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Columnists

Ikaria – Deep in the Heart…and the Blue Zone

February 22, 2022

Ikaria marches to its own drumbeat, but as I like to say, “if you keep your heart and mind open, it will reward you!”

Thea Parikos isn’t one to mince words. She loves her life on Ikaria, her adopted Greek island, where, as a New York Times travel writer put it, “people forget to die.” She’s justifiably proud that the tiny island has won a place on the National Geographic’s celebrated list of Blue Zones, which pinpoint five spots around the globe where locals experience fewer cases of cancer, heart disease, and dementia than among the general population.

From the glowing reports, it has the aroma of a magical place, a sparkling gem in the wine-dark Aegean, perhaps nestled outside of space and time. But I believe in magic about as much as I believe we will convince the political and corporate elite that health care for all is a human right.

As idyllic as life may appear on the island of my forebears, COVID, the `gift that keeps on giving,’ has inflicted its share of pain on many of the 8,000 otherwise hardy residents.

“All of us have felt the impact of the virus and Ikaria is no exception,” said Thea, who owns a popular restaurant and inn in the village of Nas. Socially speaking, it meant restricting pop up visits to family and friends in neighboring villages or across the steep, craggy landscape. Being forced to distance themselves from loved ones is anathema to Greeks. It strikes at the heart of what Aristotle had to say about routine: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Maintaining a healthy way of life has required an extra dose of effort, she reported. “We were and still are very protective of our elderly generation. For example, during the first lockdown, we allowed no visitors to my aunt and uncle’s home. We would leave groceries and such outside and only visit from the doorway, or weather permitting, sitting outside at a distance. Though I remember my aunt asking us to come over for dinner, I think she was also relieved that we didn’t.” Although the island has a hospital, it’s not equipped to handle complicated cases like COVID. That requires a 300-mile journey to Athens and its better facilities. “Thankfully, we have good doctors on the island,” she said.

From an economic standpoint, she explained, the pandemic has also has taken its toll. “Work basically came to a complete stop for the majority of people.” And yet, true to the Hellenes’ indomitable spirit, a silver lining appeared. “A friend described it as one of the best periods of his life.” That eye-opening assertion surprised Thea, who could be the poster child for the unspeakable joy of blooming where you are planted. Her friend laid out his reasons. In order of importance, the list began with the opportunity to spend more time with family. That It also included having more time to tend to his garden. “He laughed and said that if it wasn’t for the financial concern, he would be fine with the situation.”

Like so much of Greece, from Thessaloniki to Crete, you can find people living within their means. Big houses and expensive cars, even among those who can afford the nicer things in life, Thea said, don’t hold much sway. “Whether you are well off or just getting by, your lifestyle here remains pretty much the same.”

Thea, a Detroit native who decided early on that Motown – or the American way of life – wasn’t her cup of Turkish coffee and its thick, boiled Ottoman roots. She’s been feeding and pillowing heads since 1995, the year she opened the inn. This pre-dated phone lines and the internet. “People who booked our room either happened upon us, or someone – usually a relative – would give them the number of the one telephone lines in Nas. Then someone on the street would yell out, `Thea, someone needs a room.’”

Since the exclusive Blue Zones list was drawn up – Sardinia, Loma Linda, CA, Okinawa, Nicoya, and Costa Rica, share top honors with Ikaria – Thea not only played host to the author of the book, Dan Buettner and his film crew, she has been featured on numerous media outlets.

Across the moments filled with good and challenging times, Thea has kept her love for Ikaria and its robust citizenry front and center. Her words resonate with hope: “My feeling is that Ikarians have their priorities straight for the most part. I had some students visiting and interviewing people. They were so surprised that not one person mentioned money, a big house, or a nice car when they were asked to describe their idea of a ‘good life’. Having such a strong social network and knowing there is always someone you can turn to makes such a difference. It is very hard to be lonely here, even during COVID!”

 

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