Santorini summer

I fell for Robert on a sunlit Greek isle, but how could the girl my mother raised give up her voyage for a man?

Published April 16, 1999 2:13PM (EDT)

I met Robert on one heaving, wrenching ferry ride; I left him on another
one. That's the way life goes in the Greek islands: Staying put is always
easier than getting somewhere better.

I was crossing a stormy Adriatic Sea, in the middle of a long Mediterranean
vacation, when I found him. Thirsty, tired and bored after a night of being
pitched back and forth by the waves, I had wandered down to the ship's
cafeteria in search of company. Robert was a rangy Englishman with
well-creased eyes, a thick Sussex burr and a gruff pride that barely hid
the burn behind him. He was headed for a bartending job in Santorini, he
said; a three-year stint in Toronto had ended abruptly. While the rest of
us tourists shelled out for the overpriced ferry cafeteria fare, he sipped
a slow series of espressos, digging deep in his trouser pockets for the
slim billfold whose contents had to get him all the way to the islands.

We spent the rest of the day together, splashing through the rain for fresh
air and staring at the horizon -- the only thing in sight not moving -- to
keep our digestive tracts working in a single direction. At the storm's
worst point, Robert hauled me around to the prow of the boat, where we
leaned out past the railing and dipped back and forth into the waves to
compensate for the ferry's sickening motion.

I was planning to spend a week working my way down the islands; Robert was
going straight to Santorini. Before I left him at the railway station in
Patras, he scribbled in my guidebook the name of a restaurant in
Santorini. "I'll be working there, so that's the best place to find me," he

I hugged him before I picked up my backpack. "Don't worry," I said. "I'll
see you in Santorini in a week."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Three and a half weeks later I landed on Santorini. I hadn't meant to be so
late, but each Peloponnese village I stayed in begat another stop in
another town, until eventually I was moving even more slowly than the
Australians whose paths I crossed. Finally, after an incense-laden Greek
Easter on the sprawling island of Naxos, I headed south to Santorini.

The ferry arrived in late afternoon, in streaming sunlight. As
we neared the island, the town of Thmra burst white over the caldera,
splintering over the black cliffs that cupped the island's harbors. I made
my way into town, drenched by the heat -- cold winds had cut through all my
days on Naxos -- and stumbling in what I hoped was the direction of the
hostel. At the sound of footsteps behind me, I turned my head wearily; I
did a double take when I recognized the face.

"Robert?" I asked, not sure he'd remember me. Robert looked up and dragged
his lips into a long dry smile. "Aha," he said, "I was wondering
if you were going to show up."

He looked at me appraisingly. "You look terrible," he concluded. "Do you
have a place to stay?" I admitted that I was looking for one. "I'll take
you," he said, and headed off at a brisk pace. I wiped some sticky strands
of hair off my forehead and followed.

After five minutes of turning through a series of white stuccoed alleyways, he
stopped and wheeled around. "Here you go," he said. "I have to head over to
work now; I can take you out later, but it won't be until midnight. If
you'll be awake for it," he added.

I nodded eagerly; I was planning a long nap. "OK, then," he said, "I'll
meet you down the road at the Kyra Thira; it's down there a few blocks on
the right." He pointed down the lane. I nodded again, too exhausted to chat
more. "Well, see you tonight then," he said, and walked off.

A few minutes after midnight I stumbled into the pub, blinking in the smoky
room. A mural arched up over the walls, decked with portraits of Dizzy
Gillespie and Billie Holiday; Robert sat at the bar, the only non-Greek in
the room and the only person under the age of 50. I tapped his arm and he
turned around sharply, then softened his shoulders and stood up.

"Have a good evening?" he asked.


"What would you like to drink? Niko, this is Rachel. Do you like sangria?
Two sangrias," he said, and ushered me into a booth at the window. We
sipped our drinks quietly; vaguely uncomfortable at the silence, I gazed
outside at tourists staggering by in search of their hotels.

"It's quiet now," Robert volunteered finally. "It was busy over Easter, but
all the Greeks have gone home. In a few weeks the Europeans will start
coming, and it will be very crowded." He pronounced the sentence
deliberately, rolling the word "very" with some distaste.

"Why did you come back here if you don't like the crowds?" I asked.

