Dimitris on Santorini – last Greek blog

Up at 6:30 to head out for the airport with the morning commuters to catch our plane for Thira.  I had been here a couple of years ago as a teaching-guest of George Kousaleos, but then it was thronged with people; now it is dead, dead, dead – many of the stores closed and shuttered, hard to find lunch (but what we did find was good – our first gyros).  The views from the village atop the caldera are just stupendous and ever-changing as we traverse the little alleyway paths on this windswept January day.  Cat’s paws claw along the bay below, which is devoid of cruise boats, whereas when we were here before there were always several steaming in and out of the passages at the open end of the island’s C-shape.

Sunset from our hotel room

A maze of paths up the cliff

Amazing rockwork in a patio

How many churches can one island support? It's the sailors made good who build them.

After lunch we read our way into a nap, which lasts in Misty’s case until 8 pm, while I quietly read the copy of the Iliad she had picked up. Letting her sleep is an uncharacteristic act for me – it has taken three marriages for me to achieve this allowing.  In my first, the timing was all mine, and it was all hurry.  In my second, to Misty’s mum, in my 30’s, came the struggle to admit of another’s time; she won, but the marriage lost.  Now, in my third, with me in my 60’s and Misty in her 20’s, I can allow another’s timing to take over my own.

I am glad I did, as she had an important dream – hers to relate if she wants to – which we discussed while cracking the pistachios we picked up yesterday on Poros. We went out for a drink about ten, to a bar with assorted lost locals with bare midriffs revealing tramp stamps (those ubiquitous lower back tribal tattoos).  Techno music (techno? 2011?) blaring made it hard to understand each other, at least with my dimming ears, so after one drink we plunged back into the cold night, with the stars blaring silently above.

It is hard to credit just how shut up this place is – the German girl we met on the roof terrace is the only other guest in our whole hotel, and feels like the only other tourist on the island.  She speaks perfect English, having worked in rural Georgia for a couple of years, but now she is an engineer in mainland China.  We meet her again in our way out to the bar, and find out she has been called back to China suddenly on a work problem.  She feels relieved – it is so cold and dead here; Misty and I have each other as company, but I wouldn’t want to be here alone.

A tree growing out of a wall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beware of Dog - but it's a little poodle!

 

 

 

"Underbite" - our attached dog

Mostly we are meeting animals – Else has brought a street dog up with her from the bar. Only a few cats will come for cuddles or even food; they are alley cats, mostly, and skitter to shelter when a human comes near. Dogs, when I lived in Greek countryside in the 80’s, had a hard life.  They were not pets, but simply guarded the house or the goats, barking incessantly when anything showed up, but mostly fending for themselves.  Now, they seem to have a better life.

This dog abandons Else for us, and follows us back down the hill to the bar, waits for us patiently circled up on the sidewalk, and then follows us back up again.  He has the most amazing underbite; he looks like a canine Churchill.  He seems cheerful and well-fed, if a bit scruffy.  As we say goodbye at the hotel door, she has a very hard time leaving him to the cold night, rubbing his belly until he sneezes.

I am so glad to see Misty naturally has the compassion it took me so long and so many failed relationships to win.  Her boyfriend has it too, so it is not just a guy thing to be hard-ass, though whether you are a classic feminist or a difference feminist, we men are bred to battle, and cannot afford not to steel our hearts somewhat.  In my case, I way overdid it.  In Julian’s case, I wonder how his compassion will survive the rigours of military training.

On every trip, I forget something.  This time it was razors, which was easily remedied when we fpund a store (although: what’s Greek for ‘razor’?), but the unforgivable was to buy new shoes before setting out. I have three Bandaids on each heel, but they still throb with every step.  I am old enough to know better, but I was not going to come to Greece with running shoes like every other American.  Now I am wearing my reef runners everywhere (looking just like the American I am), still hurting in my heels, and with no support for running around these rocky climes.

Going morning shopping in a foreign land is an unsung joy.  In America, this might involve a store huger than you’ve ever seen (that still doesn’t have decent bread), with a bewildering variety of ways to make your clothes smell like a perfume factory rather than your clothes when they come out of the wash.  Or maybe a greasy spoon with bad coffee and white toast and eggs over easy.  In France or Italy, this involves finding a cafe with hand-shaking coffee and a fresh pastry.  In Germany, you might get perfect fruit from a surly vendor, while in the Arabian countries, you must pick among the carts of fruit to find the edible, and hopefully peelable (a banana or an orange comes in it’s own container, automatically germ-free).

