One literally descends on Mykonos if one has flown Olympic from Athens. The descent, however, need not be predatory.
The airport is at the top of the island. The plane that flies you there from the West Terminal of the Athens Airport is a twin-prop number that seats maybe 40. It cruises at 3000 feet and lands in thirty-five minutes, beating the ships that sail from Piraeus by six hours.
To greet you at the terminal will be perhaps a score of Greeks representing various hotels, displaying photos and soliciting. This in late May, before the island fills. The chorus of hotel runners is doubtless present throughout the summer, although rooms will be severely limited in July and August. It's rumored that those without confirmed reservations are some times barred from disembarking during high season.
We deplaned among a number of young men and women in white Italian linen and black Porsche sunglasses and boarded the bus that takes you down to Mykonos town, or Chora. The road winds and descends, and it isn't long before the white cubist buildings of Chora come into view, and the blue-green sea beyond. Villas breast the road, simple square and rectangular stone structures, whitewashed, shuttered with aquamarine louvers and studded with flowers. On Mykonos you see geraniums, roses, hibiscus, bougainvillea, orchids, morning glories, carnations—a rich profusion on this rocky, arid island. You also see the grander and more ornate villas of wealthy German tourists who dominate the town, as well as hundreds of simple, single-room churches with their red roofs and dark, cramped, candlelit interiors.
The bus, a Mercedes, dropped us off along the port near the Leto, an A-rated hotel reputedly a Jet-set favorite. (A few days into our stay we dropped in to check it out and found it not very lovely, rather bare and tastelessly furnished.) Since we'd made our booking in Boston for the Hotel Kouneni, we gave the name to a young porter with a hand-drawn wagon on which we loaded our suitcases and followed behind on foot.
The porter led us through the labyrinthine town designed to confound the pirate Barbarossa who sacked the islands in the 16th century. (Islands like Ios and Santorini built their towns high up on mountaintops to achieve same.) The streets are narrow, serpentine, and laid of stone. The islanders whitewash the borders of each stone, creating a kind of loosely defined, continuous hopscotch board.
The Kouneni Hotel is recessed back from the street and abuts on the Marco Polo restaurant, one of the better-known Mykonos restaurants. We crossed the threshold at about 2:00 p.m. hot, dusty, tired. Behind us were a nine-hour flight to Athens, a two-hour stopover, a thirty-five-minute jump to Mykonos, and a seven-hour loss of time. We were looking forward to a cool room, a hot shower, and a short siesta before dinner.
Alex and Flora Kouneni, proprietors, greeted us, and after checking our reservations informed us they had misunderstood our plans and expected us one day later. The hotel was booked for the night.
I concentrated my frustration on a red geranium that sat in its pot on one of the cool marble steps leading upstairs to the booked rooms. And stroked a cat that had coiled in my lap.
Alex made several phone calls and then informed us that his daughter, Anna, would take us up to her hotel for the night, that tomorrow we could decide to stay there or come back to a room that would be ours for the week.
Anna arrived shortly on a tri-cycle, motorized cart (essential to the island's commerce) on which we loaded our suitcases and ourselves (Jenny on the seat with Anna, I on the flatbed of the cart) and rode up the hill to the Despotika Hotel.
Once there, we made our way out of the three-wheeler and up the steep, broad slate steps to the entrance. To the right of the door, in a recessed, arched section of white wall, a tawny lion's head carved in stone was mounted against a background of Aegean blue. Judging from the look of antiquity it had, and the hole in its mouth, the head was likely taken from a fountain and set here, masterfully, at the front door of the Despotika, which in Greek means "master," a Byzantine epithet that honored emperors.
Inside, we found a wide, airy lobby, uncluttered, whose white walls were hung with gorgeous watercolors of the island done in a style reminiscent of Odilon Redon's. Hung also with brightly colored weavings indigenous to Mykonos. The floor was a highly polished blond hardwood on which were scattered rugs, hand-carved chairs, small desks and tables. At the far end, a short bar with five tall stools. Off the lobby a breakfast room with high rafters, hand-hewn, rustic wrought-iron chandeliers, and windows set into thick walls opening on the Aegean. Off the breakfast room, a white terrace, festooned with bougainvillaea, overlooking the sea.
Our room was large, with twin beds covered in hand-made, brightly colored quilts for cool evenings. And a private bathroom, big with shower. Two tall French doors opened onto a patio on the inner courtyard—a botanical garden. In the stone wall opposite our room, tucked into a cleft, a nest of infant sparrows that cheeped determinedly and stuck their tiny heads out to feed, opening their disproportionately huge beaked mouths when mother brought breakfast.
Our breakfast consisted of freshly squeezed juice, American-style coffee (not Nescafé), Greek bread, which is thick-crusted, assorted fruit jams, and eggs, soft-boiled or hard—served by Marie, whose little boy Yannis came in and out of the room quietly, regarding us with deep-blue eyes set below long, fine lashes.
The Despotika is set on a hill about five minutes above the center of town. Just below it. at the foot of the hill, is the bus square where you board a bus that takes you to Plati Yalos, a ten-minute trip. Plati Yalos is a modest resort on one of the innumerable bays of the island. There you climb aboard one of the small, sleek, smooth-curved caiques, or fishing boats, that take you to the nude beaches: Paradise, Super Paradise, Agrari, and Elia. On the caique you sit among people who, like you, have nothing to hide.
The ride is slow, shore hugging, careful of reefs, spectacular. Mountaintops come down to the sea, golden-earthed and richly configured. Of sandstone or some such porous rock, they have been smoothed and sculpted by the ingenious hand of the sea. They glow under the heat of the Aegean sun, which bakes them like loaves. Gulls cruise overhead or sit down on the water while we pass.
Paradise is the first to come up on the left. The caique pulls slowly into the bay, careful of swimmers, to drop us off. Here one finds the bamboo-thatched taverna, the arced beach, the golden sand, the arid backdrop of hills. Here, too, Paradise Camping, if you care to pitch a tent at the beach. There is also a small hotel for the less rugged. And here, of course, one finds bathers, naked or semi-nude, along the strand. And somehow, nudity in Paradise makes sense.
