Going around in circles
PERICLES is explaining the word panigyri . We are standing in a black and white pebbled courtyard beneath a medieval tower, where a grey-bearded priest is distributing largesse in the form of well-chilled bottles of retsina.
‘‘ You see,’’ Pericles says, ‘‘ pan means all and gyro is go around. It is very simple; we all go around.’’
The etymology seems doubtful. Even the Oxford dictionary’s definition is hazy, ranging from festival to beanfeast to just plain noise.
Still, there is no denying the attraction of these Greek island gatherings, celebrating a particular saint, at which food and drink are plentiful, a local band plays catstrangling music of the highest calibre and people do go around and around for hours.
My girlfriend Jo and I are elated. We have come to Tilos looking for quiet beaches, unspoiled countryside and traditional island life. One of the smaller Dodecanese islands, sandwiched between Rhodes and Kos, Tilos’s attractions do not leap out at one but encourage gentle probing. For getting to know the locals, the panigyri represents a great leap forward.
We shift to a broad square flanked by crowded tables and lit by streamers of lights slung from the boughs of centuriesold plane trees. To one side sits the band— violin, drum, kithara — while in the square a ring of dancers revolves, their arms linked and heads poised. The music is loud, yet fails to drown the whirring of crickets issuing from the encircling darkness. The July night is stifling.
Pericles is the son of our pension owner. Skindiver, weightlifter and bon vivant, he also has a way with words.
‘‘ I think we are in good condition now,’’ he yells, which basically means we are pretty blitzed.
Pericles also insists that we dance. Jo is keen, but I prefer to sit back and, over a glass of retsina, observe proceedings. The island’s lone taxidriver, a sea captain’s black hat tilted back on his head, is leading his followers in convoluted permutations, leaping like a satyr.
Tonight’s festival honours Agios Panteleimon, the island’s patron saint. It is the largest event on Tilos’s social calendar, attracting old Tiliots from as far afield as New York and Sydney. With a population of just 400, more Tiliots live away from the island than on it, drawn by the desire for a fuller life.
Maria left for Australia in 1961. She has a grown-up family in Adelaide and returns for visits every couple of years. She tells me how, in the old days, when there was no road, they would walk to the monastery with their possessions loaded on donkeys. ‘‘ Back then, the dancing lasted nine days.’’
Maria explains the monastery’s foundation. How a 15th-century monk, Jonas, stumbled on an icon of Panteleimon, a young doctor-saint martyred for his faith. Panteleimon appeared to Jonas in a dream and told him to build a church, which he did, only in the wrong place, with predictable results: the icon kept mysteriously relocating. When Jonas complained about the lack of water at the saint’s preferred site, he was told to look harder. The spring that he discovered still gushes from the mountainside.
At 3am the dancers are still revolving, their eyes glazed in trance-like bliss. The band, too, remains astonishingly unbowed; it hasn’t stopped playing all night and it will continue, I suspect, until people stop throwing euro notes into the box placed strategically at the musicians’ feet.
Yet imperceptibly people drift away, many to makeshift beds on the monastery’s roof. The sky grows pale above the mountains. Bowls of tripe soup, an age-old restorative, are handed out. Then finally, mysteriously, I begin to revolve. Pericles’s eyes light up. ‘‘ Friend, you are going around! Yes, I see it . . .’’