by Willard Manus
They had come to Kastellorizo for three days but had found the life there
to be such a carnival that they had stayed put for a month, living in
one room of a pension whose only toilet was down the hall. The pension,
which was owned by a Greek family newly returned from Australia, was located
just off the waterfront near a cluster of once-grand houses that were
now little better than stacks of rubble. Thats where he took his
morning coffee, sitting amid the ruins, shaded by a blighted pine tree.
On his first day on the island, he had been joined by his landlord, Savvas,
a heavyset man who spoke English with a grating Australian accent.
Where are you from? Savvas asked as he sipped his coffee.
When the answer came he made a face and sniffed, American, huh?
How about that? We dont get many Americans here. Then, quickly,
What brings you to Kastellorizo?
Im a writer looking for a quiet place to work.
And just what is it that you are working on?
That means you are writing lies, isnt that so, my friend?
Thats correct. I am writing one lie after another, but in
search of the truth.
Yes. The truth.
And do you think youll ever find it?
I wont know until I finish the book.
Savvas fell silent. The two of them sipped their coffee and eyed each
other warily. Then came another question. So tell me, Americano.
Your president, with his war in Viet Nam and all, what does he want? Ti
theli O Johnson?
was not surprised by the question, having learned on arrival in Greece
a year earlier that its natives were obsessed with politics. Especially
American politics. So he gave Savvas a ready-made answer, one designed
to provoke. Theli na fai o cosmos.
He wants to eat the world.
* * *
After that, the Americano became a conspicuous figure on the island, a
symbol of American might and power. The inhabitants, who numbered just
above two hundred, called out his name wherever he went, sometimes adding
under their breath: Hes writing a book, a book in praise of
President Johnson and his bloody war.
The Americano tried hard to keep his cool. He stuck to his routine, rising
early for his coffee, then returning to the pension to work on his novel,
sitting in an ancient, cracked-leather chair with a wooden slat for a
desk. Then, after having done his four pages, he joined his Scottish wife
downstairs and they walked through the village together, going up the
hillside and heading toward a secluded cove where they could swim and
laze in the nude. An hour later, they retraced their steps and returned
to the village where they bought bread, feta, olives and yogurt for their
The next few hours were spent indoors to escape the excoriating heat and
the swarms of flies that came with it. They slept if they could but mostly
re-read the handful of paperbacks they had brought with them on the ferry-boat
from Rhodes. No new books could be found on Kastellorizo; nor were there
any English-language newspapers or magazines.
the sun took an oblique, less intense angle, they ventured out again and
walked to the Megisti Hotel, which sat at the far corner of town, overlooking
the long, wide harbor which once upon a time had served as a fueling station
for French and Italian seaplanes. Years before that, in the age of canvas,
the harbor had been crammed with schooners that transported goods between
the Greek islands and Turkey, whose coastline sat just a mile away. It
was the owners of those schooners who had built Kastellorizos stately
houses: three-story-high stone buildings with red tile roofs and wooden
balconies. Unfortunately, most of those buildings had fallen victim to
earthquakes and WW II bombings; with their homes destroyed, most Kazzies
had abandoned the island and emigrated to places like Athens, Germany
The Hotel Megisti was where the handful of foreigners on the island congregated
every late afternoon, to swim, sunbathe and gossip. Most of them were
either Australian or British, with the odd German or Italian to add a
little spice. Large amounts of wine, ouzo and beer were drunk on the stone
jetty that fronted the hotel.
When the sun went down, it was time to think of food. Because the Americano
and his wife did not have access to a kitchen, they were obliged to eat
out every night, in one or another of the villages half dozen tavernas.
Most of these were located on the waterfront and catered to the charter
boats from Israel, Cyprus and Lebanon that arrived and dropped anchor
for a night or two. When these yachties came ashore they were
greeted with a large sign reading: Welcome to Europe.
the high prices of these tourist traps, the Americano and his wife hiked
up into the nearby hillside where there was a koutouki -a rural
cafe-whose owner, a woman named Roula, cooked a few savory dishes
every night, one of which was their favorite-- revythika keftedes, chickpea
Roulas husband Stergos owned a village grocery but helped out in
the cafe at night. Each time the Americano and his wife showed up, Stergos
sat down beside them, poured a little retsina from a beaker and asked,
in Greek, So whats the news from Washington? What was your
president up to today?
Stergos knew full well that the Americano did not have a radio or tv in
his room, but that didnt keep him from interrogating him. He simply
assumed that this representative from the richest, strongest nation on
earth must be privy to inside information.
The Americanos answer came swiftly and bluntly. He sent another
ten thousand young men to fight in Viet Nam.
Why would he do something like that? Stergos asked. Doesnt
he know that he is fighting against andartes-guerillas-and
that this is a war he cannot win?
He doesnt agree with you. He insists that America will triumph
in this war.
He must be a very foolish man. How could he make such a terrible
He sincerely believes in his cause.
What a malaka! Stergos cried. Think of what he could
do with all the money he is burning up in Viet Nam. He could be helping
Greece with it. He could help us here on the island to rebuild our houses.
We could make our village beautiful again and that would bring the tourists
in large numbers, make us all rich.
sorry, the Americano said. But President Lyndon Baines Johnson
does not care a rats ass about Kastellorizo.
And you, my friend, do you also feel the same way?
