The Throumbes of Thassos

Christopher Bakken

Volume 31, Nos. 1 & 2, 2009

 

Tassos of Thassos, whose olives we shall pick, has been drinking tsipouro at a wedding all night—until just hours ago, in other words—so when he greets us at the port we can see he’s a cheerful disaster. The list of things Tassos Kouzis can do is daunting: With equal proficiency he manages to be a restaurateur, farmer, shepherd, octopus fisherman, rabbit hunter, traditional dancer, and wedding singer. The fact that he served in the Greek Special Forces means he has still other skills he can’t disclose. On top of it all, he’s indisputably handsome—black hair, close-cropped beard, irrepressible smile—and his dashing good looks help him play his various roles with perfect sprezzatura.

“It hurts me to drive slowly,” he tells us, “so put on your seatbelts.” In spite of his hangover, he attacks each switchback with a surge of acceleration. We zoom past the massive marble quarries, so huge that the cranes and bulldozers at the bottom look like toys; through the village of Panagia, where the competing, identical kafenia in the main square are opening simultaneously; past three deserted beach towns; around two herds of errant sheep and one meandering cow. Abruptly, as we round the southern shoulder of the island, the dense shag of pine and oak gives way to a barren forest of boulders that drops jaggedly down to the sea. Tassos pulls up next to the guardrail on the wrong side of the road so we can orient ourselves. The wind is blowing so hard from the southeast that every cloud has been shoved up against the mountains on the mainland behind us, making visible what is usually obscured: Samothraki, most haunted and pagan of all Greek islands, which agitates the horizon like a purple gash. Beyond that we can see the faintly pulsating outline of Asia Minor, the low molars of Limnos, and after two more bends in the road we spy in the distance pyramidical Mt. Athos, sacred home of a thousand monks and hermits and not a single woman (legend has it no woman has set foot on the peninsula since the Virgin Mary herself).

It was just a few degrees above freezing on the mainland at Keramoti, where I waited for the ferry with my brother Aaron and my friend George Kaltsas two hours earlier. Even the seagulls seemed unwilling to budge from their perches along the sea wall. We huddled in a closet-sized kafenion on the fishing dock, its proprietor trying to light a little wood stove in the middle of the room when we entered. He boiled sweet mountain tea and Greek coffee for us on propane burners. Aaron, who had just arrived in Greece from California, sat in a stupor, his hood pulled over his head.

George Kaltsas manages a hotel in Kavala, the largest port city in eastern Macedonia, just across the water from Thassos. The air of bureaucratic efficiency he gives off at the hotel belies his brooding, philosophical nature. Some years before, he welcomed me to the Hotel Oceanis with truly Homeric hospitality. After settling into my room, I was invited to join George for a bottle of superb local wine and a table full of expertly prepared mezedes, the tapas-like dishes that make up the bulk of Greek dining. Nothing was requested of me until after I’d been properly fed and watered; then I was asked to tell my story (poetry, perpetual education, Greece, poetry, Greece), which turned out to be much less interesting than the story George had to tell.

Just shy of thirty, having discovered he had bladder cancer, George turned his back on chemotherapy, the job that was killing him, and even his family. One morning he stripped off most of his clothes and swam from the mainland to Thassos, where he landed dripping saltwater and with nothing but a few drachmas in the pocket of his swim trunks. Fired by a newly adopted Zorbatic philosophy (Nietzsche filtered through the novels of Nikos Kazan tzakis), he lived a life of solitude, vegetarianism, and manual labor, all the while opening his senses to a routine of simple pleasures. For a year, he worked out the kinks in his existence on the island, then returned to his still-faithful wife and children, his cancer in remission. Small talk is of no interest to George—he’s a man of theories, passions, and compulsions, and to engage him in conversation is to engage someone who survived in order to continue pushing around ideas and drinking good wine.

For these very reasons, I needed my brother to meet him. A year ago, in the space of about a week, at only thirty-seven, Aaron was divorced, suffered a heart attack, and discovered that he had a tumor in his neck (which thankfully turned out to be benign). Having worked himself nearly to death in the competitive world of San Francisco advertising, he’d lost both his marriage and his health, and so he agreed to join me for a week of olive-picking in Greece, no cell phone or Blackberry within reach. The grandchildren of dairy farmers, we have built into our genes a belief that physical work is the antidote to every ailment. I promised him that the olive groves of Thassos would be just the place to get some dirt under our nails, and that sleepy Aliki would feel a world away from the offices of frenetic San Francisco.

Tassos having left his parents behind in the olive groves to fetch us at the port, we drop our bags at the Pension Archontissa, where we’ll be staying, and join them immediately. “Don’t worry, we came here to work,” I remind Tassos. When we arrive at the nearest of the Kouzis family groves, his parents, undistracted by the noisy fowl that surround them—peacocks, geese, ducks, and dozens of chickens—are just pouring out the first coffee of the day and unloading a crate full of breakfast food: bread, boiled eggs, canned meat, tiropites (cheese pies), oranges just plucked from the tree. Tassos’ father Stamatis rises to greet me with a leathery handshake and two kisses. Though now sporting a harvest costume of flannel and denim, he’s a fisherman and looks like one: aquiline nose, sunburned skin, a shock of unruly hair. Tassos’ mother, Evantheia—or Eva—has something of the Venus of Willendorf about her: She’s utterly sturdy, working here all month beside the men, and yet she radiates maternal softness and grace, her voice a joyful lilt, her face always on the precipice of a smile. Both parents seem a little stunned that I’ve actually come; surely my vow to join their olive harvest, sworn after a long night of drinking the previous summer, was not in earnest. Yet here I am, with my brother in tow, stocking-capped, combat-booted, and armored in canvas and fleece—a litde over-dressed for the work we’re about to do. As it turns out, Tassos is picking olives in his Armani jeans.

