Tinos’s ‘Luminous Encounters’

Remember that initial dream of relocating to a Greek isle, buying a traditional house to refurbish and spending one’s days in the ebb and flow of the seasons? For most of us with this romantic fantasy, the realities of modern life, pressures of family and need to make a livable wage have set that aspiration on the shelf or long out of reach, making it all the more worthy of admiration when someone actually does it. Meet Ron Walkey: More than 10 years ago, he and his wife Evi bought an old stone house on Tinos, in the Cyclades, and set about making it and the small village of Arnadhos their semi-permanent home. Ten years on, that experience and the joy he’s found in it became the foundations for Walkey, an architect and professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, to put together a collection of reflections he calls «Luminous Encounters: On the Island of Tinos» (ISBN 9608198 10 0). This little self-published book of about 160 pages is a treasure of images and musings that are both down-to-earth and philosophical about life on the island and the beauty Walkey has discovered away from the hurried pace of contemporary modern culture. These aren’t stories, per se, but reminiscences and observations. «Of all the animals, the donkey seems to be the most versatile. It is strong enough to be ridden for half a day, yet small enough that when loaded on both sides with water containers plus a rider it can fit through the small arched streets without scraping the walls. And they are low enough to be loaded easily from both sides, and jumped up on from the little step in front of each house.» Walkey looks at the village with an architect’s eye and the villagers with the respect of one who has chosen to live among them and share the rhythms of the seasons in a place steeped in its own long history. «Along these arched streets, donkeys stand long-eared and tethered out of the sun, and the merciless wind is cut in half by the turns of the wall. There are even passages behind the lower storerooms that connect one house to another so that patriots could escape up the hill from the Turks, or more probably the Venetians. In many of the storerooms a hole about one meter deep has been cut into the rock floor where emergency food and valuables could be hidden in times of danger. Manos doesn’t answer when I ask when the village was built. To him the question makes little sense. «’Always,’ he says.» Walkey writes of stone lintels and terrace slabs, of the community and communion of saints’ days, the «wind-whipped sea,» a torrent of rain or a dust storm and the slow pace of days spent just eking out one’s own existence: «What was still visible everywhere was the residue of the desperate Greek engagement with nature to survive in a sparse and tough land.» He tells us in his acknowledgments that the material for the book began as letters to distant friends with whom he wanted to share his experiences. And there are rich images and poetry in his prose: «The thick clusters of fat grapes that now swing from the trellis over our small courtyard are ripe enough to be irresistible to about 375 sub-species of wasps. And they all whine while they dine. Between their lumbering buzzing bodies are two or maybe three million small midges that have come along for the fun.» Here is what he calls his «tomato moment»: «The sea awaits. I get my tomato ready. Let me explain. I mark the midpoint of each day as the moment when I throw a tomato from Manos’s garden just as far out into the clear warm sea as I can. Then, making a deep and long dive, I try to hold my breath to come up under its bobbing. There, marking time and paddling, my head above the clear surface, I eat that red reality drenched in the salt water of this ancient sea, the sea in which Odysseus swam, among others.» In addition to these recollections, interspersed among the pages of the book, which is printed on good-quality thick paper of the kind that feels solid in one’s hands, are approximately 20 pencil sketches Walkey has done of the faces of villagers or the courtyards, corridors and facades of the whitewashed buildings. The edition’s overleaf shows an aerial photograph of a small village of no more than 30 blanched residences clustered around a church and hugging a plateau deeply gouged with terraced agriculture. These images help to convey the simplicity of island life and the rustic charm of the place. «There is so much here that is unexpected. Maybe it’s the light, maybe it’s the immediately expressive nature of the people, maybe it’s the palpable evidence of the past, or maybe it’s the heart-stopping beauty – those things I usually take for granted are given an edge that brings me up short.» Before moving to Tinos, Walkey writes, he had «wondered how it would be to spend a lifetime looking deep into the same situations… To live in a place, to be ‘placed,’ in a culture from where there was no escape from the familiar or from the responsibility to others that would be expected – how would those places feel? Palpable and alive, not picturesque, for every single stone would tell its story, tell his story, tell my story.» Walkey has found his place, and it is to our benefit that he has decided to tell its – and his – story; these are «Luminous Encounters» indeed.

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