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The Village of Xidera

A Visit to Xidera

Excerpts from In Search of Sardeles Pastes and
I Married a Lesbian the time we get to the platia in Xidera the wind is blowing and the rain is coming down so hard that the men have left their seats in the cafeneons to watch. Amarandi has fallen asleep in the car and rather then wake her and carry her to the house, we park next to one of the cafeneons and go inside, where we find Andrea's cousin Andrea, the retired taxi driver who happily buys us an ouzo. We are joined by the cafe owner who becomes interested in our conversation about exotic pepper plants and purple tomatos. He brings the big bottle of ouzo and keeps filling my glass. He wants us to bring him the seeds of purple tomatos, tomatillos and habeneros for his garden. The entire cafeneon is listening to our conversation. I tell them that where we live in America we go from our air-conditioned homes to our air-conditioned cars to our air-conditioned jobs and we are not outside for more then a few minutes at a time. They are astonished and comment excitedly to one another.

The priest runs across the wet platia and joins us at our table. He orders a cognac and lights up a cigarette. "Where were you?" he asks us, wondering why we did not show up for coffee this morning like we said we would. We tell him we had come by and he wasn't home. "I was at the cafeneon above", he explains and it is obvious that he has spent the entire day there. All the men are joking with him. He's the life of the party.
 "Can you imagine going to him for spiritual advice?" Andrea asks me. Pam thinks he is the disgrace of the village but I disagree. He fits in perfectly. In a village where life revolves around ouzo and the cafeneons, how can you have a priest who doesn't drink? He's just like any of them only his job is being the priest. I make a mental note that one of these days I have to check out his Sunday service.

...we drive back to Xidera for lunch at Aglaia's. As usual the platia is filled with cars but Amarandi has been chanting for a parking place and our favorite spot behind the tree next to the young men's cafeneon is free. Everyone says hello and welcomes us back from our little journey. We dump our bags in the horrible house of the Yaya Stasa and go to the cafeneon. Panayotis greets me with an ouzo, then another,while his wife cooks us up a lunch of beans, fried potatos and salad. She asks me if I would like some of the fried sheep's liver and spleen that she had been serving me every night before we left, but Andrea asks if I can have some fried goat ribs like Panayotis and his friend are eating at the next table. Aglaia sends Panayotis to his butcher shop across the street to hack some ribs off a goat. He's reluctant to go and I feel bad about sending him but all is forgotten when he returns and they are cooked. Andrea and I eat an entire plate stacked high with ribs while having a long conversation with Aglaia and Gabriel, the man at the next table. I'm on about my tenth ouzo and have written off the rest of the afternoon. What the hell. It's my last day or so in Xidera. Let me live life to it's fullest. As we leave the cafeneon, Avglaia asks what we would like for dinner. I'm in such a good mood I order some sheep's liver and spleen.

...The air is cool in the mountains tonight. We can smell people's wood-burning stoves. It's a smell I remember from my childhood. A smell I have missed until now, and not realized it. We walk through the upper village. From the doorway to an enclosed house and garden, a girl steps out and greets us in English. We are surprised. Her accent is strongly Australian. Her name is Christina and she lived in Sidney until she was six years old. She is now twenty. We ask what she does in the village. "Nothing!" she exclaims. There are no jobs and her parents won't let her leave so she watches TV all winter long. She says that she spends two months of the summer with her older sister in Erresos. We urge her to escape and have a life, or at least come to the cafeneon with us, but she's not allowed to go to the cafeneons. "It would be a scandal" explains Andrea. "And then they could never marry her off. She'd be tarnished goods if she were seen in the cafeneons." It's a sad story. Christina is tall dark and beautiful. People talk about the decline in American society because of the decline of the family, but here is the other extreme. Because her parents want to protect her Christina is denied a life of her own. The closest she will come to freedom will be the few short months between the betrothal, and the wedding, when she might be able to go to Kaloni for a wedding dress, if she doesn't have to wear her mothers.

...In Avglaia's there is something extaordinary brewing. There are foriegn visitors unconnected with the village. He's a German named Olf who owns the Vesuvious bar in Erressos and she's Eleni, a Greek social worker from Megara. She asks if I know where her town is."Of course. That's where all the chickens come from". She laughs. I know because  I remember driving past Megara on my way back from the Peleponisos and marveling at the mile upon mile of chicken coops. Avglaia is setting serving after serving of salad, fried eggplant and lamb liver and spleen, before them, and they don't know that until they tell her to stop, she will keep giving them food. It's not my job to tell them either and if he's got a bar in Erressos, he can certainly afford it. By now I am allowed to serve myself ouzo from the giant bottle on the counter. I don't know if Avglaia is keeping score. It will be difficult because if I am too slow to pour for myself, Panayotis does it for me and that usually means it's on him.

Dinner is delicious, not that I was at all hungry, but it serves it's purpose of soaking up all the ouzo. I don't seem to be getting drunk, though I  probably finished off a quart or so, but I'm feeling good and having fun. So is Andrea. She is animated and roaming around the cafeneon like a stand-up comedian, mostly because it's too painful for her to sit. One by one as it gets later the old men excuse themselves because they have to work early, before sunrise, until the only one left is Adonis.
 "Don't you have a job?" I ask him.
 He tells me to come to Pterounda tomorrow to see his job. He owns an olive-oil factory and they are preparing it for the harvest. I tell him I will be there. The door suddenly opens and one of the men drops a hedgehog in my lap. It's curled in a ball with only it's long fox-like nose showing. We go to take him home so we can show Amarandi in the morning.  We stop to show Thanasis who pours a handful of salt on the poor creature's face."If you put salt on a skadjofiro, he cries", he says, but I don't see any tears, just a terrified hedgehog that now has salt on it's face. We take him home and put him in the courtyard, while we watch him from the house. When he is certain we are gone he uncurls himself and scurries around, exploring and looking for a way out. I think he's too big to fit under the gate but when I wake up to go to the bathroom a few hours later, he's gone.

