Greece - Vido - A Greek Quarantine
( Originally Published 1899 )
How many travellers in Greece spend their first night on Greek soil in a house of their own construction? Built, too, with an axe and a needle ! Not Mycenaean, Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian in style, but historically Greek and essentially nomadic. If I gave it its etymological name I should call it scenic architecture. That Greek word oknun has come down to us through a series of theatrical transformations and embodied itself in the word scene in our own language with a great deal of its dramatic odor and character. But in modern Greek it still retains, also, its primitive meaning of tent, one example of a thousand other moss-grown words which have come down from the days of Homer.
We had crossed the broad ocean, spent some weeks on the Continent, and made at Naples our final arrangements for the invasion of Greece. Travellers had told us that an indomitable will, a tough skin, and an artistic spirit were all that were necessary. As this outfit could not be procured in Naples, we tried to get a few other things on which we might rely. Our providence in this direction was greatly stimulated by the predictions of a friend in Rome that a Greek quarantine was something not to be endured. Of our party of seven, --- four ladies, two boys, and his modesty, myself, all but one had camped out on the "Beautiful Water" of Canada, which the Greeks might insist on calling Oatavoa kcaxn, but which the Indians, not knowing Greek, had roughly called " Memphremagog." It was not easy in Naples to get all that might be needed for a camper's outfit. " A hamper of provisions," says Mavilla, " containing plenty of figs, sweet chocolate, and marrons glaces, was the most important part of our equipment. We had, moreover, a small kerosene stove, a baby tomahawk, a roll of Roman silk blankets and enough heavy drilling to make a large tent. Our family had not camped out seventeen summers without learning something of the art of making much of little; so when we added to our outfit a steel knife and a spoon apiece we looked forward undismayed to the Greek quarantine."
I was obliged to travel from Naples in a separate compartment from my family and was thereby relieved from following Paul's occupation as a tent-maker; but what happened in the ladies' compartment, and the subsequent experience at Brindisi, Mavilla has faithfully recorded:
" On many of our journeys it would have been hard to confine ourselves to tent-making. Crossing the St. Gotthard Pass it would have been wicked to lose a minute of that magnificent scenery. Even the pleasant monotony of Holland gives a continual enjoyment to the eye; but the journey from Naples to Brindisi is well adapted to sewing, reading, or sleeping. Brown fields stretch away to the brown foot-hills. Glaring white farmhouses are scattered among the brown vineyards. Occasional cornfields, dashed with yellow pumpkins, soften the treeless landscape. There are few signs of life except here and there a farmer ploughing with his white oxen, or a peasant riding across the country on his little brown donkey. One misses the richness and brilliancy of the usual Italian landscape, and wonders at the dulness of life in the heel of Italy. When we reached Taranto, our 20 x 30 tent was finished.
An obsequious little English agent met us at the dingy station at Brindisi and guided us through the darkness to the waiting carriages. Our amazement knew no bounds when we saw ourselves surrounded by crowds of men with lanterns, banners, and torches, shouting and singing to the accompaniment of drums and a brass band ! They at once made room for our open vehicles to lead the procession while they walked beside us and fell in behind. On all sides was the greatest enthusiasm and excitement, cries of " Viva Monticelli ! " " Viva le donne ! " Puzzled as we were, we could not help laughing, even in the peculiar situation of being the only women in the streets. The revellers saw that we were disposed to be good-natured, so they increased their merriment, brandished their torches, and waved their flags over our heads. At last we learned that there had been an election and Brindisi was celebrating the victory of the favorite candidate. The unusual advent of strangers was an opportunity not to be wasted, so we were escorted to the quay in triumph."
The steamer left at two in the morning, but we were safely and comfortably settled the night before.
The trip from Italy to Corfu, the first of the Greek isles, is a delightful one, when favored as we were with a calm sea and a clear sky. By early morning we find the bare and rugged outlines of the Albanian mountains rising on the left, at first with a dimpled sky line, then growing more rugged and varied. They are for us the first sight of a country over which Turkish rule is extended. The hills are brown, gray and barren. Off to the right are islands of hazy blue. About ten o'clock Corfu comes in sight, first a long tongue of land lapping the sea, from which rise stalwart mountains, wrapped in blue. This island, with its mountains, has been the scene of many a conflict, mythical or historic; but now it lies enswathed in perfect calm, as if it might really be the fabled land of Alcinous. As we near it, the hills describe more graceful curves and reveal their fresh verdure. At first there is little indication of human life; and it is hard to believe that this lovely island was known to the ancients for centuries before the existence of another continent was dreamed of, and that it has been the theatre of Homeric myths, the struggles of Greek against Greek, or of foreign rivalry and rule. Then come signs of the fertility which distinguishes the island. Olive groves spread over the hills. A white house stands like an outpost on a point overlooking a charming bay. The blue sea is like a smooth lake. The hills are green, black, brown and gray. Vessels are lying sleepily along the shore, taking siestas of oriental languor.