He paused. "I lived here for three years -- summers here, winters in Italy.
Then I fell in love with a woman and moved to Canada with her. When I left
Canada ..." He shrugged. "I hate England. I stopped in Italy to visit some
friends, then I came here."

We downed a few more sangrias before the bar closed, then walked softly
through the alleys, wandering back to the hostel. An old man came toward
us, tapping the cobblestones with a cane, stopping occasionally to rap on a
few wooden doors. I turned and stared, fascinated, and watched him knock at
the door of the Kyra Thira. He exchanged a few words with Niko, and walked
on. I turned back and looked quizzically at Robert.

"They used to keep the bars open all night here," he said. "But there are
more and more tourists now. Some of the locals complained, so now everyone
closes at 2." He gestured in the direction of the tapping cane. "He goes
through town to make sure everyone is closed."

"Now," he said. We were at the hostel, standing before the heavy wooden
doors. "Do you have plans for tomorrow?"

"Nothing really."

"Why don't I take you to Oma?"

"Sure, if you've got the time," I said hesitantly.

"Good. I'll come for you at 10." He kissed me quickly on both cheeks,
European style, and held me for a moment, then let go. "Buona notte," he
said quietly.

"Sleep well," I replied, then turned into the building.

By 10 the next morning he was standing outside the hostel, leaning back
against one of the whitewashed arches. As I stepped onto the street, squinting in
the morning sunlight, he held up a white bakery bag. "It's a traditional
Santorini pastry," he said. I reached in and pulled out one of the sweets,
popping it in my mouth. It was light and honeyed, with a sweet filling
of nuts and molasses. I licked powdered sugar off my fingers as we headed
down to the bus station.

A rich black crescent in the sea, Santorini emerged centuries ago when a
volcano's eruption left only fragments of its caldera habitable. The
outer, eastern edge of the island slides gradually through farmland to the
island's glittering black sand beaches; the inner circle drops off
dramatically above the tossing waters to the west.

Oma sits at the northernmost end of the crescent, a whimsical village of
twisting lanes and brightly colored stucco. The hotels tumble down the
cliffs in tiers, clinging to the rock like barnacles; each room looks out
on an amoeba-shaped terrace cut with curved whitewash grids.

At the far end of town, a steep path twines down between a cluster of empty
cave houses cut directly into the soft pumice; most were abandoned after a
1956 earthquake sent the town's bohemian elite scurrying back to the
mainland. At the base of the path, scattered fishermen worked on their nets
and eased weathered skiffs in and out of the old port, barking affably to each other. Jellyfish lolled in the shallow water around the fishing boats. Freshly caught squid hung from railings outside the port's three
restaurants. Robert scowled at the construction crew working at the far end
of the small harbor.

"Giorgos says they're going to extend the road all the way down here. Bring
in all the tourists," he sniffed, unappreciatively. There were few of us
outsiders down there.

After a while we headed back up into town. Since there was no sign of a
bus, we started walking along the road. The town disappeared in minutes,
leaving us surrounded by wildflowers, fields and scattered buildings. "Just
a moment," he said after we'd walked a mile or so, and dashed off into a
field. When he returned, he had his hand behind his back. "Here," he said,
and unceremoniously placed a purple blossom in my fingers.

"Thank you," I said, but he was already two paces ahead of me. We heard a
roar behind us and started dashing toward the next bus stop. As the bus
pulled to a stop, we crowded on board. Robert looked down at the flower,
wound tightly between my fingers. I looked back up at him. "Thank you," I
repeated. He smiled.

By 1 that night, I was back in the Kyra Thira. Robert served up glasses
of vodka alongside stories of local politics and love affairs, laying out
the island's recent history. After the pub closed, we staggered through the
streets out to the caldera.

The wind had picked up, and I wrapped my blouse tight over my thin
sundress. Robert turned to me with a giddy grin. "Well," he said, hunching
his shoulders, "I guess there's nothing to do but go home." He wheeled and
headed down the hill, waiting at the corner for me to follow him.

Robert's bedroom faced the east, looking downhill to where the backside of
the island slid into the Mediterranean. We were still up at 5 o'clock,
when the morning light started to creep across his porch and through the
slats on the shuttered doors. Robert grabbed the single pillow back from me
and buried his head beneath it. After tossing a few more times, however, he
pushed himself out of bed and strode to the back door.

"Come here," he whispered. I joined him on the porch, still naked,
shivering in the cold. He pulled me in front of him, wrapping his arms
around me. "Beautiful, no?"

