This is how we live now.
I visited the island of Kos yesterday – I meandered down a street I remembered well and saw it in a new light. Locked up, shuttered and lonely – in a way it looked rather apocalyptic. Grey skies and empty streets. It was December and cold, well that’s what the date stamp said on the images stored in Google Map StreetView. I have been reading Jen Barclay’s new book Wild Abandon and imagining the lush bare pathways of remote islands, and wanted to look up some of places she writes about. Afterwards I wandered around Syros and watched the webcam – waving imaginary ‘hello’s’ to people I don’t even know. May brings ‘Protmayia’ celebrated in Greece with flowers to welcome in the summer. Fresh picked petals signal rebirth and promise – with the bloodied frivolity of dancing poppies on the hillsides. Women gather to make circular wreaths for the earth, for the living and the dead. A rounded reminder of what comes to pass.
I have been thinking a lot about what is lost from view now, in our limited sight from windows and short ventures from home. Much of this is what falls on the wayside, what may disappear from view and never return. The news and commentariat blooms with conjecture – ideas about travel post-pandemic world are flooding in; pundits are hailing it the end of cheap travel, the new dawn of aeroplane seating and 2 metre plexi-glass cases around sun loungers. After-the-pandemic is a place we don’t yet know the shape of, not just how we can navigate it, but when it is safe again to do so.
I miss the people watching that comes with travel. Even just the bare bones of it all; mapping out routes, making connections and taking it all in. The ease of discovering as the world kept spinning, offering to be seen in new ways. I worship the idolatry of movement, the luscious fog of anonymity walking through a departure lounge, catwalk to the world, all those people on the way to somewhere. Departing excitedly and arriving back not quite the same person who left. Cheap and infinitely thrilling, a candy floss that melts on your tongue and gone in an instant.
So for a few weeks I have been playing around with some creative non-fiction ideas from notebooks half-written. Mykonos figures highly as a love/hate stopover on the way to somewhere else. People flock there looking for something Greek island pretty and take it any way they want; picture postcard, hedonism of the super-rich, shape-shifting at every turn. It’s a great place to pass through, criss-crossing the crowd of absurd absolutes. It was fun writing this – escapism in the best sense. After all, that’s what travel is all about…
Mykonos: 7 hours in sunlight
‘It ends there. That is it.’ he says to his female travelling companion. He offers the words quickly to mediate her disappointment in case she starts yelling again. She is already annoyed at the crowds, the heat, the too tight shoes she was convinced would be fine for the cobbled streets, and now this. She throws up her hands at the reality of the most photographed spot of Little Venice or Mikri Venetia. Little being the operative word as each person turns and realises it is just a few hundred metres of jostling messy buildings opening out onto the water that give it this name. Barely space to walk side by side as the chairs and tables of cafe’s belting out tinny bossa-nova hem them towards the edge and the turquoise water below. ‘Ain’t nothin’ like Venice and we were just there!’ she hisses and stomps ahead.
The sea throws up a wave that splashes the tourists who soak up Little Venice in all its minutia as they pose. Even at 11am there is talk of money.
It is an interview of sorts – his soft Irish accent unexpectedly clashing against tanned skin set off by night-owl Ray Bans. ‘You know it will be a good summer – look around – it’s May and how busy we are already, you can make good money this year.’ he says to the two females at his table. He holds his hands open in a shoulder shrugging prayer as the girls cluck questions about the hours and how much of the tips they get to keep. The younger girl flicks her hair impatiently, and rattles her foot on the floor and says where she is at now, she keeps everything. He says ‘you know how it is, short summer long money, take it or leave it.’ He laughs and they don’t join in.
The older woman talks quickly and loudly, pausing in between sentences to smoke and tells them both about how she bought a flat in Athens and rents it out on airbnb to make more money in the summer. She is encouraging the younger one egging her on to agree to something. Then she says ‘No-one lives here in the winter after this all closes down’ and she flicks her wrist along the seafront. ‘Ghost town with no one but cats’ the Irish guy jokes. The younger girl listens intently and let’s them chat while she applies eyeliner at the table in a compact mirror. He leaves and wishes them luck and asks them to call him tomorrow. ‘Avrio, Avrio.’ They all repeat and laugh along nodding thanks with bared white teeth – wide glossy smiles as he leaves the money for their coffees on the table. The girls’ smiles fade as he jostles across the street and jumps onto a moped, they sit for a while talking in hushed tones of softly accented English conspiratorially discussing the tempting sunshine of the season. They smoke and finish cups of espresso. One says ‘So what if it’s rented yachts and all you do is smile, because he wants to show off his wealth and stupidity to friends. Sometimes I have to lie to my mother too – Mama, I tell her, it is all good money and glamour here in Greece.’ Slowly she places her hands on the coffee cup and looks at her friend. ‘It won’t be forever.’