In truth, the labor isn’t much to master. Tassos hands us tsougrana, the only necessary implement: little plastic rakes mounted on footlong wooden broom handles. With these, he demonstrates, you rake—or comb—the olive trees, using choppy downward strokes. We can feel the olives catch in the tines of the tsougrana, then fall, but surprisingly most of the leaves and branches remain intact. Beneath us are stretched enormous nylon green nets known as dichtia (which is the same word Stamatis uses for his fishing nets) where the olives come to rest. The trees are no more than fifteen feet tall, but so dense with silver-green leaves and black olives that you can’t see through them to where someone else is combing fruit from the outer layers of those branches.

There’s no particular pattern to our combing, no rule about moving clockwise, say, or keeping a certain distance from the next person; where you see olives, you bring them down, shuffling your feet along the nets so as not to trample the booty you’ve already liberated from the tree. It’s effective, I find, to gather three or four branches together at a time, arranging them into a kind of impromptu braid before combing out its thousand knots. Just when you think you’ve stripped a whole tree-side of its fruit, you part the branches and step forward only to find another whole layer of fruit in the black-green shade of the tree’s low canopy, peppering the underside of each scraggly branch.

Meanwhile, above us, Tassos and Stamatis employ a different method entirely. The Italians have invented mechanical tsougrana that run on compressed air. Mounted at the end of telescoping aluminum wands are pairs of red and black mechanical fingers of varying lengths; when a trigger is pressed these fingers begin furiously clapping. Dragged along the upper branches, the fingers knock the olives from the branches about a hundred at a time, sending them raining down on the heads of those working below. At least once per day I look up to speak only to have an olive drop right into my mouth. Unfortunately, the gasoline-powered air compressor is horribly noisy, always rumbling and revving, and the mechanical fingers clatter through the branches like rusty machine guns. There’s no possibility of placid conversation, not to mention the traditional harvest songs I imagined we’d be singing around the olive trees. As a result, each of us sinks into our own brain-wandering, into an almost pleasurable catatonic state induced by the repetitive sweeping of the combs and the racket of Italian technology.

In the space of my first hour standing inside an olive tree, I cover a lot of useless mental territory: reciting to myself every Robert Frost poem I can recall from memory, inventing the lines I don’t remember; contemplating a distant cousin I haven’t thought of for years; doing wishful accounting on my finances; worrying about my children back home; flashing back to a fistfight I lost one summer when I was twelve; counting the strokes of my tsougrana, then losing count; thinking briefly about the relationship between Czeslaw Milosz and Robinson Jeffers, then, in an inexplicable segue, about the late albums of Bob Marley; puzzling over how to fix the last feeble stanza of a poem I drafted the week before; wishing for cold beer, then wishing instead for a glass of tsipouro, a home-made firewater distilled, like grappa, from the byproducts of winemaking—call it ouzo’s evil cousin. In fact, I cover so much ground that I begin to realize how little time I usually give over to daydreaming; on task, on topic, most of my waking hours at home are spent in a regulated blur of focused activity, punctuated by the kind of desperate, narcotic sleep known to all parents of small children.

The revelations that arrive here are mundane yet somehow beautiful, like this one: Olive trees are remarkably clean. In a whole afternoon—and then in the whole week that follows—I don’t encounter a single representative of vermin, nor even a spider web. This strikes me as even more astounding when Tassos confirms that the trees have never been sprayed with anything but rain. At the end of the day, I feel some residue of the trees on my clothes and skin: The leaves wear a faint layer of pollen or dust that smells, not surprisingly, like powdered olive oil. Nothing is as rugged and stoical as an olive tree; nothing, it turns out, is as pristine.

The olives themselves vary in color from black to violet to lime green, but all, regardless of color, are visibly swollen. Press one between your fingertips and it oozes milky oil. Though I know better, I can’t restrain myself from tasting at least one of the raw olives I’ve flown so far to pick. Straight from the tree, olives are unbearably bitter and tannic, inducing the very worst kind of cotton-mouth; after the initial flavor of bright, scratchy oil comes a flood of turpentine, beeswax, and rubber cement, seemingly bound together with a mouthful of corn starch. The unpleasant flavor of the raw olive will not be washed away with water, and I find myself hawking and spitting for an hour. I’m amazed to see George occasionally stop his furious combing (who knew a hotel manager could work someone else’s olives with such gleeful abandon?) and pop an olive into his mouth without any visible reaction.

For olives to become palatable, they are usually soaked in brine. Technically, throumbes are table olives that have been cured without brine, and they can be found all over Greece. But those produced on this island are of such high quality that one buys throumbes hoping that they will be from Thassos. At Titan Foods in the heart of Greek Town in Astoria, New York, for instance, you will find among the olive bins one labeled “Thassos,” the island’s name being synonymous with its famously wrinkled produce.

Here, a day’s work is measured in telara, the ubiquitous and sturdy red plastic crates distributed by the local olive oil cooperative. Each telaro holds about twenty-five kilos of olives, which will typically yield between one and three liters of oil, even more if the olives are particularly plump. To keep Tassos’ restaurant in oil for the tourist season, the family needs to gather between three and four thousand kilos of olives, or about one hundred fifty telara. When you have brought down all the olives from a tree, which takes nearly an hour with the very largest of the trees, two people gather the green nets together so as to funnel the olives into a single pile, where they can be quickly picked over—to remove the largest twigs and leaves—then transferred into the telara. Today, five of us work an hour to fill two or three of these crates. If we were working for a wage, it’d certainly be meager. But in fact there is no wage; we work for the oil, which has always been more valuable than money in countries like Greece. With oil comes nutrition and fuel and light. This is why property is often apportioned according not to acreage but to the number of olive trees growing on it. This is why in Greece one is lucky to inherit trees.

***

I first visited Thassos in the early Nineties, willing my stubborn wreck of a motorcycle from Thessaloniki across the supernaturally fertile northern half of the Halkidiki peninsula, toward the twin castles of the town of Kavala, and on to Keramoti, where ferries churn across to Thassos every hour or so. The old highway runs along the ancient route of the Via Egnatia, the great Roman road that stretched from the Adriatic to Constantinople; here in Macedonia, it skirts the plain where the Battle of Philippi was fought, where the young Octavian and Mark Antony crushed the armies of the assassin Brutus.