These aren’t, properly speaking nudists; this is no colony, no cult, of nudists. This is, instead, a loose confederacy of individuals wishing to understand the nakedness of rock under sun. Individuals who desire the natural, in the sense of "reproducing the original state closely."
The nude beach disarms you with its innocence. Whole families romp naked in the sun. People look at you; you look at them. There is no shame, no lasciviousness, in the looking. Our bodies are not so different after all, not objects of desire with the mystery gone, the mystery that the simplest adornment evokes. Naked we are equals under the sun. There is human beauty, yes, but it is aesthetics, not erotics, that helps us to see it.
Why not be naked at the beach? What better setting for a return to anonymity in the form of nudity? What better way to rejoin the human community, if only for a few days?
Of course there is narcissism, too, at the nude beach. One sees a great many nearly perfect bodies on display. One woman, blond, tall, a statuesque German who sat in front of us one day at Elia Beach, put on her leather G-string, took it off; wrapped a sheer purple scarf around her perfect breasts, took it off, carefully checking her audience all the while. And on the same day, at the same beach, we were taken aback by the cry of a man stretched out beside us, his long young body oiled and bronzed and glistening in the sun, who cried out as if wounded when perhaps ten grains of sand blew across his chest.
But a more representative anecdote of our experience would be this: one day at Super Paradise, where we were stretched out beside a California couple we'd met at the Caprice Bar several days earlier, an American returning to his nude wife from the taverna told her angrily, "There's a guy up there with binoculars and a camera. I told him to get lost. I told him I didn't want him taking any pictures of my wife." She laughed, and the incident melted into the afternoon.
The nude beach is indigenous to Mykonos. On most of the Greek islands, nudity is forbidden. But on Mykonos, at least at these four beaches, it is openly practiced. Unselfconsciously practiced, for the most part. The nude beach is a central metaphor of the Mykonos experience.
In 1976, when I first visited the island, there were only two nude beaches: Paradise and Super Paradise, the former reputedly a straight beach, the latter gay. Today these distinctions break down; all four beaches are heterogeneous. The newest of these is Agrari, between Super P and Elia. Many people go only as far as Super P, to avoid the surcharge and the occasional boat transfer. But it is well worth both.
Perhaps the most beautiful of the four with its crescent, high-banked beach, its sandy promontory that thrusts out into the sea, its steep mountain backdrop and precipitous access road, its wonderful flowers and gleaming taverna.
The food here is some of the best we ate on Mykonos. (At the beach tavernas one finds good hot and cold meals and full bars.) The yogurt, for which Greece, and Mykonos in particular, is famous, was the best we ever had—a thick, smooth, custardy whiteness without bitterness—delicious with fresh fruit and the thick, deep-gold honey of coniferous trees that you ribbon over it.
Theodoros and Elena Daktilidi are the friendly proprietors. They've put out a brochure in English/French/German, from which I quote: "Agrari is a beautiful, quiet and clean beach. We want you to have a very pleasant time, so we offer you the island's cleanest beach, showers, telephone, excellent restaurant, efficient and friendly service...We believe that we have an exceptional Mykonoan environment. So why not try to spend at least a day.”
Why not indeed?
Anna Kouneni is a somewhat shy but friendly woman of about thirty years: pretty, olive-skinned, with dark chestnut hair and deep-voiced sonority, a serious woman who laughs suddenly with eyes flashing.
She reminded me of Sylvia, the freelance dentist who introduced me to Greece. I told Anna on the day we registered at the Despotika that she looked and spoke very much like Sylvia Herfort, a German friend. She looked up from her writing. "I hope your friend is pretty," she said, smiling on the adjective. "Yes," I told her.
At night, strolling home from a late cappuccino at the Caprice Bar, Jenny and I would see Anna sitting with her mother Flora or alone at a small table in front of the Bar Kouneni, which her brothers owned. We'd stop to say hello, then meander back to our hotel. We liked Anna and she seemed to like us and so one day at the hotel we invited her to have a drink with us some evening. She accepted.
On the appointed night, around midnight, we found her at her table with friends, a man and a woman who seemed to be a couple.
We got chairs from inside the Kouneni Bar and joined them. They had been talking animatedly when we'd arrived and were now shifting to new ground where English was spoken.
The woman was deeply tanned and striking in the floral dress she wore. Her eyes were sea-blue. She had the heartiness of the russet carnation worn between her breasts.
"He looks like Marlon Brando," Jenny whispered to me.
And he did, like the Brando of “The Missouri Breaks,” a tough, wily political animal with a sardonic sense of humor.
His voice was deep and scratchy, and he talked through the drinks I imagined he'd had through the evening and the ones he drank with us. His hair was black and silver and long at the sides and in the back: Sixties style. He sat to my left and showed me his good Greek profile. He was handsome, ruggedly so, and we liked him immediately.
English was difficult for them; he, Yannis, asked us if we spoke French. We didn't. He looked away for a moment, defeated, and lifted his glass to drink. Then he told us that he'd learned to speak French in Paris, where he had been a professor of Byzantine history at the University. He was a member of the Greek Communist Party, which, he said, had had a chance to come to power in Greece in 1943-44 but failed to do so. He had left Greece in self-imposed exile during the junta and had taught instead in Paris. He was now living and teaching in Athens.
I asked him what he thought of the current socialist government of Greece, to which he replied forcefully: "It's a BOOL-SHEET government!" He said he could understand capitalism, American capitalism for example, and he could understand communism in Vietnam, for instance, but he couldn't understand what socialism in Greece was.
He said he was being a tourist in Mykonos with great difficulty. Everyone laughed at this. He said he was walking a lot in the town and just looking at things.
The woman, his wife, pulled the carnation from between her breasts and had me and Jenny smell it, noting that this was a true carnation with its scent of clove. It smelled wonderfully.
There was a full moon above us; the professor noted it and told us that the moon represented Helen, the wife of Menelaos. I proffered that the moon was also Artemis' symbol but he wouldn't accept it. No, it was Helen's. In Greek, the word for moon and the word for Helen are nearly identical, he said.
