MYKONOS lay in a horseshoe of yellow light along the black water. Single sparks shot out toward the ship, and the Englishwoman who had spent the trip down from Piraeus discovering that gin and oranges are cheaper in London sighed, “Lighters again.”
The lighters were loaded in the normal Greek manner, which combines brisk efficiency with an inordinate bellowing racket, and quickly landed everyone on a stone jetty lined with restaurants and coffee shops. There appeared to be nothing behind these buildings, whose pale facades stood out sharply against a great dark. One green light floated inexplicably in the starless sky, and a hotel sign flickered on the inner curve of the harbor. There was not a vehicle in sight.
The proprietor of the nearest restaurant said, “Hotel Xenía? My son will show you. You’d never find it alone.” He yelled for Stavros, and a boy popped out of the shadows and took my bag. It was a little bag, but Stavros was a little boy. In his hand, the luggage barely cleared the ground. He would not part with this unsuitable bag for any persuasion, and set off lopsidedly into the night with the thing banging against his left anklebone.
Away from the glare of the waterfront, things began to take shape in a curious light of their own. We were in a narrow street paved with flat square stones which canted slightly toward the street’s center. From the edge of the paving, blank house walls rose directly, broken by an occasional flight of stairs, a dark doorway, a low balcony. Walls, stairs, and even the stones underfoot shone with a faint nacreous glow. All Mykonos had been whitewashed for Easter, and the paint still lay thick from pavement to chimney pot, catching and reflecting light even under a clouded night sky.
Five minutes’ walk through a maze of alleys brought us out on the beach. It was deserted, and the sea rustled sadly in the dark. I began to lose faith in Stavros, for sand infiltrated my shoes and we continued to plod south into limbo. Had the child forgotten his compass? And what possessed his father to let the poor little fellow blunder about a lightless wilderness with a tourist who might, for all proof to the contrary, be a practicing cannibal?
“Here now,” said Stavros, “Xenía.” We had arrived at the top of a small rise. A sort of tower glimmered ectoplasmically on the right, and straight ahead was a row of sturdy electric lights. Stavros delivered me to the desk with calm dignity and left by the nearest exit, which happened to be a window.
The clerk muttered, “Mykonos-style,” and assigned me a key and a guide. The Xenia is a very new hotel laid out around a sprawling garden and broken up into separate sections — long, narrow two-story buildings, where all the rooms have private balconies overhanging either the flowers or the sea. The doors give landward on open galleries.
The maid and I pattered among oleander bushes and along cool stone paths, and I was soon established in what I considered the best hotel room in Greece. The marble floor sparkled. There were comfortable chairs in light wood and bright canvas, a long marble slab that did duty as desk or dressing table or both, bookshelves, and three reading lamps, including one over the bed.
The Xenía is listed as second-class, and all these pleasant conveniences cost, in May, a little more than three dollars a day, with two meals thrown in. They were unusual meals for a tourist hotel. The chef is not addicted to Continental cooking — that buttery bore offered by Greek hotelkeepers in the kindly delusion that foreigners will die without boiled potatoes and five courses. Dinner at the Xenía began with a feathery omelet full of interesting trifles; proceeded to a huge salad, generallv based on the island’s limitless variety of fish; and ended with pastry or fruit. Wine is extra, of course, and so is any other liquor.
I was never able to understand the logic that ranks a charming beach hotel below the nineteenth-century warhorses on the waterfront. It may be the walk down the sand, to which there is no alternative, or the fact that the customer who wants a martini must go behind the bar and teach a waitress how to mix it, or some obscure squabble with the Mykonos authorities.
The manager of the place is an off-islander. I found him behind the desk in the morning, cranking up an antique telephone that hardly matched its glass and teakwood environment. Once the machine was activated, the manager roared into it. The telephone squeaked, tinkled, and quit. He hung up with a crash and tried the crank again. This time something took effect, and a conversation ensued in even louder roars. Hanging up for the second time, the manager shrugged and remarked, “Mykonos-style,” in the tone of one who has explained everything. No, he could not direct me to Vienoula’s weaving shop. I must ask on the waterfront. Only the natives understand this town.
ONLY the natives understand any town, but viewed from between the squat gateposts of the Xenia, Mykonos didn’t look formidable. The haunted tower proved to be the first of a row of old windmills. The further mills displayed idling donkeys and drying wash, but the first one was working. The twelve small pointed sails circled slowly in the wind, and the miller, powdered with flour, leaned out of the upper window looking for an audience. There is no practical reason for running this mill; it works purely to amuse visitors.
