Chalki: The Emptiness and the Bicycle
An autobiographical note by Greek author Petros Markaris, translated by David Connolly
Whenever I think of Halki, I feel something of an emptiness inside me. I know that this emptiness has to do with the years of my childhood that I spent on the island and yet I’m surprised how even today, after so many years, it continues to be a living part of my memory.
Almost all islands have two faces, a summer and a winter one. The seasons in between, spring and autumn, are the seasons that prepare the islands’ change of face. The same is true of the Princes Islands. However, there’s one basic difference: the Princes islands are not holiday destinations but summer resorts. This creates a different kind of relationship between the local residents and the summer “visitors”. In the Greek islands, which are chiefly tourist islands, the relationship between the locals and the visitors is for the most part a fairly formal and above all a strictly professional one. By contrast, in the Princes Islands, there was a long-standing relationship between the locals and the summer visitors which was rekindled each year. Both groups picked up the thread from where they had left it with the coming of the previous autumn and went on as if the ensuing winter and spring had not intervened. This meant that during the summer of months, the face of Halki changed greatly, both in terms of population and also socially. The families, the young people and the children who came for the summer months not only livened up the island, but also renewed their friendships of the previous summer. This change was first of all apparent in the number of bicycles. Not only were there more bicycles on the island, but the bicycle-rides changed too: in winter, you’d see the odd bicycle here or there, whereas in summer whole lines of them, two or three abreast, paraded up and down the streets.
When, years later, I visited “bicycle cities”, such as Cremona, Modena or Zurich, I saw that in these places everyone went around on bicycles. By contrast, in the Princes Islands, the bicycle as a means of transport was reserved exclusively for the youngsters. Our parents went around on foot or by “araba”, as the four-seater carriages were known. The bicycles on the island were subject to the same rules that applied to the summer clothes. Just as, towards the end of spring, wardrobes and chests were opened so that the summer clothes could be taken out to be aired and ironed, so too we would clean up our bicycles, oil them, polish the metal parts and then take them out onto the street for a ride.
Bicycles in the islands were a sign of social standing and prestige just as cars are today. Those on the lowest level were the ones imported from communist countries or the “iron curtain” countries, as they were called then. The most common kind in this category were the bicycles from East Germany. All the rest were from the West and were imported from England or France. The youngsters from the middle classes had English BSAs, or Rudges like mine, or French Peugeots. The higher social classes had French Automotos or English Raleighs, both with gears. There were very few West-German bicycles. Although it was the age of the “German miracle”, which everyone constantly praised and admired, German bicycles were not part of the miracle in Turkey, for somewhat inexplicable reasons.
The main bicycle route in Halki began from the summer residence of Ismet Inonou. The first stop was Café Agesilaus, roughly three hundred metres further on. The second was the Etem Coffee House, not very far from the first. Not a trace remains today of these two cafés, shaded amidst pine trees, which were also the regular haunts of our parents, particularly on Saturday mornings. Café Agesilaus was frequented usually by Greeks and the Etem Coffee House by Jews. Once you’d passed these two stops, the grand tour of the island opened up before you. This included two more stops. Both of them were known as the “bridges”, but the name is misleading because there is nothing reminiscent of a bridge about either of them. The first is a semi-circle resembling the orchestra of an ancient theatre. The second is four hundred metres further on and is rectilinear. In actual fact, it is a protecting wall with railings, built most probably to protect the passing carriages from the cliff edge. We rarely got as far as the second bridge. We would come to a halt at the first. The reason was quite simple. The first bridge was where the girls used to hang out. Consequently, there was no reason for going any further. Of course, the sunset was far more enchanting from the second bridge, but what youngster gets overly excited about the sunset or the moonlight? Such things were to be appreciated by our parents, who, in the August moonlight, went off on donkey treks. We couldn’t care less.
