Sharing Discussing Understanding

Commonwealth Journalists' Association

dscf0467By Trevor Grundy, CJA-UK

Skopelos, North Sporades, Greece – – -Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) asked us to understand that Greeks have a special place in their hearts for the unusual– especially when the bizarre appears in human form.

In his classic book The Greek Islands (Faber and Faber, London 1978) the India-born poet and author of The Alexandria Quartet writes: “Greece has retained a bit of the reverence and superstition which used to be attached to the idea of madness, treating it as a privileged state. This reverence probably dates back to ancient times, when the soothsayer or sage was not quite the best balanced member of the community – he saw visions, he heard voices. Harmless lunatics in Greece are regarded today as lucky people to have around and there is always plenty of work for such mascots.”

So watch out next time you’re in Greece and you come you come across an old hag who looks like she’s just swallowed a bottle of ouzo and wants to mug you. You might have bumped into Aphrodite in disguise.

Well, there were quite a few of those “harmless lunatics” around in this saxophone- shaped island in September 2007 when Meryl Streep and a cast of international celebrities jumped fully- clothed out of the head of Hollywood into the sapphire blue Aegean Sea in a joyful scene during the making of one of the most successful films in Hollywood history –Mama Mia.

Is there anyone left who doesn’t know the story of how teenage bride Sophie (played by Amanda Seyfried) found the 1970 diary of her mother Donna (Meryl Streep) and learned that she might be the daughter of one of the three lovers her mother had that year? And how that middle aged trinity all get invited to the young girl’s planned wedding on a fairytale Greek island (Skopelos by another name).

In 2008, travel writers in Britain predicted that this Hollywood blockbuster might signal the death of Skopelos, and that tens of thousands of Mama Mia fans would turn the island’s religious and cultural life upside down as Hollywood and commercialism had done so many times before, not only in Greece but also throughout Africa and the Far East.

The whistle blew. A behind doors battle between those wanting to preserve the island’s strong Christian culture and those who wanted to squeeze every dollar and Euro dscf0485they could out of Mama Mia bemused fans was underway.

Jane Fryer of the Daily Mail sounded the first note of warning after the film’s release in 2008, saying – “It’s clear that life will never be quite the same again for the 4,969 Skopelites.”

She wrote that hotels have been booked up months in advance, the bars and restaurants were buzzing and every couple of hours an enormous ferry disgorged another batch of Meryl Streep and Mama Mia fans on to the quayside in Skopelos town, often in full song.  House prices soared. So did everything else. The cash registers sang along with great songs from the Swedish pop group Abba.

‘It was a bit disappointing at first,’ said Diana Staveley, 40 when she first set foot on the island six years ago. ‘In the film, they arrived at a pretty bay in a tiny boat, but we came on a giant ferry into the port and there were people everywhere.’

She wanted what travel agents and before them pilgrimage organisers call the ultimate authentic experience, also known as Being There.

Said one experienced traveller, an architect from Athens – “For hundreds of years, pilgrims travelled around Europe and the Middle East to walk in the footsteps of St Paul or St Peter, St John the Baptist or the Virgin Mary and touch Holy Relics. Now they want to walk in the steps of ‘Saint’ Meryl. Someone told me that the flip flops of Pierce Brosman (one of Streep’s film lovers) are nailed to a wall in a travel agency. There are fairy lights around them. Size seven. Tourists stand next to them and do ’Selfies.’ They touch them as if some special power is going to come out of them . . . like the woman in the Bible who touched the hem of Jesus.”

Mama Mia fans arrived not only to touch and sniff at Brosman’s beach shoes but also to get married or renew old wedding vows at the island’s most picturesque Greek Orthodox chapel which stands high on a tall rock outcrop on the north –western side of the island, a place called Agios Ioannis Kastri (The chapel of St John the Baptist)

Sadly, most of them found out that you can’t just walk into a Greek Orthodox Church and sign on as it was a marriage bureau in Florida or Las Vegas.

So, some decided to tie the knot in the local town hall, on one of the beach or on a yacht. Then they plunged into the sea, watched by the shaking heads of locals, some hired as extras in the blockbuster film.

One couple – anxious to marry where Meryl and one of her lovers married at the end of the film – asked if they could immediately convert and become members of the Greek Orthodox community. They were advised by a priest to go away and think about it.

Last month,  my wife and I panted our way up the 202 steps which led to Agios Ioannis. It was around 10 am and the sun was still low in a bright blue sky.

When we got to the top we stood and watched a group of Norwegian journalists posing in front of the church which they all called the Mama Mia Church.dscf0476

Just before the cameras clicked, several burst into song – Mama Mia/Here I go again and later on – Money, Money, Money ? It’s a rich man’s world.

Toes tapped, hips swayed.

A couple from an Oslo magazine posed in the doorway of the tiny chapel and kissed.

