I watched a documentary called ‘After So Many Days’ yesterday about a little-known husband and wife musical duo called Jim and Sam who embarked on an adventure to play a show a day for a year and how that tested their resolve as a band and as a couple.
I found many aspects of this film moving and affecting at quite a fundamental level. The scene where Jim declared them the ‘Unluckiest Band in the World’ after their highly anticipated but failed SXSW show and started reading out a list of imaginary emails from publications and shows that they wished had invited them for interviews and meetings was painful to watch. Only because I absolutely know what that feels like. I’ve been at that end of that barrel before. Anyone that has every tried to bring their art into a public space knows what that feels like.
Jim and Sam’s adventure, while looking like magnificent copy on paper, was of course, anything but. There were shows that were cancelled cause of weather, shows where they had to just pitch up and play literally anywhere (pizza parlors, salons, barber shops, liquor stores, etc) cause there were no official shows on those days and shows where they had so much hope for which crashed and burned.
Yet, I can’t but feel that at the end of such an arduous year that most people would call pointless (they may have gathered a few new fans along the way but their Instagram followers numbers suggests that they may not have blown up the way they were hoping to) , that the most valuable thing that they have are the memories of that adventure together and that is something that will remain special when the lights are dimmed and the curtains are slowly drawn on their lives.
Sure, experiences like in the Northeast in that mussels restaurant on day 55 was probably painful to endure. No musician enjoys seeing their art being ignored on the account of shellfish. But there was also that wonderful experience of singing at that convenience store on day 110 to a bunch of people who appreciated their music. That show on day 224 in the UK where because Sam was bedridden from stomach flu, they invited some neighbors over and sang a song to them while she was in bed. That spontaneous song they played on day 258 in a bakery in honor of Jim’s aunt who passed away that day. That show in Poland on day 332 where they played to an appreciative crowd and the owner made them fish after the show. That song they sang to two appreciative Starbucks drive-thru staff in the States. Or that show on day 204 playing to a herd of cows in Sweden. Yes, even that half a song they played to that delivery guy in Iceland. The shows in Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, etc.
I watch a film like this and it just makes me consider so many things. So many deep feelings about so many things. The life I’ve led. The chances I’ve not taken. The things I could have experienced. I do not envy people who have more things than me in life. People who pursue wealth so they can afford richer food, nicer cars and larger houses. If they are happy with that then it’s great for them. I feel mostly apathy towards people who have more stuff than me.
But I watch an experience like what Jim and Sam just went through in the film and I am seething with envy. Seriously seething. Envy for the fact that they found someone that was equally willing to leave their conventional lives behind momentarily in pursuit of something insane. Envy for how they had the lack of self-consciousness to even attempt an experience as nerve-wrecking as this one. Envy for the fact that for now until the end of their lives, they will always have this amazing adventure that no one will ever be able to take away from them.
I was asked by my wife last night what my hope was for 2021.
I gave the usual answer with a side of ‘peace on earth, mercy mild and God and sinners reconcile’. Rather telling was that nowhere in my succinct list was there a hope for things to go back to what they were.
Buried deep in my heart, I’ve not been very eager for things to go back to what they were.
Of course I say this without any prejudice towards people who have struggled financially through this pandemic or people who have had loved ones taken by it. I have nothing but respect for you who have soldiered through 2020 under those circumstances.
It’s unfortunate that it took a ravaging pandemic for humanity to take stock of its decisions and to just stop where it was heading. My deep wish was that it was a white paper by a very smart person, a rallying call by the leaders of the world or heck, a song by Bruce Springsteen. Instead it took a pandemic.
As I sit here typing this, I just witnessed a well-dressed man trying to enter a building, without a mask, confidently walking in and gesturing to the guard that he’s just heading up a floor and he should be allowed an exception. He was subsequently pulled back and told that he needed to check-in, get his temperature taken and was asked to put on his mask just like everyone else behind him. Turns out he did not have a mask with him. He was denied entry and was told to head to a store across the road to buy one. He stepped out and just stood there for a few minutes. Occasionally shuffling around his pockets, looked back at the door, wrestled with his ego a little before walking across the road to get himself a mask.
It felt a fitting analogy to the minute good that the pandemic has had on society. For too long the agenda of humanity has been organised not by severity, but by class. And while inequality continues to exist in any civilised society driven by capitalism, there is a slight warmth that comes from having the entitled among us reined in a little. It seems almost poetic justice that it should come in the form of the one thing that levels the playing field for all of us – our impending mortality. I guess it has to be that for everyone to take notice of it. This was not a ‘poor person’s problem’. It was a disease that crept into the highest halls of society and government.
For too long we’ve been a society that ignores the plights of the marginalised, underappreciated the ones who worked unseen to keep the pillars of our lifestyles in place and rewarded the people who continue to sink us deeper into our mire. Something desperately needed to change.
Again, I stress that I am saddened that it took the lives of millions.
I guess we had gone so far into self-destruction, it required something equally devastating to stop us.
‘There was no party, there were no songs ‘Cause today’s just a day like the day that he started No one has left here that knows his first name And life barrels on like a runaway train Where the passengers change They don’t change anything You get off; someone else can get on …’ – Ben Folds
I’ve been thinking a lot about death.
I know, it’s hardly the appropriate tidings for the season but it is what it is. Don’t get me wrong, I also in equal measure enjoy staring at our lovely Christmas tree and recently, watching ‘Love Actually’ as the token yuletide movie of the year. So it’s not like I am growing moldy sitting alone at home on a wing chair in the dark. But at the same time I have also been thinking about death, a lot. I see it even in songs that are really not about death (The Ben Folds song above is about someone being laid off).
Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the precise moment when it happens and how that would feel like.
As a Christian, I’ve been conditioned since young to focus on what happens after that moment. The bright light, the rejoicing, the yellow brick road and Oz. Just kidding. Jokes aside, I do fundamentally believe in the moment after of course. You can’t exactly subscribe to only a portion of what you consider the truth. But it won’t stop me considering the flip-side to that which is just a big well, nothing. No big party. No bright lights. Just, nothing. The cliché often employed is that it’s like going to sleep but not waking up.
I must confess at certain points of my existence that has sounded somewhat, comforting. Lately it hasn’t been though. I’ve been thinking a lot about what ‘nothing’ feels like. Yes, it feels like nothing, of course. But that just seems so stark, so brutal. That the amount of energy and force-of-will that it takes for us to go through life is just snuffed out in an instant and there is just, nothing.
If I am being honest it feels a little lonely. Not that you would be conscious of that when it happens because you are just in that big nothing, but that’s my sentiment on how the nothing would feel like.
In this age of almost unmitigated popular culture saturation, one can become a little desensitised about death and to be fair, for a long time, I was. But lately, I’ve been processing every death I read about or even see on screen. I consider what it would’ve felt like for them at the point of death and how it would’ve felt like if they had indeed stepped into the huge nothing. Even reading about people who have long gone sparks bouts of rumination. Like how I recently read about the making of Bowie’s 1971 record ‘Hunky Dory’ and I started thinking about how it’s been already four-years since he’s died and how he would never been experiencing new things anymore, new sounds and new words and everything with him has just come to a grinding halt. And this is a man who literally rewrote the rules of rock music. What more me, some random guy living in Kuchai Lama?
“Every human is a little bit sad all the time because you know you’re gonna die. But that knowledge is what gives life meaning.” – from TV show The Good Place.
I write all this in the expectation that weeks from now, I won’t remember that I wrote a single one of these words. That like most existential crises, it just fades away to the background because something else just becomes louder. That quote from The Good Place sums it up nicely. That the very concept that our expiry clock starts on the day we are born should be enough to render us unwilling to do anything and just give up altogether. But humans are resilient and we just get on with it, by minimising this dark inevitability into the background of our lives and to just kick this bucket decades down the road and occupy ourselves with things that gives us meaning and happiness today. If you think about it, life is just a series of distraction tactics.
I am also cognisant of the fact that I appear to be writing all this rather atheistically. Like I personally believe there is just a huge nothing after we die. But that’s not what I believe. I believe there is something more awaiting us at the other side.
