This is Greece – Paros (Days 4 and 5)

If we were to imagine Paros as a person, then that person would be a teacher.

We braved a bit of a tourist-storm at the Mykonos port earlier this day. Have you seen a port filled with people who look like extras from a Korean skincare TV commercial? No? Lucky you. But alas it was a storm that turned out to be mostly blowing towards Santorini, which gave us much needed reprieve but offered us a glimpse of the influencer-packed, straw hat-totting, sundress-flowing typhoon that awaited there later in the trip. There is a kind of charm that is attached to boarding a ferry from one island to another. It offers a glimpse of how people would’ve traveled in older days, offering oneself to the elements just to get from one place to another. Granted the only elements we had to brave here on this relatively large ferry (it was large enough for more than a few pickup trucks to drive into it before swallowing a few hundred tourists), was being bombarded by a song-long commercial of the company who offered the ferry services. That saying, you don’t know what you’re missing out in life if you’ve never sat through a power ballad called ‘Paros Jet’. The name Paros Jet offers quite little opportunity for your imagination to flex on both the intended destination of the vessel, nor the speed it was going to hit to get there. It does reek of insecurity issues though. Wished you were taller? Had longer legs? Six pack? Ryan Gosling’s features? Meh. How about a ferry who wants to be a jet? There you go.

Oh right, the teacher bit. Yes. We got schooled by Paros in the age-old lesson of ‘not judging a book by its cover’, or in our case, ‘not judging a Greek island by the how much it initially looked like a city wrecked by civil war’. I suppose we have little else to blame but our own narrowmindedness. What triggered the impression? Narrow dusty roads, mud-stained buildings, dry and parched landscapes, etc. In another mindset, this would all be framed as ‘charming’ but we’ve just come from what was essentially paradise (when I type this, I am thinking about the beaches in Mykonos, and not the grandads trotting around in speedos when they really should know better) so forgive us while we adjust to suddenly being thrusted into Helm’s Deep. We had to take a 20-minute bus ride from the ferry port of Parikia to the fishing port of Naousa and the journey was about as scenic as the interior of a dilapidated cow carriage. And because buses were less frequent in these parts, they pack them up real tight, like they do back home. Nothing like the whiff of an afternoon armpit to remind you of your motherland. At this very moment, Agios Ioannis, the beach, and dreamy lifeguard seems like a dream and two nightmares away.

We alighted the bus at the Naousa bus station hoping for some reprieve but found little. The roads were caked with dust, the buildings stained yellowish and the kids were playing with Uzis at the back of pickup trucks (just kidding, although they might as well be). Ten minutes into our walk to Despina’s Mare, where we would be hanging our weary sails for the night, we found some reprieve at the skirt-end of the town center of Naousa, with a little more cobblestone walkways, restaurants and buildings that did not look like they’ve just tangoed with a sandstorm. It’s hilarious in hindsight because the path we took to get to our accommodation was just a street away from what is certainly the most charming town centers of this trip, and quite possibly ever, to me. In fact, we would later realise that the bus station was just a short walk down the road from a charming bent of seaside restaurants and a clear sight of the gorgeous aqua-marine Aegean sea. But we saw nothing of the sort as we made our way to Despina’s Mare. It was almost like an anti-Truman Show, where forces were conspiring to keep our sight away from the beauty of the island to teach us a huge slap-of-a-lesson in being judgmental.

Slap One

Despina’s Mare as it turned out, looked delectably comfortable. Not quite like the meat and potatoes accommodation we had to get by with at Mykonos. For one thing, they had a sign here right upfront which helped us not to have to literally sail the seven seas to find it. Despina’s daughter Konstantina greeted us and informed us that there is a nice beach about 10-minutes away on the right by foot up the road and that the main town center of Naousa with its restaurants and bars, also a short 10-minute walk to the left. At this point of time, given how famished we were from the trip from Mykonos and the fact that we had to walk through what was essentially Mogadishu in 1993, we would’ve been okay with a McDonald’s. Actually I kid, my wife would’ve probably started a civil war herself if I had made her eat at a McDonald’s. No, there wasn’t a McDonald’s on Paros. At least I don’t think so.

The room was a sight for dusty eyes. Granted it wasn’t exactly the Waldorf Astoria but it had a large comfortable bed, a spacious restroom where you don’t need to feel like an Argentinian center back planting an elbow on an unsuspecting opponent every time you reach for the shampoo. There were welcome cake and pastries on the table, two spacious side tables with USB plug points and there was going to be breakfast in the morning. As far as we were concerned, it was The Jetsons in 2063 for us. But it wasn’t the slap yet. The spacious bed and breakfast spread was that fraction of second before a slap makes its intended contact, the point when the hand leaves your side, raises to form and prepares to strike hard.

Then we drew the curtains and slid open the door and we were greeted with this sight.

Now that was the first slap.

Slap Two

The walk into town brought us a little more back down to earth. Winding cobblestone roads cramped with messily constructed homes. Not too dissimilar from Mykonos except a lot more poorly curated with many homes looking incredibly cluttered and the roads just a degree grimier. It was like experiencing a Greek island town with a little South East Asian filters on.

