By Eleni Kotsira, University of St Andrews §
It is an evening in the early days of August 2019. I am sitting at a café in an alleyway popular with tourists in the village of Chóra, on Samothraki, the northernmost island of Greece. My ears buzz with ethereal sounds of music, tourist chit-chat, photo clicks. I have the uncanny feeling that we are in a different place than we actually are. I am carried away by the tourist vibe momentarily, only to awaken again. Almost alarmed.
This is a different place—we’re in multiple places at once, it seems. But not everyone can see it.
The waiter in front of me is talking with a group of women from England in their early twenties. “Last year [he means to say two years ago, slip of the tongue] it rained for 24 hours [less than that actually] the amount of rain that falls during a calendar year. There was a river passing through here.” His hands move to show the alley, a cobbled street now populated with colorful coffee tables and chairs. The alleyway appears filled with rushing water momentarily. They are amazed. He has caught their attention. Now they can touch upon lighter, happier conversation topics. They switch the conversation to the places the women visited earlier that day and how they liked them. The incident of the flood is, as it seems, already overcome, perhaps even forgotten.
They carry on as I withdraw to my thoughts. I remember that day. It floods my mind just like the water had flash-flooded the village, the island, mountaintop to sea. That was in the early hours of September 26, 2017. I know that the interior space of the café where we are all casually socializing right now had also flooded then; but this is not mentioned to the women. It is not mentioned that, out of fear of yet another flood, metal barriers were blocking the entrances to the building for the past two winters; an image in complete contrast with its always-open doors in summer.
I am reminded of the streetlight. From all that happened since the night of the flood, from all the months that the island remained in a state of emergency, what stayed in my mind most vividly—or simply closer to the surface—was someone mentioning the darkness of this alley. Waiting to have my coffee served at one of Chóra’s cafés, standing by the store’s wood-burning stove in what is a cold, winter evening, I hear the owner explaining to me while he stirs the milk, that there used to be a streetlight, a modern lantern hanging from a stone wall at the corner, but it went dark that night due to a short-circuit. For weeks after reconstruction works began, the alley remained dark. It was ghosted by the water’s flashing presence. I also heard other residents of the village saying what a difference a new lantern on the wall would have made for them. Finally, in time for the summer tourist season of 2018, the light was lit again. But now it was its absence that haunted my mind. Light flashing back to darkness. Like someone who had spent a long time in a cave, I could not get used to the light. I wondered if others felt the same.
A person shuffles past me and I am brought back to the present. The casual talk continues at the table in front. “Oh, you are leaving tomorrow,” his voice slows down in disappointment. I suppose, should they have stayed longer, he might have liked to tell them more stories, impress them with more mythical events. Constructions of place and environment here are configured by the mythos demanded of tourism. We are in Greece, after all.
It is well known as the myth of the flood. The ark sets down on the one place on earth that remains uncovered by water, a circular or sacred place, from which the world begins anew. […] The idea of a second origin gives the deserted island its whole meaning, the survival of a sacred place in the word that is slow to re-begin. (Deleuze 2004: 13-14)
The world must re-begin; it has to be again. Deleuze goes on to suggest that now the world is entrusted to humans, not gods. This is a second birth, a human birth, that awaits to happen. But, Deleuze’s words echo two main components as required for the new world to be(come) when seen from my vantage in Samothraki: effort and liability. A world delivered and grown by humans is a world of work and praxis. It is a world where no gods are to blame, but where humans have to correct and, when possible, prevent their mistakes. It is a human world with mortal limitations.
The flood of September 2017 is now turning into a myth. The ones who experienced it keep repeating their personal narratives and descriptions, boasting about the actions taken during that night, nonetheless without encouraging other actions that might prevent this kind of flooding in the first place. The tourist myth reaches far more people than does the material reality lying behind it. Is it not always like this when it comes to myth? “Mythology is not simply willed into existence, and the peoples of the earth quickly ensured they would no longer understand their own myths” (Deleuze 2004: 12). Experience though is willed into existence. It is willed into what you see and how you see it, what you perceive and how you perceive it.
For a moment, I am tempted to interrupt the conversation still taking place in front of me. There is so much more to take away from that flood and its destructive impact on the island. The already extensive overgrazing by the wild goats and the subsequent erosion of the soil facilitated the detachment of mountain rocks that night, allowing the torrent to drive them through the village. Landslides are now to be constantly looked out for when heavy rainfalls occur. If I were to talk with them, I would explain these details. I would urge them to consider the environmental impact of their daily actions here and back home. What the waiter has said is correct, but simplified. The amount of rainfall that night was unexpected, unprecedented and intense; at some point, it reached 700 mm per hour. The damages it caused to private properties, municipal buildings, infrastructure and the landscape itself, are still being fixed (to the extent that they can be fixed). Moreover, his narrative was given without a critical context: the causes of such an intense rain and of the destruction it resulted in. I am therefore tempted to provide them with my own narrative of the flood, my personal experience of that night, and then turn the conversation to the imminent environmental needs of the island. But, understandably, analyzing the impact of climate change on a small island in the North of the Aegean Sea might not make an ideal vacation attraction. So, I eavesdrop, and I write this blog post instead.