This morning it runs to local cheese, some decent salami, and then follow the smell to the bakery for bread hot from the oven and a couple of fresh squares of spanikopeta – cheese and spinach baked in layers of fine and buttery filo – irresistible even though hard to carry in a backpack.  Thus armed, Misty and I took off along the ridge of the caldera, around the island in a large arc, perhaps 8 miles, to the little town of Oia (ee’-ya) at the northern end of the island.  The path wound up and down, with cobbled cement to cinders to loose gravel underfoot, as we moved along the layers of black pumice and red lava, alternating cliff views of the calderic bay on one side with the windswept Aegean with whitecaps furrowing off to other mountainous islands on the other.

Path in the red pumice

At the first hilltop church, we stopped for a snack, and Misty chatted musically with a French woman walking her dog, while I listened and mostly understood, but am tongue-tied in front of my daughter’s proficiency.

 

 

 

 

My daughter and Oia - proud much?

Finally we had a largely sunny day.  Though the air started cold, by the time we had climbed our third hill to the tiny church at the top (there’s always a church at the top, but often unmanned and locked, as this one was), we were sweaty with effort, and pulled off our shoes and socks and enjoyed the 360 degree view while we ate our simple lunch washed down with fresh little satsumas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From here it was an easy downhill run into Oia, a melange of the Cycladean architecture jumbled together with paths, and more Orthodox churches than would seem possible in such a small town – maybe a thousand people left in the wintertime.  In the summer, when I was here before, it was choked with cars and buses, and these little pedestrian pathways were so solid with tourists that moving through them was a slow, gelatinous, and polyglot process.

The villages cling to the cliff

But now our unimpeded footsteps echoed from the close walls and closed doors of an off-season tourist town.  While we had taken the walk on its own terms, planning sunset in Oia and a taxi-ride home in the dark with maybe a stop at the taverna where I had traded songs with an old Greek sailor, I had an unspoken agenda of seeking out Dimitris, an iconoclastic icon painter from whom Quan and I had bought a few lithographs that now have pride of place in our home.

Everyone's Santorini postcard

But if Phira was shut up tight, Oia was even more deserted – we saw four or five other tourists brandishing cameras (one cannot resist, it is so picturesque) on our way through town – so I had little hope.  Surely he would be seeking inspiration in the churches of Russia or the plains of Africa. Though he started poor and lives simply, his work has enjoyed such success that he cannot by now be other than a wealthy man, but you’d never know it.

Though Oia is a maze, I was pretty sure I could find his place again. As we approached my best guess, we heard gentle jazz emanating from below, so we ducked our heads and entered the gentle world of this atheistic but most spiritual painter – the kind of contradictory determination that is the essence of the Greek character.

Dimitris is a Gorgon with a severe mien capable of turning tourists to stone at the door and sending them away, but I paid no attention.  Once we were in, he recognised me, a smile lit his face, and soon we were seated on makeshift chairs, drinking a Greek coffee he brewed over a piece of alcohol-soaked cotton set alight upon a stone.

First, his atelier: a small tunnel of an off-white room, maybe 10′ x 20′, with paintings lined up against the walls.  The majority, and the most arresting at first, are the angels painted on old wooden doors studded with bolts.  Michael, Gabriel, George, and assorted angels of abundance stare gently and sadly out at you, with the traditional halo and iconography associated with each of these heavenly archetypes. Over the ceiling are pinned or taped bits of drawings he has done over the years, portraits of family members, renditions of bits of the Sistine or something, all covered with the matte patina of his paint dust and the curling smoke of his Karelis cigarette ever in the ashtray.

An old glass-fronted bookcase contains large art books of icons and other world art, but it serves more as a table than a resource nowadays, judging by the dust. At the end of the tunnel is one small window, and under this window his huge easel, a rumbling and rickety affair on wheels, so that he can change the angle as the earth spins his window under the sun.  Beside the easel is a long stick with a boffin of cloth tied over the end, which he grasps with his left hand to steady the right for the delicate tracery required in the icons he paints.  Besides the large and heavy doors, he works on canvas, but a lot on paper, the multiple brushes laid out on a table that also holds the ashtray and the rock for making coffee.