Greek towns and villages seem to become more beautiful in relation to how close they are to the sea. Granted most of them are settled near the sea, but the disparity between settlements inland to those near ports can sometimes be quite gob-smacking. There’s of course a very logical reason why this is so. Tourists in these parts tend to flock to seaside towns and so there is more money floating around in them, hence the better amenities and honestly, it’s quite difficult to be ugly when you’re joined to the hip with that sea. But I prefer the more romantic notion, that the Greeks get their lifeblood from the sea and the closer they are to it, the more nourished and alive they seem to be.

Ouzeri Mitsi was our pick for lunch on the first day at Paros. Not because the menu enticed us or because the name of the restaurant sounds like a Greek superhero but because we were famished and it was the first restaurant we came into contact with. Life becomes a lot simpler when you’re faced with food or death decisions. Eating at Ouzeri Mitsi proved a couple of things to us. Firstly that, because the standard of accessible Mediterranean fair and freshness of seafood produce back home is a lot more touch-and-go than go, walking into any random restaurant on any Greek island is generally going to taste pretty decent. And secondly I am never going to eat pastas back home again.

And if I still had lingering grunts about how Paros looks more like the end of a shotgun barrel than a Cyclades paradise then, it gave me a second lesson in not putting my mind’s boots into its own metaphorical mouth by offering us a spectacular view while we chomped on our sumptuous lunch. The only thing inhibiting this view to our left was the sight of a portly man in an unbuttoned white shirt at another table in Ouzeri practically making love to the fish he was eating. I mean it’s one thing to enjoy your food, it’s another to be licking your fingers seductively with an orgasmic look in your eyes. Actually we’re glad we ever laid eyes on him eating. He has basically changed the way we view eating fish forever. That ‘bulus’ back at Acha Curry House is never going to be devoured the same again.

In fact the food in Paros may just be some of the best we had in Greece. The fried calamari in Taverna Glafkos has properly set a standard for all other fried calamaris to contend with for the both of us, and we suspect it will remain so for a while yet. Maybe we were starting at a very low base, but it was amazingly delicious. Not that it was gastronomical science or anything, just baby squids perfectly deep-fried in batter, garnished with pepper and salt and a squeeze of lemon. But the taste was just tantalizing. It provided me just a moment of realisation at just how much rubbish tasteless frozen calamari I’ve been eating all my life back home. There was also this charming little café called what I can only roughly identify as Kafeneio, where they served small plates of Greek dishes. Our favorite was a dish of freshly cut tomatoes, feta and olive oil. It’s a dish that appears so simple that it feels like a restaurant should be ashamed to serve and charge money for it. But yet, it’s a dish that feels almost impossible to replicate back home because it was all down to the natural quality of the tomatoes, the feta and the olive oil. The tomatoes in particular were the stars, sweet and juicy to taste, not at all like the sour bombs we often get back home.

That was the second slap.

Slap Three

Naousa’s town center is not large, but it compensates for its lack of size by being interestingly intricate. We explored them for two days and even on the second day, we were finding little nooks and corners we could tuck into and discover things. Whether it’s little knickknack shops, fun-sized gellatorias or to-go pizza joints, Naousa is like the town that keeps giving. At the heart of its night life is the restaurants around the port. Packed with tourists of all shapes and sizes, the clinking of wine glasses against each other, utensils against dining ware and the sound of indistinct chatter punctuate the serene and calm skies of Paros. It’s noisy sure, but quite unlike the sound a city makes. There are no awful stabs of frustrated honking by motorists, raised frustrated voices against each other and against the city or thumping pop music emanating from departmental stores. This was a more joyous sound. The sound of relaxed revelry, of happiness at conversations and the joy that can really only come from having a meal in a gorgeous island in the middle of the ocean with people you love.  

This ‘sound’ was what endeared Paros to me. It felt like nothing I had ever felt before. Suddenly it all made sense. That life can also be a celebration beyond just birthdays, anniversaries and the holidays. That life itself can be a celebration. I’ve always been apathetic about food and celebrations. I generally eat to live and I’ve not had many celebrations since my sixth birthday that was more than just my family going out to a Chinese restaurant and ordering a few dishes to fill our tummies. But suddenly, standing there in the middle of the Naousa port, watching the people there, hearing the ocean cooing behind us, it suddenly all made sense. How food, culture and celebration all came together in a more relatable sense to me. It wasn’t about gifts and fancy outfits. It wasn’t about just enjoying a moment, or a day. But it was about enjoying life itself through these things. Even as I reminisce these things now, I no longer associate Paros to the first impression I have of it – the mud-stained buildings and dusty streets. In fact, those initial memories are fast-fading, replaced by the scent and sounds of the lighter side of Paros.

This was the third slap.

Slap Four

A trip to Greece is always going to be about the beaches. The seafood, sunshine and the facial hair sure, but on top of that list, the beaches. We would eventually work the ‘beach itch’ out of our system during the trip but we were still at the height of it when we were in Paros. After our lunch at Ouzeri Mitsi, we walked another 10-minutes up pass Despina’s Mare and just as Konstantina said, we reached a beach called Agii Anargiri. It’s quite a different experience from the organized beach at Agios Ioannis back in Mykonos. Here, the beach front is just a few steps away from the vehicle road and splayed out in a way that appears unappealing at first because it had patches of uncut grass all around and the sand appears stodgier here. The wonderful thing was that it did not cost us a cent to be here. Just open up your towel over the sand and you’re good to go. Don’t expect any tropical cocktails though.

