Friday, July 22, 2011

Notes from Hydra. 6.

The thing about last days is that you know they're inevitable. You see them ahead of time, on your calendar. You work tirelessly to beat the last day — to fill the days prior with all of the best and most wonderful stuff so that when the last day does come, it will be a celebration of a vacation or time well spent. But no matter how much I've loved every second of that well spent time, I find that last days are hard days. Sad and bittersweet.

On the eve of a last day, I go to bed imagining the perfect last day. I'll wake up early and do exactly what I've been meaning to do and all the things I've wanted to do again. But last days in a place never turn out like that. The tedium of packing and checking flights and cleaning and packing some more trickles its way into your morning. And afternoon. And evening. Every time I wake up to face a last day, I'm surprised by the power of these logistics. A last day is never what I think it should be.

You fight for that last walk or last bit of sun or that last bead of sweat because suddenly you panic. You're afraid that if this last day isn't perfect, you'll forget everything about the entire trip, and all of that time well spent won't matter.

As a music student, I became proficient at not listening to the advice of my piano and cello teachers: Just 30 minutes a day, and you'll be fine for that recital. My problem was never the 30 minutes a day. My problem was always the night before that recital, and the hours prior to performing — I panicked. However much I had practiced was not enough, and all of the doubt and worry I had worked so diligently to dispel through hours of meticulous phrasing, finger exercises and memorization engulfed me like a violent storm. On this last day, my confidence in the music transferred itself to my confidence in an impending on-stage failure. No amount of reassurance, breathing exercises or beta blockers could help me. Instead of listening to my my better judgment and taking a nap, I sat down at the piano, or I picked up my bow and proceeded in even more relentless hours of very, very panicked practice. When I'd practiced long enough to deaden the shakes from my hands and arms, I'd get up on stage and play (I'm never quite sure how I found my second wind). And usually (aside from a couple of very traumatic memory blocks), I played quite well. The thing was, when I was actually playing, I never worried about forgetting or failing miserably because I was always aware that the practice-everyday method worked. There was never a need to panic (except when I really hadn't practiced everyday, and these performances were always played like the grades of papers that are written the night before) because I knew that no amount of panicked practicing, no matter what I tried to quickly fix, would ever enable me to give a better performance. Last-minute practicing just made me more panicked.

This is what I've silently retold myself today, our last full day on Hydra. Normally I'm ready to go home after a long trip like this, but today I do not feel ready (and I don't think it's because I'm in the midst of my thesis — yet another example of the little-bit-everyday method). I went to bed with big hopes of taking a boat to a new beach, going on a long hike and spending every waking moment in the sun. We'd have a great lunch, take a nap, I'd write and press on with my obsessive reading of Freedom. There'd be drinks and dinner and yet another swim and star-watching on the roof. And. And. And.

This perfect last day didn't happen. Because we had to pack. And clean. And check flights. And pack some more. We did what you have to do on a last day. Instead, today has been a normal day on Hydra. We swam and read on Kamini beach, our favorite beach. And we read some more on the roof. We people-watched and drew and wrote. We continued to slice away at the melon-sized tomato in the fridge and we managed to (I think) fill our Paul Simon quota for a while (but honestly, who really tires of Graceland?). All this isn't to say I didn't spend an hour frantically taking pictures of every last shabbily beautiful, fading, chipped blue-painted door, alleyway or curve I could find (What? We haven't used all of the storage on our 15 gig camera card?!), but today I've done my best not to panic. Because if we had managed to do all the things I dreamt we'd do, the only thing I'd remember later would be a bad sunburn and sore feet. Today has been, like the rest of the days of this trip: a good day. An amazing one. And that's the way I'd like to remember it.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Notes from Hydra. 5.

We wake earlier than usual, share a grapefruit on the roof and let the surprisingly cool morning propel us down the steps to the port that breathes with laughing, noisy locals. It is just after 7, and half the town — delivery men dollying 'fragile'-stamped crates; Michael the tan-bellied Los Angelesan painter; swim-suited mothers with big families to feed; a small legion of the island's stray cats — is waiting for the fish.