The professor’s wife handed Jenny a sprig of something that she said she couldn't identify. Jenny smelled it and declared it an herb, something familiar. I smelled it and said it was oregano. The professor said, yes, it was in that family.
He asked us if we liked Greece.
Oh, yes, we love Greece.
Where will you go next? he wanted to know.
To Crete, we replied.
He looked away into the distance.
My mother is from Kriti, he told us. Near Chania.
Oh yes, we want to go to Chania, we told him.
If you see Chania, he said, and the area just to the south-west of Chania, you will see a lot.
Okay, we said.
He got up and went into the bar and came back with another drink. I still sipped my ouzo and soda, Jenny her soda and lime.
He asked us if we'd seen the Peloponnese. I told him no, but that my friend Sylvia had been there and said it was beautiful, with the pine forests coming down to the edge of the beaches.
He asked us if we knew Kalamatta. I said we knew the olives. This got a laugh all around. Then he said, smiling, that that was where he wanted to live. In Kalamatta, with the olives.
He told us to visit Salonika as well. You can see centuries of Byzantine development there, he said.
I asked him if he'd ever visited the States. He laughed a short sardonic laugh. I cannot get a visa, he told us, because I am a Communist. Maybe I could get one if the American Communist Party sent me an official invitation. Not otherwise.
This produced a thoughtful silence, after which conversation recommenced in Greek.
There was a long stretch of Greek among the three of them, to which Jenny and I listened politely for sounds. It had been their evening, after all, and we had exhausted them with English. We rose to go and bade them goodnight. The woman said she was sorry their English wasn't better and that she hoped they had conveyed their feelings in gestures, like the giving away of the carnation. We were also sorry for our lack of Greek, which had barred us from full participation in an obviously good-hearted and zesty conversation among friends, and we said so. But we had communicated our feelings to one another and something of substance had been established between us.
And walking away from them arm in arm in the moonlight, we said to each other that we were glad we had met them, and Anna, who had led us to them in the labyrinthine town of Mykonos on a moonlit night in spring.
About 25 meters down the hill from the Despotika is a small, dark garage where you can rent a motorcycle. The young proprietor and chief mechanic, George, is a handsome, bright-eyed guy with a quick broad smile and a generous nature. He's also a first-rate mechanic.
He recommended a 50-cc Zundapp that he said would be good on both paved and unpaved surfaces. When I asked him if it had enough power to carry two riders up very steep hills, he grinned and said: "This one, she's a tiger." I signed the contract.
You will need to buy petrol, he told me. He gave directions to the nearest pump and when I asked him if the bike had enough gas to get me there, he grinned and replied: "Maybe." I smiled and drove off.
After the first turn at the bottom of the hill, a big bike passed me on the left. It was George leading me to the pump.
I fueled and picked up Jenny and off we went up the hill toward the airport and the nude beaches beyond. The hill road turns to the right at the airport and the terminus of the landing strip is on your left. It is here that the road's surface turns to dirt, rock, and sand—typical of Mykonos.
To say these roads are treacherous is just to begin to describe them. They are narrow, serpentine, full of blind turns and patches of deep sand and ruts the size of irrigation ditches. There are the hazards of cattle and donkeys that roam them unattended, not to mention other motorcyclists and jeep enthusiasts who negotiate the hairpins at break-neck speed.
Still, the roads are beautiful, running like ribbon through the rocky terrain, following closely the contours of the land, walled in fieldstone, dipping and rising through pastures inhabited by goats, sheep, chickens, roosters, donkeys, and pigs, and bordered by wildflowers, clover, and patches of great mouse-eared cacti with saffron blossoms.
The Zundapp was a tiger. I hadn't driven a motorcycle since college, but it came quickly back to me, even with Jenny's additional ballast. We followed the signs to Paradise Camping until a long descent led us over a short cement bridge to the campground and the beach it abutted. We parked and walked through a field to the beach, where we spent the long, hot, afternoon.
It was two days later that I walked down the hill to the garage and negotiated the rental of the Zundapp again with George. He seemed glad to see me and knocked a hundred drachs off the fee. I fueled up and got Jenny at the Despotika and we were off to Agrari by late morning.
As we were rounding a turn in the road not far from the beach, a blond-haired man, bare-chested, flagged us down. We stopped and he explained in gestures that up ahead he and some workers were paving a section of the road and it was impassable. We would have to turn back. He walked off in that direction and I, determined to see for myself whether there were some way to continue to Agrari, drove on ahead.
We came upon the blond-haired man and several others sitting by the side of the road in the hot sun, drinking from a bottle. I tried to explain that we wished to go to Agrari and wanted to try to pass beyond the construction. They patiently explained that it was impossible, but that another route existed. Elaborately, in the sand in the road, one of the men traced out directions. I let it be known that I understood, thanked him for his kindness, and prepared to depart. He made us wait a moment to ask where we were from and to offer us some Mykonoan wine. He produced two plastic glasses and poured out drinks. The wine was good, a kind of retsina—resinous, oily, but stronger than any retsina I'd ever had. When I finished my glass and expressed my satisfaction, he poured another. Then he laughed and mimed what I would look like drunk on a motorcycle. After that glass we waved good- bye and drove off in the opposite direction.
I wasn't drunk, though a little light-headed. At the first road to the right I turned and drove toward Ano Merá, a town in the center of the island from which we could make our way to Agrari. This road seemed worse than the one we'd been on; the six or seven kilometers to Ano Merá took us nearly thirty minutes.
In Ano Merá we stopped briefly at a bakery for a sweet and then continued. This road that led to Elia beach was the worst yet—strewn with big, jagged rocks and pocked by deep pits of sand, culminating in a steep, tortuous descent to the beach.
