This little island is chilly this time of year. Even though the sun is bright and high and clear, the marble is cold and the breezes from the sea slice through you with damp clarity. I sleep under rough wool blankets, my space heater located as close to my bed as the cord will reach. When I awake, it is always just on the edge of day – the sky is glowing but not yet light. The tiles are icy, and I slip into shoes before my eyes are fully open. From far off, I can hear the bells at the monastery calling. The closer bells at the large church won’t ring until seven, and never the same tune twice. There are swallows twittering under the eaves and I can hear a radio humming tinny Greek from several doors down. Greeks rise early, go to bed late.
I am out of the house and into the cold morning air without tea or breakfast – the computer lounge is silent at this time of day, and I can talk privately on the phone or do my yoga DVDs without interruption. I’d like to say this doesn’t take long, but it is always bright morning a couple of hours later before I run back home to shower and dress before class. A Greek shower is an acrobatic event, and I have to plan for it in my schedule. The water is boiling hot from the tank, almost a relief after the chill of first waking, and it is while my hair is drying on my shoulders that I make my first cup of mountain tea (tsai to vonou). Breakfast is pretty invariable – thick Greek yogurt with Cretan honey, or sometimes sour cherry jam. So I guess it does vary. But not by much.
The winds race through the close alleyways on the island, and push me along to class, or to the greengrocer, or sometimes out to the seafront where I watch the fishing boats casting their nets on the edge of the bay. The winds smell of salt and incense from the tiny churches that comprise half the buildings on the island. Sometimes I find one of these churches open, and I go in and leave a coin and light a candle. It seems I have always had a reason to light a candle, at Notre Dame, at Westminster, at numerous duomos all over Italy. At some of these churches, you are asked to blow the candles out before leaving, for safety’s sake (though Jeffrey theorizes it’s to save on candlewax). The interiors are dimly lit and the candles flicker on the gold leaf tracing all the stacked, haphazard icons that line the walls. The churches are always freshly whitewashed and clean swept.
Back out into the day, and it is too sunny to stay inside, so I take the Mamiya and look at the world through ground glass for an hour or two, shooting all my film in the first twenty minutes, but loathe to give up the hazy, indistinct colorations of the dreamy island. Finally I make my way into my painting studio, set the camera down, and spend a few hours washing canvases with burnt sienna and adding some shape to the lady I started painting last term. She’s muddy, and lacks cohesion, but has a certain graceful bearing and besides my assignments are too wet to paint now anyway, so I have to have something to play with.
I leave the studio with a primed canvas, lay it into the sun to dry, and head to the bakery for a milopita. I speak Greek; the cashier responds in English. When else would we get to practice? The paper bag is hot and the shops are closed for siesta, and I can hear snippets of conversation clattering across the plateias. I ruminate on language – “voriste” seems to mean “what do you want?” as well as “what’s happening?”, as I hear little old ladies saying it to each other in the mornings. I wonder why they dress in black all the time, but as I dress in black all the time I imagine it is for the same reason – to give your eyes something to rest on when they begin to tire from all the blinding white.
I take my apple pie and a borrowed book from Jane and I sit in the sun and read, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird which has been recommended to me so many times that I’ve lost count. It grabs me immediately, as I guessed it would, and I am totally engrossed when Badger the cat finds me and cuddles up next to me, purring in the sun. Badger is a Greek cat, so he speaks Greek, but he knows the tourists are easy marks for souvlaki bits, so like most Greeks he speaks English too. And like most Greeks, he has no sense of Americans’ need for personal space, and can be pretty aggressive, and absolutely charming. The two of us are sprawled out for an hour before I realize I’m sunburnt from the reflection of the Mediterranean sun on the whitewash, so I head to my apartment and lean my face against the cold tiles and make a quick lunch of spinach salad with sliced apples and kephalotiri, a dried sheep’s cheese similar to pecorino. Leftover wine and olive oil make a good dressing, and when it isn’t quite enough, I also add some leftover revithia on top. Sharp, tangy olives, earthy spinach, sweet and crisp apples, and olive oil unlike anything you’ve ever tasted. That’s my post-siesta meal, and from the scents wafting up through the courtyard, I can tell that my neighbors are enjoying fried potatoes and something garlicky and sweet. I have never eaten a meal with them, but I already know they are marvelous cooks and should open a restaurant – I find myself scavenging through my kitchen at odd times of day, only to realize that I think I’m hungry because I can smell my neighbor’s cooking.
I don’t know what will happen when the restaurant downstairs opens.