Some of the boats have been docked. Others are in the process of being tethered to the port. They look like quintessential toy-boats but life-size: comically rounded undersides lob happily among the water's translucent crabs and and fuzzy sea plants. Their wooden bodies bear well painted red stripes and more than one flapping Greek flag. I half-expect to see Popeye's tanned Greek cousin on board. Instead, a sturdy man the color of milky espresso emerges from the steering room of his boat and lugs with him the carcass of a fish that must weigh 100 pounds. He throws rough phrases and laughs to the fisherman on a boat further down, who has been metronomically hammering away at the bones of a 4-foot chunk of fish. I wonder how big it was when he dragged it in from the sea. The wooden hammer makes a surprisingly metallic clank! on the heavy backbone. It sounds impossible to crack. Finally, the iridescent set of scales loosens, and the fisherman pulls the skin back like a sock to reveal huge hunks of flesh the color of ruby grapefruit. The felines are licking their lips.

Hoping for a a nibble, a dozen cats inch their bottoms towards the silvery-blue skin that hypnotizes them in the sunlight. Except for us and a handful of other early-rising tourists, no one notices their quiet meows, their plea for a sea breakfast.

A man leading a pair of glossy-coated red setters strolls past several boats. He bids robust good mornings of Kalimera! and actually tips his panama hat to the shrunken grandmother who shuffles past. He reaches the boat where the fisherman continues to hammer away, he heels the dogs, shouts his order and engages the seller in a heavily animated story while he waits. A few cats take the eccentric man for an easy target, but with fish-in-bag-in-hand, he gives nothing away and continues his saunter west, towards Mari-Mara.

The boats don't stay for long. Soon after we've reached the port, we hear their battered engines rumble like congested chests, and with Popeye's breathren at the helms, we watch as the messy fleet put-puts away, into the Aegean.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Notes from Hydra. 4.

Before they had begun their climb, the pair had agreed to reach the monastery together.

She had not expected such a steep ascent up the mountain. She was used to the stairs that were built into the city, but these rocky steps were twice as tall, and every time she mounted one, she had to press on her front knee to harness a momentum that allowed her to swing the rest of her body and her other leg up to the next level.

He had slowed down. Way down. And she still needed to catch up. Under the shade of his straw, Van Gogh-esque hat, sweat dripped into his eyes, stinging and drying up his contact lenses. He took the full liter of bottled water from his messenger bag and took a swig. The sun was getting lower. It would set soon. At least their walk back from the monastery would be cooler, easier.

There was little shade on the path. Nothing here looked as beautiful as it did when she viewed it from their rooftop. The red dirt that from afar, contrasted so vibrantly against the shining olive trees now made her sad and bored. Its rich, painterly quality was dust in her mouth. She could tell that he liked hearing the sounds of his shoes in the terrain — how they made that satisfying crunch — but each time he kicked his foot back, a light cloud of the red dirt spun into her face, making breathing on a very steep incline even more of a chore. She flicked away the pool of sweat that collected every five minutes between her chin and lower lip.

In her mind, she queued up a reel of desert movie montages. This was a real-life drought. She had spent months anticipating a week of hot and sun — two things she had missed in the nonsummer they were having back home. And on the plane, she resolved to say Yes! to his ideas. They would have adventures. They would be a team. In this Hades of an early evening, she resented that promise to herself. She knew she was being irrational, but she resented him. And agreeing to this climb. And this dirt path. And the stairs built into it. She had a sweat rash developing under her shirt. He had the better attitude and the water, which he offered to her when she reached the step he was on. She took a few sips and handed it back. They continued on in silence.

He knew she was not enjoying herself. He also knew that if this point was acknowledged, she'd deny it and press on. He regretted suggesting this climb. There were plenty of beaches they hadn't yet seen. Plenty of pretty wanders that could end with a dip. But he had wanted to make the trek up to this monastery for the view — 360 degrees of the island and sea. Instead of thinking about the small rage he knew was building within his girlfriend, he visualized the view to come. That would sustain the rest of the hike.

