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Feb 21, 2018


My friends:

After my mother died last May, I wanted to land in a place foreign to me, where I didn’t know the language, the customs, and embarrassingly now, the history. What better than a village in Rhodes, Greece, where a friend offered me her house? Where the word for tomorrow—aupio-- doesn’t just refer to tomorrow, it could be two days or two years from now. My kind of clock!

A long time ago I chose mountains over sea and since then, have had few opportunities to spend time on an island. It’s a general assumption that island people are less prone to everyday stresses, that they are more lackadaisical than the rest of the world’s population. I would soon find out for myself.

I was with friends on Rhodes Clean Monday, the day before the real fasting for Lent begins. I went with them to a kite-flying contest in a high meadow where villagers showed up with lots of kids and dogs and food and wine. Some were grilling octopus. At the fish-focused dinner at a friend’s that evening (We were a Greek, a Swede, a German, and a Brit), we talked about Lent and fasting, which today can mean giving up things other than food—like one’s cell phone. (No problem for me because I could only get cell service in the café, and that only sporadically).

I made a silent decision to give up accumulated-over-decades petit anxieties. My brain had absorbed too many warnings from government, doctors, and friends: Cigarettes kill. Driving without a seatbelt kills. Too much wine kills.  Other danger signs: non-organic foods cause cancer. Lack of sleep causes early death. Lack of exercise same. Too much sitting a big no-no. In Vermont I schedule vigorous walks, eat organic foods, purchase wines that are a cut above the ordinary, etc.  I attribute my overall good health to this, but for some time I have been aware of a sense of guilt among my friends and me if we overindulge, or neglect our exercise, or lapse into an undisciplined life. We joke about it, but deep down we worry; after all, aren’t we in control of our destiny? (Aging puts that theory to rest.)

Take the trusty seatbelt. I am so conditioned to the seatbelt that driving in my old rental car from the parking lot at the church to the café where I hang out—maybe half a mile--I immediately snap it on. The Rhodians are, shall we say, have a more laissez-faire attitude. Here’s a paradox: there are many personal shrines—no ordinary crosses stuck in the mud, but elaborate small houses-- along highways and secondary roads that are tributes to people who died there, yet on vertiginous roads with one hairpin curve after another, I noticed that the front-seat passenger in the car I was in had not bothered with the seatbelt, and in fact, when I turned to put on my seat belt, there wasn’t one. The subject was gently broached with the driver and passengers, and the driver said, well, I’d rather get thrown from the car if I go off a cliff where I might have a chance than be strapped to a vehicle falling through space. What a concept!  I relaxed and was soon transported by majestic vistas that have been observed by wanderers over millennia, back in time when the main mode of transportation was feet.

There is a relaxed attitude about smoking in public places here.  When I asked about it, I learned that it’s illegal to smoke in restaurants and cafes, but people still do. (To be fair, most of the smokers—the number of smokers surprises-- step out to the terrace to enjoy their habit.)  I know!  Second-hand smoke kills, but the sea air in Greece provides a balance. Besides, I just read that using housecleaning chemicals is the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day!

At the cafes and tavernas, wine arrives in tin tumblers filled to the brim. (You can order 225 milliters up. 240 milliters equals a cup. ) I usually do “up.” As an author of books about French wine and food, I tend to be a little persnickety. Here I have no idea of the origin of the wine I am drinking. In one café I peeked into the fridge when it was being dispensed into the copper tumbler and was slightly shocked to see it poured from a large plastic container. I closed my eyes and ordered another tumbler, 225 milligrams this time.  

The white potato. (French fries!) I know many Americans thrive on French fries, but I have shunned the white potato for a long time now. I went shopping the other day, and the owner stopped me when I put my hand on the wrong potato, pointing me to another box with a big smile on his face. It turns out Rhodes is known for her potatoes. Before cooking them, I held them to my nose and was greeted with a bouquet of earth, of fecundity. My friends and I have order Greek salad (feta, tomato, cucumber, olives) and potatoes (i.e., French fries) for late supper in the café, as the owner’s cooking leaves much to be desired.

Sleep. A plethora of articles in the U.S. have added another stress to our lives. If you don’t sleep eight straight hours, etc.  Oh dear! It took time for me to adapt to time on Rhodes. Many continue to adhere to the tradition of the siesta. I decided that if I wasn’t going to keel over from exhaustion, I would do as the Rhodians do.  So, I awoke around eight, worked on my novel, had a late lunch, and enjoyed a siesta at three.  (Why not? The shops are closed anyhow, as owners are enjoying quiet time, or naps, not sure which.)  At five I’m ready to go again, usually joining friends at 7:30, and retire at midnight or after.

Americans have the last word on exercise. A yoga class is conducted twice a week in the village I’m calling home, which is free. But exercise is also built into the terrain. The stroll through the village to purchase homemade bread is an aerobic workout. I learned trails to the sea, some days walking for two hours. On the island of Symi, an enchanted island, where I spent two days, I watched elderly people climbing steep stairs to their homes overlooking the village. 

                  So what are the results of my newly adopted laissez-faire lifestyle?  I found myself writing more, but not at scheduled times. Long walks on the beaches were followed by evenings of drinking wine, dancing with Nikos in the café and feeling high on life (and maybe the bagged wine). I adored the many dishes that arrived at the table in the local restaurants—warm eggplant salad, fava bean dip, Greek salad, fish egg dish, and many more; followed by lamb ribs or goat, and a favorite, slices of fresh oranges picked that morning dusted with cinnamon.  One day a friend drove my daughter and me to the Elanos Hotel located up a narrow, long, winding road to the top of a mountain. Ordered to be built by Mussolini during the 1930s, Ramsey said the empty, old-fashioned, elegant rooms reminded her of a Stephen King novel. We feasted on outrageous desserts, followed by coffee, laughing hysterically at our recklessness.

While in Rhodes, I traveled to places the average tourist could never imagine, to heights that offered the perspective of birds--sometimes with seatbelt, sometimes without—and took a mind-spinning rocky trail down to a beach that is inaccessible by car. It struck me one day that I had entered a 1969 time capsule, back to the time I lived in Paris in a tiny apartment with my boyfriend and a gay couple, Teddy and Jean-Luc, where everyone smoked, seatbelts hadn’t been invented, wine flowed, an American had landed on the moon—and there was absolutely nothing to worry about.  

Love, Janet


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