I know better than to have expectations this September. The past few years at Alexandra’s airy spacious house on the bluff have spoiled me, with its gardens of bay laurels, hydrangea and jasmine, and its view of terraced hills of olive groves and the sea beyond. Stupidly I delayed booking the house this year as I negotiated the dates of my summer leave and by the time I called to reserve, the house had been taken.
The one I’ve rented instead looked nice enough from the pictures I saw of it online, though I’m a seasoned enough traveler to know that an owner’s photographs tell only part of the story. Still, the few travelers who left comments seemed pleased with their stay and a friend who lives in the village tells me the place is quiet.
I check the hand-drawn map I was sent and follow the village’s main street to the bakery where I turn right onto a high-walled fieldstone path, and then left into an alleyway. It leads past a pair of ruined stone houses from a much earlier century to the place I’ve rented; from there it ends a few meters down in a courtyard flanked by two squat dwellings with weather-beaten shutters.
Later that evening in one of the houses I will hear an old man coughing up phlegm and in the other a couple of Pakistani men chatting, day laborers, I imagine, recruited from Athens to work in the fields. I don’t hear a woman’s voice, but I’m not surprised; a woman would have had the trim on the houses scraped, primed and painted, and the work-boots taken in from the porch steps.
I am staying in a cul-de-sac of single men.
My rental is a whitewashed stone house that is approached through a flagstone courtyard. On the left a hatched door opens on to a kitchen that I soon discover does not lead into the house. Another door from the courtyard leads to the living quarters: a high-ceiling main room with exposed rafters, a dining table, and a massive stone fireplace; a bedroom just big enough to fit the cast-iron bed; and a third room with a sofa, crib and folded up cot. The bathroom, or rather bathrooms, for oddly there are two, one right next to the other, are in the basement below a narrow high-stepped staircase.
I walk through the house again, imaging myself living here for the next month and hoping to find things I will like about it, as one might do upon meeting a college roommate one doesn’t immediately warm up to. Unlike other travelers who have come here for the sea and the hill towns and for whom lodgings are merely a necessary displacement from the beaches and café-bars and restaurants which are their true places of residence, this will be a home of sorts.
The kitchen is unexpectedly well-equipped. Among the utensils and dinnerware I find a bewildering collection of pots and pans, three clay casserole pots, a whisk, ice tongs, ladles of various sizes, graters, colanders, a nutcracker, serving trays and enough soup plates to serve a party of twelve. What island guest needs a whisk, I wonder?
Like most summer rentals and unlike hotel rooms, which after a scrupulous cleaning leave no trace of their former occupants—even our microbiome quickly displaces the bacteria of the guests who stayed the night before—the house has collected the flotsam of past vacations. I come across half-empty tubes of mosquito repellant and a travel Scrabble, jars of greenish-grey dried herbs, a box of coffee filters and drooping candles. In the bookcase I find the usual beach novels, Grisham, of course, and Le Carré, and P.D. James’ Death in Holy Orders, which I will be tempted to reread, though I’ve brought books of my own (I always overestimate my ambition when I pack books for vacation).
Alongside novels of crime and spycraft, however, stand books that no vacationer would have left behind, handsome hardcover editions of works by Steinbeck, Hemmingway, Faulkner, and Maugham. The editions all date back to the 1950s, long before the house first was rented to summer travelers; their presence in this humble country house, like that of the elegant stemware and Limoges china I see behind the glass doors of the hutch buffet, are remnants of a story I cannot yet make sense of.
I decide I must make the best of it. I soon become accustomed to the eccentric layout of the house with its inconvenient detached kitchen and the paired basement bathrooms. (Unsure of my ability to negotiate the staircase in the drowsy dark of night I have taken to keeping a large Mason jar at my bedside should I awaken needing to pee).
Though it is not a place I would have chosen had I seen it beforehand, there are small compensatory pleasures to the house. The foot-thick stone walls keep it cool and I sleep well on the ample bed. In the mornings I smell anise and cinnamon from the bakery, and though there’s no view from the courtyard, I can see the moon and a fuchsia gush of bougainvillea spilling over the garden wall.
One day I notice a vintage advertisement on the wall, set in a simple wood frame . The headings are lettered in a tall, thin vaguely Art Nouveau font, the body text in Garamond and slab Egyptian for the Greek and French, respectively. I decide it was printed for the grandfather and great-uncle of the woman from whom I’m renting this house (the last name is the same) and who seem to have been provisioners to the privileged classes in Istanbul. In the advertisement they present themselves as fournisseurs des Ambassades et Grands Hôtels selling fine wines, caviar and fois gras, game and cheese, confits and butter—apparently there were two kinds, one for cooking and another for the table—along with soaps and perfumes. I imagine their shop the fin-de-siècle equivalent of the food emporiums of elegant department stores in Berlin and London.
What sequence of terrible events, I wonder, obliged them to leave behind their business, and settle in this small stone house? The pogroms of 1955 would have been too late. Was their business, like medicine, law and carpentry, among the dozens of trades and professions that Greeks in Turkey were barred from practicing in 1932?
I imagine the brothers and their wives leaving the port with a trunk of clothes and other essentials that they could salvage from the home they were forced to abandon, and another with less practical belongings, like the china and crystal wine glasses I found in the hutch and the engravings of old Istanbul hanging on the walls.
I am living in a house of exile with Pakistani neighbors.