I was having a conversation recently with a friend and she raised a point about whether she was doing enough with her life, given many people have earned millions by the time they were her age. It’s a logical thread of thought. The human disposition, and in many ways, its sickness is often that it feels it doesn’t have enough and as such, should pursuit more. We quickly concluded that we are just people that don’t love money and success enough to give up just about anything in pursuit of it.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the little comforts that money brings. Like having a stable roof over my head with air-conditioning (my wife still doesn’t believe I was born in Iceland and dragged forcefully into a tropical hell but the truth will always remain the truth), having a spacious couch and a TV in front of it, taking my wife out to a dinner she deserves on occasion, having the ability to buy a vinyl I really want on some months, rewarding myself with a decent cup of coffee when I feel like it and buying a slightly more expensive book that I really want to read, off BBW season. I do enjoy these things.
Except personally, I really don’t need much more beyond these things.
I still drive my 11-year old Toyota even though we can probably afford a nicer car. The day I change it would be because it can no longer practically fulfill its function for me, and not because I want to drive a newer, sexier car. I have no desire to buy more expensive music equipment. I still play my trusty Peavey because I’ve always managed to make it sound right to me. I could upgrade my sound setup at home to something slicker but the hand-me-downs I have now works just fine so why change it? The clincher of it all is that lately, the chorus of ‘let’s change our TV to something nicer’ has been coming more from my wife’s end than mine, the supposed ‘TV addict’.
We did spend on traveling. We did it because we agreed very early on that if we were going to spend on anything, it would be on experiences. Things that enrich our lives in a way shinier possessions could not. For the rest of our lives, me and her will always have that drive we took on the Northcoast 500 in the highlands of Scotland with Mazzy Star playing on the car stereo back in 2018. No one can ever take that away from us and it most certainly won’t end up in a landfill.
I’ve always seen traveling as a privilege anyway, and not a right. I am grateful for everything I experienced but if I experience nothing else for the rest of my life, it’s fine. A person with an upbringing like mine was not supposed to be able to walk the beaches of Paros. At some point, I might’ve accessed a cheat code and honestly, I am just glad I managed to get away with it.
I’ve always felt like this – that money has no hold on me beyond the basic comforts I require. Except for the longest time, I had not enough of it. I was labelled by someone once close to me that I was calculative when it comes to money. It’s quite hard not to be when you are splitting pennies. I wasn’t doing it because I loved it so much that I was not willing to part with it. I was doing it because I was trying to ensure I have enough.
These days, I am firstly thankful that I have enough. This is important to me and I take not a day of it for granted. Which is why I tell my wife that I hate it when we waste food unnecessarily because I don’t want to forget the days when my family had not enough of it. How I almost never buy clothes that are above a certain price, no matter how much I like or can afford it. How I almost always eat at the same ‘Yong Tau Foo’ place near my home when I am having dinner on my own. And I actually do still get the tingles at the prospect of eating baked beans and luncheon meat with rice (it’s the best). Some of these things I do instinctively, some of it I do intentionally; to remind myself that while I am thankful for where I’ve ended up, I am also grateful for where I came from. I don’t ever want to turn soft from comfort and become ungrateful and entitled.
Yes, on most days, I am thankful I have enough. And on some days, I am thankful that because I do, I can confidently say now that money really has little hold on me.
There is a deep comfort that comes from knowing that.
“I want you flat on your back. Helpless, tender, open with only me to help. And then I want you strong again. You’re not going to die. You might wish you’re going to die, but you’re not going to. You need to settle down a little.” – Alma, Phantom Thread (2017)
The line above rounded off a gorgeously-affecting movie with a drop of cough mixture, leaving us with taste, perhaps a little too bitter in the mouth. It was a cunning sleigh of hand, a slap from your blind side. For the length of film, you were working on the pretense that what we would see unfold is love eventually warming the oddest of hearts, and you would be forgiven in thinking that was what you got in the end, but what we got was really not a tale about love.
It was a tale about addiction.
That Alma was willing to accept Reynolds in whatever shape, form or posture, just as long he was present and that Reynolds was essentially willing to subject himself to whatever contortion just to have her continue to be around, reeks of something a lot more nefarious than love should be. I consider myself to be fairly open to rather leftist iterations of what love could look like but this really does not look like love. It looks more like addiction.
Which then set me off on a lengthy thought process about how it would look like to be addicted to someone. I mean it’s certainly plausible, since Robert Palmer had a hit about it back in 1985. Then again he sang about being addicted to love, which may be slightly different from being addicted to someone. Okay, overthinking again. In any case, it’s irrelevant (the plausibility of the Robert Palmer song’s contents), given that I am someone who recovered from being addicted to someone. So it does happen.
It’s ironic because having someone be ‘addicted’ to you may be a prose that can be celebrated by selected public as an acceptable expression of love. To some it is the promise land – to have someone be helplessly fawning over you.
But yet the dysfunctionality presents itself in its byproduct. You would be hard pressed to defend the idea that an addict is simply someone who loves his drugs too much. It’s a little more sinister than that. So to equate that to love seems a little too radical even for someone who is more fluid with these things.
So if you are someone who enjoys the idea of someone potentially being addicted to you, then you are not behaving like a lover, but like a drug. You put yourself out there and hope that someone gets hooked-in, line and sinker. You may think what you’ve reeled in is a lover, but what you’ve caught is really an addict.
The dysfunctional relationships and friendships I’ve had in my life have always looked a lot like addiction. I may have tried to label them as a severely sacrificial form of love but in hindsight, they actually looked a lot more like an addiction – the drug being the person you are addicted to.
I’ve since considered the symptoms I was showing at the time when I was in those dysfunctional relationships; the abandonment of logic and principle, alienating friends and loved ones; a constant need for the person to be around; severe anxiety when there are signs that I can no longer be with the person; mounting financial problems driven by the need to service the addiction; severe rationalization of situation no matter how obvious that things were not going well, etc. I could go on.
Like an addict, you are quite powerless to stop yourself from being addicted. People have asked me why I subjected myself to those relationships and friendships? Why couldn’t I see how destructive they were? Why did I allow myself to be hung so far out to dry? Why did I behave with so little dignity?
To be honest, the answer is I don’t know.
It does look really cloudy on the inside. There is some awareness that things are not well but you fear even entertaining the thought of not having your drug anymore. So you hold on with all your might and hope the drug doesn’t destroy you too much and that people around you do not notice how it is changing you, killing you.
I have at times described this addiction as a kind of imbalance. I can see it quite clearly in some relationships and friendships, even today. I suppose an ex-addict will always be able to spot another addict. What does it look like? To put it simply, it looks a lot like one party having a lot more dependency on the other. Like how an addict is completely vulnerable to the whims and fancies of the drug they are addicted to and is willing to do just about anything to ensure they don’t ever lose it. I see it in their body language as a couple, I see it in the words they use, I see it in the decisions that are made.
And it still scares the daylights out of me when I see it today, even in others.
I sometimes do worry if that addiction has damaged me irreparably. But then, I am also comforted by the realisation that this worry keeps me on the edge, so I can ensure that I never fall into it ever again. The important thing I’ve realised from my addiction is that the drug is merely just a manifestation of what I desired. If it’s not that person, it would’ve been someone else. They became the drug because I desired to be an addict. I desired to be an addict because I was broken inside.
Contrary to what the hits tell you, love is not blind, love doesn’t have to bite, love doesn’t make you lost and love doesn’t make you lose yourself.
You can never get enough of what you don’t really want
from Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things
Me and the wife sat down and watched a good documentary film yesterday about, well, ‘the important things’, according to its title. The film is essentially a statement of how uncontrolled consumerism has been ruining our lives. It doesn’t really say anything we have not already considered but it managed to say it in a way that compelled. And tuck between the many quotable statement by the many people who were featured in it was the quote above, and it has sufficiently lodged itself into my head since.