But we may not touch those sacred shores till the days of our purification are accomplished. Of more immediate interest to us than the harbor of Corfu, which lies before us under its protecting hills, is the question, "Where is our quarantine to be passed? " Just to the east of Corfu lies the island of Vido. We slowly round its southern end, raise our flag, and come to anchor in the harbor. Rows of one-story brick buildings are seen on the shore. There is something ominous in their yellow color, but they cannot wholly tinge the cheerful complexion of the quiet, sun-bathed island.
Now the health officer has mounted the ladder and taken a census of the passengers, so many first class, so many second class, so many steerage. Then we are told that only about ten more can be accommodated on the island. The larger number must spend two days of the quarantine on the steamer till° there is more room. The steamer was not bad, but the island seemed better. It was then that the tent which the ladies had made turned the scale in our favor.
" May we put up a tent and camp by ourselves?" " Certainly," said the health officer.
The director was sitting in a boat below.
" Is your tent all ready? " he shouted.
"Not quite," I answered. I saw that there were almost no trees on the island. There were some good spars on the steamer, but they could not be purchased for tent-poles. A tent without poles or ropes would be a heap of shapeless cloth duck without bones.
" What do you require? " shouted the director. " About thirty yards of rope."
" How large? "
" The size of your tiller ropes."
" A pair of long oars for our tent-poles."
The director and his boat left for Corfu; and, before we had disembarked from the steamer, the rope and the oars were in the boat alongside which was to take us ashore. I had heard that Greeks could be slow. I did not dream that they could be so prompt. Wing-sandalled Hermes could not have done better.
In a few minutes we had landed with our baggage. Then came the most amusing part of our experience. There were already on the island two or three groups of passengers from other vessels. None of these were allowed to mingle with any except those of their own group. The officers and purveyors stood likewise aloof, and talked to passengers at a distance of six feet, over which it is assumed that a cholera germ cannot travel during a short conversation. The first process was to secure the names, ages, and nativity of the new arrivals. The agent stood at a safe distance and asked questions and noted the answers. If a passenger ventured to move towards him, he beat a hasty retreat. Even the mildest and most interesting young lady, as fair as the princess who used to live at Corfu, became an object of terror. The agent, who spoke little English, but talked in Greek, French, and Italian, distrusted his ability to write the names of our party. He cautiously put his pencil and paper on the ground and retired several feet. I advanced, and took it up, and wrote the necessary information. Then I laid it on the ground, with the pencil, and retired. The officer returned boldly, picked it up and likewise retired, but not before I had levelled and snapped my kodak amid the laughter of the on-lookers. Is photography under such circumstances contagious?
Rooms were then allotted to passengers, and a guard, acting also as a servant, was assigned to each group.
We hastened in the waning afternoon to put up our tent. A large haystack stood in the middle of a field not far from the quarantine building. This would furnish a good backing and a protection from the wind. We had but two oars for tent-poles ; one of these could serve as a ridgepole. We drove the blade into the hay at the proper height, set the other oar perpendicularly on the ground and lashed it to the ridgepole. Not far away was a small fig-tree which Ianni, our guard and guide, cut down and used as an additional prop for the ridgepole. Across this frame we hung our tent.
We had no tent-pins, but the English government had spent five million dollars in furnishing us substitutes. For fifty years, Corfu and the Ionian Isles were under the protectorate of Great Britain. During this period, that government erected vast and expensive fortifications commanding the harbor of Corfu. When the islands were relinquished to Greece in 1863, these fortifications were dismantled and blown to pieces. We guyed our tent to some of the mass of fragments and used smaller ones in place of tent-pins to hold down our canvas. Meanwhile deft fingers had sewed and hung Turkey-red curtains, giving an oriental brilliancy to the interior and dividing it into compartments.
A home-made Yankee tent and a manufactured English ruin for our first night in Greece !
