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Essay: “Sentimental Journey”

Mykonos & DelosEssay: “Sentimental Journey,” by Elizabeth Boleman-Herring, Excerpted from Greek Unorthodox: Bande à Part & A Farewell To Ikaros, Cosmos Publishing, 2005.

Elizabeth Boleman-Herring

Dateline, Hora, Mykonos: From the terrace of a painter’s studio off Matoyianni Street, I look out over the illuminated honeycomb of rooftop Mykonos by night. The town glows like a Chambered Nautilus rendered by Braque, lit from within, phosphorescent.

It is nearing midnight out here under the Great Bear, and though on the wind I occasionally hear, distant and muted, the din of street-level bars and clubs, up here I can still retreat to the Mykonos I have been courted by for the past twenty-seven years. Here, above it, with the Meltemi in my eyes, the summer wind, I see soft-focus hieroglyphs on a navy ground. No sound. No fury.

It has been five summers since my last visit, and I embarked from Piraeus on the stalwart Naïas this time with great trepidation. Journalists, with their tiny yellow hatchets, have been systematically chipping away at Mykonos for the past decade, calling her the harlot of the Ægean. But as most journalists are failed poets and paper puritans, I should not wonder that they do such a poor job of scanning Mykonos. To “dislocate” Yeats, this is no island for old men, the young/in one another’s arms, birds in the trees/etc.

But still, after my protracted absence, I returned fearing the worst. Mykonos was succumbing, friends promised, to the greed of grocers-turned-goldsmiths, the silly satyricon of bad-boys-abroad, the violence of dull, hard-drinking northern European riffraff. Could it have happened? Not yet.

Instead, I have found my chosen Cycladic island much the same as always, goldsmiths, bad boys and riffraff notwithstanding. The same seductive, white-shouldered odalisque—gleaming, powdered, recumbent on her seal-studded bed. Purple prose? You bet: I love this place. So where does Alan Cowell of The New York Times get off terming her merely “pretty”? Damn not this particular hetaïra with faint praise. And how dare the foreign hacks imply, infer, hint that one will “see Mykonos and die” this summer? As though Mykonos were some lethally potent aphrodisiac capable of turning a reasoning mind to jelly? As though Mykonos had some patent on AIDS?

Oh, but homosexuals and naughty beaches and AIDS all make for such juicy copy. How can they resist?

“Permissive” is the adjective that comes up: as in, “The permissiveness on Mykonos has long been tolerated by many of its permanent residents.” Would that the writer of that line had been with me last year in the United States, or in Glyfada, or on Rhodes, for that matter. Mykonos has no corner on permissiveness. But a sun-drenched isle where people take off their clothes before swimming is more interesting than the sordid clubs of the capitals. Yes, indeed. Have the hubris to name a beach “Super Paradise,” and attract the beautiful and nubile of seven continents, and call down the wrath of Killjoys
International. (Count the journalists, and big-name journalists, on Elia Beach in July…)

Waiting in my doctor’s office in Atlanta this past spring, I observed an AIDS patient up close, a woman so emaciated that she had brought along with her a pillow to sit on, a skeletal apparition with emptying eyes who called to mind images of yet another holocaust altogether. AIDS is the holocaust of this half-century. Certainly not something one will risk for the sake of a brief tangle with (even) a perfect stranger. Whether it occurs between Parisian sheets or on the marble sands of a Greek island, no ephemeral pleasure is worth this terrible, wasting, near-certain death.

There was a lot of empty promiscuity everywhere in the sinful 1970s—not on lovely Mykonos, alone—but the writing is on the white-washed wall. As one old Mykonos hand put it: “O ti pirameh, paidia!” which translates (spirit, not letter): “That’s it. The party’s over.”

True, Mykonos has tolerated its pockets of promiscuity for over a decade, just as other cities have tolerated their private dives, Sunset Strips, and Plato’s Retreats. But the Mykonians I know, and have known well for a quarter-century, are ethical, hardworking, generous, pragmatic—and not half as rowdy as, for example, the good ol’ boys I went to college with. When you’re tending children, weaving fabric, priming canvases, brewing six hundred cups of coffee a day, and trying to keep your teenagers out of trouble, there’s not much time left for frolicking al fresco.

