The Meltemi Winds by Dawn Reno Langley

Santorini

“Molten rock is pooling beneath Greece’s Santorini volcano, the site of one of the largest eruptions in the past 10,000 years. That eruption, which took place about 3,600 years ago, wiped out the Minoan civilization of the Greek islands and may have spawned the legend of the lost city of Atlantis.”

~~~ Douglas Main, The Christian Science Monitor

The taxi groans in protest as it crawls up the island’s rocky cliffs, and Jen grabs my hand with a sharp intake of breath. Rocks tumble down to the road, bouncing off one boulder after another, breaking into smaller pieces before hitting the ground hundreds of feet below.

“Look up,” I urge. I have no idea what we will see, but my crippling fear of heights has taught me that looking up is always wiser than looking down. My daughter, never one to follow my advice, stares out the window, mesmerized by the dry, wind-worn sea-wall falling away below us. Her palm feels as slick as my upper lip.

“And here we are, signorina,” our Greek taxi driver booms like a hoarse walrus. “Voila! Our bella Santorini!”

Beside me, Jen rolls her brown eyes. She’d whispered to me when we first entered the taxi:   Gorilla-Man here knows a dozen languages and butchers most of them.

“Well, that’s eleven more than I know,” I’d answered.

Instead of laughing, she’d arched an eyebrow.

~~~

Every night when the sun hits the horizon off the coast of Santorini’s coast, a small audience gathers outside a tavern in Oia, a town at the very the tip of the island, and claps politely when the green flash indicates the sun has been swallowed by the Aegean Sea. Sunset on Santorini is the island’s biggest tourist attraction, even though the island itself is amazing: crescent-shaped, formed along the rim of an ancient volcano.   White-washed buildings with deep powder blue roofs built into the side of the island, their precarious shapes and shadows cascade like a pile of children’s blocks down to the navy-blue caldera almost a thousand feet below. I’d seen hundreds of photos of the island before our arrival but nothing prepared me for the sight of the sun-washed buildings, the pure whiteness of the churches. Though I’ll never perfectly capture the color, I shoot dozens of photos of the houses that cling like sea urchins to the sides of the island until Jen finally begs me to quit.

I embarrass her. It’s clear.

We join dozens of other people—Greek families with kids, a young hippie-ish English couple who make out passionately throughout the entire sunset, an old man who sits alone on a rock and rests his ivory cane between his legs—at the tip of the crescent-shaped island to watch the sun fall into the horizon. The green blip of light, and it is over, and my first European vacation with my twenty-five-year-old daughter has officially begun.

~~~

That night. We slip on our bathing suits (Jen in a cute bikini; me in a one piece to cover a wide surgical scar that left my stomach muscles flaccid), giggling a little but determined to test the infinity pool that overlooks the Aegean Sea. We are the only two guests in the aqua light from the pool. A moon the same shape as the island itself hangs low in the velvet blue sky.

For a moment, neither of us speaks. Though we’ve spent months trying to find a trip where we could spend time together to reconnect, neither of us expected to feel awestruck by the place we’d chosen. I cast a sideway glance at her. Her dark blonde hair, pulled back by an ever-present headband. Her eyes loom large and dark. She’s trying to act nonchalantly, as if she’s been here before. Every once in a while, she still looks like a child. Uneasy. Insecure. The strangeness of a new place, both of us off-kilter together, might prove the perfect anecdote for our disconnect during the past five years. I’d missed her since she’d left for college. She’d never come home, simply built a life for herself back in New England close to where I’d grown up. Somehow going to a foreign place was easier than making the trip up from Florida to Boston.

Jen is the first into the pool. No sooner has she wetted her hair wet than a 40-something woman with long brown hair and a boy carrying a fluorescent swimming tube joins us. They settle themselves at the other end of the pool as if it is midday, as if swimming in an infinity pool on the edge of a volcanic island is an every-day occurrence.

I watch them as I enter the pool. They are squabbling about something in a language I don’t understand. It’s the woman’s face I see as my foot slides on the marble steps leading down into the pool. The water closes over my face as she jumps out of her chair, one hand outstretched in my direction.