At Elia, from which one could walk but not ride to Agrari, we parked and unfurled our straw mats. The meltemi was blowing and sand kept streaming into our faces. We slipped beside some rocks that formed a kind of windbreak and tried to enjoy ourselves as well as we could. There was a great deal of narcissism at Elia that day (the woman with the leather G-string and the oiled man who cried out when the sand-grains struck him), so there was some distraction from the wind. We watched a man, who walked the beach selling brightly colored fabrics woven of gold and silver that caught the light and gleamed, show his wares to a beautiful dark-haired woman who from time to time got up from her mat and went a short way into the water, where, with her hands cupped, she ladled water over her naked breasts and then returned to her mat. But soon we tired of the wind and sand and climbed back on the bike.
Up and up the steep road strewn with rocks we climbed. The bike whining in first gear, digging in and spitting out dirt with its knobby rear tire and bumping along. A man and a woman walking up ahead come into view, and then the first hairpin to the left.
Around the turn and swinging wide to the right and into the sandy shoulder of the road. Pulling back involuntarily on the throttle, gunning us forward and the bike wobbling and the road resisting the front wheel and the sudden sickening wrenching of the handlebars out of my hands and the plunge down.
The bike on top of me, Jenny on top of me and the bike, the engine screaming like crazy and the rear wheel spinning madly and Jenny crying out to shut the engine off.
Somehow shutting it off. Then worry over Jenny. Are you alright?
Yes. Are you?
Yes, I think so.
Crumpled on the dusty road in the unforgiving sun, surveying the wounds. The right knee gouged open in two places, caked with dirt and bleeding. The top of the right foot scraped open from the ankle to the toes and bleeding. The right arm sliced open on the underside of the forearm near the elbow, dirty and bleeding.
Nausea, light-headedness, my head down between my sprawled knees. Jenny pulling off her blouse and soaking it with water from our bottle and wiping my cheeks, neck, forehead. Are you okay? Do you feel faint? Keep your head down. You'll be alright. You'll be alright.
And then the walking man and the woman at our side, solicitous. Shall I go down to the beach for help? he asks. Yes! Jenny shoots back. And down he goes. The woman remains with us, speaking gently in broken English. She and her husband are from Holland, she tells us.
After some time, the man returns. Help is coming, he announces. Jenny thanks him, thanks him. He waves it off. Nothing, he says. He wheels the crippled motorcycle to the side of the road where it will remain until George comes for it with his truck later that day. The throttle has been torn off the handlebars.
A jeep rounds the turn and two women, Americans, climb out. They look me over and smile down at me to tell me I’m okay. Another jeep climbs the hill and one of the women flags it and asks are they going into town and will they take us back to our hotel. Yes, they will. I'm helped to my feet and in we get and then the long, bumpy ride and me thinking how stupid, how stupid, my right leg stretched out stiffly before me and my right arm throbbing and Jenny behind me, her hand on my shoulder, comforting. My hubris broken, I am downcast to think I am just so much flesh and blood.
Back at the Despotika, Anna's horrified face as we limp in.
Motorcycle accident? Oh, that looks bad.
In a moment she has gone for first aid and returns with disinfectant, bandages. We thank her and head for our room where we remove our filthy clothes and enter the bathroom to wash out the wounds. Then iodine and gauze and rest on the terrace.
The following morning at breakfast, everyone is solicitous. Isabel, the Mexican chambermaid, asks to see the knee. She is worried that I haven't seen a doctor. I unwrap the bandages and show her the wounds and the white flesh around them. She tells me to go to a doctor, this morning. She doesn't like the look of the white flesh. You must get an anti-tetanic, she tells me in her most serious tone.
She goes to find Anna and brings her to our table. Anna apologizes for not having suggested a doctor yesterday and explains that there is a clinic not far from the hotel where she will take me after breakfast.
This time, I ride on the seat next to Anna and Jenny is on the flatbed of the three-wheeled cart. It is a very short ride to the clinic, which is just at the bottom of the hill. The clinic is a typically cubic, one-story, whitewashed stone building with varnished pine shutters on the windows. We enter a clean, nicely furnished waiting room where a pretty blond nurse greets us in correct English. She observes my bandages. It will be just a minute until she can see me, but in the meantime, will Jenny go into town to a pharmacy to buy tetanus serum?
Yes? Good. Here is the prescription.
In one of the three examination rooms I strip down to underwear and sit on the table. The nurse, who is Swedish, unwraps my bandages. She cleans the wounds which, she says, we have already cleaned rather well. Still, there is some dirt under the thick flaps of skin which she removes by long-stemmed Q-tip.
Jenny returns with the serum and I roll over for the indignity of the shot in the right buttock. The nurse tells me that I have gotten the shot just in time. I ask her to describe tetanus and she does.
It is caused, she explains, by an anaerobic bacterium that is often found below the surface of the earth—hence the danger of tetanus resulting from wounds caused by falls to the ground. The bacteria attack the voluntary muscles and produce violent spasms, especially in the neck and throat area, which eventually asphyxiate the victim. The fatality rate is high.
At this point, the doctor makes his entrance. He is a tall, stooped man of maybe sixty years. He looks at me and down at my knee. He speaks to the Swedish nurse in Greek and she answers him in Greek. Then he looks at me again and asks one question in English: "Have you been in the army?" No, I answer. He scowls and leaves the room.
I dress and thank the nurse, who prescribes rest and a day of exposure of the wounds to sun and air, to dry them and encourage the formation of scabs. I pay her the rather large sum in drachmas that she has requested and accept the forms for reimbursement. She smiles, Jenny and I smile, and I limp out of the cool clinic into the warm morning sun to climb the hill awkwardly and recuperate on the terrace of the hotel.
All day I am propped up in a chair with my wounds exposed to the sun. The pink strip on the inside of Jenny's left ankle has developed into a festering burn caused, no doubt, by the hot exhaust pipe of the fallen Zundapp. She is in her chair on the terrace with the burn anointed and covered. We have a picnic lunch with Wendy and Dave, the Californians we met at the Caprice Bar whom we have invited to visit us at the hotel.
