The Greek word “philoxenia” is literally translated as “friend of strangers” but its essential meaning is “generosity of spirit.” I have experienced this Greek value every day in Molyvos for the past two months. In addition to having flowering pastures, dramatic hillsides, sheep bells clanging through the valleys, amazing food and beautiful beaches, Molyvos is home to some of the most friendly, caring people I have ever met.
Thanks to philoxenia, I have become very comfortable in the community. I take detours to say hi to someone I met a week ago. I stop to offer rides to people walking along the rode. I know four men named Kostas. Elpiniki, whose family owns the property where I am staying, is like my yaya. A couple of times a week, she brings me sweet pastries or home made olive oil or flowers from her garden. She tells me stories in Greek that I mysteriously understand. (She says she is glad none of her sons smoke. She says Greeks can have blue eyes. She says I need clean towels when I tell her to stop cleaning my cottage.)
And maybe I am becoming a little bit Greek. I don’t get anxious when the driver in the truck in front of me stops in the middle of the road to chat with a friend. I don’t look for opportunities to eat Asian food. I shrugged my shoulders after scraping a gash in the side of my rental car. Occasionally, I hear myself speaking with a sort of Greek cadence.
But it seems the most most Greek thing you can do is to help others. In the course of researching material for my book, I have talked to many people on this part of the island who have made life-changing sacrifices to help others. Some contributed food, clothing, water, words of kindness — day after day for months. Some risked arrest by transporting pregnant or disabled people across the island. Some sailed their boats out into dangerous waters to save lives. Some stayed up all night at campfires to guide boats in. When they talk about the past year, they cry and laugh. They look out into the distance as if they are trying to hear another voice help them explain what they have seen and done. Many are not comfortable taking credit for their contributions or they apologize for describing them by explaining “It was nothing. It was just what we had to do.” They talk about how they were changed by the courage of the people coming across in boats or a sense of loss that those people are no longer part of their lives. Here is a recent PBS story that features some of the people and places I know here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=phpFZsPw_5E.
Next week, I am going to Armenia with my notebooks and post-it notes and strained, partial drafts of disconnected stories. I have 1,000 pieces of a jigsaw puzzle but I don’t know whether I will be able to piece them together into a worthy picture of Molyvos and the island. I do know that my time here has been one of the most important times in my life.