Greece: A Memoir; Part 3: Athens and the Islands (1976)

(This is an excerpt of a memoir-in-progress of my life in Greece.)

In Athens I found a cheap hostel in the Plaka, a cluster of old buildings and narrow streets at the foot of the Acropolis.  I shared a hot, stuffy, cramped room with several other travelers, but nobody seemed to mind much.  It was just an interim stop; everyone was on their way somewhere else:  some up over the hills to Delphi, some down south through Corinth to the Peloponnese, and some to Piraeus and thence to the islands.

That’s where I wanted to go too:  to the islands.  I had heard a lot about the beauty of the Greek islands, about the gentle, sweet, hospitable people and the clean beaches and clear water, but also about the parties and nude beaches.  I figured a trip to Greece would be incomplete without giving them a try.  Besides, I was still enthralled by Henry Miller, and he had spoken highly of the islands in “The Colossus of Maroussi”.

Meanwhile there was Athens to explore, or at least the part that could be reached on foot.

The Acropolis was accessible, of course, and so I dutifully took a walk up the hill to have a look at the Parthenon.  To be honest, I rarely bothered with the sights on my travels, though there were often famous monuments and statues and museums and buildings all around.  I wasn’t there on a sightseeing trip; that wasn’t my motivation at all.  I was there to gather experience as a writer, to learn whatever life on the road could teach me.  But I had some time to kill so I hiked up the hill in the blistering heat and sauntered around.  The sun shining off the bare white stones was almost blinding.  The Acropolis is impressive, there’s no doubt about it; I just wasn’t much into it at the time.

Later I roamed the streets of the Plaka looking for a meal.  Restaurants were everywhere, but I was traveling on a very low budget, and so I would study the menus (Greek on one side, English on the other) propped outside each restaurant looking for the most economical fare.  Sometimes hawkers would come out and try to persuade me to enter, but then I would shy away; they obviously mistook me for a tourist of means.

Finally, having chosen the restaurant that seemed most affordable, I would sit down, often with other travelers who had gone through a similar analysis of the culinary possibilities and had settled on the same place.  We would each order our food and sit together and laugh and talk and drink cheap retsina wine with its unique taste of pine sap, and the restaurant owners would decide we were old friends and present us with one bill, as was their custom.  It would drive them nuts as we’d calculate what exactly each of us had ordered and how much it cost; it was the Greek custom for friends to fight over the bill, to each insist on paying it, and they couldn’t figure out what they considered our selfishness and pettiness.  But none of us could afford that kind of magnanimity; we were all on shoestring budgets.

My usual evening meal, after I had thoroughly scrutinized the possibilities through several meals and restaurants, was yemista.  It was cheap because it contained little meat, though there was some; but it was a good filling plate of food, with large hollow tomatoes and peppers stuffed with rice and ground meat and smothered in olive oil.  If the main course didn’t fill me up I stuffed myself with the free fresh bread served at every table.

One evening I went out to drink ouzo with some acquaintances from the hostel.  I had been told that ouzo had quite a kick, but it crept up on you.  It was fine and mellow as long as you were sitting and sipping it but hit you when you tried to get up.  That, in a nutshell, is what happened.  Ouzo has a sweet licorice taste; it’s clear by itself but when you mix it with water it turns milky.  Anyway, we sat there together chatting and downing God knows how many drinks, and then finally, when I tried to stand and leave, I felt as if I’d just been punched by a prize-fighter and slumped back down into the chair.  I did eventually, with much staggering and weaving, manage to find my way back to the hostel, but it wasn’t easy.

In traveler’s hostels there were always guidebooks around to peruse, so I researched the various islands to decide where I might like to go.  In the end, the main factor in my decision was finances.  The fare to the islands farther away was too expensive.  I settled for a one-ticket three-island tour that included Milos, Safos, and Serifos.  So, on down to Piraeus, the port from which all boats departed; it was teeming with humanity in holiday garb, and with trucks, tour buses, vans, cars, motorcycles, and bicycles.  I booked deck passage, of course, which meant I could sit or sleep in any of the public areas in which I could find space.  It was peak season and the boat was packed out with both foreign tourists and Greeks on summer holiday.  There was barely room to stand, let alone sit or lie down, and if you wanted to go from one place to another you had to weave your way around backpacks and bundles and suitcases and kids and dogs and meals laid out on the decks and benches and crowds of people drinking beer or retsina and continually bursting out with raucous laughter.  Crowded as it was, it was a merry scene, and as the boat was dropping people off in several locations along the way, none of the islands enroute got too much of a mob on its own.

I exited on Milos with several other economy travelers.  The cute petite little village was before us and the clean sandy beach spread out in an arc just off the pier.  I had been told, I don’t recall by whom, that it was safe to leave one’s belongings about around a Greek island village, that the villagers had a reputation for honesty and no one would think of touching what was not theirs.  In the spirit of the location I walked along the shore until I found a nice place under a tree at which to camp, dropped my bag there, and headed back into town to see what I could see.  In retrospect it was an idiotic thing to do; even if it were true that I could trust every villager on the island, who said the same principle would hold true for the many tourists, who came from many different countries and cultures, the majority of whom were also economy travelers?  Be that as it may, nobody touched my bag and I had a great time on the island.  It was like a brief idyllic interlude in an otherwise constant struggle for survival on the road.  In the afternoon a village gentleman brought his net down to the sea, cast it into the clear water, and brought it out full of wriggling little fish.  He then started a small campfire on the shore, deep-fried the fish in olive oil, and gave the fried fish out for free to whoever gathered around.  He also produced some fresh bread to go along with them.  I had never been confronted with such generosity but he made it seem the most natural thing in the world.  The other villagers as well were polite and friendly and eager to please, not at all jaded by the multitudes of visitors, many of whom must have been much less courteous themselves.  The village was just like one you might see in a picture postcard, full of primary colors, especially white; the sand on the beach was soft and invited bare feet, and the water of the sea was clear and clean and warm and full of fish.

I stayed on Milos for one or two nights and then moved on to Safos, of which I remember nothing.  I suppose it was similar to Milos; I don’t know.  But the next island, Serifos, had something distinctive about it.  When I arrived at the village, which as I remember had a clean attractive conventional beach nearby, I heard of a nude beach on the other side of the hill behind the town.  That was interesting enough to warrant a visit, but the hill turned out to be higher than it appeared at first sight; it was a weary, muscle-aching, thirst-inducing climb over bare gray rock, and the aforementioned beach was in a rock basin that the sun had baked blistering hot.  The nudists were there, all right, but seemed pretentious and self-conscious, and – worst of all, at least from a male perspective – there were more men than women.  Some women were there, including extremely attractive ones, but it wasn’t worth it to me to endure the sight of all those pendulous pricks for the occasional glimpse of feminine comeliness.  The nude area was on the left as I came down the hill, and over to the right was another area of people clad in bikinis and bathing suits, and thence I forayed to take my swim.  So much for pseudo-radical pseudo-freedom.

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