They were both so focused — she hating every moment and he imagining what lie at the end — that they missed seeing how the pointy leaves of the olive trees glimmer at dusk, and the ancient-looking Greek farmer who carefully picked the fruits. Buried deep in their own dark minds, they missed the wheezing hees and haws of the gangly donkey that excitedly trotted down the hill to greet them, and they missed the five minutes she ambled along with them, on her side of the fence. They missed a cluster of the world's tiniest kittens that peeked out from their hiding place in the brush and mewed sad, tired songs between suckles of the mother's milk. They didn't notice when they entered the shaded forest of tall evergreens — how cool it was and the novelty of smelling pine in summer. Too set on finishing, they forgot to look back — they missed the sun's generous glow over the very old city of white cottages with red-tiled roofs, the honks of big boats, the water's jewel-like quality. And as the sunset played out at their backs, they missed the fading signpost that pointed in the monastery's direction.

The day's light trickled and faded by the time they realized too many wrong turns had been made. She felt so far from the cottage and the afternoon and the sun. She felt far from her promise in the sky and far from him. It was all a fever dream lost in the red dust of their path. In the early dark, without a torch, their map was no use. There was little water left. She would never know why she came. He would not get his view.

Without a word, they turned back. But before their dark descent, they saw where they were. Lights of the city below them danced to a summer chorus of cicadas. Boats cast long, neon paintings across the rippling bay. New glowing splotches emerged from the island across the sea. And now, a breeze worked its way up the mountain, shaking the olive branches and wafting the faint fragrance of dandelions and pine towards their sweaty bodies like a kiss.

"I've been too focused on putting one foot in front of the other," he said to her.

On the ascent, she'd madly concocted many words to say about this journey, but they were gone now. She reached for his hand, and together they sat down in the red dirt.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Notes from Hydra. 3.

Here, it's hot enough early enough that we naturally wake not long after dawn. Unlike the thick stillness that sets in just before siesta, mornings are more generous and waft a salty but consistently relieving breeze to our spot halfway up the mountain. Perfect timing for a couple hours of swimming. On the roof of the cottage, we eat a quick breakfast of fruit and Greek yogurt and then amble towards town, down the stone steps that are slippery and worn in the middle from who-knows how many years of similar ambling.

The beaches of Hydra dot the shoreline like abundant watering holes. If you walk long enough on the main dirt road that circles the island, you'll find them tucked away into quiet, rough nooks in the rocks. None of these are conventional beaches, and you must work to get to them.

Because Hydra is a 3x10 mile rock in the sea, there is no easy decline from mainland to sand. Most 'beaches' are rocky oases that require careful footing down steep switchbacks of ancient stairs. Sunbathers lounge on giant concrete slabs and lean against the rocks that build the island to read water-wilted paperbacks. If it's deep enough, they'll canonball in, easily transitioning from basking to bathing. Hydra is home to the most enchanting beaches I've visited (I'm no pro), but it's not without the boob-jobs (read: unnecessary enhancements). There are, of course, the hotel-owned beaches, which employ a superficial facade of fake sand (made of ground up beach pebbles) that effortlessly fades into silent, sapphire bays. Rows of chaises and resort-like bamboo umbrellas dot the scenery, and mansion-like, oily sailboats are docked oddly close to shore.

Kamini beach is beautiful and relatively quick walk from the cottage, but even at 10 in the morning, it fills up with big, loud Greek families that splash its flickering surface. Kamini's water glimmers like stained glass: Tucked into the rocky coast, the turquoise shoreline reveals a clear picture of life below the surface — yellow and black striped fish weave between slick, earth-toned rocks — and bleeds impressionistically into slightly ambitious cerulean waves that crash steadily into the bay's curved arms.

Vlychos is ten more minutes down the dusty dirt road, past several baseball-capped and touristy American joggers and over the half-hexagonal stone bridge. Boats arrive on the hour to deliver well tanned beachgoers to idle their days away. We pay six euro for two chaises, hang our goggles on a straw umbrella, and continue our habit of people-watching.

