Off Season

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When I was seven years old I had a teacher named Mrs Dayan. She made a deep impression on me. She had arched eyebrows like black rainbows, and a very long, pointy nose which was elegant. Her hair was dark, and she had it done like a real lady. It leapt like a fountain out of the top of her head, and cascaded straight down until it ended in little ski-jumps that went out to either side of her shoulders. She wore a green dress—I believe that was the only thing she owned, because all I can remember her in was that dress—and she was quite fancy (but not too fancy for my tastes).

During one of our school vacations I went with my family, probably to look at rhinoceroses (both the white kind and the meaner black ones), in one of the nearby national parks. Mrs Dayan, however, went on a voyage, and when we returned to school she was shiny and smiley and excited to tell us about where she had gone with her husband (who, despite my never having met him, I hated, without having a clue why). They had gone to an island called Santorini, which was the shape of a French bread roll (she said). She kept saying “blue” and she kept saying “white”. Also “volcano”.

My parents were, at that point, planning to abandon their four young children and make a new life for themselves in Europe. I helpfully suggested Santorini as a potential destination; to my amazement, they took my advice, and when they returned (I had apparently misconstrued their original intentions), they too were shiny and smiley, and all of their photographs were blue and white. They also talked about riding a donkey up the cliffs. Forty-seven years later, my mother still talks about the donkey.

Over the years, of course, I’ve heard others speak of this place. I have a friend who, having had some sort of religious epiphany there which led him to mutter “I have faith” to all and sundry (I was one of the sundry), and having become temporarily convinced that he was the reincarnation of—oh who the hell can remember who?—announced that he and his wife were going to move their family from the American rustbelt to said isle on a specific date two years in the future. It never happened. I can’t help wondering if he shouldn’t have followed through.

I mention all this to impress upon you the mystical sway that this remote rocky outcrop in the Aegean has held over me for almost my entire life.

When, a few weeks ago, Duston and I decided somewhat impetuously to take a trip to Greece for ten days in November (yes, November; Old Greece hands: go ahead and shoot me a quizzical look), Santorini seemed a natural. So we secured accommodations from a local fisherman named Panos, who had advertised his cave (“The Fisherman’s Cave” he called it on the online bed-and-breakfast listing service he used on the internet), and given that this was a time of year when apparently all the local residents are somewhere else, he let us have it at a very reasonable rate (during the summer it costs just south of a thousand dollars a day, but in this off season it was one fifth of that. It still seemed a bit steep for a cave, but when in Rome…Greece… Whatever…

Our departure for the island from Athens was not promising. We sat disconsolate and alone in a waiting lounge at the airport, having negotiated a Byzantine maze of gate number signs and an exciting gate change. But we were practically the only people traveling to this place. Why was it so unpopular? When we arrived on the island, it was dark, and we were met by a man with a minibus. He was a computer programmer from Athens and didn’t like Santorini very much. Another bad sign. He deposited us at the top of a cliff, where we were met by an Albanian named Sabe—Sah-beh—who was friendly and warm. And very strong. He picked up our suitcase (red, Kipling, a gift to our then thirteen-year-old daughter which we had systematically reclaimed over many years) and hoisted it on his shoulder. And he led us down through a labyrinth of steep steps, through a village as white as snow that was dusted on the cliff face, until we arrived at the cave. There was an eerie turquoise glow from a small trapezoidal pond in the corner of the terrace; the waters were in perpetual motion. Sabe informed us that this was our hot tub.

We hardly slept that first night. As Duston put it, it was like Christmas eve, anticipating gifts in the morning—we couldn’t wait to see the view. When we rose the following morning, the darkness gradually surrendered the view of the exquisite location to the dawn; it resolved from being a series of misty rumors to the brilliant, crystalline marvel which is so justly celebrated throughout the world. But it was immediately apparent that the residents of this cliffside village had all gone away for this off-season. The place was pristine and white, and overlooked a vast blue ocean (blue and white, again), with some very harsh looking islands in the middle. By the look of things, this was a prosperous place—all the houses had terraces, and many of them had small swimming pools and hot tubs. But almost all of them were shuttered, lending the place a slumbering aspect.

When we threaded our way back up the cliff, via another set of vertiginous steps, in the blazing daylight, we were impressed by the almost deserted village that meandered along the cliff top. Apparently the residents of this place are very wealthy. There were shops selling exotic goods of a dazzling number of recognizable brands. Bulgari and all his pals were there, for example, but many of them were closed, to the consternation of some of the other people who were visiting this place. Most of these admittedly few fellow explorers seemed to be from China. Upon deeper inquiry we ascertained that there had been a hit movie in Beijing a few years ago which culminated in a lavish wedding scene in Santorini, hence its popularity among the ascendent Chinese.

We stopped to pet an emaciated dog. The owner, a well-padded native who actually came from Austria, told us that she’d rescued said dog from the trash a few weeks earlier. She lived on the island most of the time, and said that during the hot months there were daily armadas of cruise ships that docked in the caldera, five, six, sometimes seven at a time, and vomited their vast populations upon the inhospitable shores so that these deserted alleys were rendered impassable and sclerotic. She claimed that on some days as many of thirty thousand people flooded into the town—she muttered the word “hell” more than once.

