Neurotic in paradise: Capitalist hangover on a ‘red’ Greek island

Even goat’s milk and communist vibes in a Greek paradise couldn’t get me to give up my American capitalist instincts.

epa08616829 An image taken with a drone shows people enJoy their swimming in the beach 'Seychelles' in the island of Ikaria, Greece, 21 August 2020. EPA-EFE/DIMITRIS TOSIDIS
Drone footage of a beach on the island of Ikaria, Greece [Dimitris Tosidis/EPA-EFE]

It was some years ago during a brutal winter in Bosnia that I first learned of the existence of the remote Greek island of Ikaria. Prior to the pandemic, Sarajevo was one of my regular stops as I pursued a life of frenzied international itinerance, eschewing a fixed residence and, more importantly, avoiding my execrable country of birth, the United States.

On this particular visit to subzero Sarajevo, I alternated between falling on ice outdoors and sitting in my apartment looking at pictures of summertime scenes on the internet. And it was on account of the latter pastime that Ikaria entered my consciousness, via a spate of articles extolling the island’s rugged beauty and the extraordinary longevity of its inhabitants.

A Guardian dispatch from 2013, for example, starred 100-year-old Gregoris Tsahas, who enjoyed a pack of cigarettes and more than a few glasses of red wine per day, trekked four hilly kilometres between his home and his regular café, and had never once been sick minus a bout of appendicitis.

A 2012 New York Times Magazine essay relayed the story of Stamatis Moraitis, who was either 97 or 102 years old, and who had returned to his native Ikaria from the US in the 1970s after being diagnosed with cancer. He recovered with no sort of treatment aside from gardening, winemaking and playing dominoes past midnight with friends — and proceeded to outlive all his American doctors.

No one has pinpointed the precise secret to Ikarian endurance, but it appears to involve a combination of a slow life, social camaraderie, olive oil, wild sage tea, goat’s milk, outdoor labour, afternoon naps, therapeutic winds and sexual activity into old age — not to mention the sheer exquisiteness of the physical environment. As if that weren’t good enough, it gets even better: Ikaria is known locally as the “red rock” in reference to its communist tendencies, which only intensified in accordance with the island’s service as a place of banishment for Greek leftists in the mid-twentieth century.

I, myself, was not terribly concerned with making it to 97 or 102, but I did find the prospect of immortal wine-drinking island communists singularly inspiring. After running around in a tizzy my whole life, I figured I should probably slow down and see how it was really meant to be done. My first attempt to visit Ikaria in 2020 was thwarted by the coronavirus, but on June 12, 2022, I arrived by ferry from Athens in the small Ikarian coastal village of Armenistis.

My plan was simple: I was going to take one month to relax, sort myself out and become a supremely tranquil person who — nourished by goat’s milk and communist vibes — took constant naps and read books by the sea.

Things initially looked promising. The terrace of my attic apartment offered a wide view of the Aegean Sea and of a cove below, where the water comprised a mind-boggling array of shades of blue. I went on hikes through the hills, smelled the smells of island plants and flowers and drank half-litres of homemade wine at the taverna, above which lived a man who looked to be about 90 and was often swimming or tooling around on his motor scooter.

The man had lived in New York, he told me, and invited me to swing by his farm down the road for some apricots. A younger Ikarian — who had also tried his hand at life in America and promptly repatriated himself — commented wryly to me: “Ikarians are very bad at capitalism.”

Unfortunately, it quickly became clear to me in Armenistis that I happened to be quite good at it. Although I wanted to chill out, indoctrination dies hard. I effectively began applying a capitalist mindset and work ethic to leisure.

It was insufficient to chill on the beach with a book; rather, I had to be the absolute best beach book person ever, emanating grace and harmony with the serene backdrop even as I raced to fulfil my daily page quota. I had to simultaneously be the best island hiker, island plant smeller, taverna frequenter, sea swimmer, and so on, despite fully recognising the counterproductive nature of my approach. Leisure became a chore and/or competition and the vicious cycle was only reinforced by my increasing agitation at the fact that I was, obviously, failing to relax.

I was also acutely aware that this was a grotesquely privileged sort of torment — and that the vast majority of people in the world could not spend their time being neurotic in paradise. Whenever it seemed that I would not complete all the myriad tasks I had assigned myself for the day, I experienced heart palpitations of the sort that had defined my teenage years in the US. Back then, the need to excel at all academic and extracurricular endeavours to attain perfectly “well-rounded” status on college applications had done a number on my nervous system.

On June 29, I attended one of Ikaria’s famed panygiria — feasts that honour saints and that often last all night. These festivities were not compatible with my schedule, given my habit of waking prior to the crack of dawn to feel that I was beating the rest of the world. Still, off I went to the village of Pezi, up the mountain from Armenistis, to celebrate Saints Peter and Paul.

I opted to hitchhike, and was first picked up by a Norwegian couple in search of a gas station and then by a young Greek man on a motorcycle. He swung calmly around mountain curves as the sun set over the sea, and I dug my fingernails into his shoulders and emitted yelps of varying decibels.

Hundreds of people were already at the outdoor party, consuming goat meat, drinking local wine and dancing to music supplied by a tireless four-person ensemble. Concentric circles of dancers spun around and around with hands clasped; off to the side, a grey-haired man executed an energetic leap to the encouragement of a man and woman crouching on the ground in front of him, clapping.

At first, I hung back, wallowing in the existential pain of having no culture, community, or, I decided, even identity, aside from being a cog in the capitalist machine. Eventually, however, I’d had enough wine that none of this mattered, and I broke into the outer circle, grabbing a hand on either side of me. Around we went at dizzying speed, as I held on for dear life and felt preemptive nostalgia for this moment of fleeting eternity.

I tried to leave the panygiri at one o’clock in the morning but was informed by the Greeks at my table that I would never find a ride at such an early hour. I finally left at 2:30am and was escorted halfway back to Armenistis by three men in a car. Two women in another car took me the rest of the way.

The next day, I developed a massive rash that began under my right arm and extended down my side and across my back. I rushed to the closest thing to a pharmacy in Armenistis, which also served as a barber shop and where I had purchased a beach towel with a giant lion on it. The daughter of the proprietor took one look and pronounced it the work of the Ikarian white moth, which, she said, I must have come into contact with at the panygiri.

In response to my next petrified question, she looked at me with a mixture of amusement and utter seriousness and responded: “Of course you’re not going to die, you’re in Ikaria.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.