“Do the words ‘ella sphinx-a-tinkath-yassu’ mean anything to you?,” I ask Terry, my new Greek friend, over dinner on the waterfront in Koroni. I’m embarrassed by the words I’m saying, which sound like nonsense to my ears, something about a sphinx and tinkerbell.
“Yes,” he answers immediately, surprising me. “It means…” he pauses, trying to think of the correct words in English, “Come, make your heart tight.”
“Tight? Are you sure?”, I ask, needing clarification. He looks out to sea, and rephrases:
“More like strong. Come, make your heart strong,” he says, clenching his fist emphatically. His action makes me feel more confident that what he is saying is closer to a true translation of my Yiayia’s words.
One week after the Greek lesson in Koroni, I’m still thinking about the words of my Yiayia. ‘Ella sphinx-a-tinkath-yassu’. Richie and I are hanging over the rails of a Blue Star Ferry. It’s the 24th hour of our voyage from Piraeus, and the tiny island of Castellorizo is coming into view.
The island has its back to us, a collar of rocky mountains turned up against the heat and glare of the afternoon sun. A deep scar runs across its shoulders, a road purpose-built for army vehicles. The boat is enormous, and Castellorizo, less than 12 square kilometres, is tiny! We wonder how the captain is going to bring the ship into port.
As we round the corner the island drops its shoulder allowing us a glimpse of the harbour. It’s beautiful. The Greek flag streams blue and white above the ruins of the Castle of the Knights, and an archipelago of tiny islands lays strewn about, as if Polyphemus, the cyclopes, has been lobbing rocks at ships. Behind us is the beach resort of Kas, Turkey, where almost all the island’s food comes from, and once upon a time, the island’s Ottoman rulers.
The ferry glides into the U-shaped harbour. Gorgeous 3 storey houses with colourful timber balconies and shutters line the waterfront, and the masts of yachts and fishing boats rise and fall on the tide. A white pathway zigzags its way up a sheer rock-face to Moni Agiou Georgious, and the domes and minarets of churches and a single mosque break the view in every direction.
As I stand for the first time on the homesoil of my Yiayia’s island I feel as if the island is drawing us to its very heart, wrapping its rocky wings around us, enfolding us in a giant salt water hug. I’m reminded of the feeling I used to get when my Yiayia drew me to her chest – suffocating and sublime.
Amid the sounds of tourists disembarking I recall Yiayia, standing in the living room of her richly furnished Cronulla apartment, dressed in stockings, slippers and a rayon dress. Me and my sister have danced enough clumsy steps of grapevine to stretch from Sydney to Castellorizo, and we’re about to throw ourselves down on the overstuffed armchairs. No more dancing, Yiayia! If Yiayia is aware of the impending insurrection, she doesn’t let on. She grips our hands to the bitter end. When the song finally finishes she releases her grip, and in the same movement, throws her hands up to the heavens and exclaims – “Ella sphinx-a-tinkath-yassu.” Come, make your heart strong.
I smile. It’s good advice for a grandmother to give her granddaughters.
It’s the first time that Richie and I have visited the island and we’re charmed. It’s winter back home in Oz and the entire Cassie-Aussie diaspora is here, sunning themselves and drinking cold coffee on the waterfront. Everyone seem to know everyone else. The Cassie-Aussies segue effortlessly between Australian-English and Greek: a peculiar mix of nasal elongated vowels (Australian) and fluent rushing consonants (Greek). Where have they all come from? I’m used to hearing these voices in the cafes and delis of Northcote, Marrickville and West End, not here in Greece!
Our host, Damien, is Greek-Australian and tells us impressively that Nicholas Pappas, the author of Castellorizo: An Illustrated History, is on the island. My aunty, Zeny, who is also a 1st generation Australian-Castellorizian writer visited the island last year with her partner, my uncle, John, and before them, my cousin Katie and her partner, Matt. The visit to Cassie has become a rite of passage for members of my family, and I feel grateful to be walking and swimming in their footsteps.
Castellorizo is well equipped for tourists. There are cafes, bars and tavernas where you can buy anything from ice cream to souvlaki and chips. There are historical panorama postcards in the shop, before the earthquake of 1926, and another of the harbour in flames after the bombings of the 1940s. There is one supermarket on the island, one bakery, one pharmacy, and a handful of other services. Motorboats do regular runs to the outlying islands, taking in the Blue Cave, the star attraction for Cassie-Aussies, who all want to believe that they come from someplace beautiful and unique. They are rarely disappointed.
Naturally, I’m more interested than Richie in the history of the island. It’s a self-interested quest, and I take great joy uncovering the facts, like where my Yiayia went to school, and where the family house was located. According to an email from Zeny, the slope of rubble between St Nicholas’s Church and the Museum was where Chrisaphina Pappacotis’s, my Yiayia’s, family house used to stand. I range all about the hillside, searching for a ‘vibe’, as well as fresh figs. I imagine the house stood here, here, there, or perhaps there.