Throughout this pandemic, I have started and ended many days, glued to the screen, consuming the news on what is happening around the world. One of the rhetoric that keeps recurring in discussions between world leaders and experts in their various fields is the concern on when people can start ‘resuming’ their lives.
Everyone is so preoccupied in wanting to ‘resume’ their lives that no one has bothered asking if we should. And I am not talking about a longer MCO. Perhaps if there is anything we should be learning from this crisis or should learn at its eventual conclusion is that life most certainly should not resume as it was before this happened. That we should take this as a harsh, harsh lesson on how we should rethink the way we’ve lived our lives. If we have taken some moment to look beyond the just fact that this crisis has severely interrupted the routines of our existence and beyond to what its larger implications have been, we would have started asking ourselves some very difficult self-admonishing questions about the way we’ve gone about things as a species before all this happened. This pandemic has in one or two deadly swoops, essentially decimated our way of living, one we’ve spent hundreds of years constructing. This disease respects no one you respect, and loves no one you love. It takes who it wants to, no matter if you are the most powerful man in your company and home, or if you’re living on the fringes of poverty. And in just a matter of months it has in essence managed to make humanity do something it probably hasn’t in thousands of years. To stop. To halt progress.
It’s tragic to think that it has taken an awful virus that squeezes your lungs and literally chokes the last breaths out of you, to get us to stop. Yet what have we been preoccupied by in this moment of halt? Resumption, to continue the journey we were on before. Instead perhaps what we should be doing is to ‘reflect’. To start asking ourselves questions progress has distracted us from asking. Was the journey we were on really that great? Was the journey we were on making us happy? Or have we at some point in the last few hundred years, completely and utterly lost the plot?
In the learning and development industry, there is a concept of how we should chunk out our development time called ’70-20-10′. It refers to the percentage of time we should spend on different areas of development. Have we similiarly started asking ourselves how we’ve chunked out what and where we spend our time on in the routines of our lives?
Have we started asking ourselves what and who we should value in our lives? That we sometimes prefer to spend more time with people who really wouldn’t matter after we submit a resignation letter, over the people who will be there beside you at your deathbed at the end of our existence. That the only reason why this happens is because we have a new car to pay for or an ego that needs servicing through stature in society?
Have churches and institutions of worship started asking itself how things should be different in the future? That churches should perhaps look different than how it did before? Less foundations and mascara and more ‘the bits in between the teeth’ because that is where the people are truly suffering. I love seeing the church going back community work as being its main agenda. It’s not that the church has stopped doing it before, but we can argue that it has not been its main agenda for a while now. One only needs to take a look at where it spends most of its time to truly know what matters to it.
That when there are no sharp suits for cameras to trail on or no fancy imagery to dazzle our senses that perhaps that is when one can properly question themselves what truly is their relationship with God all about? That when the routines of worship are taken apart, reconstituted and smashed that it is an opportunity for people to truly ask themselves the sobering questions they’ve been distracted from asking themselves all this while?
Have we as a society asked ourselves what we truly value? Because talks is cheap. I have read hundreds of tributes from people towards those of us who are working in the front lines – the nurses and caregivers, the people sorting out the fresh produces you buy, the cashier at your grocery store, the people who deliver your lunch to your doorstep. That in this time of crisis, these are our heroes, the people who are keeping society from collapsing altogether. Matthew 6:1 in the Bible says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Have we started taking a long and hard look at how, in the future, we can appreciate the important roles these front liners play for our society more by not having them be constantly struggling at the fringes of society but to put our ‘treasure’ towards where all our hearts are at the moment, which is alongside wherever they are, risking their lives for us. Let’s not forget that when life ‘resumes’.
Actually, instead of striving to ‘resume’ our life, we should instead be striving to ‘restart’ it, from zero. Or perhaps to ‘reboot’ it. Anything but just simply resuming it to what it was before, because that would be the tragedy that follows the first, that despite paying for it with the lives of people we loved that we did nothing with the time and instead went back to exactly what we had before. And that we learned nothing from it all.
The truth is, whether we like it or not, life won’t be the same anymore for a lot of us for some time. We will be forced to rethink the constituents of our existence and how we go about it no matter what. We can spend that time kicking against that notion or we can use it as an opportunity to reflect on how it can be different.
Perhaps we should start thinking about what we don’t want anymore in our existence, in our society and to not chase those things anymore. To be different from here onward.
I’ll end my thoughts here with a quote from a book (‘Everything that Remains’ by The Minimalists) that was featured in the film.
“I’d been running in one direction as fast as I could, chasing this abstract thing called happiness, but I’d been running the wrong way. I was sprinting east looking for a sunset, when all I really had to do was turn around and walk—not run, just walk—in the other direction.”
I once scoffed when a friend told me that the reason why her brother broke up with his girlfriend was because, ‘she felt too good for him’.
I scoffed for two reasons. The obvious being that it sounded like a blatant cop-out. The kiss before the punch. ‘No longer attracted to you anymore’ or ‘I’ve fallen for another person’ not cutting the mustard for his nice-guy image perhaps? It’s like the choice between shooting someone cleanly in the head and ending their misery in a split-second or elaborately trying to hang them on a noose and watching the life drain slowly from their eyes. Assuming you really needed to end someone’s life, I don’t think I need to point out to you which is the better option.
The second reason I scoffed was that it felt like he was pissing on my meal. A large portion of society are trying to get to a point where they are happy. Or at the very least, happier than where they are at the moment. Some of these people do not know the first thing about where to start getting there. And here comes my friend’s brother who found the door, but decided to slam it shut cause it looked too inviting.
Sure, in longer hindsight I can recognise that my prejudice grossly oversimplifies the idea of happiness and just how difficult it can sometimes be to allow yourself to be happy when it finally arrives at your doorstep.
I am at a place where a decade ago, I would define as being ‘where I wanted to go’. I got the girl, I got a home and I have a job that I do not hate. I have enough time to catch up on my TV to unwind on some weekdays and to serve the community at my church on most Wednesdays and some weekends. I am no longer the Arthur Fleck-type character that can’t seem to pull his life together no matter how hard he tried. After 42-years of existing, I may be finally be coming to something resembling equilibrium in my life. Took a while, but I finally got here.
But yet, I have this almost subconscious compulsion to find something to be unhappy about even when things are going splendid. Perhaps there are those of us that are built with a little more complex parts. Parts that are too intricate so there are more opportunities for the machinery to break down. At least, that is what I say to console myself.
‘You grow up around something, and it feels like nothing.’
Jin Lee, Columbus (2017)
I’ve been thinking about this quote that zipped almost pass me in the gorgeous sleeper drama Columbus that I watched recently. It’s one of those films that appears to be about nothing, but is really about everything.
I love films like that sometimes, beyond the smash-grab kaiju films that mostly fill me with glee. Films that can draw you into their solitude somehow by draining all excesses of entertainment, until all that is left is just an emptiness that almost reflects the pockets within the major events of our lives, films like that intrigue and attract me. I almost always feel the same after the credits roll on them. I would like to know more about what happened to the characters. Did they get to where they needed to go? You almost always don’t. And from that minor feeling of frustration and cluelessness, births a kind of fictional loneliness in the heart that I am somehow attracted to.
I sometimes think I have a sordid love affair with loneliness. I know it is wrong, but I can’t help it. I keep retreating back to that place of despair, like a dog that voluntarily walks back into a small cage, even though they’ve been set free from it, I’ve been conditioned by a kind of loneliness throughout my life and I feel the need to sometimes retreat back there when the lights are the brightest, to hold its hand occasionally just to be sure that it’s cold, unloving comfort is still there if I need it.
Perhaps my unconscious need to feel this loneliness occasionally mirrors my choice of films. That for every loud, banging blockbuster I watch, I seem to need to dial it all down back into a tiny little arty movie about two unrelated people who meet in a gorgeous charming town and find some solidarity in their respective solitude. Perhaps it is a bid to balance out the diet, with films as is with life. That only in constantly reminding ourselves of unhappiness that we can truly appreciate happiness. Again, this sounds like something I would say to make myself feel better about not feeling better. There is a special kind of insanity that I feel sometimes, being in this body, straddled with this mind.
