Wednesday, May 9, 2012

a soft, golden light

The German lady on Kea had told me about one of those very tiny islands reachable only by a once-a-week mail boat, where the only foreigners might be from a passing yacht and I would have the whole place to myself.  So of course I went.

There was no pier and we came ashore in the small boat that rowed out to pick up the few returning islanders and their impedimenta and, I suppose, the mail, though I would later get the impression from islanders I spoke with that they were content neither to send nor receive any.

We disembarked in the surf and I walked to the only obvious commercial establishment in sight, a small whitewashed structure with a very small porch shaded with palm thatch and adequate to a single table and a few plank chairs, all of them well worn and obviously of local manufacture.  I greeted the fellow in charge and told him how happy I was to be on his island, and asked where I might find the hotel.  His answer seemed friendly, but non-committal.  I assumed it was a language problem.

He asked if I would like a glass of water, which I said I would.  He reached for bottled water, but, not wishing to appear a finicky tourist, I indicated that tap water would be just fine.  Sensing that he needed to do something before I hurt myself, he poured a glass of tap water and held it up to the light, revealing an Amazonian swamp of tiny wriggling creatures, and these only the ones large enough to be visible to the naked eye.  I indicated that bottled water would be just fine.

By this time the table began filling up with local men, whom I realized were fishermen just back from the day’s work, who brought their own fish for our host to cook.  I do not know if he charged for this or took his compensation from the beer and wine they drank with the meal.

In any event, it was a fishermen’s meal, with the few non-fisher locals who wandered in left to sit on the low wall around the porch, talking with the fishermen and occasionally given a bite of their meal.  Seeing that I was a visitor, I was invited to join them at table and share their meal, for which I gratefully bought wine for the table.

The thing that struck me about the meal  --  and I suppose it may have had to do with living on a small island  --  was how respectful they were of each other.  Whenever one spoke he was never interrupted, but always heard out, even if the continuation of the conversation suggested that what he had said had not been thought all that cogent.  (My knowledge of Greek, always pitiful, was even worse at that point, but it is surprising how much of the sense of a conversation you can follow by knowing just a few words and picking up context and watching how people react.)

My contribution to the conversation  --  beyond the usual introductory details of where I was from and where I was going, and how tasty the fish was  --  consisted of mentioning, whenever there was a lapse in the conversation, that I needed a room for the night.  I had by this time figured out that there was no hotel on the island.  My remarks would be met with expressions of understanding and concern, but nothing I could detect in the way of doing anything about it.  Then, as evening shadows lengthened, the men began to take their leave and disappear down the unlit lanes of the little village, which on the map is called Chora, which means simply “village”.

While it was not my preferred option, I had by this time decided that I could sleep under one of the overturned boats on the beach.  While it might not be that comfortable, I could certainly get by until the next mail boat came.  But fortunately it did not come to that.

One of the last men to leave motioned me to follow him down a narrow lane and, after several disorienting turns, through a little door into a house and there into a back room piled with boxes and in the corner a low cot and then, with the usual heartiness with which they conducted all business, he left, closing the door behind him and leaving me in darkness.  As evening had been falling I had noticed the soft warm glow of oil lamps around the village.  It now occurred to me that this was because the tiny island had no electricity.

But I was a resourceful traveler and of course carried a small flashlight, though its narrow beam did not give my quarters quite the homey warmth I was hoping for.  But I had saved a broken shoe lace and used it as a wick in a saucer with a little olive oil that I found in the room for a make-shift oil lamp, whose soft glow lit the bare cement walls of my room with a romantic golden light, which was one of those pure, child-like pleasures I find in travel.


  1. Another wonderfully told story and I'm left wanting more!

    1. Sage: I always wonder how these simple stories will be received. It was the case, though, that so often when I traveled I found myself in the innocent joy of a sinner suddenly arrived in a state of grace.

  2. What a great story - was this recently? I love stories of this kind, that reflect the hospitality of these lovely people.
    I am off to Kea in the island near Kea?

    All the best,


    1. Bex: My Greek stories are all some years back. Inspired by the old travel writers, I traveled anachronistically at the time, and now find myself even more dated.

      The island is in the Cyclades. I don’t mention the name of small places that have no tourist facilities, just as I usually don’t give the real name of people I talked to, as much from a sense of respecting their privacy as anything else. As if it might be trading on their hospitality.

      But you must go see the Great Kitty of Kea.