Monday morning has come around all too quickly and I’m avoiding the research report I’m supposed to be writing by flicking through random articles on social media. One catches my eye: a New York Times article titled ‘The island where people forget to die’.
The article has an oversized photo of a man who looks like he’s wearing mismatched pyjamas – a blue cotton checked shirt and brown shorts. He’s missing two front teeth and squints into the glare of the sun. Behind him is an expanse of blue sky; in the foreground is an untidy field. The photo’s caption states that this is Stamatis Moraitis, tending his vineyard and olive grove on the Greek island of Ikaria.
As I read on, I learn that in Ikaria people are ten times more likely to reach the age of ninety than in most other places in Europe. Ikaria’s elderly are almost entirely free of dementia and have incredibly low rates of depression. They suffer fewer of the chronic conditions – cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers – that mark the later part of many people’s lives in Western countries.
I keep coming back to the photo. Stamatis could easily be my own grandfather tending his vineyard in the south of Greece, or perhaps my Uncle Panayiotis who, well into his eighties, was hunting wild boar and harvesting honey from his many hives in the mountains. I think of my own grandparents, who lived off the land, grazing animals and growing food. There is something about the ease with which Stamatis stands on his land, the natural way that it accommodates him, that makes me want to meet this man and visit the place he calls home. Seeing this photo makes me hanker for my father, who died at sixty-six of motor neuron disease. It makes me sad to think that he too could have still been working his prolific garden, plying his grandchildren with homegrown tomatoes warm from the sun.
I learn that after the First World War, Stamatis migrated to the United States. He married, had children, worked hard and bought a Chevrolet. In 1976, when he was in his sixties, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He chose not to have treatment, and returned to his native island to die. It was cheaper that way, and he would be back in the place he still called home.
On Ikaria, Stamatis joined his elderly parents in their tiny house, and took to his bed. His childhood friends visited each day, and they drank the local wine – if he was going to die soon, he might as well die happy. To prepare spiritually for his death, he hobbled up a hill to a nearby chapel where his grandfather was once a priest.
Slowly but surely his energy returned, and he began tending his parents’ garden. As he grew stronger, Stamatis built a few extra rooms in the house so that his adult children would have somewhere to stay when they visited.
Nearly thirty years later, when the New York Times covered his story, Stamatis was ninety-seven years old and cancer free. Still working in his fields, he boasted of producing 400 gallons of wine each year.
How is it that in my travels to Greece I never heard of Ikaria, ‘the island where people forget to die’? I wonder. If Stamatis, who has nearly reached his hundredth year, can look and feel so vital, why can’t I, given I’m just half his age? I need to find out more.
I immediately indulge in the cheapest and easiest form of travel to Ikaria – via the internet.
I find that Ikaria is a small island near the west coast of Turkey, an isolated place of windswept pine and oak forests, with little arable land.
According to myth, a young Icarus, imprisoned in a labyrinth, used wax wings to escape. He was warned not to fly too close to the sun, but ignored this advice. The wax on his wings melted and he fell into the sea. Icarus’s body was carried ashore to an island as yet unnamed. The divinity Heracles come across the body and, recognising Icarus, buried him on a small rocky outcrop jutting out of the Aegean Sea, calling it Ikaria.
The sea around Ikaria was, even in Homeric times, one of the most turbulent areas of the Aegean. It lacked a natural port where boats could dock, adding to its inaccessibility. But its isolation didn’t stop invaders. Persians, Romans and Turks all laid siege to Ikaria at some time or another and it was under constant threat from pirates. Allegedly, it was the fear of pirates that forced the islanders to move inland and begin to open their shops in the small hours of the morning.
I also learn that Ikaria was reputedly the birthplace of Dionysius, the God of wine, and was renowned for its notable Pramnian wine, possibly in the fourth century BC. The locals still wax lyrical about the quality of their wine, and drink it mixed with water, just as their ancient forebears did. Many edible wild plants grow on the island, and mineral springs spurt from its rocky depths.
