Thursday, May 18

THE VILLAGE VS. THE CITY

OK, Seawitch’s post “Waiting” has finally inspired me to put my nose to the grindstone, gather my notes, double check a few sources, dust off the keyboard, and write: THE VILLAGE VS. THE CITY. Seawitch, this post is dedicated to you!

First instalment: The Village. Wait – what’s that you say? What are my qualifications? How can I claim to be an authority on village life? Well, actually I can’t, having only really lived in a village full-time for a year. But being the avid observer of society that I am, or think I am, it was enough – or at least it’ll have to do. So, let's get started then, shall we?

Having just finished university and needing some time to chill out, de-stress, reflect, meditate on life, and all that stuff that recent graduates feel compelled to do, I went and stayed with my father, stepmother and two half brothers (who, since the last time I’d seen them two years previously, had exploded into fully grown, larger than life teenagers) in my “home village” of Molivos/Mythimna, on the spectacular island of Lesvos. I arrived in November, and left the following October, for Athens, just one month shy of a year.

SO, YOU THINK YOU WANT TO LIVE IN A VILLAGE...
The number one complaint of those who live in villages is that there is nothing to do in winter. And rather than try and convince you otherwise, let me tell you exactly how I passed the wintry months there, and let you decide for yourselves.
Days were spent in quiet contemplation – or in building my dream house on the Sims deluxe edition – and evenings were spent huddled round the kerosene stove, reading or having inspiring conversations with my stepmother. Believe me, we figured out how to solve the world’s problems many times over that winter – and more! Alternatively, if there was a good film on telly, we’d all gather round to watch. We also all, as a family, became incredibly addicted to the first season of Six Feet Under, which I’d brought with me on DVD, and, when there was a power failure (which is often on Lesvos), we’d assemble around the old, large scarred table which dominates the main room and play board games like Trivial Pursuit.

I also had plenty of time to try my hand at cooking various dishes – sometimes to the satisfaction of the critics, sometimes not (my dad just can’t understand what is pleasurable about vegetables that have not been cooked to death, and then cooked some more, so Chinese stir-fries were not always met with favourable reviews) and attended various courses – Greek and photography lessons organised by the dimos and “dancercise” classes offered by a long-time ex-pat. I also toyed with the idea of joining the “Carnival committee” and helping to build the floats for the parade, which looked like a lot of fun if a bit kitch, but, unfortunately, the times they met conflicted with my scheduled English lessons.

These English lessons were a bit of work I’d picked up upon arriving, in order to have some pocket money on hand, and were a nice slice of enforced order on my otherwise haphazard days. They were also a great source of exercise! Twice a week I would make the trek into the village from our country house, a 15 minute’s walk away. I’d then schlep up numerous flights of steep, worn cobblestone steps to the castle, and enjoy an hour or so with two eager Bulgarian teenagers. Then it was back down the steps, and another fifteen minutes walk into the country in a different direction, for a lesson with a bright and winsome, though lazy, 12 year-old, who had the curious habit of replacing every verb in the English language with the word ‘take’ – perfectly conjugated of course. Then back into the village, towards the harbour, and up an incredibly steep street to the last lesson of the day – my least favourite – with a psychotic 7 year-old who, though he jumped for joy each time I came and sulked when I left, would spend the entire lesson trying to stab me with a pencil or scattering my materials across the room. Needless to say, my thigh muscles have never been so sculpted, and the steep streets of the village, which had at first left me gasping for breath, were soon overcome as I galloped my way happily up and down them.

If I was in the mood for a night on the town, we’d meander over to the small but cosy Manda bar, one of two places open in winter, and have a quiet drink to the reggae tunes emanating from the oh-so-high-tech tape deck. Or, for more high energy action, I’d join my brothers at Nuevo, the main teenage hangout, and get down to some Skilathika (and if you tell a soul about that I’ll have to kill you!). When I got really bored, I even attended some meetings of the dimos (municipality), of which my father is minister of the environment, and though I couldn’t really follow the proceedings, everybody seemed be terribly enthusiastic about the issues being debated, judging at least by the amount of shouting going on. And of course following these meetings, over lunch, we’d all hash out what had been said, and update each other on all the village news and gossip.

My father being a huge nature/environment buff, there were also a great many excursions out into the wilderness: to cut down a Christmas tree (only one growing right next to another tree, which would therefore not survive on its own, would do), to collect mushrooms and then, later, wild asparagus. Excursions to the hot baths were also organised, and trips up into the mountains to eat at poli paradosiaka tiny village tavernas. Or, often, I'd just set off for a walk into the strangely green (I'm used to seeing them in shades of ochre and rust) fields, camera in hand, snapping shots of curiously formed bifurcating olive trees and crumbling dwellings, and soaking up the gorgeous nature and wildlife.