I don’t know why but, in the Princes Islands, there are two monasteries that have the monopoly on the sunset. One of these is the Makarios Monastery on Halki. The Makarios Monastery is situated on the top of one of the island’s two hills, which recall the humps of a camel. (Hence the Turkish name for Halki: Heybeliada or Hump Island). To reach the Monastery, you have to pass by the Army Transfer School, then you turn left and begin climbing a path lined with oak trees. The Monastery boasts a tiny little church. In previous times, there was a gardener who planted lettuces and the like. The years passed, the gardener died, no one replaced him and all that remained in the Monastery were a few pines and the view of the landscape. The Monastery looks towards Antigone. From there, in the evening, you can admire one of the most beautiful sunsets in the Sea of Marmara. For the midnight Resurrection service at Easter, we would go either to the Makarios Monastery or to the Monastery of Aghios Georgios, which is located above the Navel Cadet School and doesn’t belong to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, but to the Monastery of the Holy Sepulchre. By contrast, for the service on Easter Sunday morning, we would go up to the Theological School to heat priests from various countries reading the Gospel in different languages: Greek, Serbian, Russian, Turkish, French and whatever other usually rare language you might think of.
However, the most impressive sunset is not to be seen from the Makarios Monastery, but from the Monastery of Aghios Georgios in Prinkipos. The uphill climb is tiring, but when you reach the top, you are more than amply rewarded. Very few still visit the Makarios Monastery. By contrast, the Monastery of Aghios Georgios is still full from spring to autumn. Ais Giorgis, as it’s called by the locals, is a very old Monastery, but those who “make the climb” (the locals’ standard expression is: “We’ll climb up to Ais Giorgis”) are not only visitors and pilgrims. Many make the climb to sit at the café next to the Monastery and drink coffee, tea or raki and enjoy the view.
There’s also a third Monastery in Halki, the Arsenios Monastery. For the locals, the two Monasteries are simply “Makarios” and “Arsenios”. You go on past the second bridge, turn right a little further on and reach the Monastery by way of a narrow lane. Arsenios was our afternoon haunt. We’d go by bicycle, rig up a volleyball net between two pines in front of the Monastery and play volleyball till it got dark. Fine, but why did we have to go so far just to play volleyball, you may well ask. Weren’t there any open spaces on the island any nearer? There were, but there was sea on both sides of the Arsenios Monastery with a little pine wood in between. Like this we could play volleyball in the shade of the pines until we dropped and then go for a dip in the sea. As you face the Arsenios Monastery, the right side slopes down to a beach with pines reaching right to its edge. The left side looks onto the back part of Prinkipos and to reach the sea you have to go through the monastery. At this point, there is no beach, but rather a large rock, which the inhabitants of Halki call “droppings rock” because it is completely white from the droppings of the gulls. From the top of this rock, we would plunge straight into the sea.
Apart from the emptiness, what I remember most about Halki is its pines. I know, both Prinkipos and Antigone (at least before the fire) had many pines, but neither of these islands could compare with Halki. When the regular ferryboat leaves Antigone and sails all along the coast towards the harbour in Halki, you see virtually nothing but pines. I’ve travelled a great deal in my life and, happily, I still do, but, in Europe at least, I’ve never come across any island that is so densely covered by trees as Halki. When, years later, I began to discover the rest of Greece beyond Athens and I visited the Cyclades, I found the difference quite striking. The cyclades bear no resemblance whatsoever to Halki and the Princes Islands, but the rocky landscape with its white houses and the boundless Aegean has its own unique beauty, which more than recompenses me for the loss of Halki.
The bicycle rides, the volleyball and the swimming were over by seven in the evening and everyone alike, men and women, old and young, boys and girls, went down to the harbour. In actual fact, the second part of the bicycle ride took place in the harbour, but without the bicycles. Just as we rode our bicycles from the summer residence of Ismet Inonou as far as the Etem Coffee House, so also we walked endlessly back and forth between the harbour and the waterfront.
Our mothers would sit with their knitting at the little cafés and every evening engaged in the same monotonous conversations, while our fathers, at the same cafés but separate from the women, played at backgammon and prefa, just as in the cafés in Greece. I don’t know whether there are still any prefa-players in Turkey, but in Greece this traditional card game with its long history was killed off by other games that better lend themselves to gambling. In Halki, prefa was played for three Turkish delights, as many as the number of players, with the loser paying for the sweets and the deck of cards. The one game that has remained unvanquished in both countries is backgammon. You can still see today in the neighbourhoods of Istanbul the shop-owners sitting on stools in front of their shops and playing backgammon to pass the time. I saw the same scene in Athens in Aghion Asomaton Street at the Piraeos Street end, where there were various shops selling cheap toys, till, that is the eve of the Olympic Games, when that part of the street was upgraded and became an admittedly very lovely pedestrian walk. The backgammon players, however, disappeared.
