Innocence Abroad: Chapter 23



Becoming a Lesbian

Molivos, on the Isle of Lesbos: September 16, 1991...

ell, here I am . . . back already! I decided I didn't need to go to Crete, after all."

Korina smiled rather weakly, uncertain exactly what to make of my sudden presence on her porch. "Where are you going to stay?"

"Right here. I'm ready to move in."

It should have been obvious. I was lugging a rolled-up foam rubber pad with a brown floral slipcover, purchased that morning before the boat left Chios. A lucky break, to find one there for $20; lucky enough to override the bulky nuisance of hauling it around. Laid out on the floor it would provide, all winter long, the firm bedding I needed for a really good night's sleep.

But I could see, now, the uncomfortable look on Korina's face. There was a hurried exchange with her mother, who had just joined her at the door, and then she told me what it was all about.

"The price you want does not start until October. It is still 'the season' and we cannot give it yet, that cheap."

This was the 16th of September. That meant two full weeks at . . . how much? Korina, that doubtful look still shadowing her young features, answered before I could even ask the question.

"Right now the room is still two thousand drachma."

About eleven dollars. It didn't require much consideration on my part. "No. I can't handle that for two weeks. I guess I'll have to stay somewhere else until then."

Another hurried conference.

"Mother says she could give it for 1700 drachma. It is the best we can do."

Now that the initial shock had passed I was beginning to feel put off by their attitude. Here I was, ready to rent for an entire winter, a span of time when rooms sit completely idle on Lesbos, and they could not bend - not even halfway to my level - for the last two weeks of the season.

"I really can't, Korina. I'll stay tonight, but I'll have to look for another place tomorrow."

It took the wind completely out of my day's billowing sails, for I had let myself get carried away by that sweet and comforting sense of 'going home.' Now I'd have to start all over again, looking for a cheap two-week rental. I thought of trying Eleutheria but I didn't imagine she'd want to extend that half-price generosity of two nights to two full weeks. And anyhow, putting up with that all-night dance music for two weeks was an unbearably long prospect.

I couldn't imagine what had gone wrong, for I had followed my instincts, not my head, in coming back here. It was a discouraging moment and the room suddenly looked much drearier than it had seemed in recollection, on the voyage back from Chios. I had to get out of there for awhile and clear my head of this troublesome, unwelcome development. Anyway, I could put the daylight remaining to good use, searching out prospects.

It might be worth scouting the fishing village out on the point at the far other end of town. It stood a bit aloof from the main part of Molivos, almost a separate little community with something of an Utrillo flavor in the way the buildings seemed to huddle in on one another. A charming place to stay, even if I'd have to pay a bit more.

I took the highside walk to get out there instead of the more direct vehicle route along the rocky cove shore. Molivos in profile is like a prone goose, the crowning castle its high rump and its stretch-extended head represented by the low headland that shelters the small boat harbor and its mini-village. I had already hiked that land's end of jutting coast, and followed it to a pair of beautifully isolated small beaches, with nothing between them and sunset but the wide, blue sea. Further along, still, was a hermit's rocky outcrop above the bashing surf. Truly, this locale was an expatriate paradise. Even in the tourist season - such as remained of it - a quiet solace was available out there. What would it be like in the reflective deep of winter?

In these musings, as I made my way up disjointed alleyways toward the fortress ruin, the room I was about to commit to seemed more and more a choice hastily made. But it had, after all, brought me back to Molivos; and I'd have all the hours of every day to be elsewhere in the vicinity. Weather permitting, of course - an unknown quantity that I wasn't really giving much thought to, though Korina's mother had fairly warned me with her request that I cover the heating separately.

The castle was a big one, as elaborate as some in Wales, though in worse condition - which is merely to say that thoughts of restoration had not yet struck the local populace. Nor of safety barriers: one could roam the entire battlement, which is quite as it should be for a fortress ruin. There wasn't any admission charge, either, though it had a resident caretaker. The obsession with cost-effectiveness and profit/loss ratios had not yet caught up with this part of the world. And I recalled living in a world once, myself, where it didn't dominate life as it does today.