For several days thereafter I am forced to walk slowly and stiffly in order to avoid breaking the seal of the scab on my right knee. I take stairs one at a time, and limp in favor of my right leg. But everywhere I go in town, people express compassion for me. I begin to feel like a wounded hero. I become proud of my fall. George the mechanic refuses to let me pay for damages to the motorcycle. The two Swedish couples at our hotel want to know every detail of the accident. Anna and Isabel offer me their most compelling smiles every morning at breakfast. I am buttressed by kind feelings and grow in stature with each encounter. My hubris is gone, but suffering has made me wiser. Now I am a daemon who has won the affection of the Chorus.
At about 1:00 a.m. of our penultimate day on the island, Jenny and I returned to the Despotika from town to find Isabel alone at the bar, drinking a coffee. We climbed up onto the high stools and began a conversation as she served us a coffee and a cold beer.
Her face was brown and freckled across the bridge of her broad, flat nose. Her brown eyes were soft and deep and widely set. Her mouth was full-lipped, and her teeth flashed bright-white when she smiled, which was often.
She told us that she had recently graduated from the university in Mexico with a degree in architecture and was spending nine months touring Europe. She had been in Greece earlier in the spring and then had left for Paris. She loved Greece, she said, and had returned to the island where she had found a job as chambermaid at the Despotika.
She spoke of life in Mexico, where the people are poor but happy. Every morning the poor wake up and look at the day. If the sun is shining, she told us, they have reason to be glad and to rejoice in the new day, even if water is scarce. Mexicans live from moment to moment, she said, and do not trouble themselves about tomorrow. They live by the spirit: material life means little to them. Their wisdom tells them that life is to be understood through the heart. They are accustomed to poverty: it resides with them like a poor relation who, if acknowledged, is little bother. Poverty is the kinship that binds them one to another.
Isabel went on to explain that she was from a poor village and one of the few of its inhabitants to go to university. Her good fortune occasioned humility in her. She said no matter how poor one might be, there was always someone poorer whose existence demonstrated why one ought to be grateful for what little one had. She said that life itself was the great gift, to which gratitude was the appropriate response. More than gratitude, joy. It was in the joyful acceptance of life that human beings ought to distinguish themselves, she said.
All this she delivered with great exuberance. Her hunger for life was deep and affecting. She spoke of the wide world, of its enchantments, its mysteries. She wanted to know all the world. One could learn much from immersion in strangeness. Perhaps the greatest lesson strangeness teaches, she suggested, is that all people are essentially familiar.
The Mexican people are bound by solidarity of spirit. They greet one another as friends or relatives even when they pass as strangers on the street. To smile at an unfamiliar Mexican, or to say hello, she explained, was a commonplace in Mexico.
I asked her what she made of Octavio Paz's metaphor for Mexico—the labyrinth of solitude. She knew of the book but hadn't read it. I explained that Paz's thesis ran counter to her own—that the Mexican is lost in a maze of solitude, which prevents him from finding himself in others. Since I had the book in my room I fetched it and quoted from the chapter, "Mexican Masks": "The Mexican is always remote, from the world and from other people. And also from himself."
She acknowledged the greatness of Paz's thought and ruminated on it for a while. Then she said that while it had a poetic dimension of truth, there was much in Mexican experience that it failed to account for. She would stand by her description of Mexican solidarity.
As an example, she drew a contrast between Mexican and Greek hospitality. Whereas the Mexican will offer what little he has, asking for nothing in return, the Greek is careful to extract from his guest a measure of hospitality equal to the portion he has given. We discussed the importance of hospitality in Greek culture, tied as it was in ancient days to mercantile exploration. She pointed out that the origins of the Mexican's passion for human community lay in Indian culture, which had been modified to a great extent by Spanish conquest. She suggested that the character trait of the Mexican people as described by Paz owed its existence to the Spanish influence, and that her observation of Mexican character reflected the Indian influence. She and Paz, she felt, were looking at Mexico from two rather divergent perspectives, but that some truth could be said to exist in both views.
We continued to talk into the small hours in the hushed hotel, exchanged addresses and good-nights, and finally turned in. It occurred to me as I lay in bed that this was the whole point of travel: conversation of an asymmetrical kind with others unlike ourselves. Here we had been, two North Americans and a Central American in a Greek hotel, speaking of Mexican and Greek national character while the universal stars blinked above us.
* * *
In the morning we walked down the hill to catch the bus to Plati Yalos. We had agreed to meet Dave and Wendy, the Californians, at Agrari beach. The crowded bus lurched out of the square and carried us to the pier where one of the caiques would cruise us out to the beach.
Our attention to detail was heightened by the imminence of our departure from the island, so that every particle of rock we passed in the caique, every seabird, every eddy of water registered in our minds with an indelible impress.
As the boat chugged its way into Agrari bay, Wendy and Dave, naked, sleek as dolphins, swam out to greet us. The caique rode smoothly into shore, its prow nosing up the beach. We climbed down the bow ladder and followed the California couple to their mats behind the windbreak. There was a steady wind blowing from the north, not too strong, which the windbreak effectively withstood. There were only a handful of people on the beach, scattered among the half-dozen big, metal-poled, bamboo-thatched umbrellas set out by the proprietors of the taverna.
Wendy and Dave had been married thirteen years. We discovered that Wendy, who commuted to work in San Francisco from the Los Gatos region where they owned a home, had, in the last two years, rented an apartment in Frisco where she lived three days out of seven. In other words, they had been separated, part-time, for the past two years.
Dave was a dentist, Wendy a dental assistant. They were childless, but kept two Siberian Huskies and a Samoyed. Dave edited the newsletter of the dental association to which he belonged and had brought along a copy to give me, a gift from editor to writer. He talked quite a lot about it.
Dave was a nervous guy who gave you the impression of being constantly preoccupied. He seemed uncomfortable with silence, even with the silence that comes and goes among people who spend long hours together at the beach, and he would rush in to fill it with any sort of chatter. You might be sitting there, quietly regarding the sea, when out of the blue he would utter, apropos of nothing in particular: "Yeah, gee, great!" or "Hm, boy, sure, beautiful." Wendy rolled her eyes whenever he did it.
Wendy was solid where Dave was airy. While Dave's thin, elongated body jutted up into space like a Giacometti figure, Wendy's sturdy torso, her heavy round breasts and wide-curved hips, invited gravity. Curled on the sand on her side, she looked like a Renoir nude.