And while Agii Anargiri may rank as probably the least appealing beach we spent time at in Greece, all you need to do is look sea-ward and everything else no longer matters. Not even the fact that you’re laying your towel just ten steps from where a Prius just zoomed by. The sea is all that matters and when you get into it, besides the fact that you immediately feel like curling inside a microwave oven because of the cold, you feel free and at-one with mother earth. The sea here, as is the case throughout Greece, is gorgeous and being at the center of it, with the sun beating down and the waves gently caressing your chest, you just feel like it’s possible to just close your eyes and lose yourself to the calming elements.

Like the building blocks for a castle in my mind, these little experiences have slowly warmed me more and more to the idea of finding a belonging on a beach. Agios Ioannis in Mykonos was a crucial piece, but so was Kolymbithres beach here in Paros, which we went to on our second day there. We took a short boat ride over to the beach, traversing through unbelievably clear aqua marine waters to get there. The water felt deceptively inviting with its color, like diving head first into Jell-O. But given that we were more or less in the middle of the ocean, my guess is it won’t feel like Jell-O if I decided to plunge in. Given my inability to swim, it will be more like a big fat sack of rice being dumped into the ocean.

Once there, occupants of the boat flooded into the different segments of the beach like ball bearings slipping into the different nooks of a pinball machine, to grab themselves an umbrella for the day. We initially got a paltry one that was two rows from the sea at the first beach front we got to. But my wife had that look. Let me explain the look. It’s basically the look of someone who has been forced to watch a litter of puppies being drowned. Okay, I jest. Let me try again. It’s the look of someone who has been forced to watch a puppy being drowned. Yup. So we moved. You move when your wife has that look. That’s my marriage advice for everyone out there. Free of charge. So move we did, to the next beachfront, where it was almost empty and we had our pick. And score, cause now she looks like a puppy greeting her master at the door or an alcoholic influencer at an open bar. I can never tell which is which.

Some moments of the day flash to mind. The American family and the father with the sardonic wit and two women who we couldn’t distinguish were either his daughter, wife or mother-in-law (yeah I know it doesn’t say anything well about the women in discussion). The wonderful cold hit of fig tequila on lips against the punishing sun. Me getting my leg wedged against two rocks from a slip which threatened to ruin my beach day but papa powered through. The sight of a heavily pregnant but fit woman dancing around the upper regions of the queer rock formations that characterizes Kolymbithres, with not much of a care in the world. I mean why would you when you have the sight of that ocean in front of you? Yet another entry filed under the folder ‘Things a Middle Class Asian Will Never Do’ in my head. My sporadically dipping into the calm, clear sea, watching fishes swim around my frame. It was a wonderful day indeed.

This was the fourth slap.

There’s a unique sense of wonder and romanticism that comes from being a person who was raised in one end of the world, under markedly different conditions than the people here and somehow ending up in this relatively small island in the middle of the Aegean sea, taking in their culture, eating their food, breathing their air and walking on their streets.

Even now as I sit here back in humid and dense KL, typing this, my mind is bathed in endorphins as I think about what it was like to be in Paros. That things are chugging along just as they were when we were there. Despina is still welcoming guests to her abode with her warm smile and hearty breakfasts in the morning. Glafkos is still dishing out delectable calamari and turning away hopeful diners because they are fully booked. The streets are lined with visitors from around the world, baked by the Mediterranean sun but joyful for being in the midst of a gorgeous island getaway. And Lola, the aged and grumpy cat I met somewhere in the town centre of Naousa is hopefully still guarding the entrance of that cute boutique that’s tucked under the stairs. ‘She’s an old lady’, a girl sitting outside the boutique assured me when Lola gave nary an expression to me when I tried to play with her.

Lola the Grump

The same can probably be said of Paros. An old lady of the sea, glistening throughout history from her renowned white marble. She may not be as zesty and sociable as Mykonos or as breathtaking and spectacular as Santorini (as we would soon find out), but she has a charm or two up her understated sleeves yet. It’s not an obvious charm, but once properly unveiled, it can be quite breathtaking. It says a lot, given our initial impression of her, that Paros ended up being our most favorite portion of this Greek sojourn and will probably always hold a special place in me and my wife’s hearts.

Santorini awaits.

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This is Greece (Day 1 – 3)

Mykonos.

I have an occasionally fractured mind.

I’m not a person with an elaborate wish list in life. It’s a habit. Wish for less, and you get less disappointed when you don’t get your wishes fulfilled. But as I began writing this I am suddenly reminded of something I did as part of some group exercise years back – to identify some dreams I may have in life. As part of the exercise we were asked to draw out our dreams on a sheet of paper that we were supposed to frame up. I remember drawing the Greek flag. I don’t actively remember Greece being one of my dream travel destinations to begin with, but I do remember the activity of drawing that flag. Which probably means Greece was somewhat floating in my mind as a place I would like to visit at some point in my life’s existence.