From the castle prominence, Turkey presented a solid flank of seacoast across the strait to the north, with fabled Troy just 40 miles distant on a crow-line. Legend has it, in fact, that Achilles had conquered this very town, in one of its earlier incarnations. The slope down the other side was more gentle, though still navigated by cobblestone alleys scarcely wide enough for passing motorbikes or burros. A four-wheeler could never make it. Even if it could squeeze through, it would hang up on the stepped ledges that were better than traffic barriers. Vehicle traffic on the slope was restricted to the few slightly wider arteries lined with most of the village shops. People generally walked, of course - it was more practical in the long run.

The clop-clop of a burro sounded here and there, and over it a peddler's high-pitched cry announcing the day's local produce. Housekeepers ambled out for an apron-full of fresh vegies and fruit. It foreshadowed what later became my winter's daily wake-up: the morning garbage horse, a patient-looking old soul who stood resignedly still outside my window while being loaded-up. He sometimes gave as much as he took away; yet, the alleys were somehow kept spotlessly clean despite the regular traverse of animals.

And there were cats . . . cats everywhere! I've not the least doubt that Molivos has twice as many cats as people. Very territorial animals, maintaining only a testy truce among themselves, intimidating the few dogs in town - and very nearly me, too! I had the strange impression that they entertained a private joke about my feckless pursuit of residence, for I felt the hint of a smirking look as I passed each cluster. But the sneers would vanish in wide-eyed innocence when I turned to look back at them.

I found nothing to encourage me in the fishing village. It was an easy dockside ambience that I could happily have lived with, but I'd have to be content with taking the hike out here when I wanted it. I thought perhaps I was onto something when a heavyset, grey-haired fellow overheard me asking a barkeep about a rental unit upstairs, and he said his daughter had some cheap quarters that were available. I followed him to a nearby notary office, where he called his daughter, speaking to her in English, and relayed to me a two-week price of only $8 per day, a bit cheaper than Korina's last offer. He sat there holding the phone and getting impatient as I turned the bid back and forth in my mind.

"Well, do you want it?"

"Gee, I don't know if I could really manage that . . ." I was silently considering a budget stripped down to one meal a day.

"Do you want it? Yes or no!"

Pushed, I stiffened. " . . . No."

He slammed the phone down on his poor daughter without so much as saying goodbye to her, and dismissed me just as curtly.

I had come to Lesbos just in time for the close of 'the season.' That was apparent when I returned to the center of town and cast around for a bit of dinner - one or two of the cafes had shut down over the weekend I had been gone. The modest place I selected was empty enough to afford me a window-view table looking out on the wide sea, under a soft but rich sunset, and I felt a bit sheepish ordering the cheapest entree on the menu. But even that cost more than four dollars.

I sat there chewing on chicken and financial concerns, reflecting on how good it had been to be fed as well as sheltered by Good Neighbors hosts, and suddenly had a brilliant inspiration. Why not just go on a two-week roaming and camping trip? Discover the rest of Lesbos on foot. Perhaps an occasional bus ride or even some hitching around the island, and what I save on rent will buy my food. It seemed like a wonderful idea - down-playing the fact that my energy was shredded from four and a half footloose months. I thought I could do it, and the mere thought of it cheered me immensely as I headed back toward my room.

The two-story house owned by Korina's mother stood on the town's very fringe, from where paths headed off across barren hills toward the northside waters of the strait. As I rounded a corner past the last of the eateries on that end of town, I was surprised to see Eleutheria there at an outdoor table with her friend and neighbor, Maria. It was a completely unlikely encounter, for in all the time I was to know Eleutheria she cooked and ate at home, and ventured this far only when she had taken me in tow at the tourist office. But there she was - and quite as surprised as I, for she had every reason to think I was well on my way to Crete by now.

Even more remarkable was Maria's presence, for she spoke excellent English and could easily translate for us. When I reeled out my tale, Eleutheria immediately wanted to know why I had not returned to her domatio. So I asked, in response, if she'd have me for two weeks at the same 1000 drachma rate - the $5 per night she had allowed me. Her nodding assent came without a moment's pause. But why, then, wouldn't she take me for the full winter at that rate? She replied, through Maria, that she closes the house down entirely for the deep winter months and goes off to Athens. Is a Lesbos winter that severe, then? Yes, sometimes it even snows, she told me. I winced at that. But it was too late, now, for any second thoughts about Crete. I promised Eleutheria I'd be there the following day.