Our Greek and Italian fellow passengers were inclined to commiserate us for having only the shelter of canvas; but, when we assured them that we had had seventeen summers' experience in tent life (at least some of us), and that Canadian Augusts were often as cold as this Greek November, their fears were quieted.
If the ruin was modern and made to order, it served very well as an introduction to some that were to follow. Later, we had abundant opportunities to see what the tooth of time and shattering earthquakes could do in furnishing melancholy classical ruins; but these enormous masses of stone, in jagged angular confusion, with the mouths of cannon yawning from out the chaos, were a striking witness of what gun-powder could do in tearing to pieces a work built to resist it. There is but one point of terrible affinity between this rugged mass of ruins and the fairest gem of Greek architecture : it was gunpowder in the shape of a wicked bomb from Morosini's battery which wrecked the Parthenon.
The departure of the first company of passengers enabled us to secure a room as precaution against storm. Our tent was made more luxurious by the addition of iron bedsteads. We cooked our own light breakfast. Luncheon and dinner we ate at the tables furnished for first-class passengers by the proprietor of the St. George Hotel at Corfu. Ianni, our squire, followed us about with vigilant and helpful fidelity; he was always at beck and call. A little donkey, with two water-casks slung over his back, brought water from a well a third of a mile away to fill water jars, which suggested Homeric times. The ruins of the English fortress challenged us to climb and scramble. The island, half a mile wide and three-quarters of a mile long, furnished a good promenade. The beautiful scenery of Corfu was spread before us. We bathed in the clear warm water, wrote letters, read, chatted, and listened to the Babel of languages at dinner; Greek, Italian, French, German, and English were all spoken by the twenty people at our dinner-table. A Babel without the tower ! The Italian steerage passengers in another part of the island poured forth an endless stream of words. The Florentine or Roman Italian is musical enough, but the Venetian or Neapolitan, when uttered rapidly, sounds like a succession of firecrackers or torpedoes. The vowels explode like a Gatling gun and the consonants go off in smoke.
The United States Consular Agent, Mr. Stretch, was kindness itself. He executed commissions for us in Corfu, and twice crossed to the island to see us. We were allowed to talk to him across a ten-foot space, separated by fences.
It is but just to recognize the unfailing courtesy of the Greek medical director and of all who had to administer the duties of his department. We had prepared ourselves for a quarantine which might be a purgatory; but this proved to be a haven of rest. It needs the youthful enthusiasm of Mavilla to describe it:
" Life at the Vido was a happy dream. We learned then, if never before, the true meaning of dolce far niente. Although the end of November it was what we should call June weather with nothing but sun-shine and starshine during our stay.
" I cannot pass quickly over this our charming imprisonment, for, though it lasted but a few days, it seems as if we were there for weeks. Without it our Greece would not be one half so dear to us as it is. There in the sunshine amid the flowers we lay on the grass and wove wreaths of superb crimson gowans while some one read aloud. We dutifully read to the end, but the circle of listeners grew constantly smaller as we strolled away to the other side of the island or wandered over the ruins of the old fort. Would you not like to stray among blooming crocuses in November, gathering handfuls of cyclamen and Jack-in-the-pulpits? We plucked them fresh a dozen times a day and then marvelled that they grew no less.
" A thousand happy memories will always cling to Vido : the delightful sea-bathing at full noon ; the hot afternoons that we spent on the bluff, listening to the military music floating across the water from the fortress ; the cool evenings when the wandering musicians from Corfu serenaded us with mandolin and guitar, while the Zingara flirted, the tenor sang and we danced on the bluff.
" On the last day we gave an afternoon tea. We received on the veranda of our little cottage, as the tent had already been taken down. Our guests were three Greek gentlemen and the United States Consular Agent from Corfu. As a government official, the latter was allowed to land on the island, but he could only come as far as the boundary railing. We stood behind another bar, ten feet away, and balanced his refreshments on the end of a long rail. The rest of us drank our tea from little blue-spotted bowls which the Consul had sent us from Corfu. A little Dutch plate of great antiquity, that we had brought from Marken, held our biscuit. Since we had no other dishes, box-covers served for bon-bon trays. Surely never was a more Arcadian afternoon. The devoted Ianni had gathered flowers for the occasion and had made everything ready for our departure. We felt dismal enough at having to change our camp dresses for our travelling clothes, and gloves and hats seemed equally odious; but at Vido one could not be unhappy long about anything, and even at parting one must, smile. So I waited till the others had gone down to the shore; then, pulling a last bunch of cyclamen and daisies, I ran to the boats."