Poulati, Sifnos, Greece (author's photograph)Poulati, Sifnos, Greece (author's photograph)

Seeing White

They call it kastro, the castle. The settlement, which crowns a cliff on the west cost of the island, is unlike most citadels. Its fortifications are not battlements and stone walls but houses.

The village is made of a double ring of stone houses that follows the ellipsoid contours of the crest of the hill: an outer ring of smaller houses, one built right next to the other with no space between, that served as a first line of defense against the attacks of pirates, and protected the inner ring of larger houses.

It is afternoon when I arrive. The whitewashed facades of the houses are almost incandescent, as if all day the walls had been absorbing the light of the sun and now were radiating it back, alive, glowing against the sky. It is hour of the day, I know, that accentuates the contrast between house and sky and renders the play of shadows against a wall more dramatic, but it is also the light of September, too, that sharpens edges and brings everything into clear focus.

There is no such expanse of white in the city.  The city reveals only fragments of white, the occasional car or summer dress, a bride espied as she hurries up the church steps, splinters of muted white that appear for a moment and then dissolve. The city has no equivalent to the panels and swatches of brilliant white that one sees here on the island—the vaulted churches and the umbrellas lined on the beaches, the white canvas of deck chairs flapping in the wind, sails along the horizon. And this ring of houses.

It was only through my floaters—grayish threads that float across my field vision, the shadow of debris from a small vitreous hemorrhage I suffered six months ago after a blow to my head—that I fully apprehend how different the landscapes of the island and the city are. Of course, I know you see things in the city that you don’t on the island, and I know what things belong in which landscape. But I hadn’t realized how radically different the composition of these landscapes is.

The kastro on the island of Sifnos, author's photograph

The kastro on the island of Sifnos, author’s photograph

The island is a canvas of large blocks of solid color, the city a jumble of shards. When I look out in the morning from my terrace of the house that I’ve rented on the island this summer, I see the great expanse of sea and sky fading into a milky blue veil of haze on the horizon, across which my mouches volantes glide. The bottom third of the landscape is taken up with broad swatches of russet, ochre and verdigris—the patches of olive groves and thickets of wild thyme, caper bushes, and thorny broom.

It is only in these island expanses of monochrome do I notice the wisps of grayish smoke wafting across the landscape. The irony is almost painful. I, a confirmed minimalist, am now disturbed by minimalist environments. I, the lover of clean unadorned surfaces, I, who won’t leave a sock on the bedroom floor, now see cobwebs in the sky. If there is a God, she’s a practical joker.

Or maybe not. Maybe this is a lesson in letting go, in accepting dirt in the sky and shadows along the wall, in reconciling myself to imperfection.

My doctor had told me the floaters might settle to the bottom of the eye after some time, and even if they didn’t, my brain would filter them out. In the first weeks after the accident I couldn’t see how this would ever be possible, though I now understand I was seeing them partly because I kept trying to follow them as they crossed my field of vision.

Now in the city I hardly see them most of the time. My doctor was right. The brain does compensate, but only when there’s a lot of other things going on in the scene I’m viewing, that is, when there are lots of objects and color and movement. The more shattered the landscape, the less I see them. I am visually at ease now in a dimly lit coffeehouse, in which my floaters are lost amid the burlap sacks of packaged coffee and the iron legs of stools, and dissolve in trays of cupcakes and beards and shoulders and green aprons and a coral t-shirt. Though I still visit the austere white cubes of the city’s galleries, I am now more at home in rooms with bookcases and sofas with paisley coverlets. For me, the sky is now kinder when glimpsed in slivers between buildings.


The walkway around the outer ring of the kastro is fragrant with the earthy, incense-like smell of wild thyme that grows along the foothills of the cliff. Here, though, within the village walls, the air is redolent with the smell of beans and garlic and fried meat, but mostly the scent of roasted peppers. It’s the season for peppers, I remember.

The village has retreated from the midday sun into the cool small interiors of the wall houses. A light wind rises and rustles the dried petals of bougainvillea that have fallen onto the stone walkways. Otherwise it is still, except for the footsteps of a young couple scurrying home, late perhaps for the midday meal. When I pass them by, I hear the girl’s blouse crinkle as her lover draws her closer.

As I walk through the village I hear sounds wafting from within the houses through the curtains strung across the open doorways, a makeshift screen against bees and flies. I can hear them eating their meal, the cling of a spoon against a plate, bits of conversation, and then the washing up: the clatter of dishes being stacked, the gurgle of water filling a sink. Every sound is amplified in the stillness of the afternoon, like floaters on a cloudless sky.

Later they will retire to bed for a nap, and then later as I meander through the village, some will make love. But I won’t hear them. They have learned to make love quietly.


It is dusk when I arrive home. From my terrace I can see another island in the distance. Its outlines are smudged in a misty wash of indigo and cerulean, the coast a razor-thin strip of chalk, just enough to keep the island from merging with the slate-colored sea. What hubris, I think, to gripe about  a spiral of dust swishing across the horizon when I am privileged enough to be able to rent this wonderful house.

I see my floaters less in the darker sky of twilight. I know the island is all rock and bramble but now as the dying light softens its contours to brush-strokes on the horizon, I think of enchanted lands in ancient stories. I sit here transfixed by the view and then a bee arrives and buzzes at my feet, and I laugh as I swat it away.


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