“During the early 1980s, my first years in Greece, I would seek out rooms on remote corners of islands, on or near the sea, stone houses with wells instead of running water, shepherds’ huts with candles and oil lamps instead of electric lights, fishing villages with locals instead of tourists. Living and working in Athens, I hungered for such escapes, simple abodes in barren landscapes, primitive, pristine and quiet, where I could strip my spirit down to bare essentials—and write.”—Don Schofield
By Don Schofield
THESSALONIKI Greece—(Weekly Hubris)—February 2019—During the early 1980s, my first years in Greece, I would seek out rooms on remote corners of islands, on or near the sea, stone houses with wells instead of running water, shepherds’ huts with candles and oil lamps instead of electric lights, fishing villages with locals instead of tourists. Living and working in Athens, I hungered for such escapes, simple abodes in barren landscapes, primitive, pristine and quiet, where I could strip my spirit down to bare essentials—and write.
At first, wanting to see as much of Greece as I could, I’d go to a different island every summer or two, and would find the kind of sanctuary I was looking for fairly easily. After a few years, though, as tourism expanded and development became more pervasive, finding such places became harder and harder so, at some point, I began revisiting those earlier abodes, hoping to reexperience the enchantment I once felt there. A huge mistake.
The first place I returned to was the seaside village of Anaxos on Mytilene, where I had stayed in 81 and 82. When I first went there, it had one dirt road, one phone in the one dry goods store, a lush valley of summer gardens and orchards stretching down to a long, deserted beach. The only structure on the beach was a little fish-taverna tucked beneath some palm trees. Ten years later, the dirt road had been widened and completely paved over; it now ran down to and along the sea. Rows of shops and restaurants lined the busy road on either side. Instead of groves of pears and lemons, gardens with tomatoes and melons, dirt paths with goats and chickens, the valley was a glut of tourist hotels, pensions, and summer villas, one up against the other, some with swimming pools. Bars and clubs and at least a dozen tavernas abutted the road along the sea. The beach itself, barely visible beyond the mass of parked cars and bronzed pedestrians, had become a disheartening array of beach-beds and gaudy umbrellas—all good for the local economy but a nightmare for those of us who need nature, quiet, and solitude.
My landlord, Gavril, from whom I had rented a small room just above the old dusty road, was a building contractor. A decade later, he proudly gave me a tour of all the shops and bars and hotels he’d had a hand in building. “Isn’t it beautiful?” he’d say in front of each one, and each time I’d grit my teeth, smile back and say, “Yes, Gavril, you’ve done a lot of work here.”
By the middle of the 1990s, I’d experienced that same disenchantment several times over, returning to once-remote, now overrun, overbuilt corners of Samos, Syros, Ithaca and elsewhere—so often that, when Georgios, the landlord of the last and most idyllic sanctuary I’d found in Greece, told me, with excitement and pride in his voice, that in the fall they’ll be putting in a road, it broke my heart. I swore, right then and there, that however much I loved that cove, I would never return. And for 23 years I didn’t. I couldn’t.
Let me introduce you to the bay that had so enchanted me, that place I felt certain back then I was losing . . . .
Gulls swoop down from shadowed
mountains as you walk
for water. Waves lap at boats not yet
in light. Stones
sparkle on the beach. Morning
stretches to noon,
till nothing is hidden. Cliffs, dark and wet,
rise from the sea, pocked, scaled with salt.
Clumps of earth where nettles root.
Higher up, the walls begin, stones
piled and wedged, terrace upon terrace, every
few rocks an upright
five-feet high. Where the terraces end—
boulders, thorny scrub, cicadas
trilling in one tall cypress.
At dusk everything recedes. Shadows
stretch over rocky slopes,
walls the plated-spine of a snake
coursing through yellow stubble, fodder
for skinny-legged, floppy-eared, golden-eyed
goats. One in the lane, udders full,
paws at a fig beyond her reach.