When I reached my night's quarters, Korina was waiting for me with the 'good news' that they had talked it over again, she and her mother, and decided I could stay the full two weeks for 1400 drachma per night - about $7.40. If I hadn't encountered Eleutheria, I would either have taken the offer or been gone the next morning on my projected campout - in either case virtually committing myself to a winter in this barely sufficient room. Running into Eleutheria at that last possible moment, in that least likely situation, changed the entire prospect of my winter.

I didn't know that yet. All I had in mind was going to Eleutheria's for two weeks of acceptable economy and then returning to this room. But when I paid the full 2000 drachma, next morning, for the single night, my farewell to Korina had a strong edge of uncertainty. I was already hedging my promise to return, aware that the gates had once more opened wide for fresh possibilities.

IT TOOK ONLY two days for opportunity to fulfill itself, and when it fell into place it revealed such an incredible convergence of 'lines of Innocence' that I cannot imagine I should ever have missed it. Yet, it appeared to happen as a completely casual and random development.

After a day of thoroughly blissful relaxation in my old quarters off Eleutheria's dining room and out on the veranda, I began what I expected would be an extended search among the honeycomb of alleys, looking for the weathered red clapboard shutters that marked the older domatio, as distinct from the high-varnish hardwood that invariably indicated recent renovation. Peering down an alley from a triangle junction that had been turned into a tiny plaza, I thought I spotted the quarry and went to check it out. But I was mistaken, and as I pondered whether to continue down this particular path or return to the plaza I heard someone ask in reasonably good English what I was looking for. I turned to see an auburn-haired woman perhaps in her mid-40s, not typically Greek - that is, there was a brightness in her eyes, an easy conversational smile. I had not seen many outgoing, cheerful-looking Greek women.

Caught off guard by the sudden question, I answered flippantly that I was looking for cheap, old-style housing, and she asked what I considered to be cheap. By now, I could see her own 'rooms for rent' sign posted inconspicuously in a window, and also that her large house looked far too substantial for the price I sought. But she beckoned me through the garden gate before I could even frame a reply.

Walking in, I let her have my wishful estimate, ". . . 30,000 drachma a month, for the full winter." I kept thinking of that, in my rule-of-thumb way, as $150, but the going rate of exchange made it more like $160.

"I have a nice little apartment . . ." she began, like a spider sweet-talking a fly, "that is pretty close to that figure. Let's go inside and I'll make us some coffee."

"An apartment!" I sucked in my breath. "Yeah, that's what I'd really like, but I'm having trouble even finding a room, for what I can pay." When I walked in and saw how elegantly her house was furnished I knew she wouldn't come anywhere near my price.

"Well, what do you get, here, for 30,000 drachma?" It was a rhetorical question, and she went right on, ". . . just a little room, and then you find you have to pay extra for the heat all winter, and there is this and that, and before you know, it's costing you 40,000 . . ."

She was calling her shots as if she knew exactly what my bargain had been.

" . . . and I can give you a nice, sunny little apartment with a kitchen and all the heat you want, for a flat price of 40,000. Come on, I show it to you."

Her logic was seductive, but . . . "No, it's a nice thought, but there's just no way I can afford that."

"Well, come on and look at it while our coffee gets ready."

She talked as we walked, a steady stream of hard-sell, punctuated every so often with, "It's not that I'm trying to talk you into it, but . . ."

She led me back out the alley gate and around to the other side of the house, where a basement apartment fronted on intersecting alleys. It raised the immediate shadow of another housing taboo: the dark interior of basement apartments. It was only a step below street-level, though, and when we entered I was struck by the loveliness of sunshine streaming in through grill-covered windows to illuminate a Mediterranean interior of simple taste in warm dark woods and colorful fabric patterns. A white-washed backwall and the rough-timber old beams of a low ceiling set the furnishing off to good advantage. To the left of our entry was a small but complete kitchen; and it was one long room to our right, ending in a sturdy brass bed that must have been a century old.

But what my quick scan zeroed in on was the round, dark mahogany writing table by one of the twin windows. It was worn and well-used, but the sunlight slanting across it triggered an image of endless hours in contentment at the task I wanted to begin: making a book. Good writing tables - the sort that invite use, rather than threaten confinement - are terribly rare in rented quarters. This one was the perfect low height for me; and then I saw its companions: padded chairs in a muted green velour that took all the resistance out of me. This was far, far superior to the room I had settled for at Korina's, and very close to the idealized fantasy of a retreative winter that had first engaged me. Somehow, I'd just have to stretch for that $215. It was more than half my monthly income, but with a kitchen to cut the food costs I could make it work - I would make it work.

