“Why go to the Greek islands? Why go to Greece? Why not sit for a few minutes under a sunlamp, nip over to the supermarket for a slab of plasticized feta, and get some sirtaki going on your iPod?” The question is not entirely rhetorical, I said to Andreas.
With his wife Evagelia, Andreas Petrakis is the proprietor of a small, modest hotel on the island of Mykonos called Panormos Village. As a recent guest there, I have been asked by the couple to say something about my stay on TripAdvisor, and I thought, why not make a blog post out of it? TripAdvisor won’t pay me for my wisdom. Besides, I see that an American visitor who went to visit Stonehenge last January has written to TripAdvisor to say he “was disgusted to find this was just a few rocks to look at and nothing to do. They should knock it down and build an arcade or a funfair. Don’t waste your time. What a silly place.”
We were on Mykonos for a wedding. An enterprise of moment, a Greek wedding has its own protocol, most of its requirements delightful and refreshing, particularly for anyone who has spent his formative years in godless countries and inclement climes. On occasion, however, it obliged the guests to attend functions in odd places like Nammos, a flashy joint where young foreigners dance on tables because they suspect they’re in Greece to American music because they’re sure they know no other. Try ordering a glass of retsina – mentioned by Pliny the Elder – in one of these places, instead of a kiwi margarita or a watermelon martini, and I swear by Zeus they’ll toss you out on your ear.
Some of the foreigners are vaguely bourgeois tourists who have saved for their holiday, and it is to them that my question was directed: “Why Greece? Why not Brighton, or Atlantic City, or wherever it is that people without much money go in their own countries to let down their hair and pretend to have a good time?” Others are rich idlers, and of them a similar question may be asked: “Why Greece? Surely Mykonos is not the ideal place to squander a quarter of a million on a Methuselah of vintage champagne? Why not Tramp in London, or Cinquante-cinq in St. Tropez, or wherever it is that people with more money than sense go in their own countries to let down their hair and pretend to have a good time?”
The corrupting effects of such a remarkable combination of autistic poverty and degenerate wealth on the local mores can only be imagined. Had it not been for Andreas’ establishment, we would have swum in despondency off beaches of despair, stirring tears of disappointed rage into our yoghurt instead of wild honey. As it was, we laughed at the tourists and drank retsina, revelling in the omnipresence of Evagelia, whose grace gave credence to the tale of Aphrodite’s birth nearby.
Then there was Marin, their chef. I have eaten bouillabaisse in the south of France more times than I can remember; I have lived in Italy for half of my adult life; but the fish soup concocted one afternoon by this culinary genius surpassed anything I had ever tasted. The angler’s hooks retrieved from the fish were presented separately, in the run-up to dinner, with a glass of ouzo. And the next day, without skipping a beat, Marin came up with a chicken soup that would have made a Jewish grandmother weep in benediction.
Panormos Village is an island – a speck of Greekness in an Aegean of global tourism. At the airport in Rome on the way there, I overheard somebody saying that “Mykonos is the Ibiza of Greece.” How I wish I could stuff a sunlamp down the throat of whoever gave birth to that winged phrase.