[This piece was from ~2005, pre-blog, but I think much of this still applies.]
It’s all based on routine, my father explains, as we come back every year. The fishermen go out at around 1am, once it gets dark enough, and come back when the sun comes up. The fish are too smart during the day. The mustached men unload their catch to the local tavernas, who will grill and sell it fresh several hours later at their portside tables. The men sit, partly on the weathered boat decks, partly on the cement pavement by the bright red moorings, and spread out colorful saffron yellow fishing nets. They use their fingers, teeth and kitchen knives to mend holes and tears that had emerged from the night before. Seagulls flock close by and sometimes dive to grab bits of shrimp or fish caught in the tangles. They will be here again tomorrow morning.
The women wake up early as well, and buy fresh tomatoes, onions, potatoes, and aubergines from the local mini mart that keeps the vegetables outside on the back of a truck. Baggage in hand, they then totter back through the village and embark on a long day of toiling in the kitchen. An attempt at cooking Moussaka this summer proved that it really is a daylong venture. The routine is broken by the watermelon man- a chance to escape the cooking for a minute and haggle prices over the scales.
It takes at least two weeks to open your eyes to this world. It takes that long to learn the basic greetings, and just as importantly- the food terminology. Yet it takes only one morning to get swept up with the beauty of the sunrise and sunset. Twice a day, the light is magical, when the whitewashed buildings absorb a warm pinky glow. The light signifies a distinct point in time; it reminds you in the mornings to get to the baker before the good village bread runs out, and in the evenings to get to a table by the restaurants lining the colorful fishing port before the fresh catch is devoured by locals.
Awakening with a taste for yet more island delicacies, the greatest part of the morning is the surprise of which specialty goods have been baked. The men with whom I travel- be it my boyfriend or father, seem to enjoy this part of the day immensely. They come back, plastic bags bulging with stone-ground warm village bread, cream pies, miniature apple pies; their ‘catch’ of the day. The locals are extremely friendly at this time in the morning, even though it’s barely past 7:00. No puffy eyelids or coffee cups in sight. Perhaps it is because we’re the only tourists who are up this early, but every morning we get a friendly toothless grin from an old woman cleaning her steps, or a nod from our young waiter from the night before who is helping his mother peel potatoes on the stoop by their garden.
It is no wonder the place is so immaculately pure: locals care and maintain their streets and buildings with endless love and delicacy. Days are spent repainting parts of the street white: an antiseptic agent that prevents bugs and fungus, which is used on tree trunks as well. The sun and sea and wind manage the rest of the cleansing. One rarely worries about the cleanliness of the numerous ‘blue flag’ beaches; a proud testimony of surpassed EU standards.
These realities consume your every sense, and sooner or later, you stop thinking about ‘you’ visiting ‘this place’- your job, your grades, your friends back home all get swept up into this routine. You become consumed by finding the perfect Baklava- (just enough syrup, not too many nuts.) You become obsessed with catching every single sunset, or finding the perfect place to sleep under the stars. After two weeks you no longer need to venture off to find the greatest beaches, or see the temples of Apollon. And while there’s no doubt these are fascinating elements of Greece, after two weeks, you’ve done them already, and bought the t-shirt. You get your bread, yogurt, peaches and honey in the morning, and head off to a favorite beach. You just make the right bus, as the baker that morning was testing you on your growing Greek vocabulary. You greet the driver with “Kalimera” and know which side to sit on in order to get an unobstructed view of the coast. On the beach you park yourself under the biggest tree, which you know will shelter you by the time the shade has tapered off everywhere else mid-day. Your day bag is down to the basics: a book and towel. You no longer need music, for the weary waves lull your mind to relaxation as you become lost in another literary world. Eager to cool off with a swim, you self-consciously wobble down to the water’s edge on the stones.
You skip rocks and look for sea glass with your brother. He is content with such tasks, and has left his Gameboy in the room. He finds new ways of entertaining himself, turning the five or six bottles of water a day that a family consumes into Greek ferry boats. The bottles accumulate, piling up in the closets and corners of the room. He wont let anyone throw them away as his ‘port’ expands. He must hide them at the beginning of the day, otherwise they will get thrown out when the person cleans in the morning, and his game will be over. Hours on end of his day are spent recreating the most trafficked shipping routes around the islands using these identical plastic bottles. When we move out of the room he is upset to leave his collection. But by the next day the accumulation begins again. The 7up and Pepsi bottles serve as the smaller boats, while the numerous water bottles represent large car ferries. By the time you are out of the shower he has prepared you three separate itineraries on these ‘boats’ with different classes of comfort, and different prices, depending on the ferry company, the age of the boat, its speed, and the number of stops. Sometimes cheaper and slower with more stops is better, as you get to see more of the little islands where the big boats don’t dock. His information is real; he has the schedules memorized and can spot a boat on the horizon and not only identify it and recite its history, but also inform us of its next stop and when the boat will next return.