To get to a Greek island by boat, you must endure a chaotic crush of human and vehicle traffic at the port, a frenzy of parcels and luggage and shouts and sweat that lasts only as long as a boat is unloading or loading. By the time the foam and weeds churned up by the propellers have stopped simmering and the vessel has turned out to sea, such places are virtually empty. One or two people will have lingered, mournfully watching their lovers or children disappear into the world ahead of the ship’s wake, but beyond that only the fastidious port cats will remain, having emerged from the shadows to inspect the garbage cans once again.

But if you drive your motorcycle off such a boat, the difference is extraordinary. You rev the engine up inside the bowels of the ferry and then go roaring down its steel ramp, straight past the hoteliers hawking rooms, past the cargo of fruit and chickens, right into the waiting landscape. My first time here, I don’t think my feet actually touched the soil of Thassos for two hours, when I finally had to stop for gas about halfway around the island. Its roads offered a feast of speed and mountain air, redolent of pine sap and wood smoke, since a huge portion of the island had recently burned, as it does every decade or so. Even so it was shockingly green, reminiscent for me of northern Wisconsin, but with spring-fed streams and cliffside beaches instead of the pike-stuffed lakes of my boyhood.

I came to set up my illegal camp at Aliki, a boot-shaped peninsula flanked by calm little swimming coves and bristling with spooky archeology: Atop its acropolis, one can wander among the remains of a very early Christian basilica, which in turn was built atop a pagan temple from the Hellenistic period, which no doubt conceals the foundations of an even more archaic shrine. A dirt road led down to the single fish taverna, but the rest of the peninsula, screaming with cicadas and swarming with honeybees, was then accessible only by foot. I pitched my garish orange pup tent underneath an olive tree next to a black pit into which (according to local legend) the temple priestesses would pitch male virgins after deflowering them. As I stumbled back to my tent after late dinners at the lonely little taverna, my flashlight would inevitably awaken terrifying shadows from that gaping mouth—no wonder I woke every morning there in a cold sweat, punished by nightmares.

But the highlight of the peninsula is the Roman marble quarry, acres of blinding marble that intrepid sailors and their slaves excavated for several hundred years with ingenious wooden winches, cranes, and rollers. What remains is a spectacular lunar surface of man-made tide pools, rectangular crevasses and misshapen rock spines, the kind of place one could reasonably expect to encounter a centaur, or Princess Nausikaa and her maids doing their laundry.

“What do you call that mountain?” I ask during one of our coffee breaks on the second morning of our work. We have moved our equipment to the abstractly terraced, boulder-strewn grove where the Kouzis family grazes its twenty sheep. Riddled with caves and jutting ferociously into the low clouds, the crag above us is nearly barren, too steep to support any plant life except the most determined brambles. From that Cyclopean forehead, the shoulders of the valley drop east and west, vested in a thick hide of pine and scrub oak that runs down to the sea, which I can actually hear from time to time, since today the winds have changed direction and angry ten-foot waves are detonating in the rocky cove below.

Einai vouno,” Stamatis says with a dismissive wave of his hand: “It’s a mountain.”

“Well, but the old timers, if they want to be specific, call it Kleftoyiannis Brachos,” Eva interjects: “the Hill of Yiannis the Thief.”

“Who is Kleftoyiannis?” I ask, “and what did he steal?” But no one seems interested enough to remember.

This morning we can see our breath, and a light drizzle has left us damp and decidedly cold now that we have stopped our work to rest. No one is much in the mood for conversation. We pull our coffee cups up close to our faces, peel boiled eggs and oranges, and bash open walnuts with stones, staring down bleakly at the forty or so olive trees we’ll need to conquer here. “But as for me,” Horace says in one of his satires, “my simple meal consists of chicory and mallow from the garden… And olives from the little olive tree.” In spite of the cold, it’s impossible not to take pleasure in this laborer’s meal, in knowing diat all of it was grown within a square mile of this grove, this mountain, and that we are working today so others can have olives tomorrow.

The sheep gather around us and bleat plaintively for handouts. The most persistent ewe has only one good eye (the other was put out by a stalk of bristle grass and is now grey as the yolk of an over-boiled egg); she nudges her way into our midst and must be shooed away with curses and a stomping of boots. “Oh, my darling, my pretty,” my brother says to her each time she approaches, and we are punchy enough to find his flirtations hilarious every time.

Each year most of the ewes will escort one or two lambs into this forbidding palace of red rock, where they will feed off their mother’s milk from December until just before Easter. That is, until they are weaned; then their throats are cut for the sake of the Kouzis family restaurant. One would think that such a profound annual betrayal would make the sheep wary of, if not hateful toward, their human captors. On the contrary, they’re tame and cheerful as dogs, though they lack the sympathetic behaviors—whimpering, piteous gazing, and so forth—that dogs use to manipulate us. The moment the sheep hear, from the invisible depths of the canyon, the idiosyncratic grind of the transmission on Stamatis’ pickup, they begin bleating desperately, trotting off in the direction of the gate where their beloved master will soon arrive, his truck clattering and coughing from the climb, with plastic buckets of shell corn for them to gobble from filthy troughs.

Now that we’ve made friends with the beasts, I begin to feel the weight of guilt, remembering how many plates of grilled lamb chops I’ve devoured back at Pension Archontissa. There they are flash-grilled twenty to a plate, flooded with lemon and dusted at the last minute with salt, pepper, and dried oregano. Their flavor has a smoky wildness to it unlike any American lamb I’ve tasted; seeing now what their mountain grazing matter consists of—most of it looking about as palatable as a tossed salad of thumbtacks and toothpicks—I can understand why. I’m hoping our companion, the one-eyed ewe, doesn’t know how many of her offspring I’ve eaten, hot blood dripping from my chin. When I offer her a walnut, she licks my fingers disgustingly.

