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Vol. LXV, No. 29
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
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Book Review

Speaking of Favorite Vacations: How About a Month in a Garden on Mykonos?

Stuart Mitchner

Mykonos must be seen … there is nothing quite like this extraordinary cubist village, with its fluttering dancing shadows, and its flaring nightmare of whiteness ….

— Lawrence Durrell

At the same age you’re living with a girl in a garden on a Greek island I was spending summer vacation in Colorado with my mother.

— father to son

If I had to settle on one answer to this week’s Town Talk question about a favorite vacation it would be Mykonos, the first of the two months I spent there when I was in my mid-twenties. That was before Lawrence Durrell felt it necessary to advise readers of The Greek Islands (1978) that “Whatever tourism has done to the island,” to miss Mykonos “would be like missing out on Venice because of the tourists.”

On the boat to Mykonos, my on-again off-again girlfriend Dena and I met an Australian woman named Peggy who lived in a pigeon house on the island and told Dena, a Jewish med tech from Omaha, “You have the first really authentic Greek face I’ve ever seen.” When Peggy invited us over for drinks, we found that the pigeon house proved to be roomier than you might imagine (two-bedroom pigeon houses in Mykonos are currently being rented for 300 euros a day online.) A composer of some note, Peggy was working on an opera for which Lawrence Durrell was writing the libretto. We were excited to hear that Durrell was coming to Mykonos to visit her in a few days. We thought we might get to meet him but by the time he and his wife showed up, we had our garden and were happy to be hanging out with and getting to know Roger and Vic, a couple of British madcaps we’d also met on the boat.

The Garden

Our spacious garden came to us by way of the Tourist Police, of all people. After we moved in, we invited Peggy over, along with her friend Joe, a painter who claimed for his lovers a moderately famous novelist who shall remain nameless and D.H. Lawrence’s widow, Frieda. Peggy and Joe were impressed by the big, castle-worthy key we used to open the sturdy wooden door in the eight-foot-high whitewashed wall. On our walk along the winding path from the entrance to the modest living quarters at the rear (three shed-like rooms, only one of which had electricity), Peggy and Joe helped us identify the trees and flowers. We had Easter lilies and geraniums, morning glories, carnations and roses, fig trees, pomegranate trees, orange, apple, baby peach, and kumquat trees; there were grapevine arbors roofing the path, plus pine trees, lime trees, and a big bay tree, evergreens, mint plants, and honeysuckle. We could pick our own lettuce, onions, cucumbers, and tomatoes, and there was a hen house providing all the eggs we could eat. We had two wells to draw water from, a little red outhouse with a sit down toilet we flushed with buckets of well water, and a big stone sink under one of the pomegranate trees to wash clothes and dishes in. And we had four kittens and a mother cat we fed fish scraps given us at various cafes on the seafront. Every morning we bought and devoured delicious hot (zesto) bread fresh from the oven of the bakery around the corner, big steaming hunks of it lathered with honey or jam.

The bedroom and kitchen were lit by kerosene lamps giving off a funky scent that afflicted me with Mykonosian nostalgia when I smelled it a year later in New York. Not so good were the occasional surprise visits from our leering landlord, an amusing exception to my concept of dignified Greek manhood who always somehow managed to appear when Dena was bathing. Every morning a woman brought us fresh drinking water in an earthenware jug. And there was wine from bottles stored a long way down in “the deep-delved earth.” But who needs wine when you’ve got a lump of Lebanese red scored from a street singer in Paris? This we would share with Roger and Vic while the unceasing sound of the Aegean wind did mad things to the trees and the kitten we called Groucho performed a little polka, apparently in response to all the secondhand smoke.

It cost us the equivalent of $15 each for our month in the garden.

Rice Pudding

When I had my first view of the buildings along the sea front the night of our arrival, I thought of the “little town by river or sea shore” in Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” for Mykonos seemed not a place so much as someone’s sculpted, arranged, and softly lit creation of one. On the late nights we spent in a cafe eating bowl after bowl of rice pudding bliss, it was as if we were savoring the creamy white essence of Mykonos. Walking back through the hushed streets of the town at midnight we saw magic in the whiteness Durrell saw as a “flaming nightmare” by day, everything blurring together into one dreamlike element where the milky luminous stuff of the buildings seemed to stream onto the pavement.

It was both easeful and eerie to walk around in that labyrinth of neatly swept immaculate streets where there were no cars, no sounds but the sound of your own footsteps. At night the place was so incandescently unreal you could imagine hearing ghosts moaning in the sound of the wind. One night after seeing a scary movie at the local outdoor cinema, we started terrifying one another with ghost stories. I was telling tales of disappearing people I remembered from a book about UFOs. By the time we got to the corner where we used to go our separate ways, we were so scared that we flipped a coin to see which of us would walk the other home. We won, so Roger and Vic walked us back to the big door. The problem was getting from the entrance through that murky miasma of plant life. Garden of Eden by day, but not at night. It was a whole new dimension of fear we crept through while the wind shrieked and moaned and the plants danced the Mephisto Waltz.


It was around this time that the carriage on my Olympia portable typewriter jammed. Since I was close to the end of a novel, almost ready to send it off, I had to find help fast. There were no typewriter repair shops on Mykonos, needless to say, so I went to the Tourist Police, who took me to the home of a tall, lanky, solemn man in his twenties. There I sat in in the airy kitchen of his little white-washed Mykonos house, along with his two-year-old son, Aristotle, and his pretty, smiling young wife, who served me cold octopus, cucumbers, sweets, and coffee while her husband dealt with my problem. It was immediately clear that he had never seen a typewriter before. He asked me to show him how it was supposed to work, what it had been invented to do, its purpose in the world. Gravely nodding at my pantomime of typing, he put the machine on the kitchen table and began taking it apart. This was not easy to watch; my life was in his hands. Each component of the typewriter was studied, you could almost say relished, as he began to appreciate the concept. My faith in him took a plunge when the coiled insides of the Olympia sprang from his otherwise capable hands and spilled all over the kitchen table. The machine’s very entrails were dangling down to the floor. As if to see me through this crisis, the wife brought in a bowl of rice pudding. I was down to the last close-your-eyes-and-swoon spoonful of edible Myconos when her husband finished putting my Olympia back together, having essentially reinvented the typing machine in just under thirty minutes. The jammed carriage had been cleared; he was moving it smoothly back and forth on its track, it was ringing its little bell, and like an idiot, I was going “Kalo! Kalo!” He wasn’t smiling, though you could tell he was content. Even pleased. It was understood that it was his machine now, of his making, though he was willing to let me have it after charging me the equivalent of one dollar.

A month later in Istanbul, a hustler named Ali Baba made off with my Olympia. But that’s another story, which I will tell as soon as I find a decent excuse.


The Greek who fixed my typewriter had a difficult first name, something like Eleftherios, which is a name very much on my mind because of an obituary in last week’s issue. It took me a while to realize that Eleftherios Fikaris was the same Danny who painted the interior of our house as white as any vision of Myconos you can imagine. That was 25 years ago this month, and it’s not stretching the truth to say that whenever I saw Danny I thought of Mykonos. I knew he had to be from the islands, and so he was, from Chios, said to be the birthplace of Homer. There were times when he looked at you, with his husky build, big head, and magnificent mustache, that it almost seemed that he was the islands. Some people are large enough to embody a place. Danny was one of them. Big as life, like Zorba. No wonder then that he gave Princeton Zorba’s Grill and Zorba’s Brother.

He was only 66. But places can’t die. So, I’ll go on pretending there’s a secret island called Eleftherios somewhere in the Aegean, not far from Mykonos.

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