The inside of the mill was painted as white as the outside, all the angles softened into gentle curves by years of wear and whitewash. At the top of the narrow stairs, the miller grinned hospitably and pointed to the great wooden shaft running straight across the room, revolving with the turning sails. The wooden machinery creaked and purred like a sailing ship, the stones whispered together, flour hung in the air like a thin fog and frosted every surface.
Having drawn attention to the shaft, the gears, the stones, and the trickling flour, the miller prepared to demonstrate the full glory of a Mykonian mill. The island was once a great milling center, grinding grain brought from all the surrounding islands and far into the mainland. In order to accommodate all this trade, the Mykonians built their mills with movable tops. The entire thatched roof, the sail wheel, and the shaft are set on a circular wooden base which rests on a wooden rim fitted to the top of the stone tower. By the use of bars and a lever, the whole upper works can be made to revolve, and so set to catch a wind from any quarter. There was no seasonal limit to grinding on Mykonos, which always has a wind blowing from somewhere.
The miller explained all this without English, leading me by the wrist from one point to another and working each item of the mill’s mechanism very slowly with exaggerated stage motions. His only commercial ambition was the sale of postcards.
Down the slope beyond the mill, and much closer than it had seemed in the dark, the town blazed salt white in the sun. The skyline rambled in a jumble of block shapes peppered with an extraordinary number of small cross-crowned domes. Mykonos is noted for its excessive supply of churches and chapels, reputedly the result of pious bargaining. Any man in danger on sea or, less probably, land used to vow a chapel to a suitable saint in return for rescue. If he survived, the chapel was built. Some of them are hardly large enough to hold the priest, and most are used only once a year, on the day of their saint. They are scattered through the town and all across the island, perched on rocks and hilltops or cropping up in the midst of pastures and vegetable gardens. There probably isn’t a square foot of Mykonos from which some part of some chapel is not visible.
In addition to winds, whitewash, and three hundred churches, the island is renowned for the neighboring presence of sacred Delos, for a pet pelican, and for handweaving. I had been told also that there were no trees on the place, but this proved to be a traveler’s yarn. There are several trees on Mykonos, carefully maintained in back gardens by their fortunate owners, and even one or two on the streets.
The first downhill alley led me to the waterfront. “Alley" is probably the wrong word. The streets of the town, shadowed by vine-hung balconies and ornamented by red or blue house doors and pots of flowers, are quite wide enough for a loaded donkey or a small cart. A two-horse wagon would have to choose its route carefully, not only for general width but for tight corners and outside staircases. The passage of an automobile is inconceivable. There was no thought of such things when the town was built.
Mykonos nonetheless maintains a small bus and several taxis. They roost in the open square behind the harbor, where the road leads off to the lead mine and the villages on the other side of the island.
The harbor glittered peacock green; the town glittered with whitewash and the bright awnings of the restaurants. In the lee of a small church that stood half on the paving and half on the sand, a man with large, bare, sunbrowned feet was working on a fishing net, removing the weakened outer edges. He hooked his toes into the net, anchoring it to the ground, lifted a section in his left hand until the edge pulled taut, and with his right hand ripped away the line of cable and cork floats. He then cut away a foot or so of the mesh behind the ripped edge, dropped the net, raised his foot, brought up another section of edge, and started all over again. The strip of discarded mesh settled in a neat pile beside his unemployed foot. The float cable fell into a coil beyond it. He worked with the steady, unconsciously graceful motions of a man who knows his job and hasn’t made a mistake at it in twenty years. He was wearing a hat left behind by some female tourist, a straw bucket encircled with blue satin ribbon and spotted with pink silk roses.
EXCEPT for the net expert, the waterfront offered no action at all. The Sunday jangle of bells had taken the islanders to church, and the Delos boat had removed most of the tourists, who would come chugging back at two o’clock, cultured and hungry, to find every restaurant displaying a mountain of freshly boiled lobsters. The relation between visits to Delos and the consumption of lobsters is worth serious study. Since nobody offered to photograph them, the two tame pelicans, bravos fat on free fish, sulked in the shade of a beached dory.
The shipping office was open, however. It usually is. It occupied one corner of a variety store selling postcards, pottery, rugs, brass trinkets, fur hats, hand-knit sweaters, miniature Parthenons made of compressed marble dust, sunglasses, straw hats, skirts with classical key borders in metallic thread, antimacassars, embroidery, and anything that can possibly be made of Mykonian homespun. After a suitable discussion of cabin reservations, the purchase of postcards, and the small cup of coffee without which progress in Greece, though possible, is barbarous, I asked for Vienoula. “Simple,” said the shipping man. “Take the street by the film shop. Follow it to the house where those artist fellows sell their pictures. Turn right, and it’s just beyond, on your right. If you come to three trees and a public fountain, you’ve passed it.”
