The grand old man of the mountains had consented to dance for an assemblage of bold sailors. At the closing chord, he finished in a frozen posture of stern nobility, knowing full well that dancer, musicians and audience had combined to create a moment of artistry that would be talked about for years.
In the courtyard of the country taverna on Syros, the party was getting out of hand. After the local bouzouki band had played its first number the spasimo started -- that spontaneous and joyful breaking of plates and glasses that shows Greek appreciation for a truly great feast. Unfortunately, there was a fairly large contingent of Australians present. Amazed and delighted to find that breaking things at parties was not only condoned here but encouraged, they had progressed from cracking crockery to smashing up tables and chairs. The owner of the taverna, huddled in a dark corner to avoid the mayhem, was busily totting up figures, torn between dismay at seeing the destruction of his property and the promise of the wildly inflated bill for damages that would be collected from our host the next morning.
The celebrants were all participants in one of the first Aegean Sailing Rallies, organized in the early years of the Colonels' regime to persuade the international yachting crowd that Greece was still a fun place. Most of the yacht owners were Greek industrialists, tanker fleet owners and so on, but the offer of free transport of yachts on Greek merchant marine vessels had attracted a number of competitors from elsewhere in the world. The crews also were a multinational lot from all walks of life: airline pilots, professors, even a spy or two.
The leg of the race that had ended at Syra (spelled Syros on all maps, but universally known as Syra) had been a hard bash into the wind, wet and arduous. For a relaxing interlude, one of the Greek titans of industry, whose yacht was fighting for the lead, decided to display some old-fashioned Greek hospitality by taking over a taverna for the night and treating all his fellow yachtsmen to a grand country party. There had been copious platters of shrimp, kalamari , spit-roasted lamb and kid, bread, salads and potatoes. Above all, there had been an endless stream of the local retsina, decanted out of the massive barrels at one end of the courtyard and quaffed by the thirsty sailors as swiftly as the waiters could bring the battered tin pitchers of wine to the tables. By the end of the meal the assemblage had become quite merry.
Now, as the merriment was shading imperceptibly into carnage, my friend George decided to demonstrate the fine points of Greco-Roman wrestling to a fellow crew member who happened to be a CIA man. I remember this chunky fellow because he coincidentally had the same name as a former Los Angeles Dodger, a good field-no hit first baseman who whacked a surprising .304 and a home run in the 1965 World Series against Minnesota. As Casey Stengel used to say, you could look it up. The CIA man, undoubtedly trained to kill with either hand or foot, had no milder skills and was at a disadvantage. The two combatants, cheered on by all, eventually threw each other heavily to the earthen floor of the courtyard, rolled over twice and came up yelping, having forgotten that the floor was covered with broken glass and china.
It was at that moment that the owner and waiters began to shush the crowd and rapidly sweep up the floor in front of the bandstand. The word spread with hushed reverence: A famous grand old man of the mountains had consented to dance for this fine assemblage of bold sailors. He was only a simple shepherd who lived way up in the heights of Syra, but his reputation as a dancer of unparalleled grace and expression had spread far beyond his native island and was only heightened by his refusal to dance except on special occasions -- times when he thought that audience, place, music, and ambiance were all just right and deserving of his efforts.
To understand the importance of the moment, you must realize that the Greeks do not idolize the glamour of youth or even highly successful maturity. They reserve their deepest respect and admiration for the grand old man, for his wisdom, his experience, the corpus of marvelous tales that has accumulated about his exploits, even his outrageous behavior at weddings and banquets. Therefore one could feel the thrill of expectation as the band began to warm up for an older, traditional island song. Greek millionaires sat in joyful suspense; Australians and other foreigners who could not understand the abrupt cessation of festivities were issued the most gruesome threats.