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.

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