We were back upstairs having the coffee, a bracingly strong brew, and I was telling Betty all the hassles I'd come through, trying to find a place. When I got to the part about the fellow who called his daughter and then hung up on her, she looked at me brightly.

"I thought that was you! That was my Dad you were talking with."

There was hardly time enough to digest this bit of weirdness before a strangely familiar woman came into the kitchen from the garden-side entry . . . looking at me as if to say, "What are you doing here?"

Betty said, "Hi, Mom."

. . . just about when I realized that I was looking at Maria!

She was angry with me, at first, for renting Betty's apartment and 'betraying' my agreement with her friend, Eleutheria . . . until Betty assured her that my rental here would not begin until the first of October. I wasn't too clear on anything, by that time, myself. The connections and inter-weaving had left me too dizzy for any further coherence that afternoon.

So I was home, at last. Or would be, as soon as all the preliminaries were done. I stayed the full remainder of September at Eleutheria's, countering the high-volume music by sneaking upstairs each night to one of the vacant bedrooms out of the direct line-of-sound, sleeping on my foam pad on the floor to keep everything tidy. It was no problem since I was Eleutheria's only guest. My days were spent taking tea on the veranda while I watched the last of the season's water sports on the bay and prepared a final journey report for my supportive friends back home - thereby seeding a mid-winter crop of mail for myself.

THE PLEASURES of late September, however, constituted no forecast for the fall and winter that lay ahead of me. To begin with, it took most of October to establish settlement there. In my springtime enthusiasm's reckless contempt for time and energy, I was sure I'd be in Crete by September's end and had scheduled an Athens mail-call for the first of October. That much, at least, I could manage and it became the coda to my larger journey - a week-long sidetrip to mainland Greece, culminating in the Delphi hostel adventure with Matt and David.

I returned from Athens with a pack full of supplies calculated to keep me in livable comfort during my hermitage - cookery ingredients that I feared might be too elusive on the island; teas to serve me better than that intolerably strong Turkish-style coffee served everywhere on Lesbos; a $30 table radio to save me from wearing earphones for hours on end . . .

But they were all the wrong purchases. The radio ultimately became an instrument of torment. Try as I might, I could not spin the dial beyond the penetrating, incessantly sing-song tonal style of Middle Eastern music - until I hated the very sound of it. Had I any idea, though, of what I was in for, I'd have paid and labored for every pound of readable print I could haul back with me; for when I returned to Lesbos the terrible extent of the isolation I had purchased hit me like a brick. Along with the tourists, every last English language periodical - newspaper and magazine alike - had vanished as cleanly as if by edict backed with a flaming sword from on high. Not even among the cluttered kiosks along Myteline's thronging harbor, packed layer on layer with dailies in German, French, Italian, and how many other tongues I can't say, was anything in English to be found.

A stillness had settled over Molivos - not in itself any problem for me, but coupled with this sudden and total dearth of reading matter it felt no longer like a quietude of retreat ahead of me, but more the cheerless pall of exile.

The tone had been set for a winter of withering cross-currents: the truly exquisite freedom from demand and habit offered by an island village, but rip-tided by the most agonizing sense of boundaries and limits and festering isolation likely to be found outside of prison confinement. It would become at one and the same time the sort of winter I had always dreamed of - a writer's idyll, and yet a focusing lens to vivify every frailty that I possess. Touching the poles of contrast can do no more than hint at what I was in for, but I'm afraid that's as far as I can take it, here.

Would I have fared better on Crete, less isolated from mainland Greece and awash in those warmer southern waters? I had time enough over the ensuing months to reflect on that question along with the vagaries of choice and chance that landed me on Lesbos instead. I had called the turn, myself, of course, when I decided to ignore my August insight in Munich - the realization that summer's energy had been drawn too thin to easily keep my eastern Europe commitments and I should better head immediately south while there was time enough to make a leisurely search for winter options.

It raises an interesting philosophical issue: in a world of free agency, how liberative is the power of choice when it is made against the indications of Nature? Yes, I suppose we can do just about anything we want . . . except change the objective realities of time and energy, which ultimately determine the subjective realities of our experience. Traditional philosophy tends to ignore this level of inquiry, preferring an endless academic joust over the core issue of fate vs. free will; yet, we'd be better served by considering Nature's reasonable limits on our exercise of a presumed free will.

