There are places where life still proceeds at a different pace. Where people take their time, where in fact the concept of time itself is questionable…
And where we start questioning our own lives…
I arrived in Paxos, a very small island opposite Corfu’, on the 20th of August and the intensity of its heat, light and smells hit me full blast. I’d been craving REAL summer and finally I plunged into it, and the hot sun on my skin, the spotless blue sky, the gentle washing of the sea turn me in a state of total exhilaration, as if I was drunk.
The happiness I feel in summer isn’t something I can describe. The pure bliss of being in the sea, floating weigh less in blue waters, walking around barefoot, with just a light dress on… Oh, I love it!
These are the only moments when I can forget my acting, my auditions, my ambitions. Of course they’ll always matter for me, of course they’re who I am. But a part of me wishes I could pursue my career in a place with a different climate, in a place on the sea, in the sun… I wish I was a “tragedienne” at times of ancient Greece when actors performed Aeschilus in the open air theatres of Ellada…
But in the past 500 years we’ve created a dichotomy between cultural and natural life, and cities seem to be the only places to produce arts and culture, at least when it comes to theatre, because you name me a beautiful, peaceful, sunny, seaside city that is also a theatre hub… Perhaps theatre and cinema happens in big cities because it’s only there that we experience the need to escape into a different world, of telling each other stories in order to enter into a suspended, magic, dimension where our every day troubles are suspended… Perhaps when you’re surrounded by beauty you don’t want to create a different world. You might want to paint, to write. But not to act.
Anyway, the moment I arrived I also felt overwhelmed by a sort of torpor, desire to just rest, sleep, do absolutely nothing.
Such desire in London, or Milan, will make you pass for a lazy cow destined to a life of poverty and starvation (or to a Council estate off the Holloway Road living on benefits surrounded by pregnant 16 year olds chav-girls).
But in Paxos it seems to be the prevalent state of mind of the majority of the population.
Hurry? Why? What do you have to do?
What I loved about the island is that, despite being far from “unspoilt” or wild (with its pretty tavernas and cute shops), it hasn’t sold its soul to the gods of tourism, consumerism and money.
They’re not desperate to have more, they don’t “push” it and they only provide a service if it makes sense with the rest of their life. Otherwise, they can’t be bothered, never mind if they’re loosing a chance to make money
For instance, the little boat to the beautiful beach of Antipaxos goes between 11 and 2, more or less once an hour.
But only if it’s full. If at 11.30 only 6 people turn up asking to go to Antipaxos, the boat pilots – who would be sitting at the cafe next to the harbour sipping coffee or wine, according to their mood – would wave them away asking them to come back in an hour once more passengers will have gathered. If no extra passenger turns up, the pilots just remain sit at the cafe or take a nap.
Yes, this is maddening for us Western tourists, whose immediate reaction is to curse them and call them lazy and threaten never to return… But, think about it… couldn’t it be that they are right and we are wrong? That in our frenzy to be quick, save time, make money, keep schedules we’ve lost the ability to just enjoy our day? Our lives are planned from morning to evening, from Monday to Sunday, from January to December.
So we escape, taking holidays to far away places where days have a different rhythm only to complain that the 11.30 boat is late… Late for what, Captain Montenegue would ask (fictitious name my boyfriend and I have given to this crumpled, toothless, skinny, old boat pilot whose real surname sounded far too unpronounceable)? What’s the difference if you leave at midday? What’s the difference if you have dinner at 9pm instead of 8pm?
After 3 days in Paxos, everyone starts recognizing you and stopping for a chat. This is so weird for us. When Patrick and I saw a Greek couple smiling and waving at us in the street we looked at them strangely, wondering what they wanted. It took us a few minutes to realise they were the waiters from a restaurant we’d eaten at the previous night, and they just wanted to say hi. On our last night, a waitress from the same restaurant walked towards me to give me a hug and say goodbye. I almost ran away, because we’re not used to that!
