Photograph by Graham McLellan
Kythera has always been the crossroads of the world. The waves of Byzantine, Ottoman, Venetian, French and British conquest have left their traces on the surrounding seas. It was another token of the island’s global dimension, which may have saved Kythera from the depression in which the rest of Greece is languishing, that a Welsh lawyer from Athens visiting his Greek-Australian in-laws here before relocating to Singapore lent me Jit Paul’s memoirs, The Business of Life: Growing up with Apeejay. The Pauls were his clients and Jit Paul inscribed the book to him in London.
I met the lawyer during Easter which has a special resonance for a robust community determined to enjoy life. His mother-in-law, a handsome woman of great warmth and vivacity, is Australian one moment and English the next but always Greek. No extended Hindu family can compete in numbers or cordiality with the cousins, uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces surrounding her. They were all descended from her great great grandfather, Nicole Diacopoulos, a 19th century worthy from Karavas village, who was also my host’s great great grandfather.
We may not have fasted for Lent but broke it with great gusto in her villa overlooking the Aegean Sea in the small hours of Sunday morning with lashings of the thick soup called magiritsa made with homemade olive oil washed down with jugs of homemade grape wine. Relic of fertility rites older even than the Greek Orthodox Church, hardboiled eggs dyed bright red were smashed, shelled and eaten. Another feast — lunch sounds too tame — followed a few hours later on the beach between Agia Pelagia’s whitewashed hacienda-style arches and the cobalt glass of the sea. Greek dancers whirled around in skirts and baggy trousers to the sound of bazooka while we gorged on hunks of succulent lamb carved off sheep turning slowly on spits. The meal ended with yalaktoubourikou, a creamy custard in crisp flaky pastry oozing syrup.
Nothing in this cheerful ebullience supported a British pro-consul’s jaundiced verdict that “the Karavas people are the most disorderly and lowly in the island, and notoriously addicted to plunder”. His ire was aroused when a bunch of Karavas men looted a papal brig wrecked on Kythera’s north coast in 1855. Apparently, Nicole Diacopoulos’s three sons, Giorgio, Demetrio and Aristide, were among the culprits. Seven of them (including the Diacopoulos brothers) escaped from the forbidding Hora Castle when the jailer “forgot” to lock their cell, and made their way to mainland Greece. The three who remained were tried but had to be acquitted because the witnesses (local men like the “absent-minded” jailer) changed their stories. However, the fugitives were sentenced in absentia to 23 years’ imprisonment. When they wanted to return to Kythera some years later, the British allowed everyone except the Diacopoulos brothers who “might take revenge on the men who betrayed them to the authorities.”
According to Diacopoulos family lore, Demetrio and his brothers were punished for being staunch freedom fighters who wanted to throw out the British who had ruled Kythera from 1815 and merge it with Greece. That finally happened in 1864, ending a turbulent history whose relics can still be seen in the squat little 11th century Byzantine chapels of Ayios Nikitas and Ayios Demetrios which packs four churches in one building and in Venice’s Winged Lion of St Mark at Mylopotamos Castle.
Unlike the mainland, Kythera went global more than a century ago. Greece is suffering its worst economic crisis in six decades. Unemployment is at a record 27 per cent. United Nations agencies say public health services have collapsed and over a million people have no access to health care. Infant mortality is soaring. More than a third of minors face poverty or social exclusion, a tenth live with jobless parents or guardians. Moreover, 11 million Greeks are burdened with a million illegal immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and various Muslim African countries. Greece’s porous sea and land borders makes it the gateway for even poorer folk to enter Europe.
Economic distress coincides with two developments of which, too, there is no whisper in the crowded cafes and partying crowds of this idyllic island whose crashing waves are believed to have given birth to Aphrodite, goddess of love. Some say the government’s Operation Xenios Zeus, launched in August 2012 to round up illegal immigrants, is both cause and effect of the growth of the fiercely anti-immigrant Golden Dawn party which wants to expel all illegal foreigners. It sent members to the legislature for the first time last year and now ranks third in popularity among political parties.
The government has come down hard on Golden Dawn. Greece’s parliament voted overwhelmingly last year to suspend state funding for the party. Some of its senior leaders, including legislators, were arrested and charged with being members of a criminal organization. But given the popular mood, people suspect the government fears Golden Dawn will steal its constituency. Hence Xenios Zeus, named with unconscious irony after the mythological god who protects travellers, and the arrest and cross-examination of tens of thousands of foreigners presumed to be undocumented migrants.
“We will not allow our towns, or our country, to be occupied and become a migrant ghetto,” the hardline public order minister, Nikos Dendias, declared as plans were discussed to build eight detention centres in Athens to imprison up to 10,000 immigrants. Recently, 88 Pakistanis were put on planes, accompanied by guards, and packed off to Pakistan. That didn’t stop racist attacks by groups of men dressed in black, sometimes with their faces covered. Victims include a popular anti-fascist rapper and a 27-year-old Pakistani who had lived in Greece for five years. Both were stabbed to death.
Migration is something Kythera understands. Diacopoulos boys aged nine to twelve years were put on boats bound for distant Australia to sink or swim there. Most swam with spectacular success. Almost every island family has a connection with Australia where there are 60,000 prosperous Greeks of Kytherian descent. But prosperity didn’t come easily. One of the most poignant memorials I have ever seen is a lonely little cross under a tree with a faded inscription calling it the point of tears, welcome, joy and bitterness. It’s the spot where migrants said their last goodbyes before walking down to the harbour at Agia Pelagia. Someone has donated a simple bench next to the cross “in memory of Angeli”. Presumably, Angeli was one of the unfortunates who couldn’t swim.
Thursday’s final Easter rite involved muscular males led by the Bishop of Kythera and priests in gorgeous embroidery carrying a large ikon mounted on poles from church to church. St Luke is believed to have painted the ikon which has blackened faces for Mother and Child and which Kytherians invest with miraculous powers. There is a replica in Karavas’s 214-year-old St Charalampos church whose murals, richly painted ceiling and glittering gold make India’s most gaudy temple seem pallid and whose Easter rituals with incense, bell and flowers could have been elaborate versions of Hindu rites.
Karavas’s priest is a Diacopoulos. His wife (Orthodox priests can marry) is half a Diacopoulos. That might explain why the procession climbed the hill to pass the starkly stylish new Diacopoulos house where I am staying to the surprise of my host who wasn’t waiting at his door with burning incense as custom decrees. I had seen the priest earlier at the Anastasi (Resurrection) service at St Charalampos which was plunged into incense-laden darkness just before midnight on Easter Sunday. The candles each worshipper held provided the only illumination as the congregation chanted “Christos Anesti ek nekron … Christ is risen from the dead” before the solemn exchange that said it all. “Christos Anesti … Christ is Risen” and the response “Alithos Anesti … Truly He has Risen”. Without blaspheming, it could be Kythera’s story.