Monday, October 31, 2011

The Ruins of Mega Livadi, Serifos

This past week, with what the Greeks call "the crisis" intensified, with the protestors in Thessaloniki saying "NO!" to the military parade celebrating "Oxi Day," I got to thinking about this little tractate, "The Ruins of Mega Livadi," that I wrote several years ago, when people were optimistic about the economy. Mega Livadi was the site of the 1916 Miners' Strike, a response to the terrible working conditions in the iron ore mines. Four miners were murdered for protesting and demanding an eight-hour work day. The 1916 Miners' Strike was one of the defining moments in the Greek Labor Movement and marks its inception. 

The Ruins of Mega Livadi

Port of Mega Livadi
In Mega Livadi a donkey lies in the shade of the town’s ancient plane tree. Geese honk. Hens and their chicks peck in the dust near a few cars parked in the shade. Ruined houses where miners once lived dot steep hill plunging in the port, a good port, sheltered and so deep the waters already extraordinary blue approaches black. The neo-classical villa, built by the German mine-owners decays. Patches of stucco fall away. There’s no glass in the long, elegant windows or in transoms above heavy wooden doors, though the palm trees flanking the wind entry are tall and healthy (the word for palm is phoenika, phoenix).
Villa can seen on the left.
            Next to the villa is a monument to four miners who in 1916 were shot demonstrating for higher wages and an eight-hour workday. Their names, cut in marble, are Themistoklis Kousoupis, Mihalis Zilis, Mihalis Metrofanis, and Yiannis Protopappas. Oleander blooms profusely by blazing marble. We’re dizzy in noonday sun.
      The village is quiet. Maybe there are twenty of us here. Some eating, some swimming, some fishing, some sitting with friends observing the summer day. On the terraces of the two beachfront tavernas people sit, sip ouzo and gossip. Old women wear black dresses and white headscarves. One still wears the traditional stiff sunbonnet, cardboard covered with calico. Blue, red, and yellow plastic chairs glare against whitewash while painted boats on the sea or banked on the beach upside-down under trees radiate their oranges and turquoises. Children playing in the shallow water call out to their siblings and cousins, “Come play!”—to grandmother, aunt, and mother, “Look! Look!”
Painting by Aliki
       Canaries sing from cages nailed up on either side of the taverna door. Kirea Maria watches soaps as she peels potatoes. She brings us a salad garnished with capers picked from the bushes which grow wild on the mountainside, bread baked in the island bakery’s wood-fired oven, and mizithra, the homemade goat cheese that’s sweet and sour and creamy. She has one gold tooth in her big smile and talks lovingly about her potted plants: scented geranium, jade, begonia, amaryllis, carnation, aster, crassula, vinca, basil. She directs us to the old springhouse, built by the miners for their pleasure and later damaged by an earthquake, so the thermal waters run into the sea rather than into the baths.
      The iron-ore mine gapes huge in the hillside of blooming euphorbia and yarrow; beside it a slagheap tumbles into the sea. The old technology rusts—tracks, carts lying on their sides, their wheels sometimes a few feet away, the cantilevered loading bridge reaching the port where no freight ship or ferry has docked in years.
The Cyclops, the wild, cannibalistic shepherd, imprisoned that intruder Odysseus in a cave on Serifos. And you can see his rage in these buckling tracks, upturned carts and far-flung wheels. His hands would be stained with rust, just as ours are after we pick through the slag-heap looking for the extraordinary quartz-crystal laced with red ore. But it’s so peaceful here, in spite of the monument to protest and martyrdom. Perhaps the ruin is simply ruin, and we can identify the monster, who’s one-eyed, who helps and destroys. For in a later story, the    Cyclops assisted Hephaestos, helping him make the arms, armor, and metal ornaments of the Gods.         
       Before the iron-ore mines in Mega Livadi closed, twenty-five thousand people lived on Serifos. Now there are eight-hundred year-round residents, though in summer, on the other side of the island, Livadi, the harbor village, and Hora, the mountain village above it, are packed with near-naked Athenians and Europeans eating, drinking, swimming, sleeping in the sand, wandering the maze of flagstone streets. So in a country where they say everything happens late, new hotels and restaurants go up rapidly and cover the austere mountains.
       In 1987 we celebrated the first gas station on Serifos with a panayiri, we ate a feast at long tables. Musicians played and we danced between the pumps. Until the gas station opened, you had to get gas from Halidas, the storeowner who used to be the richest man on the island. You had to know the village and you had to know Greek. Now they’ve opened a rent-a-car and a rent-a-bike. They transformed donkey paths to roads and built condominiums beside them. The beaches we used to hike to on special occasions are crowded with tourists talking on cell phones.
     Imagine it. When the ferry arrives, a mini-van stenciled with HOTEL MEGA LIVADI waits to take you to the newly renovated villa where each room has a bath, a phone, and a refrigerator. You walk ten steps to the beach. You explore the old mine shafts and dig crystals from the walls. You hike high, well-marked paths by the sea, pay a small fee, enter the restored springhouse, soak in warm curative waters, then cool off in the sea. You meet the same woman we met today, a smiling woman wearing a flying-nun sunbonnet and herding her goats over ruined railroad tracks. She calls out, “Kalimera!” (good day!). She asks questions and approves each of the answers you give in faltering Greek with “Bravo!” She wishes you a good road and a good trip, then climbs to high rock to watch her herd and look out to sea, same as the ancients.
Painting by Aliki


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