Death on Ios

Ios odyssey: Could he recapture his youth with a passionate encounter on Greece's most hedonistic island?

By Jeffrey Tayler

Published November 1, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

"Youth flies." --Horace

Oh, the Greek island summers of my youth! There were Fat Boy
chopper rides on cliff roads high above the shimmering emerald Aegean.
There were days of cold beer and salty beach and juicy souvlaki, tart
tzatziki. There were cool night sea breezes, hot moist lips, smooth
untethered breasts beneath silken bodices, passionate embraces on the warm
sand. There were rendezvous under the stars, stars that in their
horizon-to-horizon spread of diamond light and faraway luster suggested
infinite possibilities, endless time, an eternity to realize a glorious,
ever-distant future.

Memory embellishes the past: Now that I think of it, the Fat Boy
chopper was actually a sputtering moped, and there were mosquito bites and
stained sheets and other sticky annoyances. But I was green then -- in the
early 1980s -- and youth was in me, and I was spending summers on the Greek
islands, and there was no AIDS. The Mediterranean setting and the allure
of romance commingled to create a brew heady and redolent of mystery. All
this was new to me then, new.

One afternoon in Moscow not long ago I stared into the mirror and
compared myself to a picture taken of me in Athens in 1984. At first I
thought, to my satisfaction, that I appeared the same now as then, with the
dignifying exception of a few gray hairs at the temples. But I began
examining my reflection more closely: Something, some solid cast of jaw and
gravity of gaze, had settled over me in the intervening years. My life as
it had developed had taken its toll on me: I had spent the last six years
in a cold northern land where youth withered early, corruption and deceit
were the norms and bullets riddled the frivolous. I had, unmistakably,
grown "grim about the mouth," as Ishmael put it.

Suddenly, I yearned to be the carefree youngster in the photo, and
a reflexive question arose: How would I do now, at age 37, on
those same Greek isles? I had never really noticed time passing; was I in
truth no longer young? To counter what the mirror hinted, I decided I
needed concrete answers to these questions in the form of a romantic fling,
bodice and sand and sticky annoyances and all, that would validate me as
who I thought I was and chase away the doubts.

I decided to storm the gates of my past. I recruited my
40-year-old (and skeptical) Dutch friend, Serge, as a travel companion,
outfitted myself with summer attire, including a cool Animal wristwatch and
cooler Armani shades, bought a plane ticket to Athens and set my compass
for the island stomping grounds of my youth.

A week later our Flying Dolphin hydrofoil was skipping a frothy
white V across the blue Aegean, its snout leveled at the isle of Ios. Ios!
A breast of brown rock pointing heavenward, nippled with a white church!
The fabled burial ground of Homer, Ios, over the past few decades, has
garnered notoriety as an island on which crowds of college-age satyrs and
Bacchae re-create ancient Greek rituals of orgiastic revelry with
"Animal House" aplomb. I had first visited Ios in 1985 and left it feeling
like a pleasantly ragged-out but sated survivor of a week-long frat party.
Topographically speaking, it is a windy rock with one village, a few
beaches and 113 bars.

We stepped off our Dolphin into a notias, or Southerner -- a wind
from Africa notable for its sweltering heat. Soon after arrival, a
hotelier was leading us to our rooms. A Greek matriarch who had, no doubt,
seen it all before, she ministered to us as might the seasoned matron of a
cut-rate Dionysian temple.

"We have an m-m-good barbecue here every night and all the
brand-name hooch you could want. Stay out all night and bring girls to
your rooms, but just don't lose my keys! Got that?"

Two hours later we were reclining on chaise longues on Milopotas
Beach. Music pounded from the pool at the nearby Far Out Club. All around
us were buzz-cut teens from northern Europe, teens with hair napped in
purple, yellow and orange clumps. Some wore pirate scarves. Others
sported silver coins on leather necklaces, scorpion tattoos, navel
piercings, tongue studs and nipple and nostril rings. The crowd
resembled a "Trainspotting" cast of thousands, and I wondered what drugs they
must have taken to keep themselves in such perpetual motion: They couldn't
stop paddling balls, whirling Frisbees, snorting into snorkels. What was
all this activity for?

Next to us sat three Irish girls drinking beers. Maybe they were
19 years old, maybe 20. They were works in progress; their skin
looked dew-fresh, their cheeks baby-fat plump.

