At 21, I travelled alone through Greece and Turkey. Paying the student rate of 5,000 drachmas for a 24-hour bus ride north through Greece to Turkey, I spent one week in Istanbul taking in everything from the spice market to hagia Sofia.
For a city that gave birth the soulful Rebetika songs I’d grown up with, I wanted to hear the angular rhythms and melodies of the bahglama and clarinet in coffeehouses. I discovered a sprawling industrial city, veiled in a gray fog, where everyone drank chai the color of rabbit’s blood. At every street corner,
merchants offered to sell me carpets, leather jackets, gold and souvenirs made in China.
After one week I wanted something more familiar, a place uninterrupted by Muezzin’s prayers: a welcoming beach, a Greek salad and fresh horiatiko bread. I took another bus from Istanbul south to Izmir, down to the harbor at Bodrum and boarded the first ferry to Kos.
At the port, I was engulfed by a sea of short, round, middle-aged women dressed in black who wanted me to room with them. After negotiating a reasonable rate with Kyra Maria, I followed her through narrow streets to a white washed home. My room had little adornment and housed a simple cot, a wicker chair, and a small table. The room’s only light source: a large window.
At eye-level, this window looked into her courtyard paved with cobblestones, their borders outlined with white paint. Immense clay pots housed immaculately shaped basil and pepper plants. The scent of Kyra Maria’s night-flowering jasmine found its way into my room each night like incense wafting from a priest’s censor.
I quickly developed a routine, following a rhythm as cyclical as the tide. The island’s ubiquitous roosters would wake me at dawn. I’d go for a swim before the regular tourists with all their trappings and gadgets arrived. On my walk back from the beach, I’d sit and chat with the smiling young waiter, Georgios, at the nearby taverna. My breakfast was always the same, a big bowl of yogurt with honey and walnuts followed by watermelon and Greek coffee. Afterwards, I’d drag my chair to the edge of the restaurant to sketch the beach activity for hours on end.
Georgios was handsome in the way many Greek men are handsome. His brown eyes were filled with an incredible sadness and his slightly stooped shoulders made him look like he carried the weight of centuries on his back. Like every Greek man I’ve met, with the exception of my father and grandfather, Georgios smoked.
Every once in a while, I’d rip a couple of pages out of my sketchbook, stuff them in an envelope and mail these letters of love home to my worried parents.
In the stillness before nightfall, fly-blacked priests with long beards and longer robes would follow the labyrinthine alleys through olive groves to homes of Saints. In the distance, donkeys brayed agitated by the wistful church bells calling, calling the women in black for evening vespers.
On one such evening after the sun had set I found myself at Georgios’ taverna — a welcome guest at an impromptu gathering. There were lights strung up in the trees, the smell of lamb piercing the warm night air and the unmistakable clinking of glasses. I was drawn to the laughter, the familiar sounds. Finally, Greek music. The same music my parents played throughout my childhood on scratched and worn out vinyl 45’s. I was trying to pour down a glass of coke with brandy. Georgios with his tousled hair, cigarette dangling from his lips was smiling at me.
Amerikanaki no drink good.
He shrugged, picked up my glass, made a blurred toast to me and finished my drink. Then in a scene directly out of Zorba the Greek he turned to me and said: Do you dance?
I found myself barefoot up on a table, Georgios by my side, dancing. Tsiftendeli. I looked out into the admiring sea of men. A sharp fleeting moment of fear. I was the only female. The women were all at church. Praying. Only me, the Amerikanaki, Magda. Belly Dancing. The men in the crowd were encouraging me and we were all singing:
Anapse to Tsigaro
Thos mou fotia
Exo megalo kefi mes ti kardia.
He pulled me against him. I felt capable of anything. I wanted to take off my clothes and chase him through the crowds up to the small peak of this rocky town.