In Paxos you do your shopping at the supermarket and they deliver it for you. What you don’t know is that the delivery guy has the keys of ALL the apartments on the island. This will freak out any Londoner, Milanese, Roman, New Yorker and other city dweller you can name. A stranger with my keys? In fact, several strangers, because there’s more than one delivery guy?
But for the people in Paxos it’s no big deal. Tourists are out during the say and if the delivery guy leaves their grocery outside the door it can rot in the sun or be prayed by the local cats. So they let themselves in and place the grocery in your fridge. It’s an act of consideration and kindness. To us, it’s an infrangiment of our privacy and a sure source of trouble because the delivery guy could be stealing your laptop, using your pool and possibly returning in the middle of the night to rape your wife and kill you.
Judging from the behaviour of the only 3 policemen present on the island, who walk totally unarmed along the promenade eating souvlaki in their navy blue uniform, I don’t think the island has seen many cases of rape and murder in the past 30 years. They stop the odd scooter from time to time to check they have a driving license according to the new EU regulations (even old Vassili, who runs the only motorbike-rental business on the island, has been forced to hire a supercilious young girl to keep records of his customers’ details in case the police should check). But other than that, they do nothing all day.
We’re so suspicious of human contacts, we city dwellers from the West. I tease the Brits but we’re all the same.
Don’t trust your neighbour is our password.
The quintessential embodyment of this relaxed attitude is Nikos the taxidriver.
There are 5 taxis in the whole of Paxos, advertising themselves as “24 hour cab services”.
The truth is, if you call them and they think they’re close enough to you to be bothered to come, they will. If you’re too far, tough luck. Most tourists on the island hire bikes or cars anyway, so it’s no big deal. But Patrick and I made the huge mistake of not bringing our driving licence, therefore we were the only people under the age of 45 on the whole of Paxos to be denied the privilege of a scooter. We had to rely on taxis.
And Nikos was our man.
Nikos is a myth. In fact, Nikos should be the protagonist of a film, a poem or a book. He must be about 70. He drives an old Mercedes that has been manifactured for the past 40 years. He doesn’t speak any English other than here, there, minutes, no, yes. But he’s reliable. If he makes the sign of 10 with his fingers and says minutes, he comes and picks you up in 10 minutes sharp. Nikos drives slowly. What’s the hurry? When he sees a car speeding past him, he starts cursing them in Greek and shaking his head. If Nikos is with another client but sees you walking down the street, he stops and says Yassos! to greet you.
If you hire Nikos to go from, say, Gaios to Logos, he would start driving up the hill, then take a detour, stop at his daughter’s place, say hi to his family, pick up his grandson and take him in the taxi. Just for a ride. Why not? He loves his grandson and we were driving past his house, so it was only natural for him to stop. If we’re driving to Mongonissi beach under the scorching sun and an old man is walking uphill carrying a shopping bag, he stops, offers the man a lift and fits him in the car with us and the grandson.
A couple of times Nikos just gave us ride for free, because we’d become his friends. His fares, are totally random. It all depends on how much he’s made that day, I suspect. If he thinks he’s not made much, he can ask for 8 euros. But if he’s all right, he charges you 4 euros or even takes you for free.
The crucial thing is, you mustn’t call him at nap time. Ring Nikos between 2pm and 5.30pm and you’re stuffed. He wouldn’t answer. The other taxi drivers at least pretend to be on another call. He doesn’t. He just lets the phone ring.
From time to time Nikos stops at the harbour and has a drink with the boat drivers. I’m sure all the old men laugh at us tourists and our mad desire to be on time, fast, efficient.
I don’t want to sound like one of those naive hippies who thinks we should all return to Nature, and that progress is devilish and anywhere less civilised and built and urban than our Western cities is automatically some sort of unspoilt paradise.
But I know that it is refreshing to discover that there are still places where greed and suspicion is not a default position.
Spending time in Paxos and observing people reminds me of how we used to be. Slightly less greedy. Slightly more open and trusting. Slightly happier with what life offers, if life is good enough to give us an easy way of earning a living, enough food and a decent place to call home.