Their voices carried.

"Well, we drank on the plane. And on the bus to the port. And on
the ferry. And in the pension. No wonder we all puked!" Uproarious
laughter, gulps of beer for all, an adjustment of wrap-around shades.

"Let's hit the Square at 10 tonight ... Grandma and Grandpa gave me
300 pounds for this trip ... My nose piercing itches ... You've got a
bee on your bum ..."

Serge sipped his Heineken.

"Jeff, I can't talk to girls that age. I just can't."

I shrugged off his negativism and swatted at a wasp. We were in
Ios for night life anyway; beach impressions meant nothing.

By day, Khora, Ios' village, is a dainty labyrinth of whitewashed
alleys peopled by doddering Greek dowagers and mustachioed fruit merchants
leading donkeys loaded with baskets of fruit. By night, it's a cross between the Crazy Horse
Saloon and a
modern-day Babylon where the streets flow with beer, piss and vomit. It
is not by chance that one of the island's most popular T-shirts reads:
"Ios -- Drink Until You Puke, Puke Until You Die."

The nexus of night life is the Square, which is basically an alley
with an olive tree on one end, a church on the other and a dozen watering
holes in between -- the rest of the bars and clubs fan outward from there.

Around 11 p.m., Serge and I left the hotel, fell in with
the crowd, passed the Orgasm Bar and the Lemon Club, and made it to the
Square. We hadn't planned it, but we ended up dressed thematically
alike -- I in black loafers, a Polo shirt and Levis; he in Trussardi jeans, a
silk shirt and square-toed loafers. I note this here because around us
streamed ripped-up knee-length shorts, Tevas sandals, "Take Me Drunk -- I'm Home" T-shirts and pierced cartilage. With our intact attire and dearth of
facial metal, we stuck out like white crows.

Joni's Electric Bar and Frankie's Ios Blue -- we looked inside the
clubs on the Square and moved on. We surfed the crowd and landed in
Shooter's, one of the more sedate bars just off the Square.

A guy in his early 20s with a shaved head and two girls in tow
pointed to the empty seats beside me and raised his eyebrows.

"C'n we sit here?"

Sure, I said.

Herb was his name. Twenty-three years old. From the Midwest.

Just finished a magnus opus in which he expatiated upon every tenet and
principle of his philosophy. I found myself nodding off into my Corona as
he nattered on, his nasal voice droning like an anopheles mosquito -- until,
that is, he slowed down, took a deep breath and huffed, "Boy, do I feel
old here!"

I snapped awake. "Old? You? You're 23!"

"Yeah, but these chicks I'm with are young. I c'n hardly talk to
them" (the music was too loud for them to hear us). "Just last night I was
out on the beach with the brunette here -- she's from England and her name's
Fiona -- and I was explaining my philosophy and she just pulled me down on
the sand and took off her clothes and made me do it. She didn't wanna hear
about my philosophy."


I looked at Serge. The other girl grabbed Herb's Corona and tried
to steal a sip; he grabbed it back. "Hey," he said, "I told you I don't
buy you drinks. That's not my philosophy." He turned to me: "Violetta
here can be a pain."

Right. I looked at the "pain" and did a double take, like a
character out of a 1950's sitcom. Violetta had long curly blond hair, a
billowing front, a saucy little nose and wore a petulant frown. She
called to mind a Benny Hill tart, the kind of voluptuous temptress the
bawdy comedian would have chased at show's end in fast-motion around tree
trunks in a public park. I felt a warmth in my gut, a rush of blood, a
visceral attraction. I had the urge to buy an entire crate of Coronas and
toss them at her ankle-braceleted feet.

Herb tickled her. She smiled but looked away.

"I'm out for the impossible dream tonight," he said to me. "I'm
gonna try and sleep with her. It'll be tough seeing as how I just did her
girlfriend." He took another lusty gulp and wiped his lips. "Also, she's
17, and you see, I'm wondering --"
My jaw dropped. I had no idea she was so young.

"-- I'm wondering, if I have sex with her, can I be sued for it? I
mean, she's English, but I'm American and we're in Greece. So, like, which
legal age applies? Which jurisdiction?"