You grow up around something, and it feels like nothing.
Perhaps the trick is to think of this nothing, as something.
The charm of a city for me, as I have often noted, is almost never in the sights.
Very few statues, monuments and buildings that would have trigger-happy vacationers snapping away their phone cameras like semi-automatic machine guns, interest me on a fundamentally emotional level. I can appreciate its beauty, assuming if it is indeed beautiful, but I often find myself gravitating emotionally towards things less seen. It might be a byproduct of not wanting to associate myself with thoughtless holidaymakers who very often may be taking a picture because they are told they should or that the person next to them is. I feel like saying ‘it’s not that I’m being judgmental’, but yeah I am. I can still remember the exact moment this became an issue for me.
It was The British Museum, London, 2018, at the Rosetta Stone display. The throngs of vacationers with their monopods and phone snapping away, a lot of them with their flash functions on, just imbedded something inside me and made me feel like I did not want to be there anymore. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with taking a picture of something that interests you, I do it all the time when I am traveling. The thing that made me feel sad was that almost none of them appeared interested to look at the stone with their own eyes, or even read the description on the display. A majority of them walked away after they got a picture. “Box ticked, let’s move on to the next thing I am supposed to take a picture of”. The entire situation was such a put-off that it made me completely disinterested with looking at the Rosetta Stone for myself. It’s like hating someone cause they shared the same first name as the guy who managed to snag your school crush.
We landed in Vienna at around slightly after lunchtime and proceeded to procure a car from one of the most obscure car rental section of any airport I’ve ever been to. I mean it felt like we were descending into Plato’s ninth circle of hell or the multiple levels of a suburban shopping mall (Yes, they are the same thing). Granted my mind may be a little foggy now on the exact details but the journey from the Arrival gate to the counter might’ve been a little like this.
Take an escalator down two floors.
Turn left just before the coffee stand and walk into the door just next to the broom closet.
Turn left just before the toilet but after the subway scene in the ‘Bad’ video.
Take a flight of stairs six floors down.
Fight through four battalions of orcs.
Third counter on the left.
It felt like the rental car companies in the airport were being treated like Milton in
We got handed a sparkly orange Jeep as our ride which is just the kind of loud statement we needed for someone (me) who had never driven on the left-side before. I mean what would you prefer if you had a car heading towards you on collision course – a boring silver sedan or a bright orange Jeep? My point’s exactly. That saying, left-side drive turned out to be not so bad. It’s really just a matter of thinking something but doing the opposite. Kind of like being in a marriage (okay low ball, don’t murder me dear). Three hours, a bitter lemon and a Beatles playlist later, we arrived at the legendary city of Salzburg. Yes, birthplace of Mozart, the Salzburger Nockerl and do-re-mi (Eh, no?).
My first meeting with Salzburg was a hopeful one. You know how it is when you meet someone for the first time and exchange pleasantries. In rather rare occasions you get this urge and prompt that this might be someone you want to have a proper conversation with, to actually get to know better. It’s hard to say what it boils down to. A slight pause in the middle of a sentence that seems intuitive to you, an inappropriate quip that happens to mirror what you were thinking as well, the color of their eyes, etc. It was like that with me and Salzburg. Our accommodation only had one shower and there were four of us so I slipped out for a short walk around the city while everyone else proceeded to clean airplane grime off them. It was really short, 20-minutes perhaps. I walked down Griesgasse and turned left on to Franz-Josef-Kai, walked along the riverside and up the Makartsteg bridge. The air was cool but not biting and the streets was quiet but not deserted. It was just the perfect combination of factors that made it pleasant after a long drive and flight before that. That 20-minutes, to gather my thoughts and reflect, gave me a nice in, to gradually develop an affection for the city. Catch even the most stand-up guy on the wrong day and you’re still not going to feel it. This was really giving each other whatever that’s necessary to form a meaningful friendship. That walk helped me do that. Me and Salzburg had a nice handshake and agreed we would see how this would go.
For me, the charm of Salzburg was not in Mozart Wohnhaus (the residence where Mozart grew up in), Hohensalzburg Castle or St. Peter’s Abbey, all admittedly beautiful, historically-rich and magnificent structures. It also wasn’t in the sprawling Mirabell Gardens, key stop in The Sound of Music tour, which my father-in-law was on in his mind, although I did managed to get a good shot there of myself without my gut hanging-out. Rarer than a golden tiger in a Karen Millen dress, that one.
The charm of Salzburg for me was in the streets worming from and around Residenplatz. Not the fountain where it was the site of some Von Trapp noodling but the unadorned and quirky streets strewn all around it like after-meal spaghetti specks on a plate.
I’ve always been attracted to the underbelly of a city more than its fashionable threads. I feel the true treasure of someone is never realized on their best days anyway, but their worst. It’s probably why I am innately drawn to characters with at least some residue darkness in them. I have very little interest in supposedly well-adjusted individuals.
I think it was Kurt Cobain who said, ‘I was tired of pretending that I was someone else just to get along with people, just for the sake of having friendships.’ Okay actually that just doesn’t make any sense whatsoever to the point I am trying to make but I was really struggling trying to find a suitable quote that was made by someone that is relevant to me. But I’m sure you get what I am trying to get at.
That saying, this was as well-sculpted an underbelly you would ever see. There are little nooks that take you to lovely tiny shops selling anything from Christmas trinkets to marmalade. It was not at all grimy or seedy. No slimy red-faced gruff in a floral shirt with stacks of gold chains around his neck that’s dying to be your genie in a bottle here. Just nice little cobblestone paths that lead into little gritty tunnels that open up into pretty squares.
I’ve always rated cities based on my very own ‘possibilities’ scale. What does this scale mean? It means I rate it according to the level of possibility that I may discover something interesting while walking its streets. I rate malls under the same scale too. The quickest way to turn me off a mall is to have exactly the same franchises every other mall has but in newer and larger lots. No interest in that at all.
I am more fascinated by dingy malls. The ones that offer the papa who’s been making coffee out of the same hell hole for the last 15-years. The one with the music shop with old faded CBS cassette copies of Springsteen albums. I have no interest in things that can be put together with a large pay cheque. I am attracted to history, to stories and well, possibilities. Salzburg does not rank as high up that scale as say a city like Bangkok or Mykonos, but it’s still pretty decent. The little nooks as mentioned, offer some hope for possibilities and that drove my intrigue enough to explore it further.
That saying, the culinary breath and borders of Austria leaves little room for any exploration. If Thailand’s was the size of the Americas, then Austria’s would be the size of my living room. Okay, sorry, there I go over-exaggerating again. I tend to do it when I am excited. It’s probably the size of an apartment block. Yup no more exaggeration. No ships needed to conquer this baby at all. Most restaurants that serve native Austrian food serve roughly about the same things, and there are not much twists to the tale. There are differences. Serving your Wiener Schnitzel with elderberry jam as opposed to lingonberry jam is a minor twist but hardly one that will get you off your seat. It’s mostly still a slab of breaded deep fried meat. I did not have a Schnitzel incidentally when I was at Salzburg. I was saving it like the epic orchestral closer of an album. It needed the right time and feeling.
Bärenwirt did provide a decent introduction into what Austria had to offer (which we later found out was the equivalent of three-chord punk songs that toggle between meat and potatoes). That saying this was pretty decent meat and potatoes. Parked under a hostel, the restaurant offered what off-hand looked like interesting choices. The frothed beer soup starter was interesting. I liked it. The wife wasn’t so convinced. I think she was expecting old cucumber soup with beer.
The Gebackene Kalbsleber mit Erdäpfel-Gurkensalat caught our eye (not because it sounded like an evil Germanic spell to us) but because it was ‘deep-fried calf’s liver with potato-cucumber salad’ (sorry to disappoint you spellcasters). I mean if you’re going to walk the tightrope with uric acid, why not be completely suicidal instead? I did love the ½ Backhendl mit Erdäpfelsalat (Einstein’s formula for relativity in German?), which was ‘deep fried chicken half-a-chicken with potato salad’ (starting to see a pattern here?). There was also too much Erdäpfel on the table in the end. The chicken was billed as ‘one of the best in Europe’ so we had to try it. Doesn’t have a nick on ‘goreng berempah’ but it was pretty good. Interestingly, it was half a chicken but each part was deboned so we had trouble separating between them. Asians no likey this.