Yet, when the wife put forth a query to me on where we should travel to this year, my answer was a rather resounding ‘anywhere’. That is if a response like that can be resounding. It was truly really an ‘anywhere’ for me. I mean I would’ve preferred to answer an ‘everywhere’ but remember that ‘wish-for-less’ thing about me? Yes. And to then have to decide between chocolate, banana or butter cake when I never knew cake was important to me until three years ago is like being asked at a buffet line – ‘what are you going to eat’? – ‘I guess I will decide when I get there’. Not even when Greece was mentioned as a possible destination at the start of the year, did my ears perk up and my memory jogged. In fact, I even offered a lazy retort for our original choice of Croatia and Bosnia, because well, Daenerys (In hindsight Greece over Croatia could not have worked out any better).

But yet as I sit here writing this, tanned like a Bronze hyena and taste buds sufficiently tingled by the taste of exceptional Mediterranean seafood, I am suddenly reminded of that activity and me drawing that flag. So it turns out that I had a wish fulfilled when I had forgotten it was a wish to begin with. Does that even count? Can you name and tag something on to your bucket list, after the fact? Hmm … feels like it’s cheating.

I had quite little inclination regarding Greece before I got there. I am not always one to do a clinical investigation into the history and details of a country before I visit it. Why? Because I am not a dignitary who is trying to build trade connections. I am on a ‘vacation’, and that word can be categorized broadly into just about anything from having an uneventful cup of coffee at a café at Paros port, powering an ATV rather unconvincingly across Mykonos or just spending the night in café hotel in Santorini. I don’t always need my vacation packed with eventful nuggets. I suppose I should, given we (me and my wife) really don’t travel that often. Perhaps I have taken my wife for granted because she always comes through with us having the best experience on any vacation or maybe I am just someone who can find happiness in almost anything when we are on vacation. Yeah, probably the second one (coughs).

Greek weather is like being hugged and slapped at the same time. The first thing I felt when stepping out on to the airport tarmac to the plane that would take us from Athens to Mykonos is the wind. It’s gusty, enthusiastic and chilly. It lulls you into thinking you should reach into your bag for your jacket and just as you do, it fades away, leaving the punishing heat that more than often feels a little like you’re a bell pepper being roasted on a slow charcoal fire. Not that I would know what that really feels like but I am assuming it’s just pretty bloody uncomfortable. And this parlay basically plays out back and forth, like being the center of a tug of war between Buffy Summers and a, err vampire?

The plane we were taking to connect to Mykonos was tiny. How tiny? Well not as tiny as a two-seater sea plane but tiny enough for it to have propellers and the attendant requesting that we redistribute ourselves in a more balanced manner across the plane for weight management. There might’ve been a slight possibility that if I made some strategic efforts to lunge myself at the right side of the plane that we could’ve had paella in Barcelona instead that evening.

Our vessel.

People have impressions of certain countries. They may be pretty accurate or absolute nonsense but they are impressions nonetheless. I had patches of impressions of Greece of course – the Moussaka from that café in PJ, Zeus and his philandering ways, Angelos Charisteas’ winning goal against Portugal in the 2004 Euros and the Kraken in Clash of the Titans. I have since discovered that the Kraken belongs to Scandinavian folklore, which perfectly explains why it did not come greet me at the shores of Kolymbithres beach on Paros even though I implored it so fervently to. If you can’t trust movies anymore, what else can you really trust?

But buried deep under all that fluff, I have always had a more subconscious impression of Greece – that it’s a dated country and its datedness would be confirmed by the mullets the people choose to wear on their heads and the dated classic rock they choose to play on their stereos. I am not sure why this is the case. At the same time, I quite consciously banish these thoughts because well, it’s silly, disrespectful and probably completely inaccurate. Right? Yes. Well, that is until I boarded the bus upon reaching Mykonos airport and tucked into the driver seat was the bus driver, who looked like an offspring of a union between wrestler Shawn Michaels and well, Shawn Michaels (Okay, my bad, shouldn’t have brought you there) and fitted out with a flowing mane of The Rockers-era mullet. As if things cannot get more testing for my mind, he turns on the stereo and what does it play? ‘Walk of Life’ by Dire Straits. I mean of all tracks the uncoolest, bandana-waving classic rock dross you can find. It was the most open invitation for my mind to misbehave.

I started out as a novice traveler years ago, bandying the idea that I was someone who preferred a vacation in the city rather than the outback or the beach. I’ve since revised this view dramatically but if I were to experience a city while traveling, my preference is to experience cities that are dense and chaotic with imperfect pathways, uneven steps and shops and buildings with messy configurations and sizes. I mean what’s the point of experiencing a city that’s impeccably planned, perfectly outlined and neatly constructed (I’m looking at you Sydney)? If I wanted that, I’ll just buy a Lego set. Actually, Mykonos doesn’t exactly have a city. Chora is often cited as its main hub but it’s at most a vibrant town. There are no skyscrapers or wide and long streets filled with automobiles. In fact not even bikes and ATVs are allowed into Chora so you can walk in relative peace and not to have to worry you’re going to get mowed down by an enthusiastic grandma on an ATV. Instead it’s bustling with people decking through its complex and windy streets. Streets that are just bursting with little nooks and lanes that lead to even more nooks and lanes. Essentially, it’s a maze, but a maze lined with gellatorias, fish taverns, cafes and even a gorgeous port, so you don’t actually mind getting lost in it.

