A few years ago, during a brutal winter in Bosnia, I first learned of the existence of the remote Greek island of Ikaria. Before the pandemic, Sarajevo was one of my regular stops as I lived a life of frenetic international wandering, avoiding permanent residence and, more importantly, avoiding my abominable country of birth, the United States.
On this particular visit to sub-zero Sarajevo, I alternated between falling on ice outdoors and sitting in my apartment looking at pictures of summer scenes on the internet. And because of the latter pastime, Ikaria entered my consciousness through a barrage of articles extolling the island’s rugged beauty and the extraordinary longevity of its inhabitants.
A guard to ship from 2013, for example, starred 100-year-old Gregoris Tsahas, who enjoyed a pack of cigarettes a day and more than a few glasses of red wine, walked four hilly kilometers between his home and his favorite coffee shop and had never been ill minus a bout of appendicitis .
A 2012 New York Times magazine essay told the story of Stamatis Moraitis, who was either 97 or 102 years old and had returned to his hometown of Ikaria from the United States in the 1970s after being diagnosed with cancer. Aside from gardening, winemaking, and playing dominoes with friends after midnight, he recovered without any treatment – and survived all of his American doctors.
No one has unraveled the exact secret of Icarian endurance, but it seems to involve a combination of a slow pace of life, social companionship, olive oil, wild sage tea, goat’s milk, outdoor work, afternoon naps, therapeutic winds, and sexual activity well into old age—quite to to say nothing of the sheer excellence of the physical environment. As if that wasn’t good enough, it gets better: Ikaria is known locally as “red rock,” in reference to its communist tendencies, compounded by the island’s service as a place of exile for Greek leftists in the mid-twentieth century century.
I wasn’t very keen on making it to 97 or 102 myself, but I found the prospect of immortal, wine-drinking island communists uniquely inspiring. After running around in excitement my whole life, I figured I should probably slow down and see how it really should be done. My first attempt to visit Ikaria in 2020 was thwarted by the coronavirus but on June 12th 2022 I arrived by ferry from Athens to the small Icarian coastal village of Armenistis.
My plan was simple: I would take a month to unwind, sort myself out, and become an extremely calm person who—fed on goat’s milk and communist vibes—constantly naps and reads by the sea.
Things initially looked promising. The terrace of my top floor apartment offered sweeping views of the Aegean Sea and a bay below where the water was a stunning array of shades of blue. I went for hikes through the hills, smelled the scents of the island’s plants and flowers and drank half a liter of home-made wine in the tavern above which lived a man who looked to be around 90 years old and often swam or with his motor scooter drove around .
The man had lived in New York, he told me, and invited me to pick up some apricots at his farm down the road. A younger Ikarian – who had also tried his hand in America and promptly repatriated himself – commented wryly: “Ikarians are very bad at capitalism.”
Unfortunately, in Armenistis, I quickly realized that I was quite good at it. Although I wanted to relax, the indoctrination dies hard. I effectively began to apply a capitalist mindset and work ethic to leisure.
It wasn’t enough to chill on the beach with a book; Rather, I had to be the absolute best beach book person of all time, exuding grace and harmony with the serene backdrop even as I struggled to meet my daily page quota. I had to be the best island hiker, island plant smeller, tavern-goer, sea swimmer and so on all at the same time, although I fully recognized the counterproductive nature of my approach. Free time became a chore and/or competition, and the vicious cycle was only exacerbated by my increasing excitement at the apparent inability to relax.
I was also acutely aware that this was a grotesquely privileged kind of torment – and that the vast majority of people in the world could not spend their time being neurotic in paradise. Whenever I seemed unable to complete the myriad tasks I had planned for the day, I experienced the racing heart that characterized my teenage years in the United States. Back then, the need to excel in all academic and extracurricular endeavors in order to achieve perfectly “round” status in college applications had wreaked a lot on my nervous system.
On June 29th, I attended one of Ikaria’s famous Panygiria – festivals honoring saints that often last all night. These celebrations didn’t fit my schedule as I had a habit of waking up before dawn and feeling like I was beating the rest of the world. Nonetheless, I went to the village of Pezi, up the hill from Armenistis, to celebrate Saints Peter and Paul.
I decided to hitchhike and was picked up first by a Norwegian couple looking for a gas station and then by a young Greek guy on a motorbike. As the sun went down over the sea, he swung calmly around the mountain curves and I dug my fingernails into his shoulders and let out howls of varying decibels.
Hundreds of people were already at the outdoor party, eating goat meat, sipping local wine and dancing to music provided by a tireless four-person ensemble. Concentric circles of dancers spun in circles, hands clasped; off to one side, a grey-haired man took a vigorous leap at the encouragement of a man and woman crouched on the floor in front of him, clapping.
At first, I held back and wallowed in the existential pain of having no culture, community, or even, I decided, identity, other than being a cog in the capitalist machine. Eventually though, I’d had enough wine that none of that mattered and I broke into the outer circle and grabbed a hand on either side of me. We drove around at a dizzying speed while I clung to my life and felt preemptive longing for this moment of fleeting eternity.
I attempted to leave the Panygiri at 1am but was informed by the Greeks at my table that I would never be able to get a ride that early. I finally left at 2:30 am and was escorted by three men in a car halfway back to Armenistis. Two women in another car took me the rest of the way.
The next day I developed a massive rash that started under my right arm and spread down my side and down my back. I rushed to a pharmacy in Armenistis, which also doubled as a barber shop, where I had bought a beach towel with a huge lion on it. The owner’s daughter took one look and declared it to be the work of the Icarian white moth, which she said I must have come into contact with in the Panygiri.
When I asked my next petrified question, she looked at me with a mixture of amusement and utter seriousness and replied, “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 the editorial stance of Al Jazeera.