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The isolation of quiet winters on Amorgos December 7, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Islands Aegean.
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Few ferries and lack of healthcare, jobs and entertainment weigh on island’s 1,700 residents, but most prefer this life to hassles of city

Amorgos may be a summer paradise but the Aegean island can be a lonely place in the winter. Still, the place can have charms of a different kind when the weather is cold and the tourists are gone. Cut off from the mainland most of the week, some of the 1,700 residents manage to find ways to pass the time. Phillippos Skoularopoulos, a technical high school instructor, teaches economic theory to his single pupil, Maria, who would rather not be the sole focus of the lesson.

This year the Saturday ferry schedule from Amorgos to Piraeus has been canceled, now there are just three passenger ferries a week to Piraeus, two of them the time-worn Romilda, taking up to 15 hours. Only the once-weekly Blue Star ferry, every Tuesday, is slightly shorter (just nine hours) and more comfortable.

On board the Romilda, passengers Popi and Francoise, both permanent residents of the island, warned us that we wouldn’t find many shops open on the island at this time of year. Francoise, who left her native Switzerland a few years ago to live in Greece, is happy with that, but Popi has gotten fed up with this life. A supermarket employee on the island, she is planning to move to Athens. “You love Amorgos more if you live somewhere else,” she said.

As the ship docks in the port of Katapola, the atmosphere is peaceful. At the Town Hall in Hora, the capital, Mayor Nikos Fostieris is waiting for us with a list of the difficulties the islanders face, the lack of ship connections, local transport, healthcare, or even a hospital.

“If there is an emergency, the only solution in winter is a helicopter, but that isn’t always easy. Sometimes we need to make a fuss before they send us one,” he said.

In winter, Amorgos appears to be hibernating, conserving its energy for the summer. But that is only partly true, although most of the shops and eateries that make up the summer tourism ambience are closed, particularly in Hora. Strolling along its cobbled lanes, one would expect to meet a local or two, but one is more likely to meet a teacher.

The island has one of the liveliest regional teachers’ associations in the country. The young teachers, most of whom are new, are determined to do their job well and enjoy life. Philippos Skoularopoulos, known in the Aegean islands as a “wandering teacher,” has set up an amateur theatrical group. “The initial idea was for the children to take part but that was impossible as the children can’t move around for rehearsals,” Philippos said. “So we decided to act ourselves.”

There is no bus service on the island, just a school bus for the children. Summer buses are private and are stored in garages in winter. The teachers rehearse plays in a classroom. “Here on Amorgos we get a feel for the passing seasons; we live close to nature. We organize our time as best we can, and our days are full,” they say.

Still, they know it is no paradise, they are frustrated by the ship schedules, they are aware of the problems the islanders face and at times feel isolated themselves. “It’s not only the fear of an emergency and not having a way off the island. It is the feeling that even if you feel the need to go away, you can’t,” one teacher said. “We are lucky as we happen to get along well with each other. If there hadn’t been that chemistry, you can imagine what sort of time we would be having.”

The island’s trademark structure is the monastery of Panaghia Hozoviotissa, which clings to a rock face. “It’s a unique place, as is the monastery,” explained Father Spyridon, the abbot and one of the two sole monks living there. “Winters are lovely here. We have a lot of work to do and we lack for nothing. In summer it’s different. We have over 600 visitors daily. People go to the beach and then on the way up they pass by here. That’s not how it should be. The monastery is not a beach or a tourist spot. It’s a place for reflection and prayer.”

Further down the road from the monastery is the district of Kato Meria, where things are as quiet as they must have been across the island before the age of tourism. The medical center in the village of Arkesini is in front of a playground that also serves as the primary school yard. Costas Petsas has been the duty doctor here for the past few months. “People here really look up to the teacher and the doctor. We are treated very well, nothing like in the cities. Here they don’t take us for granted; they haven’t always had a doctor and they know what it means not to have one,” he explained.

In Vourtsi, another village in Kato Meria, we were in for a surprise. A poster for the film “Goodbye, Lenin” was plastered to a wall, advertising the village’s cinema club. Last week it was “The Da Vinci Code.” Every week a different movie plays, the highlight of the week for many people on a grim winter evening. Movies are a luxury in this village, which is not one of the most modern on the island. There is no DVD rental store on Amorgos.

Vourtsi is the home of Rita, an American from Los Angeles who first came here on holiday many years ago and eventually decided, after many a summer on the island, to settle permanently. “I wasn’t accepted at first. There was some fear and a few questions,” she said. “But of course I am not talking about the majority.” Rita now has a crafts shop, the Rodi, and enjoys the quiet life in Kato Meria with her children Thomas and Isabella.

In July and August, life on the island is centered on the beach at Aigiali. Now everything is locked and barred, tables and chairs stacked up and put away. There is not a soul in sight. The fishermen don’t go out in bad weather, and local residents like Nikos and Vangelis are out picking olives. “A few months ago there was grape picking, and we have a few livestock animals,” they told us later. “Life is very expensive here, especially food and fuel. Only those who rent out rooms in summer have it easy.”

Aigiali is the island’s second-largest port after Katapola, which is the only place where a restaurant is sure to be open this time of year. Antonis Despotidis, an organic farmer, served us wine in his courtyard. His complaint, apart from the ship schedules, was the fact that a power pylon stands right next to Hora’s school.

Next door is another organic vegetable garden cultivated by Nondas Gavalas, who gave up a law career in Athens to move to the island 14 years ago. “As the years go by and summer tourist traffic increases, the winters seem even quieter. I realized that when I went to Paros one winter and found it deserted. The same applies here,” he said.

All the islanders opened their doors wide to us. Thodoros, the proprietor of the Hyma, the only restaurant open at lunchtime in Hora, told us stories of his voyages to Latin America, and why he settled on Amorgos. At the Mouragio, which serves the best lobster spaghetti on the island, Dimitris invited us to return again one day. Vangelis, whom we met on the road to Hora, where he was going to shop, stopped and told us his life story going back to 1962, when he was the first person to bring a car to the island.

Amorgos in winter is a quieter version of its summer self. It doesn’t hibernate entirely, but retains its charm and hospitality.

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