When we got hungry, we covered our nakedness and went up to the taverna for the delicious food. Inside, we took trays and slid them along the gleaming stainless steel rungs that ran along the cases displaying hot and cold delicacies. When we had loaded them and presented them to the cashier, he wrote out our choices on a small pad and handed us a wood block bearing the number that corresponded to the numbered pad, so that we could eat first and pay later.
Under the thatched roof of the taverna the light came down in long bars that lay across the table and striped the smooth surface of the cement floor. There was an absolute clarity within the space of the terrace, whereas the light in its intensity blurred the contours of the rock and beach beyond. It was cool and peaceful there, empty of people except for a table in the corner where Theodoros and Elena Daktilidi and their friends were having lunch.
When I finished my lunch, I eyed the menu board for one last taste of Agrari. I spied rice pudding and got up to get some. Theodoros, a small, cherubic man with a red face and risible eyes, rose from his table to meet me and be of service. I told him I was after the rice pudding.
Ah, my friend. he said, putting his arm around my shoulders, no rice pudding today. Tomorrow there will be rice pudding. Come back tomorrow.
Tomorrow we leave Mykonos, I told him sadly.
No, he said, tomorrow? Do not go tomorrow. Come back to Agrari tomorrow and there will be rice pudding.
He laughed and clapped me on the back like a good friend. 1 told him that maybe we would be back tomorrow, knowing full well that we would not. We had our Olympic tickets to Crete already in hand and we were bound to go.
By mid-afternoon, Wendy and Dave were in the water again, swimming close to shore. Jenny and I were reading by the windbreak. Along the beach, walking in a slow gait and carrying the brightly colored fabrics whose gold and silver threads glinted in the sun, came the man we'd seen several days before at Elia beach. We signaled him to come over. He did, and laid his goods at our feet.
What he showed us were sarongs, knee-pants, shoulder bags in fine translucent cottons, all accented with the gold and silver, all of an exceptionally high quality—hand-stitched and of surprising strength and delicacy. These were Indian fabrics, he told us in fluent English, bought by him in Bombay and sewn to his designs. There were no finer items on the island.
I tried on a pair of knee-pants of purple, blue, and gold while Jenny slung an opalescent bag over her shoulder. Wendy and Dave, knee-deep in the water, urged us to "go for it."
How much? I asked him.
1500 drachs for the pants, 1000 for the bag.
A discount if we buy both?
He shifted, grinned, and told me these were already very good prices.
I thought for a moment of the prices of similar items we'd seen in the shops in town and his were good prices. Jenny and I looked at one another. He knocked 100 drachs off the sum. We went for it.
We had enough with us for the pants but not the bag. Could we perhaps meet him somewhere in town tonight and make the exchange then?
Sure, why not? he said amiably. Where do you like?
How about the Caprice Bar?
Sure. I was wondering where to begin the night. I will need to go to my flat and shower. Shall we meet at 8:30 then?
8:30 is fine. By the way, I am Kirt and this is my wife, Jenny.
Good. I am Oussaid.
Yes. I'm Syrian, although I have for many years lived in Brussels.
Now that he mentioned it, he did look Middle Eastern. His skin was swarthy, his hair black-brown, his eyes onyx, his nose a toucan's bill, his moustache thick and smooth and glistening. A sarong-wrapped Syrian.
Tonight then, he said as he carefully draped the couture across his arm and turned to go.
Tonight, we called after him.
We stayed late at the beach and caught the last boat back to Plati Yalos. The sea was rough and the spray off the prow chilled us and beaded the lenses of our sunglasses. We sat to starboard and watched in respectful silence the procession of shapes along the rocky coast.
The bus was crowded but pleasant nonetheless. We four were scattered in our seats, which allowed for continued silence. The driver's son made his skinny way along the thronged aisle selling tickets. Above the driver's head, in a small recess in the body of the bus, were placed a tiny statue of a saint and a frond of Easter palm. All the buses had personal shrines of this kind.
At the bus square we exchanged farewells with Wendy and Dave. We would not be seeing them that night. It was a sad parting. Of course we had already handed addresses and phone numbers back and forth, as we had done with Isabel and the Swedes, but there was little comfort in that. There had grown up between Wendy and us, especially, a fondness which made saying goodbye a serious matter. We did it, and turned, and walked away toward the Despotika.
We had just enough time to shower and dress and get to the Caprice by 8:30, although we beat Oussaid there by thirty minutes.
The Caprice was where we had either begun or concluded our evenings on Mykonos. Located at the water's edge just below the windmills, with a view of the Venetian Quarter of the town, the Caprice was an extraordinary place. You had the feeling there of being inside a beautifully appointed cave whose rough-textured walls were whitewashed and trimmed in Aegean blue.
The cave was constructed in four sections: a central, rectangular room dominated by a white bar that ran almost the full length of the rectangle; another rectangular indoor-outdoor room with a partially open roof and blue, glass-paned doors opening on the sea; a small alcove-room with a single horseshoe-shaped banquette that curved around a low marble-topped table; a long but narrow room, also with blue doors opening on the sea.
Illumination in the Caprice was a combination of candlelight and electric light. Bulbs housed in hand-blown, pale-blue, glass shades shaped like inverted tulips depended from white cords suspended from the ceiling. Each round table had its white candle in a blue sconce, except for the marble and mirror-topped one in front of the large crescent-shaped banquette in the central room, which supported a wide bowl filled with oil and floating fifty wicks that sputtered and crackled beneath their blue flames. This banquette was our favorite, heaped high with deep downy pillows of polished cotton of Aegean blue, under a wide window that opened to admit the sea breeze and the sound of waves breaking on the seawall underneath. From this position you watched the sun sink below the briny horizon and the stars come out, and it was here that we waited for Oussaid.
In our opinion, the Caprice was the hippest, least pretentious, most beautiful bar on the island. Unlike the Vengera and the Nectar, which were inhabited at all times by the dyspeptic, punk rich wearing sullen faces, the Caprice attracted an understated crowd whose animated friendliness made you feel welcome.