I discover that many of the islanders live simply, traditionally, and according to the seasons. They still fortify their houses from the weather and make sure they’ve preserved enough of their summer produce to tide them over during the barren winter months. They work together, sharing resources and skills. They stride around the harsh mountainous landscape tending their animals and fields. People congregate regularly in village squares, churches and cafeneions to celebrate, pray and gossip. Ikaria is nowhere near as flashy as the nearby island of Samos, with its large villas and more obvious tourist attractions, but it appears the locals like it that way.
I have no illusion that the Ikarians’ way of living isn’t hard – my own grandparents lived in a similar way in small, poor villages in southern Greece. Mum lived in a seaside town, where her parents harvested grapes. Dad lived in the mountains, his family making their way to the fields below each summer to tend their fields of watermelons. They often struggled, with few of the amenities we now take for granted – running water, electricity, telephones. It was those hardships that compelled their children, my parents, to leave their homeland and come to Australia. Here they worked in various manual jobs in factories, making the things that Australia needed at the time – cars and clothes, beer and ammunitions.
Now here I am in my home office – several wires poking out from under my desk connecting me to the outside world and I search the internet in an attempt to feel closer to a people that remind me of my own grandparents, hankering for something I seem to have lost. The irony is not lost on me.
I stop searching and sigh. I need to get back to work on a research report.
A few weeks later, I find myself kneeling on the floor, my knees feel cold against the kitchen tiles. My head is placed awkwardly as I poke around in the dishwasher, which has stopped working. The hole where the water is supposed to drain away is blocked. I plunge my hand into the grey water and scoop out bits of pasta, brown sludgy vegetables and a small sliver of broken glass. The water still won’t pass through and my fingers slide against slime as I dig deeper to find the source of the blockage.
Dolores leaves a glass on the sink and pulls a face at the glug in my hand, saying, ‘That’s disgusting.’
I look up at her, annoyed, and she slinks away. Never mess with Mum when she’s on her hands and knees. Cleaning the toilet. Wiping cat vomit off floorboards. Scrubbing unidentifiable stains off kitchen tiles.
When we moved into our home, our kitchen had a dishwasher-sized hole, but no dishwasher. The dishwasher I am clearing was a generous gift from my cousin Kathy, who won it in a competition. She knew I wanted one – so she simply gave it to me. It’s a godsend and I so appreciate Kathy’s kindness, but part of me wonders if the dishwasher has caused more grief than joy, as George and I often find ourselves grumbling to the kids: ‘Please put your dishes in the dishwasher!’ ‘Whose turn is it to empty the dishwasher?’ The fact that we no longer have to wash our own dishes is now taken for granted. And our ritual of washing up and drying together at the end of the night has become a thing of the past.
After finally getting enough sludge out of the filter to allow the water to drain slowly away, I feel a fleeting sense of satisfaction.
Not for the first time, I consider the futility of cleaning. It’s nearly impossible to keep on top of the dust that collects on furniture; the hairs that collect in the drain of the shower and around the toilet base; the cat fluff that gathers so insidiously in corners. Faced with the continual detritus that we seem to create as a family, I often feel my spirits lag. It’s like a weight on my shoulders, dragging them down.
Later that night, I take myself off to bed and find myself once again entering ‘Ikaria’ into the search engine. I come across a documentary about the island by Nikos Dyanas, titled Little Land. In it the filmmaker introduces an 83-year-old café owner, beekeeper and farmer, Yiorgos Stenos, who says the islanders do many jobs to survive. ‘For Ikarians, doing one job equals poverty,’ he says. ‘If I have no customer, I go to my bees for honey. If there’s no honey, I make some olive oil. No oil, I plant some vegetables. That’s how I make the most of my waking hours. We work slowly, steadily and every day. Work tires us physically, but not mentally, so we feel great because we like what we do.’
