“I felt once more how simple and frugal a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. Nothing else.”
If you’ve never taken a ferry to a Greek island, I strongly suggest you do so at least once in your life. When the trip is several hours long, and the boat is big, you’ll likely get to doze off on a comfy seat. If you’re lucky, you’ll also get to go out on deck and feel the salty, sunny Aegean air on your cheeks. The promise of a relaxing two-week vacation lies ahead of you, and so does the excitement of discovering an island you’ve never been to.
What else could you ever ask for?
At some point, the boat starts to slow down. The crew announces the name of your island on the speakers and asks all passengers who have reached their destination to gather in the belly of the boat, in between parked cars and RVs. Right there, as the boat gently rocks to a stop, is one of my favorite moments of the holiday. Weird, right? I guess I like how everyone fumbles for whatever support they can find in the dark, and looks ahead towards the closed ferry door. Everyone waits. Then, the door creaks open, like the mouth of a slow whale, and there you see it — the island. At first, you can’t really see much more than a bunch of cars and hotel receptionists waving signs with names on them; but anyway, that’s your first glimpse of it. The island. Your eyes feast on it — small white Cycladic houses, straw roofs over patios where Greek men sip their freddo cappuccino and watch the tourists disembark. Steep streets heading into the wilderness of the hills. Fishermen’s boats moored in the distance. But most of all, the blinding, white, therapeutic sun.
That’s usually how it goes, anyway.
When the ferry door revealed Milos to our eyes, we didn’t quite get the usual Greek summer treatment. The sky was grey, the sea was rough, and the wind blew — except that it wasn’t the old, desert-dry, warm meltemi. A proper storm was brewing. I remember looking at the streets of Adamas, the port city, and feeling underwhelmed, even a tad concerned. Being the mainstream tourist that I am, I had rarely seen clouds over a Greek island. By the time it started raining, I was in dismay.
Maybe Greece in mid-June hadn’t been such a good idea after all.
But the next day some god smiled upon us from Mount Olympus, and our love story with Milos began. We took a stroll through the countryside towards Medusa, a tavern we’d read good things about. Apparently, they cooked the best octopus on the whole island, and the nearby village of Mandrakia was one of the most renowned fishermen villages in Milos. As we got lots of suspicious looks from the goats we passed along the way, we started to notice how pretty the Greek countryside looks in the spring — all green and pink and red from plants that the meltemi hasn’t dried up yet. And once we got to Mandrakia, we realized how unique Milos is. Never had we seen a village like that, with what looked like a row of colorful garage doors opening right on the water. I just loved that you could walk straight down to one of those moors and jump right into the sea. All those colors, and the water so clear you could actually see the shadow of the boats on the seabed, was a sight that made me happy.
Throughout the Cyclades, there’s a certain uniformity to place names. The main settlement of an island is always named Chora, usually a fortified citadel perched over a hill. The highest peak on the island is always called Profitis Ilias (Prophet Elias). While I’m not much of a hiker, so I can’t say much about the Profitis Ilias, I do love to explore each island’s Chora. Most of them are similar to each other, same cobbled streets, same bougainvilleas projecting much-welcome shade over a cafe’s wooden tables. But the Chora in Milos is especially charming. Granted, I’m sure I wouldn’t have fallen in love with it, or not so much, had I been there at the peak of tourist season. But visiting the island in June means sharing those cobbled streets with just a handful of tourists, whose faces start to become familiar after a couple of days. On day three, you may even feel like whispering a “yassou” to them. I still remember the sheer silence when looking down from the churchyard and onto the countryside and the sea. Not a noise to be heard, apart from crickets. And I still remember the old lady who sold me a necklace made out of “moonstones” from Sarakiniko. She smiled, and on the paper bag, she drew a picture of a windmill, a sun, and two seagulls.
Milos is one of the very few places on Earth that made me question my decision not to own a house. Sometimes I get nostalgic for something I’ve never had — a house that I chose, a place to call home and to take care of as my own. A house that’s forever, and because it’s forever, it is a soothing influence on the mind. A sort of pillar, an even-if-the-world-falls-apart-I’ll-still-have-my-house sort of certainty. A place to work from, a place to always come back to. If I close my eyes, I can see myself having a house in Chora, overlooking the countryside. A quad ride away from the most charming beaches in the Aegean, and from the little village of Pollonia, where the boat to Kimolos leaves every half hour.
Orbiting around Milos like a moon around its planet, Kimolos feels like a treasure chest that you get to open only if you’re willing to step away from the beaten path. A scrap of land of roughly 30 square kilometers, its north-western part is always beaten by strong winds and waves. Life in Kimolos happens in the Chora, of course, and along the coastal road running from its south-western point all the way up to the north-east. Twice a day, you’ll see a little van brave the slopes and turns of this solitary, harsh road. It’s Manolis’s van, and it’s the only bus on the island. Manolis, a middle-aged man with leathery skin and no intention whatsoever to speak to tourists, makes sure he’s at the harbor every time the boat from Milos is scheduled to arrive; then, he embarks on his journey along the coast, and back.
Along this coastal road lie some of the best beaches I’ve seen in Greece. I won’t deny that part of the charm is given by how hard it is to reach them; if you don’t have a car, you’ve got to wait for Manolis, or you’ve got to walk. No other choice. But once you’re there, the reward is sweet. Prassa is a piece of Caribbean beauty hidden behind kilometers of unwelcoming shrubs. Kalamitsi is a small little jewel beach with a tavern serving exquisite seafood and icy cold beer. I remember burying my fingers in the golden sand and thinking that life doesn’t get much sweeter.
Life on a Greek island holds a sort of quaint simplicity. I find that the Cyclades possess the occult power to remind me how surprisingly attainable it is to feel good about life. When your horizon is an uninterrupted blue line, and the land you walk on is a speck of dust on the map, happiness has the sound of waves and the taste of that heavenly roasted octopus the old man in Milos served us with a smile. It’s about feeling good, right there, right then, no strings or complications attached, no layers of interpretation, no schemes, no ambition, no dissatisfaction, no who am I, where am I going. No WiFi, unless you’re willing to spend time holding your phone up close to the only router in the hotel, just to get crappy signal anyway. I remember reading a quote by the prophet of simplicity and Greek life, Nikos Katzantzakis. He once wrote that Greek countryside is like good prose, and I feel that applies to life on the Cyclades, too. It is carefully ordered, austere, and free from any kind of ornament. It expresses what it needs to say with the greatest economy. Yet, the austerity always manages to crack open, and let a spark of poetry shine through the smell of lemons, and the vastness of the sea.
As I sit on my couch one December morning, and as I look back to our time in Milos and Kimolos, I realize I feel homesick, even though I don’t own that house I sometimes dream about. I guess this year the world did come scarily close to falling apart, and, thousands of kilometers away from Milos and Kimolos, I’m left raising an imaginary glass of rako mello to the memories I’ve made there.