...the secret island of the Little Cyclades...

South to Schinnoussa

...neither Naxos nor Ios yet something in between.


Schinoussa could be never anything more nor less
than itself.

It is twilight. Standing on the silent balcony of our pension I rest my gaze on the darkening shapes of neighboring islands floating in a lilac sea. Apart from the even flow of my breathing, all is still. My mind comes to rest and I know I have no memory of anywhere more calm or peaceful than this gentle island of Schinoussa.

And now we are leaving...

Looking back, the crossing from Naxos had been like floating on a cloud. Smiling, thoughtful faces in search of the 'other' Greece, the 'real' Greece, poured over maps or stretched on tired backs, while others, calmly mesmerised by the rolling Aegean, were lost in private reverie.

There is something deeply reassuring in the knowledge that havens of humanity remain unsullied by the relentless dumbing-down of our psyche as it is when you've been trying to communicate with someone of a foreign culture and neither of you understand the other's tongue and yet you make yourself understood simply by reverting to the universal language of mime and grunts and, hopefully, much nodding. Just like we did at the beginning.
And to sit with foreign people, listening to their babble and knowing full well that no one in that group can speak your language, and to be made aware that you are welcome and included within that foreign circle... well, that continually gives me hope. Hope for a way of life where people exist by choice without the dictates of finance, fad or fashion in splendid naivete, where schedules and data have hardly any weight.

At the bow we met Spiro, an Albanian who'd lived on Schinoussa for the past eight years after defecting and making a marriage of convenience with a Russian doctor in Athens. He showed us a sad little picture of his wedding. Last week, he'd fractured his forearm and had been to get it X-rayed on Naxos - the big island. He knew of a place we could stay and could arrange a lift up to the village. So when our boat pulled in alongside the island's quayside, Sandy, Spiro and I were the only ones to disembark and that's how I came to have the flowery vision from a balcony one evening on an island in the Aegean. In the picture below you can just see Sandy sheltering from the heat in the shade of the bus-truck while I was fiddling with the camera.


The owner of the pension 'Anesis' was Stratos, a little round man who never stood still but who rolled his truck in good humour up and down the hill from the port in lieu of an island bus service. His equally rounded wife, Oriana and their cleaning lady Nadia, who says she's from Bulgaria but who Stratos says is a Turk, did everything they could to make us comfortable. Stratos even cobbled my broken sandals and offered us mosquito repellent although I think his repellent is more repellent than the mosquitoes.

Then something happened that only happens to the blessed and to TV doctors.

We find the mini-supermarket and buy some chocolate drinks. Margarita, the mini-proprietress, is almost crying from the pain of a vicious toothache. She has to suffer like this for two more days before she can go to Naxos for the dentist. Sandy rushes back to our pension and returns with two extra-strong headache tablets and tries to explain she should take half right away and the other half when she goes to bed and if it is still bad next day, to take the other one. We aren't at all sure she understands.


Apart from the tinkle of goat bells, the lowing of cattle and the braying of our two neighbouring donkeys, the dusk is completely still. Its sky is orange fading into purple night. And you just know that when the light has completely gone there'll be a twinkling mass of stars covering the space above your head - only brought occasionally to life by the flashing of a darting star - and there, in the stroke of a brush, embracing all living beings, lies the sash of the magnificent Milky Way, a breathtaking ache of the heart that comes with an awareness that this particular life will not last forever and that it's essential we make the best possible use of it....and that's when you sigh.

When we discovered the local kafeneio served the most delicious food of all, we made it a home from home and sat outside in the one long street that snakes through the village before it loses interest and fades into sand. More than once we had to lift our table out of the way to let the island tractor past. Moths dance around the light bulb. Bats swoop and dive. Cicadas play maracas. Dogs and children bark in the dark. Townsfolk sit and quietly gossip in lengthening shadows. They tilt their heads and smile in our direction. We feel accepted as we stroll amongst them, mesmerised by the silence and the fragrance and the crunch beneath our feet, enchanted by the panoramic visions of the coastline still floating above the sea in crystal clear illusion.

Next morning I had Greek tummy surprise.

We had no medication and there was no pharmacy, just the doctor. We were running out of money and there was no bank just the extortionate exchange rate inflicted by the travel shop. We were too unprepared to stay very long so we decided to preserve our beautiful memories and return to Naxos within the next few days.

Across the road from our pension was a small restaurant with a pretty patio in a garden decorated with purple bourgainvillaea, geraniums and something Sandy said was frangipani, although I think she was making that up, and under a banana tree, heavy with fat green fruit, we took a chance on food again and breakfasted on stale bread, jam and coffee milkshakes and a promise to treat ourselves to a banquet later if we could find a more imaginative restaurant.