This coffee shop could be anywhere in the world. All the talk about ambition and hope, wealth and sights to see. A swarm of high fashion week-ending girls from London take up a long table and order cocktails without blinking at the prices. Mojitos, bloody mary’s, that sickly looking orange wine fizz that seems to be having a moment. They talk loudly about work, fanning their faces with menus chatting about their busy-busy jobs – vaguely hinting at dissatisfaction in the smattering of truth that falls in the cracks between the things they joke about; the bad dates and bosses and missed promotions. The midday sun beats down on them and the waitress fusses with the parasols until she is sent away with, ‘Oh we are fine love, soaking up the sun.’ More tourists file past the tables pushed too close to the sea, causing human traffic jams as they take selfies over the blue sea and white windmills stand redundant behind them.
A pigeon suddenly swoops down to the girls table, diving its beak into the pot of nuts and snacks. The girls shriek and quickly pick up their drinks and phones, laughing as the bird scatters crispy coated peanuts across the table. A passing Chinese man wearing an eponymous Mykonos straw hat bravely intervenes and flaps away the bird with his hands. The girls try to thank him with loud gestures in between goggles and prods at each other gym-honed middles. They don’t share a common language so he just smiles at them goofily, nodding and proud, playing the hero in their cocktail party. He saunters off with his fellow tour group all with matching red lanyards and little tiny keyring bottles of antibacterial gel clipped onto their bumbags. Formed into a pack and suddenly afraid of everything; bumping into strangers, touching hands and cutlery, glasses. Marble streets. Ancient rocks. Each other.
After 10 minutes the pigeon-hero returns to the scene and in wild handed gestures he asks the girls to pose with him. One reticently hides behind her friends and the others smile as he holds up a phone to capture them in a selfie. Imagining him retelling the tale about the girls and the pigeon’s intrusion. He’ll take out his phone to prove it happened, showing friends and relatives his beaming face amongst the outlines of bold and bright holiday clothes and half-smiles of confusion on the young women’s faces. The whiteness of their teeth against the neon pinks of cocktail glasses. How far the girls try to lean away from him and his hum-sweat of excitement. They won’t mention this anecdote on Monday morning in the office or make jokes about it in the whatsapp group. Back at their desks, counting up the likes from the shared photos and planning another escape, a get-away needed to get through another week.
A few streets away a model poses against the white plaster and blue dome of a church. Her tanned skin in the tiniest of lime green bikinis, legs elongated by a wide stance, hands in the air, she moves through a roster of shapes that contort her body. The photographer clicks while an assistant hovers to apply wet gloss on the model’s pouting lips – dabbing the sheen from her nose. Others stop and a crowd forms to watch the statue carved from tanned skin perform small miracles of shapeshifting. Elevating her chin to show white teeth, cheeks sucked in, arching her back to throw her breasts upwards, her toes on almost point, making the curve of her hips expand wider, waist smaller. The photographer snaps and she places her arms on the wall of the white background a canvas of pure snow in building form. A few passers by are snapping their own version of the show to share later; ‘who is she? They mutter.’ The smell of high chemical lacquer and gloss is in the air. Tiny particles of manic luxury wafting towards me, I walk on.
A young woman marches towards the windmills on high cork wedges. Dragging the boyfriend to a predetermined spot where she stands still and makes demands of him. ‘Like this.’ she says. ‘Now I’m ready. Do you have the sea in?’ as she poses, also sucking and pushing her body this way and that, he clicks. They move close together, in reflex he gathers her under his muscled arm to show her. The girl swipes, zooms in with two fingers and dismisses. Again, she demands.
