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Island Time

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Monastery of Saint John the Theologian, Patmos

Spiti Costas, Costas’s house, on the Greek island of Patmos, was my home for a few weeks during my unformed years, and in some ways my best years: 11, 12 and 13. We rented Costas’s house one summer, returned the next fall, and returned again the next summer — I think. Now the chronology ambles around in my mind. The last visit stands out the most. My father and I went alone; my mother was back in Cyprus. The trip was too long. My friends were also back in Cyprus, at the pool at the Nicosia Hilton, where we spent every waking moment from June until the end of August, reading British magazines like Bliss and Sugar and spending too long in the sun and, at the end of a long, hard day of swimming and sunbathing, the jacuzzi. Once on Patmos, I wanted to be back with them, to a degree that sometimes drove me to a panic, as if I knew this glamorous chapter of my life wouldn’t last long (it didn’t). But I steeled myself, for the most part. I sat in Costas’s house, as I had before, reading all the books that got left in the house by previous guests and ignoring every one I’d brought with me, save for The Jungle Book.

On our second visit to Patmos, I took over a desk in a room that looked like a study but was originally part of the kitchen facilities. Crouch down on the brick floor and open a little Alice in Wonderland-like door, and you could peer in a black cave where a fire used to be built and food cooked. It was massive, resembling an igloo from the outside of the house. Once I felt I’d conquered the whole property, I used to clamber up the outside of the kiln and just sit up there, feeling as if I’d climbed a mountain.

The window just to the right of the desk faced the neighbor’s whitewashed house, outside which many seemingly identical tabby cats and a little white terrier would mill about during the day. The window permitted some view of Skala — the harbor. Sitting at this desk I read a murder mystery, a medical thriller (which I skipped through, stopping only for the sex scenes), and a collection of O. Henry stories.

What was my father doing during that time? I am dumbfounded to think that in these years, the Internet didn’t exist. For the most part, he was landscaping a secluded cove that we’d found just north of the house. He would walk over to the cove in the morning and hunch over, ankle-deep in the water, hurling rocks left and right with the goal of creating a sandy path out to swimming depth. He never wore a hat, and most of the time never wore a shirt. He got sunburned every day, and my mother was not there to scold him.

It’s alarming to look at Patmos on Google Maps and see that this small island and Biblical setting — the place where, according to many Christians, St. John the Theologian wrote the Book of Revelations in a cave — now has some of its streets drawn out, and even its ship routes mapped, with dotted lines merging into Skala from their various island origins — Kos, Lipsi, Mykonos, Naxos, Paros, Leros, Samos. When I wasn’t reading that final June on Patmos, I was writing, but my writings had a similar kind of obsessive-compulsive method to my dad’s work at the secret cove. My biggest project was a log of all the ships that came into Skala. I created a hand-drawn spreadsheet in a sturdy, legal-size notebook I’d bought at a bookstore in Cyprus. I used only a red pen. I logged the approximate time of arrival of each ship, drew a small picture, and noted the location (anchored out from the harbor, or in the harbor?), the type (sailboat, yacht, or cruise ship?), what time the ship left, and other minutia, like the number of funnels on each ship. Why? My only explanation is that everything has the potential to be fascinating in quiet places. Anything that suggests a routine becomes entertainment, becomes life.

The Greek gods are exemplars of “using your connections.” Take, for example, the story of how Patmos was created, via this website, edited for English clarity:

Patmos was originally called Letoisse, and it belonged to Diana, Leto’s daughter, for whom the island was named. Selene, the moon goddess, was in love with the King Endymion, who was granted immortality by Zeus whenever he slept. So he slept in Diana’s temple at Karia. Whenever he was asleep, Selene would visit him at the temple. Here she lit the island underwater, creating a picture of utmost beauty. Selene asked Diana to lift the island above water, which was made possible by Zeus, with help from Diana’s brother, Apollo. As the island emerged, the sun’s warmth greeted its soil, giving life. Diana encouraged humans to inhabit the island.