This daily routine went on all week, without any variations or surprises. We would wait impatiently for Saturday afternoon when we would go to Prinkipos. I may be very fond of Halki and may have considered it then to be the loveliest of all the Princes Islands, but, whatever you say, Prinkipos had a different kind of splendour. If Halki was bourgeois, Prinkipos was aristocratic. Halki couldn’t even begin to dream of rivaling those wooden summer villas with their big gardens, full of flower beds. If in the harbour in Halki there were five carriages waiting for customers, in the harbour in Prinkipos there were fifty waiting. In addition, in Prinkipos there was the Hotel “Splendid”, By contrast the “Halki Palace” bore no comparison to the one today. Then, it was in ruins and the children played hide-and-seek in its overgrown gardens with their dilapidated carved wooden kiosks. Today, it has been renovated and is one of the finest examples of wooden architecture.
Every Saturday afternoon, in the gardens of the “Splendid”, we youngsters from Halki would drink our gin fizzes. It was very fashionable at the time, particularly among the young, to drink gin fizz. Every young lad who wanted to win the admiration of the girls in particular drank gin fizz. I don’t quite remember now whether it was gin with lemon, gin with orange, or vodka with lemon, or orange, but it’s of no importance. What was important was that we drank gin fizz in the gardens of the “Splendid” and licked our lips as we gazed at the girls on Prinkipos.
Sometimes we would go to Prinkipos not with friends but with family. Then, we didn’t drink gin fizz in the gardens of the “Splendid”, but raki, and we ate the accompanying appetizers in the “Fatsio” Restaurant, next to the harbour. I tasted raki for the first time at “Fatsio’s” with my father’s “one glass is enough”, “two glasses are enough”. The “Passage Christakis” and the “Degustation” in Istanbul with their drunken poets and writers came later.
At eleven o’ clock at night, we took the last boat back to Halki. As, from the boat, I watched the lights of Prinkipos getting smaller, I was always beset by the same feeling of melancholy and emptiness. As Shakespeare says somewhere, we’re gladdened by what we’re deprived of and saddened by what we have. Perhaps, in the end, this was my problem.
Anyhow, whatever the case, with or without Shakespeare, standing at the beginning and end of the emptiness I felt, rather like symbols, were two local inhabitants of Halki. At the beginning was Ahmet. It was Ahmet who, in September, transported all the summer things, clothes and kitchenware, of the summer visitors back to Istanbul. Everyone called him “pits Ahmet”, in other words, that “bastard Ahmet”. And because the Greek inhabitants of Istanbul hellenized almost all the Turkish expressions as a rule, they called him “Pitsabetis”. No one thought it an insult since Ahmet himself had even accepted the name. When my mother would start bargaining with him to get a better price, he would cut her short, saying: “Madam, only Pitsabetis can transport your belongings without any damage”. And this was no exaggeration. All the summer visitors entrusted the transport of their belongings to him because he was extremely meticulous. This was Ahmet’s good side. His bad side was that he fished using dynamite. Everyone knew this, even the police, but no one could catch him because he was a cunning old fox and knew the Sea of Marmara like the back of his hand. He always had a smile on his face and was always willing to accommodate you, often quite unselfishly. It was the fish that suffered at his hands not the visitors.
The summer visitors would start returning to Istanbul from the first week of September. Day by day the island would empty and with this the emptiness I felt inside would get bigger. Following the anniversary of the Republic on 29 October, Halki would adopt its winter aspect. The greatest emptiness that I’ve ever felt in my life is the emptiness of autumn in Halki. This began not so much in primary school as in high school. When, as Greek and Turkish kids on the island, we were still at primary school, we’d all play together. We went to different schools, of course, but we played all as friends in the back streets of the neighbourhood. And when we were unruly, our Greek and Turkish mothers smacked us equally hard. In the summers, the children of the visitors joined in with us, but on our terms and with our rules. When the summer was over, these children returned to Istanbul, while we went on playing without our missing them very much. In short, we were still living in our Lilliputian yet happy world, and the emptiness in question didn’t afflict me, but my mother.