We saw Oussaid come in and greet innumerable people as he made his way over. He seemed to know everyone. He spoke Greek with Anastasia, one of the bartenders, French with some people he knew from Paris, and English when he joined us by the window.
What are you drinking? he asked, ordering another round and an ouzo for himself. He unslung the opalescent bag and noted with delight the knee-pants I was wearing.
We admired the ivory and silver bracelets he wore on both wrists, which he promptly removed for our closer inspection. Also from India, he explained. In Brussels, during the winter months, I sell jewelry of this kind. My real girlfriend, who will join me here in a couple of weeks, works with me. By selling fabrics on Mykonos during the season, and jewelry in Belgium the rest of the year, I make enough to do what I please. So far, it has been a good life, although I am thinking more and more about work that will provide more security.
Jenny asked him what he had meant by his "real girlfriend."
Oh, he said, smiling, I mean my girlfriend in Brussels. Actually, I am supposed to meet someone I met on the beach the other day. She is coming here tonight—at 9:30 or thereabouts. He looked at his watch. It's almost 9:30 now, he said. He surveyed the room. She's very nice but she's not my real girlfriend. You see what I mean?
Yes, said Jenny. I see. We all laughed.
How do you happen to be living in Brussels? I asked.
Well, he said, Syria is a beautiful country with an ugly government, so I don't live there. I went to the university in Brussels for my Master's degree in Philology and Arabic. I taught Arabic for some time, but then stopped and began my business here, with several trips every year to India and Thailand. Brussels is okay for the moment; a bit conservative, but better than Syria.
I told him I had been to Brussels once, to La Grand Place, where I had had a cup of coffee in one of the cafes that border the big square. Very beautiful, I said, but also very stuffy. Unfriendly.
Yes, he agreed, the people are not warm.
Jenny asked him about Thailand.
Oh my God, Thailand is awful! Hot and wet and terribly nationalistic and suspicious of foreigners. I have stopped going there altogether. It's very difficult to do business there as a foreigner. You can't argue with the Thais about anything or in two minutes a huge crowd will gather around ready to tear your heart out. It's very dangerous and not worth the trouble.
And India? Jenny asked.
India is very nice, he said, very poor, but very nice. I have been once to Sri Lanka, which is beautiful.
He scanned the room again and looked at his watch.
She is late, he said. I hope she will come.
She did come, fifteen minutes later, more than an hour late. She was Maria Elena, "Xica" (She-ka) as she was called by her Portuguese nickname, and she was lovely. And lively. Even sitting still on the banquette, she gave you the impression of constant movement, like bubbles rising in a long-stemmed glass of champagne.
She was with another woman and a man: Betty, who was Brazilian, and Chad, who was from Chicago. They were together, more or less. There seemed to be some trouble between them, though we paid less attention to it than to Xica's narrative, which she launched immediately.
She was attached to the Portuguese Embassy in London, we learned, and in London recently she'd been arrested for drunkenness as she was leaving a pub.
I wasn't drunk! she exclaimed. My God, how could I be drunk after one or two cocktails? They gave me a test, you know, for the breath, and said I was drunk.
Ridiculous! I told them. I wasn't even driving. I was walking on the sidewalk with friends. Isn't it unbelievable?
Yes, we agreed. Unbelievable.
Unbelievable, she repeated. Her look of consternation changed suddenly to one of curiosity as she eyed Jenny's earrings.
What are they made from? she asked.
Silicone, Jenny told her, removing one for her to examine. She turned it over in her hand.
Beautiful! she announced. So unusual. I have never seen anything like it.
Then we admired her jewelry, perhaps twenty gold bangle bracelets on her right wrist, each with a different pattern.
Yes yes yes, she said, I love jewelry. I buy too much, you know? On the American Express Card. And then comes the bill at the end of the month and Oo-la-la, so big! But this is life, no?
Yes, we agreed.
How long do you stay on Mykonos? she asked.
We leave tomorrow, I told her. We've been here eight days and tomorrow we go to Crete.
Ah, Mykonos. Isn't it lovely? Betty and I must go tomorrow also, to London. Is it not sad to think of leaving?
Very sad, I told her.
On Mykonos the people are beautiful, life is beautiful. I do not like ugliness. There must be beautiful people, beautiful places.
She signaled to the waitress for another Piña Colada, a Caprice specialty. It arrived immediately in a tall tulip glass, garnished with cubes of fresh pineapple rising above the lip of the glass on a thin bamboo skewer.
I put my hand lightly on hers and cautioned facetiously against too much alcohol.
Oh, she said with mock seriousness, I am already drunk. And besides, this is not London.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Betty rise abruptly and walk out of the Caprice, leaving Chad on the far end of the banquette with his drink in his hand and a certain amount of chagrin in his eyes. Xica was making some kind of guttural sound, a low growl, and I turned to her for an explanation of the scene.
Oh, God, she has passion for him, Xica whispered. She met this man some days ago and began an affair with him and now she thinks she is in love with him. It is clear he is not in love with her, but she refuses to see it. And so, when he fails to do more than is necessary to keep up the affair, she loses control.
I have spoken with her, but she won't listen to me. Chad is a nice man; he’s not to blame. Betty is being ridiculous, but for Betty this is not unusual, especially when it concerns a man.
Chad said nothing to us. He lit another cigarette and downed his drink. Jenny and Oussaid seemed not to have noticed; they were absorbed in conversation and flirtation of roughly the same order as Xica's and mine.
Xica changed the subject. She explained how difficult life had been for her in the last eighteen months, since the death of her father. They had been very close, and she had been his little girl, very sweet and very dependent. She said she was learning slowly how to do things for herself, to be independent, but it wasn’t easy. She wasn’t married; she didn’t even have a lover in London. She was pretty much alone.
This was a painful narrative for her and clouded her large brown eyes, into which I had been looking steadily in an attempt to communicate my sympathy. Apparently I had succeeded, for suddenly she leaned over and kissed me on the lips and announced passionately that I was a very sweet man, kind and understanding. I smiled at her and glanced over at Jenny and Oussaid, who were regarding us with mild curiosity. Oussaid took this opportunity to suggest that we find a restaurant and have some dinner. It was getting late (almost midnight) and since none of us had eaten, we ought to get going if we hoped to find something open.