The foreigners have come to Paradise, Super Paradise and Elia to suspend their disbelief. True. But only the criminally insane or insatiable will now ignore the facts. It is high time that the minority who have come to give Mykonos a bad name—drawing the press along in tow—now concern themselves with simply staying alive and well.

Permissiveness is not the role this great Cycladic beauty was cast for.

At this writing, only one case of AIDS has been documented on the island. Only one. One too many.

It is my hope that those of you reading this at a waterfront café, or sprawled on one of the three wayward beaches of Mykonos’s sandy empyrean, will have come to the island this year for something more than a brief encounter of the fatal kind. And that you will come away with memories something like mine.

Perhaps you will be lucky enough to drink ouzo with meze (Mykonos’s famous kopanisti cheese, for one) in Ano Mera, at Vagelis’s Taverna. Or sketch the architectural gems in town or on the back roads to the beaches. If you are fortunate, you may see a rare Mediterranean seal, scale the peak of Delos, spearfish for your dinner, or locate the tiny Cats’ Chapel beneath Aghios Iakovos.

You may stop in at the Orama Gallery of Luis Orozco and Dorlies Schapitz, and see their fauve paintings—Luis has been painting Mykonos since 1960. You may sit in one of the few remaining fishermen’s cafés on the waterfront, where the pelican Petros’s heirs come for their daily “catch” and fresh water. (Alas, Mr. Cowell, Petros, the beatifically pink pelican of yore no longer waddles among us.)

Sadly, Mykonos has not, for her beauty, been spared the cold touch of AIDS, nor other late-Twentieth-Century vicissitudes. But neither has she been singled out for special treatment. Yeats’s “dying generations” will be dying during upcoming decades wherever they choose not to play by the new rules.

Be seduced by Mykonos: not by the quickly ageing bodies on the nudist beaches. And be grateful that the island is “permissive,” “promiscuous” enough to take a thousand, ten thousand, lovers, and enthrall them for one summer, or for twenty-seven.

July 1987

PS Every year since the writing of this little remembrance of Mykonos, I have returned to the island, first writing a simple guide book, Insight Pocket Guide: Mykonos & Santorini, and then, in 2003 and 2004, composing a major online work featuring a long Mykonos chapter comprising all I know and love about the place.

In only the one small room in which I now write hang several Luis Orozco oils of Mykonian landscapes, and a painting I myself did under this great Mexico-born but so-very-long Mykonos-domiciled painter’s tutelage. My parents’ homes were full to bursting with Luis’s canvases; now, mine are as well. For me, Mykonos was one vast atelier, walkable in a day, but so full of things to paint and sketch and savor visually that one would never live long enough to see them. And the Orozcos’ Orama Gallery is, for me, the last if tiny bastion of the Mykonos-Of-The-Painters which I first came to love as a child.

One painter I loved here, it is true, David, a watercolorist from Canada, and someone I called my adopted brother, indeed succumbed to the Great Sexual Plague of the last and now the present century, though he told almost none of us he was ill before going away quietly to die. I will miss him, his gentleness, his quiet paintings, and the tenderness he showed the Bernhard Heidens, in their own last illnesses: for the community of Hora is a compact, mostly caring extended family, where everyone is linked and yoked by family, or faux family ties and duties.

Mykonos has brought me so much of the exotic, so much unmitigated pleasure over the course of my many decades on her shores, that it is difficult for me to say it is a place too much tinged with the forbidden, the dangerous. I cannot quite imagine my life without its Mykonian chapters, nor can I imagine life at all without the ecstatic, for which there always seems to be a price, a finger pointing, condemnation.

Instead, I front up at Paradise, or at my other chosen, less accessible beaches, fling off my clothes, slather on the sunblock, and remember “in my flesh” a time before Cotton Mather, Jerry Falwell, Emily Post, the prophets pretty much one and all, and all the rest of the world’s party-poopers. And, given my age now, all I really have to worry about is malignant melanoma and jellyfish, which is enough, thank you very much.

August 2004

Author Photo by Emilios Morgianides.