As much as it wasn’t the charm point of Salzburg for me, I did enjoy my tour around Mozart Wohnhaus, the house that Mozart grew up in, which today doubles up as a museum dedicated to the life and travails of the Mozart family but more specifically Wolfgang’s father, Leopold. Walking through his life and how he fostered one of the greatest musical minds in history was fascinating. He did not complete formal education himself because he found it boring. He instead poured himself into music and read incessantly and he appeared to have a burning desire to nuture a curiosity towards life in his children. In their free time, they played board games, darts and bowling to entertain themselves. Despite not having formal education, he was still considered a highly intelligent man. He wrote Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule, which is still considered today as ‘the’ book for violin playing. It just put a smile on my face thinking that scores of stuffy people hide behind the veneer of classical music as a appropriate trope for their well-manicured life but in actual fact, history suggests that convention was hardly the main course of the day for a lot of these classical music greats. Snark at the punk who dropped out of school? Well, that piece you’re listening to was also written by someone who dropped out as well.
It was also particularly heartening for me personally to see the passion my father-in-law had in drawing context between the places we were visiting and the scenes in which did they appeared in the film. What film? That film. The only Salzburg-related film that is relevant to Asian uncles and aunties. Yes that one. It’s always nice to see older people within our orientation, being excited about something that is not just merely functional in nature. It’s one thing for them to be excited about getting a great deal on a mattress at the local mall, quite another when they appear curious and interested in exploring the sites of a film they loved so dearly in their younger days. Always puts a smile on my face when I see older couples immediately rush out to the dance floor to slow dance when their song comes up. Their bodies may look 60 but look at their eyes, they are 16 again. It was nice to see some of that spark in his eyes. He even watched the film in the plane to prepare himself. We visited the Mirabell Gardens, the Petersfriedhof cemetery and the Nonnberg monastery as a result, as he shuffled from one location to the next like a kid at the aisles of a candy store, arms spread wide, ready to grab everything.
Nonnberg, in particular, left the strongest
impression on me. Perched on top of a hill, it still houses nuns today,
with its historical structure buffed up by some modern expansions. It
has not lost its charm though. I walked into the cathedral
within the monastery grounds. I caught it at the perfect moment, when
it was empty except for someone who was knelt at the altar. For a brief
moment, there I was, in a historically-rich empty hall in a place quite
remote from where I am from, observing the
intricacies of the structure, I imagined what it would feel like to
convene with God here weekly. It was a good moment, but it was not a
good moment I can truncate down to a nice snappy reason. I felt a kind
of comfort, mixed with a dash of peculiarity – that
I was there and no one would be able to take this moment away from me
ever again. I took a picture of the cathedral as more of a mental note
to myself of the moment. Then other people started walking in and I made
my way out to the path just outside the gates.
Just as I did, a bunch of Americans, who were perched on one of the
lookout points just outside the gate with acoustic guitars and a cello,
started playing and singing Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’. The
rumble of the cello in particular gaining glorious
traction in the airy hills. This culminated with what I had just felt
and the gorgeous view of the whimsical city of Salzburg in front of me
just made me smile. It’s funny, when I think about my travels, my mind
immediately goes to these often scant impressions
that may seem nonsensical to everyone else, but incredibly meaningful
to me. I quite like that my mind is built this way.
Not that modern day Salzburg isn’t stuffy in some
way, despite the punky ways of its musical godfathers. It most certainly
is. There is a sense that this is a city, and possibly a country, that
hasn’t quite learned to let it’s pretty little
locks down properly just yet. I’ve written a lot about the Greeks and
how their warmth is a reflection of the weather that reside above them.
In that same way, the Austrian people were as apprehensive and cloudy as
their frosty months. That’s not to say we
encountered anyone who was outright rude to us. Oh wait, there was that
bald bastard at Café Tomaselli. Here’s a tip from me – skip that place.
Cakes were shit, coffee was tepid and its only saving grace was a
wonderful mezzanine floor outdoor terrace that
overlooks a beautiful square. Here’s my suggestion, look out your
accommodation window instead and spend your money somewhere that isn’t
run by stuffy grumps in white shirts draped over black, black hearts.
Salzburg isn’t a large city and it often felt like
all roads led to Residenplatz. That intimacy is what makes it a
wonderful city to explore. It at times felt like all the important ends
of the city are just around the corner or a short
walk away. That may not appeal to some but I’ve always been a deeper
rather than a wider person (Not talking about central midfielders in a
football formation). I need to drill into the bowels of the city to
really feel its vibe and to stare at its true face.
That’s how I learn to love a city. Not by walking just its pristine
streets or merely sitting in pretty cafes. Salzburg offered me a chance
to properly explore it, to really feel its vibe, to taste its air and
smell it’s scents in a way I did not (later) in
Vienna. I appreciated that.
If the Caldera view provided us with a glimpse of the magnitude of beauty Greece had to offer, then the Santorini airport provided us the perfect earthbound-crashing, reality check anti-thesis to that, and probably what we needed before heading to the dense streets of Athens.
My wife was yet again anxious about the amount of time to buffer for our trip to the airport and after bouts of strenuous calculations, she arrived at the conclusion that we should leave our accommodation at least three-days before our flight (just kidding). It was probably two-hours before, but it felt longer. ‘In case there is traffic’, is often the common retort for the often voluptuous buffer. As it stood, the only thing standing in the way of our transfer was the incessant selfie-taking habits of one of our co-passengers. Like, hot pants, obsessive toy-collecting and a pony tail (on guys), there are just some things that are the game of the young. ‘Selfies’ may just be one of them. Actually scratch that, a guy should automatically be maced in the ‘cojones’ if they have a pony tail. The ride took no time at all and we suddenly found ourselves at the airport with a lifetime ahead of us before our flight.
‘We can always sit down and have a drink if we are early’, is the secondary retort that often follows the first if there turns out to be no traffic. This one works better for me. I hardly ever resist an overture to sit down and take my time over a cup of coffee so why not savor one before our flight arrives in 1,538 years?
I spot a cafe outside the airport but the wife thinks it would be better to get into the Departure Hall and find a place to drink in there. Seems sensible. That’s what we often do at airports, just in case it gets slow at the screening stations when someone is slow in removing their laptop, camera, shoes, belt, pants and underwear during screening. Oh, you don’t have to take off your pants and underwear? The hell I would know. At the rate they are going I wouldn’t bat an eyelid if they asked me to hand over my left nut in the future.
So we handed our passports and boarding passes to the smiling gentlemen at the Departure gate and headed into the hall, ready to dunk ourselves into a vat of espresso and break into a jingle. Right? No
For one thing, the Departure hall was the size of the second room in my home. My home is 890sft. Yes, I am exaggerating of course. Actually, it was the size of about five of my second room in my home and there was about a hundred people huddled in there. This is the truth.
There was no comfortable cafe for us to sit at, no duty free stores to browse for a Salvatore Ferragamo eau de toilette. There were plenty of fragrances on showcase though, with the popular one yet again being ‘armpit’. And there may have been a cafe in the left pocket of the ground staff but I did not check. We also found out that our flight would be delayed so we had some time yet to really take in the fragrances around us, properly.
There was not enough seats to accommodate everyone so we had people sprawling all over the place, up the stairs, down the stairs and possibly even the roof. I briefly considered seating in the toilet cubicle. It was pretty chaotic. Updates were not coming through on time on the board, so instead we had to listen out for people literary screaming, ‘Flight to Athens this way’ and we herd ourselves out like lambs. It was funny cause not just hours before, we were serenaded by the sight of romance-filled Santorini and now we are rounded like cattle. Ah nothing like the sound of fantasies shattering.