Night, in the crease between hills,
where the underground spring bubbles to the surface,
where lemons grow, cucumbers, tomatoes, melons—a pond
with bullfrogs bellowing. Ticks and fleas around the eyes
of a mule no one bothers to name. Small white houses
with uncut spikes on their roofs, rusty feelers
glowing in the moon. No one’s here.
Hills, stones, paths—all sleep to the breathing
sea. A place, just a place:
no meaning, no wisdom, no secret loves
or unrevealed purpose. You
I found that cove two years earlier, during Easter break. Once again, I had set off from Athens to seek a remote place to stay for the summer. This time it was the Cycladic island of Kythnos. As usual, I tootled around on a rented motor scooter, querying shopkeepers and passersby in the island’s two main villages, as well as in various seaside settlements. Somebody told me about somebody else, who told me about a house that somebody else had, “though maybe he isn’t renting it this year”; others warned me not to rent from those people on that side of the island—no matter which side of the island I was on. Eventually, I wound up in Georgios’ Datsun pick-up on my way to a house on the eastern side of the island, a place he called the “Cyclops House.”
We parked above a small bay, then walked 40 minutes or so along the water to the third cove over. The house he showed me, almost apologetically, was wedged into the far edge of the bay, a somewhat rickety structure of stucco over stone and brick, built on an outcrop of rock rising up out of the sea. The rock, in fact, was one wall of the house. It was exactly what I was looking for—a simple dwelling with a well instead of running water, candles and oil lamps instead of electric lights, a settlement with locals instead of tourists.
The kitchen had hooks drilled into the rock to hang utensils, curtains draped over wooden shelves for cupboards, no fridge (I kept things cool by hanging them in the well), a propane stove, a big marble sink and a long counter for cutting up all the veggies and fruit I’d be eating that coming summer. To the left of the kitchen was an open space, not quite a living room, lit from two sides by traditional, deep-silled, timber-framed windows. There was a divan in one corner, a taverna chair and table in the other (what would become my desk, indoors and out). Off a small hall to the right there was a surprisingly big bedroom, again with two deep-silled windows.
The most surprising feature of all, and to me one of the most memorable, was the ceiling, made of woven bamboo (under concrete), supported by rafters made of old telephone poles (Georgios worked for the phone company), rough-hewn logs painted deep blue. The other feature I came to love was the big veranda, twice as wide as the house, leaning toward the sea. The beach was five steps below my porch-gate, the closest neighbor a football field away. All the other residents lived in small houses clustered on the other side of the bay. Perfect.
In the three whole summers and two Easters I wound up staying there, I came to love sitting on that veranda, looking up now and then from my taverna table to study the sea and capture in words the many mesmerizing shifts and swells on the water’s surface and feel the deeper currents in its shimmering depths. At night, I would lie on my straw mat, gazing up at the constellations and planets and passing planes, all so bright I could almost reach up and pluck them right out of the sky. If this was indeed Polyphemos’ house, he was one lucky Cyclops, though in the loneliness, quiet and solitude of “his” space, I imagined a different sort of life for him….
Polyphemos on His Veranda
My cave is whitewashed of course, blue logs
fish drying on the sill. All of it
leans toward the sea
that glitters a million gold eyes tonight. My eye
grazes like a goat on Orion, the Bear, the jeweled belt
of the Huntress, the flight
from Cairo to Paris. Twin hearts—one loves, one yearns
to devour—I’m the beast
best forgotten. I remember that braggart Nobody,
his comrades’ voices like chirring cicadas. I should’ve
wiped away some goat turds
for them to sit, should’ve shared my best wine. But, oh,
his mates were tasty
as lamb on a stick. Thought he’d blinded me, but this eye’s
resilient, can spot the Huntress at the far end
of the cove
collecting what shines. Crones say her temple sank
to the bottom of the bay
and it’s true: sometimes the sea holds like a swirling
pane of glass. From my porch I can see
clumps of algae
on toppled columns, a sandal poking from silt, terracota
votives still legible,
the broken pedestal of the oracle
now a nest of octopi staring back at me. Currents
wash over those columns
like the Meltemi scrapes this cove,
pulls another brick
from my wall. I watch it sink to the bottom of the bay,
as if my heart—the one that loves—
wants some current to lift it
smooth and gleaming, set it gently on the sand
among nets, broken oars,
scattered ash and bone, for her to find.
