Whispers From the Other Side of the World
Under slightly more than half a moon, the curve of a bay and a silhouette of rooflines emerge though blue-black-blue darkness. Silence is thick. Only a few stars remain visible with moonset still an hour away. The cool of night’s transition into morning feels heavy on my skin like a veil of fog, though there is none. But the arrival of the sun will transform the island.
“Whatever you do,” Pam told me, “don’t miss Delos.”
Athens, Thessaloniki, Mykonos—the first stops of my three-week Mediterranean job. I’m flattered to have been invited on board the luxury ship as one of the special interest lecturers—even if it had rather more to do with my availability plus their need to fill the slate and somewhat less about any reputation I enjoy as a theatre-and-opera expert from my last seven years in the field grafted onto a lifelong passion for the stage, and oh by the way, I’m a dynamite public speaker, so they’re getting a bargain.
But not the first two days. Quasi-comatose from a seven-thousand-mile flight with three layovers, my recollection of meeting the staff was fuzzy. I did remember chatting with the destination lecturer, who’ll be trying to culture-up the passengers about history and archaeology, though apparently they only want the inside scoop on the latest bargain-hunting spots. We traded lists of lecture topics when she recognized me from my author photo, so we got off to a great start. She stopped me in the corridor. “Whatever you do,” Pam said, “don’t miss Delos.”
So I’m going. Shrugging off remnants of jet lag and determined to get the earliest possible start on the day’s excursion, I glance back at the ship, ghost-like, silent as a monolith in its berth, hope I’m heading in the right direction.
With no pre-dawn sky show, the darkness vanishes so I can see my footing on an uneven path that follows the water’s edge from the pier. Nothing gentle about sunrise here: the explosive white-gold light and warmth pour over the eastern heights down to the sea, down to the capital the locals call Chora, and the Americans on the cruise ship call Mykonos Town.
Ferry service to the smaller island of Delos doesn’t start until eight, so I have time to look around. Now with the sun up, the Mediterranean light is softer than I’d expected. It will turn, though, hour by hour, and become sharper, brittle, blinding and unforgiving, but in the early-morning now, the sun bestows a postcard kiss on Mykonos, undeniably picturesque.
I hear Eleanor Rigby in my head, finally seeing what it might mean, a face that he “keeps in a jar by the door.”
The tiny village of white-white buildings with blue or green or red painted woodwork reminds me of some Baja California coastal communities, and the little bay snuggles into the curved embrace of what might be called downtown. Small boats in colors like tubes of paint— Cerulean Blue, Phthalo Green, Cadmium Red Medium— wait at their moorings, oars stowed, on the perfectly flat, turquoise-perfect water.
At this hour, the smell of fish found only at a harbor’s edge perfumes the clean-fresh morning, and not uncomfortably. Scrabbling along the pebbled beach, here’s a dog, long-legged and scruffy-wet, happily chewing on a tin can. Sitting next to his hanging scale and waiting for customers to finish selecting their morning produce, there’s a sea-weathered man under a beret, his age impossible to guess. I hear Eleanor Rigby in my head, finally seeing what it might mean, a face that he “keeps in a jar by the door.”
Tangles of twisting streets, some that go nowhere, make up the town map. Pam clued me in about the medieval-vintage streets, designed to confuse pirates and invaders who, century after century, coveted this gem of a harbor. No street names, no house numbers, the cobbled streets are only the width of both arms outstretched, and not one runs in a straight line for more than ten feet at a time. Though cheerful red and white octagonal signs occasionally dot the intersections, their purpose is clearly decorative, since they are consistently ignored.
Town and shopping
Nearer the water, tourist shops line up to offer souvenirs both commonplace and ultra-upscale. I’d left my AmEx card on the ship, by design. Good move. Midday restaurant prices started at €18 for entrées and lobster ended up around €50. Lower-priced selections were on the printed menu, but amazingly enough, “unavailable today.” Today of course, being any day a cruise ship is docked. Later in the afternoon, I’d find it impossible to order a lemonade or a soft drink without also ordering a meal—the waiter would just stand there, aloof in his shirtsleeves, until I did. Long live the touriste industry.
For those visitors to whom le shopping is a competetive sport, Mykonos Town was the place to be.
Two or three vendors were opening early, for postcards and tees, mostly. One woman’s tiny kiosk displayed long ruffled skirts and painted scarves hanging from rods. With my primary objective of the day being another nap, I had no intention of engaging in any activity much more demanding than a quick visit to Delos—and that mostly to acknowledge Pam’s enthusiasm: “Someone like you will love it, promise”—so I had little interest in shopping. Still, the scarves were lovely. Good morning in Greek was what, again? “Kalimera?” I tried. I got a warm smile back and a gesture toward her wares. Mildly tempted, I thought I’d stop by on my way back; but by then it wouldn’t matter.
For those visitors to whom le shopping is a competitive sport, Mykonos Town was the place to be, Mykonos being renowned across Europe for… well, for its nightlife and minimal-clothing beaches, but also for its goldsmiths. I window-shopped a bit and saw some very nice work, but suspected the truly spectacular designs would be available by appointment a couple steps off the main tourist path and at equally spectacular prices. Pam, who’s been here before, said if I were of a mind to drop a hundred thousand or two, I could do it in less than an hour and without half trying.