If all this sounds like heaven to you, then move to a village, now! If it sounds like the 10th level of boredom, you’re probably better off sticking to the city.

NOT ALL A WALK IN THE PARK...
For me, at that time, it was heaven. Whether it would have continued to be heaven year after year is hard to say: it was not all quite as idyllic as I make it sound - the reason we huddled around the stove was because it gets bloody cold there in winter without central heating, and the howling winds and trips up and down the muddy path to the house sometimes got a bit much. Similarly, the frequent power failures (and the tendency of everything else to break down frequently – and take ages to fix) would have become nerve-racking after a point. And the problems being debated at the dimos meetings were serious in nature – ranging from garbage disposal issues (every year, in August, the dump catches fire and spreads noxious black fumes over the area), to arsonists setting fire to large chunks of forest so as to build on the land, to people pushing for (horrible) measures which would allow more cars to pass through the village… and other matters concerning the constant desecration of traditional life, the struggle to preserve of the look and spirit of village and the areas surrounding it – all a losing battle in the face of the money to be made from cheap, poor-quality tourism.

Then there were the courses – attended more in the interests of getting out of the house than in the hope of learning anything. Needless to say, they were terrible – the photography class, especially, I could have taught better than the camera salesman they’d managed to round up for the job. The dancercise lessons were nice, but following them we’d usually go for an ouzo and mezedes, which meant several hours of listening to 50 year-old and up ex-pats moan on about how horrible Greece is. Greek language lessons were also followed by similar ouzo sessions, but at least the people there were less negative (being recent arrivals, and thus still enamoured of their adopted country) and, generally, more interesting.

This, of course, highlights another of the main problems encountered in village life: there is not a huge selection of people to socialise with, and often you are stuck hanging out with people to whom you would not normally give the time of day. If there is one person in the village whose company you actually enjoy, and with whom you have real things in common, you can count yourself lucky. The rest of the time, either out of desperation, or to be polite, you just go along with the crowd and manufacture things you can all talk about.

Why be polite? you may ask. Well, because in a village with a population of 1000 people, max, and three places to go out to, having enemies is something you want to avoid at all costs. If you have had a falling out with someone, you will run into them continuously, everywhere you go, and so you will either be forced to put your misunderstandings aside, if possible, or, when not possible, look through said person as though they are air. Which is a rather strange and awkward thing to have to do, is it not?

And since everybody knows everybody, lines are soon drawn delineating whose side you’re on in other people’s battles, so you get sucked into these things even if you, personally, couldn’t care less, and find yourself giving the cold shoulder to people who’ve never personally done you wrong. Or, worse, you walk into a taverna full of people you drank and ate with just the other week, and are conspicuously not invited to join the party. In short, there’s no such thing as neutrality in the village – or at least it’s nigh on impossible to maintain. People living within shouting distance of each other are sure to have interpersonal issues, and, at some point or other, you too will become involved - don't kid yourself.

These enmities occur because in a small place, with not much to do, people pass most of their time gossiping about each other. So you hear from so-and-so that someone has called you, say, the biggest slut on earth, and are then faced with two choices: pretend you never found out and greet that person cheerily every time you see them, or make them your enemy. This of course means that, often, you are pressured into being friendly with people who you not only have nothing in common with, but whom you think are the scum of the earth and would rather be sending death glares.
Get the point?

But if you find a way around the gossip problem, and find one or two good people to pass the time with, you’re set for the winter. Basically, for lack of anything to do, you make your own fun, sort of like the pilgrims, and often this turns out to be more fun than more orchestrated and pre-coordinated forms of entertainment.
I can honestly say that in my year in the village I was never once truly bored.

WHEN THE MOUNTAIN COMES TO MOHAMMED...
But what happens when the winter is over? Everyone has just spent the season moaning about how dead it is, then suddenly, with the arrival of the summer months, the village is crammed with tourists, xeni, and everyone starts moaning all over again about how busy and crowded it is. And rightly so. Driving anywhere becomes a nightmare as you must navigate past gaggles of tourists (who apparently don’t have cars where they come from) and all your favourite, quiet haunts are suddenly invaded by them. On the beach to which you have been coming with your dog to enjoy moments of solitude, you are suddenly confronted by obnoxious German tourists telling you how unhygienic it is to bring animals to the beach and that they’ll report you to the authorities. Your ears are filled with inane chatter every which way you turn (“Oh! What a nice castle! It’ll be great when they finish building it!” and “Hey – this doesn’t look like Portugal… Where are we?) and the balmy, jasmine scented evenings are shattered by the sound of music and revellers from the open-air bar. For a young person, it’s actually pretty fun (like I need to tell you that!) and teasing the tourists (or in the case of my brothers, doing their best to pick them up) is always good for a laugh. But for those who came to the village to find peace and quiet it can get trying.