‘Jeez, it’s just so expensive.’ an Australian says to his wife about the taxi fare that took them 10 minutes down the road to a beach club. Line up the euros for table service. Cruise ship passengers segregated into mother tongue guided tours are identified with a national flag. They are taken around the narrow streets where boutiques and tat-shops jostle for attention. They congregate in a wide group at the holy grail of Louis Vitton and snap away, each taking it in turns to pose at the altar doorway of heavenly goods.
Handsome men stand handing out cards for happy hour shots in blinding daylight, their eyes hidden behind sunglasses. A local tour guide is attempting to impart history to a group of distracted students; while he talks a few of them stare at the phones, others take photos and watch passers by. The guide tries again and points to the houses on the street, patiently explaining how the houses can only be painted in four traditional colours; dark green, dark red, light blue or dark blue. He tells them his family lived here in the 1930s before the tourists came; the colours are significant, the dark green for the trees that are no longer here; blood red for the martyrs, blue for the light sky and the darkest blue for the deepest sea. He says that the modern colours used like grey and pink are discouraged, the town needs to stick to its traditions. He is losing a battle in the white light and heat, as the kids’ attention flitters and leans into doorways of shops selling t-shirts that splash slogans ‘Mykonos Champagne and Cocaine‘ and ‘Happiness is expensive‘
At the old port the pelican poses and snaps his beak at no-one in particular, by mid-afternoon the waiter tires of the constant chatter to encourage diners; he craves silence and dark rooms more than tips. Groups crowd waiting for the Taxi Boats to return them to their ship; to safety in prepaid drinks and buffet meals – away from the menus and temptations shoved at them at every turn. Tomorrow they’ll set sail for another island, another country to tick off. But there is tension in the heat as three angry ladies shout in Spanish at two backpackers who have tried to slide into the queue snaking along the port. They poke fingers towards them as the ripening sun makes everyone twisty mouthed and short tempered. No-one understands where the line starts or ends. The two Greeks running the boat try to calm the tension but can’t decide who is right, so they shrug and let the passengers board in any order. The Spanish women shunt themselves forward. Pointy elbowed huffing, their parasols held aloft in protest.
‘it’s actually much smaller than I thought,’ one says and another hisses back to ask why they keep getting lost. He jeers ‘Where are we?’ to his friend looking at a map in his phone that seems to pin-point them in a different direction each time they consult it. The puzzle is lost on them. Tiny fragments of life remain tucked away from the eyes they look through to the screen.
Just out of the jangle of flash boutiques in a quiet lane red geraniums in pots are flowering, overwintered by caring hands when the skies held grey promise and streets hushed empty. Here where no one wanders washing lines are hung with children’s clothes and overalls. Older ladies are sweeping down the dead leaves and petals falling from the bougainvillea. Behind the flaking paint of doorways summer girls and boys count the wads of tips and stuff them in suitcases to take back home for the winter. The landlord raises the rents each year and someone is raking it in – despite the hissing no one seems to be able to say exactly who. There is an absence of ruins in this little town’s footprint – a Louis Vitton sign will be unearthed in the rubble in 300 years time, even then people may only vaguely remember how it all changed. Now in the late afternoon, dark-skinned labourers line up to take shovelfuls out of the cement mixer and lay a new floor in a house that will be reborn and restored. Old ideas emptied out and rebuilt with new. Has any other point in history been so ripe for being rewritten? The plastic debris piles up in the port and a fisherman’s hut goes for E500 a night.
Even the loudest crickets get drowned out by mopeds, quads and the pervasive repetition of generic bass drummed light disco. Each aural experience accompanied by smooth bassy and up-tempo nothingness. A woman elbows her way into being seen – her long bangled arm at the end of a patterned kaftan sleeve is punching and snaking skyward to feign enthusiasm for the anodyne disco-beat. The music becomes a canopy over the whole town which softens the international mingle of languages and currency.
Pale skin has grown red with visible straplines on shoulders and the plastic scent of sun-oil blossoms in the air as children chase each other across the beach and into shallow water. Waves start making a scene, splashing up and over the side on the harbour in the lilac light after sunset. The splashing prompts awkward mid step halting and stumbling over one another to take photos – the wave curls over and kicks foam into the crowd. Click click as another wave rushes over feet to leave puddles pooling on the concrete shelf. People blink with new eyes into their phones and still can’t see to capture it.