Later, Herb pontificated on the merits of shaved heads -- his own
noggin, he said, was of a particularly manly contour and therefore drove
girls insane with desire ("It's all in the shape of your cranium").
Whatever. I stole looks at Violetta: She was ravishing, but that she could
be so young had never entered my mind. Until that moment, I hadn't paid much
attention to age differences. Almost all the people I knew were past
college age, in their 20s or 30s or older. And besides, in my
mind's eye, I still saw myself as college age.

But perhaps to her, I, with my head of unnapped hair and without a
nipple ring to my name, was an old codger, a hoary dinosaur washed up on
this isle of youth.

Aeolus puffed up his cheeks and blew and blew. The next morning
the notias was gone and the meltemi, or wind from the north, was tearing
through Khora: Teal plastic garden furniture flew from balconies, empty
plastic water bottles swirled by, alley whirlwinds battled each other like
vicious dogs, plastic baggies raced over the beach like panic-stricken
rodents. Serge and I sat up in the hotel garden and watched the molten-red
ball of the sun slither into the sea and illuminate a fairyland of islands
hitherto hidden in the bluish haze of the horizon. A fellow Methuselah -- he
must have been 38 or 39 -- got up from his beer, patted
his belly and gave us a companionable nod. I wanted to retch.

I was thinking of Violetta.

Serge took a drag on his cigarette and looked at the sea, then stood up.

"Come on, let's go into town. You're not really moping over that
17-year-old, are you? She looked like Ginger Spice."

"I just can't believe she's so young."

"You're an old-timer now. Get used to it."

"It just seems so unfair. I don't want to get used to it."

"Does that mean you'll be chasing a 17-year-old girl around
this bloody island?"

"That would be a pathetic sight, wouldn't it?"

"Yes, and I'd like to see it. So let's go into town."

Serge and I started off at another bar we had heard about -- Sweet
Irish Dreams. On the way there I decided to stop moping and cheer up. Age
was all in my head. Why, I was even able to fit into the same bathing suit
I had worn when I was on this island in 1985! Nothing had really changed.
Tonight would be the night.

Irish Dreams turned out to have a spill-your-cookies,
get-outta-my-face-mate! air. It was messy and dark and filled with
teeny-boppers on table tops and stumble-drunk blokes. Everyone was in T-shirts
and bathing suits and sandals. The crowd was too much. I went to the
men's room. Two teens followed me inside and took up positions at the

I splashed water on my face.

Teen No. 1 (had hair, wore wraparound sunglasses, spoke with an
American accent): "So, like, we were all totally drunk in this hotel and
couldn't make it to the bathroom, so, like, we just pissed in the drawers
of this dresser. I mean we just took drawer after drawer out and just
pissed in them all night when we needed to."

Teen No. 2 (shaking off the last drops): "You're kidding."

Teen No. 1 (clanking his buckles into order): "Naw, man, I mean,
like, then Bart got to feeling sick. He just took this dresser drawer and
blew chow in it."

Teen No. 2: "That's incredible."

Teen No. 1: "Yeah, Amsterdam was great. But you know what drinking
beer does to your bowels, man. I mean, I felt this rumble in my gut so I
took a drawer and --"

I hurried out. This place was not for us. As we were leaving, a
tipsy, very cute Irish girl raised her hands and gave us a double
thumbs-up -- "Glad to see you, Uncle!" I fancied her to be saying. I
couldn't help smiling back at her, but ... I wanted to retch.

We circled back to the Square and ended up in a club decorated in
1970s-grotto style. Four or five young women danced gracefully by
themselves in the center of the floor. Within minutes, however, the door
flew open and a threesome of young lads, their black hair crew-cut and their
necks draped in gold chains, sailed past us and threw themselves into the
midst of the females. One of the fellows, gyrating like an animated
boneless chicken, rubber-necked and bandy-legged, set out after a brunette.
He and his buddies were like cheetahs on the loose in a flock of gazelles.

The brunette, escaping from him, bumped into me and apologized.
She said her name was Sarah, she was 19 years old and from Belfast
and she worked for the bar as a dancer.

"Oh, these Israelis! I just can't stand them," she panted. Her
hair was cut bowl-style, monklike and goofy; her thighs were white sugar,
her ankles and wrists were wispy-thin. She wore a short, black, backless
dress and no brassiere; her breasts were heavy torpedoes but they stood
erect under the thin cotton.

"Why can't you stand them?"