We did eventually find a seat at the outer section of the upper floor, but as a result we had to brave mini sandstorms every time a plane rolled in. That and holding on to our seat like our left toes depended on it cause there were throngs of people eyeing each warm seat. This was seriously five-star realism if you want a proper experience on what it feels like to try and flee a war torn country. No stone was left unturned to give us the best experience.
It did bring to mind what a guy that owned a jewelry shop in Oia was telling us two days before about how Santorini was not meant to accommodate these many tourists, ‘It’s because they filmed that Korean movie here.’ I have a theory that most of the ills of the world can be traced back to Ed Sheeran and the Korean entertainment industry. You can check up with me later on that. This airport certainly looked like it was not meant to accommodate this many people. We did meet a lovely American couple while defending the territory that was our plastic chairs. He was in landscaping and she was a nurse. They were also flying to Athens.
It greeted us the moment we walked out of Athens airport. What? The sound and soul of a city. I’ve written before that the sounds that emit from the islands, while can be rowdy and noisy, is nothing like the sound a city makes. Here is the sound of industry, of cars battling cars and of people expressing frustration at a stressed-filled life. The melodies of capitalism, so to speak. At rare occasions, a city sings to you, but mostly it sounds like it is just groaning. At least the cities I am familiar with. And Athens sounded slightly familiar.
Athens feels a lot like a Southeast Asian city. It emerges in spots and flashes. The dense city streets with buildings towering closely around tight walkways, giving the impression that it desires to collapse on to you is one way it reflects. The air is also warmer and more humid, with the island breeze struggling to navigate through the crowded streets. The streets are grimy, caked by age-old stains of industrialism, the lack of civic-mindedness and slow maintenance. Everything else moves faster here though. Cars, people, dogs and conversations. There is less time to pause, think and reflect. It smelled and felt a lot like home. It was both comforting and disorientating. I nearly called the guy at the bakery ‘macha’.
But amidst all that, there is a charm that can be seen in Athens. An ancient charm. The city it is today is built on ancient foundations, proven by how The Acropolis remains still the heart of the city, visible at most notable corners of the city. There are sporadic corners of ruins peppered throughout the city, like tomato sauce that’s eager to peek through the cheese on a pizza, Athens’ ancient foundations cannot be properly quelled by the fires of modernisation.
The thing about experiencing the Acropolis, at least for me, is that you are not necessarily staring at something beautiful. It may have been beautiful once, but it’s beauty has long been filed down by the sands of time. It isn’t like staring out into the alps, or Lake Tekapo or the Grand Hall at the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna. The wonder of The Acropolis lies in its history and what it stood for during its time. It’s a wonder that requires a little more imagination. There is some beauty in its sheer magnitude but that is unfortunately tempered greatly by years of middle class Chinese business men back home adorning the front porch of their homes with miniature Ionic columns (why lah uncle why?)
That same lack of need to be contemporary that was so evident at the islands, is felt in Athens as well. The branding, prose and aesthetic of the city feels dated, but not in a cool way. More like a ‘I can’t be bothered to spend more money to update myself’ rather than a ‘let’s be vintage’ mindset. People still walk around in mullets and bell bottoms and the signage at most shops looks like they were carved out of the cretaceous period.
In many ways, Athens is like a city equivalent of most of our dads. They are well aware that their time has passed them by but yet they still try to excel at the same tropes that dominated their youth. They were young once but they often act like they never were. Athens knows it is ancient, and it is happy to excel at being just that.
The fascinating for us was seeing how Greeks do in a city, how they live, eat and celebrate life. We had a glimpse of how they do on islands but this was a proper, grimy and slimy city. What would they do? There are no beaches for them to lounge about to display those gorgeous face manes of theirs (the envy is still strong) or bountiful seafood catches for them to dip their fingers delectably into. What would they do without all of this?
For one thing, they stay in higher-rise buildings and shop for furniture in Ikea (sound familiar?), if our apartment in Athens was any indication. So much like an Ikea showroom was our apartment that I half expected a Chinese family to emerge out of the kitchen having tested the quality of the drawers, ‘Good quality wan.’
A bar called Bell Ray provided a nice moment for us amidst the frantic cajoling in the city. It was located just around the corner from our apartment and I believe we hit it on the first night we were there. Me and the wife have a running thread we go to when ordering cocktails – which is that the one I order always tastes better than the ones she does. I am attracted to certain elements and I deviate quite little from them so I rarely end up with a disaster. She on the other hand, loves playing Zorro when it comes to her drinks and she more often than not, finds herself coveting mine. If you are wondering if I engineered to tell this whole background story just so I can tell you that she won this time then nope, she did not. Papa reigned again here.
It was a nice bar though. Casual. Felt more like a cafe than a heavy bar. The kind of place you wouldn’t feel judged if you ordered a Martini or an Espresso. The music being spun by the DJ was nice as well, acid jazz mixed in with a little ambience and smooth electro. That and the bartender looked like Stephen Arnell but sounded like Sean Dyche. If you don’t know who these people are, take my word for it, he was awesome. Basically he should be serving out shots of testosterone instead of drinks with names like ‘Tikki Bob’. That saying I don’t think anyone else in this world can make ‘Tikki Bob’ sound as manly as he did. No, of course I did not drink a Tikki Bob. I drank an ‘Annie and Ben’ instead. Bite me.
Two meals book-ended our meals in Athens, both at different spectrums of dining. The first was a meal at Diporto. If I have been using no-frills to describe some meals in Greece so far, then Diporto took the term and power-slammed it through a roof. The walk to it felt like we were casually going from Streets of Fire to City of God in 500 meters. We passed a grimy market, damp and suspect streets and graffiti adorned buildings before arriving at what can only be described as a building built for the third act of a gangland extravaganza. In fact what eventually convinced us that it was the right building was a piece of graffiti that we saw that also appeared in a Google search of the place. I was resigned to being stabbed by a pocket knife after dessert.
Well, that is if they served dessert. They barely served a meal. This was a stall that is situated in Greece but fashioned out of the streets of Kuala Lumpur. The ‘take it or leave it’ spirit was strong in this one. For one thing the eatery was located at the basement of the building, operating out of a space that can best be described as part-Medieval wine cellar, part Asgardian dungeon. Oh wait, no, the Asgardian dungeon was nicer.
They only had a couple of things on the menu – a vegetable broth, a lentil soup, a chickpea salad and grilled sardines. That saying I’ve always been a lot more drawn to eateries with a scant menu cause it just shows me that they specialise in things. Want to turn me off? Have a menu that covers every dish in the world, and I will probably show you a restaurant that’s not really good at anything. Anyway back to Diporto. Yes, slim pickings but I was intrigued cause the place was packed. On top of that the guy taking orders looked like what happens if Michael Pena encountered a tiger that was picking a fight. He looked grumpy but also rather nonchalant about what everyone thought and did around the restaurant. He came for orders when he wanted to. Spoke when he wanted to. Brought food when he wanted do. There is a sense that not even a Demogorgon could make him do something if he didn’t feel like it.
As it turned out the sardines were some of the most delicious we had in Greece and the wine, which was obtained out of large barrels around the basement, was pretty gritty and rustic. It wasn’t complicated food or flavors but there is a charm about eating at a place like this and ordering the kind of food locals eat as kids in Greek homes. It’s not pretty and it’s not designed for mainstream consumption, but it taste of the land. And that was what made us love this place.
At the other tangent, there was Blue Fish. Not a fine dining establishment really, but they serve pretty intricate and tasty food. I honestly don’t remember much leading to the restaurant because I think I was suffering from a bout of mild heat stroke. I remember my wife leading me through streets, I was a little zonked from some beer I had earlier and I remember feeling parched and hot. It’s at least 20% possible that I may have dreamt this entire meal up as part of some flashback sequence but I just checked with my wife and she confirms that we ate here (phew).