Hunger presents a new distraction and later while on that same beach you bite into deep red tomatoes, and as their fruit nature suggests, you spill seeds and juice down your legs. You nibble at bread, which is no longer warm from the morning, but still fresh enough to soak up the tomato juice on the picnic plates. Slices of peach sit on large flat stones, waiting while you rinse off in the sea. You know what time the village bus comes to take you back into town, and plan enough time to dry off before the fully packed vehicle on the windy curvy road comes to take you back to the town. You have the money ready, and can expertly find your little room above Nikos restaurant upon arrival just outside the main town square. The shower is basically a spray head on the end of a hose in the bathroom.
This is a symbiotic way of life, where everyone has a clearly defined role, where everyone has relaxed relations with their neighbors. The villagers seem to go about their lives with such a natural complacency, which the tourist can see and is drawn in- enticing one to stay for months on end.
I have noticed a change, however.
The island lifestyle is no longer an idyllic retreat from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. And over recent visits, I’ve noticed the people have become less genuinely interested in you, and more interested in your trade. And who can blame them? The Greek tourist industry is rising exponentially, and more and more people are venturing out to the islands, because they’ve done Athens and the Acropolis- and have come in search of more.
There is less of the stability that I once felt on the islands, as they are almost deserted now in the winter months. The high season ships in more day-trippers than Disney World, and their pricing must make up for a lack of business from October through May. The residents leave in the winter as well; the young, bored with the repetitive docile daily interactions move to Athens, New York or London: where the action is. Their parents visit family abroad, or they too go in search of a cultural experience that will surpass the parades of locals in the shady square. In the summer months, they all return to Paros, Alonnysos or Kouffonissia, and set up discos and ship hundreds of tourists to the ‘undiscovered’ bays of the island for 50 Euros, when a bus ride for two Euros waits around the corner. The exponential tourist invasion is a sad thing to witness, especially when it affects your 11-year-old brother. For years as children our parents set a limit on ice cream prices, determining what we could spend for our after-dinner dessert. The ice cream companies, like football teams, compete each summer with new lineups of choices and we acquire favorites quickly. Yet since the prices get bumped every year by several Drachmas, or Euro cents now, his choices have rapidly declined from the very glamorous ‘Magic’- a huge chocolate-covered cone, topped with toffee, nuts and chocolate, to the pitiable ‘Milko’, a sorry scoop of ice cream on a stick.
As the turnover at restaurants is so great in the high season, dishes are made quickly, with less time to soak up their flavor and are prepared under preoccupied direction. On Kouffonisia we had a dreadful time finding anywhere that had not run out of Moussaka by the time we were ready to eat.
What troubles me is that with the Olympic exposure, more and more will venture to Greece. With this boost in business, and chance for increased revenue, the prices will get bumped even higher. The financial viability of staying for an entire summer becomes increasingly difficult, and as such, many of those wishing to go to Greece will be left only with the option of a two-week vacation; just enough time to do the excursions to beaches visited by thousands before, to eat in the guidebook restaurants, and to visit all the temples highlighted on maps. What they will not have time for, is hiking for hours past bulls, wildflowers, abandoned huts and crumbling stone walls in search of a secluded beach. Instead they cram onto excursion boats and pay for such a novelty. What they will miss on the way back is goats perched precariously at the edge of cliffs, and the random encounter with an old woman leading her donkey down the path towards you, laden with baskets of freshly picked figs, offering you a handful of ripeness in a gesture of welcome as old as humanity. This was a routine of mine 10 years ago, and today it has become rather the exception.
Is there hope? Last summer, despite the hordes of people that now stood between me and my gyro, I noticed a further change, and this one was more positive. The decline of authenticity had been acknowledged and rethought. Several years ago, stores where everything was available replaced traditional bakeries. Products lay packaged like Wonder Bread in the mini mart and Coca Cola had completed its inevitable infiltration. This barrage of mass-market products had taken over shelf space from homemade concoctions unique to the island. However, somebody somewhere had recognized what was going on. And now, new twists on tradition have cropped up, in more of a tasteful manner. Health conscious tourists, who still want Greek yogurt but sought a non-fat alternative to the heavenly treat now indulge in Total 0% yogurt. A public backlash from tacky neon signs has provoked new laws to encourage vendors to hang traditional wooden painted signs outside their shops. Perhaps such changes were inspired by tourists. Or, perhaps it was the new generation, awakening to the needs of the tourists, and the incentive for a movement back to tranquility. For a country in hopes of moving forward and attracting tourism, Greece needed to modernize. But it must not forget its traditionalist roots. This tension had been dealt with in rather a negligent way in light of the peacefulness and purity- those qualities that brought visitors to the islands in the first place. As of recent, such a move forward seems to have progressed in a more delicate manner.