"Well, the other night one of them kidney-punched me for no reason.
Anyway, I came down here on holiday but my money ran out so I got this
job ..." Sarah's girlfriends came up and said hello, all Ivory-fresh-faced.
They chirped and twittered: Life was a blast, the bar cool, the beach
great. I couldn't accurately judge their ages until their male
contemporaries, also from Belfast, sauntered over: Goateed,
blue-and-yellow-haired, wearing baggy shorts, they were dorky-looking. But
I censured myself: Why shouldn't they dress and style themselves this way?
They hadn't a boss to impress, a living to make, a care on this earth.

There was one other man my age in the bar: the manager. He stood
in the doorway counting a fistful of drachmas. He was all in black and he
wore a bulky silver bracelet. He was not simply grim about the mouth; he
was positively ferocious.

"Get back to work!" he growled as he passed Sarah. She turned
gazelle again and sprang back onto the floor. He went back to counting his
money, and Serge and I left.

Shooters. Herb was nowhere to be seen. Violetta and Fiona were
there, though, dancing on the tabletops and miming Spice Girls tunes. They
were escorted by two apes, two crew-cut monsters in Hawaiian shirts and
Birkenstocks. I tried to wave hello to Violetta, but one of the
Frankensteins tore her from the table and carried her cave-man style to the
bar. There he tipped her to a martini glass, the bartender set the liquid
within it aflame and she sucked it down through a straw. Frankenstein
burped her, then grabbed a beer and poured it down her throat. In fact, he
and his buddy had lined up a score of beers and cocktails on the bar; the
rest of the evening was a medley of Spice Girls tunes, piggyback rides to
the booze and piggyback rides back to the tabletops, accompanied by
Neanderthal grunts and ape scratches and girlish squeals. I followed all
this dejectedly, struggling to poke a recalcitrant slice of lemon down into
my Corona.

"This is bull," said Serge. "Let's get out of here."

Later I saw Violetta riding down the main street drunk as a spring lark
on her ape's shoulders, holding her hands to the breeze, shrieking with
schoolgirl glee. Fiona, walking with her arms crossed, looked pained and
tried to keep up.

The next afternoon Serge and I sat on the beach watching the
water-skiing and Frisbeeing. A fat teen with a pumpkin-size shaved head
and a tiny goatee flathandled a sub sandwich. Topless German girls, so
young that their breasts had barely budded, rubbed coconut oil into their
tummies. An image from Sweet Irish Dreams came to mind: It was of a
Swedish blonde, 18 or so, dancing on a tabletop to the M People.
She wore flowers in her hair, a yellow halter, a white sash around her
tanned midriff; she was barefoot and her toes were brown. Her eyes
radiated joy -- she was so happy to be on Ios, on that tabletop; she was
beautiful and she knew it and she was flying high on the crowd's adoration.
The world was hers and everything would be wonderful.

I suddenly felt
robbed -- I could only think these thoughts on behalf of others now. When I
was first on Ios I simply took and took from the world without thinking;
now I cogitated myself into a funk and concluded that I had lost the urge
to grab.

Serge poked my arm and nodded. Violetta. She was taking small
steps toward the surf, gripping herself in her arms as though she were the
sole survivor of a catastrophe. Her eyes were red, her hair flat, her face
white. She dipped her feet in the water, shivered and tread slowly back
up to the pool.

Sunday was our last evening in Ios. We spent the first hours
watching "True Romance" at the Fun Pub. Serge was tired, I was
disillusioned. I told him how sad I felt at perceiving -- for the first
time, really -- how quickly time was passing. Then I paused and
suggested -- sagely I thought -- that maybe I was exaggerating my plight.

Serge sat back. "Don't live in dreams, Jeff." He walked to the
door and looked at the crowds passing by the pub. "Hey, we should take one
last walk around the Square."

Shooters was nearly empty when we arrived. Except for Violetta and

"We're not drinking tonight," Violetta told me. "See, we just
stopped drinking today at 1 in the afternoon." Giggles. "Well,
actually, we could maybe have a Flaming Lamborghini."

Serge ordered four Flaming Lamborghinis. The bartender poured
liqueur after liqueur into the bulbous glasses. Violetta's eyes lit up and
she squirmed.