“I’m a little pissed off you didn’t tell me you were coming,” Yannos tells me. “You could have stayed at my house. There’s certainly enough room.”
“I didn’t really know until the last minute,” I say and explain the problem I had in getting September off. It would be harder to tell him that I need to have my own space, however much I enjoy his company. For Yannos, time alone is something to be endured, like staying in the house in the cul-de-sac.
“Don’t you get depressed in that hollow?”
“Oh, I’ve gotten used to it. It has a history,” I say, and go on to tell him about the advertisement and the story I’ve pieced together of the two brothers with the food emporium in Istanbul.
“There’s no history to the place,” he says when I finish. “Why would a city merchant ever come to an island like this?”
He tells me a different story, a story of a man from Athens who fell in love with a local woman and bought the house for the times in the year he could leave the city and be with her. The stone house had half fallen into ruin at the time he purchased it, which was why he could afford it. Though he could have paid a laborer to do it for him, he spent endless days digging and clearing out the rubble himself. Then he called in the mastores, the master tradesmen who repaired the roof and laid the flagstone floors and replaced the wiring and shutters.
At the start of the following summer he put a hand-painted sign above the doorway, “The Street of Dreams”, and welcomed the first guests to their little restaurant.
The place quickly drew locals and tourists alike, who came for the good simple fare the woman cooked, things like lamb stewed in a clay pot and braised wild greens and fried sand smelt. Yannos tells me he used to eat there, too. I know now how my kitchen came to be so well-equipped and why there are two bathrooms.
I enjoy this story, though I cannot be sure of its veracity. Yannos is like a gifted composer who hears melodies in the crooning of gulls (and would in my neighbors’ chatting, too), but instead of music, he hears the calls of lovers. He is a man whose passion is passion itself. And so I ask, “And the advertisement?”
“Who knows? Maybe they found it at the flea market. If there’s a connection, it’s a distant one,” he says.
“And the porcelain? The books?”
“Why does everything need to make sense to you?” he says. “Let’s go swimming.”
I come back to the house late in the afternoon to find my Pakistani neighbors in their courtyard. The younger of the two is squatting shirtless and holding a tarnished oval wall mirror. He has the taut, lithe body of an acrobat; as he swings the mirror around, I see his slight back muscles flare over his ribs like the vestige of an angel’s wing. The other man is seated on a wicker stool behind him, snipping the strands of his friend’s wet black hair.
I go up to them and say good evening. I have to ask, though it seemed unseemly to interrupt such an intimate scene.
“Can I ask you guys something?” I ask in Greek, hoping they have been here long enough to understand me. “Why do you need the mirror?”
“I mean, you can see his hair,” I say to the man with the scissors, gesturing with my finger from my eyes to his face and then to his friend’s hair. “Why do you need the mirror?” Another gesture, this time to the mirror.
He smiles. “I am not a mastoras. He tells me what to do,” he says, pointing to his friend.
I apologize again for the interruption and walk back to the house.
“What do you think?” the young man asks me as a half-hour later as he and his friend stop by my courtyard, where I sit drinking an ouzo and writing up notes of the day.
“My first time!” his friend says.
“Looks good,” I tell him. And it does. It could be a city haircut, the hair closely trimmed at the base and rising to a fuller layer at the top.
He tells me they are on their way to the festival of traditional food in the village this evening. Kiosks have been set up in the square, one for each of the islands o the archipelago offering visitors a taste of a local specialty, things like spoon sweets and farmer’s cheese and chick-pea croquettes, food like the kind once served in the “Street of Dreams”.
“Where are you from?” he asks. He knows I am not an islander but his Greek is not good enough to discern that I, too, am a foreigner. Like him and his friend, and the merchants I insist on believing have a connection to this house, I have also crossed a sea to come here, though my uprooting was not the work of poverty or religious strife. Unlike them, I had a home to go back to, but chose to stay to make a new home with the man I fell in love with.
He is gone now, and the memories of our years together seem at times like the rose-painted tureens and leather-bound volumes of fiction in the house. They have no utility now, though they afford me pleasure when I recall them.
“Athens,” I tell him. He doesn’t have the language for the longer story of how I got here, and even if he had, I am not sure he’d want to know. Besides, he has probably made up one of his own to make sense of my solitary presence here, as I had done to explain his. Wrongly I realize, as he tells me that he and his friend live in Athens, too, and are visiting an acquaintance on the island. They are not farm laborers but tourists, like me.
I wish them a good time and watch as they walk up the alleyway. Though I haven’t Yannos’ ear for passion, the affection they have for each other is unmistakable and contagious. I imagine them one evening at a table in the courtyard of the Street of Dreams, as they linger over the remains of a good home-cooked meal, reluctant to leave the embrace of light cast by the glimmer of ship-lanterns, this parenthesis of timelessness. I can hear them exchanging stories in the hushed tones that lovers use in the morning bed or a congregant in prayer. And then I see the man from the city come to their table with a plate of honeydew melon to end their meal. On the house, he says.
The man from the city and the woman from the island he fell in love with were provisioners, too, I realize, but of a different sort. They offered a few hours’ respite from the troubles of the day and the fixings to celebrate companionship. The Street of Dreams was a labor born of love that nurtured love in turn.
Featured image: “The Bathers”, John Singer Sargeant, 1917. I chose this idyllic watercolor of Sargent as a proxy for the quiet beach my neighbors on the island spent their afternoons at. I thought of using a photograph of the house, but doing so would have given the story a claim of factualness that it does not have.