On small islands people behave very differently from those on the mainland, and that constitutes much of their unique charisma. One holidays there or one relocates there as I did to Kythnos, Greece for a full 6 years, because it is the opposite of what one is used to, and most of us at some stage in life would like to break out of our lifelong patterns, especially the boring ones. Of course, the flipside of small community friendliness, is that everyone knows everyone’s business, and the craziest gossip and hearsay can escalate exponentially. I for example, the only foreigner living full time in Kythnos, was believed by at least one credulous taverna owner to be an eccentric millionaire, and a year after I moved there another virtuoso busybody actually claimed she had spotted me engaged in you know what with an attractive café waitress upstairs in the latter’s house. Back in 2014 and 5 years widowed I would have been very glad to have been noted in that precise flagrante delicto, for she was a very beautiful waitress, but as I had no idea where her house was, nor for that matter did she ever visit mine, that vision of the busybody’s was a 5 star hallucination.
The island at one stage had no less than four doctors for a winter population of 1800. All four of them chainsmoked, although one of them was obliged to go round the schools lecturing on the dangers of cigarettes, and he told me that after he had finished one lecture, he had to sneak out for a fag before driving on for his next exhortation. However far more paradoxical than that, were those times when the two of us were sitting and chatting outside a café, and certain enterprising villagers spotting the GP in his leisure hours, decided it would be a good idea to stroll up for an impromptu consultation. The doctor, let’s call him Kostas, would pretend irritation at being assailed away from the surgery, but would nonetheless end up giving a provisional diagnosis and occasionally a prescription. The dialogue between them was in Greek of course, and mine wasn’t good enough to follow every nuance, but as well as throat, chest and lungs, I also regularly heard the Greek for guts, the bladder, the male and female genitals, the dear old back passage, and so on and so forth. In any case, if you’ve studied A level Biology as I have, you will know that the bulk of anatomical and physiological terminology is derived from the classical Greek, so that the handy words are already there on the tip of your tongue as it were. The first few times these consultations happened, I instinctively turned away, until eventually I noted that most of the patients, both male and female, were politely looking at me as well as Kostas as they talked about their haemorrhoids, worms, thrush, cystitis and diarrhoea. At first, I assumed they believed I didn’t understand much of this intimate Greek discourse, which was why they were so free in orating about their pruritus, or their uncontrollable flatulence, or their candida albicans in front of me. But the more I sat in on these bizarre 3-handers, it became increasingly obvious that even if I had had perfect Greek, they would still have shared their embarrassing and non-embarrassing ailments in my presence. I was a foreigner and I was Kostas’s pal, and therefore I wouldn’t be a gossip because in structural terms I was not a native clansman, and so I had nothing to gain by badmouthing or mockery.
Unlike Kostas, who might well have been from Athens, but was as forthright as an islander when it came to likes and dislikes, loves and hatreds, panegyrics and slanders. You will note that so far I have left his necessary obligations, meaning his professional discretion and his solemn Hippocratic oath, out of the moral equation. Once or twice I would offer to move away while he talked to a woman about her menopausal symptoms or an old man about his swollen prostate, but he tut-tutted my sissified Englishness and commanded me to stay where I was.
“This is just life that you are hearing about, Mr Englishman. It is not to be avoided…”
“But what about some basic confidentiality? I mean back in England…”
“What about it? Do not make me laugh. This is a tiny Greek island, where the first thing they ask you is what is your salary to the exact penny, and what exactly is your wife’s. This is also where if you drink coffee in Café A, Café B asks you to your face why you don’t drink it with them, what have they possibly done to offend you? This is bloody Kythnos, not Trafalgar Square nor Tooting whatsit…”
In any event Kostas was impressively consistent, for not only did he waive the confidentiality of his al fresco consultations, he regularly eloquently maligned his patients as they wandered off.
“See that ugly one Panos, who just asked me about his shingles? He’s an alcoholic and he beats his wife, which is why she has that horrible nervous tic around the eyes. I can’t stand the bastard, but I’m obliged to treat him. And you see that very fat woman there Afroditi, who wanted sleeping pills off me last week? The gossip is she’s carrying on with one of the priests, so no wonder she can’t bloody sleep when all the village knows. She’s married with kids and the priest is married with kids, this place is like fucking Dallas, not the Cyclades, but I’m obliged to fucking treat them. Look, don’t talk to me about confidentiality, you shameless representative of an overbearing imperialist state. Get me another elliniko kafe, and get me a tsipuro brandy while you’re at it, the good stuff and not the rough stuff, as I feel the need to oil my tongue today…”
The next post will be on or before Friday May 15th