Deftly entering Hydra's waters seems to be a skill acquired from years of visits (Much like the Greek families who allow momentum to gracefully carry their bodies down the island's thousands of slippery, donkey-poo'd stairs). Because there is no sand, anyone who wants to swim must first traverse a few shallow feet of slick stones. Most of these stones are planted slolidly, but the rippling water elicits a trompe l'oeil of wobbles. A few very old, leathering women gracefully drift from slippery stone to slippery stone, but most people — even the most athletic — fall victim to the tricky shoreline.

A chubby kid sprints from chaise to water. His right foot splashes into the sea and slides off a rock. He falls face-first into a cool salt bath and struggles to stand again. A handsome, young couple with a collective 12-pack of visibly flexed abs, is no match for the challenging entry. Holding hands, they wobble together and wave their free arms for balance. He takes a careless step and they both fall in too early.

Tom says that he can't watch me enter or leave the water. He's afraid his laughter will make me mad. I slowly walk into the sea and grip each wet stone with the balls and heels of my feet. I'm suddenly conscious that I am now a participant in a naturally occurring slapstick comedy: frantically circling my arms; biting my lower lip; concentrating more on my balance than the idyllic nook of the clear saltwater I've been craving. I last a few seconds before my flexed thighs slip up and I splash in too early. With a sigh and a mouthful of salt, I resolve to half-crouch-half-crawl my way to deeper water. As Tom describes it, on these beaches, you relinquish all dignity when you enter the sea.

But my dog-paddle out to the farthest buoy, where I catch the humpbacked swells that drift in from boats' crests, is well worth my embarrassing foray in. Happily, I tread water and wait for just the right second to push myself up to catch the high points of these oversized ripples. The only thing better would be catching the crests, but the water here is too calm for big waves. Instead, like the yellow buoy, I bob in my black bandeau and forget about how I got here and how I'll leave.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Notes from Hydra. 2.

A strip of cafes lines the Hydra port. The old buildings are set back from the water, and in the morning, while the fishermen bring in their catch, restaurant owners arrange long rows of tables and chairs that slope down the slight hill towards the water. For shade, the light but necessary canvas ceilingtops are rolled out over the makeshift patio. Tourists from all over and weekenders from Athens and families who've come to Hydra for generations fleck the cushions, lounging — their skin practically shimmering bronze against the white seats — and always making sure theirs is a view of the sea.

We pick a table and share an ocean-facing bench. Tom orders a freddo cappuccino that comes out looking like an icecream float — dark, icy and frothy. My medium espresso freddo is sugared well enough to curb the bite of the strong beans. I force myself to sip slowly. It would be easy to down the drink in one parched gulp. Mostly, we are quiet. We lounge. We do what you do on vacation: we take it in. And we people-watch.

Flocks of Grecian gods and goddesses flip-flop along the pavement. For a moment I allow myself to envy their noses — the product of thousands of years of heritage. Stray cats mew and weave through tables and customers. Kids sprint to a nearby pebble beach, their neon innertubes fly behind them.

Old local men with citrus-stained, leather-like skin play backgammon for hours. Each takes his turn at satisfactorily slamming down his piece, much to the blithe chagrin of his opponent. They laugh. They sip on hot espresso that steams from shot glasses. They stack their empties, and I wonder how they seem so calm. Perhaps with age and sun, caffeine works more like a sedative.

To our right, a pair of pale, ginger-headed guys lap up big, melty parfaits of chocolate ice cream so thick, even with the heat, you could still stand your spoon in the middle. They say nothing. It's as if they doze with their eyes open. By the looks of their bursting backpacks, they must be traveling. Hydra is simply their stopping-off point. They speak in hushed but harsh murmurs, and judging by the black cotton socks and tennis shoes, they are most likely German.