The loneliness and emptiness suddenly burst into my life in the autumn that I entered the first class at the Austrian High School. Every day, from Monday to Saturday, I would take the boat at 7.00 a.m., arrive at Karakioi at 8.30 and lose myself in the noise and bustle, finish school at 3.30 and return to the loneliness of the island on the 4.15 boat. Five or six of us would disembark from the boat and each go our separate ways once we’d crossed the harbour. That daily alternating between the loneliness of the island and the throb of the city crushed me. It wasn’t just the loneliness that irked me but my envy of my classmates who lived in the city. This envy reached boiling point on Saturdays. During the breaks, my classmates would arrange their weekend entertainment: what cinema or party they would go to, which pastry shop they would meet at. (We used to call them pastry shops then. The cafeterias came much later.) By contrast, all I had to look forward to, a few hours later, was the boat that would take me back to the loneliness of the island.
Because I did my homework on the boat, I had nothing left to do when I got home. So I’d take a book, sit in a corner and read. As time went by, books became an aspirin for the loneliness and emptiness I felt. Though I don’t take aspirins because they upset my stomach, I still wonder at how I didn’t grow sick of books.
The loneliness and the silence were so absolute that we knew who it was passing outside in the street at any particular time. For example, when we heard the sound of footsteps outside at eight in the morning, my mother would say: “Ah, that’s Sitki bey”, and she would hurry to the window. Sitki bey lived in the upper part of town and, consequently, we didn’t know him all that well, but my mother, longing to speak to someone other than my father, my grandmother and me, rushed to the window to exchange a few words with him.
Perhaps the incident I’m going to mention now is ample proof of the friendly relations between the Greeks and Turks on the island. Like many Greeks at the time, my aunt Fofo, the wife of my father’s brother, spoke terrible Turkish. So she didn’t call the gentleman in question “Sitki bey”, with its Turkish “i” that causes problems for most non-Turkish speakers. It caused such problems for my aunt that she called him “Siki bey”. Except that “siki” in Turkish is the genitive of the word for penis. When my mother, who spoke fluent Turkish, heard my aunt saying: “Merhaba Siki bey”, she rushed to hide in the kitchen out of embarrassment. But Sitki bey wasn’t in the slightest bit offended and, smiling, replied “Merhaba madam”.
In winter, the butcher’s, the grocer’s and the greengrocer’s shops were all empty. Next to Grigoris’ Restaurant, on the street parallel to the waterfront, was “The Brothers”, the grocer’s shop belonging to Ali bey. It was Ali Bey who had taught us Turkish at primary school. In the main street of Halki, on the left and just before the Church of Aghios Nikolaos, was Lazaros’ greengrocer’s shop. Next to it was Thomas’ butcher’s shop. Opposite it was Zacharias’ butcher’s shop and next to this was the shop owned by Archimedes, who sold bottled water in demijohns. A little higher up was Yannis’ bakery. No one knew any of their surnames. They were all known simply by their first names. In summer, when the shops were full of people, contact with the shop owners was confined to a “good morning”. By contrast, in winter, whoever crossed the main street called in at each shop for a chat. It didn’t matter whether you were a customer or not. What mattered was that you stopped to exchange a word or two in order to relieve your boredom a little. My father would buy the vegetables from Lazarus, but the meat he would buy from Sadik’s butcher’s shop, which was also on the main street, but a little higher up from the other shops. I’ve never again eaten such tasty cutlets as those from Sadik’s. “That Zacharias has no idea how to slice cutlets. He piles one on top of the other like logs for the stove,” my dear departed father would say, complainingly. Sadik would lay out a thin sheet of greaseproof paper and spread the cutlets over it like exhibits. When the greaseproof paper was covered, he’d lay another sheet on top of the cutlets and continued with a second layer.
Years later, I went to a butcher’s in Athens to buy some cutlets. The butcher grabbed hold of his chopper and began hacking at them. I shuddered. “What on earth are you doing?” I shouted. “You asked for cutlets, didn’t you?” he said, looking puzzled. You can get used to anything eventually. Even to eating cutlets hacked to pieces.
What is there to do at the weekends for a young lad who is condemned to live on an island that’s an hour and a half’s boat-ride away from the city, and who is deprived of cars, buses and pastry shops? He mounts his bicycle and goes off for rides over the empty and deserted island. He goes down to the beaches, where the pines are touching the sea and gazes for hours on end at the sea. It was on such days that I began to fall in love with the wind and the stormy sea, and my love has remained even till today. A calm sea makes me feel as if I’m looking at my bath tub. By contrast, travelling in the Aegean in a stormy sea is a source of great pleasure for me. On Sunday afternoons, at around five o’clock, I’d go for a ride up to the Theological School. It was the time that the students, the “altar boys” as the locals called them, would come out for a stroll and now and again we’d strike up a conversation in order to dispel our common boredom.
