Island 'Ikigai' encounters

My new island “Ikigai” company is consisting of my father’s nonagenarian friends who are meeting daily at the neighborhood’s cafe. I recently I had the rare honor to frequent the company of these oldies who entertained me with their stories, folk poems- traditional Cretan couplets/“madinades/μαντιναδες”- and commentary on politics, history, and society as well as on international affairs (they clearly have the advantage of time, they have seen it all in their life time). There was, as you can imagine, much repetition. I heard a few stories several times and I was countless times amused by the teasing comments exchanged with each other, always taken in good spirit.

Their social club microcosm is full of detail and unspoken rules, like for instance one that sees the new person arriving having his coffee paid by the last person arriving before him. Everyone's character is unique and each contributes to the group in their own distinctive way, like the 93-year-old former teacher who is the storyteller with the nickname of “polimilis” (the one that talks a lot); the kind 98 years old former police captain who is so deaf that simply nods and repeats the same generic answer to all but who shared with me his civil war stories; the former 'extreme heights construction worker' migrant from France, who writes rhyming folk poems (he dedicated one to me after the NZ volcano eruption weaving in the current news to my connections with down under signaling in this way that I was now an accepted member of the group); and there is the other nearly a century-old man with the ponderous voice and strong opinions who still sings at the local church choir (I witnessed that on Christmas Eve, his strong voice filling in the church for 5 hours...and I complain after lecturing for 3 hours!) The younger chain smoking retiree who has a mobile phone with internet acts as the fact checker, if there is a dispute he is asked to check for the correct information online.

They read their paper and sip in their Greek coffee in companionable silence that is punctuated by chatting on this and that and are often forcibly interrupted by their over-talking friend who can’t seem to contain himself. Despite their complaints about his incessant talking, they seem to miss him when he is not there. Upon my return this year he gifted me excitedly a chrysanthemums pot that came with a rhyming couplet - he is a darling.

I learned much from them this past month and after reading my niece’s Christmas gift on the Japanese concept of Ikigai, I decided that this group of nonagenarians are this Mediterranean island’s Ikigai followers: for one of the Ikigai’s principles for a long life is to be part of a strong social group. As one of the oldies said to me, a former schoolmate of my dad’s, “we sound a bit silly, but this is what is keeping us going, it forces us to get out of the house in the morning to socialize and keep in touch with the world”. It's what the Okinawan centenarians said to me during my research on their island and they should know as they invented Ikigai!

My 90 years old dad can hardly walk anymore but every morning he crosses painfully slowly but eagerly the street to the square across where the cafe is to meet his friends. I never knew my dad had it in him to improvise folk rhyming couplets but it seems this company has inspired him, or perhaps it was there all along, part of the island's collective cultural DNA that runs through our veins. I can’t imagine his daily life without this morning coffee club and I am deeply grateful that he is able to have a social life that connects him to his past, his town, his island and indeed the world. I will be leaving him in good hands.

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