Only one ram is currently in service to the flock, and he’ll soon be replaced. “He’s dangerous,” Tassos warns us, “don’t turn your back on him.” Indeed, about an hour later, from inside the mane of an olive tree I’m combing, I see—just a second too late to shout out a warning—the ram lower its horned head and slam Stamatis in the back of his knees with astonishing force. Stamatis winces, buckles, but does not fall. Then he unleashes a string of beautiful curses, until at last he is bent double in rage and pain. Recovering himself a few moments later, he runs to pick up a fallen branch, and only the most insistent shouting from Tassos and Eva can keep him from braining the brute there and then.

“What good will it do? That bastard won’t learn a thing from being beaten,” Tassos shouts.

“Put him in the stew-pot instead,” Eva suggests, “with some baby onions and bay leaves.”

Stamatis goes off to recover his dignity on a boulder, fuming in silence. The ram, having had his fun, joins the ewes by the now-empty corn troughs. “That fucker will get the knife soon,” Tassos whispers down to me through the branches with conspiratorial certainty.

Touchingly, about five glasses of tsipouro into the following evening, Tassos reveals to me that his father—who is about as salty and taciturn and stoical a creature as I can imagine—is unwilling to butcher the lambs himself.

“My father feeds them, sings to them, even helps when a ewe has problems giving birth. He has my uncle Nikos do the killing for him.”

“Does your father feel the same way about his fish?”

“No, no, no. Those he clubs across the skull and on he goes to spill his nets in the next cove.”

The drama of the ram behind us, we resume our labor. By contrast, yesterday’s work was child’s play. The trees were young, virile, and evenly spaced on relatively flat ground, since the poultry farm spreads out across three wide terraces dug with a bulldozer’s precision. We simply stretched the nets across level earth and attacked the branches. Most importantly, those branches were heavy with swollen black fruit the size of fat almonds; each robust stroke of the tsougrana unleashed a joyful pattering of olives down upon the nets. Each tree yielded at least a full tehro of fruit, and some considerably more than that. “Some years the larger trees will give ten full tekra each,” Tassos tells me. “This is nothing.”

Today, beneath Kleftoyiannis Brachos, Stamatis surveys the trees in his domain with the suspicious, painfully resigned wince farmers everywhere from Attica to Alabama employ when faced with the catastrophic sight of a lame harvest. Olive trees observe a cycle of fertility—two years on, one year off—though of course not all the trees follow the same clock. Variations in rainfall and temperature can also make a difference—this year’s summer drought, which had much of southern Greece on fire, has taken its toll. “But the trees have olives,” I say by way of encouragement, scraping my bright red tsougrana at the air with exaggerated enthusiasm. “Let’s bring them down.”

Echoun ligo…ochee, den echoon skata,” Stamatis retorts: “They have a little. . .no, they don’t have shit.”

Before long I see what he means. The trees here have drilled themselves impossibly into bare rock. Reddish boulders sprout from the clay in profusion, but everything green looks pinched, scratchy, and contorted. It’s just barely possible to imagine the outlines of terraces, since here and there some enterprising, long-dead soul once piled enough rocks to build a wall. But most of the trees have worried themselves into any spot that bears more than a few inches of dusty soil. As a result, our work today will be vertical instead of horizontal; only every third tree has enough olives to bother harvesting, and these all seem to be cruelly suspended into spaces that will frustrate our attempts to bring down their fruit. Where yesterday’s trees were like willows into whose bejeweled depths we disappeared, these yield only a wispy branch or two of satisfactory produce.

Because olives are (just barely) round enough to roll, we now have to anticipate their course down the mountain, and it often takes longer to arrange the nets beneath these trees here than to strip them. I learn quickly how to situate fallen branches and little brambles beneath the edges of the nets to create hollows into which the olives can ungracefully tumble, collecting in black pools. Sometimes nets have to be stretched over tall shrubs and tangles of evil berry vines that rake our forearms. After combing the easiest branches those we can reach with both feet on the ground—we perform an absurd, slow-motion dance: Balancing on one foot, or rather the outer edge of a boot sole, and hanging on to a branch with one hand, we lean out over a pile of jagged stone just to rake down twelve or thirteen olives. Or else we heave ourselves up into the canopy of the tree, negotiating an annoying labyrinth of branches, to wipe out one meager colony of black spots.

“What are you doing up there, Aaron?” Tassos calls out when the air compressor suspends its racket for a few moments. “Leave those there for the birds.”

“But I’m pissed at these ones,” Aaron shouts back, his head just visible at the top of the tree, “I’ve been after them for five minutes.”

“Let me,” Tassos replies, and once he starts up the compressor again, he manages to strip the little patch of fruit by standing on his toes and stretching out his mechanical fingers so they stutter along the topmost branches.

In the end, most trees yield little more than a single, sorry layer in the bottom of an empty tehm, then we must perform the trigonometry of net-arrangement beneath the next contorted tree. We are all cold and discouraged. Thankfully, the drizzle becomes a downpour. Stamatis cuts the power on the compressor for good and shouts, “We’re not slaves, let’s behave like free men and quit before we drown.”

A few nights later, at the bar, we get a few titillating details about the hill of the elusive Kleftoyiannis. We have just eaten a feast of ortikia, tiny local quail that Tassos’ cousin, also named Tassos, has grilled with astonishing dexterity over the roaring flames of a fireplace in the corner of his restaurant. Every morsel of the quail is as rich and fatty as duck liver, with an added grassiness that must be the result of the birds’ nesting in the marshes on the mainland. Even the men at our table know they are being treated to a delicacy and they nod with reverential gratitude toward the man who shot them, a resident of Kavala famous even here, on an island across the water, for his ability to bring down these tiny wildfowl with his gun.

A steady supply of tsipouro has us well on the way to inebriation. While drinking tsipouro, as with ouzo, one is supposed to eat some mezedes to keep the demons inside the moonshine at least partially at bay. Tonight, only two mezedes are served: a bowl of freshly picked gigantes—gigantic white beans—oven-roasted with tomatoes, carrots, and parsley, and a slab of the undramatically named dopio tiri (“local cheese”), which turns out to be the richest cheese I’ve ever tasted in Greece, its equal portions of goat and sheep milk held together by a tender membrane of rind. When I begin swooning over the cheese, pestering the men with my inquiries about it, they point to a scarecrow sipping tsipouro in the corner. “That’s the shepherd there,” they tell me. He’s watching a table of noisy men play bilot, the Thassian card game that seems to obsess everyone on the island. When we ask him about the cheese, he tastes a slice from his impossibly weathered fingertips. “It’s not mine,” he says, “this is some other man’s cheese. There’s too much goat in this one.” With that, he nods and returns to his corner and his drink.