A large, very Greek, very American family takes up two tables in front of us: Dad, tanned and raven-haired, gazes wantonly towards the boats. Mom looks pissed. She crosses and uncrosses her jean-shorted legs and taps her fire-engine red manicure on the table. She has spawned a family of bored-looking mouth-breathers, but she herself purses her Miami Vice-pink lips. Is she trying not to scream? Her hair is dyed the color of sun-drenched straw. It also looks like the texture of sundrenched straw: fried and snappable. When a waitress approaches the table, the mother of the four sullen preteens and teens, snaps her order: "I want coffee." But she really says: "I want cww-aww-feee."

"Coffee," repeats the waitress.
"Yeeah. With sugah. Lotsa shugah."
"How many sugars?"
"A. lot."
"Would-a-you like milk?" the waitress asks. Her English and this American's are equally difficult to understand.
"I want cream. Cream and sugah."
"Yeah cream. You got that? Don't you have cream?"
"You mean milk?"
"No. Cream. Like creamah. Like dairy creamah."

The waitress is confused. She sits down. They argue. The daughters — two, gorgeous, long-haired, long-legged girls who dress older than their short-shorts-donning non-hips will allow bury their heads in embarrassment.

"Just order milk, Mom," I hear one say. Finally, she does.

Tom and I wear dark sunglasses. We can get away with staring (or so we think). This scene is almost too painful to watch. Almost. The cww-aww-feee arrives, and the sub-par Marcy Walker lookalike (a la 1980s All My Children) downs it fast so her gaggle can make it to the boat by "5 'till." I comment on the expense of a trip to Greece for a family of six, and the fact that no one looks happy.

Since arriving, though, I continue to be inexplicably drawn to the man sitting on our left. Instead of the sea, he faces the cafe. He is old, but everyone can tell his has been a seasonable, graceful age: his Mediterranean tan radiates beneath a coral, linen shirt. His white hair and well kept beard connote a groomed Hemingway. A pair of fiercely blue, still-youthful eyes flicker across the lines inside his copy of Hegel et Marx: l'interminable debat. Nothing distracts from the text. He turns page after page, unfazed by the crowds and heat, but eventually his focus falters. He looks straight ahead and smiles the biggest, toothiest, happiest smile. A man, possibly in his late 30s, walks up to the table. "Mon enfant," says the elder of the two, reaching up his arms and tugging the younger man into an embrace. "Mon enfant. Tous es ici." The father happily smooches his grown son on either cheek. The son sits down. The waitress stops to say hello. They are French, and she is Greek, but immediately she understands: "Your son!" she says excitedly. "This is your son?"

"Yes," says the father. "Mon enfant. My son." The pair holds hands so tightly their fists shake. They fall into conversation. The book is forgotten. And it becomes clear why this father has chosen to face the cafe. The people and boats and port and endless sea — this view is for his son.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Notes from Hydra. 1.

The trip to Hydra from Athens is two hours by fastboat. Stephanos, the housekeeper, is waiting for us when we arrive at the port. His skin — tanned the color of sunned wood — suggests he's lived here all his life. Immediately, we begin our walk towards Kiaffa Cottage — rolling our suitcases on hundreds-year-old cobblestones and past rows of cute, saddled donkeys (four-legged taxis that are the only mode of transportation on the island besides foot, bicycle or garbage truck) that doze standing-up in the 100-degree heat.

The island of Hydra emerges like a battered rock in the sea. And the terrain rises fast. For 20 minutes we climb up, up, up hundreds of winding, steep and narrow stony stairs with curves that reveal more and more white-plastered houses, shaded by vines that look like gnarled green lace, topped with identical red-tile-roofs. Brightly colored doors and windows pop from the white surfaces like Tempera paint on blank canvas.

The walk to Kiaffa Cottage shouldn't be long, but the shortcut is too steep with our suitcases in tow. Ten minutes in, Stephanos stops to buy bottled water (the water here is undrinkable and, according to Tom, it tastes like licking a rock). Already, we drip with mid-day sweat.

