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Life and Death Under the Cycladic Sun
by Nikos Laios
2017-10-19 10:55:41
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I have just returned having spent several lyrical weeks in Mykonos and Naxos islands and Athens in Greece and I consider myself fortunate that I was able to go, that I was able to spend time on the islands of Apollo on the yellow sand washed by the salty Aegean waves. Under the shadow of the economic crisis, I marvelled at the courage of my fellow Greeks, of their stoic resistance in maintaining their daily time-honoured way of life. The aromatic smells of fresh bread wafting over the cobblestone streets, and the mouth-watering aromas of roast lamb, spinach pies and fish floating out of closed blue window shutters on a siesta Sunday afternoon to the sounds of church bells, and the clickety-clack of dice rolling on backgammon boards in the cafes, while the people in every small town and village prepared and decorated their town squares with ribbons of lights and balloons festooning the bandstand in anticipation of the celebration of some saint’s day. They might have less, and live more simpler than before, but nothing stops my fellow Greeks from following the rhythm of time and traditions and a lifestyle that stretches thousands of years back to Ancient Greece.

cycl01_400In the ancient market area around the castle on Naxos island I was able to find a bookshop and bought many poetry books in Greek and also some history books, and after my morning wash and shave, I would slick back my hair take a selection of two or three books and have a coffee and traditional Greek cinnamon cookie swirls on my balcony, with the radio crackling and playing old Greek love songs from the 50’s and 60’s. One particular chapter in a history book took my attention regarding an episode during World War II, where a bunch of Greek Jews, Greek political prisoners, and Greek prisoners of war in Auschwitz organised and staged a rebellion against the Germans. Where they blew up crematoria number four and killing several SS guards on 7th of October 1944, and when they knew their time was up when the rebellion was put down, sang the Greek national anthem before they died. They had the courage to live as free men and women for a brief moment, and I marvelled at the courage of my fellow Greeks.

I spent many a time on quiet sandy beaches on Mykonos and Naxos swimming in the ocean, becomes bronzed and salt encrusted, with the Greek poetry books of Yannis Ritsos and Nikiforos Vrettakos as companions and also with the poetry of Pablo Neruda, Charles Bukowski and Allen Ginsberg. I would carry them in my shoulder bag along with my towel and waterproof camera, and would lie on the golden sand with my blue lapis worry-beads and a can of Alpha beer,

the simple pleasures of life, and the world seemed perfect! I stripped everything back to the simple lyrical pleasures of my solitude and a communion with the summer elements of nature in the Aegean, simple food, poetry and my thoughts, and these moments will stay with me forever.

I thought about the world and how complex we have made the business of living; the loss of community and meaning,  the gross figures of Trump and Kim Jong Un parading on the world stage, the petty childish power squabbling in the European Union, the hungry and destitute wandering the world searching for a mouthful of food and some human compassion, the religious fascism in the Middle East, the disgusting shallow materialism and consumer consumption and the hollow emptiness of the West. Yet I learned that the most precious possessions we have are life itself , our thoughts, and our place in the world; for not knowing, one’s place in the world is a terrible thing, and it takes great courage to find this meaning.

In Athens, relaxed and bronzed, I spent that last week of my journey in the ancient Agora, visiting the remains of the ancient state prison of Athens and the prison cell where Socrates spent his last hours, I stood on the Pnyx hill with the shadow of the Parthenon behind me and imagined Pericles speaking to the citizens of Athens. I spent the afternoons being washed by the glow of the orange sky at sunset on Paleo Faliron beach staring out towards the horizon and the distant island of Salamis and imagined Xerxes sitting on the hill across the shore watching his navy being destroyed. I spent precious time with my uncle Themistocles in his home in the beachside suburb of Glyfada and he would share his gems of wisdom. His white hair slicked back, his face smooth and relatively wrinkle free for a man of 82 yeas of age, and we would listen to Greek songs on the radio and he would stare into the distance and tell me that every hour of sunlight that he has, every new day that he lives he lives like it’s his last day and drinks every minutiae of life in.

I thought about myself and considered I was fortunate indeed that I was able to make the journey this year being that last year I had my chest ripped open and my heart operated on; I should be worm food now, but that I am not I am thankful for every additional day I have on this planet, and since then I have stripped everything back in my life to the simple things. I have lived deeply and richly and when I thought upon the meaning of my life, my reason for being, it took my near death to realise that my reason for being on this planet is to be a poet, and nothing else. To share my distilled wisdom, experience and beauty of our world through the words of my poetry, and when I am long gone one day, I hope that my words remain, and for me that is my treasure.

Upon my return to Sydney, my family here has learned in the last few days that my niece Maria - my sister Amalia’s daughter - has just been diagnosed with brain cancer. A young lady of 28 with a large tumour in her brain near her temple which is rare and which only twenty-one other people in the world have. The surgeons have advised that due to it’s position in her brain they are unable to operate and the only way they can treat it is through radiation treatment and chemotherapy. The news is a tragedy for my family, but my niece Maria rather than wallowing in panic and tears, is being stoic and very brave and is readying herself for the battle ahead for her own life in a matter-of-fact way. I frankly have never seen such a display of bravery, and all this from my young beautiful niece who has yet to drink fully from the cup of life. Having experienced myself last year a brush with death, I empathise with her and understand her battle ahead, and then I look around me at the shallow pettiness and lack of humanity here in Sydney and parts of the world in contrast with disgust. The only talk I hear of here in Sydney since I have come back is of buying houses, mortgage rates, the latest technology gadgets, who got drunk on which night, gossip about reality television shows, Hollywood news.

Sometimes it takes a brush with death to change a man or woman, to enable one to find one’s  authenticity and oneself. I would imagine at this very moment that there are millions upon millions of people around the world going through the very same thing that I went through last year, or my niece at the moment. I think about Greece, my people and family there, and even though their economy is suffering, and that they have less materially; the way they live life with such spirit, strength, courage, humanity and warmth gives me hope for mankind. I think about the old lady in Naxos in her nineties on her balcony across from mine listening to Greek love songs peeling potatoes and humming with a smile on her face, or the two sisters up the road in the local bakery waking up at 6AM getting the oven ready to make fresh bread and greeting everyone by name, or the fishermen with their gnarled hands sitting at the front of a taverna on the promenade at Naxos harbour drinking ouzo, discussing politics, watching the world go by and preparing the fish for market, or my friend Yianni washing his bar down with a smile on his face and preparing it for the afternoon.

Then at night all the local townsfolk don their summer best and take a walk on the promenade, all the families together - young and old - with buskers playing bouzoukis and accordions, and dreamlike clowns blowing giant soap sculptures for the small children, as they all head on their way to celebrate some traditional religious feast. At times, it takes contemplating life and death under a Cycladic sun to measure the world and realise that the answers we seek might just lie with our fellow man, and here I think about the words of that famous and wise Greek poet Giorgos Seferis who said:  “In our gradually shrinking world, everyone is in need of all the others. We must look for man wherever we can find him. When on his way to Thebes Oedipus encountered the Sphinx, his answer to its riddle was: «Man». That simple word destroyed the monster. We have many monsters to destroy. Let us think of the answer of Oedipus.”


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Ida & Her Magic Camera
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