In another interview, 101-year-old Ikarian resident weaver and teacher Ioanna Prois says, ‘We didn’t have much to eat when I was a girl. Mostly horta (wild greens). I have always worked and I get great satisfaction from my loom, from creating. I always wake up positive and I never give up hope and I don’t eat very much. I have energy. Lots of it. If I could do a mountain of work, I would! Life is beautiful, but only if we can live it well. Life must be enjoyed.’
The overarching message from the islanders is that the secret to living well is not about having what you want, but having what you need – and being content with ‘enough’.
As the documentary credits roll, an idea takes hold. I imagine myself walking beside Yiorgos as he collects honey from his bees and sitting next to Ioanna learning how to weave as she tells me about her childhood. For the first time in a long time, I feel excited. Perhaps a trip to Ikaria is what I have been looking for.
I feel a naughty thrill as I enter ‘Ikaria accommodation’ into my search engine. I expect to find very little, perhaps some rustic village homes, but it seems there are a good number of hotels and studios with glimmering pools overlooking the particular shade of Mediterranean blue that makes my heart sing. The views are impossibly beautiful. I daydream about the trips I’ve made to the Greek islands over the years – dancing at a seaside resort in Mykonos with my friend Stacey, walking the Samaria Gorge with family friends in Crete, eating at a charming seaside taverna in Ithaka with George and the kids several years ago . . .
I whittle away the better part of an hour entering dates for flights into search engines. But when I mentally tally the cost of going with the whole family, or, conversely, the cost of going by myself and leaving the family and my work behind, I give up. Who am I kidding?
Shutting down the fun windows, I start a more serious search, entering, ‘Why do Ikarians live so long?’
A list of international articles from the Guardian, the New York Times and CNN-online come up. From these I learn that the Ikarians don’t try to live for a long time – it just happens. They are not on complex treatments or programs. They don’t have a regimented diet that allows them to eat some things and not others, nor do they have vexed and guilty relationships with food. It doesn’t look like there is a single ‘superfood’ that keeps them healthy. They don’t use gyms, fiddly tracking devices and other gadgetry to help them keep fit. Expensive or complicated ways of relaxing or notions of ‘getting away from it all’ are unheard of. It’s all refreshingly simple – it appears that their everyday routines make for a long life, and in a way that ensures they are healthy, happy and active for most of their lives.
I dig a bit deeper and find several research papers by notable Greek doctors and academics. Everything they say makes complete sense to me. The Ikarians live almost exactly as my grandparents did – and, to a degree, how my parents lived when we were growing up, even when they came to suburban Melbourne. Even now, though my mum is in her mid-seventies, she still keeps active in her garden, socialises lots, walks a few kilometres to pick something up from the shop.
The Ikarians are frequently on the move during their day. They don’t go out of their way to exercise. Their environment just encourages them to be active. They walk up and down mountainsides, tend their fields, do their housework and dance at their many village feasts. I read that six out of ten Ikarians over the age of ninety are still physically active. Public health studies show that even moderate walking lowers cholesterol and blood pressure, and can reduce everything from stress to the risk of diabetes, vascular stiffness and inflammation, dementia and depression.
Elderly Ikarians largely follow a traditional Mediterranean diet. I am reminded of the principles of such a diet when I pull from my bookshelves The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook by Dr Catherine Itsiopoulos. A respected Melbourne academic and author on Mediterranean food, she writes that the Mediterranean diet has been around for several millennia, and is one of the most comprehensively researched and scientifically validated diets in human history. She notes that thousands of studies have demonstrated that the traditional Mediterranean diet reduces chronic disease and mortality, including incidence of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The beauty of the Mediterranean diet is that it focuses on what you can eat, rather than what you can’t. She also emphasises its value beyond just food, citing a UNESCO committee statement: ‘The Mediterranean diet emphasizes values of hospitality, neighbourliness, intercultural dialogue and creativity, and a way of life guided by respect for diversity.’