I suppose you wouldn’t mind getting lost if it means stumbling on to something like this.

That saying, it’s that same messy and irresistible structure of the city that resulted in us being thrusted into a roundabout quest to search for our lodgings. When you ask for directions and someone says, ‘It’s two streets back’, it’s a little problematic when it’s not really clear what constitutes a ‘street’. The amount of small lanes running through building and structures can sometimes cause you to wonder if you’re doing the math right. Was that two streets, or just one and a half? So we tried various mathematical permutations and we were still very much lost. I was starting to think that a ‘street’ is really a ‘continent’ in these parts and that maybe we booked a lodging in Minnesota by mistake. Alas, we found the place eventually. Turns out it was a nondescript building that we must’ve passed by about 560 times in our search. Perhaps someone should tell them that it’s really a lot easier to look for something if you have a sign upfront?

Actually, it feels a little overzealous to call the commerce and home structures in Greek islands ‘buildings’. Huts? Pods? They are mostly the width of living rooms in developing Asian nations and do not go more than two stories high. It’s common for people to be living above nick-knack shops and bars on a busy street. There’s a kind of romance to that, living in a Mediterranean concrete hut, right in the middle of a Greek island buzz, with the sound of revelry and dining all around you. While that’s generally the case where I come from as well, it’s not quite as romantic when you’re eking out an existence in a grimy flat above a dense and humid street as opposed to living in an arctic white structure (with pastel-colored window panes) between charming cobbled streets with the cooling Mediterranean breeze blowing through your home and the sound of the Aegean sea waves greeting you in the morning.

Much like how I took my first travel steps convinced that I prefer city vacations, consequentially, I used to say that I dislike beach ones as well. Why? Well what is there for me to do? I don’t swim, nor look good topless running in a pair of sexy red shorts or able to move gracefully while playing volley ball in a skimpy bikini. As you can see I have no bloody idea what really goes on at a beach or that whatever I think goes on, is probably about 20 years outdated. Our trip to Danang two years ago opened my mind up to the possibilities of how lazing on a beach can be fun for a tubby swim-light human being who is afraid of the open ocean like me. All you need is a book, and own the act of ‘dipping’ like you were born for it. Yes, dipping. Some people swim, others like me dip. It’s a thing. Watch this space.

Agios Ioannis beach on Mykonos provided us with probably one of our most memorable days in Greece. But it’s not like a lot happened. If anything it’s arguably a day where the least happened for us. Perhaps it’s the tranquility that only a secluded beach could provide, with the waves roaring against the beachfront as the radiating sun cooperates with the sea breeze to construct a haven for you to just sit back with a book, shutting your eyes occasionally and just allowing your mind to take a long and deep breath. I could never see the logic of how some people would say they love running because it helps them think. How can you think when you’re in a moving iron maiden. Now lazing on a gorgeous and secluded Greek beach, this I can understand how it helps you think. If only what helps me think doesn’t make me fatter but actually helps me get fitter instead. I guess that’s my lot in life.

It was a sand, Pina Colada and sea kind of day at Agios Ioannis. I of course say that, completely aware of how contrived it sounds, except that for someone who has only very recently learned to appreciate the merits of spending time doing nothing on a beach and drinking alcohol, I am pretty much still in the impressionable pup phase of this sojourn so don’t mind me as a pant and stick my tongue out for a bit. I became so comfortable with sand on my feet that I took quite a bit of it with me to the restaurant for lunch. At some point I stared down in the midst of stuffing my face to find a pile of sand under me. It looked like I’ve tunneled like a mole from the ground for some sea bream.

Not to show the obvious but, yeah …

I got acquainted with the Aegean sea as well over the course of the day. By sporadically dipping (yes own it). The water is always deceptively cold in Greece. With the sun funneling down like an aerial barbecue pit, you would think that at some point it would heat up the sea. No chance. I suppose it’s akin to biting into a fried ice cream pastry. The thrill is in the torture perhaps? Me and the wife usually do a three-count, dive in and surrender ourselves to Poseidon’s cold, cold heart.

The coldness of the Greek sea is not only mitigated by the searing heat, but also the warmth of the people living in Greece. There was some heat emitting from the fit and dreamy lifeguard at Agios Ioannis as well but I suspect that was mostly felt by my wife. We would encounter individuals, vendors, servers throughout our 10-day sojourn who would come to redefine friendliness and service to us in many ways. At the top of the list was Yannis who works upfront for Kounelas Fish Tavern, whom we met on our second visit to the place on our last day at Mykonos. It’s infectious to see him work, chatting with passersby, cracking jokes with diners and attempting to speak the local languages of the different people he meets. He thought Malaysians were generally ‘darker-skinned’ than we were, explained to us what Mastika was and how to drink it (‘We sip it, we don’t do shots’) and attempted to speak decent Mandarin with us when he told him we were ethnically Chinese. He was not self-conscious about his love for the food he was selling, the people he worked with and the job he was doing. It was enlightening to watch such candor in action. Here was someone who has eked a meaningful existence on a gorgeous island, doing what a lot of people would foolishly call ‘insignificant work’ but has radiated the days and nights of so many diners and revelers by just simply loving what he does and believing in what he is selling. And why wouldn’t he? Kounelas serves some of the most delectable and freshest seafood I have ever tasted.