Turning back from the public fountain, I found it. It was the house I had taken for the site of a family party, and in a way I was right. Because of her kindly nature and fluent English, Vienoúla Kousathana is revered as an adopted aunt and a bulwark of defense by the foreign colony on Mykonos, half of which was drinking coffee and gossiping in her shop. The room was cool after the hot street, and the dimness was full of brilliant color and a clattering competition of English and Greek. Below the talk ran a soft bass beat, the creak and thud of a handloom in action.
The walls of the small white room (not so dim after all) were lined with shelves from which bolts of cloth bulged and dripped streamers of bright woolen. Beside the door, a wall counter was piled with hats, aprons, and belts. The wall above it was hung with finished garments, shirts and blouses and pleated skirts. The loom stood to the left of the door, beside the window. A shy-faced girl was weaving. Beyond her, mountains of sweaters, rugs, and bedspreads occupied a chest and a small table. At the back of the room Vienoúla, a large woman with a sweet, clever face and a harassed expression, leaned against a worktable discussing technical problems with a knitter who had gone astray on a sweater sleeve. A second room behind her seemed to be filled with hanks of yarn. In the center of things, a tall Greek with a solid American accent was telling Athenian news to a couple of gentlemen who had the look of the Caribbean about them. A second knitter sat waiting for Vienoúla’s attention. Several neighbors chatted with the weaver. Two very thin young persons in blue jeans, jerseys, and short haircuts squatted on their heels against the pile of sweaters, because the chairs were long since bespoken. Everybody except the weaver had a coffee cup in hand, including two actual legitimate customers who were beating their way slowly but inexorably toward the sweaters.
These sweaters are splendid boxy things made on large needles from a strong, wiry, loose-fibered yarn in natural colors. The wool ranges from thick, creamy white to a dark brown that must have grown on a sheep of bad character. One of the customers, resorting to a boardinghouse reach, took up several of the garments and gasped as the whole pile slid forward over the head of a jeans wearer. The blond hair rose unruffled through the cascade of knitting. “That’s all right,” said a placid feminine voice. “We have to go anyway.” The pair dug out languidly and rambled away down the street.
The customer was contrite, but Vienoula said it was no matter. This boy and girl wanted a place to live, she explained, but they had no money. She had found them a place for nothing, “but they never sweep. They lie there, and so does the dirt.” The landlord took notice, and now they needed another place and Vienoula had doubts of finding one, with the tourist season coming on. “Let them sleep on the beach,” said the tall GreekAmerican. “They’re beatniks and should be used to it.”
Vienoúla wanted to know what beatniks were and got conflicting explanations from the GreekAmerican, the customers, the Latins, and me. She summed it all up as, “Beatniks don’t believe in sweeping.”
The customers went away with sweaters. The knitters went away with instructions. Vicnoula said she always got behind on Sundays and must now put up her sign. This meant hanging half a dozen shirts, skirts, and hats outside the door after the regular Greek fashion, Every fourth house sported such enticements, stripes of blue, red, green, black, and yellow splashed against the white walls. The open doors beside them invariably gave on weaving rooms.
The friends who had advised me to look for Vienoula claimed that she knew all about weaving on the island. She agreed, with no hypocritical modesty, that she did and would gladly talk about it. She had got as far as “Weaving on Mykonos —” when her son appeared from the back room and announced, “ The wool is here.
Vienoula excused herself. It was new wool, and she must take it all out of the bags and examine it before buying. Wool from young sheep, it seems, is too weak, and from old sheep, too stiff to make good yarn. Evidently this wool was respectably middle-aged, for the transaction was soon over and we sat down once more to “Weaving on Mykonos—” This time history was interrupted by a man looking for Stavros.
“The farmer?” asked Vienoula. No, the artist. A Mykonian artist was an interesting topic, and I wanted to know exactly what Stavros did. It brought down the house. I had collided with the habit of nicknames.
It is island custom for every man to name his oldest son for his own father. Presumably the system dates back to a time when patronymics prevented confusion, but patronymics have given way to family names. At present, when Laertes Ajaxson (if anybody on Mykonos has this improbable name, I apologize, for he is not the man I mean) has six sons, they produce in time six little cousins, all named Laertes Ajaxson. Nicknames are the only way to avoid chaos, and they are concocted with enormous and sometimes comic ingenuity. The case of Stavros the artist, however, was simple. He had been teaching two Latin Americans, both artists, and several of their friends, also artists, to do Greek dances. Hence, by association, Stavros the artist. There seemed also to be an ironic implication that he might better stay home and help his father on the farm, but this sort of thing is hard to pin down.