Ladies first. They dipped in their straws, their faces as cheery
as those of children about to get their first glimpse of a department-store
Santa Claus. The bartender set the stuff alight, and as they were sucking
it down, he dolloped in still more alcohol from another bottle. He then
presented them with chaser bottles of Amstel.

We drank next. Their pupils dilated and so did ours. An easy
mirth crept over us all; I felt a rising gusto, an inflation of ego -- my
cause was not yet lost! They said they were from London. I told them we
lived in Moscow. I talked at length about life there, about the boulevards
streaming with Mercedes and mobsters and beautiful molls. But they
responded with giddy laughs and uncomprehending stares; I might as well
have said we had just flown in from Saturn. Despite the Flaming
Lamborghinis, a trenchant unease began rolling in, washing away the mirth.

Serge took imperious drags on his cigarette; I did my damnedest to
act relaxed and glib.

"What, by the way, is your favorite music?" I asked.

Violetta's eyes lit up: "The Spice Girls! The Spice Girls! We
like to dance on the tabletop to the Spice Girls!"

I cleared beer bottles off a nearby table. Serge hung back,
shaking his head. Violetta requested "Human Touch" from the DJ, then,
grabbing Fiona's hand, pulled her aloft.

"Stop right here" -- the two raised their arms -- "thank you very much" -- choreographed hip swivels -- "I need somebody with a human touch" -- a forced smile stretched my cheeks apart, a thousand thoughts of tender pity
and alienation and estrangement rattled through my mind -- "get outta my face" -- here they slapped an invisible man's cheek.

I was the only Spice fan, and I felt their enthusiasm for their
dance melt away. Another "human touch," a lackluster hip swivel, a final,
flailing slap in the face of that imagined brute, and I helped them back to
earth. I couldn't wipe the putty smile off my face; it masked an
unbridgable gulf yawning wider and wider between us. Our conversation
foundered -- none of us had anything left to say. The desire I had felt for
her waned under a crushing alienation that derived from -- yes -- the
difference in our ages. She belonged to another world, to Sarah's world,
to a world of youth that now, I finally understood, was closed to me.

"Well, ahh, we have to meet these blokes in a bit," Violetta said.

"It's their last night, you see. We'll be back in half an hour. So wait
for us here, OK?" She grabbed Fiona's hand and they were off.

Serge smirked.

"They won't be back. That's their routine -- get the old guys to buy
them drinks, then take off."
They did not return.

The meltemi persisted, forcing the cancellation of the Flying
Dolphin the day of our departure from Ios. We would take the slow boat

I once thought of aging as a beast that could be held at bay by
exercise, a proper diet, the right hair gel, a practiced tailor. It was
something that happened to careless people, to other people. Before my
return to Ios, I believed my options were open: Life was a revolving
smorgasbord and I had the power to choose my dish. I thought I would always
have that power, at least until I achieved true seniority -- the age of
80, say -- when a pleasant dash of dotage would set in, an endearing
shuffle would ensue, my features would mature into a mien of sublime
gravitas, and I would be, well, regal. Feel free to laugh at my
misguidedness because I am laughing at it myself.

Youth, I now see, was a gift that Life bestowed then
yanked away before I knew it, with unexpected results. Like some
reincarnation of Odysseus brandishing not a sword but a trendy wristwatch
and shades, I returned to my Ithaca and found I had outgrown my Penelope --
but it hurt that she would not have had me, anyway. She showed me that
there were walls in my life that I could not breach.

Now, waiting for the boat out of Ios, I resolved to recognize the
imprint that the years had left on me. I still cherished my youthful romps
on the islands, but in a flush of insight, I saw that time, like a river,
flows in one direction only, and I must ride the current and accept its
gifts. There is no choice, anyway.

Our ferry, the gold-trimmed Maria Pa, honked and rounded the cape
on its way into Ios harbor, fighting the meltemi, hissing as it sliced the
waves, honking again as it backed up to the dock, churning the glaucous
water into foam. Serge and I joined the crowd in pushing our way aboard.
With another honk we pulled away, our bow swinging round until it pointed

With a roar of engines we lurched ahead and steamed seaward. I
didn't look back.

Jeffrey Tayler

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His seventh book, "Topless Jihadis -- Inside Femen, the World's Most Provocative Activist Group," is out now as an Atlantic ebook. Follow @JeffreyTayler1 on Twitter.

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