At a mini-market on the Greek island of Ikaria, I study the labels on various items, trying to decipher their meaning. It’s been three days since I left my Greek husband back in New York and dove headfirst into a local language immersion course. I’m feeling a tad out of my depth. But then an elderly lady comes to my rescue, explaining what it is that I’m looking at. After a brief but challenging exchange in Greek, I leave with a bag of groceries — and my new friend’s recipe for fava, a split-pea puree. I’m beginning to feel at home.
Months earlier, when I’d told my Greek relatives that I was going to Ikaria for a two-week language course, it had caused quite a stir.
My brother-in-law sprang out of his chair, grabbed a map and waggled his finger over a narrow land mass in the eastern Aegean Sea. “It’s remote,” he said.
My mother-in-law threw up her hands. “The beaches aren’t the best,” she exclaimed. ”And their customs are peculiar.”
My father-in-law raised his finger for the final word: “Ah, but once she’s there, she may never want to leave.”
How right he was. This wing-shaped island, named after the mythological Icarus, who famously flew too close to the sun, melted his wings of wax and crashed into the sea, has definitely gotten its hooks into me.
A rugged landscape and lack of natural harbors once isolated Ikaria from the rest of Greece, my father-in-law had told me: “That’s how the people became so resilient and self-sufficient.” On the map, he pointed to the Aetheras mountain range, which traverses the island. “They settled deep in the mountains and hid their homes by constructing them from natural materials to protect themselves from Aegean pirates,” he added. This created an isolated population with a strong sense of community, as well as strong family values and traditions.
Ikaria became part of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century and remained so until July 17, 1912, when residents drove out the Ottomans and established a short-lived independent state. After it joined Greece several months later, the isolated island was used as a dumping ground for political dissidents by successive governments. During the Greek Civil War (1946-49), thousands of communists were exiled to Ikaria. To this day, the island is known for its laid-back leftists and independent spirit.
It’s also known for the unusually long life spans of its natives, a fact that has caught the attention of researchers and is featured in the second edition of National Geographic explorer Dan Buettner’s book “The Blue Zones,” which describes long-lived communities worldwide.
Add to that the fact that it’s said to be the birthplace of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, and has a reputation for still producing some strong red stuff. “Beware of the local wine,” my father-in-law had warned, “or you may lose your head.”
On the flight to Ikaria, armed with a book of basic Greek phrases, I sit next to Loles, a gregarious Spanish woman also headed for the Ikarian Centre Greek language school. We chat in Greek. My grasp of the language is only basic, but I manage to catch that this is Loles’s fourth visit to the school. We hit it off and chatter for the rest of the flight. The Greek gods are at work.
At Ikaria’s tiny airport, a man with a wide smile and unruly curls greets me. He hands me a set of keys and directs me to a well-worn Chevy. When I ask about the rental-car contract, he shrugs. “The office is closed on Sundays,” he says. “Drop by whenever you have time.”
It seems a casual way to do business, but Loles assures me that it’s the Ikarian way. My hands grip the steering wheel for an hour of hairpin turns as we cross the mountains and descend through pine-covered slopes to the northwest side of the island. The landscape is wind-swept and wild until we reach our destination of Arethusa, a quaint stone village on the slope of Mount Aetheras. It’s a magical spot with a mountain backdrop and a view down to the sea. The scent of wild oregano wafts through the air, and the only sound is the jangle of goat bells.
The next morning, I wake before sunrise. As I perform sun salutations on the bougainvillea-draped terrace, the sun peeks over the mountain. By 7 a.m., it has embraced the landscape in its golden glow. I still have time for a dip before class. Driving down the mountain, I pass foraging goats and a sprightly elderly woman collecting branches at the side of the road. She motions me to stop. “Good morning, my child,” she says. “Where are you going?” When I explain in my rudimentary Greek, she smiles. “The sea is beautiful today.”
In the days that follow, I never pass a soul who doesn’t acknowledge me with a wave and a smile or a few kind words. It’s true that Ikaria’s beaches aren’t the best in Greece, and the sea is rough when the Meltemi, a northern summer wind, blows. But the people are among the most genuine I’ve ever met.
I get back just as students are being herded into class by the sound of a goat bell. There are four in my pre-intermediate group: Liz, a retired Englishwoman who now lives in Thessaloniki; Abby, an American student at Yale University; Vilda, a Norwegian teenager; and Jerome, a Frenchman whose grandfather was Greek.
