Miriam Maass– finally taking life into your hands

Miriam Maass– finally taking life into your hands

Boofy, the little brown mixed breed dog, is jumping impatiently between the olive nets. He is bored. For hours he already stayed there watching Miriam, his owner, combing down the olives from one tree after the other. He cannot stand it any longer. Nor can he stand the smell of the olives any longer, or does he want to explore the grove once more. He knows this olive grove by heart:   It is nearly Christmas time and since the beginning of November he has not only examined every single mound of soil in this grove, but he also got stuck in an endless chain of the same routine: in the morning, Miriam, his beloved owner, drives him from Nas up to Proespera, where she‘s supposed to harvest 117 olive trees by herself.

Here she carefully puts the large green nets around the trees – it’s quite a job, if you have to do it by yourself – and then she combs down the olives with a small rake for hours. When this job is done, she picks up the olives from the floor, shoves them into big white sacks then pulls the sacks behind her to bring them to the house. Here she spreads the olives on the floor in a cool and dry room for temporary storage.

In a few days Miriam will take them to the olive mill in Christos Raches. Boofy is still impressed by how this small, slim person, with thick long blond curly hair can be so dedicated to get this work done. But as he’s already lived with Miriam for over 2 years on Ikaria, he‘s enough time to get to know to her well and he knows that when Miriam sets herself a goal, she‘s dedicated to get there.  Finally, Miriam hears his plea. She folds together the last white sack of the day, brushes the hair from her face and ties it in a ponytail. She gently caresses Boofy’s neck and nuzzle, smiling at him and then she says the magic words: “Enough for today. We are done. Let’s put things together and go for a walk”. This is jingle-bells in Boofy’s ears. But even though he knows that the day will come to an end, he also knows that he still has to wait for a while until he can run on the beach in Nas. Miriam takes a good look around the olive grove. She carefully puts the nets together, puts the tools away in the shed, closes the windows and doors of the two old stone houses, which stand in good distance apart from the olive grove.

Before closing the shutters, she takes a quick look at the vegetable garden, to check if there are still some pumpkins left that she can pick up and cook tonight. She‘s lucky. One orange pumpkin sparkles in the sunset and Miriam puts it into her backpack.  “This will make a nice vegetable soup tonight”, she tells Boofy and cheerfully opens the door of her little car to let him in. Before getting into the car herself, she turns around.

Her gaze wanders over the large area of the olive grove, the vegetable gardens and the houses and with a little twinkle in her eye she tells herself: “I gonna make it. It‘ll take some time, but it will happen.”  She then starts the engine and heads down to Nas on the dirt road. She drives slowly, because she loves this time of the day: the sun is setting down and on a winter day not only does it does turn the sea into beautiful blue and pink hues, but it also bathes the mountains on the other side of the road into a red orange colour.

Miriam can’t get enough of this spectacle. She considers herself a lucky person to have the chance to live this on a daily basis. Thinking about it brings a smile over her face. 3 years ago, at that time of the day, she would have been leaving her office at a big shipping company, heading home to her nice and comfortable apartment in Athens. Later in the evening, she might have gone out to see some friends or Niko – her boyfriend – might have taken her to the movies. But even now she can recall the overall feeling of that kind of day: a certain emptiness and numbnessin her head. The 9 to 5 work in the office was not challenging, it had never been, but it provided a good income – badly needed in times of crisis.  Working for a shipping company was not at all related to her educational background, but what will you do with a Masters in Clinical Psychiatry in a country where 80 % of university graduates were either unemployed or had to work for little money in bars and restaurants, because there were no other suitable jobs? Perhaps Miriam could have left the country, too, like so many others, but this was never really an option for her, even though she might have stood a good chance.  Miriam speaks German, Dutch, Greek and English fluently … so her language skills were already an asset. She‘s the daughter of a German father and a Dutch mother and grew up in a small village on the island of Envia. Born in Athens with Dutch nationality, she was different from the other kids from the very beginning. At home she lived in a mix of German and Dutch cultures, but as soon as she stepped out of the door, she became the foreigner and had to find her way into the Greek world. As her parents did not master the Greek language very well, Miriam had to learn from her first days in kindergarten how to get along by herself with the Greek language and culture and the other kids.  Perhaps already in these days she learned to be dedicated to make things happen. In any case, she learned to wander between the different cultures and to face questions about her name and her background.