Sunday afternoon meant something else: every Sunday afternoon, the cinema at the Naval Cadet School was open to the locals. Young and old, men and women rushed at three in the afternoon to see whatever film was playing. I’ve seen all the Hollywood films from the Fifties either at the Naval Cadet School or at the open-air cinema that operated every summer in the garden of our primary school. Above all, whenever it was showing films starring Gene Kelly, the big star of the era, the whole of the summer island was astir. “Shall we go to the cinema tonight? ‘Tzene Kellee’ is playing,” were the words on everyone’s lips. Whenever my daughter, who studied film-directing, talks to me about “Casablanca” or films by Howard Hawks, my mind invariably goes to that cinema at the Naval Cadet School.
The symbol of Halki in spring was Yannos. The locals called him “Crazy Yannos”, yet though crazy, he was a simple and contented sort. If “Pitsabetis” signalled the fact that the summer was over and winter was approaching, Yannos was a sure sign that winter was over and summer was on its way. Because it was Yannos who cleaned the carpets of more or less all the locals. He’d spread them out in the middle of the street and douse them with buckets of water. Then he’d meticulously wash them with soap. He didn’t beat them with rods or sticks to clean them; he danced on them in his bare feet. In exactly the same way that they used to tread grapes. None of us knew what dance it was that he was performing, with all that constant twirling and leaping. We assumed it must have been something of his own invention, till a woman who was visiting from Greece saw him dance and exclaimed: “Well I never, he’s dancing a Kalamatianos!” And that’s how we learned that it was a folk dance from Kalamata.
The whole island remembered Yannos’ marriage to Anthoula. How Yannos had stood before Father Iakovos at the side of his Anthoula and, crossing himself with great theatricality, had exclaimed: “Thanks be to God for rendering me worthy. For I’m still chaste just like my Anthoula!” And as the church filled with uncontrollable giggling and peals of laughter, which the congregation was unable to muffle, the booming voice of Father Iakovos was heard: “Quiet, you fathead. There’s nothing chaste about you. You’re a fool and a sinner.” And, furious, he turned to the congregation: “Silence. This is a marriage ceremony. It’s not Tzabazis’ circus!”
Tzabazis was a troupe of acrobats that came each summer and set up on an empty lot opposite the Turkish high school. They performed various acrobatic feats and finished off their programme with some crude farce. The locals filled the place every night because they liked the acrobatics and the slapstick too.
Yannos and Anthoula had nine children. Yannos went around doing all sorts of heavy jobs, mainly because he was an exceptionally stout and strong man. Nevertheless, it wasn’t easy to feed eleven mouths, even in the 1950s, when life was much simpler and people lived more frugally. He had nine children because he wanted a son, but they were all girls. I can’t recall if the tenth was a boy or not.
However, there was one thing about Yannos that earned him the respect of the whole island and particularly of the fishermen and that was his gift for being able to predict the weather. At that time, there were neither televisions nor satellites. And so, the fishermen would listen to Yannos. “Tomorrow will be a good day for fishing,” he’d tell them. “The day after there’ll be a northerly.” Or when he’d see the ladies out enjoying the sunshine, he’d dampen their spirits. “Three days from now a northwester will get up and there’ll be snow.” Fifty percent of the times he got it right and that was a huge percentage for weather predictions then.
If there was some consolation for the loneliness and emptiness of winter, it was that Prinkipos was even emptier and more deserted than Halki. The restaurants and tavernas to the left of the harbour, which were teeming with people in summer, were all in darkness with their shutters rolled down. The carriage drivers sitting in their carriages, cowering in the rain, waited in vain for passengers who never came. The “Splendid” was closed and its gardens, where we drank our gin fizzes on Saturday afternoons in the summer, were overgrown. When, in winter, I returned from Prinkipos to Halki, I felt no sadness, just a sense of relief verging on joy.
Today, Halki may have changed a great deal, but as I’ve said elsewhere, all the Greeks of Istanbul have two ages. The first begins on the day they were born; the second on the day they left Istanbul. What I’ve just related is a distillation of these two ages.