The Real Greece

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They say it’s impossible to get bored in Mykonos, one of the world’s great crossroads, but I did. The constant hubbub of cafes and discos had finally worn me out. I wanted to see the real Greece. I wanted to look behind the stage prepared for tourists like me. I didn’t want to be just another sunburned fun-seeker collecting hangovers and notches on a bedpost. I wanted to slow down and feel my short existence in an ancient place. I didn’t know if I would ever return. I wanted a real moment or two to stand out above the typical version of Greece most travelers experience.

So one night I picked a direction and started walking, away from the noise, into the interior. The streets of Mykonos, like many Greek villages, have no pattern. They were built this way intentionally to confuse invading pirates and enemy armies. The village of Thira on the island of Santorini is probably the best example of this.

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The villagers would hide in doorways and windows with clubs and knives and slaughter the disoriented attackers as they passed. Now the labyrinthine streets confuse only tourists. After a half hour of wandering, I was lost but didn’t care. I was nervous but at least I felt alive again, out of the tepid bath of familiarity.

It was quiet for a long time as I passed apartments and the occasional shuttered cafe, then I started to hear music. I walked toward it. The sound of bouzouki’s and mandolins became clearer but not the source, until I came to a sunken doorway. Nobody was outside. I touched the handle. I wasn’t sure if it was a private house or a public bar. “I didn’t travel thousands of miles to be timid,” I thought. “What’s the worst that can happen? I’ll get thrown out.”

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I opened the door and saw a very small room, but it was a bar and cafe. I walked in and sat at the nearest table.

The room was filled with the mingled aromas of cigarette smoke, retsina wine, lamb and duck. Five men played vigorously and twenty or so others sang and clapped. A few took notice of me but most were too enraptured by the music to care about the outsider in their midst. A man I would later come to know as the owner walked to my table, looked at me very seriously, and waited for me to order. Wanting to earn the space I was using, I ordered a glass of retsina. He walked away, came back with a glass and, in a somber tone, said, “Welcome. Enjoy.” I had not yet earned his trust.

I watched and listened for an hour as the men did what they had clearly done for decades. They were masters of their instruments but most probably had never signed a recording contract.

Separated by language, the key that unlocks everything, I was unable to communicate with them, but the great gift and joy of that night, aside from the music, were the subtle looks and smiles the musicians and locals occasionally gave me. The bar owner refilled my glass without keeping track and became more friendly as time passed and he saw how much I was enjoying hearing his friends play.

 

I wish now that I would have snuck a photo or two but I didn’t take a single photo of the musicians for the same reason I started walking away from the crowd earlier – I was tired of feeling like a gawking tourist. I wanted something personal, sacred, real.

I stayed until they all went home, and shook hands with many of them as I was leaving. A few even hugged me, perhaps because they knew I didn’t find their secret hideaway to take photos of them and brag to friends back home. They knew I didn’t want to make an exhibit of them on some apartment wall. I’ve never even written about that night until now, twenty years later. They accepted me because they knew I was there to find the heart of Greece, and I did. And as usual, it was delivered to me by the two greatest forces that ever brought people of different cultures together – music and kindness.

 

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