The myth of this incredible flood on Samothraki has reduced this extraordinary event to a conversation-starter. Rather than inspiring action to address the conditions that made this rainfall so powerful and impactful, it is reduced merely to a waiter’s flirting tactic. This is not to say that this storytelling practice is cheap, however. In fact, it is quite powerful. In the waiter’s movements and his engagement in sharing the story I see what Walter Benjamin has called the “craftsmanship” of storytelling (Benjamin 1969: 92). He brings the story from afar, far from his audience’s knowledge and expectations and far from his very own lived experience (as he did not encounter the flood himself, I suspect). In now looking more closely myself, I realize that his story “does not expend itself. It preserves and concentrates its strength and is capable of releasing it even after a long time” (Benjamin 1969: 90). It can be tailored to the needs of a different audience, repeated over and over again, convincingly and tirelessly. The “craftsman” in front of me is a master of words, even as the words have become unmoored from the power of the plot.
In sharing to impress, or to gossip, or even to carelessly chat, the flood is diminished to neither a myth nor a story after all. The post-flood world promised by Deleuze has yet to begin and its new meaning is still missing, for residents and tourists alike. Stories, on the other hand, have to be useful, motivate the listener to take a step further, help the community grow (up). But on this remote island of hardly 3,000 permanent residents, the community’s daily struggles for subsistence tend to outlive unity.
My attention shifts. There is a hill facing Chóra. The locals call it the morning star, as Venus can be seen setting behind it at dawn. Wrinkles have been etched upon its surface; a reminder of the night of the flood. How can tourists not see it? How can it be excluded in the stories shared? How can tourists not make the connection between what they hear and what they see? “Sometimes the marks of history and change are in plain view, yet still we ignore them: ignore land forms, settlement markers, even live people,” Lawrence Buell (2001: 67) brings me back to reality.
There is no agreement over the causes of the rain and the subsequent destruction among the locals. Some call it an “act of god”; others a “disaster”; fewer a “deluge” (survey data, 26 September – 30 November 2018). They may circulate their stories and attract attention, but the next heavy rainfall will find them just as vulnerable. There is no public movement to turn this incident into an opportunity; to change the living conditions on the island for the better. Efforts to reach out to the tourists, on the other hand, are limited by the shortness of the tourist season: squeezed into just two months (July and August) of the year, during which most of the island’s goods and services need to be capitalized for the whole year’s subsistence. Perhaps, then, change is something that only I envision, because I have the luxury of time to gaze and keep listening to one story after another once again.
“My hope is that the environment is mainly self-protected. That it finds a way to be OK after all. For example, I believe that even [for] those plane trees [on the island] that are sick, something will happen in the end to fix them,” an informant of mine sighed in September 2018. Unlike others being overwhelmed by their holiday expectations, she notices everything: the sickness of the trees caused by some germ, the wounds of the earth carved by the forceful torrents, the always eroded land, the rivers drying up in summer… all those aspects that tourists ignore and residents do not collectively act against. She identifies what is missing on both sides: organized initiative, commitment. Eventually, she does not find hope for the island—or the globe, for that matter—in either of them: “People don’t care…”
I end up considering that perhaps this is not the sacred island after all. Perhaps this is yet another vanishing land. Not at its new beginning, but just past the threshold of its end. Anyone attempting to climb up the island’s mountain will feel the rocks sliding under their feet, that momentary loss of balance, hovering between air and earth. And, as the sea rises and the rivers overflow more and more often, the feet recover their stability on the ground only to lose it again as the latter is devoured by water. Deleuze might attribute the idea of the desert island to the realm of the imaginary, but Samothraki is not far from embodying this paradox: populated by humans, yet deserted in terms of human care unconsidered, left to dissolve in the sea. My informant’s words above echo a subliminal optimism, that the environment will act with agency, will do away with whatever (or whoever) is harming it. If she is right, soon Samothraki will be an island that deserted itself. I can almost see this emancipated environment as I look out across the landscape; from pushing “its desert outside” (Deleuze 2004: 11) to the sea for humans to be able to inhabit it, to being deemed uninhabitable again by humans who, without assuming the effort and liability required, cannot create the world anew after all.
I am reconfiguring my pessimism, standing idle and numb between residents and tourists, being neither of them. I am an anthropologist gradually losing faith in humanity, only to recover from despair periodically, making a step forward and then again five backwards. Sacred or not, the island rises high above the sea, craggy and mostly bare at its north side. At sunset and when seen from afar, the steep rocks reflect the light perfectly, creating the illusion of a golden artifact. A contact of mine thinks that it is this moon-like beauty of the island that attracts many of its visitors. He even compares the island’s shape and lines to a work of architecture, crafted with purpose. But, for better or worse, beauty alone does not last. It either fades gradually or is dramatically extinguished, like a lantern in an alleyway, plunging everyone who depends upon it into darkness.
* All photographs included are taken by the author.
I would like to thank Colin Hoag for his constructive feedback on the initial draft and his guidance towards the final version of this post.
Benjamin, W. 1969. Illuminations. Translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books.
Buell, L. 2001. Writing for an Endangered World: Literature, Culture, and Environment in the U.S. and Beyond. Cambridge & London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Deleuze, G. 2004. Desert Island and Other Texts 1953 – 1974. Translated by Michael Taormina. Los Angeles & New York: Semiotext(e).
Kotsira, E. 2019. On Natural Disasters and Traumatic PhDs. 08 May. PhD Women Scotland. [Online]. [Accessed 8 February 2019]. Available from: https://phdwomenscot.wordpress.com/2019/02/08/on-natural-disasters-and-traumatic-phds/
Eleni Kotsira is a PhD Candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of St. Andrews (UK). Her research interests include environmental anthropology, climate change, anthropology of disasters, states of emergency, enforced movement, trauma, advocacy, body politics, literary anthropology and poetry. She blogs frequently at https://poetic-movements.blogspot.com/
This post is part of our thematic series: The Event, the Horizon.