“it feels like lifetimes ago.”
on some sunny day in february of 2020 i had two coffees on an outside chair and waited for the bus. it wasn’t cold for a minnesotan. it wasn’t warm either. i had a long sleeve and a wind jacket and a hat and light scarf. the cyclades in winter are moderate. no more, no less.
the greeks have great coffee. my favorite thing to do in other countries is sit in their coffee shops. easier to remember than sitting in their bars. probably i looked out of place but didn’t feel it. life has moments that feel like the right ones inside of long stretches of uncertainty. i was sitting on a greek island getting a jolt of caffeine and waiting on a bus. just sitting. thinking about how i got there.
katy and i ended up on naxos through a number of circumstances that we didn’t plan when we flew from minneapolis to thailand at the beginning of january, but these types of circumstances are precisely the reason to love travel. steinbeck said you do not take a trip, a trip takes you. i find that to be true.
after making it to greece, touring the ruins of athens, and enjoying our share of greek cuisine, we decided to pick one island to do a week at. we’d heard how beautiful mykonos and santorini were. i had some interest in crete, being it’s the home of the author of one of my favorite books, zorba the greek. i don’t remember what it was really that drove us to pick naxos.
we got the cheapest ferry tickets we could find and that meant that even though the ferry was less than half occupied we weren’t allowed to sit on the comfy seats. the cheap tickets buy you the right to sit in the cafeteria for the 5ish hour trip. a friendly young pakistani man struck up a conversation with us. the journey that took him to a greek island deserves a book of its own, and the determination he must have held to accomplish it and the amount of thanks he had for his opportunity to simply do labor on an island farm was a reminder of the immigrant force of will that i fail to understand could be disliked by the many people who don’t want immigrants in my home country.
while i was away using the bathroom our new friend told katy that was the first time he ever spoke to a woman outside his family in a one on one setting. he was awkward and shy but in a talkative and curious way. he wanted to know everything about why we were how we were and what we were doing. he bought us each 32 ounce cokes as a gesture of friendship. i didn’t have the heart to tell him i don’t drink POP. i sucked it down as we spoke of our homes. our fathers. our mothers. i knew full well it would mean my stomach would hate me and i probably wouldn’t sleep. i didn’t care.
our airbnb host greeted us and gave us some welcome kitron, the native drink of naxos. a citron liqueur with an herbal taste, we ended up putting down a fair amount of it over our week there. it being the offseason, it was slow and most of the shops and restaurants were closed. but katy and i had fun. we had each other. we had kitron. we dined at little local places or cooked big feasts with eggplants swimming in tasty olive oil and meats from the butcher shops. we watched sunsets at the portata, a large marble doorway from a temple built to apollo around 500 BC. the portata overlooks the port and i couldn’t help gaze through it at the sea and wonder if anyone even remotely like me had gazed through it twenty five hundred years ago.
once we were eyeing a trip to naxos i began wondering where it would be possible to get a nice hike in. according to legend, zeus himself was born in a cave on the side of the highest mountain in the cycledes. now known as mount zas, i figured this naxos trek would be the perfect day trip from the port town.
“filoti,” i said to the driver. the village nearest the start of the trail i wanted to hike. the busses on naxos don’t discriminate much about the person going from A to B. the school kids and i went together. probably here i looked even more out of place. i have blonde hair. nearly none of the school kids did. they’re not unused to foreigners on the island but foreigners on the island is not exactly common in february, when the beaches are not warm.
from the village of filoti i walked out of town to the trailhead. i looked back and saw the sun still breaking over into the village. the visual cohesion of an entire white stone village must be remarkably aesthetically pleasing for anyone, but especially so for someone so used to seeing individual modern homes patching the landscape of all the areas of my home.
the views were greener than i had expected when coming to the island. small bushes and trees lined the mostly stone walkway to the peak. i carved my way through small farmlands and was sure to close tightly all the gates i went through, not wanting there to be a manhunt for the stupid foreigner who let the sheep out. some goats hid behind trees as i passed. it didn’t take long for the trail to open up to vast, sweeping views of the valleys formed below.
the cave itself was underwhelming considering a GOD was born there, but i was happy to come across a location of such historical importance that was such the opposite of instagrammized. there was just one small sign. i was the only one around. the terrain didn’t make it look worn in the way it would be if people flocked there even in the busy season. i took a few pictures and continued towards the peak.
it was fairly easy to lose the trail on a handful of occasions, but luckily i always came back across some marker of some kind. from the top i could see to both the eastern and western coasts of the island. it was windy as hell. i ate my lunch. i took the typical video of my standing right on the edge of a cliff to send to my mother. give her a little jump. there is a feeling that is provided by being at the top of a mountain that is incomparable to any other feeling. it’s not simply an ego accomplishment and it’s not strictly spiritual and it’s not just for the view or the picture. i don’t know. the seeking of the feeling typically is hard to explain for me, and still probably the best answer for why one goes is “because it’s there.”
i scampered down slowly, aware i’d probably never be back no matter how long i lived.
when i found a return bus and got back to the coast i cleaned up and we went for a big feast. i had worked up an appetite. the food was great and the owner of the tavern gave us an extra liter of red wine. on the other side of the room the locals were breaking out in boisterous laughter. i couldn’t understand the language but felt still i somehow got the joke. two shots of kitron for dessert and i smiled the simple smile of one who had accomplished most of the things he ever wanted to do in a day. there were books, coffee, nature, exercise, and good company.
a couple days later we left naxos on a ferry and the ride was missing the friendly probing of a young middle easterner. i wasn’t sure where we were going next but i was thinking then and am still now that we might just live forever if we keep taking ferries in search of the birthplaces of dead gods and drinking red wine and eating olive oil and laughing at jokes we don’t understand and watching sunsets.