We had a grilled octopus dish, a sea bass tartar with a mango sauce and a red fish dashi linguine. Every dish was truly sublime. The linguine was so good that I can still taste it today. There’s just a joy that springs forth from food that is made with love out of great ingredients. Don’t get me wrong, I get a lot of joy too out of sweating my way through my banana leaf rice at Acha while meat is being dunked into a huge vat of overused oil 10-feet away from me. But this joy is different, more sophisticated and rich. To be fair it is not a joy I feel very often in my life but I am starting to appreciate the merits of it. I told my wife that before I met her, I used to drive autopilot to the nearest mixed rice shop, wolf down a plate of it and go home and cry into my pillow.
But for the most part, Athens zipped by like a blur. Perhaps it is how my mind works these days. It registers less on the forefront of my mind if I experience things that is similar to things I would do at home. Being on the island of Paros, eating fresh seafood and staring out of to an aqua marine ocean is not something you can forget easily. Walking around Plaka, being hemmed in by people and trying to get the best deal for things, while incredibly fun and entertaining when you are experiencing it, seem to register a lot less for me now that I am home.
Not that I am complaining about being back in a city. I’ve found that a city is a good way to cap off a holiday before heading home. Less of a shock, more of a gradual sojourn back to reality. Athens provided that, with its stained streets, graffiti-filled walls and overflowing thrash bins. Oh, and I nearly got pick-pocketed on the way to the airport on our last day. He wasn’t very good. I felt it. I cursed involuntarily at him. I went up the train. Also, we got scammed by a lady with roses that was supposedly pregnant, but I think she was just, overfed. ‘Take me down to the paradise city where the grass is green and the girls are pretty’ Axl said. Not quite.
Stepping on to the ferry from the quaint and quiet town of Parikia at Paros and being dropped off at the port in Santorini is akin, I would imagine, to being born into this world under evening tones but being trusted face first into a bright spotlight immediately, in that it’s disorientating and overwhelming. The amount of people jostling in droves around the port, hustling for bus rides or just generally bumping around completely clueless is staggering. Staggering considering we just came from a port where we sat at a quiet bakery overlooking the sea, had a relaxing cup of coffee and some pastries, with a clearly demarcated information counter available clearly for you to find out where your ferry would dock when it arrives and when the time came to board the ferry, only a handful of tourists lined up civilly for their turn. Considering all that, the Santorini port was like Saigon in the late 60s.
The flavor of the trip on the packed bus was again of armpit. It was tempered somewhat by a hilarious conversation that unfolded before us of one Latino-looking guy telling another ginger-looking guy that he looked like Seth Rogen. Even if you really believe that, I am not sure you want to make something like that known to someone. You might as well walk up to someone and say that they look like a refrigerator. Ginger guy looked sheepish at the suggestion, probably caught between pretending he couldn’t speak English and rounding a left hook on the Latino. In the end he responded by saying he’s not heard that one before but there have been people who say he looks like Ed Sheeran. Okay I take my original point back, he deserved a Seth Rogen.
The bus stopped at the island’s main bus station at Fira so we had to take a bus to the smaller town our accommodation was in which was Imerovigli. Trying to catch a bus in Santorini made us miss home so much. The unhelpful officer at the help desk, the mess of buses parked all over the station as you walk from one to the other looking for the right one, buses who look like they are going to stop but then proceed to drive off without picking up any passengers, the lack of a civil line when trying to board one, etc. I mean who wouldn’t miss that? (I’m lying).
We were dropped about a 20-minute walk away from our accommodation so we had to drag our luggage up what was probably a hill but felt like Machu Picchu. It’s one thing to have to drag luggage up a dusty road, quite another to be doing it while being scorched by an unforgiving sun. I finally know what that sausage feels like in 7-Eleven. It’s hilarious how polarizing Santorini was from one street to the next. At no point did it feel like we were tracking to paradise. It felt more like we were carrying our own coffins to be buried with it. The town looked cramped. With roads generally looking like they were only about as wide enough for a single bus to drive through. The streets were lined with car workshops, rental companies and travel agencies. The wife expertly led us through the cramped streets towards our accommodation Nefeli Homes and it honestly did not look too hopeful. But just a short turn or two later, we arrived and we were suddenly faced with this view.
The adage, ‘take my breath away’ is used far too frequently in conversations and 80s pop ballads but this was a genuine moment. It’s not just that the view was practically unimaginable, it was also because of where we were coming from and how quickly it went from that, to this. It was also compounded by the fact that I was largely ignorant of what places my wife booked us into for the trip. It felt like she may have casually showed me this accommodation in passing but I may have been distracted by something else. Ignorance never felt so good. It added to the feeling of being sucker punched by both gratefulness and happiness.
Our host Roula greeted us with about as much warmth and friendliness as a person who looked like a frontwoman of a Satanic post-hardcore band could. She was decked completely in black, with jet black hair and an under-cut with pale corpse-like skin. She wouldn’t look out of place at all in a Morbid Angel mosh pit. But there she was, at the center of a tropical paradise. I wonder what her dark priestess would make of her occupation of handing out room keys to Asian tourists? And before we can pronounce ‘Imerovigli’ (actually this is not an accurate analogy cause it actually took us quite long to figure out how to pronounce it), Roula was helpfully and warmly rattling off things we can do and places we can eat at. If we had played a drinking game where we took a shot every time she mentioned ‘Caldera View’, we would’ve been pissed. It was the way she said it as well, sort of a cross between Romanian royalty and evil Balkan henchman.
Of course out of the many cafes and wonderful relaxing Caldera View drinking places she recommended to us to go to for the evening, we decided that we wanted to do the two-hour track from Imerovigli to Oia instead, at 3pm in the afternoon under the scorching Mediterranean sun. Why? Because we were schmucks. ‘Just follow the grey path,’ Roula casually mentioned. The grey path at that point looked like a slick road up a Hollywood driveway. So we girded up our loafers and slippers and took off like a pair of anxious sparrows, expecting a relaxing stroll to heaven on earth.
You know how sometimes in life, you get into something expecting it to be a certain thing only to find that it is nothing like that at all but you still put up a brave front because you don’t want to lose face for being so silly in the first place, until it gets so bad that you just have no choice but to admit it just plain sucks? You know, kind of like how the boyfriends of those social media influencers feel when she takes off her makeup for the first time and tone down the Beauty function on her selfies? Kidding (not kidding). That was what it felt like halfway through the hike to Oia. The grey path, turned out to only be a path for about 30 mins into the hike. From then on it was basically a pack of lions trying to have us for lunch. There were rough gravel paths, sharp inclines, dusty and sparse lanes, thorny shrub-filled roads that we had to literally fight through. After a while, we became suspicious of the friendly smiles from hikers that were coming back from Oia. Were they really friendly or were they laughing at these two Asian schmucks who were hiking in their loafers at 3pm in the afternoon? We were offered a donkey at some point for a ride. We briefly considered it. Enough said.
Interacting with the breathtaking views of Santorini was often like how you would a beautiful life-like painting. You are aware it’s there and what it is showing you, but there is a disconnect between what you see and what you are a part of. On many instances during our maniacal walk from Imerovigli to Oia, I glanced to my left to look at the Caldera view that was confronting me. And each time I did it, it was necessary to have a second step mentally to remind myself that I was actually there and what I am looking at was also there ‘with me’. Rarely in my existence have I encountered nature with beauty of this magnitude. I suppose what plays to the metaphor as well is that given the height and distance by which we were interacting with the scenery, everything seems almost at a standstill, kind of like a painting. Large ferries and boats were moving between islands before us, but at a pace that was not always noticeable from this distance. It was a painting except the objects were moving, just enough to inform your eyes that what you’re seeing is developing and changing but slow enough that you can take all the time you need to admire its magnificence.
Two hours later, we finally arrived at Oia, with dusty feet, burned skin and sweaty brows, a couple of hours short of the magic hour of sunset. If Santorini was a storm, then Oia was not the eye of it, it was the edges of it where cars are being flung to faraway places. There were people bleeding out of every orifice of the town. There were people on steps, people in restaurants, people leaning over edges, people under people, people on top of people, etc. If only I had a giant Green Lantern shovel I would push them all into the sea in one quick scoop. Alas it was a bright day but hardly our darkest night so we had to soldier on shoulder-to-shoulder with the masses of (mostly) Oriental straw hat/sundress-wearing types. Double groan.
