Three weeks ago today, I left my beloved Thassos island to return to America. The day I left Aliki, it was so early it was still dark. Looking back from the ferry, Thassos was just a silhouette, and my thoughts drifted back to June 1st, the day I first boarded it en route to Thassos. I stood on the bow the entire time and watched as my island grew bigger and bigger. My heart was light, my smile uncontrollable—a reflex, like breathing. But as I departed three months later, I could not smile, and I could not feel my heart. I watched the sun rise that day from the windows of a bus from Chrysoupoli, with Thassos far in the distance.
When I left, I didn’t say a proper goodbye. I learned this summer that it is better to say, “Ta leme,” see you later, because goodbyes are laden with permanence. Even waiting for a mere year seems too much, though it’s manageable: a vision of hope that one holds on to when one leaves. I could muster only ta leme, or kali andamosi, until I see you again.
I never imagined that the Thassos I knew would be gone in only a matter of weeks. On September 10th, Thassos island burned.
I saw my first photo of fire at 1:30 a.m. Since my return, I had been going to bed unreasonably early, 8:30 or 9:00 p.m. Jet lag or depression? Who knows. But this night was different—I felt anxious. I was awake.
I saw only a small spot of red flames amid the lush green mountain, a stream of smoke trailing to left, but I had a flashback of a conversation I’d had exactly three weeks before. I was sitting at my table on the patio of Archodissa Restaurant, the table where I sat every day and worked, having coffee with Tassos of Thassos. I was mid-sentence when he froze, staring over my shoulder to the mountain behind me. “Look!” he said. “Look—what is that?”
I turned around and followed his extended arm, and saw nothing noticeable except a low cloud. “Where are you looking?”
“Is that smoke?” he asked.
“You mean the cloud?”
“Yes. Is it smoke?” Immediately he dialed a police officer he knew.
“I think it’s a cloud…” I said, staring at the quickly passing shape in the sky. It looked like a cloud, not mushroom-like—flatter, and very white.
“But why is it right there?” he asked as he dialed someone else, a friend who lived on the other side of the mountain. This time someone answered, and they spoke in Greek. The conversation was short. “He’s not at home; he doesn’t know. He will get back to me.”
I watched him. He watched the mountain.
“I don’t think it’s a fire,” I said.
“Have you seen fire smoke? It looks like that. And why does it keep coming?”
I turned around again. The first cloud had passed and another one was there. They were low hanging, sure, but they still appeared only to be beautifully white, fluffy clouds. He had a point, though…they kept reappearing in the same spot, in between the two peaks of the mountain. I began to doubt myself.
“I’ll call one more person,” he said, earbud back in, and finally got an answer that put him at ease. “He doesn’t think it’s a fire,” he said, “but they will send police to check.” He seemed to relax.
I’d heard of the fires of the past, especially the one of 1985 that destroyed the island, and I understood that more recent fires had left their mark on the mountains we traversed. But seeing this reaction from a man who dives for fish in the middle of the night, who rescues cars from cliff sides, who never shows any fear, made my chest tighten at the sight of the of those photos I saw in the early morning hours. I sent Tassos a Facebook message asking if what I was seeing was correct—is there fire on Thassos? Is he okay? Se skeftomai, I wrote, and then I went to sleep.
I woke up the next day at 7:00, and my first thought was to check my messages. Did Tassos write back? I saw that he’d been online, but my note to him remained unread. I would never receive a reply.
But now there was a video, a video of fire. Something was definitely happening. I posted a status to ask my friends to send prayers and good wishes to my island. I only had a “before” photo of the mountains, the mountain I hiked every week, sometimes running the dirt trails every day, to go along with it. Within ten minutes, however, I saw a new image: a full-on conflagration, and it was then the nightmare began.
I’ve never been so close to a tragedy and yet so far away. These were the towns I visited, these were the roads I walked, this was my home. I was glued to my phone all day, checking Facebook, receiving messages, sending messages, seeing image after image of devastation. Every update I received from my friends in Greece offered worse and worse news.
The winds are raging.
There are new fires in Aliki.
The roads are closed.
Only four planes and two helicopters are bringing aid, and since there are four lines of fire covering the island, they can’t concentrate their efforts.
They’re evacuating the monastery.
History is repeating itself.
Night is coming.
The planes will stop.
The fire still burns.
I kept telling myself I’d leave my house, but I couldn’t leave my kitchen table. The breakfast I made sat on the counter until 8:00 p.m., when I finally put it in the refrigerator, unable to eat. I’d heard from several people, but not from Tassos. My messages, I could tell, were not delivered. I thought his phone had died, but I later learned his phone was broken. I know he will never see my messages, but at least I learned from others that he and his family are okay.
I now understand all of the things I did not do. I did not hug the trees or offer thanks for every step I took among the forest. I did not even properly photograph them because they were a constant, the backdrop I took for granted. I did not photograph the katsiki, the goats that froze at my approach, and when I’d get too close, they’d disperse among the hills with bells ringing in their wake.
I did not know I had to say goodbye.
In America, my friends say nature grows back, but they don’t understand that this island is the Emerald Paradise. The pine trees of Thassos define Thassos, distinguish it from the other islands. The people there feel the forest as if it had a soul, and its destruction 31 years ago implanted a loss so great that no one ever expected to witness such thing again. It took years for the land to recover, and for that reason, at the first sight of clouds that look like smoke, there was panic in even the strongest and bravest of men.
But the losses are greater than the forest. They include homes and taverns, olive trees and livestock. The islands can sustain themselves, in part, through the economic crisis because of their land—they grown their food, they milk their sheep, they hunt wild game, they fish in the sea. The land is tied to their lives. To think that I was disappointed I wouldn’t get to help my friends harvest the olives this year because my visa expired—now I don’t even know if the trees to harvest still remain.
The hotel where I spent my last ten days on Thassos, Gorgona, with a patio overlooking Koinoia beach where I would drink my coffee every morning, was destroyed. The roof where I did my gymstiki in the evenings and took pictures of the August full moon—larger than any moon I’d ever seen, pink as it rose from the sea—can no longer support my weight. I remember seeing the owner that night as we stood in awe together, taking photographs alongside each other. Mine turned out better than his, and he asked if he could post them on Gorgona’s Facebook page. He is one of the people who hasn’t replied to my message asking if he was okay, because really—how can one answer that? My photo lives as a memory, taken from a balcony that no longer exists.***
There is, however, solace to be found. My friends, despite fighting the fires themselves, are safe. And Archodissa, my city on a hill, my beacon of hope, the place I call home, still stands. The fires raged before it and behind it, but a plane carrying water dropped it just as it was about to burn. By the grace of God, it was spared.
Thassos will never be the same, but I have hope that it will rise again from the ashes. It is still an Emerald Paradise, and the Greek people, the people of Thassos, are resilient. They are strong. They will move forward because forward is the only way to go.
It is the memories, however, that I have of the places I went, the ground I walked on, the land I loved, that I never wish to be forgotten. I hope that with my words, I can help keep the memory alive until the day we see each other again.
*thank you to all those on Facebook whose photos I have used for this post
**If anyone would like to help, we are collecting donations to support our friends in Aliki, Thasos. https://www.youcaring.com/residents-of-alyki-thasos-644756
***I have finally heard from the owner of Gorgona and learned that he is okay and it was only his uncle’s tavern that was destroyed in the flames–the hotel survived. Praise God for that ❤