I'm not even hinting that I would rather have done it another way. Any such hindsight judgement is tempered, in this instance, by deeper perspectives since gained on the winter I was about to undergo - understandings that I cannot easily convey without a good deal more detail on the seasonal imperatives I live by than are provided in this book. It must be left for a future writing that can explore a seasonal wisdom in the larger context of pursuing Innocence as a way of life.

You see, we live in a world with two sets of parameters that govern our lives. For the most part, we're fully preoccupied with the outer set, the various 'real life' concerns like available money and time, family and health constraints, political conditions and so forth. We alternately submit to these and struggle against them - so absorbed by their demands that we take this level as the entire causal basis of our life experience.

But the more subtle set involves aspects of consciousness, like our sense of what reality is all about, and - given that sense of reality - our grasp of what is within personal range and worth doing in life. These elements play a more profound part in the choices we make, on both long-term and immediate levels. But also a more invisible part, for we don't often think in terms of questioning reality; it's a background thing, like gender characteristics, or our genetic structure. Yet, one of the significant developments of these millenial times is that even background things are being looked at fresh, taken apart, reconstructed.

In writing about my travels, I've laced the tale with gleamings of my own reality - a reality that has changed radically from what it once was. I've dwelt at length on the interplay between consciousness and Providence, a 'dance' that seems quite magical at times . . . though perhaps, to a deep-dyed rationalist, somewhere between the imaginary and the deluded. But a rationalism that shuts out the magical is a lyric with no melody, or a poem that merely rhymes . . . it is half the story, and the lesser half of it. This book is my way of conveying exactly how real the magic can be. It's also my way of pointing out how malleable, in a sense, reality actually is. Though the truth of the matter is not what reality is, but what you believe it is.

Belief, in these terms, is not a credo, but a hard-won shift in the way you actually perceive your world to function . . . a symbiotic engagement between what happens to you and what you make of it, in which the initial thrust is yours, on its direction of development. For a generalized example, if you see yourself as victimized, in an event, you are! And if you see yourself as blessed, you are! Either way, a feedback loop perpetuates the pattern with increasing conviction, until apparently random events consistently seem to validate your outlook. After some reasonable while, the loop has simply become your reality . . . the world seems actually to 'be that way.'

As to Providence, however, something more is involved. While often regarded merely as a religious theme, Providence is clearly an element of Nature if one considers the synergistic way in which the multitude of species interact - without thinking, without planning, without organization - toward the general well-being of all life. Providence, in other words, functions in the very fabric of Nature. It is simply a fact of life, though we tend more often to get in its way than to take advantage of it. My own reality-shift, in this respect, has involved little more than letting it happen and paying close, conscious attention to it so that the feedback loop is reinforced with every instance of its occurrence in my life.

The Nature connection has to be considered in any reality-shift, for Nature is the bottom line of our existence and probably the most reliable reality base we'll ever have. This is why the seasonal nature of experience figures so prominently in my reality. As a culture - and it's worldwide, today - we are incredibly insensitive to the tides of mood and personal directive that rise and fall in quite predictable patterns within the day, the year and other time-frames of our being, and we thereby lose the benefits of taking them into account in our affairs.

I could have known, for instance, going into my settlement on Lesbos -had I known at the time certain extensions of the seasonal pattern that I now understand - that I was headed into an exceptionally difficult winter; it was not just due to the isolation of it, or the exhaustion of an over-extended year. It was a predictable development 'in the seasonal nature' of things - but beyond my awareness of that time. I know, now, that it would have made slight difference in my experience of that winter had I gone to Crete instead - and I emphasize that I'm speaking not of winter, per se, but of that particular winter in my own world.

Winter, you see, is a season that resides inside of us - as they all do - even as it familiarly shapes our environment. In fact, its affective potency, that we know in so many ways, and commonly ascribe to climate change and aspects of light and darkness, is hardly 'out there' at all, but has to do with the way it shapes our inner perspective on things . . . on everything.

I mean to elaborate on that, but it will take an entire other book, if you have the patience to wait for it . . . and if I have the winter-of-my-life resources to bring it off.

YOU ARE IN CHAPTER 23 OF INNOCENCE ABROAD . . . which is the final chapter of the book! I truly hope you have enjoyed it enough to survey the rest of my site. And perhaps to drop me a line and let me know.


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