The cave…well, our fisherman friend Panos knew a thing or two about how to live in a cave. It was simple and stylish, smooth and white and curvy, with beautiful light and a terrace with an umbrella and two deck chairs that overlooked the ocean. The cave is 1,200 years old. I know this because a former guest had left a review on AirBnb (the aforementioned listing service) and she SAID that it was 1,200 years old. Who am I to question her veracity? Panos himself wasn’t there; he was undoubtedly selling his most recent catch in the market in Athens. Despite which, he was readily available via cellphone, and most helpful.

Every morning a slight blonde woman clambered nimbly down through the web of paths and terraces, and laid out a breakfast for us on the little round ice-cream table (Duston’s term) next to the hot tub. Yoghurt and honey and breads. One morning we left the honey open on the table, and before we knew it it had attracted bees. A lot of bees. Enough bees to induce a sense of panic (at least in me — Duston was a bit more composed). We barricaded ourselves indoors as the swarm bombarded the honey on the table (at their peak there were over a hundred of the little brutes). I needed to take decisive action, which constituted donning all of my long-sleeved and legged garments, and filling a big white porcelain bowl with water to hurl at the bees. Which I did—unfortunately, though, I hurled not only the water, but the bowl as well, resulting in a loud shattering crash and a swarm of slightly-more-pissed-off bees. (Digression alert: I have a sad pattern of repeating similar actions under duress. For example, during our Great Pancake Fire of circa 2006, I raced around the kitchen with a kettle full of water ready to hurl it on the flaming Jenn-Aire griddle—always a great idea with an electrical fire—yelling that we needed to “call the fire brigade”. Duston coolly grabbed a fire extinguisher and put out the fire). Dus helpfully suggested that once the bees had eaten all the honey (or collected it, or whatever they do with already existing honey — aren’t they in the honey manufacturing business?), they’d lose interest and fly away.

Which they did. But not until after I’d made a royal fool of myself by emailing Panos in panic in the hope that HE would call the fire brigade, from Athens. He told me that he’d had to get off the road when he received my message…

Some local rustics advertised a service by which they’d take groups of people out on their fishing boat, a catamaran (that, in retrospect, seems a little too snazzy for fishing), during off days. They have a lot of these—the captain announced that this was their 311th consecutive off day taking groups like ours out, and that it was “the last day we’ll be doing this”, so presumably they would return to their fishing ways the following day. The captain was suitably leathery, and spent much of the voyage slicing onions and cucumbers to provide us all with sustenance. There was also lots of beer, wine and ouzo (which is mildly disgusting). There was music, terrible, terrible music, the kind they play in the bathrooms in the advertising agency where I work in lower Manhattan, to convince me and my colleagues that we’re breathlessly cool.

A godly Greek youth poured charcoal into a brazier hanging over the catamaran’s transom. He then held a blowtorch to each nugget to ignite them—I believe this technique was first described in the Odyssey. Having successfully created a mighty blaze, he festooned it with burnt offerings (which were delicious). This fellow, who I have just decided can only have been the captain’s son, had charts of the Aegean tattooed on his arms, and a tousled golden fleece atop his head. He was bronzed and magnificent in a dissolute sort of way, as I imagine any of us would have been on day 311. He reminded me of Jason, from the old Greek myths, who needed to be tied to the mast of his ship because someone resembling Mrs Dayan tried to tempt him to the rocks while singing in a voice like a fire engine racing to an inferno. I think it was Jason. No? I’m a little rusty.

We dined in deserted establishments. Each of them exceeded the previous one in the simplicity and perfection with which they prepared fish. A fish. Some olive oil. A little salt. A lemon. Some oregano. Heaven, pure and simple, every single time. When we went back to sleep off the assyrtiko wine (Santorini was one of very few places in the world not to have been affected by the phylloxera scourge during the mid-1800s that wiped out almost all of the old vines), we were lulled to Morpheus’ realm by the sounds of a construction sight just down the hill from us. How disappointing! How unpleasant! That’s what you’re thinking, right? But no — it wasn’t like that. It resembled what constructions sites have been like for millennia, before the advent of machines. A gang of men driving a team of donkeys up the path each morning, and then the men using shovels to bite into the hillside. They loaded the dirt and stones into a long pipe which fed into a bag at the bottom (they replaced these bags every few minutes), and tied the bags and loaded them onto the donkeys to ferry them down the hill. All day, back-breaking labor for both man and beast. And yet the sound of it wasn’t unpleasant — the crunch of the shovels, the whistling and cajoling of the donkeys… Clearly they were building another 1,200 year old cave for another fisherman.

In the evenings we walrussed about in our hot tub, looking across at the cliffside with the ancient abandoned castle and the ominous wall looming over everything, at the top of the cliff. Towards sunset the wall became populated with vestal virgins, all preparing to make that final sacrifice to the volcano. They were silhouetted spectacularly, with their selfie sticks, uselessly taking flash photos of the famous and spectacular sunsets. Mercifully, darkness descended before they took their final steps towards oblivion (which they managed to take without screaming out loud, which would have been a little unpleasant). Chinese people are very stoic.

There is a spectacular archeological excavation on Santorini. I saw photos of it on the internet—it looks fascinating. There are also winery tours, and other villages. I saw pictures of those too. Too soon, though, we had to leave, and it was at the airport, on the way out, that I had a glimpse of the REAL Santorini, the place of great dread of which so many speak. We were contracted with a fellow named Ryan for our passage. After way too many people had been crammed into an anteroom, we were released one last time into the crisp Aegean air, and then shuffled aboard a slave galley (of the Boeing 737 model); long oars were threaded into each of the portholes—we were promptly chained to these oars, and started rowing like hell to escape back to the fleshpots of Athens...