Cured sardines at Kounelas. Not from a can …

A friend remarked that Greek food is ‘simple but delicious’ and I couldn’t have concocted a better description of it myself. Nothing we ate was very complicatedly put together or terribly fussy up till this point. Just some of the freshest ingredients (particularly seafood) tossed on a searing grill and salted. No sauce or a thousand ingredients, just food tasting the way it’s meant to be tasted. We had a rude awakening on just how large a pork Souvlaki can be in these parts on our first day, but since then we’ve dined mostly from the grocer in the sea and it does not look like it was going to stop anytime soon. The Greeks treat their seafood seriously, which is basically an all-encompassing love letter to my wife. They treat fish like Asian do, good from head to tail and we felt so at home eating there. Every meal was paired with lovely wine and a side of bread. No sauces are given beyond olive oil, balsamic vinegar and lemon slices. It’s like taking food back to basics, to what it should be really about – the freshness of things, of dining straight from the produce of the land and sea, without the commerclialisation from middle men who step in to provide us with produce that are pricier, less fresh but more convenient to purchase.

The sea urchin pasta. Looked just a tad better than it tasted unfortunately.

We experienced the full gamut of dining options in Mykonos, from the sit-by-the-sidewalk style meal of pizza and ‘Portokalopita’ (orange cake with honey) from il forno di Gerasimo, a charming Greek-style bakery to the fussier end of the spectrum with Spilia at the other side of the island. Our conclusion? Finer Greek dining options doesn’t have a lot on its grimier counterparts. You’re better off saving that additional €30 and spending it on fancy late night cocktails. Sea urchin pasta sounded like the pasta equivalent of a Randy Savage/Hulk Hogan team-up to my wife but it turned out ridiculously underwhelming at Spilia. To top it off it was quite a quest to get there, about 19-minutes on an ATV.

I know, 19-minutes is hardly a lifetime. In fact, in most fantasy canons it would be laughable to call that a quest. It’s more like stepping out to the garden rather than journeying to Mount Doom. But if you factor in the fact that it’s left-side drive in Greece, most roads in Greek islands are single lane and that I have never been on ATV before, those 19-minutes felt like the third act in Endgame. In hindsight it was a scenic, breezy drive up and down hills and coastal roads to get to our dinner but in the midst of that 19-minute journey, it was like trying to read Shakespeare while being strangled. So stressed was I on the contraption that any missed turns was not resolved by a three-point U but to go straight and hope that the road doubles back somehow like a faithful boomerang. My wife felt necessary to point out the fallacy of renting an ATV for flexibility but not being flexible myself. Boo bloody hoo.

No u-turns on this baby.

Mykonos is often cited as a party island. But that seems to suggest that it’s packed with drunks, getting overtly fresh with everyone and piercingly-loud music punctuating the air. We experienced none of the sort. In fact, so much so we started wondering where were the ‘parties’? Our money’s on the beachfront clubs but Chora, for a city boy like me, hardly registers much on the city-vibe scale. There are clearly a lot of people, but it’s people dining over good food, with a glass of wine or two. It’s hardly a London rave in the 90s with Begbie.

The truth is Mykonos does offer plenty of options for seclusion if that’s your preferred beverage. Moments that spring to mind is us having coffee on separate occasions at Little Venice, just taking in the sun and the turquoise sea, or staring out our bedroom window at the empty cobbled streets in the morning, buying delicious spinach and feta pastry from a home-style bakery around the corner. Don’t get me wrong, there was clearly a lot of people buzzing about, but the beauty of what was around you was louder and more pronounced than tourists in sundresses. We still managed to feel alone, amidst people.

Paros awaits.

Yesterday once more

We sometimes forget just how much our pasts inform our present. I visualize our pasts to be like a petulant kid who has uninvitingly intruded into your home, parks himself (it’s a boy in my head) in an inconspicuous corner of your house and refuses to leave. You’ve tried various approaches to get him to leave but he refuses to. He largely sits quietly in that corner. Pretty soon you hardly notice him anymore. So you go about your days like he wasn’t there. But occasionally, he lets out a shriek to remind you that he’s still in your house and then you experience the entire turmoil of having an intruder in your home all over again. But eventually you become complacent and not notice him again and you get on with your life. Except, he’s still in your home.

I think moving on from your past involves you knowing what you’re moving on from. My past has been viewed through a variety of filters and lenses that has severely distorted what really happened, what it really meant and how I eventually interact with it in my present. I have been trying recently to inquisitively prod and investigate these things in my mind, to open doors I had conveniently closed and kept shut with a huge sticker upfront that says ‘Out of sight, out of thoughts’. It hurts to drag these facts and events out into the light again and to properly see them for what they are.

It’s been a painfully humbling experience over the last couple of weeks. It feels a lot like skinning your inner man slowly with a pocket knife. I’ve had to face things that make me feel worthless, emasculated and emotionally immolated. Things that I have dressed up in pretty dresses that are in actual fact horrendously ugly in form and I have had to stare that ugliness in its face.