Photographing iconic structures
Laughing to myself, since I wasn’t in that frame of mind, I walked south to get a look at the rounded-edge, crumble-walled church that serves as the poster child for Greece, bright white against a sky so intensely blue there is no word for its saturated color. Shining in the morning light, the scene is somehow Taos-esque, and with no one around so early, I can’t resist photographing it, despite a hundred clichéd photo-ops. Working to move beyond that, working in black and white, as usual: composition, line, negative space, hmm, something else? harmony, contrast maybe… why can I never remember that Sondheim lyric from the opening of Sunday in the Park with George? Earlier, I used the other camera, loaded with color, to shoot the harbor. Got the produce man, too, pretending to focus on the bright boats beyond him. I’m enjoying the way the church is working for me now. I’ll remember to look it up later, learn its history.
I know it’s one of 365 churches on an island of seventeen square miles. When I heard that, I couldn’t figure out how it was possible. Now I get it. Most of them are garage-sized or smaller, with an ikon, a pair of candles, and a hundred square feet of floor space. Think personal chapels. But a free-standing place of worship, and each devoted to the power of the Greek Orthodox capital-c-Church, supplanting the ancestral Olympian gods and goddesses.
Back down the little hill—past those postcard-ready, quintessentially Greek windmills with the sea on one side, the town and its comma-shaped harbor on the other—here’s another compact church at the water’s edge, seemingly growing out of a concrete jetty. The attendant sits on a straight-backed wooden chair by the door, her feet together, the embroidered hem of her worn black cotton dress just reaching the swept pavement. The wool scarf covering her head is quality, though; black, of course, finely woven and neatly tied under her chin.
I step inside. Even smaller than I’d thought and quite dark until the woman, quiet on her feet and barely five feet tall, lights a candle. My childhood training kicks in and, rewinding past all the adult years of devout agnosticism, under the ikon’s silent glare, I start to genuflect, then catch myself, certain I’d be inviting lightning down from the cloudless sky and forever be personally responsible for the destruction of this shrine. I put a couple dollars in the offering box—of course there’s one—murmur a thank you, ephkaristó, and move on.
My childhood training kicks in and, rewinding past all the adult years of devout agnosticism, under the ikon’s silent glare, I start to genuflect.
Harborside, three or four men looking bored enough to be more native than tourist, sit at scattered open-air café tables doing exactly nothing more than drinking a coffee. One more energetic than the others reads a newspaper. No one speaks. They all look unconcerned. There’s a message here, I’m sure, for a Type-A overachiever day-tripping on their island.
Musing on cameras
I keep walking. I will try to relax but right now, who has time to sit around? Shifting my camera bag to the other shoulder, the one I can never keep it on, I’m feeling distinctly old-fashioned with my film-eating SLRs and bayonet lenses. I often glance enviously at others’ pocket-sized computers-with-a-lens, taking up minimal space and less weight, while I lug my gear. But megapixels are not film, and while useful, just not the same. Would I go digital if I won the Lotto? In the proverbial heartbeat. But in addition to, not instead of, maintaining my affinity for the film, liking how it gives me greater exposure latitude, flexibility, expressivity, and… what can I say? It speaks to me. I listen.
Meandering back through the charming streets, I find it’s not possible to get lost. Nothing’s far from the water, so if I should lose my way (and I do), I just turn another direction, any direction, and keep walking. The aroma of simmering tomatoes and scallops buffets me from every open doorway. Sleepy cats pay little mind. Wooden balustrades on tiny second-story balconies overflow with bougainvillea, twisting and tumbling like floral waterfalls in hues of lavender, pale fuchsia, and white, rather than the crimson I see at home. Golf-cart-size delivery trucks block the way. Motor scooters. Diesel fumes. Cigarette smoke, the local Karelias reeking like Gauloises. A little charm goes a long way.
Ferry to Delos
But my focus today is Delos. The ancient site, subject of ongoing architectural digs, is a treat, since “looking at piles of old rocks” (as I overheard one passenger say) is an activity I rate pretty highly. The sacred birthplace of Artemis and Apollo lies at the center of ringed islands, a couple kilometers away. A fast ferry ride from the Mykonos dock, and we’re deposited smoothly on the shore of another world.
A world-heritage site, says the guidebook. Delos is your basic island-sized open-air exhibit. The ferry passengers head, dutifully and en masse, for its actual museum, the one with a roof. So I go the opposite direction and wander through the ruins—who needs a map? We’ll see how long I can combat the elements. I suspect my big hat, sunscreen 45, and water bottle, emptied an hour ago, aren’t going to be near enough.
Sun-seared piles of rocks they may be, but the two main agora segments, in reasonably good shape, can be identified. Now strewn with bits and chunks of capitals and fluted columns, of course, but I can see what the gathering place might have been. Tantalizing mosaic fragments underfoot hint of brighter colors, once. Patiently and then more patiently, I wait on one knee for between-tourist groups to shoot—pretzeled over to get the camera at sandal level—and am rewarded with an absence of shorts and t-shirt slogans in my shots. I’m in search of what this feels like and what it felt like, not what it looks like now with the others intruding here.