Tassos’ uncle, Triandafilos, cuts an imposing figure, and his enormous shoulders look even broader since he cradles one arm in a sling at the middle of his chest. A black wind-breaker has been slung across his shoulders like a cape. His features might betray a hint of German or Turkish ancestry—his loose jaw, flat nose, and cheerful blue eyes are anomalous among the Thassian men gathered at the table, who all look related to one another (and who, it turns out, are). After dislocating his shoulder in a fall some years ago, he refused proper treatment and now his right hand has all but seized up; the fingers that protrude from the end of his sling are as swollen as bratwurst, and he moves with the careful deliberation of one in pain. In spite of his injury, it’s clear he’s still ferociously strong. He’s just bid us good night, his undamaged arm raised in farewell, when Tassos begs him to tell us what he knows about Yiannis the Thief.

“Who wants to know?” he asks.

“The writer. Mr. Professor Christopher. The American poet.”

“During the years when the Turks were here,” he explains while refusing a chair with a little lift of the chin, “the people lived off of nothing. They had olives and wild greens, maybe a mountain hare now and then for the stew-pot if they had managed to keep a gun.”

“No, that story takes place during the years of the Bulgarians,” someone from behind us interjects.

“Po, po, po. What’s the difference? The people were hungry both times,” Triandafilos says, with the backward shrug the Greeks employ to indicate absurdity or exasperation.

“This man Yiannis lived alone, who knows why, and would keep himself alive by pinching a tomato or a watermelon here and there from the gardens of the shepherd’s wives. Or he’d make off with a handful of their eggs. Never too much. Everyone understood that the man needed to eat, so out of charity no one reported him. These were human crimes. Anyway, they couldn’t have caught him if they wanted to, since he followed paths up into the mountain that only the goats knew and kept his loot in a cave that no one has ever found. The mountain was named for him.”

In few landscapes is history as legible as in Greece, where so many place names bear the weight of classical association: Sparta, Corinth, Thebes. It’s difficult to think of them in realistic terms, as the rather destitute and depressing little towns they now are. And so I find it refreshing, and somewhat touching, to learn that far more recent history—or mythology—has been inscribed here, on an obscure bluff in an obscure corner of a once-famous little island. After Triandafilos leaves, I ask Tassos if all the hills have names, if all the old people have such history in their veins.

“No, people like my uncle are hard to find now. These details are being forgotten,” Tassos says.

The famous bird killer of Kavala, depositing one last bit of quail carcass in the ashtray before him, concurs, then raises his glass while quoting a village proverb everyone else around the table seems to know: “If you don’t have an old man in your family, then you should buy one.”

To get to the olives each morning, we park our rental car about halfway up the thief’s mountain (above this point the ruts in the road become veritable trenches) and walk up the steep switchbacks, past a mountain stream that’s cut its way into the island shale and a complex of brightly painted bee boxes arranged between pine trees. Around the next turn, we come to an enormous purple field of flowering heather that today is a seizure of bees. At first their collective song is almost inaudible, but as soon as we stop walking for a moment and slow our noisy heartbeats, we realize that it is in fact deafening. “What note is that?” I ask my brother, who hums his way up the scale.”They are singing in B flat,” he concludes. Then, after a moment’s pause, he adds, “But once in a while some of them step up an interval to a harmonic note __ D sharp, I think.”

Over dinner, our hosts insist that we put aside our hard labor for at least one morning of exploration. “Show the island to your brother,” Kyria Eva implores me as she pours out the last of the wine and simultaneously pushes another piece of calamari on to my empty plate. “Don’t worry, there’ll be plenty of olives to pick when you come back.”

The winds of the previous day have gone as quickly as they came, and today the sun is blazing. We’ve shed our insulated vests for T-shirts. Our little rental car purrs along the coastal road, which in summer will be abuzz with mopeds and Fiats carrying those sightseers brave enough to venture beyond the port town and their hideous beach hotels for a glimpse of “the other Thassos,” the fishing villages and mountain hamlets praised for their “authenticity” in every brochure. But today the road vibrates with the noise of pickup trucks, most of them heavy with crates of gleaming olives on the way to the local oil-press, or else precariously loaded with harvest paraphernalia, with heaped green nets and robotic forearms, whose compressor-driven clacking I now hear in my nightmares.

At every turn we see little groups of islanders spreading nets and combing trees, sometimes barely visible underneath the endless olive groves that define every horizon not defined by the sea. There’s an urgency in the air that leaves me feeling neglectful, irresponsible—a thousand empty telara wait somewhere to be filled, and here we are setting off for a day of lazy tourism.

Our first stop is the monastery of Archangelos, presently overseen by a vigilant and nervous gaggle of diminutive nuns. For years they’ve worshipped in a tiny church, dark and small as a chicken coop, shingled in the traditional Thassian way with hand-chipped plates of shale. But the monastery is owned and operated by one of the gigantic monasteries of nearby Mount Athos, so money pours in from mysterious ecclesiastical sources, and for the past decade a new church has been rising just behind the old one—we can hear hammering and the churning of a concrete truck. A nearly toothless crone offers us Turkish delight and tells us in broken German (why does she assume we’re German?) that photographs are forbidden inside the sanctuary gates. “Tsk, tsk, tsk,” she says, while clicking the shutter of an invisible camera with one hand and waggling the arthritic index finger of her other.

Inside the church, the icon of the Archangel Michael is just visible beneath his panoply of offerings: wedding rings, gold chains, military stripes, a soccer trophy, little body parts of hammered silver (representing the afflicted limbs and torsos of those seeking intercession), and a bizarre phalanx of ornately filigreed swords topped here and there with Greek army caps, presumably left by soldiers or their anxious mothers.