I see God as the social services worker that is eventually going to come around and remove that ‘petulant’ boy from my home. But right now, I have to first get to a point where I can consistently convince myself that that he needs to be removed. That involves me dragging a chair in front of him, looking into his eyes and seeing him for what he really is.

Something that should not be in here …

Last night I dreamt that somebody loved me

Perhaps this is somewhat improper to say but there are not many Biblical characters that I truly resonate with. Some people may pitch the likes of Paul, Moses and David as their heroes but I never felt much of an affinity with them. Mostly because if the Bible was represented as an American high school, then these are your jocks. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying they are perfect. We all know all of these characters displayed flaws in the course of their life’s narrative. But they overcame whatever supposed dysfunctionality they had and transformed their narrative into something entirely different. Something more … jockey?

Being someone who has never pitched himself even remotely close to the popularity stakes, I find myself slithering into the dark side of the Word of God to find people within its pages that I feel, at least represents some of the same struggles I have. Jonah comes immediately to mind. The very fact that his book sits within the pages of God’s approved-canon suggests at least to me, that the God I love and serve has to have some kind of sense of humor, and more importantly is not above having a discourse about the weaknesses of men.

More recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about Saul. Yes, the King, initial human benefactor of David’s rise to political power, gradually, his sternest critic and eventually, his enemy. Reading Saul’s Biblical narrative, one can’t help but wonder if we’ve missed maybe a whole chapter where he flicked a finger to the heavens and boiled every firstborn of Israel at the time.

I can imagine myself stumbling into the same potholes Saul did. The same indecisiveness, scatterbrained-ness and insecurities he seemed to have, I seem to have in great abundance today. I suppose you could argue he was king and as such should be held to a higher accord of abilities and fortitude. But I can’t help but feel in most of the key encounters he had with the people around him and with God, he resembled more a boy trying to find his footing but finding at each step that he had no support, which results in him stumbling even more. I’ve been there myself, doubting myself when it felt like the people around me was not giving me the support.

As his narrative unfolded it just gradually became one of the most contemporary human ones in the Bible. He eventually devolves from king to schemer/murdering despot, driven insane by the insecurity that was consuming him. Again, I have seen myself abandon logic and serenity during times of duress and great insecurity. What he did (besides the murdering bit) was well within the realm of comprehension for someone who is suffering from great insecurity. But yet to have proper context is to examine the circumstances that led to his state of great insecurity. It’s hard to make sound decisions when every step you make seems to be a misstep in the eyes of the people around you.

There are many sad moments in Saul’s narrative but none more so than this encounter with the prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 15:24–28: 24 Then Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned. I violated the Lord’s command and your instructions. I was afraid of the men and so I gave in to them. 25 Now I beg you, forgive my sin and come back with me, so that I may worship the Lord.” 26 But Samuel said to him, “I will not go back with you. You have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you as king over Israel!” 27 As Samuel turned to leave, Saul caught hold of the hem of his robe, and it tore. 28 Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to one of your neighbors—to one better than you.”

Ouch.

I sometimes wonder what God sees when he looks down on me. At other times I wonder if God plays favorites. If I have to be honest, the Bible is filled with characters and situations that polarizes me personally as a believer. Some I have resolved by applying scant internal logic, some I continue to struggle with. Saul is one such character that I wrestle a little with. I know God does not demand perfection but obedience and that was ultimately what he failed at but I’ve been in many situations where intent is rather different from the outcome. What then? Am I also put to the sword on that technicality? If so, then principally, given how dismissive I am of people who behave that way, what does that say of my relationship with God?

So many questions.

This blue world

Here is this vast, savage, hovering mother of ours, Nature, lying all around, with such beauty, and such affection for her children, as the leopard; and yet we are so early weaned from her breast to society, to that culture which is exclusively an interaction of man on man.’ – From ‘Walking’ by Henry David Thoreau

I’ve just finished Frank McCourt’s wonderfully snarky ‘Teacher Man’ In it, he referenced a lecture by American poet. philosopher and tax resister, Henry David Thoreau concerning the idea of just continually walking the earth, experiencing nature, without the need to double back to the start. The thought immediately intrigued me.

The thought that intrigued me was not about retreating back into nature, which forms a large portion of what he was trying to say. Not that I don’t like nature. I just like it with a little air-condition. Make what you wish of that statement. The thought that interested me was the idea of allowing ourselves so much freedom that we would not need to double back to anything. It’s never occurred to me until now that an important tenet of civilization is the need to close the loop. Exploration is encouraged but not unconditionally. Otherwise you’re just a vagabond. It would seem the term ‘explorer’ may be either somewhat elusive or entirely conditional (explore, but you have to return) in this modern age.

My wife’s dog comes to mind. How he is more often than not, intent on zipping out of the gate when it is opened. When he has intention to do so, he is completely single-minded and driven to accomplish his mission. He truly believes in that moment that freedom and doggie heaven awaits him beyond those steel bars. But yet when he does get out, he often never allows himself to get very far, or at least, far from the ‘familiar’. Namely, us. The trick to lure him back in is not to chase after him, because that just encourages him to run farther because the ‘familiar’ is just a few steps behind him as he makes haste. The trick to getting him back is to close the gate and to head back into the house. Counter-intuitive I know, but works like a charm every time. Because as he plays temporary explorer and glances back towards the porch, he sees no one familiar. No one beckoning him to return. It would seem freedom then quickly becomes overrated when weighed against the prospect of having nowhere to call home. Pretty soon he is at the gate, beckoning to be let back in.

