I see the blue and white shuttered ticket stand. I am drawn to the words: “DELOS.” Before arriving in Mykonos, I saw a brochure about the island of Delos in an Athens hotel. The first page read, “…birthplace of god and goddess Apollo and Artemis having been born there rendered the island sacred: no mortal would ever be allowed to be born on its land. But, a cradle of gods as the island has been, no mortals would ever be allowed to die on it either.” At some point in history, this island was so sacred that women on the brink of childbirth and people close to their last breath would be carried to the neighboring island of Rineia.
I contemplate this bit of history as I look out at Delos. I’m interrupted by the last boat of tourists leaving Mykonos. They’re departing Delos for a slice of an afternoon on Ancient Greek time. “I will plan to see it next time I come to this island,” I tell myself. As if it will be so easy to get to Greece again. I am young and can’t imagine the bills or the obligations that could be in my future. I can’t imagine having a partner or child. I am eternally single. It is before I have made any truly foolish mistakes of my early to mid 20s. I am 21 years old.
An hour before this Delos sighting I was sitting at a small table inside a Greecian cafe, looking at a time-lapse of a developing elephant fetus on the TV. An old man was pouring clear liquid from an unlabeled milk jug into a shot glass for me while I attempted to finish my morning Nescafe. And this was all before my cell phone displayed 10:00 AM.
11 years later, during a global pandemic in 2020, I’m doom scrolling through my Instagram feed. This is how I spend 50% of my time now. I pause my doom scrolling for a post from Conde Nast Traveler account, @cntraveler. In the photo’s background, I see a man in a straw hat riding an ATV up a dirt road. The Instagram filter makes this picture look hot outside. The man is driving towards the horizon line of the ocean. It blends in with the sky so you cannot see – however close you zoom with your index and thumb – where the edge of the two elements meet. Like the sea and the sky are kissing and the picture’s pixels are now confused as to where they belong. The hills are blanketed by white stucco houses. Mostly all the house doors are painted blue. There is the occasional red door being difficult.
Below the Instagram post, the caption asks, “Which island would you most like to be cast away on? At the link in bio, discover the archipelagos across the world you should visit at least once – from rustic European islets to white-sand hideaways in the Caribbean.”
What I would give to be there now. I ignore the fact that the global pandemic has no border and is there too. For this fantasy, I censor that fact out. 11 years since, what would Mykonos look like now through my eyes? I close them and see the blue ocean and feel the Mediterranean sand under my feet.
Mykonos, April 2009
After my study abroad program had ceased in late March, I visited my friend Megan in Rome. She had studied in Italy during the same semester as me. She was in Rome, I was in Siena. Throughout our time in Italy, we’d go on trips together. It was comforting to travel the world with someone I’d known since 9th grade, someone from my hometown. We were excited to be seeing the world outside suburbia, malls, “pop” and gyros from Kerbey’s Coney Island.
On this occasion, we chose to journey to Greece before I was exiled from Europe and plopped back in Michigan. After a few hours at Fiumicino Airport, we learned that the airlines we were booked on – Aegean airlines – were on strike. At the counter we learned our options: we could either go to Athens and spend the night, or stay in Rome and leave the next morning. We decided on Athens. The airline gave us a voucher for a hotel near the airport. We got a free night at the hotel, dinner, and “American” breakfast (pancakes, sausage, and scrambled eggs). We slept in our own queen beds – typically we’d share a queen bed in hostels, or bunk beds in group rooms with beds that had plastic bed sheets. I recall a Vienna hostel room that had a faint scent of urine. It was faint enough that we didn’t complain, but it was there. Having a clean, big bed is a luxury. I remember the interior decoration of the hotel was blue, white, and yellow. Most places I went to in Greece were decorated blue and white.
The next morning we woke up and got on a small plane to Mykonos. The flight was 20 minutes long. The first day in Mykonos we walked all over “old town”, “new port” and “old port”. This took all of about 20 minutes. Mykonos is a pretty small place. It was windy, raining on and off. That night we did get to see a beautiful sunset at the Mykonos windmills.
We went back to our hostel. It was dark at this point, freezing cold and damp inside the small room. The shower was also the bathroom: a showerhead hanging to the left of the sink, a drain on the floor. We layered up and played the DVD, “Mamma Mia.” I think we somehow thought the island was going to be like the island in that movie. In March during offseason, Mykonos wasn’t that phantasmagoria of saturated light with appearances by Meryl Streep we’d expected.
Our hostel owner’s daughter knocked on our door halfway through the movie. We were a bit surprised at first but opened the door. She was a bubbly woman, asking us if we were ready to go clubbing during our first night in Mykonos. We said we thought we’d stay in that night, but wanted to know what we should do tomorrow. She gave us a list of places to eat and drink. She said the next day we should rent an ATV and discover the island.
The next day we rode all over the west side of the island, finding more local spots dotting the narrow roads and quiet corners of the island. We whizzed by private beaches, those I guessed were owned by the rich and famous. They were empty, but someone was keeping them clean. Empty white lounge chairs by a pool as still as glass.
We got off the ATV at one point and walked on the beach. It was too cold to go swimming so I pulled my jeans to my shins and sunk my feet into the sand. I dipped my toes in the cool Meditteranean water. I looked out to the sea, it’s deep, dark blues traveling with turquoise frills towards the horizon. I felt small and alive. So far away from everything and everyone I knew, but so happy.
We were hungry so we stopped over at a small restaurant. We ordered gyros. We were confused when the gyros were made the exact same way at our small Greek mom and pop diner in Michigan. For some reason, I thought this food would be different on a Greek isle. Some things aren’t meant to be changed by time or country.
