Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Fishermen of Naxos

 Journal Excerpt - May 19, 1976 - The Fishermen of Naxos
During our first night on Naxos, the largest and most fertile island in the Cyclades, there was a shadow over the lower right side of the moon and, having left a love back home, I couldn't help but wonder if it looked that way in California. At the time, I considered it an omen for me and my travel companion that some intriguing events were about to unfold.

We had only been traveling for two months but had already been on fourteen boats, not counting an eight-day cruise aboard the Leonard Da Vinci which had transported us from New York to Naples for a student fare of two-hundred and fifty dollars. Especially memorable were our fellow passengers, three full Italian meals per day served by handsome Italian waiters, magnificent on deck views of the Atlantic, and a surprising encounter with David Bowie which is another story.

Alot had happened to us before we'd arrived on Naxos but we had yet to be taken out on a boat by Greek fishermen. Initially, I had serious concerns about being on the Mediterranean with Greek men as I had already witnessed the fine art of kamaki and was reading Zorba the Greek by Kazantzakis. My imagination was running wild as usual and my mother had successfully instilled a cautionary sense in me. But, after a week spent getting acquainted with the locals we accepted an invitation to go fishing off Apollon, located at the northernmost tip of the island.  In a few days, we were helped aboard a brightly painted boat and greeted by four other American women. There was Mary, an energetic blonde, and Patty, whose contagious laughter came easily and often. Then, we met Heidi from Seattle who was heartbroken having returned to Naxos, after a three year absence, in search of her old lover, Nikitis, who no longer lived there. And, finally, we were introduced to Jackie, torn between accepting a scholarship at Smith or remaining on the island with her lover, Niko. It was his boat and since I had already observed the inherent sensuality of Greek men, I could easily empathize with Jackie's difficult decision.

Our boat drifted lazily through limpid, turquoise waters as seagulls caught our breeze off the stern and floated effortlessly there as though anxiously awaiting an opportunity to scoop up fish with their pointy little beaks. Time passed quickly and before long Niko set anchor off a private cove where deep golden light illuminated the sculpted white rock emerging fearlessly into translucent water. It was growing warmer so the men removed their shirts and began to busily prepare the day's catch. The rest of us shared a bottle of retsina and joined together in an exuberant toast to Bacchus, god of wine, who Heidi explained had married Ariadne after being forsaken by Theseus on Naxos. Respectful of her recent disappointment, we all grew silent until Mary opened a jar of olives and we quickly resumed our lively conversation.

Meanwhile, Niko and the other four fishermen were preoccupied with bundling up sticks of dynamite. We stared in amazement as they heaved them into quiescent waters causing them to explode one by one, each time spraying up a fountain of water only a few feet from our boat. Dozens of fish instantly rose to the surface, their silver bodies glistening in the late morning sun. Were they dead or merely stunned? We tried to convince ourselves that the survivors would regain consciousness and return safely to the pristine depths. In retrospect, we were quite naive. Two of the men hauled in a huge net, trapping the fish, open-eyed, their slippery wet skin causing a pungent, yet oddly intoxicating odor to permeate our boat combined with coconut oil, the sweat of the fishermen, and the sweet ambrosia of spring.

We watched with curiosity as the men scraped off the scales then cut behind the gills to clean out the innards. Next, a final slice down the middle to extract the entrail. After this process was completed, we gathered up our things then climbed to a spectacular site overlooking the vast Aegean Sea, a proud and dazzling gem, stretching endlessly before us. Soon the men started heating the coals and everyone pitched in at their own pace. I offered to help Patty with the task of peeling potatoes and she quietly advised me to remove the brown spots or Niko would throw them out. It struck me as ironic that such a culinary detail would concern the same person who had just overwhelmed us with his pyrotechnics. But, what eventually resulted was a delicious feast of fresh fish, potato stew, bread, cheese, more retsina and Citro, a lemon-flavored liqueur that made us pleasantly high and grateful the next morning that we had learned from the Greeks to always include food with our drinks. We happily spent the afternoon telling stories and singing songs, light years away from earthly responsibilities back home.

Later that evening, we reunited with everyone for a fiesta at Niko's favorite taverna where he danced like a madman as waiters served him shots of ouzo from a well worn tray. Entranced, we watched as with one quick motion he'd toss the liquor back then, with dark eyes burning, he'd bite into the glass and slam the broken remains down on the tray. Each time, he'd hit the bottom of the tray with his palm sending the glass flying through the air then crashing noisily to the ground. Jackie watched her lover with a resolute expression of desire and frustration as blood dripped from the corner of his mouth. This time, I remember thinking, history will reverse itself and Ariadne will abandon Theseus.

It was our last night on Naxos and only a half moon was visible as the haunting strains of a violin accompanied by a santouri and lyra filled the sultry night air. As the sky slowly darkened, we celebrated these fleeting, new found friendships, our parea, with shots of ouzo and apple slices. Then, we danced through the star filled night around and around, our sunburned arms holding each other up, our young hearts desperately hoping  the music would never end.