When I moved to Aegina some 4 ½ years ago, a new friend, who had built a house on the island some 20 years earlier, saw an ad for a house for rent in Vagia (pronounced Vah-YEE-ah) and went to check it out for me.
I moved into it in March of 2007, though with little enthusiasm, as I had just left the old mill-house next to a year-round stream with a waterfall outside my bedroom window in the Naxos village where I had lived for 7 ½ years. Although that house was in decrepit condition (restored after my departure by the EU , along with the mill-works, as an example of traditional Greek village architecture), it was a house of great character in a setting of such beauty that many who came there called in "paradise".
It took me a long time to appreciate the very different kinds of beauty offered by my new environment in the northeast corner of this much smaller island only one hour by ferry from Piraeus, instead of the 5 ¼ hours I had long traveled from Naxos. As with so many situations in life, I found that though I had lost some things, I had gained others--the closer proximity to Athens no small advantage for me, with its far larger pool of musicians who played Greek traditional music, and more opportunities for music work, even on the island itself, with its close connection with the megalopolis and cultural center just across the water.
This corner of the island is largely covered with pine-forested hills, the lovely valley with the larger, spread-out village of Mesagros nestled below them. The children from the old tiny village of Vagia (by the sea to its northeast) walked barefoot for one hour to school there, and when older, a full two hours to the middle school (gimnasio) in the Aegina's harbour city. This was how it was up until the 1950s, when the first buses began running, with two routes a day to serve them. X, a local woman in her seventies (who prefers not to be named), told me that her schoolteacher had the children put newspapers inside their clothes on rainy days.
"We were very poor then," she told me. She was one of 6 children, and most of the families then had 5 or 6. There were some 10 houses then, and one can easily tell which ones they were, given their very different construction from the many built after them. "We all grew wheat and barley, and ploughed with horse and mules. Every house had an aloni (threshing floor), and a bostani (Turkish word for vegetable garden), where we grew squash (courgettes), melons, cucumbers, onions, garlic…We didn't water anything".
I expressed amazement that such crops could survive without water--something I'd been told recently by Nektarios, a potter in nearby Mesagros
. "Did you have some rain then during the summer?" I asked, as he had told me this. "We didn't have radiation in the air then," she answered, recalling yet other words of Nekarios, though he had mentioned the TV and mobile phone antennas as the source, whereas X referred to Chernobyl. It seems that both of them connected radiation in the air with degradation of rain-water (and thus of the ground water as well).
"How did you get the goods you didn't produce yourselves?" I asked her. "A seller delivered them on his donkey: sugar, pulses (beans, lentils, etc.), potatoes. For fruit we had our grapes and apricots from our two trees."
She told me of her family: "My father was a fisherman. Our house had three rooms upstairs and a basement below. We had animals outside within a mandra (walled animal enclosure): sheep, goats and two donkeys. We made kefalotiri (lit. head cheese) with the goat and sheep milk. We sold wild greens, faskomilo (a wonderful sage common in Greece, most often used for tea in winter), and grapes. We sold a lot of grapes, which were taken by kaiki (caique--small boat) to Piraeus."
X told me a little about the dark years of the German occupation. "We stayed inside our houses when the German soldiers were around. They were often drunk, and we were afraid. One of them came into our house once and beat my mother, throwing her down on the bed first."
We changed the subject, not wanting to dwell on such ugliness. I asked her about music, and she told me that they had had a gramophone and listened to rembetika (the Greek urban music that had its classic era in the 1930s and again in the 50s, its main instrument the bouzouki).
"And live music?"
"We had 3-day yortes (saints'day celebrations with music and feasting, often held at a church built for the saint whose day it was). The instruments were violin and laouto (lute played in Greek music)." She told me the names of two musicians from Mesagros, whose names I knew from the large book published by a well-known musicologist who had spent all his childhood summers on the island and who catalogued the old island repertoire.
After the war, X told me--during the 1950s--people from Athens and Piraeus began buying lots in Vayia and building houses. Deliveries of supplies were now made by 3-wheeled motorbikes.
I also spoke about the old Vayia with Dimitris, a man in his 60s who owns one of the two local hotels, and learned from him that Vayia is indeed a village. "What else would it be?" he asked me, when I asked.
"Well, where's the center, then?" I asked him, still dubious. "The center is the church," he told me, pointing to it where it sat some 40 meters from where we spoke, "and the platia (town square) the flat area around it."
This little church--more like a chapel-- of Agia Paraskevas and Agios Sotiras , has just recently been stripped of its plaster, the old pale cream-colored stones bared, transforming it utterly and beautifully. It sits at the junction of two small roads, one leading down to the main beach, and the other to a place called Tourlos, with a locked gate at the end which closes off a lovely wooded area to the public. Now a Greek naval base, it had been held by the Germans in WWII and planted by them with landmines. I had also heard that it was used by the Greeks during (after?) the Greek Civil War (1946-49) as a detention center for Communists, and that there was a torture center there.
The locals used to swim by rocks below the road just before the locked gate, across from the little islet of Nisida, but several huge, overbuilt, very expensive villas, totally out of character with the surroundings, were recently built up above this time-honored swimming place. When one comes to the end of this otherwise lovely country road with its fine sea views, these structures assault the eye of the unsuspecting visitor rather like a nightmare apparition.
Dimitris also told me that the main source of drinking water for the village in the old days was the well that sits next to the water tank below the bridge on the main central coast road where it ends in easternmost Vagia. The tank is filled with water brought from Athens to Aegina by boat, as the tap water from local bore-holes is brackish and salty in the extreme. I fill bottles regularly from this tank, (instead of a the spring next to the waterfall near the old mill-house in Naxos!) and wish the old well were still in service.
"Things were better in the old days," Dimitris told me. I asked the meaning of the name Vagia, and neither he nor his relative, a woman named Anthi who sat nearby as we talked, knew its source. She told me, however, that sometimes people had called the area Mageia (magic, enchantment), and there have been many times during these past years here that this old village has felt just like that.
I later acquired a copy of the book "Stena Papoutsia
" (Tight Shoes), by Zorz Sarri (a woman given a boy's name by a father that desired a son, and who lived as a child in Vayia). In the book the narrator states that the name derives from the presence before 1935 of a venerable palm tree down by the waters of a small lagoon near the west end of the present main Vagia beach, a tree that had blown down in a storm by the time that the book was written.
The word means 'palm branches', though the accent is on the first syllable rather than on the 'i' in the village name, and is plural rather than singular. In the same book, watering of a local vegetable garden is also described, despite the contention of those whom I interviewed that crops were not watered way back when. It seems that perhaps this depended upon how much water was available in nearby wells.
Text by Souzana Raphael