That morning, a dark cloud drifted over the village and almost apologetically released a sudden downpour for a couple of minutes before the heat from the sun regained control and shooed it away, leaving shadows to return in drifting slow motion. During the deluge, everything that could, took cover - from people, cats and dogs, donkeys and kids, cows and goats, down to spiders and insects. And everywhere, that balm of dust and wild jasmine.

In the afternoons, when it was too hot to move, we went skinny-dipping and snorkelling in isolation. Swimming naked from these deserted beaches seems so reasonable and natural that it makes one wonder what all the fuss is about. The lagoon itself was a work of art in pastel, a huge oyster shell beneath the warm and turquoise sea. We suffered there until we could take no more and were forced to take shelter in the shade of an ancient swaying pepper tree. We let the afternoon sift between our fingers and dozed and dreamed and listened to the cooing from a beautiful white and blue dovecote and the drone from twenty or so beehives that dotted the hillside behind.


 

We walked back from the beach in full glare of that merciless sun. Recklessly, I'd left my hat in the pension and it wasn't long before I felt stinging heat all over my dome. Salt crystals causing atoms of magnification, effecting pricks of burning spikes. I was sun struck. My body was on fire and my face was a bearded tomato. I was unwell. Now I understand the wisdom of some swimmers who rinse their heads from a bottle when they come out of the sea.

And I was still suffering from sudden tummy surprise.

On the way through the street we pass the mini-market, Margarita comes running out and makes us take what first appears to be the entire crop of local grapes until I look again and realise it's only about an armful. She taps her teeth, points into her mouth, strokes Sandy's arm, bows, grins and claps her hands. She'd had toothache and Sandy had given her some extra-strong pain-killers and they seem to have had the desired effect. Margarita says now her husband is very tired (nudge, nudge). Wherever we wander that day, passing villagers smile at Sandy and incline their heads and look and nod.

Sandy has been beatified.

After three days we still had not found the post office. We interrupted some scallywags playing in the dust and asked them the way. They led us down a narrow flowery path into a yard where a man was chatting to a donkey. The elder boy smiled and presented the old man as, "The Post Office".

The old man became serious, straightened his back and sighed then led us up the steps into his house. I asked for ten stamps, "Europe, parakalo." He rummaged inside a tin box before declaring in clear English, "I only have enough for six. And you need three on each card to make up the revenue." I nodded and then, with cards almost covered in stamps, I looked about for the post box. "Just leave them on the side-board, I take down to the ferry later."

We decided to nail the arrangements for our exodus as soon as possible because when one's body is full of disgusting surprises, one begins to wonder just how long one can manage without a friendly chemist.

'All Your Holiday Needs', boasts the sign outside the 'Tourist Centre Super Market', a lean-to tacked on to the last house in the village (though overlooking some breathtaking scenery). I ask the young man behind the counter for the ferry schedule to Naxos.
"Naxos? Every day!" Clearly, my intrusion is not welcomed. He is busy interrogating some friends at the counter.

"Thanks. Do you have a timetable?"
'Outside! There is a notice board!' He continues his bullying rant. I go outside. No sign of a notice board. Politely, I ask him once again. He shoots me an impatient glance.
'Behind the wall!'

Outside, there is nothing behind the wall but an old shoe.
This time, I return and stand in the doorway. Then, interrupting without apology, arms outstretched in the local 'definitive' stance and spoken in Greek (this means with a certain impatience at his stupidity), I ask him to come and show me.

All eyes are on the crazy Englishman. The bully marches out from behind the counter muttering something to his friends and signalling for me to follow. We are so close and so in step, it looks rehearsed. Rounding the corner of the shop, he glares at me and jabs a finger over his shoulder in the precise direction of a glass-fronted notice board containing nothing but a square of paper, its wording long-since faded by the sun. His gang start laughing. He looks confused.

When he turns to look at the notice board, he can't believe his eyes. His head spins forward again, his eyebrows jump onto his forehead, he squints, grunts then turns and pushes his way back through his gang and disappears inside the shop. They stay outside until they've finished sniggering behind their hands.

So now, here I stand and from the balcony I watch our neighbours, the donkeys, play-fighting in the acre of scrub and orange sandy hillside below until they call a truce and casually stand stock still, snorting and flicking their tails at the ubiquitous flies.

I like donkeys because they are peaceful, patient and wise.

I throw them the carrots we bought for them and then we wave them goodbye.

Every now and then we stumble into a paradise on earth and find such peace and tranquillity that it is practically a sin to breathe a word about it to another living soul.

Timeless, tiny Schinoussa is just like this. This is rural Greece; a farming community hardly changed from the beginning of time and we must pay heed. Its allure comes from being so disarmingly unsophisticated and the last thing it needs is careless tourism.

The view from the ferry is of an unassuming harbour with half a dozen fishing boats bobbing and swaying before two optimistic tavernas and you might well be forgiven for not exploring further, but for those who do succumb to her seduction and step ashore, please go with care.

Schinoussa is blissfully enchanting and never to be forgotten.



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