Continuing past the monastery, we must endure ten minutes of white-knuckled terror as the road switchbacks up the cliffside. The shadow of Mount Athos is visible now and then in the distance to the west, and far below—causing instant vertigo whenever I, the driver, glance down at them—are silent, massive waves, working fruitlessly to erode the white marble mass of Thassos. Then suddenly the road turns inland with a jerk and flattens out on a fertile plateau dominated by olives. The air above the trees is alchemized by the silver light their leaves cast when they lift in the slight breeze. Here the work would be comparatively easy, we understand by now: With no trees growing at impossible angles, we’d be spared the constant adjustment of our drop-nets, the awkward boulder ballet.

Behind the Thassos Oil filling station (the island boasts one surprisingly productive rig off the southern coast), next to the rusting hulks of five dead semitrailers, two ridiculously picturesque Thassians are gathering olives from their little patch of trees. They must be about eighty, he sporting a felt fisherman’s cap and denim vest, she the black dress and black cardigan that all the old women here seem to wear. Our digital cameras emerge from their cases, but we keep three or four trees between them and us, a little ashamed of our spying, despite the fact that we too are now masters of the dichitia, capable fillers of telara. She disappears from my brother’s lens just as he is about to capture her for posterity, via telephoto, and for the next five minutes we cannot locate her at all, even with our bare eyes. The man is still there on the third rung of his wooden ladder (they have no machinery here), but she has vanished. No… suddenly, there she is once more, her capped head visible in the upper branches of the tree, which can only mean that she has climbed up into it! And now we hear her bashing away with her bamboo cane, just as farmers did for thousands of years before the advent of air compressors and mechanical claws. Later, when the tree has been beaten to death, I know they’ll kneel together and pick up by hand what has been brought down with persistence and brute force.

Tracing half the circumference of the island beyond the villages of Limenaria and Potos (where we will return later in the week to deliver a truckful of telara to the olive cooperative) takes only about a half hour. Again, here on this side of the island, the kafenia are devoid of their armies of bead-flipping grandfathers, the mini-marts are closed, and even the churches are deserted. Fishing caiques are pitifully at rest on stilts, forlorn in spite of their pastel paint jobs and light-scattering spinnerets, pulled far up the beach until the olive harvest has ended.

Before long we pull into Thassos town itself, past the first harbor (modern and ugly, it’s dominated by the docks of the competing ferry companies), past about a hundred comatose hotels and the papered-over windows of knick-knack shops, down to the sublime ancient harbor, a semi-circle of crystalline seawater that’s been put to use for at least three thousand years. We smell the bakery but cannot locate it—is there a secret door? We search in vain for a restaurant other than the deservedly empty Zorba’s, which still has a sunbleached menu with revolting photographs of gelatinous moussaka hanging in the window from the previous summer.

The only other option is the opulent-looking Taverna Simi, which I’d normally avoid. On Greek islands, ironed white tablecloths and fancy décor usually mean inflated prices, too-attentive service by polyglot waiters, and an overambitious chef. Granted, the place is beautiful, with antique nautical bric-a-brac, black and white photographs of local archeology, and cruciform windows opening out on the harbor. We’re the only customers, and for us to dine they have to turn on the lights. Predictably, the waiter shows no interest in speaking Greek; he’s lived in London for years while finishing his MBA and only spends his winters here, “bored out of his skull,” he says, “dreaming of Picadilly Circus” while his girlfriend in Thessaloniki “goes out to flirt in the clubs every night.”

To our delight, since we’re somehow famished yet again, the food is immaculate and fresh: horta, wilted wild greens dressed in new oil and lemon; a smear of chtipiti (a word that bewilders the English-speaking tongue), mashed feta with hot peppers; a plump, impossibly tender tentacle of grilled octopus, drizzled with simple red vinegar and a dash of orégano; and melitzana tiganita, crispy fried eggplant slices, accompanied by tzatziki. And at last, I eat an olive—a bona fide throumbes olive from Thassos. It’s as wrinkled as anything ancient should be, a black eye blinded by salt. The taste of an island is in this fruit. Let all the others give oil; this one has enough meat to stall every other need. Which isn’t to say we stop with the olives; we eat everything in sight with the focused rapacity of farm hands.

When the waiter comes around to refill our tin carafe of white wine, his curiosity gets the best of him. “So you live in Greece… or are you just visiting? You know, we don’t see many foreigners on Thassos this time of year.”

When I tell him we’ve paid our own way here, merely to help harvest someone else’s olives, he freezes in disbelief.

“But why?” he asks. “This is boring work. Drudgery. And don’t they have olives in America?”

“That’s a good question,” my brother replies, clinking his wine glass against mine, “and in fact we do have olive trees where I live in California.”

How can we explain to him what this labor represents? For my brother, a reprieve from a life tethered to his Blackberry, from the still-simmering psychodramas of his recent divorce, from the wasted hours sitting in traffic, from the opulent poverty known to those who pay through the teeth to live in San Francisco. For me, a perfect antidote to the life of the mind, that monotonous rhythm of reading and pondering and pontificating I’m paid to maintain; a break from the well-meaning students who wait outside my office door, vampiric and hopelessly earnest, hoping that I’ll praise their verses; a pause in my duties as father, a hushing of the voice of responsibility and devotion that drones its endless mantra through every breakfast, lunch, and diaper change: Just keep the kids breathing, love them, give them everything and more; relief from my own poetry, which always waits to be written, which is (I suddenly realize while eating an olive) the source of the weight I always feel in my chest on those rare occasions when I stop to pay attention to my body for a moment, something lodged there like any true need close to the heart, fed by oxygen, hope, and despair. I’ve let that pressure go these past few days, it occurs to me now, unleashed it just enough so it might toss about in the branches of the olive trees I’m combing, the joyful daemon of my poetry sprung from its intellectual jail.

When the waiter brings our bill, he glances at us devilishly and says, “You know, when you’re done paying Tassos to harvest his olives at Aliki, I’d be willing to let you pay me to harvest mine. I’ve got about two hundred trees down by Limenaria that are waiting to be picked.”