There is an ever present tension between Andrea, Pam and their relatives. Pam says it's because the villagers are jealous because their family moved away to America and had easy lives. Then she tells me the real reason. Whenever Andrea's grandparents would come back to Greece to visit from America, they would stay with her cousin Mitsos for anywhere from a month to six weeks. One day her grandfather asked Mitsos why they never ate meat. It was too expensive he was told. "Then I too shall eat beans and rice", he declared, rather then offer to repay his hosts hospitality by buying meat which he could easily afford. But the grandfather was not the problem. It was the notorious Yaya Stasa, Andrea's Grandmother. A twisted version of Robin Hood who stole from the poor to give to the poor in order to appear generous. One day Mitsos could not find his good shoes. He looked everywhere and asked everyone but nobody knew. That evening his cousin from Skalahori came for a visit, proudly wearing Mitsos good shoes. "Where did you get those shoes?" asked Mitsos.
 "Stasa brought them for me from America".

...When it gets dark I make my way to Avglaia's with my sardeles pastes. I split them up between her's and Thanasis cafeneon. She is surprised to see them on the counter when she comes back from the butcher shop with some lamb ribs, but she realizes where they came from and begins peeling and distributing them to the old guys. I cross the street and join the crowd at Thanassis and pretty soon Andrea and Amarandi come in. Thanassis explains to me that in December everyone picks their olives and takes them to Adonis' factory. Now I wish I had gone. He seemed kind of insulted that I had not shown up and since he will be doing his other job as a carpenter tomorrow, I am out of luck. We return to Avglaia's for dinner. I probably eat thirty sardeens and have about ten glasses of ouzo, but I'm feeling so great that I order a plate of goat. We discuss our big plans for Xidera. I tell the villagers about when we were in the tourist-trap town of Batsi on Andros and everywhere we saw these signs that said 'Come see the unspoiled village of  Katarini and eat in it's very inexpensive taverna'. We had gone up there and though it was dark and we could not see how unspoiled the village was, the food was excellent, simple and cheap. I tell Avglaia that we can do the same for Xidera. I will drive around putting up posters in all the tourist towns and get some action happening here. "Already Thanasis is planning to change his cafeneon to a rock-club" I tell them.
 I wake up at five in the morning and can't fall asleep. My soul feels tortured. I love it here, I love this life but I can't keep it up. If I drink anymore ouzo I will be ready for AA by the time I get back to the states. If it only gave me a hangover or made me feel somewhat shitty in the morning it would be easy to stop, but I awaken refreshed and praising the glory of sunshine, or rain or even nescafe. Pam wants us to help her with a list of things but I plan to tell Andrea that we need to leave for Athens tomorrow. There are things I have to do to prepare for my next trip here, not to mention friends I want to see. "I love Athens", I tell myself, but leaving Mytilini seems like some kind of sin against nature.
 My thoughts are interupted by a strange noise in the yard. Someone or something is lurking out there. Some demon attracted by my mental anguish and confusion. I know that I am being watched, I can feel it's eyes penetrate me. I gather the courage it takes to peer out from under my blanket and face whatever it is that God or the devil have in store for me. It's the turkey from the garden next door. Every morning he apparently climbs up on the wall and takes a little walk around our courtyard which adjoins his. He's making a strange clucking sound like a one sylable gobble. I hear his feet walking across the frame of the metal gate. He must be close to Pamela's window. I wonder if she realizes that every morning this bird walks over and watches her sleep. Perhaps he is in love. I hear him making his return trip as his little feet clatter on metal again. Later when I emerge from the outhouse, I startle him while he is trying to look in from the roof. He gobbles and I gobble back. The excitement is enough so that I fall asleep finally.

 ...Andrea agrees to leave. We replace the newly painted shutters and I organize the car. Saying goodbye is tough in Xidera. Today Thanasis cafeneon is full of old men. As we walk in to say goodbye, one at a time they stand up, shake our hands and wish us a good winter. It's a beautiful ceremony made all the more touching because as I look into the eyes of each old man, I don't know if he will make it through the harsh mountain winter. Everytime I visit there is someone I don't see. It's ridiculous to think that they moved away. They've died over the winter, and probably some of these nice old guys, many of whom I don't know their names, though they all know mine, will die. We say our family goodbyes and drive out of town. I begin thinking about Xidera, the old men, the cafeneons and Aglaia. Though they look like old men, they are children at heart. Most have never lived anywhere but the village, some have gone elsewhere but returned. They talk about simple things and when they smile you can still see the children in their eyes. Aglaia in her cafeneon, cooking food for them and serving ouzo and coffee is like the den mother and they are a bunch of cubscouts. The cafeneons are their club houses. There is no sign saying GIRLS KEEP OUT, because it's understood. It's a boys life, and these are little boys grown old. I should know. I'm becoming one of them.

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