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"Back then there were no boots and raincoats; we used to wear an old woollen garment and go fishing. How the hell did we manage not to get rheumatism from the damp, I'll never know. You can't imagine how cold it was, we were using the oars to break the ice in the lake in order to pull the fish nets out. Nowadays there are icebreaking machines for this purpose".
It is a delight for someone to listen to the stories told by the fishermen of the Island of Ioannina. They look back in times when their tiny islet was full of life and everyone had something to do. Apart from their main occupation, which was the fishing, they also used to crochet straw from the lake to make canopies for their house yards. They also made chairs out of "rezina", a weed that grows in the water in tufts. They used to cook garlic sauce with scampi from the lake. They used to make delicious sweets with apricot, water melon and figs and keep alive the nine churches and the seven monasteries of the island.
The fish that people used to catch in the past years, were gigantic fish of Hungarian origin, called "biker eels" and weighed 40-45 kilos each. They were using all of their strength to pull them out of the water and put them on the boats. They used to catch other fish with strange names, like the "silvins" and the "grass", which were too big, but of second choice and buyers didn't like them so much.
During the German occupation, though, people found all kinds of fish delicious. That was a time when the lake literally saved people from starvation. The people of Ioannina were waiting in queues to take some fish. They were eating some of them and the rest were exchanged for grains. Even though fishermen had a catch of 2-3 tons of fish per day, it was still not enough for everyone to satiate themselves.
The young people left the island
The fishermen in the Island of Ioannina do not only talk about nostalgic stories, they also express their complaints about their abandonment by the state: "In case of disaster villagers get some compensation; we get nothing when we lose our fish nets. With Lapsista's hydroelectric dam fish can't pass from Kalamas river to the lake so they throw their spawn in there. Eels can't reach the lake either, because the dam is thirty meters tall. But even the few of them who manage to get through it get killed when falling in the foaming waters".
The fishermen's decay in the Island of Ioannina has happened, not only due to the electricity consuming evolution, but also to the tendency of modern people to fast food. People at Ioannina once used to consume one ton of fish per day and now they only eat 50 kilos. Children used to love fish, now they frown when they see fish on the table.
As the evolution of Ioannina was proceeding, the work of the island's residents was diminishing, which led to its abandonment by the young people, who left for the urban centres leaving behind them only some elder fishermen. 500 residents used to live in the island, while today only 200 of them are left, most of whom being really old.
It's not bad for them, nor do they feel isolated, because ships bring tourists from Ioannina every day. Nevertheless, they still miss their children and grandchildren, who keep visiting them more and more rarely. In the summer, when they return to the island while being on vacation they don't stay long, because there aren't many conveniences there. Even bathing is difficult, as there's no sewage system and the waste end up in the lake, around their homes. Politicians keep promising things about solving the problem, but the old fishermen have had enough of them.
The Island of Ioannina covers an area of 200 acres and looks like a painting on the waters of Pamvotida lake. On its one side it has 110 houses with stone roofs and the rest of it is covered by a dense forest. There are still some old boats in the cove, damping off in the grassy waters. With those boats fishermen managed to feed their families and carry stones to build their homes.
Some years ago, one could see the boats loaded with fish nets; now cars are parked all over the place at the opposite bank of the lake. People leave their cars there and take the boat to go home. Evolution has dangerously surrounded the island, but fortunately it hasn't defaced it yet.
TEXT-PHOTOS: GEORGE ZAFEIROPOULOS