When our work is done on the fourth day, Tassos insists that we go mushroom hunting. “We’ll gather them along the way. . .we’ll have a bagful in no time, I promise,” he tells us while diving headfirst into a profusion of pine branches thick enough to render him immediately invisible. After another day of working olives in the rain, the idea of mucking around the wet underbrush seems just plain dumb. When we hear Tassos holler a gleeful “Mamma mia!” a few minutes later, however, we’ve got enough curiosity and appetite to bound into the trees ourselves. “Hell, we’re already soaked,” my brother points out.

We’re gathering piperites, mushrooms that, like the bees, keep close company with the purple-flowering heather. Though half-covered by fallen pine needles, they’re easy to find around the roots of each clump of bush. They’re the size and color of small portobellos, but with a delicacy lacking in their mass-produced supermarket counterparts, being slightly fluted at the edges of each cap. Once you locate one, you’ve located a hundred, since they arrange themselves into little fungic city-states around the roots of the heather. Unfortunately, they’re pretty much identical to another kind of mushroom that’s highly poisonous.

“If you see red underneath, throw it away,” Tassos tells us. “Brown is OK, but you must crack open the stems to check for worms.”

Sure enough, every other mushroom is riddled with the excavations of disconcerting little maggot-like creatures. When I show Tassos a handful of wormless mushrooms, asking him if they’re what we want, he replies, “Well, we’ll see,” which I don’t find very comforting.

With our bags full, we resume our descent down the mountain, but Tassos stops abrupty and hushes our conversation with a wave of his flattened palm. I expect he’s heard some beast in the brush; I expect to be charged by a wild boar or rabid billy goat. Instead, from high up on Kleftoyiannis Brachos, I hear the echo of someone shouting. At first I can’t make out what they’re saying, but then Tassos points to a little column of smoke about half a mile away, beneath which, nearly invisible, I now see a house, Tassos’ uncle’s place.

Thus begins one of the oddest conversations I’ve ever heard: Tassos shouting out greetings, echo, his uncle shouting back questions about the olives, echo, Tassos asking after his wife, echo, his uncle asking after Eva and Stamatis, echo, then some discussion of mushrooms, echo, where we’ve found them, echo, whether they’re big enough to eat, echo, and finally, by way of signing off, a cheerful pair of “Yia sou”s, echo echo. When I ask Tassos what on earth that was all about, he smiles and says, “Christopher, that was a Thassian telephone.”

****

Where I come from, occupation is the key to self-definition; we are what we “do for a living.” Americans refer to a work “ethic” for a reason, since in our culture it’s unethical to do anything but work—and working hard is the only option. By contrast, Greeks approach all work, from manual labor to bureaucratic paper-pushing, with balanced skepticism. A frequently conquered people, they prize their autonomy, which entails the freedom to act as they see fit, to flout the dictates of the law and even of reason. Above all else, they answer to philotimo, a kind of self-pride that defines their individual sense of honor as well as their sense of Greekness. How many times have I waited at the post office or bank while the teller, exercising his or her own autonomy, finishes a cigarette or phone conversation before serving me and the line of people behind me?

Here on Thassos, there’s no “work day” per se—Stamatis will work as long as he wants and rest when he wants. We will work and rest along with him, as we see fit. Most days, that means we stop our labor in the early afternoon and retire to the pension for a very civilized lunch: often just leftovers from the previous night, but always accompanied by something fresh from the garden, an arugula salad or a platter of beets and slivered garlic dressed with new oil. And we will have tsipouro if we want tsipouro, or beer if we want that. And we might take a siesta afterward. Because we can. This isn’t to say the Greeks don’t work hard. As a college professor no longer accustomed to long days of physical labor, I was astounded to learn just how much stamina is required to maintain a farm, to do the daily chores, not to mention picking the olives, making the wine, distilling the tsipouro, catching the fish, and running the restaurant. In spite of all that gets accomplished in a single day at Pension Archontissa, the urgency to live well trumps every other necessity and the pace is always relaxed, especially during the “offseason.”

In the evening, our task is to sort the olives we’ve collected. We gather inside a little shed lined with straw bales, survey the beautiful telara brimming with olives, and take our seats before a kind of conveyor belt made of springs. The olives are dumped in a hopper at one end and make their way down the line, where the gap between the springs slowly widens so that the smallest olives drop first and the largest drop last, allowing us to sort them by size while we remove the twigs and leaves and other foreign matter. This is as monotonous as any factory work, but it requires just enough speed and dexterity to feel slightly challenging; it helps that there’s a little nook next to each spot on the belt where one can nestle a glass of tsipouro, to keep things jovial.

While manning the conveyor belt one evening, Tassos agrees to reveal to me the secret I’ve come here in part to discover: the recipe for throumbes. Only the very biggest olives, those that tumble down at the very end of the belt, many of them too large to fall between the springs at all, are destined to become throumbes. They must be free of blemish, perfectly black, and nearly obese with oil. The smooth-skinned Kalamata olives, typically pitted and then exported everywhere on earth, offer only two pleasures to the palate: brine and a spongy uniformity of texture. Forgive me, Peloponessians, but I’ve come to think of Kalamata olives as little more than a delivery system for salt. Throumbes, on the other hand, attack the palate with contrasting sensations: Though shriveled, their flesh has an almost meaty texture; the flavor, at first nutty, gets swept up in dusky tannins, as with a good red wine, moving on toward notes of bay leaf and bitter thyme. The olive’s farewell gesture, which has been there all along of course, is its finish: Throumbes are salty, like most olives, but since they never touch a drop of liquid brine the salt comes at the last moment, with as much grace as salt can muster.

The recipe, which I am certain must involve bay leaves and perhaps some sort of citrus or other curing agent, turns out to be moronically simple. Tassos leads me to the back of the shed, to a pile of what look like white plastic bricks.

“What’s this?” I ask him.

“All you’ll need to make your throumbes,” he replies.

