Island vignettes; a happiness of being


    Dr Valia Papoutsaki has spent her life living on, and studying island from Europe to Waiheke. Here she shares with us her Greek Islands ‘Ikigai’ encounters.

    Small islands foster special communities, often characterised by strong bonds, a spirit of volunteerism and social engagement as well as a real sense of balance despite the challenges life throws at you. It’s not by coincidence that several of the “blue zones” on our planet, known for the longevity of their inhabitants, are small islands. 

    In the south of Japan, the island of Okinawa is well known not only for being such a blue zone but also for their concept of ikigai that describes best “a happiness of being”. One of its principles for a long life is to be part of a strong social group. 

    In my pre-covid trip to my ancestral island of Crete, I fully immersed myself in experiencing the local ikigai through socialising with my father’s nonagenarian friends who have been meeting daily at Koumbaroi*, the neighbourhood’s cafe. I had the rare honour to frequent the company of these oldies who entertained me with their stories, folk poems – traditional Cretan couplets/madinades** – and commentary on politics, history, and society as well as international affairs (they clearly have the advantage of time, they have seen it all in their life time). 

    There was, as you can imagine, much repetition. I heard a few stories several times and I was countless times amused by the teasing comments exchanged with each other, always taken in good spirit.

    Their social club microcosm is full of detail and unspoken rules, like for instance one that sees the new person arriving having his coffee paid by the last person arriving before him. 

    Everyone’s character is unique and each contributes to the group in their own distinctive way. Like the 93-year-old former teacher who is the storyteller with the nickname of “polimilis” (the chatterbox); the kind 98-year-old former police captain who is so deaf that he simply nods and repeats the same generic answer to all but who shared with me his civil war stories; the former ‘extreme heights construction worker’ migrant from France, who writes rhyming folk poems (he dedicated one to me after the Whakaari eruption weaving in the current news to my connections with down under, signalling in this way that I was now an accepted member of the group). And there is the other nearly a century-old man with the ponderous voice and strong opinions who still sings at the local church choir (I witnessed that on Christmas Eve, his strong voice filling in the church for five hours…and I complain after lecturing for an hour!). The younger chain smoking retiree who has a mobile phone with internet acts as the fact checker, if there is a dispute he is asked to check for the correct information online.

    They read their paper and sip in their Greek coffee in companionable silence that is punctuated by chatting on this and that and often forcibly interrupted by their over-talking friend who can’t seem to contain himself. Despite their complaints about his incessant talking, they seem to miss him when he is not there. Upon my return to the island he gifted me excitedly a chrysanthemum pot that came with a rhyming couplet, dedicated to Edisona (the female version of Thomas Edison he decided to name me after, the inventor of electric light, since he feels my scholarly endeavours are the equivalent of bringing light of knowledge to people): “may the thoughts of our company accompany you in the challenges you face in life and find solace in them”.

    I learned much from them in the month I spent in their company and after reading my niece’s Christmas gift on the Japanese concept of Ikigai, I decided that this group of nonagenarians are this Mediterranean island’s Ikigai followers. As one of them said to me, a former schoolmate of my dad’s, “we sound a bit silly, but this is what is keeping us going, it forces us to get out of the house in the morning to socialize and keep in touch with the world”. It’s an echo of what the Okinawan centenarians said to me during my research on their island and they should know as they invented Ikigai.

    My 90 years old dad could hardly walk anymore but every morning he would cross painfully slowly but eagerly the street to the square across where the cafe is to meet his friends. I never knew my dad had it in him to improvise folk rhyming couplets but it seems this company has inspired him, or perhaps it was there all along, part of the island’s collective cultural DNA that runs through our veins. 

    I couldn’t imagine his daily life without this morning coffee club and I was deeply grateful that he was able to have a social life that connects him to his past, his town, his island and indeed the world. I felt I was leaving him in good hands. 

    Full story in this week’s Gulf News… Out Now!!!

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