in order to have given deathless renown to this desolate,
wind-bound, treeless, unfrequented island."
Viscount Kirckwall, 1864
If you've never heard of the Greek island of Kythera don't worry - most Greeks don't know where it is either. And if they've heard of it they probably don't have anything nice to say about it, which is just as well because I'm all for keeping it a bit of a secret. It is one of the last Greek islands unspoilt by tourism, thankfully having been spared the ugly construction boom of the last three decades, which has turned other islands into non-stop concrete discos.
Kythera wasn't always as serene as it is now - as recently as the turn of the century, when my grandfather Dimitri was growing up there, the island boasted sixty bustling villages and countless over-extended families, which made up the fourteen thousand inhabitants of Kythera. In those days there were dances every summer weekend in one or more of the scattered villages, and in the winter whole families trekked out at dawn to their olive groves - sometimes hours from the village - and netted the downpour of olives until chilly sundown. Streams flowed the whole year through, fed by seemingly eternal springs. These watered the few fertile valleys terraced with fruit and vegetable gardens, which despite their providence barely fed a population acutely poor. Wheat and barley were harvested by sickle, transported by donkey and threshed by hand, before the hard-won grain was ground in wind and water mills for the village's bread ovens. White dusty tracks crisscrossed the island like scratches on a stone. They linked house to field, village to market, town to port, from where the famous Kytherian honey and olive oil, along with wine and figs, sailed for Piraeus.
In 1985, three-quarters of a century after my Grandfather had left the island for Australia, I came to Kythera to find his generation almost gone and much of the succeeding generations departed. The things I found appealing about Greek village life - the simple routines, the interrelatedness of everything and everyone, the worthlessness of the currency, and the adherence to cuisine-based lifestyles - had driven the young generations of Kytherians to seek fruit-shop and television-obsessed existences in the suburbs of Sydney or the wilderness of metropolitan Queensland. Why anyone would swap fresh island spring water for what comes out of a Brisbane tap, or trade off a herd of unhurried she-goats for a Holden motor car was and still is beyond me. But abandon it they did, leaving their grandmothers
to roast the village lamb for toothless husbands, and the fields, which for hundreds of years had undulated under seas of wheat and barley, were left to yield only a handsome harvest of weed and rock.
Kythera has as much history as any other neglected island in the Mediterranean - unfortunately most of it wasn't interesting enough to record. In ancient times the island was known for the love goddess who was born off its shores, and for a certain snail which, when boiled alive, turned an irredeemable purple, the colour which ancient royalty prized above all others. Although it governs the strategically important route from mainland Greece to Crete, as well as the sea route from Asia Minor to the Western Mediterranean, naval strategists ignored the island because of its poor harbours, and pirates only stayed long enough to ship the inhabitants off to Africa to be sold into slavery - their revenge, it is sometimes said, for the irregular quality of Kytherian wine.
In more recent times the exodus has not been forced, yet it has been just as devastating. Browned pictures of young Kytherians from the last century, still hanging in village living rooms, came from Argentinean and Chilean studios. Mass emigration to Australia in this century has left dozens of villages deserted of youth, others abandoned altogether. The young who chose to stay are more likely to rent out mopeds than ever handle a donkey in their lives. Many Kytherian barrels which once nurtured the strong local wine are now filled with imported juice from Cretan grapes; home-made paximathia - the local crisp bread, rich in olive oil and baked in traditional wood-heated ovens - are now a rare delicacy. By the end of this century, traditions which have been developed, practised and refined over hundreds of years will become history.
The decline of Kythera is hardly world news, yet there is something tragic about the demise of a lifestyle so honest and harsh, though I would not want to try to preserve it with the sweat of my own brow. It is a lifestyle picturesque to all but the active, permanent participant. Unbeknownst to most villagers, they do have something which is often lost to their children and grandchildren across the seas - it is a rustic humility and good humour which leaves no moment awkward, no stranger unwelcomed.
Portraits dominate this album because it is the people of Kythera who draw me back there each year. Their children are gone, their fields overgrown, their barrels filled with foreign juice, and most of that which they have built up to pass on to future generations will simply pass away with them. Yet despair and bitterness do not dominate their lives. These are pictures of people who inspire me with their tenacity, warmth and friendliness, in whose faces I see mirrored the last century on Kythera.
Yanni Sklavos | Koula Entertains | Photo Gallery
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