Although to be fair, unlike many places I’ve been to, where the experience can be soured by the amount/type of people thronging it (To the bright neon-clad China tourists at Lake Tekapo, I’m talking to you) the glut of people at Santorini doesn’t have a nick on its spectacular beauty. As much as it’s crowded and noisy and that threatens to consume the almost unimaginable beauty of Santorini, it’s a meal far too large and magnificent for it to consume. In the end, the beauty of the island prevails handsomely over the downsides. If you feel bugged by the amount of people jostling at you at restaurants, bus stands and vantage points, just take a moment, take a step back and stare out into the Caldera View (said Roula style) and believe me, everything stands still again. It really is that beautiful.
The other experience that stood out for us in Oia was our visit to Atlantis Books, which back in 2016 made it to the top of National Geographic’s most interesting bookstores list. And to think we bumped into it by absolute accident, after being swept by the latest tidal wave of people making their way across the town to catch a glimpse of the sunset. The wave carried us and dropped us perfectly in front of Atlantis Books. Roula had mentioned it as part of her ratatatat list of recommendations list earlier but we thought little of it. But there we were, by serendipitous circumstance, in front of it. Being at Atlantis Books is quite an experience for book-heads like the two of us. For one thing to get into it involves you descending down a flight of medieval steps, almost like a metaphorical Lewis Carroll-like rabbit hole until you are in front of its rickety wooden door. And once in it you are almost literally washed away by a gush of books all around you. There are books at every direction and it can all feel a little too much to take. Thankfully Atlantis was built for a small family of hobbits so there is not a lot of space to cover. But whatever space it has is drowning in books of all sorts.
It’s a wonder in itself that we are able to step out of the torrential windfall of tourists above our heads and tuck into a basement filled with history and literary wonder. Most of the people crowding the streets of Oia were more interested to take another selfie than look at books, which really worked for the handful of us who were in Atlantis. A man could be heard telling the girl behind the counter, ‘It’s his money so he can do what he wants with it’, in reference to his son who is interested in buying a set of pricey but rare editions. Said girl behind the counter was heard telling customer later that she had just started at Atlantis two months prior and before that she was working in Spain. She is from America and she’s been making her way around Europe, working and traveling at the same time. Another man gestured to his elderly father at a wall of first editions. On quick glance, you could see first editions of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, ‘The Little Prince’, ‘Madeline’ and more. ‘Want a copy of ‘Mockingbird’ for €13,500?’ The father looked un-fussed. We bought a pocket size copy of ‘The Little Prince’ as a souvenir from the place because that was the first book we read together as a couple. How cool that they stamped the book, so that you can prove that you were there.
In her magnificent efforts in machine-gunning recommendation to us, Roula dropped a mention of Anogi in Imerovigli and how it was her favorite restaurant. She got us a reservation earlier and in hindsight, it turned out to be an inspired choice, not only because of the magnificent food, but also the fact that it was really close to where we were staying. Our feet was feeling a lot like they’ve been bathed in dragon fire after our hike so even a short walk felt like a torture. Many options were considered, from renting a donkey, praying for the powers of flight (or at the very minimum, float) to hiring a catapult and having it launch us on to our dining table. Nothing stuck, so we walked instead.
Anogi turned out to be one of our most memorable dining experience in Greece. So joyous was our first time that we went back there again on our second night. It wasn’t just the food, but just the vibe and feel of the place. No-frills dining featuring food cooked in rich techniques but rustic in presentation and taste. Oh, and the wine was cheap and fantastic as well. But above the food, what was fabulous about Anogi was the people. Everyone, from the two bosses who run the place to the variety of different front-house people and servers were just a delight to deal with. They were friendly, humorous and were very forthcoming with recommendations. Over-the-top good service doesn’t always happen back here at home so it’s not like I head out to restaurants when I am traveling expecting it. But when you do get it, that’s when you understand just what a difference it makes to someone’s dining experience. It was a cold and chilly night and the both of us were relatively ill-dressed for it but the soulful food and the friendliness of the people really warmed us up. Well, that is until the next gust of wind and we feel like our souls were being strangled by a yeti again.
The outstanding dish at Anogi for us, turned out to be the rooster pasta. Deceptively simple but really delicious, it’s a rooster poached in wine, baked and served on top of a bed of pappardelle pasta cooked in tomato sauce and Mediterranean spices. It was so good. How good? We had it two nights in a row. The smoked pork belly we had on the second night was pretty damn delicious as well. ‘How was the food?’, asked the male boss. ‘It was fabulous,’ I exclaimed. ‘No way, it was horrible right? So horrible that I am going to give you a desert for free’. Look, I am well aware that everyone gets the desert for free probably, whether you pretend-hated the food or not but it was still nice to banter with the person serving your food. Again, like Yannis at Mykonos, here is an establishment run by people who are passionate about what they do. It’s infectious seeing them work. They are constantly moving, tending to all the needs of the diners with patience and attentiveness.
Which is probably why people are thronging the place all night. Yes, all night. We were offered a reservation on the second night at 10pm. Felt a bit silly to be eating at that hour but given we had a pretty food-filled day, we decided to take it anyway. As it turned out there was a line out there, at 10pm. The line hardly subsided until 11.15. This was not a drinking establishment with food. It was a dining restaurant and people are willing to wait until pass 11 to get their dinner. Granted as we were starting to observe, Greeks do eat pretty late, this is still pretty remarkable. The female boss remarked to me that the kitchen would still be buzzingly dishing out main courses-till pass midnight. Forget ‘maggi goreng’ for supper when you’re feeling peckish later at night in Santorini, go for a pork shank instead.
I don’t need to constantly do stuff when I am traveling. Some of the best moments I’ve had while traveling have been the days when nothing is planned and something magical just drops on my lap. As I’ve said before, it’s either I am the luckiest traveler in the world or perhaps, I am a person that is quite easily satisfied. Or perhaps, my wife is just amazing at making something out of nothing at all. Probably that (saying this cause she has a gun to my head).
So in the spirit of being chilled and serendipitous, the evening of the second day at Santorini provided a magical moment for us in a most unexpected way. We had spent a fairly innocuous day shopping in Fira and visiting a farther-away town of Pyrgos. Sat on top of a hill, Pyrgos offered almost panoramic views of the island. We declined a further 3km hike up to the Holy Monastery of Prophet Elias that is sat on top of Mount Profitis Ilias, which would have been spectacular. Why? Because we are on a holiday and not in an iron maiden. The day had instead zipped by in a haze of ice Freddo Americanos. On our way back we somehow made our way to a church building near our accommodation in Imerovigli that was overlooking the Caldera, and there was a small crowd gathered there.
We did not manage to catch the sunset satisfactorily in Oia the day before because we had to take in the sight of the sunset often together with noisy barbaric Chinese aunties waving their monopods around like maces. This was a decidedly more serene experience with everyone just relaxing in their respective spots, with minimal chatter and no jostling because there was enough space for everyone to have a good view of the sunset. It was magical, like life painted over in a warm hue or a gorgeous filter. It was like my soul took a huge and long breath at that moment, ready to face the rest of its existence, from there onwards. The sky danced to the tones being painted by nature as the sun made its way to embrace the horizon. It started out in bright yellow but gradually dimmed to a magenta, like the lowering of curtains after a spectacular show.
In many ways, that was the fitting end to our time in Santorini and more broadly the Greek islands. We would go on to have a dip in our accommodation’s freezing pool overlooking the Caldera and a second meal at the wonderful To Honaki chip shop (so good that I forgot to mention the first time we ate it) before leaving on a plane to Athens but that sunset, where we managed to, for a moment, slow dance with one of nature’s finest sights, will always be the official ending to our sojourn at the islands. It has been an unbelievable magical journey through landscapes that at times, beggar belief and partake in experiences that we would remember fondly for the rest of our days.