~~~

We navigate the cobblestone pathways through the village of Oia the next day. I make my way slowly, nursing my back from the fall into the pool. Jen leads the way, striding confidently as she always does, as if she knows where she is headed, expects me to keep up.

In one of the shops nestled into crevices along the skinny streets that terrace down and down and down to the navy-blue caldera, I find an English woman who’s managed the shop for 18 years yet has not learned the Greek language. Though Jen paces outside the shop’s open door, I talk with the woman about her experiences, her cigarette bobbing out of the corner of her mouth as she reminisces about moving here to join a man. (Who left me the moment I stepped off the plane. I’d bought that one-way ticket with my last paycheck. Had no choice but to stay. Haven’t been back to Britain since. Don’t want to.) She seems almost bored by her own story. I laugh, then wince as the laughter squeezes one of my back muscles, sending a spasm down my leg.

“You all right?” the woman asks, and I tell her about my fall down the slick steps into the pool. I am worried about how I will pay the medical expenses if my back doesn’t get any better. I barely cover my living expenses with my meagre pay from adjunct teaching at a local community college.

“Don’t even think of suing, dearie,” she tells me. “They don’t do that here. You’re expected to take care of your own expenses if you have an accident. No one takes fault.”

Jen comes back into the shop with questions about a restaurant for lunch. A ruse to get me to move on. We take the woman’s advice and visit her friend’s place. Over a big fresh salad adorned with a fist-sized piece of feta cheese, Jen and I talk about what it must feel like to always be on the outside looking in.

~~~

Paros

Meltemi is the Greek and Turkish name for the well- known etesian wind blowing from north to northwest across the Aegean Sea. The meltemi flows from a high pressure ridge over the Balkans towards a heat trough over the Anatolian Plateau. During a strong meltemi event, the trough may extend relatively far to the west and beyond Rhodes and even Crete, forming calm wind pockets leeward of the Aegean islands.
However, the numerous Aegean Islands and mountain gaps are channeling the wind causing gusty, vigorous jet-effects and lee eddies as well as local katabatic winds. Although the etesian winds are part of the large scale Asian monsoon system, the meltemi might also be caused or enhanced by regional-scale weather patterns, i.e. a local heat trough over Turkey and relatively cold Aegean waters and resulting high pressure. This is especially true at the beginning and end of the meltemi season (May to October).

                  ~~ Weather Online

It doesn’t help my back that I have brought two totally wrong pieces of luggage: a huge suitcase on wheels that tips over, wobbles, and is impossible to lift upstairs, and another that I can sling over my shoulder though it doesn’t hold much more than rudimentary makeup.

“You should have thought of that when you bought them.” Jen slid into the wooden bench seat, one of at least a hundred in the boat’s belly.

“Tell me something I don’t know.” I rub my shoulders, grateful for the chance to sit and watch the scenery go by. “I probably should have realized that the Dolphin that would carry us from island to island would have to dock and that a wharf is made of wooden slats. I should have realized that a large piece of rolling luggage might have a hard time on wooden slats. It might be difficult to carry it up and down the stairs. It might weigh a ton. Duh. I should’ve thought.”

She grunts. I know she’s thinking I’m stupid.

The Flying Dolphins (or the Fly, as the Greeks call them hover above the water like huge airboats. Waves splash against the window as we pass through an ocean full of islands. The Dolphin weaves in and around the rock outcroppings. Slowly. Surely. We wave at large sailboats–couples and small families, one or two people on the bow, the rest sitting in the starboard, talking, sunning, drinking coffee–passing by us in the shallow lanes between islands.

A tiny island with ruins of white marble Corinthian columns in its center appears off the starboard side of the Dolphin. My writer’s mind wonders about the purpose of the temple. The island is too small for it to have been home for a village full of people. And why have a temple on an island where no one lives?

The boat slows. Jen adjusts the seasickness bands on her wrists.

“You okay?” I ask.

She smiles. “Thanks for getting these for me.” She twirls her wrist. “They really work.”