When asked today, Miriam considers herself “Greek” – no doubt about that – even though her blue eyes and fair hair may not fit to picture of a young Greek woman.  She even once tried to dive completely into the Dutch culture. She enrolled at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands for her Masters degree, but she did not like it at all. In order to get back to Greece as quickly as possible, she hurried up with her exams and finished her degree within 11 months instead of 12. So exploring and intensifying her Dutch roots was not really an option. But as she gets older, Miriam better appreciates that having grown up in three different cultures is making her a good mediator, something that she can use today very well on Ikaria.  But from Athens to Ikaria, it was a long way to go. Over the years the feelings of emptiness and not having control over her life were growing, because her life was determined by the crisis and by reason. After 7 years at the shipping company, Miriam knew that it was time to take her life into her own hands and to make decisions. Over the last years she had been able to put some money aside so that she was financially secure to dare a fresh start. And she didn‘t have her head in the clouds. Miriam wanted to head off to Ikaria and to make a living there …and she wanted to stay long-term. She had ideas, she didn’t want to end up as one of the many waitresses and she’d already put together a business plan for offering services to property owners who don’t live on Ikaria the whole year round. Why Ikaria? Well, over the last few years Ikaria had become her “place to be”. With Nikos, she was spending at least one month every summer in Nas. They loved the atmosphere and the scenery. For Miriam, there was always a need to be close to the sea. She is a dedicated surfer, so to be in or on the water is not only like paradise for her, but it also gives her the necessary energy to forget about work and her everyday life in Athens. So the summer months between Nas and Messakti beach were re-filling her batteries. But each year the reserves would be used up faster and faster and the idea was growing to make a clean cut and to head off to Ikaria to live there. Miriam knew it would be difficult, that she would need a couple of jobs to pay the bills, but she was ready for it. She wanted to act and not wait any longer for things to happen.  Of course she discussed her feelings and her ideas a lot with Niko who at that time owned a catering service in Athens called “O Olandos” (the „Dutch man“), as he also has Dutch roots. His feelings for Ikaria were similar to Miriam’s, but he wanted to take his decision independently. But then crisis hit his business, too, so in the end he decided to sell it and to use the money to make a fresh start on Ikaria. So in March 2017 Miriam and Nikos set off to Ikaria. They managed to rent 2 rooms for a decent price in Nas, but during the summer months they could not afford the rent requested. They were in urgent need for a place to stay. What to do? It was in that moment that Nikos remembered a chat he‘d had with an Ikarian lady some time ago, because he wanted to have the Ikarian lemonade „I love Ikaria“ on his menu. One day Julie had called him to let him know, that she is Ikarian and very happy to get her favorite lemonade from him. As Niko and Julie were chatting, Julie had told him that she had property in Proespera, a village next to Nas, that she was not using.

It had belonged to her father, Emilios Karoutsos, who was a well known doctor in Athens and who used to spend his summers on Ikaria. With the idea to live there permanently after his retirement, he had renovated an old stone house and built another guesthouse on the same grounds. But then he died and could never live his dream … and his daughter could not do it for him and never really used the place. But Julie was thrilled by Niko’s and Miriam’s love for the island, she had offered to let them stay in the house for free, whenever they wish to do so. Niko had thanked her for her kindness, but then forgot about it.  But now was the time to remember. Miriam called Julie and indeed the offer was still standing and the two got the permission to live on her piece of land in Proespera. So Niko and Miriam headed off to the mountains and found a large overgrown property with two vacant houses. The houses were ok, they needed a lot of cleaning, because they had been abandoned for many years. But the two accepted the challenge, rolled up their sleeves and started the work.

Neighbours came over, curious to know who was giving a new life to this piece of land. When they saw the young couple, they were happy about their idea to live there and offered a lot of support.  So little by little Miriam learned how to plan a vegetable garden and plant vegetables, which can offer food throughout the seasons, she learned about olive harvesting and got to know all the tools and equipment necessary to make it happen.

So after a few months the land was cleaned up, one of the old stone houses was newly decorated, now combining modern equipment like Wifi and cosy mattresses with traditional fire places and kitchen, and enough wood is nicely stacked up to light the fire during winter.

Seeing these results, Miriam and Niko thought to open the place as „Agrotourism“, a form of eco-friendly and sustainable tourism, where the tourists have a chance to participate at the work on the land. They discussed the idea with their landlord and she accepted. Now Miriam and Niko can rent the land in Proespera long-term and they’ve set it up in such a way that they can live on and from it. This was a relief and in 2018 and 2019 the first tourists started coming.  They were impressed by the beauty and the spirit of the place.

This gives them hope that the idea will develop. Despite this little success story, the income is not enough to make a living. Therefore Miriam found a second job at the ceramic workshop in Nas, where she runsthe shop in Armenistis during the summer and helps out with smaller jobs in winter. In addition to this, she takes over some translation work.  With all this work around, her initial idea of offering different services to manage properties on Ikaria is a bit in the background. „But it will happen …“, Miriam is certain of this when she thinks about it. „But“, she adds with a smile as she walks down the steps to Nas beach, „it may take another while. It’s nice to do it the Ikarian way. Slowly, slowly“.

Reaching the beach, Boofy runs  towards the waves. Finally! Breathing the sea in and out, smelling the winter air … what a relief! Miriam nods in agreement. Even though she is tired to the bones, she knows that Ikaria is a good place for her to live. She sees a long-term future in it, because she got her balance back and she feels alive.  Of course, sometimes she worries about whether all her plans will turn out fine, but if one idea fails another one will come up. By no means would she like to exchange this life for her former one in Athens. Watching Boofy running to the waves, Miriam takes a deep breath and sits down on a stone. Watching the sea and the sunset …. who needs more to know that you’ve had a good day?