2000s Archive

Where Icarus Soared

Originally Published August 2005
Get lost on the island of Ikaria, and find another way of life.

The last time I traveled in Greece, I went solo. I hitchhiked, drank retsina, sunbathed naked, and rode a donkey up a mountain on the island of Páros. For a month’s wandering I carried copies of Mrs. Dalloway, The Magus, and The Golden Notebook and a suitcase the size of a bread box. I was immortal and footloose; I was 23.

Now I am traveling to Greece after years of longing for it, and after setting part of my first novel on Páros. This time, though, my sons, Alec and Oliver (ages 7 and 2), and their father, Dennis, are with me. I carry guidebooks, maps, birth certificates, and clothing for every climate this side of Nome. I am a counting song and a cautionary tale; I am 47.

But it isn’t to Páros—that beautiful, simple, uninhabited place—that I am returning, for that Páros no longer exists. Nor am I headed to Mykonos or Santorini (too trendy) or to Lesbos, Corfu, or Crete, with their hip historic profiles. I want to take my family to a Greek island that’s an island in the true sense of the word, a place apart—from schedules and souvenirs and civilization.

“Welcome to the island of contraposition,” proclaims the awkwardly translated website for Ikaria, a place I’d never heard of. I soon find out that it’s one of the most sparsely populated, rugged islands in the Aegean Sea. I book our trip.

Ikaria might be the perfect setting for a midlife crisis or a rustic honeymoon. You don’t come here for incomparable beaches, glorious temples, or world-class resorts, or to dine like a king or shop like a queen (beyond basic necessities, a few quaint pots, and hairy backpacks made from goat pelts, there isn’t much to buy). You should require no society but your own, and you should be a dogged hiker or a fearless driver ... or both. And, maybe most of all, you should believe that in some corners of the world there are places, like the mythical village of Brigadoon, where you can truly get lost.

That’s the way we start our journey, by getting hopelessly lost. After taking the hour-long ferry ride from the neighboring island of Sámos, we pick up our rental car in Evdilos and head for the mountain village of Christos Raches, past steeply terraced slopes where groves of olive trees thrive in the dry August heat. Under the meltemi, the late summer wind that taunts the Aegean, their silver leaves throw off a soothing watery glimmer. Following the example of Sámos, Ikaria is undergoing a renaissance in viticulture—its vineyards planted with Muscat grapes that will be pressed into golden dessert and aperitif wines—but it is better known for its apricots and honey. Scattered through its orchards and pine groves are beehives: regiments of wooden boxes painted turquoise, as integral to this landscape as lobster pots are to the coast of Maine.

On Ikaria, the few road signs naming destinations—even on the coast road—are only in Greek. It so happens I took Homeric Greek in seventh grade and still know my deltas from my sigmas—yet this is not always enough. The road we’ve chosen takes us sharply up and quickly sheds its paving, and we soon learn that even passing under someone’s drying sheets or through a gathering of goats does not mean you’ve left the main drag. After a while it feels like we’re driving in a spiral through the back of beyond, and when we arrive at a farmhouse where two men are drinking coffee at an outdoor table, Dennis does a remarkable thing. He gets out to ask for directions. The rest of us watch the three men go through an elaborate pantomime over our map—the wild sweep of the Greek guys’ gestures implying that where we want to be is continents away.

Dennis comes back to the car and tells us he doesn’t have directions yet but that his new friends want us to join them. So we seat ourselves at the table, and an elderly woman emerges with cold water and small dishes of cherries preserved in syrup. (This intense treat is one kind of “spoon sweet”; when made with the sour cherries known as vissino, you can stir the syrup into water to make a deeply refreshing drink.) Awkwardly, we exchange names. Our hosts are Ioannis; his wife, Eleftheria; and their son, Vangelis. When we point to ourselves and say, “New York,” Vangelis nods and says something approving (in Greek) about the Yankees. Eleftheria beams at the children and brings us tomatoes and cucumbers sprinkled with salt, along with a bowl of grapes.

“You grow?” says Dennis, making a fluttery gesture that he must think resembles plants rising from the soil. (He looks like he’s trying to dry his hands without a towel.) Our hosts smile, shake their heads, and exchange repartee that appears to be droll; at least it doesn’t look like the ridicule we deserve for traveling here without the ability to converse.

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