Thursday, June 7, 2007

Kephallenia, Cefalonia, Kefalonia

The names may be different, but it’s the same place; the largest of the Ionian Islands, and the most westerly point in Greece. The total population in 2001 was only 36,500, and while it may be a bit higher today, it is still considerably less than the 60,000 who lived here in the mid-seventeenth century. The island has had a fascinating history. During the Mycenaean period (1600-1100 B.C.) it ‘belonged to the realm of Ulysses’, and there are cemeteries and tombs dating back to that period. (The day before we arrived, 30 SFU Hellenic Studies students returned to Canada after three weeks exploring Kefalonia’s past.)

They would have learned about the island’s numerous periods and history of battles and wars; the Classical and Hellenistic period, when it was divided into four city-states, each with its own acropolis fortifications; the Roman Period, beginning in 189 B.C. after the Romans attacked from nearby Italy; the Byzantine period, from the fifth century onwards, during which it was attacked by vandals from Africa and Goths; the Frankish period, when the Normans took over; the Turkish period in the late fifteenth century when the Turks were in charge; the Venetian period from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, which was a time of great prosperity; followed by the first French occupation, the Russo-Turkish intervention, the Septinsular Republic, the second French occupation, and the British period that ended in 1864. Since then, life on the island has been affected by the Balkan Wars, the two World Wars, and the 1953 earthquake that leveled the buildings throughout most of the island.

Today, life goes on in relative peace and harmony, although some might suggest the island is experiencing its second ‘British period’. Since it only a three hour flight away, it has become a very popular tourist destination for Brits. In July and August, it also attracts nearby Italians and Athenians who are happy to leave their hot cities for the island’s sleepy countryside villages and beaches.

However, despite the invading Brits and their passion for egg and chips, most of Kefalonia seems relatively unharmed by tourism, especially when compared with some other islands. Over the past few days, we have slowly adapted to the local way of life. We eat lunch late, and tend not to do much until the late afternoon. Dinner is often around 10 and Georgia thinks we are consuming a lot more wine than in Canada. We eat a lot of grilled fish; sea bream, bass, swordfish, sardines and anchovies, along with regular rations of olives, feta cheese and tomatoes, (although Sally is convinced that since Greece joined the EEC, the tomatoes are not as good as they used to be).

We have enjoyed exploring the island. On our second day, we decided to turn off the road and came upon a winery. While chatting with the owner, I mentioned that I had been working at a Canadian university. “Which one?” he asked. Simon Fraser University near Vancouver” I replied. “I thought so, he said with a grin. “You must meet Makis and Hettie. They’re good friends of mine. Makis has been working with SFU and they go over there all the time.”

In fact, John and Jan Pierce had given us their phone numbers with the suggestion that we meet up. Makis was a former governor of the island, and a municipal mayor for the last 26 years. He had been helping SFU set up its Hellenic Studies program, and before I knew it, the winemaker had him on the phone. “You must come and visit us in Poros” he said.

Later that afternoon, we arrived in Poros, and I went to a payphone and called. Makis answered, but the reception was very poor. After a minute, I said I would hang up and call him back. As I was dialing, someone appeared outside the phone booth grinning at me. I immediately realized who it was! It’s a small island.

We sat in a nearby café and talked about our circuitous trip to Kefalonia, and life on the island. Claire mentioned that we needed the name of a good guide book, and Hettie left the table and returned a few minutes later with two copies of the definitive Kefalonia Guidebook….that she had edited. Makis told us that Poros was a planned community that had been built from scratch after the earthquake, to house people from interior communities around the island. But unlike Chandigarh or Dubai, it had been rebuilt with the forms of the past. I immediately sensed the storyline for my next Vancouver Sun article! We planned to get together in a few days for dinner.

That evening, we reflected on the coincidences that can alter your day, or life. If we hadn’t made a sudden turn down a narrow road, we wouldn’t have found the winery. Nor would we have gotten in touch with Makis so early on. Had I used a different payphone, Makis would not have seen me out of his window, and shown up right away. While these are small things, they are delightful, and that’s the best way to describe our first few days on Kefalonia.

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