For the next two weeks, my timetable includes four hours of lessons each day plus a sightseeing visit or a cultural workshop. For a few days, I carry around the schedule we’ve been given, until I realize that that there is no fixed schedule. The school’s director, Mihalis, is constantly adding new activities so that we don’t miss anything happening on the island. I embrace the spontaneity of life on Ikaria and toss my schedule aside. Each day, I await the oracle’s announcement of events — which never disappoint!
Ikaria turns out to be the perfect place to combine a vacation with education, because the locals are open-hearted and patient. I pop into the car rental agency in Evdilos, the island’s second port. I spend the next hour chatting with Argiro, the owner. She’s more concerned with circling the island’s sites on a tourist map than completing paperwork.
Later, I meet friends at a beach-side taverna run by a woman named Anna. She brings us horta (wild greens), spinach pie, fresh bread and tzatziki and then sits down with us. We ask her about the economic situation in Greece. ‘We deal with change, but we don’t dwell on it,” she says philosophically. “We’re not rich in Ikaria, but we have time for family and friends; we share our happiness and our hardship.” I’m struck by the strong sense of community in Ikaria.
Each tourist attraction becomes a cultural experience. We visit Theoskepasti — a tiny chapel tucked beneath a gigantic granite ledge. It’s decorated with icons and oil lamps, and houses the skulls and bones of old monks. We sit at a long wooden table under the pine trees while the elderly caretaker serves us Greek coffee and freshly made loukoumades — hot dough balls sprinkled with cinnamon and drizzled with honey. The young couple at the other end of the table shift down and strike up a conversation. They tell us that in ancient Greece, loukoumades were served to the winning athletes as “honey tokens.” They speak slowly and don’t seem to mind my limited Greek.
Ikaria may not be bursting with classical ruins, but it’s a walker’s paradise of hills, forests, gullies and gorges. Starting out on the Plateau of Raches about 1,640 feet above sea level, my classmates and I follow a dirt path toward Armenistis, a quiet fishing village west of Evdilos. Every step brings a dramatic change of scene — abandoned stone houses hidden among pine trees, followed by terraced mountainsides and then desertlike cacti and lunar landscapes. We stop at a gushing waterfall to rest and snack on local almonds and apricots. We end up at Livadi, one of the island’s most beautiful beaches, for a dip in crystal-clear waters.
My mother-in-law turns out to be right about the island’s quirky customs — the Ikarians are renowned for their odd timekeeping. I don’t need a watch here, because nobody’s in a hurry and there’s no pressure for punctuality. Everything happens in its own time.
It’s also acceptable to disappear for several hours in the afternoon for a siesta — everyone does it. This custom is taken to the extreme in the village of Christos Raches, where residents come to life after sunset and stores stay open well into the early-morning hours. Until recently, the baker left loaves of bread and an honesty box in the bakery so that he could snooze uninterrupted.
Napping turns out to be essential for me, too, when I discover that this sleepy island has a hopping night life.
There’s nothing like Ikaria’s panygiria, religious festivals that occur almost daily between May and October in villages across the island. These are exhilarating occasions where you leave your inhibitions at home and dance all night.
With other students from the language school, I loosen up for our first panygiri, in honor of two early physicians, Saints Cosmas and Damian. A local dance teacher named Kostas has come to lead the class. His eyes are gentle and his voice is soothing. He guides us through the steps of several circular dances, including the traditional Ikariotikos — a quick, graceful dance with light steps. At 10 p.m., we arrive in Karavostamo, a nearby village. People nod and smile as we make our way to a wooden table under the trees.
While I work my way through a communal meal of roasted goat meat, fried potatoes and salad, I notice a round-faced grandpa bouncing his granddaughter on his knee. A young couple in their 20s are smooching. The musicians are playing at a feverish pace, and people of all ages hold hands and swirl around, snaking through a second circle of dancers.
I knock back a few glasses of smoky red wine to unleash the unbridled dancer within. Soon I’m part of the dance circle, carried away by a dizzying rhythm as though under the intoxicating spell of Dionysus. I dance nonstop until 3 a.m.
Before turning in, I stop on the terrace for a lingering look at the Aegean below. I must leave this enchanted island, though I’m not ready to go. I came to learn a language and I’ve discovered a way of life. When I return home, I vow, I’ll make more time for the people who cross my path.
I look up at the starry sky above. And I make a wish.
Hestler is a freelance writer in New York.