I like Kastellorizo. But my feelings about the island count for
nothing in Washington.
America should help us, Stergos persisted. Look how
hard we fought against Mussolini and Hitler during world war two.
But America did help Greece after the war. What about the Marshall
Plan and all that?
America gave us food, but then it betrayed us by putting the King
back in power, after we had fought a civil war to get rid of that bastard.
It went on like that. The Americano had heard it many times before and
now he was hearing it again. America was responsible for all of Greeces
problems. It had shoved the King and his German wife down the throats
of the people. It kept favoring Turkey over Greece. And now it was fighting
a tragic war in Asia instead of helping to restore Kastellorizo to its
days of glory.
It would have been pointless for The Americano to argue with Stergos.
His role on the island as apologist for LBJs foreign policy was
not negotiable. He was obliged, even though it went against what he truly
believed, to play the part they had assigned him.
The act got
to him at times, dragged his spirits down. But on the whole he took a
perverse pleasure in playing the devils advocate, challenging the
mentality of these people, especially when it came to the USA. Someone
had to jolt them out of their misconceptions, their annoying need to blame
LBJ for all of Greeces problems.
The Americano made sure, though, never to lose his temper, become shrill
or rude. There was no point in riling these villagers up, or in judging
them too harshly. Their island was poor, it was way off the tourist track,
an isolated Aegean flyspeck that had suffered grievously during WW II.
Life here was so difficult that the Greek government actually paid the
inhabitants a stipend to remain on Kastellorizo, keep it from falling
into Turkish hands.
So the Americano avoided getting into a slugging match with Stergos, was
content to just land a few light jabs while defending the hated LBJ. Stergos
also pulled his punches, knowing full well that he and the Americano were
just messing with each other, pretending to be antagonists.
Eventually, though, Stergos and the other villagers turned to more urgent
matters, almost all of which had to do with property rights. Every time
the ferry-boat from Rhodes arrived, several Kazzies disembarked,
returning to the island after long sojourns abroad. Some of them found
their family houses in ruins; others found them intact but occupied by
squatters. Squatters who refused to vacate the premises.
It made for a series of legal squabbles, all of which were fought out
nightly between the two clans that controlled the island. Each of these
clans was headed by a woman, it turned out. Tough, burly and foul-mouthed,
these matriarchs liked nothing better than to face off against each other
on the waterfront.
the center of town, with the entire village looking on from their tables,
the two female behemoths stood nose to nose, shouting at the top of their
Look whos here, the bitch who tried to steal my aunt Frosenes
What are you talking about, you whore, you and your husband stole
it from my father when he went to Australia thirty years ago!
Liar! I ought to bash your teeth in!
Do that and Ill pull out every hair in your smelly cunt!
It was like a demented Punch and Judy show, and the Americano and his
wife wouldnt have missed it for anything. It was the main reason
they had decided to extend their stay on Kastellorizo; every night brought
a new confrontation between these two hulking Amazons. With entertainment
like this, who needed a tv or radio.
* * *
It also helped that they had begun to make a few friends on the island,
notably Panayotis, a hermit (and ikon-painter) who lived in a hillside
cave; Stratis, an Athenian lawyer who was spending the summer rebuilding
his family house; and Eleftheris (Leffie), who was visiting
from Australia and taking care of his ailing aunt Eleni.
Leffie had grown up on Kastellorizo and was nine years old when the war
broke out. The Italians who had occupied the island in 1940 were bombed
sporadically by the Allies. When Italy capitulated in 1943, British commandos
took over the island and became a target for the German air force. The
Brits quickly departed, leaving the island unguarded and defenseless.
when we villagers decided to abandon Kastellorizo, Leffie said.
We all boarded a Greek freighter and set out for Cyprus, only to
be attacked from the air by Nazi dive-bombers.
Our ship was hit and began to sink, Leffie continued over
dinner at his aunts house. There were no life boats, only
a few cork jackets. It was decided that they should be given to the children,
the next generation. My parents strapped me in and, after a last kiss
and prayer, tossed me over the side. I never saw them again.
Picked up hours later by a Greek fisherman, the traumatized Leffie was
put into an orphanage until the end of the war, at which time relatives
claimed him and took him to Australia.
Specifically, the city of Perth, where a first wave of Kastellorizans
had emigrated early in the 20th century, Leffie
explained. There must be twenty thousand Kazzies there. We have
our own newspaper, churches, schools and shops. We call Perth Little
Then came a sudden knock at the door; when Leffie opened it he was confronted
by someone in a wet suit. Drenched with sea water, trembling with cold,
the young man looked stunned, frightened and exhausted, near death, really.
Later, after Leffie had fed and clothed him, the visitor told us his story,
in a mixture of broken English and Greek. He was Kurdish, fleeing poverty
and oppression in Turkey. Desperately, recklessly, he had swum the mile
between the Turkish coast and Kastellorizo, sloshing through an icy, hard-running
sea, fighting waves, jelly-fish and fatigue for hour upon hour.
* * *
The next morning, the Americano escorted the Kurd to the police station
(Leffie being unable to leave his aunts side). On the way there,
the Kurd kept looking sideways at his escort. Finally, he broke down and
asked after his nationality.
No, not French.
No, not English.
No, not Greek.
Ah, the Kurd cried, his eyes lighting up. American!
For the first time in a month, the Americano broke out into a smile, a
big, face-cracking smile of pride.