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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.