L’isola che non c’è*

This article was an inspiration to me.  It’s subject is the Greek island of Ikaria, a designated Blue Zone where the inhabitants are surprisingly long-lived.  The narrative is constructed around the sensational tale of a Greek man who, living in the United States, was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  The story goes that instead of pursuing traditional treatment in the US, he chose to go back to his home on the island of Ikaria to die in peace.  Except that he didn’t die. And at the time of publication 3 years ago, was a cancer-free 97 year-old.

The article describes Ikaria as an isolated place where people live a spartan life focused on family and community, eating simple food, much of which they grow or forage themselves, getting around on foot, and routinely drinking, talking and dancing the night away.  In the subtext lies the pressing question of exactly which practice provides the magical elixir for longevity.

But the article’s impact on me was not a testament to my burning desire to live to be a healthy 100, though that would be nice.  In it’s description of Ikaria I found a clear image of the picture that I had been fumbling to illustrate.  There it was – the lifestyle that I was trying to convey with my silly blog moniker.  And not only did it exist, but it also offered what I consider to be superb proof of it’s own validity: long, healthy lives.

I realized that while so many people around me are admirably following their ambitions toward career success and economic advancement, I am aspiring to Ikaria.

I have never been to the island of Ikaria and yet I think that I know her.  Many of the images that I have of her come from our trips to other Greek islands.  But there are so many details about the Ikarian lifestyle that I think I’ve witnessed much closer to home.  Images that remind me of my paternal grandfather’s village in the Italian region of Ciocaria. Or G’s family town in Sicily.  And even, strange though it may sound, of my maternal grandparents enclave of Little Italy in Cleveland, a culture whose remnants filtered down to me growing up in the city.

It is, I suspect, what much of the Mediterranean looked like before the Industrial North conquered the globe, a cultural victory so sweeping and complete that it is impossible to imagine the world any other way.  Though Ikarians were heavily impacted by the war and the German occupation,  it’s likely that its notoriously rough waters played a decisive part in preserving it’s culture in the years that followed.

I think of her now as the Germans and Greeks skirmish over Greece’s place in the Eurozone, both justly questioning whether Greece can ever really learn to play the game nearly perfected by Europe’s economic engine.  And I sympathize deeply with her as hungry migrants, escaping the brutal chaos to the east, land on her rough shores.

And I think that I understand her as I make a batch of cheese in my tiny Bay Area kitchen, knowing that my own aspirations carry all the appeal that she engenders in her worn housecoat and woolly upper lip in the eyes of my own neighbors, bedecked in their sleek new portables and trendy messenger bags.

I know that this notion that maybe all those nonagenarians on Ikaria prove that cultivating health and social ties is the best way to move towards old-age is tinged with nostalgia.  And I can’t close my eyes to the countless ways that we all benefit from the success and prosperity of our technologically savvy neighbors every day.

Intelligent people know that sound investments and access to the latest technologies are the road to the good life.  And, if you play it right, you can vacation in Ikaria – as long as the wifi is reliable.  I understand the rules of the game.  But as I listen to the deafening sounds of the Dow going up and down in the background, I’m not entirely convinced that it’s worth playing.

*Translated from Italian.  Words and music by Edoardo Bennato

The island that isn’t

Second star to the right,
Points the way
And then head straight until morning
It’s a road that you must find for yourself
It takes you to the island that isn’t

This may sound strange to you
But perhaps reason has led you astray
And now you’re almost convinced that
there can’t really be an island that isn’t

And to think about it, what madness,
It’s a fairytale, a mere fantasy
And he who is wise, who is mature knows:
It couldn’t possibly exist in reality!

And I agree,
There can not be a place
Where there are neither heroes nor saints.
And if there are no thieves,
If there is no war,
It can only be an island that isn’t

But it’s not an invention,
Not a play on words,
To believe is enough
Then you’ll find the road yourself.

And I agree,
No thieves or police,
Then what kind of island is it?
No hate or violence
soldiers nor weapons,
Then it can only be the island
That’s isn’t.

Second star to the right,
Points the way
And then head straight until morning
You can’t make a mistake because
It takes you to the island that isn’t

And they will mock you
If you continue to look for it,
But don’t surrender
Because it’s possible that those who have already given in
And are laughing behind your back,
Are even crazier than you

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4 thoughts on “L’isola che non c’è*

  1. I’ve been thinking about this post… I think having a vision like that to hold on to is a beautiful thing. You know I think: intelligent people know that ties to nature, to community, and simple food, are a powerful route to happiness and health.

    I also have a knee jerk reaction to too much asceticism. As you know, it is easy to romanticize the simple rustic life, but that life can be quite hard when not nested within a larger supporting structure. It’s not so easy to live off the land. It tends to be precarious. Anyway, your point is not that we should all go live on such islands, but perhaps that we should all strive to live as though we’re living on such an island, to the extent possible given our circumstances? Okay, maybe that’s MY point.

    1. Absolutely! Although the article speaks of a real place, it is a place that has benefited from assistance from the outside – and made it’s own contribution to Greek’s current debt crisis.

      The place that I’m actually referring to doesn’t exist in reality (hence, the title). And THAT is exactly why I want to live there!

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