Agnondas Beach, Skopelos

Excerpt: Anoíxi Means Open

Chapter Four: My Boat Comes into the Harbor

My first arrival in Skopelos, and how I came to stay at Sophia’s house, is an event of such importance that the circumstances are already clouded in mythology, and discussed by the family on occasion. Katerina, Sophia’s niece and Dimitria’s daughter, insists she caught me when she was a child, coming off the boat and brought me home, and she sticks to her story even when I occasionally dispute it. Sophia herself doesn’t even remember the first time I was there. It was one of those two summers her son was away in the army, which is how the room came to be for rent, and I was just one of the paying house guests that she lavished her love on. But I remember it clearly, and all of the details leading up to it.

After my first great summer in Greece I had gone east to India, overland, and in the early spring of the next year, when the ground was still damp and the sky gray and the tavernas had nothing but lentils to serve, I passed back through Greece. Persephone was late that year and people were somber. I didn’t know then when I would get back, but three years later, one winter in California, we had torrential rains, I hurt my leg dancing, broke up with a boyfriend, and my hair began to streak gray at twenty-four. I found myself repeating, over and over to myself like a mantra. “I’m going to Greece, I’m going to Greece,” and then, that summer, I went back again.

Athens seemed essentially the same. Refrigeration was becoming common and many tavernas had new stainless steel counters and coolers. Drinks and tomato salads were served cool, and that seemed fine. I went back to Mykonos, where I had been before, when it was lovely and unspoiled, and it was still lovely to me, though there were more people and more new businesses. Now there were restaurants in Mykonos with linen and candles. That seemed like a pretty thing, and I spent a memorable couple of months there, feeling myself come back to life. But one night, at my favorite club on the island, The Montparnasse, a little piece of living art in the form of an extremely intimate jazz and wine bar where the windows opened out over the ocean, the bartender, a beautiful guitarist, confided in me how much he disliked the changes, which was quite a lot. “It used to be so beautiful and clear, and now it’s just a mush” were his words, meaning all mixed up, and I remember not quite taking it seriously, looking around and feeling the beauty of the island and thinking it amazing that anyone could call it “just a mush.” But of course he was much more attuned to the place and its nuances and he saw the writing on the wall long before I did. In the next few years The Montparnasse would be sold and changed, and Mykonos itself sold and changed, beyond recognition. But I remember that summer, being on the rooftop of my pension, looking out over the harbor in the twilight, sensing eternity, being at peace there.

When I left Mykonos that second summer it was to go to the Sporades, to see Skiathos, and on Mykonos I had made friends with two English women who were on their way there. The three of us decided to travel together and purchased our third-class tickets for what turned out to be the most dramatic ferry ride of my life, much more tumultuous even than the ride back from Crete on my first trip, where Greeks hung over the sides of the boat vomiting and praying to the virgin, and I crawled, along with a group of foreigners, down to the lowest point of the boat where we spent hours lying on our stomachs and moaning. Actually that same boat ride, in the opposite direction, has been chronicled brilliantly by Kazantzakis in the first chapter of Zorba the Greek. It’s a notoriously bad crossing. But this trip from Mykonos, the first step of my then-unknown journey home to Skopelos, was much more extreme. We began the trip by tucking ourselves away in a corner of the deck, and in the first hour of an eight-hour ride it began to rain. Well, we were under an awning, so it wasn’t a problem. The problem began when it started to storm. Rain poured down and the boat rocked as the Greek families paid to upgrade their tickets and go inside. Not us though. The British girls suggested the “it’s a long way to Tipperary” approach, and we started to sing Beatles songs. After a few hours everyone who could afford to pay to upgrade had done so and the officers came around telling the rest of us to go on in, but by this time we were punchy with the silliness of it and decided to stick it out. For a while we were the only ones on deck, giggling and resurrecting every tune we knew while the boat lurched and rolled and water sloshed from side to side across the deck floors, until the officers came out and told us we had to go inside because it wasn’t safe. We took our damp selves into the crowded, cigarette smoke–filled lounge where people’s faces were various shades of white, gray, or green, and had a much more grim time of it, rolling back and forth with the boat, until we came into the harbor that night in Pireaus. Suddenly it was calm, and we saw the lights of the city for a long while before we docked. Once, reading my coffee cup, as she does every summer, Dimitria smiled and said “your boat is in the harbor.” That’s how it felt coming into Pireaus that night.

And that’s how it felt a week later, the first time I came into Skopelos harbor. After a few days in Skiathos, getting surer and surer that I didn’t like the place at all, I got on an afternoon boat. A couple of hours later we rounded the curve of the island and I saw a small scallop of a port, ringed by mulberry trees, the water sparkling in the late afternoon sun, the town built around the harbor into the slopes of a couple small hills, so that the few old-fashioned tavernas in the port were already shaded. Greek radio music was playing and the mood of the place was friendly and relaxed. I was taken with Skopelos at first sight and wondered how two neighboring islands could be so different. Skopelos was fresh, lovely, sparkling, inviting. I walked off the boat luxuriating in the feel of it, sniffing the air, listening to the hum of the place, taking it in and rolling it around my sensory palate like a gorgeous wine. I lolled up to a group of non-Greeks in the nearest cafe, who turned out to be English and to have been there for a while. They loved the place, which they described as just big enough to have some life. At that time the whole island had a population of about 1,000, most of them in Skopelos town, about 200 living in the village of Glossa, about an hour’s drive away on the new road, at the other end of the island, and a few scattered loners in between.

I asked the English people if they knew anyplace to stay, and one of the women, who was very sweet, told me she knew a really nice place, where she had stayed until she ran out of money and had to camp. She had been very sorry to leave because the people were so nice, she told me, and she offered to take me there because it was a little difficult to find.

She led me up a tiny, winding stone path right behind the docks and pointed to a door. I knocked, and Sophia, smiling and lovely, opened the door to her very small house and took me upstairs to a little white cocoon of a room, a single bed and a chest filling it completely, the blue-shuttered windows looking out on the ocean and across to the far side of the harbor. I promptly lay down and fell asleep. Hours later I woke up to Sophia, knocking at my door, bringing me a glass of cold water and a little plate with bite-sized pieces of fresh fruit arranged prettily on it. She was worried because I hadn’t been out for dinner. If I had only known that this was the first step towards years of sitting at her table and being yelled at to eat, who knows what my response might have been, but it was my fate. I ate the fruit and since then, if not even before, a part of me belongs to that world.