The girl said to me: “Did you know that Meryl ran up those steps all in one go –she didn’t stop for a single breath and you’re panting!”

“But that’s what saints do,” I wanted to say but didn’t.

The young Greek guide from one of the island’s leading families, Evangelis Drossou, said to my wife: ”It’s partly our fault because some of us have advertised this as the Mama Mia Church. But we don’t like this at all. It’s a Christian church, not a film set. There must be respect for our religion and our way of life.”

During a tour of the town, his father, George who runs a local travel firm, underlined the importance of preserving the island’s way of life.

He said the traditionalists had won, that his beloved islanders had not weakened in the face of crass commercialism and had not collectively genuflected before the dangling USA dollar and enticing Euro.

‘Skopelos is about more than Mamma Mia! We don’t want our island to change because of a film. We have culture, architecture, ancient history and pride. A film comes and goes, but we want our island to remain the same,” he told me in a loud voice so everyone in the tour group could hear and understand.

He introduced us to weavers, potters, shipbuilders, local musicians and artists.

We visited some of the island’s 250 or more churches and monasteries.

dscf0549In June, Rembetika – the music played by and listened to by members of the underworld in Pireaus and Thessaloniki  after *the exchange of populations between Turkey and Greece in 1923 – is heard in local bars and tavernas.

And I’m amazed to say that after a couple of weeks in Skopelos I didn’t hear a single Abba song, not even in neighbouring Skiathos.  Apart from the Norewegians at the Mama Mia Church, of course.

Because of the dire economic situation, many young Greeks have left the island to live and work in the country’s two main cities Athens and Thessaloniki.

But they come home for Easter and Christmas and other great religious and cultural festivals that have made Skopelos one of the most actively Christian islands in Greece.

Certainly house and flat prices have shot up since 2008. But Alberto, a waiter from Albania, told me that when the tourist season ended in the first week of October you could rent a decent house, fully furnished, for little more than Euros 300 a month. “What do you all do in winter,” I asked him.” Pray for summer,” he said.

Marina and Nikos in Glossa, Skopelo’s second town which is no larger than a small English village, are owners of a small taverna  in the north-eastern side of the island. Marina said: ”Maybe we’re lucky we don ‘t have an airport. We ‘re a little cut off. Perhaps that has saved us from the negative side of tourism. “

Before I left to return to godless Britain, I sought an interview with a priest. He said he would not be named, yet alone photographed. “It’s their rule,” I was told by a local jeweller, Evi Asteriadi, who’d arranged the meeting.

Father X told me that tourists were welcome and that the church was grateful they gave jobs to the islanders. But they had to respect local traditions and the local religion – Christianity founded in Skopelos in the 4th Century AD.

He said that Mama Mia fever had now subsided but that if young or old people wanted to marry at the town hall in Skopelos and remember Meryl Streep by singing Abba songs, then that was up to them.

I bit the bullet having that day seen two young Swedish women walking along the beach that morning – hand in hand. And a local historian, Stelios,  had told me that before the last day in Lent, islanders celebrated the Vlaki Wedding. The groom is a woman dressed as a man and the bride is a man dressed as a woman. Everyone else wears national costume or carnival dress, many of them cross-dressing, so . . .

I asked him if he foresaw the day when gay men and women could marry in Greek Orthodox churches.

He looked at me as if I’d landed from another planet – as if I was one of Lawrence Durrell’s harmless idiots.

“Never,” he said.

“Not even a blessing for civil partnerships?”

He looked at his watch, stood up, shook his head and extended his hand in friendship.

”Never,” he said, as the haunting music from Zorba the Greek followed him down the road back to his house and a Greek wife and to three young  sons who  probably think  Mama Mia is a hymn to the Virgin Mary.

*On May 1, 1923 Turkey and Greece exchanged their Christian and Muslim populations. Over 1.25 million Christians (mainly Greeks) were forced to leave Turkey and re-settle in Greece and 500,000 Muslims  (mainly Turks) left Greece for Turkey in one of the largest population movements of the 20th Century. It left hundreds of thousands of people not only homeless but disinherited and disoriented for the rest of their lives.

Photos: Top – Agios Ioannis (the Chapel of St John the Baptist) . . . A must to see “pilgrimage” spot for Mama Mia fans (Picture by Trevor Grundy)

Second – Some can’t resist presenting the Church of St John the Baptist as “the Mama Mia” church, but the young and the old say Skopelos is more than a Hollywood island set in the Aegean Sea (Picture by Trevor Grundy)
Third – Norwegian journalists outside the Church of St John the Baptist in Skopelos. . .Mama Mia . . .here they go again (Picture by Trevor Grundy)

Bottom – There are well over 250 large and small churches on Skopelos Christianity is a vital force in an island that guards tradition (Picture by Trevor Grundy)

Patricia Perkel