NOT IN AUGUST
I said in my very first piece for these pages that the Cycladean Isle of Kythnos is for most purposes, those aesthetic, and even those supremely mundane and practical, a paradise on earth. Partly that was because I arrived to live here full time in September 2013, meaning I had missed the month of August and its attendant hells. I should have known better. The only nice Augusts I had ever known since my first visit to Greece in 1972, were in Samothraki in 1982 and Naxos in 2004. The former island was then so rarely visited and hard to get to (you had to go via Alexandropouli which is almost at the Turkish border in Thrace) that August there was like sluggish May or October anywhere else. Naxos in high season should also have been a madhouse, as it was 2 years later, when it took me about 8 scorching and exhausting hours to find rooms for 4 of us in the Hora. But 2004 was Olympics year and tourist numbers were drastically down, and we got 2 rooms for Annie, Ione and me at the risibly low rates of 25 and 20 euros.
This year was my second high season on Kythnos and most perplexingly, last August did not seem anywhere near as bad when it came to claustrophobic tourist congestion, gridlocked port roads, crowded beaches and the business of waiting ages for a return taxi, unless you had wisely pre-booked it. Given that this summer Greece was supposed to be in the worst crisis ever, with stringent daily cash limits from ATMs, I am still comprehensively baffled by the memory of all these Athenians heedlessly and expensively whooping it up, as if this were a variation on Benidorm or Acapulco. How the hell did they pay for their rooms and stump up for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and put petrol in their cars, and go on sea taxi excursions to Kolona, the double sand spit plastered on every Kythnos postcard, on a paltry 60 euros a day? Ask any Kythniot in the tourist trade and they just express an all-purpose blandness that explains nothing. Oh they self-cater, they borrow houses from relatives and friends, they only drink coffee in the tavernas, and don’t order meals. Some, a few, yes, but dozens of others no: they were there in droves on every beach on the island, regularly shovelling down vast restaurant meals, and staying in commercial domatia at full August whack, and driving whopping great 4-wheel drives down potholed roads to ruin the matchless eesikhia of customarily empty beaches. This crisis August was glumly prophesied to be a non-season, but anecdotally was busier than last year, and yet causality and rational explanations are about 117th on the tally of any Greek preference list, rather as they are in the furthest reaches of Hindu India. Hence the cafe and domatia owners just shrug their indifferent shoulders, and despite this year’s luck, wait pessimistically for next August, which is of course when they make about 70% of their annual income.
My London girlfriend Monica was here for the first half of the month as well as the last week of July. We had a truly blissful 3 weeks together, marred only in my case by the presence of any other souls not called Monica, on my favourite remotest beaches. These at root I sincerely believe, even if only symbolically, to be my private kingdoms, fiefdoms, demesnes and exclusive paradises. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t mind a few other souls on the beach beside me, if they were quiet and reverently enjoyed the exquisite paradise around them. Instead in August they play noisy clack-clack beach tennis, whose balls are always coming close to hitting you the bystander across the chops, plus countless grown men and women cannot resist shouting and uproariously hallooing in the water like overgrown kiddiwinks. When not doing that they collogue at full volume with their garrulous beach neighbours, whilst simultaneously chainsmoking and chucking the burning fag stumps down on the sand adjacent, so that ultimately there would enough there to recycle and start a splendid new cigarette factory up on the headland. Charming eh? Reclining on the beach, most Greeks address their interlocutors as if they were 5 miles rather than 2 feet away. If they are male the term malaka/ wanker occurs every 4th word in the conversation, both in an amiable and a hostile context, and if they are female they are always bantering, ella re, hey, old pal, old mate, old chum! every alternate sentence. It really isn’t that I want them to regale my ears with pithy reflections on Proust and Thucydides, but surely if they just want to babble affably about nothing at full volume, they should be on Mykonos or Corfu, not unspoilt Kythnos. After all and to play them at their own game, it is only the Greeks who fetishise eesikhia or ineffable rustic quietude, and devote their lives to scrimping and saving so they can buy an island plot and build a lonely house and live in pristine monastic isolation. That being so, why in the interim, whether in the street or on an idyllic island beach, do they never stop chuntering and bawling, and as if trying to compete with a dozen pneumatic drills every time they decide to chew the fat with their best buddies?
As well as an excellent weekend spent on the Isle of Syros, Monica and I had 3 long weeks to visit every Kythnos beach worth visiting, by those in the connoisseurial know. Broadly these divide into those with tavernas and decent asphalt roads, and those with no tavernas and atrocious xoma dirt tracks. Outside of August, as in the First Day of Creation, the latter would normally have had no one there, and I was truly stunned to see my very favourite bay of Gaidharomandra, as enormous and pristine as the land of forgotten but addictive dreams, with a dozen parked cars, and at least 50 Athenians partying and hooting and battering away at beach tennis. Can you conceive the Divine Plan settling for beach tennis as the best way of celebrating the First Day of Creation, and the towering sense of muted anticlimax? Ditto for Agios Sostis, the remote gem of the far north, normally empty and now with several dozen mostly youthful couples with multiple tattoos and permanent cigarettes jauntily glued to their lips. Lots of impassioned snogging in the Aegean, which at least in spiritual possibilities is one up on clack clack tennis. Some of these kids even smoke in the sea, and text their Athens pals in the briny, and other ingenious young bastards play hilarious beach tennis in the slapping water. Monica finds it very comical that I consider 50 people on a gigantic bay a claustrophobic crowd, and even more so on blessed Zogaki where there are only 20, albeit one is a young woman of about 24, po-facedly doing press-ups and lifts and jogging. To be doing bloody fitness exercises on transcendent and matchless Zogaki beach, I argue, is the equivalent of reading a tender kaleidoscopic genius like Ivan Turgenev and simultaneously playing a saccharine Easy Listening CD by US crooner Barry Manilow (I Made It Through The Rain, Thanks to My Ingenious Brain) whilst perusing the Russian’s hallowed pages.
Talking of which, over those 3 weeks on the beach, Monica energetically worked her way through some of the best in world literature, including two outstanding contemporary Greeks, Vangelis Xatziyannidis and Panos Karnezis. She is the only person I know other than myself, who has devoured Jean Giono’s autobiographical and incomparable Blue Boy in 3 or 4 sittings, and exulted in every perfect word, line, page. Needless to say that signifies a new and special bond, as the mystery of 2 people appreciating a very rare and uncategorisable jewel, is bound to make it so. She also read Bruce Chatwin’s exquisite Welsh Borderlands novel On The Black Hill (1982) which inexplicably the late Karl Miller, normally a byword for fairness and probity, damned in the pages of the august journal he then edited, the London Review of Books. I rarely read on the beach and idly got round to a few stories by Colette, before succumbing to the hardworking nay exhausting business of closing my eyes and giving myself up to ineffably profound and infinitely scrupulous authorial meditations. Monica claimed that I made sounds of rhythmic animal snoring, but that was in fact the singular vibration emitted when those profundities were at their very acutest. The energy had to go somewhere, and fittingly enough it came out rather like the sound of a fertile and ingeniously fertilising bee.