During the summers I stayed in the Cyclops House, the locals treated me with kindness and curiosity but kept their distance. The men were busy fishing, looking after their animals, orchards and fields; the women tending their vegetable gardens, feeding their chickens and gathering eggs, milking goats and making cheese. It was summer, so the pace of life was slow. They all seemed to keep watch over the ksenos (stranger) on the other side of the bay. And in turn, when I made the hourlong hike up to Dryopida, the nearest village, once a week or so, I’d always bring back enough fresh bread for several others.
From My Neighbor’s Brush
. . . Whose child am I
here in a country of strangers? Stavros
brings goatmilk every morning, Kyria Maria
eggs, and another I don’t know,
when the moon is low and the wind has stopped, leaves squid
on my steps. The man who rows his boat
and helps his maimed wife step out
has a life more solid than mine. A hundred years ago, he says,
fewer houses and not so many boats,
but the stone walls and gardens were here, that row
of lemon trees, more threshing floors and more
rimathes, songs from Homer
and before: their words have changed
but not the music and not our stories
of a lost home.
Locals had to pass just below my house in order visit the nearby chapel, Aghios Eleimonas, perched on an islet a few minutes’ walk away, accessible by a narrow, cement footbridge. If they saw me sitting on my veranda, my neighbors would wave and ask me how I am, then keep on walking up the path. One day, six men carrying bags of quicklime and long-handled brushes called out greetings as they passed. The chapel’s feast day was approaching, and, even though there was a strong wind, they were going to paint the chapel and the area around it, spruce it all up for the festival the following day. Knowing that my neighbor had a long-handled brush hanging in a corner of his shed, I quickly ran and borrowed it and then chased after the men, hoping they’d let me help.
From My Neighbor’s Brush
Climbing this rock
I carry my neighbor’s brush
with long stiff bristles—
emblem of my presence on this island, desire
to help, to be with the locals whitewashing their chapel—
loose head rattling on its handle tall
as a man, pocked and gouged, with so many
layers of white nothing could get them off,
or tall as a lanky boy
eager for a pat on the back,
job well done . . . .
Seven brushes. Seven buckets. Six locals
mixing well water with quicklime,
laughing as they estimate
the monthly pay they’d get for this
if paid at all. A glass of wine
for the seventh, bearded foreigner
they set to work on the outside wall of the porch.
I dip my brush, swirl it around, swing it
up to the top of the wall, wind driving
beads of whitewash into my mouth and hair,
cries of a lamb from the village below
into my ear. I stroke each spot
several times and several times
stir the grains of earth, loose stems, winged
creatures drowned in white….
Where the stucco ends,
bricks in rows, globs of mortar.
I paint these too, till my bucket is empty,
then climb to the porch, face and beard
splotched white, a prophet come in from the wilderness,
ready to fling this brush, this almost
perfect image of the soul, down at my neighbors’ feet,
speak my message from the divine.
Yet I have no vision of the world to come
or its end . . . .
And even if I rattled off
each precise step to salvation,
they couldn’t understand my language,
maybe a word or two.
. . . Here where the sea has brought me, my flesh shines
in the incessant meltemi. I watch the crumbling
cliffs below and feel the despair
always there, watch the waves and feel love
come and go. Heaven, earth or underworld—
not much difference here. I drop the bucket
into the pigi—spring or source,
the word’s the same—lift this brush
and drift toward home.
This last summer, 23 years after I was last on Kythnos, I finally got the courage to return. During the two-hour ferry ride from the mainland, images of noisy bars and discos kept crowding my head, garish umbrellas and rows of jet skis cluttering up the beach on my lost cove. High-rise hotels with swimming pools where fields of barley and drystone walls once were, dapa-doupa music drowning out the sound of lapping waves. Half the mountain blasted away where the Cyclops House once stood, and, in its place, kitschy bungalows or a massive condominium.
