A WINDMILL STORY
By Laila Wadia
Hoping to find an island not overrun with tourists, yet oozing with picture-postcard charm, Astypalea does not disappoint us. Off the island-hopping route, it flaps its albescent butterfly wings in the Meltemi. The chora or old town – one of the most beautiful in Greece – perched on a steep hill, calls for good hiking feet, and is largely uninhabited. It has endless potential, but for the moment it is enjoyed mainly by the island’s cats. Apart from a couple of laid-back beaches, things happen only in Astypalea town, divided into the port area (Porto Ghialos) and the old town (Chora).
We stay at Andromeda Resort, which offers an enchanting view of the Chora. The view and Irini’s home-cooked breakfasts make up for the two hundred steps we have to climb to reach our room. In keeping with the island’s environmentally-friendly policy, we have not rented a vehicle to get around. We use the Astybus electric shared-taxi service that works like clockwork.
The main street of the old town is dotted with tavernas that regale us with the tinkling of cutlery, bubbly holiday laughter and a stream of chatter that is all Greek to me. Naughty gusts of wind sweep Retsina-filled glasses off the tables. Children scream and play old-fashioned open-air games. Bouzouki strains trickle out of ancient stereo systems.
I love people-watching. I can sit for hours trying to make sense of a place and its people. From my vantage point, the eight old windmills with their round red roofs resemble fat Turks in fez hats lazing over coffee at a taverna.
If there is fault to be found with Astypalea, it lies with the wind. Its incessant howling can drive you a bit Van Gogish. To escape its madness, I pop in to the windmills, now converted into a boutique, a museum, and a library.
It is past 11 pm and the windmill library is framed against a moonlight sonata. Inside, cloaked in the gold of a single lamp, is a lady on a cane chair busy knitting. Behind her, around her, before her, stacks and stacks of books on rounded shelves. If I were ever to live in the belly of any creature, this would be it: a Moby Dick library!
“Kalimera,” the greeting is followed by a stream of Greek. Because of my coloring, I am often taken to be a local. I do not reply immediately as I am busy skimming the contents of the shelves – books in a dozen languages, from Italian to French, Turkish to German, Greek, Polish, Hebrew, Spanish, Albanian, Norwegian, English; beach-trash but also beautiful antique books, poetry collections, travel guides, volumes on history …
“Are these all yours?” I finally open my mouth.
“Yes,” she replies shyly, patting a few into place like a mother getting her children to behave well because guests have arrived. “The mayor asked me to start this library in 2012. I teach English literature at school during the year and run this library during the summer holidays. In the mornings I’m at the Greek library across the road; in the evenings I open this up for the holiday-makers.”
A Greek couple enters the library and Stella Papadopolou – the librarian – is drawn into conversation with them, offering me a chance to soak in the atmosphere. I feel like Alice falling down the rabbit’s trap. Sophocles, poems by Mikis Theodorakis, Yorgo Seferis, Pasolini, an 1829 edition of Oevres de Gresset, books on the Venetian history of the island in Italian …
“What’s the most precious book you have?” I ask.
“All are precious,” comes Stella’s soft reply. She retrieves a 1949 edition of La Peste. “This belonged to my mother. It’s very precious to me.” It was actually when her mother gave her the book by Camus, and shortly after a German tourist donated a copy of Land of Aoelia by Ilias Venesis in German, that Stella decided that it would be wonderful for tourists visiting the island to be able to read Greek authors in their own language. Donation upon donation followed, and Stella’s windmill library now houses over 2000 books.
As I study Stella and her windmill, strewn with personal memorabilia – lace doilies probably handed down through the generations, old toys, dolls, cloth and plastic flowers, photographs, figurines of mermaids, shell boats – traditional music flowing out of a CD player – she is also subtly studying me.
“Take this,” she hands me a book of poetry in Greek and Italian. “I think you will like it.”
“Poetry? Well … I was looking for something more …” I wish I could get something Gerald Durrel or John Mole-ish for a lazy beach day.
“Okay, no poetry for now then.” Her expression says ‘trust me’ and she hands me a copy of Serenity, by Elias Venezis. I devour it, and eager to learn how she knew I would enjoy it, I pop in to the library for a chat a couple of days later. It becomes something of an after-dinner-treat routine.
And I appear to be in good company. Strange things happen while I am at the windmill library. And obviously even when I’m not. Stella is adored by her former students. They come in droves, spouses and babies in tow, full of stories of their lives now far from this windy island that was once home. Two months without you/ An eternity/ and nine seconds … Yiannis Ritzos echoes in my ears as Stella smiles and nods, hugging even those who talk the hind leg off a donkey. I notice how she scrutinizes her book shelves for a book to lend, remembering them from when they were at school, seeing who they are now …
A young lady rushes in and almost knocks her over, a Meltemi of conversation in her wake. Stella grins impishly, I know, I know, Maria mou, isn’t that wonderful! I read her body-language. Apparently, she has lent young Maria an old book belonged to Maria’s grandmother. It even bore a dedication by her grandfather to his wife! How this very book had found its way to the windmill library and to Stella placing it into their granddaughter’s hands without knowing anything about the family connection is uncanny.
A couple of days later I’m back for a chat and even ready for some poetry. I find another young Greek woman in Stella’s arms, sobbing away. I make myself small and scour the shelves for something by Seferis or Nikiforou. The tears seem endless, and Stella alternates between Greek compassion and English embarrassment at theatrical displays of emotion, or so I gather. I have come to view this lady librarian as quintessentially English: reserved, quirky, genuine, caring, understated and fabulously well-read. A find as rare as some of the books in her collection. The crying one finally leaves, smiles now mopping up a face wet with tears. Stella explains that the young lady is married to an elderly gentleman who doctors had given up on. He lay comatose at home, lovingly tended to by his young wife. Distraught, the young lady turned to Stella who suggested reading out loud to the patient. She gave her a poetry book she thought the man might like. It so happened that one afternoon as his young wife was reading to him, the man actually moved his lips and uttered a verse from the book! It was nothing short of a miracle!
Two months ago I went to Greece, hoping to understand a little more about Greek culture. In a tiny windmill library in Astypalea, I understood a little bit more about power and the alchemy of reading. What the magical poem actually was, I will never know, but I like to think it was this line by Tolis Nikiforou: Sleep led me into a dark room/ I have returned from another foreign land […].