The barrage of tranquil, romantic restaurants promising dramatic cliff-top views to complement a choice of tasteful dinner wine, paired magically with the local island lamb stew, demonstrates precisely such a coupling. ‘Customary Greek Cuisine’ is now served up on linen tablecloths in intimate restaurants, in the chic town of Oia on the tourist-mobbed Santorini. Yet is this seven course spread entirely “Greek” compared to a meal served at the noisy taverna in the square, with rickety tables covered by paper tablecloths with maps of the island, and wooden chairs woven by local gypsies earlier in the day? Accommodations have similarly evolved. For a mere 500 Euros a night, one can stay in a traditional ‘cave house’ built into the cliffs. Or, further down the road stands an immaculately white residential block with no trace of a sign or advertisement, where domatia (rooms) can be rented out for 15 Euros. In some cases, these changes represent a very old culture trying to maintain its appeal in a very competitive tourist industry. While tasteful couplings of ‘chic’ and Greek have for the most part been a success (the cave houses looked gorgeous with plumbing and modern appliances!), there is a danger that much of the authenticity will, at some point, inevitably be lost. The mass tourist excursions which circulate and dump thousands of people to walk the Volcano by Santorini provide nowhere near as magical an experience as doing the excursion on a fishing boat on your own time, with a local guide. Yet such is the trend.
At this point, the Greeks cannot complain, because the industry is booming, and it’s all based on selling authentic culture. But at some point, when the restaurants are no longer family-based, or the excursions become monopolized by major tour companies, or the rooms you rent from the little old lady next door are bought up and redeveloped by the Intercontinental Hotel, there will no longer be variations in the Moussaka, and the women stirring the Stifado in the kitchen will have all left to help their boyfriends sell chairs under thousands of umbrellas that pronounce the names of American beers and soft drinks. There will no longer be hidden unexplored bays that have been family secrets for ages, and you will no longer be able to sit outside your room, watching the sunset by an old whitewashed church and striking up a conversation with the woman next door dressed all in black. It is here that the importance of the delicacy of such a move ‘forward’ is imperative.
What I hesitate to tell you is that my boyfriend and I spent our last night in Athens having dinner at the Hilton Hotel. According to a group of British girls staying near us in Mykonos, its bar was supposed to present panoramic views of Athens and the Acropolis by night, and its rooftop barbecue, while serving all of the traditional dishes, was accompanied by a stunning view of the acropolis lit up from behind. So we went, and while we marveled at the impressive spreads of our favorite foods of the summer and the breathtaking views, we were whisked away by a waiter who asked rather rudely whether or not we planned to sit down. And it was there, upon the presentation of the menu, that we realized that all at once our favorite dishes, to which we had memorized the Greek names and different recipes, were completely out of our price range. At the end of our six-week stint of looking forward to our last night’s ‘splurge,’ all of a sudden we could not even treat ourselves to a piece of Baklava. We yearned for the Moussaka and the aubergine dip that waiters were serving out of stunning silver trays, but ‘Greek chic’ had taken over.
So, while our taste buds lingered for a last taste of Greek food, it didn’t seem right to try the food here. Instead, we found ourselves 30 floors below, on the ground floor, eating at their other restaurant. Through dinner, we dreamily discussed the next time we’d be eating Baklava, hoped that our favorite local tavernas, bakeries, and domatia would still be around for our next trip, and left the Athens Hilton Restaurant to provide us with what it did best: the Continental Buffet.
Granted the views on the rooftop were breath taking, and the décor done in impeccable taste, but the fact that we could not even stand and admire them on the open-air deck without paying for an overpriced dinner was disheartening. We reminisced about the views from the little square shower window of a 15 Euro room, about the panoramic scenes that fell before us from atop the windswept mountain, and about the imposing cliffs of Santorini lit up at dusk, which we witnessed from atop the highest deck of a ferry boat, while others sat smoking in the air-conditioned bar. Perhaps the girls who had recommended the Hilton as a fantastic culmination to our Greek holiday had not had the chance to appreciate the routine, as we had, for six weeks. Perhaps their trip had been like those who do Greece in luxury, where daily expenditures require a budget that will only allow a two-week vacation seeing the sights in class, with no extraneous time to meander off the beaten track. To them, the Athens Hilton was the pinnacle of Greek cuisine, for in their travels, they had not, as we contemplated, experienced Greece along the way. Because they could not perceive Greece as anything but an exotic foreign culture, they could not be swept up into one of its most promising facets: the docile daily routine, and they had no sense of how things were or how they used to be. After all, they were only on vacation for the long-weekend.