The next visitor was a flashily handsome young man wearing khaki trousers and a felt hat with a swaggering brim. He rode a pretty mare, and the announced purpose of his visit was the display of the delicate fawn-colored colt that pattered at her heels. Somebody muttered that Stavros the horse was on his way to the waterfront to exhibit his own charms rather than those of the colt, having found shirtlessness a profitable icebreaker with female tourists.
At the moment, he was quite honestly showing off the colt. It was coaxed gently into the room and introduced to the company, and it pricked its velvet ears and sniffed, with a surprised expression, at a hank of salmon-pink wool. There was general admiration. Even the cat woke up and made a brief, unintelligible speech. A voice outside reported, “Stavros, your mare is gone.” Stavros bounded out the door and away in pursuit of his animal, the colt scampering after him.
“Weaving on Mykonos—” began Vienoula, but four customers had arrived. The Delos boat was back, and serious business was about to begin.
I found my way back to the waterfront by another route and settled under an awning, The pelicans were posing for snapshots, turning their profiles like accomplished hams. It took me some time to realize that no Mykonian waiter will disturb the occupant of a restaurant table by asking for an order. They wait to be summoned by handclapping. I clapped, feeling foolish, and ordered ФIΞ.
ФIΞ is beer, by common usage, although the sound actually represents one particulat beer and the name of the brewer imported by one of the German kings who ruled, rather shakily, in nineteenth-century Greece. To induce Herr Fuchs to settle in a beerless country, he was given a longterm royal monopoly, and until recently his was the only beer available. This monopoly has finally expired, and there are now several beer companies, all reputedly in the hands of men who learned their trade with the descendants of Fuchs. The beer is sound Bavarian-style, and it is all called feex, for although the Greeks quickly developed a fondness for the brew, they never quite took to the name of the brewer.
WHAT I ultimately learned about weaving on Mykonos took several days and hardly covered the subject. It must have been done, by some means, from the beginning of time, but Vienoula began with her own mother, who could remember when the first modern loom was brought in. By “modern” she meant the wooden type now in use, the standard Hat bed on an upright frame, the harnesses worked by foot pedals and the shuttle tossed between the warp threads by hand. The first weaver was a man, and the islanders made a comic song about the affair, not because he was a man but because his contraption was new. Stoves and radios, in their day, got the same treatment.
At first, the island girls merely wove for their dowries, household items in a traditional color scheme of black, yellow, white, and green with a red background. The arrival of summer visitors, first Athenians fleeing the heat of the capital and then hordes of extravagant foreigners, turned weaving into a genuine local industry.
The weavers work at home, usually on looms that have served several generations. Vienoúla’s own loom was a bastard, the upright frame obviously much newer than the mechanism itself. The whole structure was hitched together with string in what seemed to be a makeshift fashion, but I think, after watching the loom operate, that these tied joints are in fact a calculated arrangement to conserve the weaver’s strength. The moving parts have so much tolerance that a minimum of effort is required to keep the machine going.
Weaving is done in cotton or in wool on a cotton warp. The cotton thread, in various weights, is imported. Local wool is used while the supply lasts, but much of it must now be imported from other islands or the mainland. It is hand-spun to a fine, harsh yarn that wears like iron and scratches like a brier patch.
A handloom makes only plain weave, but the patterns that can be achieved by the use of color and the trick of leaving the woof thread loose on the surface for short distances are astonishingly varied. It is also possible for the weaver to lay in separate threads by hand, making isolated medallions without the use of a shuttle.
Mykonos, however, sticks pretty firmly to solid colors and forthright stripes. The finished material is either sold to one of the tourist shops, which may have commissioned it to begin with, or displayed on the doorstep and sold by the weaver herself. A great deal of it is converted at once into straight jackets and loosely pleated or gathered skirts, to be sold ready-made. The woolen skirts have built-in tarlatan petticoats, to ward off the scratch, and all of the tailoring is very simple, because the weave is rather loose and the cotton warp gives the material an alarming tendency to fray when it is cut.
Despite these superficial difficulties, Mykonian woolen is not unmanageable. A little enterprise in hemming edges and installing silk linings brings it under control and makes a straight skirt or a fitted jacket entirely possible. Such refinements are not available on the island, although everything on display there, including sweaters, can be ordered to the customer’s fancy and measure. Things will be made up overnight, if necessary, since tourists are forever leaving by the next boat, but they will be made Mykonos-style, straight cut and simple.