Soaking up the ambience
It takes an hour on the island to realize what’s nagging at me: there’s hardly any sound. No engines, electric whine, alarms, chatter. Sea birds, but faintly. Footsteps, far away. When I face the sea, I can imagine myself alone in my exile, listening to the eternal waves where earth, water, sky and light convene to hold their primal rites. These restless waves are the same ones that carried ancient Greek boats here to celebrate the solstice. If I’m standing on the same shore as others once did, is what I hear what they heard? Am I intruding?
It takes an hour on the island to realize what’s nagging at me: there’s hardly any sound. No engines, electric whine, alarms, chatter.
Though it’s still morning, it’s officially hot—climbing fast, the unblinking sun claims all energy and moisture for its own. The ground reflects heat back up through rocks and shoes. But that wash of sunlight reveals more clearly the subtle shades and tones in the bleached white-ivory columns and the partially eroded capitals, all under the impressive, impassive gaze of the marble lions of Delos, arranged in a long line, standing guard. Watching me.
Toward the other end of the site now, I’ve forgotten my plan to put in a token appearance and return to the ship with its spa and swimming pools and swarms of waiters.Now, searching for the famous residential mosaics, I encounter other creatures: duets and trios of placid-faced brown-black sheep, a few lean cats and geckoes, geckoes everywhere.They are the only living beings granted full-time residency on the island.
Lost and found
Two and a half millennia ago, the human inhabitants neglected to clearly mark the streets, so I get lost in the ruins. But that’s how I find the glory of the day, the amphitheatre set halfway up a hill looking out over the water.
I missed the easy path—of course. No map. No one else nearby. Without knowing where I was or where I’m going, I work my way up a steep slope through scrubby vegetation and vines that snatch at my hands with their sharp thorns. My oversized cotton shirt, which I thought a good choice in this climate, adheres to sweat-shiny arms and neck. Concentrating on keeping my balance by finding handholds in the tumbles of rocks, I’m not really seeing the terrain so when I crest the hill, out of breath, scraping up shins and knees on whatever’s concealed by tufts of browned grasses, it takes a moment before I realize these stones are… arranged. A line of benches. The upper row of seating. When it finally hits me—when I see what I’m looking at—I start to hyperventilate. My heart racing even faster than my mind, all I can manage to pant is ohgodohgodohmygod.
Spread out below me is a smallish ring, and it’s better than any diagram in a history book. The reality goes so far beyond my far-flung imagination that the only word I can think of is magical. All that’s left of the skene, the scene-building, is a few foundation stones to show position, but the floor is intact. Some patron seats in the front row, identifiable by their carved armrests, remain frozen from the final performance. A few rows of marble benches built into the sloping hill are perfectly preserved, the rest crumbled; together, they would have accommodated another several hundred…
… an audience.
When I can breathe again, I slip and scramble my way down through the remnants of still, silent witnesses. Awed by the connections to shadows and voices from twenty-five centuries ago so palpably present with me, I, too, step out onto the circular floor. Slowly, gratefully, I take center stage with them. Reveling in the fiery midday spotlight, turning and sweeping our eyes across the audience from one edge of the theatre all the way around to the other, we gesture confidently. In unison. I am lost, seduced by my desire to take part in the ritual. A moment’s hesitation, for this next seems a holy act, but one I cannot resist—no performer ever had a better cue.
Breathing in, we dare to speak, and a shadowed echo of our voices is given back to me. My pulse still racing, my brain can’t come up with dialogue from any Greek tragedy, but I recite Neruda: “My love / If you have died / All the leaves will fall on my breast / It will rain on my soul night and day.” Then, because it feels right, “What a piece of work is a man” from Hamlet, followed by a reading of the ship’s itinerary which is taped to the inside of my bag. Most of the lyrics from West Side Story and The Fantastiks, the opening paragraph from A Tale of Two Cities, some Browning, that Ferlinghetti poem I like so much, and with my voice fading to a ghostly rasp, the short, breathless lines of Emily Dickinson, too.
Breathing in, we dare to speak, and a shadowed echo of our voices is given back to me.
Forever bound now to the theatre gods and muses, I offer up a wink and a kind of prayer, believing they might enjoy this sacred-and-profane intertwining, their ancient stage put to its proper use.
After a long while of quiet, I become conscious, once more, of the light. The quality has changed only slightly while I’ve been locked in the past, motionless as marble, and the relentless sun has delivered a punishing headache. My left side is asleep all the way to my ankle, yet I’m reluctant to try to move, for the silence rings and booms and echoes, rich with voices overlapping from generations and generations of those connected to me.
Reaching for my cameras, I know the barren landscape offers too few shadows for contrast, for visual balance and harmony, for the mood I long to show in the glory of this theatre, silent again. I’ve returned to the 21st century. I know the images I make today will illuminate nothing more than the where and when. They’ll show I was present; they’ll reveal nothing at all of the everything I felt—I have been far too close to turn the heart-stopping moments into a tangible memento.
October 2002, still one of the indelible memories in my life.