I have an occasionally fractured mind.
I’m not a person with an elaborate wish list in life. It’s a habit. Wish for less, and you get less disappointed when you don’t get your wishes fulfilled. But as I began writing this I am suddenly reminded of something I did as part of some group exercise years back – to identify some dreams I may have in life. As part of the exercise we were asked to draw out our dreams on a sheet of paper that we were supposed to frame up. I remember drawing the Greek flag. I don’t actively remember Greece being one of my dream travel destinations to begin with, but I do remember the activity of drawing that flag. Which probably means Greece was somewhat floating in my mind as a place I would like to visit at some point in my life’s existence.
Yet, when the wife put forth a query to me on where we should travel to this year, my answer was a rather resounding ‘anywhere’. That is if a response like that can be resounding. It was truly really an ‘anywhere’ for me. I mean I would’ve preferred to answer an ‘everywhere’ but remember that ‘wish-for-less’ thing about me? Yes. And to then have to decide between chocolate, banana or butter cake when I never knew cake was important to me until three years ago is like being asked at a buffet line – ‘what are you going to eat’? – ‘I guess I will decide when I get there’. Not even when Greece was mentioned as a possible destination at the start of the year, did my ears perk up and my memory jogged. In fact, I even offered a lazy retort for our original choice of Croatia and Bosnia, because well, Daenerys (In hindsight Greece over Croatia could not have worked out any better).
But yet as I sit here writing this, tanned like a Bronze hyena and taste buds sufficiently tingled by the taste of exceptional Mediterranean seafood, I am suddenly reminded of that activity and me drawing that flag. So it turns out that I had a wish fulfilled when I had forgotten it was a wish to begin with. Does that even count? Can you name and tag something on to your bucket list, after the fact? Hmm … feels like it’s cheating.
I had quite little inclination regarding Greece before I got there. I am not always one to do a clinical investigation into the history and details of a country before I visit it. Why? Because I am not a dignitary who is trying to build trade connections. I am on a ‘vacation’, and that word can be categorized broadly into just about anything from having an uneventful cup of coffee at a café at Paros port, powering an ATV rather unconvincingly across Mykonos or just spending the night in café hotel in Santorini. I don’t always need my vacation packed with eventful nuggets. I suppose I should, given we (me and my wife) really don’t travel that often. Perhaps I have taken my wife for granted because she always comes through with us having the best experience on any vacation or maybe I am just someone who can find happiness in almost anything when we are on vacation. Yeah, probably the second one (coughs).
Greek weather is like being hugged and slapped at the same time. The first thing I felt when stepping out on to the airport tarmac to the plane that would take us from Athens to Mykonos is the wind. It’s gusty, enthusiastic and chilly. It lulls you into thinking you should reach into your bag for your jacket and just as you do, it fades away, leaving the punishing heat that more than often feels a little like you’re a bell pepper being roasted on a slow charcoal fire. Not that I would know what that really feels like but I am assuming it’s just pretty bloody uncomfortable. And this parlay basically plays out back and forth, like being the center of a tug of war between Buffy Summers and a, err vampire?
The plane we were taking to connect to Mykonos was tiny. How tiny? Well not as tiny as a two-seater sea plane but tiny enough for it to have propellers and the attendant requesting that we redistribute ourselves in a more balanced manner across the plane for weight management. There might’ve been a slight possibility that if I made some strategic efforts to lunge myself at the right side of the plane that we could’ve had paella in Barcelona instead that evening.
People have impressions of certain countries. They may be pretty accurate or absolute nonsense but they are impressions nonetheless. I had patches of impressions of Greece of course – the Moussaka from that café in PJ, Zeus and his philandering ways, Angelos Charisteas’ winning goal against Portugal in the 2004 Euros and the Kraken in Clash of the Titans. I have since discovered that the Kraken belongs to Scandinavian folklore, which perfectly explains why it did not come greet me at the shores of Kolymbithres beach on Paros even though I implored it so fervently to. If you can’t trust movies anymore, what else can you really trust?
But buried deep under all that fluff, I have always had a more subconscious impression of Greece – that it’s a dated country and its datedness would be confirmed by the mullets the people choose to wear on their heads and the dated classic rock they choose to play on their stereos. I am not sure why this is the case. At the same time, I quite consciously banish these thoughts because well, it’s silly, disrespectful and probably completely inaccurate. Right? Yes. Well, that is until I boarded the bus upon reaching Mykonos airport and tucked into the driver seat was the bus driver, who looked like an offspring of a union between wrestler Shawn Michaels and well, Shawn Michaels (Okay, my bad, shouldn’t have brought you there) and fitted out with a flowing mane of The Rockers-era mullet. As if things cannot get more testing for my mind, he turns on the stereo and what does it play? ‘Walk of Life’ by Dire Straits. I mean of all tracks the uncoolest, bandana-waving classic rock dross you can find. It was the most open invitation for my mind to misbehave.