Vienoula’s distinction as a weaver is based on her magnificent sense of color. With the help of her son, she dyes all her own wool, producing a range of colors unknown to the average Mykonian weaver. The shelves in her back room were loaded with hanks of yarn in mustard, gold, persimmon, burned orange, taupe, dark dusty blues and greens, and strange grapy violets. Woven up into stripes of subtly varied widths, these colors make an extremely handsome appearance. There is nothing folk-artish about them.
In addition to dying her wool chartreuse and mahogany, Vienoula defies custom by using colored warps instead of the usual black or white. Her daughter was working with hot pink wool on a blue-green warp, the finished material having a soft iridescence like changeable silk.
Most of the material in the shop is made by other people, for Vienoúla, who opened her own establishment with some diffidence after years of working for the stores on the waterfront, is doing a land-office business. She decides on the nature of the project, explains the pattern, and hands out the wool. The weaver then does the actual work, checked occasionally by Vienoúla, who will not tolerate inaccuracy or sloppiness.
Her customers get fine workmanship and patterns that do not turn quaint when removed from their native ground. Consequently, the customers are delighted and tell their friends, and all of them send in orders from the ends of the earth. The shop worktable is piled with a jumble of new orders, letters of thanks, account books, address books, balls of string, and pens which get lost once a day. There is a continual wrapping of parcels to be sent off to Stockholm or Melbourne or Liverpool.
Despite her easy English, Vienoúla secretly finds writing in the European alphabet something of a bore. She has evolved a fine method of avoiding it. When a likely-looking customer appears, she brings out the orders for his native land and the list of addresses, professing to be uncertain of the reading. “This gentleman here wrote his name for me, but” — a shrug marvelously combining regret, chagrin, hope, and appeal—‘"do you think it’s Thomas, or maybe that means James?” The customer is soon installed at the table, addressing all the packages.
This is a pleasant occupation on a hot afternoon, for the house is cool. Mykonos has its own method of air conditioning. The walls are thick stonework, and the ceiling consists of a basketwork layer of woven reeds or slats supported by beams and supporting, in turn, a thick layer of seaweed. The upper door is laid over this insulation.
While I sat addressing packages to Newark and Seattle, I heard Vienoula’s information bureau in action. The beatniks were still looking for a house. A resident American wanted to know whether the carpenter was quoting a reasonable price for the chairs she proposed to commission. The Mexican artist walked down the street carrying a demijohn and said it was “turpentine for the paints” — very probable, since he and his Scandinavian wife are both serious and interesting painters. The Cuban artist, dedicated to good drawing and impish humor, followed on his heels, with a demijohn holding “oil for the church lamps.” “You drink too much,” said Vienoúla amiably. “Where is the Party?” . . . , ....
The party was in an old farmhouse in the hills south of town, the residence of a young man who had just returned from showing his paintings in Switzerland. Everybody tripped and skidded up a rough, narrow track between high stone walls that made the ground invisible, although the sky above was transparent with moonlight. The Mexican brought his guitar. The host had collected a Greek accordion player. Stavros the artist demanded a guarantee that he would be required to cope with only one foreign language. He could stand English, he said, or Spanish, but not both.
It was a very fine party. The house vibrated for a full minute after the end of each stamping, leaping dance. A large abstract painting sprang from the wall and landed on the accordion player. It was rehung upside down. Five glasses smashed, amid cheerful accusations of carelessness, before it was observed that they walked of their own accord on the slanting table. The oil lamp was captured as it crawled over the edge. Forbidden to speak Spanish, the Latin contingent and the guitar struck up a fast dance punctuated by highpitched cattle-driving yelps, while the accordion player, flat on the sofa with his hands over his ears, pretended terrible pain. In revenge, he played a round-dance tune, and everyone turned to on one of those Greek affairs — two steps forward, three steps back, down, up, do it again &emdash that look beautifully simple and are knee-spraining hard work for the uninitiate. Besides, the music speeds up steadily all the way. The house not only vibrated, it groaned.
The management of the hotel Xenía has one failing. It locks the place up and goes to bed. This isn’t uncommon among Greek hotelkeepers, but usually there is a night man on duty to let in belated guests. No amount of pounding raised a night man, and the glass doors closing off the lobby also closed off the path through the garden. There remained the open terrace, with a threefoot railing and a drop into the flower beds. The Cuban painter, his wife, and I peered down into the darkness. Geraniums would be no problem, but suppose it was rosebushes? Debate being pointless, I went over, Mykonos-style, and it was geraniums after all.