Still hesitant to see that dystopian possibility, my companion and I decided to stay on a different part of the island. Finally, after several days of procrastinating, we drove to Naoussa. The first positive sign was that the road (not so new by now) didn’t go all the way down to the beach, but ended at a parking lot well above the sea. True, next to the parking lot there were two large bungalows with several tourist units but, as we walked down toward the water, to my delight, most of the houses on the other side of the cove were still there, just as they had been in my time.
Descending the steps carved into the rock that divided the cove into two (a detail I had completely forgotten), I could see that the beach was just as I remembered it—a wide swath of coarse sand, with a few bathers lying on their towels and straw mats spread out under the scattered tamarisks. The small house that belonged to my closest neighbor was still there, as was the drystone wall that protected the well. And, in the rock at the far edge of the cove . . . the Cyclops House! . . . not exactly as it was but, still, the same basic structure, with the same character.
Once down on the beach, I could see that the other side of the cove had more houses than before, with a road running above the newer ones higher up. But on “my” side of the cove, little had changed. We walked across the sand, laid out our straw mat and sat there for a long while. Clearly, the Cyclops House had been done over. There was a solid fence of wood and stone below it, and the veranda had ample shade from a sturdy straw awning. The dwelling itself had been expanded on both sides, with relatively fresh paint on the walls and shutters. But it still was a simple, pristine island house. Though I calmly pointed out these details to my companion, inside, my heart was leaping with joy.
Seeing some movement on the veranda, I boldly walked up to the gate, introduced myself, and asked if I could talk to them for a few minutes. An older couple, sitting at a table (much bigger than any I had ever had), invited me to come up to the veranda and have coffee and ice cream with them. The current owners of the house, as it turned out, they bought the property from Georgios the summer I stopped coming to the island. Like me, they loved the house so, over time had renovated it to make it comfortable for themselves and their two children. They were kind enough to let me take a look inside.
The blue rafters were gone, and the rock face was no longer the far wall. Of course, the house now had electricity and running water, as well as two additional bedrooms, one added to the left side of the structure and one as a loft above the rear of the original. (They had cut away some of the rock to extend the kitchen and make room for that loft and a bathroom.) But the wide windows with timber frames were still there. All the accouterments were traditional—plain embroidered curtains on the windows, wooden shutters, coarse pine cupboards in the kitchen. It was still the Cyclops House. It still felt that way.
My companion and I wound up going back to Naoussa several times during our three weeks on the island. I didn’t visit the new owners a second time, but we enjoyed the beach and the sea below the Cyclops House, much as I had those many years before. And we went to other coves and bays nearby, the ones I had got to know so well two decades earlier. Some also remained little changed. A few, alas, had given themselves over to tourism.
It turns out that the people of Kythnos, by and large, appreciate simplicity and tradition, just as I do. Though locals welcome (and need) tourism, they still enjoy lives outside of that industry, and pride themselves on keeping much of their island as it has always been. Of course, there are places with jet skis and bars, eyesore hotels and late-night carousers. The main village, Hora, for example, which once didn’t even let visitors rent rooms there, has now completely transformed its main streets into a bustling haven for vacationers. But most of the landscape remains bedecked with stepped slopes and drystone walls, its open spaces mainly used for grazing goats and sheep and growing barley.
As for me, I know I’ll probably never again find on Kythnos the solitude and quiet I experienced there in the mid-90s; never descend in my imagination to the bottom of that bay; never carry a rattling brush and share wine with my neighbors whitewashing their chapel or find squid one of them has left on my doorstep; never feel my spirit stripped so completely bare by the intense presence of landscape, sea, and sky that I, myself, have become an absence. Nevertheless, instead of being overwhelmed by disenchantment, as had happened so many times before, in returning to Kythnos I experienced, for the very first time, what some might call “re-enchantment.” Now I can’t wait to go back.
Author’s Note: “Cove,” Polyphemos on His Veranda” and “My Neighbor’s Brush” appear in Approximately Paradise (University Press of Florida, 2002). All photos by the author.
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