We stood there, my back pressed against his stomach, watching the sun slide
up over the horizon. The night before, while he was at work, I'd stood out
on the caldera watching the sun set on the sea's western edge. Now, without
a moment of sleep in between, I was watching it come up on the other side
of the world. For one moment, I felt a sense of total completion.

I turned around and looked up into Robert's face. The corners of his eyes
crinkled as he squinted out above my forehead, and I reached up and traced
the scar on his cheekbone.

"You know, I have to leave at the end of this week," I murmured. "I know,"
he replied, still gazing out above me. I turned around, leaned against him
and watched the sun press up against the sky.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

One week later I was on Crete, hiking through the Samaria Gorge. I hated
the gorge. I hated Crete. I missed Robert. The original plan had been to
move on from Crete to Rhodes, and from Rhodes to Turkey, but it all seemed
wrong now, and all I wanted was to go back to Santorini. At the same time,
I felt a vague twinge of feminist guilt: The girl my mother had raised
wasn't going to give up her voyage for a man.

Was she?

I persevered. I spent a week hating Crete, contemplating
domestic bliss on Santorini. I sat in a waterfront cafe, listening to a
tape of old Al Stewart songs:

Well morning comes and you're still with her,

And the bus and the tourists are gone.

You've thrown away your choice and lost your ticket,

So you have to stay on.

I thought about calling Robert, but I couldn't figure out how to go about
it. He didn't have a phone in his empty house, for one thing. There was a
telephone at the restaurant, I knew, but Greece being Greece, trying to
find the phone number would have taken as much time and money as hopping a
morning ferry back to the island. It was an all-or-nothing gamble, and
nothing was going to make the decision easier.

By noon the next day I was pacing on Robert's front porch. It was, I
reminded myself, perfectly reasonable to expect that another woman was just
waking up in his bed. I'd been insistent about my departure and had given no
warning of my return. It was even more probable that he'd be at work; his
lunch shifts were scheduled to pick up as soon as the tourist traffic did.

Finally I faced the door. I put one hand on the top of my pack, ready to
sling it over my shoulder and bolt in the face of humiliation. I rang the
bell. The door opened and Robert stood there, looking exhausted and frayed
at the edges. The wrinkles around his eyes curved upward at the sight of
me, and he opened the door wider to let me in.

"Well," he said, grinning, "I guess we're going to have to buy another pillow."

Three hours after my arrival, I had unpacked and gotten a job waiting
tables at a nearby restaurant. By dinnertime I sat on Robert's back porch,
eating tomatoes and feta, watching the dimming fields and listening to the
bells of the donkeys returning home. The air was turning chilly, but I
couldn't leave the view to get a sweater. A sense of utter bliss melted me,
and I wondered if I'd found paradise.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Of course, the story doesn't end there. Waitressing proved to be far more
frustrating than I'd imagined, and constant tangles with the restaurant's
Serbian bartender got me quickly dismissed.

Meanwhile, it turned out that the daily 13-hour shifts that make up island
life in tourist season provided somewhat less than auspicious conditions in
which to begin a relationship. Santorini's sun-drenched beaches might as
well have been a continent away. To us, the midday sun was just a reminder
that we were late to work. Each day, Robert and I would wake up at noon and
hurry to our restaurants. Each night, fading on our feet, we'd meet at the
Kyra Thira for one hurried sangria before closing time. Back at home, we'd
nurse our exhaustion with bottles of Cretan red wine. When we finally
passed out, we'd cling desperately to fitful sleep, starved for more of
each other and ourselves.

Finally, a couple of weeks after my arrival, I found myself on the back
porch at 3 a.m., sipping vodka alone, with Robert passed out inside the
bedroom, his last cigarette smoldering
stalely on the tile floor. I left the next morning and sailed northeast for
Samos. Crying my way through the entire ferry ride, I hugged myself inside
my sleeping bag as the sea winds whistled over the deck. As the boat plowed
through the night I walked up to the prow. I stood in the same spot in
which Robert and I had weathered the Adriatic crossing.

I stared into the darkness ahead of me and tried to convince myself that
the tears on my face were nothing more than sea spray. Three days later I
was on a boat for Turkey. I never saw Robert again.

By Rachel Elson

Rachel F. Elson is a writer in New York.

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