Back on the ATV after lunch, we went up and down like a roller coaster. Up and down the roads and over the hills. Megan drove 90% of the time. I was too scared and held tight on the back. My fearless friend laughed when we went too fast. Was she laughing from enjoyment or my scaredy-cat terror, I think both perhaps. As we bobbed up and down, I noticed everyone in Mykonos was painting their doors and shutters. The buildings were getting a fresh coat of white paint. Colors of Siena red, lime green, deep lilac, periwinkle, blood red, cerulean and baby blue.
We broke down on the way back to the east side of the island. As I recall, we tried to call the hostel, but no one answered. We walked to a nearby post office to explain our stranded state. A few minutes later a call was made, and 20 minutes later the daughter of the hostel owner came to rescue us again. The next day, they returned a different ATV.
After the sunset, we wandered down by Little Venice. It was pitch black and I remember looking out to the sea. A blanket of stars was above me. All I could see was darkness, specks of starlight. How did it feel to be a crew member on a boat in ancient times in the middle of the ocean? How terrifying was that? Or was this peaceful? Like the feeling when you are on an island away from the mainland’s chaos.
That night we tried to find nightlife in the scarce Mykonos offseason. Watching movies the night before was fine, but we wanted to branch out this night. We were the first group of tourists before the other ones arrived. A reminder that others were coming sooner than later. There was still time to paint a fresh coat on the doors, order more booze, and clean the windows.
We went to a bar called “Jackie O” named after the American Princess, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. In 1968, Jackie married Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. This would sail her far, far away from the country that was killing Kennedys. I don’t blame her.
The bartender was a young greek man in a very tight white t-shirt, gelled hair, and pierced ears. Our glasses of water came frosted, they were so cold. I’m pretty sure every drink’s color was Chanel suit pink.
Ending the night we passed other bars and places that had only locals in them. Young 20 somethings that were dancing to EDM music and smoking outside. One closed bar displayed shots with WILD names. Seeing that sign was enough entertainment for me that night.
The morning we had to check out we rode our ATV back into town, returning it to Poseidon motor rental. After that, we passed Cosmo’s Bar for the fiftieth time. This appeared to be a local bar, where only the town drunks/old geezers hung out. The patio outside was littered with craggy old men over 70, drunk as skunks, drinking and playing traditional Greek music over the speakers. They all wore black sailor hats like we wear baseball caps. Most of them were playing cards.
It was early and we were hungry. We only had so much time and wanted to find breakfast relatively quick. Megan looked at the cafe, turned to me and said, “Do you think we could have breakfast there?”
You only live once.
We passed the large groups on the patio and went inside. A few of them stared at us, but most were too inebriated or too interested in their card game to notice. As soon as we wandered in, the owner approached us, with a huge two-cocktail smile. He told us to sit down and asked us what we wanted. He then yelled the words, “Coffee, coffee!” and had us go behind the bar and make our own coffee. Coffee in Greece is instant coffee, Nescafe.
He suggested that we make greek coffee, but we passed. Greek coffee is coffee with ouzo in it. He then started clapping and yelling, “toast toast!!!!” and motioned for us to get out of the kitchen and to sit down.
“Sure, thank you,” we said.
While we waited one of his friends emerged from the back with a plastic milk jug full of clear liquid and two shot glasses. He put the glasses down on the cafe table and poured. At the time I had no idea what this liquor was. There wasn’t really time to ask questions. I later learned this was a type of ouzo – I think. A few years later I saw it on an Anthony Bourdain episode when he went to Greece and I pieced it together.
The owner (Cosmo) came out from behind the kitchen and presented us with toasted sandwiches and cubes of ham.
Then another shot of ouzo with the old grandpas.
Then a platter of olives, sheep cheese, and ham.
Then another shot with the old grandpas.
Each time we downed another shot, the music got louder. Cosmo’s friend turned the TV to National Geographic. Then he pointed at the monkey with his momma gorilla and laughed. Cosmo had a cigarette permanently attached to his bottom lip.
Before Cosmo poured out the fourth round, we stopped there. We wanted to be able to walk out of there. It was only 11.00 am. They said, “Nonsense! You are going too slow!”
Somewhere in the conversation, we learned that Cosmo technically wasn’t even open for tourists yet. He was just being nice to us and literally feeding whatever he’d been giving his buddies outside.
At the end of this culinary ouzo adventure, we asked, “How much?”
“Nothing! Nothing! I have too much money!” he giggled, reaching in his pockets and pulling out 100 euros, laughing.
He asked for the hundredth time if the food was good and we said “VERY GOOD!” again. He asked where we were from, and if we liked Greece. He said we were the same age as his daughter. He patted us on the shoulder and we left.
As we wobbled out of Cosmo’s bar, we wandered down to the old port, down to the water. In the middle of the street stood a very large pink pelican. I took a picture of it. I actually took the picture as evidence, so I knew this wasn’t a figment of my ouzo soaked imagination.
The pelican waddled from the street towards the back door of a restaurant. He obliged himself to go through the door. A line cook flung a fish into the bird’s open mouth, spoke to the bird, and went back to chopping. The cook spoke to the pelican like he was the dishwasher. The pelican guzzled down the food and left out the door he came in. I have never seen anything like that since.
Mykonos rests on my “Places I Want To Go After Covid” list. This list grows longer each month we wait for the world to open up again. I hope to see more Greek Isles someday, soak in the sun, and swim in the Mediterranean. I will still avoid the clubs. I will look for Cosmos’s Cafe. I will take the ferry to Delos.