Clearly marked on each brick is “Salt for Olives.” Nothing more, nothing less. There’s no curing agent, no seasoning, no sulfites. Tassos fills a large plastic garbage bag with olives, dumps in a handful of coarse salt, and then punctures the bottom of the bag with his pocket knife a few times so it can drain. He ties the bag shut with twine, places a brick on top of it, and walks away.

“That’s it?” I ask.

“Yes. They’ll be ready in about ten days. You can taste them next summer when you come.”

It isn’t easy to work our last day on the island. The weather has turned summery again, with the sun blaring down and the wind barely stirring the branches of the pomegranate tree outside our balcony. We’re supposed to be tackling a little congregation of olives just across the road from the pension, on the edge of a massive cliff that looks down on my favorite beach in all of Greece. I’m so distracted by the view that by ten I’ve already made it known that I’ll be going swimming. By four, our work finished, I drag my brother down the goat path and across a field of smooth beach stones, and in we go. I need the water. I cannot begin to explain how much sustenance I receive from being in Greek water—swimming, diving, hunting octopus, dreaming there. I get nervous when I stray too far from it, and since I live thousands of miles away I’m in an almost perpetual nervous state. I cannot imagine anything—other than reading—that could prepare me for poetry more than this.

That said, the water is absolutely freezing, and we’re back on the sun-blasted rocks within a minute, trembling inside our towels.

Late that night, having eaten ourselves into a stupor (octopus roasted in a foil packet over an open fire, potatoes swimming in olive oil, anchovies festooned with dill, roasted chestnuts, and Stamatis’ new wine, a fruit-forward immigliko), we make a valiant effort to remain conscious on the balcony of Pension Archontissa. On the table before us, there’s a little carafe of tsipouro that will never be empty, since Tassos keeps filling it, a plate of last year’s throumbes, and an ashtray for our pits. My brother has mummified himself in a blanket and is nodding off in his chair. Tassos is pacing beneath a canopy of decimated grape vines, surrounded by the cats who follow him everywhere he goes. He’s arguing with his girlfriend on his cell phone; she’s on the mainland and he’s here—enough to keep the young lovers close to their phones, in a state of agitated exasperation, all day long. It’s better to avoid the long goodbye, the futile expressions of gratitude. We leave Tassos to his conversation and drag ourselves toward bed.

Tomorrow George Kaltsas (who had to return to Kavala after only one day of olive-picking) will meet us once again at Keramoti, and we’ll report to him on our labors here before flying back to Athens. Tonight I’ll lie awake in bed for another hour and listen to the waves crashing on the rocks below, then drift into dreams through which a billion olives tumble.

Back in Athens, having delivered my brother to the airport, having spent the day talking poetry and politics over countless coffees with all the expatriate writers and Greek literati I know, I go alone at eleven to my favorite taverna, O Karabitis, in Pangrati, a chic neighborhood downhill from Kolonaki. The place is hideous on the outside, besmeared with filthy stucco and its windows filled with wire mesh, but inside is another matter: One steps down from street level as through a trap-door into a dungeon, enters a warm narrow hall walled on one side with enormous wooden wine barrels stacked two or three high, and finds a wood fire crackling in the middle of the room, and, beside it, an old man playing a bouzouki and wailing the leftist folksongs of Theodorakis.

I’ve eaten here five times now, always alone—a bizarre practice in Greece, where food must always be shared. All around me gorgeous couples are leaning close to whisper secrets across their wine; middle-aged men are clumped in satisfied groups, cracking jokes and screaming at one another about the politics of the moment; and a quartet of heavily made-up professional women are getting goofy on ouzo. I come for a half-portion of lamb (which the owner’s cousin raises outside Naphlion, reputedly, and which I order rare), a plate of horta, a tin carafe of their exquisite light red wine from the Péloponnèse, and their unusually diick-crusted dark bread. I add a plate of olives to my order tonight, since it seems appropriate. Alas, tliey turn out to be the spongy Kalamata olives I can’t seem to stomach after becoming so intimate with the throumbes of Thassos.

I come also to enjoy my privacy in a public place, my chance to observe the human circus vicariously while reading a good book and eating absentmindedly, just a forkful now and then—my last chance to do so for some time. Tonight I’m reading a delightful chapter from Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Roumeli, the one where he attends a wedding feast hosted by Sarakatsan nomads; last time I was here I spilled olive oil on George Seferis’ “Stratis Thalassinos Among the Agapanthi”; the time before that it was Simone Weil (whose work, I found out, is not at all compatible with the carnivorous gluttony I come here for).

There’s another difference tonight: I’ve been living out of a duffel bag for a week. My jeans are stained with oil and dirt; there’s olive goop beneath my fingernails that won’t seem to wash away; surely there’s still sheep shit wedged in the tread of my boots. I must look just a little bit insane. Am I remembered by the waiters here because I eat alone—the odd foreigner in the corner with his book—or because the first time I was here I left without my brand new and very expensive coat, which I had to come back to fetch the next day? Not that any of them have really spoken more than a sentence to me. Solitary diners are suspect enough to be left alone.

But tonight, perhaps because I’m the last one left (by now even the drunkest of the guests have been graciously ushered out), or because I smell like a shepherd and, after a second carafe of wine, am speaking Greek with the gruff demotic speed of a hired hand, the proprietor’s son becomes curious enough to ask me where I’m from. Somehow he doesn’t seem at all surprised to learn that I’m an American professor who usually comes here to translate Greek poetry written by a famous ex-communist who lives around the corner (this is a very sophisticated neighborhood, after all). But when I tell him I’ve come this time to pick olives on Thassos, he seems unsettled. He turns away without any response and walks back across the restaurant, to where his cigarette has been patiently smoking itself in an ashtray. I see him relay this information to his father, who seems equally nonplussed. When I stand to pay my bill at last, both men rise from their mountain of just-laundered napkins to see me off. “Don’t forget your coat this time, Mr. Professor,” the older man says, gesturing with an outstretched palm toward the door. “And by the way,” he adds with a grin, as if it’s just occurred to him, “if you still want to pick some more olives, I’ve got a beautiful little grove of trees up on Mount Hymmitos that is waiting to be harvested.”

 

 

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Masthead

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