I’ve never entertained the thought of just walking out and never doubling back. I’ve loved the thought of it, of not being bound by the expectations of society and my social connections. When I decided against the concept of God years back, I inserted myself unknowingly into a vast plot of free land. I have up to that point labored under the expectations of religion, family and relationships and have mostly reciprocated accordingly to all of them. But suddenly I found myself completely free of all those expectations. Barring disease and social norms, I could’ve booked myself an escort for a good night and it would’ve fit somewhere within my acceptable moral compass at the time. I could’ve gone out and drunk myself into a fool and come home to my bed, without much condemnation from myself, and little from the people around me. But yet I did none of those things. I continued to go about my life like I still had those initial expectations placed upon me. Why?

Perhaps like my wife’s dog, I have grown accustomed so much to the familiar that absolute freedom no longer seems as appealing. I no longer need actual freedom, but just a notion of it, a whiff of it once in a while, and I can be contented. Perhaps I am indeed wedded to the breast of society. But just entertaining the thought of dropping all my routines, lifestyles and expectations, opening the door, heading out and never coming back still causes my heart to do a little skip. I don’t know where that skip comes from. Perhaps it’s the little explorer in all of us. The based nature that civilization has gradually built on and snuffed out. Perhaps it is a thought that appeals to all of us at a very, very fundamental level.

But if personal history has told me anything, it is that if I was indeed offered an opportunity to walk, I would most probably chicken out anyway.

I see a darkness

“So yeah, singing as a way of expressing or escaping or expelling unbearable events: if you have a thinking brain, which some of us are cursed with, you have to have something, and it could be singing and it could be alcohol, but it’s progressive rather than regressive—you don’t get better by drinking.”

Will Oldham, from Will Oldham on Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy

In my head, I possess an instrument that is able to construct full-formed worlds within seconds, sweep them aside in a torrential tempest of despair before putting myself as the protagonist in a tragic comedy that involves the end of the world, morality and probably, a girl. Yes, I am cursed with a thinking brain, and no, I am not patting myself on the back. To have something within you that is integral to you functioning at your best but having to also constantly wrestle with its basic urge to stage a coup d’état every couple of seconds to entice you to being at your worst is really not something that’s worth fawning about. The bible offers a draconian way of settling wandering eyes and itchy hands but last I checked, it did not suggest us cutting out our brain and casting it into the fire.

Instead it offers us the suggested solution of taking ‘captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ’. Which conjures a mental picture of me trying to get a fidgety and rebellious child to sit still and quiet in the chair in front of me when he/she is in absolutely no mood to. I am not a parent, but I can imagine that is often much easier said than done.  

To be fair, I have over the years, gotten better at taming this wild beast. In my 20s, I used to be able to think myself from fluffy clouds to the sixth dungeon of hell within minutes, without much prodding or encouragement. I could simply think myself into a lonely and dark place without a trigger. Which is probably why it would be peculiar if a review of me as a person in that period did not contain the word ‘moody’. That’s just a polite way of saying I was mentally self-destructive or at the very least, emotionally distracted.

Writing used to be the outlet, the expression I needed to funnel all the thoughts I had into a constructive medium. But over the years, that’s lost a lot of its luster. I still write because I feel compelled to express, but it’s no longer an adequate coping mechanism for the things that are happening in my head. So like a drug-dependent patient with a chronic disease, I’ve given up trying to permanently solve my ailment. I no longer have a creative or feasible means of banishing it from my existence nor am I able to get it to sit down obediently.

So I’ve instead opted to ignore it when it’s quietly perched in a corner. I don’t rouse it and I no longer make any grand overtures to remove it from the room. It has its side of the room, and I have mine. Sure, it occasionally still feels compelled to invade my space and trouble me, but the instances have decreased tremendously over time and I’ve stopped looking for a fight with it. I take any peace I can get and at the moment, it’s rather peaceful.

Perhaps one day I may be inspired to pick up a spear and attempt to bring it into captivity again, but today is not that day.    

Past lives

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.”

George Orwell, ‘1984’

I’ve been thinking about the future a lot more.

It feels strange to me, this business of thinking ahead. Mostly because I’ve never done a lot of it before but also because it’s an activity that stems from the idea that you trust in possibilities.

I suppose the reason why I have spent a lot of my existence merely trying to manage through the present is because I have always been a huge believer of the philosophy of shooting oneself before someone shoots you. That way you can ensure it only hurts as much as it needs to and you can keep a backdoor ajar for the possibility that you can go, ‘yup, I was right with you all the way on that one.’

But if there’s one thing I’ve come to learn is that to properly live, we are sometimes required to put ourselves in situations where we risk becoming great clowns. No living can ever be done without some risk.

So here I am casting my lots into the future, hoping for the best and expecting no dystopian boot to my face because I don’t deserve that shit anymore. And if it happens that I end next year wearing a size nine mug, I shall comfort myself with the notion that I at least tried to live a little.