I am not sure how we heard about Spiti Costas, but our first visit to Patmos set us on a path. Without this initial foray into Greece, my father might not have been so willing to accept a work transfer to Cyprus from London, which happened shortly after our first trip to Patmos. At the time, the Cyprus move was posed as an offer, but my father made it seem like an ultimatum, so my mother agreed. Not surprisingly, he retired there, and has spent more time in Cyprus — 13 years — than any other place except Canada, where he was born. This is a considerable feat; we’ve moved a lot.

Once in Cyprus, it was easier to dart around the Greek islands, though we remained partial to Patmos, and only visited other islands — Samos, Kos — because at the time, they were the only commercial way to get to Patmos from Athens or Cyprus, via either catamaran or ferry. Both of those islands seemed Vegas-like in comparison to Patmos: big resorts with several oddly-shaped pools, fluorescent foot-level tiki lights dotting a path to a thousand identical hotel rooms. This was the price we paid to get Patmos. Once on Patmos, after stopping over on these Ibiza aspirants for one night, the old-school charms of Patmos only intensified. This was not London, or even Nicosia, or even my father’s breathtaking home turf of Nova Scotia. This was a particular, unobvious paradise that would never be ours. So we couldn’t get enough of it. In subsequent years my father updated me on the ever-inflating price of renting Costas’s house. Now Costas is dead. I dread to think what has happened to the house now that he’s no longer around to preserve it in the state it was in for us: traditional, with only vague traces of its guests (e.g. the medical thriller).

My father, or more specifically this trip with my father, was my first education in the ways of men, or most men I have known. He had his own agenda; I was just invited to share it. Many mornings we would go down to Skala to eat fried eggs at one of the harbor-front restaurants. In the afternoon, vanilla milkshakes at the “diner” near the road that led up to our house, and in the evening, a visit to a favorite local spot or any number of random restaurants we’d somehow heard about or passed by on a walk. Occasionally, we’d venture to Chora, the city on the hill, with the labyrinthine whitewashed walls forever and the famous monastery visible for miles. Here, my father would have a place in mind and would insist it was “just around the corner,” until we’d rounded 12 corners and wound up back in the same place we’d started. My only point of comparison for this experience was (and still is) Super Mario Brothers. (On our final trip to Patmos, I brought my green Game Boy and one game, Super Mario Brothers. Once I beat the game, a few days into the trip, I made it my goal to achieve the highest score that could fit on the screen: 999,999).

Many of the activities my father was interested in were things no one would turn down: a lobster dinner on pebble-strewn Lampi Beach an hour’s drive from the house; snorkeling at the secret cove; lounging on a blanket at Agriolivado, one of the more popular beaches, with a flea-infested stray cat and her kittens. We drove a rented manual-transmission Fiat, a four-wheel drive, though you wouldn’t know it with my dad driving. We’d get back from dinner and lie on the deck chairs looking at the stars: every star in the sky, really. A massive blanket you could stare at for hours. The only light pollution came from the portholes of private yachts docked in the harbor. These were the last summers I felt a natural buzz, a buzz that hadn’t been procured by alcohol.

I didn’t know how to swim the first two visits to Patmos. I would eventually learn, at age 12, back at the Nicosia Hilton with the help of John, my father’s friend and work colleague, who made me stick with “frog stroke” until I mastered it, both feet off the floor of the shallow end. On Patmos, I would bop around, pretending to swim, peering down into the water with the help of my father’s oversized snorkeling mask in order to avoid sea urchins clutching to the slimy rocks around my feet.

One day on that last trip we hiked what seemed like miles in cheap Patmos-bought espadrilles just to get to a coveted beach that could only otherwise be reached by boat. Once there, I played games with the waves, running away from them, pretending, as children do, that they were chasing me. The current was strong and they kept sucking me under. I wasn’t afraid, but thought I was supposed to be, because I’d nearly drowned in Nova Scotia years before, an event that my father didn’t witness and which my mother still feels guilty about. My father was on the shore, walking to and fro, sometimes sitting down, watching me fighting with the waves, but he didn’t seem worried. We were two people, bound by a technicality, and happy enough to observe it. TC Mark

image – Kalogeropoulos

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