The view from up here is stunning. After getting my new poop-catchers caught on a wire fence I am compelled to call Richie over to free me. He has long-since lost interest in the search and is standing on a viewing platform gnawing carob pods from a massive tree growing sideways from a wall.
On a visit to the historical museum, housed in the iconic 18th Century mosque on the harbour side, the island’s tragic history is brought to light. Photos and telegrams provide a snapshot of the lives of the islanders during successive invasions, occupations and surrenders. It’s a traumatic history.
A brief film about the island’s history is projected on the wall inside the mosque. The opening lines of the film, spoken by an elderly gentleman who played an important role in the island’s push for freedom and its eventual union with the Greek state, tell of how “The island is a pearl that all nations have wanted to possess.” Turks, Egyptians, Italians, French and English all wanted to possess the island at some time or another, and it was due, in large part, to their meddling that 7,000 of the island’s 10,000 inhabitants were compelled to leave the island, seeking safer, more promising lives in Australia during the late 1940s.
Yiayia arrived in Sydney during an earlier wave of migration, in the aftermath of the 1926 earthquake, that shook so many of the 800 dwellings on the island into a state of ruin. The refugees fled to other places beside Australia – Palestine, Cyprus and Egypt. Some returned. Some stayed away. Today, Castellorizo falls under the care of the Rhodes island government. Rhodes, the largest of the Dodecanese islands, lies 130km to the northwest of Castellorizo and is where the island’s supply of fresh water comes from, brought in by ships and stored in two metal tanks at the foot of the Castle rock.
Like all good permaculture students, Richie is appalled by how unconcerned the islanders are about food and water security. The situation with bottled water and landfill, which is currently transported to the back of the island and buried, is particularly upsetting. Damien, who runs a restaurant on the island with his wife, Monika, admits that like many of the islanders, he owns a neglected parcel of land at the top of the zigzagging white steps, that was once a productive space for growing.
“They did that in the past… the islanders grew all their own food and caught their own water too… I’d rather grow my own fruit and vegetables than get it brought in from Turkey. But I’ve got my hands full. Farming is hard work. People on the island prefer tourism, it’s more lucrative.”
It’s sad but true, not just for Castellorizo but for so many other places in the world today – the blight of tourism! Who wants to grow beans and broccoli when you can serve drinks to foreigners in a bar and get paid four times as much for your efforts?
Damien, Richie and I speak at length about the degraded state of the land on the island: the loss of soil, trees and biodiversity. Richie can’t believe that at one time the islanders produced and exported coal. Made from what? Like many Greek Aegean islands there are only a handful of trees remaining – eucalypts, pines, hardy fig, olive and carob: most of which were planted only recently by concerned islanders and their Cassie-Aussie patrons.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Damien says, “to see the harbour after heavy rain. Blood red. Totally red”
“Red?” Richie asks.
“From the soil running off.”
During a series of evening excursions to the harder to reach corners of the island, it becomes clear to us that the island is indeed being stripped of its last thin layers of substrate – washed by heavy rains and wind into the sea. Richie and I inspect the local flora and fauna; we wonder about the role the goats play in preventing the large-scale regeneration of trees and larger shrubs. Is there a way they could be managed differently? And what about the strapping young lads on the army base, couldn’t they be put to better use raising goats and gardens, rather than learning how to use guns?
On the plateau near Moni Agiou Georgious a simple but ingenious method of capturing rainwater runoff from the limestone boulders catches Richie eye. Before I know it we’re dropping pebbles into wells and rubbing red earth between our fingers, sniffing it for signs of life. Only a permaculture practitioner could see the island’s problems in terms of a solution. The next day there’s talk of a transition-town movement on the island, spearheaded by Richie and I, who return to free the islanders from their dependence on imports from Turkey and Rhodes, and take up residence in a traditionally built stone and lime house raised from the rubble where the Pappacotis family once dwelled. Are we dreaming?
Swims are a special time. I take them alone, as well as in company – as many as I can get. The island turtles comes to salute us during our first dip in the harbour, and on the second evening, two come to frolic at my feet. Richie jokes that they’ve come to the island to welcome me home – a blessing from Yiayia and her brothers and sister… I’d like to believe him, but apparently they’re local residents, and few visitors to the island pass a visit without seeing them.
As we board our ferry to Kas, the turtles pay us a final visit. The boat turns a tight circle – a red and yellow flag is flying on the rear. It’s hard to leave… and could have been even harder, considering I’m wanted by the border police for outstaying my EU visa by 5 weeks. It’s a lucky escape. It’s my Greek ancestry, in particular, Yiayia’s Castellorizian lineage, that gets me out of the pickle. Thank goodness for the generosity of Greek border security personnel, and the power of a few simple words like ‘parakalo‘ (please) ‘filimou’ (friend) and ‘efharisto’ (thank you)…
In memory of Chrisaphina Pappacotis (aka Nina Doratis).