Saturday, July 25, 2009

Letter from Greece, Part 6 of 10

Day Four: Santorini

The “ferry” is actually a huge cruise-ship style boat, carrying about 1,800 people from Athens to Santorini, making interim stops at Paros, Naxos and Ios. Imagine that you’re in a small airport, and every flight has been cancelled due to weather. Everyone spreads out, taking up every corner, every aisle and walkway. They have planned to be immobile for the eight-hour trip, and so every table on every deck is full—card players, smokers, drinkers, elaborate board games and stacks of worn paperbacks. A few laptops drink from the scarce electrical outlets. Some passengers wander up and down the boat, holding their cords and plugs out in front of them, forlorn and wishful, like beggars.

But we have sprung for a first-class cabin—it is perhaps the best money I have ever spent. About an hour after we board—after coffee in the lounge, and the waiter’s light scoffing at me drinking Coca-Cola at 7am—we figure out how to get into room 702, which has two tiny beds, along with its own shower and toilet.

We lay down and I fall, miraculously, asleep.

Periodically, the ship’s crew makes strange, squawky announcements, which emerge from a tiny speaker on the nightstand. Out the window is ocean as far as you can see, then a dark line, then sky.

We arrive at Santorini’s new port, maybe two hundred of us, everyone looking for a taxi, a rental car, a scooter, some even hire donkeys. After a bit of confusion about which car we should get into, we end up squished against some gay guys from…Germany? The Netherlands?…who I decide must be deaf and on their first date—they are full of hand gestures and awkward pauses. Thankfully, we arrive at our hotel first, the El Greco. They put us in room 314, which looks out over the pool on one side, and over the caldera on the other. We open the windows and the breeze blows through the room. It’s so remarkable, and simple, that I use my little camera to take a movie of the billowing curtain—which I later post on Facebook, to the “like” of nine friends. (Logging in from Greece changes my preferred language to Greek, and I start getting emails that say things like: Stephanie Hughes σχολίασε την κατάσταση σας.) We lie on the bed and talk about food, about whether we should venture to the beach today or tomorrow, whether we should get in the pool before or after we walk into town, whether we should order in. We discuss options like we’ve won the lottery.

Santorini, aside from the views, is famous for a dish called Domatokeftethes, which is a tomato fritter seasoned with mint, and for the local fava beans. What makes the fava beans taste so great is the dry, volcanic soil, which—apparently—concentrates the flavor. The restaurant we choose for dinner doesn’t have the fava on the menu, and the tomato fritters arrive soggy and rather tasteless. The trouble with eating in tourist towns, of course, is that you have no idea whether any particular restaurant has any particular reputation. However, the rest of the meal is lovely, and, as it turns out, the soil makes for deliciously complicated white wine—bright, sunny and dry. The artichoke stew is homey and filling, but the grilled pita brushed with olive oil and dill, on that breezy evening on the rooftop restaurant, looking out over the caldera to the West, is the best thing we put in our mouths.

We eat dessert in bed, watching “Greece’s Got Talent,” which is a clone of the American show of similar name. For the most part, at least according to the contestants on this particular episode, the Greeks do not have talent. The act that gets the most applause is an old man who manages to stand on his head on top of a rickety chair. Then, an older gay man, like pudgy Paul Lynde, sings a traditional Greek song. The judges are a goateed man with no discernable sense of humor, a model/actress/princess (?) who changes outfits during every commercial break, and whose hair is an elaborate spray of stiff, shiny black, and the last, another singer/entertainer type, dressed in a light suit with a huge turquoise pocket square, who looks like a less-butch Elizabeth Ashley.

The first night in Santorini, I spend three hours awake, level 3 out of 10—not sleeping, but without anxiety. For a while, I watch the tiny green blinking light on the fixture in the ceiling. Insomniacs, like me, who just lay there—instead of getting up to do something, thus compounding layers of worry on top of a kind of eerie displacement of time—have the opportunity to be conscious with their unconscious bedmates for long periods, listening to their breathing, their murmurings and ramblings.

Jason was a serious sleeper, shutting the world out entirely, motionless, his body becoming heavy and immovable in the night—quite the opposite of his bright, energetic waking self. We slept in the loft bed of his 29th Street apartment, with books stuffed in between the mattress and the bed frame, as if one needed fifty choices at arms length.

Andrea was a sleep talker. She washed her hands at night, holding them above her in the air, rubbing her elbows, and waving conjured cobwebs away from her shoulders. “Did you find the bodies?” she once asked, to no one in particular. “Thank you, Mr. Peterson,” she said, “Add them to the list.”

Mario slept quietly, soundly. He had trouble getting out of bed in the morning. His alarm clock was the CD player, and every morning, for months, out of the speakers came first the Jill Scott record, then the Dixie Chicks record. I listened to those songs over and over, holding his hand in mine under the pillow, wondering if he had any plans to get up.

Meg never used a pillow, and took up little space in the bed. Not only was she a small person, but her movements were always was focused, contained, and she slept the same way. Resting her hands behind her head, or along her sides, always on her back. Even in sleep she was conserving energy.

Kip twitches. He snores. He has nightmares that he either rarely remembers, or rarely shares with me. His body is always relaxing one more muscle at a time, sinking into sleep. Sometimes I lay there imagining elaborate devices to hold open the throat, thinking that if I just had a curved piece of plastic or something, if only I had a tube of some kind, a way to sleep hanging face down, somehow—your mind does strange things in the small hours. He snores into the pillow corner, into the cats’ faces, into my ear as he holds me.

In the morning, I look up the side effects of insomnia: drowsiness, increase in stress or anxiety, headaches, problems with digestion, physical impairment, mental impairment, heart disease, memory loss, weight gain, depression, reduced self-esteem, premature death.

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