Then autumn comes, which is a lovely time of year weather-wise, but also a melancholy one because, as the tourists fly out, shops close, and the village slowly empties of life, you realise you were just getting used to the hustle and bustle, and suddenly everything feels dead, devoid of life, and you start looking to the winter with apprehension, wondering what you’re going to do all these months with nothing open and no one to talk to.
And so on, the cycle repeats itself.

THE PROOF IS IN THE PUDDING...
My mother couldn’t hack it. After 7 years of collapsing roofs and errant plumbers, she’d had enough and called it quits.

My stepmother has kept going now for 20+ years, and loved almost every minute of it. But, with my brothers grown and flying the coop, and with many of the close friends, whose company she relied on, spending more and more of their winters abroad, she is finding herself a bit at loose ends. With nothing constructive to do with her time she is, herself, trying to get away as often as possible to Athens, England, or Dubai (where her brother lives).

The other ageing ex-pats I know are doing like-wise. After years of contented life in the village, they are now getting the inescapable urge to pick up and leave, and go somewhere with a bit more life and culture.
Strange how, as all these people have gotten older, the quiet life which suited them when they were young is no longer enough. With each passing winter, they’re feeling the call of the city ever more strongly. Isn’t it supposed to be the other way round?

TO BE CONTINUED...
But anyhow, next up, the place they are all flocking to: the grand and the glorious, the stinky and filthy, the, to quote Devious Diva, “small and horrible and great and secretive and special and disgusting and wild and unpleasant and wonderful and surprising and different” city, Athens.


5 comments:

betabug said...

Great writing! And very much to the point, congratulations!

One just has to love village life, one just has to hate village life. It sure isn't for everybody and even those who like it sometimes get the blues. But the best moments are so much worth it.

As for the people leaving: That is a problem, the more people leave, the more others think about leaving. Sad.

liz said...

having spent just under a month of that year with you in Molivos, i can only say that i have never felt more at peace, more relaxed, and LESS bored in my entire life. it is a beautiful village that needs to be preserved and i hope your father does everything he can to keep it the way it is... i know i'm not an "expert" but...

Flubberwinkle said...

I have no village to call my village. The nearest I can relate to are my short 10-day vacation stints to the Greek countryside.

I'm a city girl, not by choice, but I like the pavement under my feet all the same. I'd be willing to give village life a try and maybe -just maybe- I'd feel right at home. It's not like I go out every night or I can afford the culturally diverse opportunities in the city anyway. But how much contemplating can one do without having the hustle-bustle of a city to keep your mind busy from wandering off the deep side?

Your version of village life sounds enticing. My mother-in-law's version, on the other hand, is quite another story. Only recently (30 years ago) watertaps were added to households; water was pumped from the village well several hundred meters away. Hard farming duties started at the break of day and ended with sunset; weeding the acres doesn't sound too easy on the back. Life in the village today, according to the in-laws, is a piece of cake but they would be afraid to live there because the population has diminished, it's too lonely (all year long) and it reminds them of how unable they are to do the things they used to. They come from a small village in Evros, not an island which draws tourists during the summer and livens up for 3 months. It's winter there all year.

You wrote an excellent piece by the way. Can't wait for the city version.

The SeaWitch said...

You've definitely done a good job of outlining the 'cons' (most of which I consider 'pros' LOL) of village life.

The thing is...even though I live in Athens and the opera house is a few minutes away and the nightclubs a few minutes the other way and the bouzoukia seconds away, I still don't do much of anything besides work, pay bills and then when I actually get some time off to do something...I choose to spend it outside the city anyway. So, life can be just as boring and isolated in a big city as it can in a small town as far as I'm concerned. The difference being is that I don't spend so much time 'waiting' and the air is cleaner. Plus...the biggest PLUS..."Greece" exists in horios and island life. Greece is definitely not Athens.

So that's my perspective. Now I'll just wait for your Part II to surface. LOL

kassandra said...

Thanks guys!
BB: Sad indeed, for those that lose their friends, but on the other hand this has been going on for a while now, and for each person that leaves I think there's a new person waiting to fill their shoes...
FB: Turns out, a lot! At least when you're with interesting people who stimulate more ideas.
Sure am glad, for once, to have been born into this generation... The saddest is when you see the little old ladies so buedened by years of hard labour that they are completely and permanently bent over at the waist.
SW: Did they come across as cons? I forgot to do a sum up at the end, but I was definitely trying to highlight the pros over the cons... (so much for unbiased reporting.)
By the way, you've beat me to the punch and summed up all the main points of my "city" post in four lines. Oh well...