Now to the man: tall and thin to the point of being gaunt, Dimitris’ hair is a nicotine-softened white and hangs down to the pockets of his shirt.  Take away this dramatic hair and he is not a handsome man, kind of goofy-looking with an overbite and pocked skin, but the overall effect transcends any element – here is an artist, one so dedicated that his steady hand moves on through the winter, even when the throngs are gone, perhaps the more so because of it.

His delight to welcome real guests is immediate and genuine, “Let me make you a coffee” and out comes the stone, the wodge of cotton, and the blue alcohol flame. His 28-yr-old son, Apollon, lanky also but as handsome and cheerful as Dimitris is plain and taciturn, has just started apprenticing with him a few days before, and they are still working out the intricacies of their new relationship. “He is my boss now,” complains Dimitris, kindly, “Any other employee, I would have no trouble telling them to go out for water or to wash these brushes, but with him…”. Apollon is married with a little daughter, and lives in Megalohori (big village) near his wife’s family.  So it goes, he shrugs, the children move away.

We spend about an hour there in companionable conversation, ranging over his art and technique, how to emboss the gold or silver leaf that forms the basis of some of the icons, Bush vs Obama, the current Greek economic crisis, the history of the island.  He plays his Cretan lute, and I play his old and nicely toned six-string.  He likes The Glory of Love and writes down the chords. We like his Kelly Joe Phelps album and write it down to pick up when we are back in connected-land.

All sunsets look the same

But where you're standing doesn't

Misty and I walk down to the end of Oia for the famous sunset, which does not disappoint.  When I was here before, you crowded into whatever spot you could find; this time there are maybe ten tourists dotting the pathways on the end of the island. The moon hangs it’s crescent over the dying sun, turning on it’s brightness as sun as the shadow of the earth obscures the sun.

There is nothing for it but to go to dinner.  As he speaks to his wife Athena, I sense the care, almost fear, he has for her.  We close up his shop – such as it is, nothing much gets locked around her in the winter – and ride down with her to their house on the wide apron of farmland that is Santorini on the side away from the volcano.  Athena, half-German, half-Greek (but more Greek by far in spirit), has raised their three children, and is a Quan-like figure in opposing the Codex Alimentarius and basing so much on instinct.  We all get along like a house afire, and the food – who bothers ordering? They just bring whatever’s best.

After a long meal, we take our leave and walk to the hotel – and I am satisfied to have taken Misty in the oikos, the household of Greece.  There is much to see and hear and taste, but the feeling of the heart inside the Greek people – we needed an experience like this to really feel it.

Aside from the incredibly noisy group of kids from Athens who arrive just as we are going to sleep, our hotel has been a boon, and we welcome sleep when the kids calm down.

ArcheoThira

The chapel and cave in the cliff

The last day, we take a taxi to Archeothira, e ancient city at the top of the hill.  The taxi driver asks us what time we want to be picked up, and we agree on a place down by the water.  He doesn’t even want any money – “You pay me at the end,” he says, and good as his word he shows up, and good as our word we pay him as he drops us in Phira.  On our walk down to the sea I take Misty off-road along precarious cliffside paths to my little church in the rock, perched beside a spring in a cave, which must have been there since ancient times.  We light a candle for those we love at the shrine, drink the water dripping through the rock onto the formations, and rest for a bit under the soaring cliffs above us. It’s rough climb – who carted all the cement up here to build the little church? – but Misty has been game for it all. Time to go home.

The spring in the cave - bathe in the waters and become a virgin again - so goes the legend

We were able to stay on the edge of the caldera for the final sunset, and then we enter the ‘travel tunnel’ – first to the tiny Santorini airport, then to the Athens airport hotel for a few hours (‘Fantastic Four’ with subtitles), and then to Rome, and finally to Boston – grateful to be home – that’s the great thing about travel, but it is hard to re-enter the usual world.  What a great ‘time-out-of-mind’ this was!

We love this country!

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3 Responses to “Dimitris on Santorini – last Greek blog”

  1. Mist Says:

    I am SO glad you wrote so much of this down!! And yes, we DO love this country, more than anyone could imagine. What an INCREDIBLE trip!!!!

  2. iñaki Says:

    Hi, nice blog! Santorini is an awesome island!

  3. Santorini Hotels Says:

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