Oussaid leaned over to us and asked, sotto voce, what had happened to Betty. Xica quickly explained and Oussaid said he would try to get rid of Chad so that the four of us could have the rest of the evening without him.
We rose to go and Chad, who seemed to be stirring himself out of a stupor, rose with us. Oussaid went up to him and asked about Betty.
I don't know where the hell she is, Chad said loudly. There's something wrong with that woman. She just got up and walked the hell out of here. I don't know where she is.
In a conciliatory tone, Oussaid told him that we were leaving to find some dinner, that it had been nice meeting him and maybe Betty would be back so why not wait for her there. Chad wouldn't be put off, however, and followed us out of the bar, explaining that he was hungry too and didn't care where the hell Betty was or whether she'd show up or not. I grinned at Oussaid as if to say, “nice try.”
Just around the corner from the Caprice was an open-air taverna that was still serving. While waiting to be seated, we noticed Betty sitting alone with her back to us. Xica went over to her and brought her to our table, where she sat next to Chad, polite but stone-faced. At one point she addressed herself to the table: "Forgive me, but I don't feel like talking." We nodded our forgiveness.
Chad had opened a bottle of expensive Santa Loura wine; drinking it made him expansive. He gave us his life story, unsolicited.
A successful architect and a married man with children, his first two wives had divorced him, his kids were off wandering the earth, God knew where, and he had given up architecture. He was in Europe to enjoy himself, which he was damn well doing, and when his money ran out he would call on his friends to help him out. That way, he declared, he would discover who his true friends were.
I judged him to be about fifty years old. He had a broad handsome face, friendly, pale-blue eyes, and sandy, straight hair that he wore long. His jaw was squared and cleft and his teeth were even. He was thickset; his arms came down tan and strong at his sides and his hands were large. His handshake was firm and manly. There was a certain dash to him, of the prep school, yacht club variety, and it wasn't hard to see why Betty had fallen. She was probably not the last woman who would. I wondered what fate awaited him at the end of his quixotic journey.
By the conclusion of our brief meal, Betty had brightened a bit and Chad suggested we all go over to Baboulas, a nightclub that featured bazooki music and Michelle, the exotic dancer.
Baboulas was only a few steps away and crowded, so that we had to make our way to a table as if threading along a precipitous mountain pass. Bazooki music blared out of two behemoth speakers mounted high up on a wall, and cut through the dense, smoky, blue atmosphere of the club with a vengeance. Tables and chairs described a crescent over two-thirds of the large room, a bar over the other third, and a dance floor described a circle in the center. We ordered drinks from a gruff waiter and settled in for the show.
The music was continuous and never dropped a decibel. The dance floor would be empty, and then, out of the crowd at the bar, several Greek men leaped into the spotlight, grasped one another's shoulders with outstretched arms, and performed the traditional dances with great verve and bravura, cigarettes tilting rakishly out of their mouths.
At other moments a solitary man would bound into the circle and improvise a dance to wild clapping and applause.
At one point, during an ensemble performance, Xica dashed out onto the floor and added herself to the line of men and danced with them, albeit a little asynchronously. Still, it took courage for her to do it and we cheered her when she came panting back to the table.
She wanted to buy us drinks, she shouted triumphantly. What would we have? Ouzo, ouzo and soda, whiskey, beer. And for you, Jenny, whose glass is nearly full? Nothing, thanks, said Jenny. But Xica was undaunted. Waiter, she cried, more ice for the lady.
I wanted to know how she and Oussaid had met.
Oh, it was several days ago, at Elia beach. I was lying on my mat and he came along with his fabrics.
She looked at him, then back at me.
He wasn't very interesting at first, she lied, but he became interesting.
Oussaid made a scoffing noise and winked at me.
We saw it all, Jenny said to me. Remember? We wondered what it would be like to meet someone for the first time, both of you completely naked.
I thought back to the day, to the afternoon at Elia just before the accident. I closed my eyes to picture it and opened them to look again at Xica.
Yes, it's coming back to me, I said with mock-drama, a dark-haired woman, very tan, walking into the water and splashing herself to cool off.
Xica squirmed and chided me for remembering so well.
Oh, yes, I do remember, I teased. I certainly do.
She was laughing now, enjoying every bit of it.
The music suddenly dropped in volume and became more sinuous, drawing our attention to the dance floor, where Michelle was beginning her act.
She had thick, cascading blond hair and the body of a true volupté. Chad said she was from Brooklyn, but no matter. She danced as if she'd spent her life in a harem.
She was marvelous, a completely convincing actress. The smile she maintained throughout the performance never petrified; it held its soft promise of delight without strain. She looked at you as she undulated her pelvis and you were convinced she was yours. She made her stomach and belly ripple up and down in wavelets, and arched her pubis delightedly up. She would dip and spin around the room, trailing her translucent veils, tapping her tiny finger cymbals, rolling her hips and buttocks, then approach a man seated on a low stool at the periphery of the dance floor and, inches under his nose, sinuate her pubis. And then she would dance away backwards, restoring the crowd's equilibrium.
There was wild cheering when she was done, and it seemed we'd all been holding our breath for the duration of her performance.
When the noise tapered off, Oussaid asked us if we wanted to go now to a Western-style bar. But we were tired and cheerful and it seemed like a good time to say goodbye.
We wrote out our addresses on cocktail napkins, kissed, hugged, assured one another that we would meet again, perhaps on Mykonos. And then we turned away, Jenny and I, and walked out of Baboulas into the cool Mykonoan night under a firmament of bright stars, moonless, and the sea rocking the town to sleep.
We walked the now familiar maze out of town to the top of the hill, and on the dark steps of the Despotika we turned to look down on the few lights and the bay and the big ships anchored some distance out in the shallow harbor.
And then we said goodnight, silently.
Goodnight, Mykonos. Kali Nixta, Mykonos.