Back at my computer, another research article reminds me of what I have already learnt from my grandparents: that while the traditional Mediterranean diet varies across the countries where it is practised, it is generally high in vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, grains and olive oil, with moderate amounts of fish. It is low in dairy products, red meat and poultry. Alcohol, especially wine with meals, is drunk regularly but in moderation. I delve further and find that Ikarian cookbook author Diane Kochilas talks about how the diet of the island’s elders comprised a few basics, with foraged foods, especially greens, providing a solid foundation. She notes that it wasn’t so much what elders ate, but how little of it they ate that kept them healthy.
It appears that the Ikarians diverge from the traditional Mediterranean diet in that they eat larger amounts of potatoes. The elders there grew up eating red meat very sparingly. They drink goat’s milk and eat cheese in moderation. Their main fat comes from extra virgin olive oil, which they use generously in cooking and on salads. They use herbs to flavour food and make teas, and have access to many wild foods on the island. The traditional Ikarian diet includes very little processed food, and is based on what is seasonally available, or what has been preserved from gardens and fields. Ikarians have traditionally fasted for up to half of the year, refraining from eating meat and dairy products. This cuts around 30 per cent of calories out of their diet. Though fast food has made some inroads into the island, the basis of their diet is still fresh, seasonal produce, which is often home-grown and organic.
But the islanders’ wellbeing is not just about food. The centre of Ikarian social life is the family, which includes extended family. They enjoy connections with their fellow villagers and those in surrounding villages, of which there are several on the island.
Traditionally in Greece, the cafeneion is a village gathering place to talk and argue, play backgammon and drink coffee, particularly for men. It is no different in Ikaria, except that women are just as likely to be rolling the dice as men. There are more than two hundred village feasts and celebrations ( panigiria) throughout the year that both residents and tourists enthusiastically attend. This is a way of raising money for communal village projects, with the added benefit of celebrating and connecting.
I discover that elderly Ikarians relax and rest by taking short naps during the day. Almost all those studied aged over ninety have a siesta at noon. Some researchers believe that this might explain the very low incidence of depression among elders on the island. A midday siesta may lower a person’s risk of death from heart disease, possibly by reducing stress levels.
Ikarians mostly drink water. A lot of families produce their own wine, which they water down and drink moderately with meals, usually in company. They also mostly drink Turkish-style black coffee, and tea brewed from local herbs. I think back to research I’ve read showing that coffee drinkers have a lower risk of getting type 2 diabetes and heart attacks. The Ikarians tick all the boxes for healthy living, seemingly without trying.
While the Ikarians no doubt get stressed like the rest of us, research shows that their lifestyle and habits help reduce it – moving lots, socialising, eating whole foods, getting out in the sun. While it’s hard to measure stress, studies have shown that prolonged stress is linked with many health problems, including a higher risk of getting cardiovascular disease, higher levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol and lower levels of ‘good’ cholesterol, and our cells becoming inflamed.
The more I read, the more enamoured I become with the island and its people. What the Ikarians do sounds so simple, cutting through the many complicated messages we receive in the West about how we can be happier and healthier.
It’s a Friday and I’m swimming laps with my friend Fiona at our local outdoor pool. Inspired by the doctor’s words several weeks ago, I’ve coerced Fiona into baring her winter skin once a week in the interests of health. There is no one else in our lane, and we swim side by side, debriefing about our week, talking more than exerting. While it’s cold, the early morning sun plays on the ripples that push out from our bodies, and I think of all that bone-strengthening Vitamin D my body must be making.
I tell Fiona I have ‘discovered’ a Greek island and tell her some of what I’ve learnt about Ikaria, saying how much I’d like to visit it and find out more about what makes the people there live such a long time. We entertain the idea of going on a holiday there together, as if we were still single and childless. As we talk about the food we would eat, I fantasise about wild green pies and goat’s milk yoghurt and aromatic honey, the mountain walks we would take, visiting isolated bell towers and whitewashed churches on windy outcrops.
But then Fiona confesses that the idea of travelling doesn’t really excite her – with all the preparation, the long claustrophobic plane trip, and then being away from home for so long.
As we soak up the sun, languid stroke by languid stroke, Fiona turns to me and says, ‘You should just do it yourself, Spiri.’