Stephanos, it turns out, was born in Bulgaria. He's lived here for 10 years. He doesn't speak English. Greek, Bulgarian, Russian and German are enough. He is a painter and sells pictures in a small shop by the port from 9 in the morning till 2 p.m. His sweat-stained safari hat and ruggedness remind us of our equally sweaty and safari hatted friend from Columbia. And we continue to follow him, past the grocer and past more white buildings. One is punctuated by an elegant pair of evergreen doors (leading to who knows where). We wonder how we will ever find our way back to town. "You cannot get lost here," Stephanos tells us. "Just walk down. Or walk up."

The outside of the cottage is unassuming. Just another white-plaster wall with a door. Stephanos unlocks the entrance, whose plain front is adorned only with a heavy, metal knocker that looks both menacing and cherubic. We walk into what I can only describe as a hybrid open-air foyer and front porch. Like the outside of the house, it is also painted white. There is an outdoor sofa built into one side, and the bare walls climb high. We can hear the donkeys that clatter up and down the cobbled stairs outside, but we don't see them (Nor they us).

In the ceiling-less entrance, a set of white stairs leads up to the roof, where there is room for another built-in bench and a canvas hammock-chair. Since arriving, I have tried to avoid phrases such as "breathtaking" or "speechless," but from the rooftop, with the Greek sun burning our backs, we are stunned by the view: a sea any painter would love to capture that meets boats and rock beaches. And the port that rises fast, from the umbrella'd restaurants below, to white houses built into the rocky island like haphazardly stacked porcelain teacups.

The inside of the cottage is exactly what you'd expect the wedding guests of Mama Mia to retire to after a long afternoon of hanging with Meryl. The 300-year old cottage is completely renovated, but vignettes of tactfully exposed stones and weathered rafters afford it an unavoidable charm and beauty. A wardrobe in the study (like all of the rooms, it is painted white, white white) opens up to an enviable record collection and player. A guitar and a mandolin lie dormant in the corners. The frenetic, caffeinated chirp of cicadas plays on repeat all morning and night. Their thousands of voices scatter about before sunset, but by 9 p.m. they sing that long, all-familiar locust-song in unison.

And there is a trapdoor. Open it up to reveal stairs that lead to an expansive lower level. The tile floor and dim light grants cool relief from days that reach 95 degrees by 8 a.m. The fireplace fills a large corner and elicits daydreams of returning in winter. Beneath the cicada song, we can almost hear the crackling, burning wood.

There is no air conditioning, but throughout the cottage, fans circulate the ancient, sea-breezed air. We sweat freely, happily.

Stephanos told us to close the doors and unscreened windows at night: "The cats might scare you." We follow his advice, and when we wake the next morning to the distant cock-a-doodle of roosters, we discover five felines who've nested into the outdoor couch. Tom mews to them, and they scramble to a secret cat-hole in the corner — away from us and into the shade.


Sam Cooke on the record player

Saw, among other things:

Cloudless sunset

Ate, among other things:

Grilled octopus

Saturday, July 2, 2011

In London? Or not? Come to this!

As masters students in Design Writing Criticism, we’ve spent the past year exploring design writing. And design theory. And design history. That’s like, three design pies. Per person. Our brains are full. So before we embark on our separate major projects, we thought we deserved a little summer holiday.

We’re inviting you to pull up a chair and join us for an open conversation on food and design with some of our favourite foodies. We'll talk with author, photographer, designer and many-hat-wearer Jake Tilson about his new (beautiful!) cookbook on fish, In At The Deep End. We're also joined by
Christian, Martin and Tom, the professional popcorn enthusiasts and business-dudes behind the brilliant and delicious Love Da Pop.

Sounds pretty tempting, right? The more the merrier. Come hungry for good conversation (and a free drink or two!). We’ll be cooking up some great discussions before you can say 'spatula.'

We’d love it if you could make it to our chat at LCC. But we understand if you’re busy. So we’re extending the conversation to you. Just follow us on Twitter at @MA_DWC to join the discussion. Find out what we've been up to. Ask Jake if fish still make him squirm. Duke it out with Love Da Pop over sweet versus salty.
We'd like to think of it as a virtual drop-leaf table. So if you can make it to LCC, come say hello. Otherwise, we’ll see you in the Twitter dining room.