I’ve already been to Chios twice: my first visit was about ten years ago and the second one this year. I had already been favorably impressed by the first visit, but it hadn’t occurred to me that I would get a second chance. Still, doing research can lead to unexpected paths with some life lessons awaiting down the road…
October 2019. My thesis advisor and I are in search of a business endeavor supported as well as carried out by a significant part of the local community, one I will be able to look into. I presume speaking English can facilitate accomplishing this task as it enables me to travel to countries all over the world. But why not use Greek? How many researchers are able to speak this language and perform studies in Greece? Not many; so, looking into a Greek community enterprise, chance that rarely comes along, would prompt academic journals to become interested. Browsing through the internet, I come across a very intriguing case: that of twenty-four villages having established a long term co-operation on mastic.
August 2020. After months of preparation, I get on board the ship. I can’t help but think what’s lying ahead. I personally know very few Southerners, and I’m not sure what they’re going to think of me. Are they going to trust me and be frank and open or they’re just going to avoid sharing their personal input? No matter how hard I try not to think about it, I do know that small communities take their fair share of time to embrace a stranger. On the other hand, I need to make the most out of every single day on the island, since I’m not sure how fast coronavirus is going to spread, or if there’s going to be enough time for me to study the social relations that are forged during needle crafting, collecting, sweeping and cleaning mastic.
August 21, 2020. I step into a plot for the first time to pick up “pies”. I’m still reluctant to blend in with the villagers and get them to speak from their hearts, but I can at least tag along while they’re carrying out their tasks as well ass experience a part of their lives. It’s a morning chore, and quite a demanding one, but it helps me gain first-hand insight into this special rapport linking growers to their trees. You see, compared to other crops, mastic growing requires unique methods and planning, forcing growers to carefully cater to the trees’ needs all year long. On top of that, in case when several family members take part in the endeavor, the social aspect of mastic is corroborated. And if the extended lifespan of the trees is thrown into the equation, mastic undoubtedly becomes a meeting spot where at least three generations can trade nostalgic memories.
September 9, 2020. Getting involved in farmwork on an everyday basis has enabled me to become acclimated to the surroundings, having spoken to dozens of locals, either producers or normal people, in various coffee shops. Coming into contact with the agrarian way of life is seemingly a good thing, as I get to perceive the producers’ concerns about a possible rain as well as the hardships they have to endure – for example, when they have to get to rugged hillsides just to take care of a small number of shrubs. I think that even they are now looking at me differently. I can’t tell if that’s down to our daily interaction or my sincere strive to adapt to the requirements and methods of mastic growing, which has enabled me to join in their conversations. Perhaps they had assumed that researchers are aloof and clinical, and that explains their startle when they see me wave at them from the cabin of a pick-up truck at six o’ clock in the morning. I take the liberty of asking to interview some of them so as to use their insight in my paper.
September 25, 2020. Sadly, it’s time for me to go – albeit temporarily. Personal issues dictate that I return to Athens, while the second wave of Covid would probably stop me from returning to the island any time soon. Over the past fifteen days, I’ve interviewed dozens of mastic growers and toured around more than fifteen Mastihohoria.. I’ve forged personal relationships with people of all ages and learned to appreciate rural life and its precepts. While on board, I’m trying to think of the conclusions I can elicit and the ways to interpret the growers’ points of view. I know that months of transcribing and data analysis are lying ahead before I would be able to come up with an overall conclusion; still, there’s one thought whirling through my head: mastic is an integral part of the locals’ life, with both positive and negative implications. Especially during summer and fall, mastic is all the villagers can talk about. Cultivating it is the only profession for some of them, it’s everyone’s talking point; it serves as a constant reminder of people’s financial dependence on it, ceaselessly fueling their fear of it being stolen or ruined due to inclement weather, thus creating an atmosphere of hurriedness and continued anguish. As a result, the Southerners’ special bond to mastic may have rendered the local community less receptive to new ideas, interests or financial activities. On the other hand, it has provided them with economic stability and a timeless cultural identity. While trying to weigh up the pros and cons, the ship sails away from Chios port, making me realize that all good things must come to an end…
A big thanks to everyone who took me in as if I were one of them, and particularly to Mr Nikos, Mr Vangelis, Mr Dimitris, Yiannis and Mihalis. Needless to say, I have to thank everyone in the Chios Gum Mastic Growers Association for their invaluable contribution as well as every grower for taking the time to talk to me. And since research never stops, I’ll be glad to get in touch with the people of the Southern villages so as to capture their insight on mastic. Contact me at: email@example.com.
* Mastihohoria are horia, meaning villages, in the southern region of the island, the only area in the world where mastiha, meaning mastic, can be cultivated.
Translated into English by Nikos Loutraris