I started out as a novice traveler years ago, bandying the idea that I was someone who preferred a vacation in the city rather than the outback or the beach. I’ve since revised this view dramatically but if I were to experience a city while traveling, my preference is to experience cities that are dense and chaotic with imperfect pathways, uneven steps and shops and buildings with messy configurations and sizes. I mean what’s the point of experiencing a city that’s impeccably planned, perfectly outlined and neatly constructed (I’m looking at you Sydney)? If I wanted that, I’ll just buy a Lego set. Actually, Mykonos doesn’t exactly have a city. Chora is often cited as its main hub but it’s at most a vibrant town. There are no skyscrapers or wide and long streets filled with automobiles. In fact not even bikes and ATVs are allowed into Chora so you can walk in relative peace and not to have to worry you’re going to get mowed down by an enthusiastic grandma on an ATV. Instead it’s bustling with people decking through its complex and windy streets. Streets that are just bursting with little nooks and lanes that lead to even more nooks and lanes. Essentially, it’s a maze, but a maze lined with gellatorias, fish taverns, cafes and even a gorgeous port, so you don’t actually mind getting lost in it.
That saying, it’s that same messy and irresistible structure of the city that resulted in us being thrusted into a roundabout quest to search for our lodgings. When you ask for directions and someone says, ‘It’s two streets back’, it’s a little problematic when it’s not really clear what constitutes a ‘street’. The amount of small lanes running through building and structures can sometimes cause you to wonder if you’re doing the math right. Was that two streets, or just one and a half? So we tried various mathematical permutations and we were still very much lost. I was starting to think that a ‘street’ is really a ‘continent’ in these parts and that maybe we booked a lodging in Minnesota by mistake. Alas, we found the place eventually. Turns out it was a nondescript building that we must’ve passed by about 560 times in our search. Perhaps someone should tell them that it’s really a lot easier to look for something if you have a sign upfront?
Actually, it feels a little overzealous to call the commerce and home structures in Greek islands ‘buildings’. Huts? Pods? They are mostly the width of living rooms in developing Asian nations and do not go more than two stories high. It’s common for people to be living above nick-knack shops and bars on a busy street. There’s a kind of romance to that, living in a Mediterranean concrete hut, right in the middle of a Greek island buzz, with the sound of revelry and dining all around you. While that’s generally the case where I come from as well, it’s not quite as romantic when you’re eking out an existence in a grimy flat above a dense and humid street as opposed to living in an arctic white structure (with pastel-colored window panes) between charming cobbled streets with the cooling Mediterranean breeze blowing through your home and the sound of the Aegean sea waves greeting you in the morning.
Much like how I took my first travel steps convinced that I prefer city vacations, consequentially, I used to say that I dislike beach ones as well. Why? Well what is there for me to do? I don’t swim, nor look good topless running in a pair of sexy red shorts or able to move gracefully while playing volley ball in a skimpy bikini. As you can see I have no bloody idea what really goes on at a beach or that whatever I think goes on, is probably about 20 years outdated. Our trip to Danang two years ago opened my mind up to the possibilities of how lazing on a beach can be fun for a tubby swim-light human being who is afraid of the open ocean like me. All you need is a book, and own the act of ‘dipping’ like you were born for it. Yes, dipping. Some people swim, others like me dip. It’s a thing. Watch this space.
Agios Ioannis beach on Mykonos provided us with probably one of our most memorable days in Greece. But it’s not like a lot happened. If anything it’s arguably a day where the least happened for us. Perhaps it’s the tranquility that only a secluded beach could provide, with the waves roaring against the beachfront as the radiating sun cooperates with the sea breeze to construct a haven for you to just sit back with a book, shutting your eyes occasionally and just allowing your mind to take a long and deep breath. I could never see the logic of how some people would say they love running because it helps them think. How can you think when you’re in a moving iron maiden. Now lazing on a gorgeous and secluded Greek beach, this I can understand how it helps you think. If only what helps me think doesn’t make me fatter but actually helps me get fitter instead. I guess that’s my lot in life.
It was a sand, Pina Colada and sea kind of day at Agios Ioannis. I of course say that, completely aware of how contrived it sounds, except that for someone who has only very recently learned to appreciate the merits of spending time doing nothing on a beach and drinking alcohol, I am pretty much still in the impressionable pup phase of this sojourn so don’t mind me as a pant and stick my tongue out for a bit. I became so comfortable with sand on my feet that I took quite a bit of it with me to the restaurant for lunch. At some point I stared down in the midst of stuffing my face to find a pile of sand under me. It looked like I’ve tunneled like a mole from the ground for some sea bream.
I got acquainted with the Aegean sea as well over the course of the day. By sporadically dipping (yes own it). The water is always deceptively cold in Greece. With the sun funneling down like an aerial barbecue pit, you would think that at some point it would heat up the sea. No chance. I suppose it’s akin to biting into a fried ice cream pastry. The thrill is in the torture perhaps? Me and the wife usually do a three-count, dive in and surrender ourselves to Poseidon’s cold, cold heart.
