep connection with W. Africa, plus her many experiences in Greece with her boyfriend who is from the island over the past few years, I did learn more of the hardships Evia has experienced since the crisis, yet still, I felt and feel that the place and the people are the closest I’ve witnessed to a perfect communion and harmony between the economic West and the South (that is to say the ‘developed and undeveloped’ nations such as The U.S. and The U.K./Western Europe, versus the struggling parts of Africa). The people I met and saw have that natural athleticism and attractiveness found in Africa and sought after in vain with so much money and time in such unnatural conditions in The West. The hospitality, trust, respect, patience, and generosity of the people of Evia is only paralleled by that which I have experienced among African communities. The people of Evia (and other parts of Greece) carry a semiotic relationship and knowledge with and of their surroundings very reminiscent of Africa but very often lost in ‘developed’ nations in The West.
While some important technological advances found in The West are certainly still lacking on Evia and surely other similar Greek islands, there is more of a sense of self-sufficiency and subsistence than is found among the so often neglected lack of infrastructure found in not only the rural but also the urban parts of Africa. In many ways, I immediately felt as if I was transported back to Bounou, but though donkey is a means of transport, it’s not the only option. Not only the sea views, but also these conveniences such as paved roads, electricity and all its benefits such as refrigeration, indoor plumbing, means of reliable and safe transport for goods and services not found in the area, and access and knowledge to technology such as power tools and computers.
Whether sufficient health care options are available seems to be a point of contention for the people as is the lack of support furnished by the local government for education and language preservation. As Sophie says, Tznavaris is a one-man show whistling language revitalizing machine. Through his passion and his connections with the Rotary Association, his efforts appear to be successful in at the very least promoting the importance of the language. Now traveling by bus and subsequent ferry to the popular island of Zakynt, the privilege that I feel for being able to participate in this project is that much more palatable. Eternally grateful to the people of Evia, especially Tzanavaris and his wife, Maria Kunelli and her family, and to Sophie Salffner and Andrew Nevins for inviting me along on this incredible adventure.
Post script – I realize now reading this that it sounds as if the festival took place over a long period of time when in fact it was but two days and three nights. Just goes to show that the Narnia effect applies to any and all types of fieldwork situations and places. The wardrobe is there for those who search not for it.