The coldness of the Greek sea is not only mitigated by the searing heat, but also the warmth of the people living in Greece. There was some heat emitting from the fit and dreamy lifeguard at Agios Ioannis as well but I suspect that was mostly felt by my wife. We would encounter individuals, vendors, servers throughout our 10-day sojourn who would come to redefine friendliness and service to us in many ways. At the top of the list was Yannis who works upfront for Kounelas Fish Tavern, whom we met on our second visit to the place on our last day at Mykonos. It’s infectious to see him work, chatting with passersby, cracking jokes with diners and attempting to speak the local languages of the different people he meets. He thought Malaysians were generally ‘darker-skinned’ than we were, explained to us what Mastika was and how to drink it (‘We sip it, we don’t do shots’) and attempted to speak decent Mandarin with us when he told him we were ethnically Chinese. He was not self-conscious about his love for the food he was selling, the people he worked with and the job he was doing. It was enlightening to watch such candor in action. Here was someone who has eked a meaningful existence on a gorgeous island, doing what a lot of people would foolishly call ‘insignificant work’ but has radiated the days and nights of so many diners and revelers by just simply loving what he does and believing in what he is selling. And why wouldn’t he? Kounelas serves some of the most delectable and freshest seafood I have ever tasted.
A friend remarked that Greek food is ‘simple but delicious’ and I couldn’t have concocted a better description of it myself. Nothing we ate was very complicatedly put together or terribly fussy up till this point. Just some of the freshest ingredients (particularly seafood) tossed on a searing grill and salted. No sauce or a thousand ingredients, just food tasting the way it’s meant to be tasted. We had a rude awakening on just how large a pork Souvlaki can be in these parts on our first day, but since then we’ve dined mostly from the grocer in the sea and it does not look like it was going to stop anytime soon. The Greeks treat their seafood seriously, which is basically an all-encompassing love letter to my wife. They treat fish like Asian do, good from head to tail and we felt so at home eating there. Every meal was paired with lovely wine and a side of bread. No sauces are given beyond olive oil, balsamic vinegar and lemon slices. It’s like taking food back to basics, to what it should be really about – the freshness of things, of dining straight from the produce of the land and sea, without the commerclialisation from middle men who step in to provide us with produce that are pricier, less fresh but more convenient to purchase.
We experienced the full gamut of dining options in Mykonos, from the sit-by-the-sidewalk style meal of pizza and ‘Portokalopita’ (orange cake with honey) from il forno di Gerasimo, a charming Greek-style bakery to the fussier end of the spectrum with Spilia at the other side of the island. Our conclusion? Finer Greek dining options doesn’t have a lot on its grimier counterparts. You’re better off saving that additional €30 and spending it on fancy late night cocktails. Sea urchin pasta sounded like the pasta equivalent of a Randy Savage/Hulk Hogan team-up to my wife but it turned out ridiculously underwhelming at Spilia. To top it off it was quite a quest to get there, about 19-minutes on an ATV.
I know, 19-minutes is hardly a lifetime. In fact, in most fantasy canons it would be laughable to call that a quest. It’s more like stepping out to the garden rather than journeying to Mount Doom. But if you factor in the fact that it’s left-side drive in Greece, most roads in Greek islands are single lane and that I have never been on ATV before, those 19-minutes felt like the third act in Endgame. In hindsight it was a scenic, breezy drive up and down hills and coastal roads to get to our dinner but in the midst of that 19-minute journey, it was like trying to read Shakespeare while being strangled. So stressed was I on the contraption that any missed turns was not resolved by a three-point U but to go straight and hope that the road doubles back somehow like a faithful boomerang. My wife felt necessary to point out the fallacy of renting an ATV for flexibility but not being flexible myself. Boo bloody hoo.
Mykonos is often cited as a party island. But that seems to suggest that it’s packed with drunks, getting overtly fresh with everyone and piercingly-loud music punctuating the air. We experienced none of the sort. In fact, so much so we started wondering where were the ‘parties’? Our money’s on the beachfront clubs but Chora, for a city boy like me, hardly registers much on the city-vibe scale. There are clearly a lot of people, but it’s people dining over good food, with a glass of wine or two. It’s hardly a London rave in the 90s with Begbie.
The truth is Mykonos does offer plenty of options for seclusion if that’s your preferred beverage. Moments that spring to mind is us having coffee on separate occasions at Little Venice, just taking in the sun and the turquoise sea, or staring out our bedroom window at the empty cobbled streets in the morning, buying delicious spinach and feta pastry from a home-style bakery around the corner. Don’t get me wrong, there was clearly a lot of people buzzing about, but the beauty of what was around you was louder and more pronounced than tourists in sundresses. We still managed to feel alone, amidst people.