~~~

I dream about the house I grew up in. My grandmother lived on the first floor. My family, on the second and third. In my dream, I build a play house out of the under-the-eaves storage space and fill it with princess dolls I’d never owned. Dolls in pink tutus, dolls in Amazonian-parrot-colored costumes, dolls from countries I’ve never heard of. Baby dolls. Dolls that cry and wet their pants. Tiny dolls that live in dollhouses with their tiny families. Dolls the same height as I am. I feel an incredible happiness surrounded by all of these dolls.

When I wake up, it takes a moment or two to realize I’m not in my childhood home on Walnut Street.

I listen to the sounds of the Aegean Sea, the whisper of a hot night’s breeze, and I will myself back to sleep. But there’s another sound. I quiet my breathing to listen more closely.

My daughter is crying in the next room.

~~~

Jen and I are comfortable now, having adjusted to the time difference and the cultural surprises (Why frozen peas with every meal?). We waste no time in our tiny room with the window seat that offers a view of the Vespas whizzing by on the skinny, snaking street below. It’s time to explore Paros.

At the Vespa rental office, the clerk asks for my passport. When he leaves to complete the rental paperwork, I turn to Jen as casually as I can. She’s looking through her pocketbook for a Kleenex.   She’s been sniffling all morning.

“Are you okay? I thought I heard you crying last night.” I hadn’t gotten up to see if she was okay. For nearly ten minutes, I had argued with myself about doing so, offering some comfort, but I often feel she doesn’t want me around. By the time I’d made up my mind to go in, she’d started snoring.

Jen’s pocketbook spills on the floor as the clerk returns with our paperwork.

In a flurry of organized confusion, we sign the rental agreements, listen to a brief description of how to drive the scooter, and create a dramatic exit, the scooter jerking like a rodeo pony down the street.

Five hours later, we are sitting on a bench at Golden Beach on the other side of the island. A strong breeze beats the sea into white caps that dance in unison like ballerinas in a nautical Swan Lake. The flag above us snaps like a rifle shot.

“I didn’t know you heard me. I’m sorry I woke you up.” Jen doesn’t look at me as she speaks. The wind steals her next words, lifts them and tosses them behind us, lost for good. But the tears running down her face tell me the story I cannot hear.

Once again, I offer help and sympathy. This time, I am the one who loses the conversation. The wind has now forced the beachgoers to their cars or to retreat inside the tiny building that houses only two bathrooms, one for men, the other for women, though I’m hard-pressed to tell which is which. We head for the Vespa, shielding our eyes against the film of sand whipped up from the beach. I’d later discover that the hot, dry wind is a regular afternoon occurrence called a meltemi, the brutal and magical wind known to stir up trouble. I can now see why that legend persists since the winds fall under the power of Boreas, god of the north winds. The meltemi is hot and cruel, continually peppering our bare skin, driving its glassy sand into our pores.

The gas meter on the scooter’s front panel glows red when the Vespa’s key is turned. If we are to make it back to the other side of the island, we need to fill the tank. I point to the right side of the road, a gas station, and Jen nods. A quick fill-up, and we agree there’ll be no other stops. We head straight for the B&B. Maybe we can outrun the wind that rips at us like an angry witch.

Halfway out of the gas station’s entrance, I gun the engine to make the turn, but we are pushed sideways by the whipping wind. The Vespa skids across the road. The steering column jerks from my hands. The scooter lands with a thud in the reeds, which poke into my skin like the razor blades my grandfather used: straight-edged, mother-of-pearl handles. In slow motion, the machine falls onto its side, trapping my leg against the burning muffler. My skin sizzles. Another bump. Both Jen and I lose our seats. My leg jerks to the front, now free of the muffler. We sink into the knee-deep slimy water and struggle to stand, trying to avoid the reeds’ biting.

Within seconds, a group of people gathers and scoops us out of the swamp. We wipe the mud off our legs shakily, thank the family who heads back to the gas station and their car, then promise the three young guys speaking bad English that we’ll be fine to get back to our B&B on our own. Jen pushes me out of the way, takes over the steering.   “I’ll drive back. I don’t trust your driving skills.”

I don’t blame her.

~~~

The restaurant is within walking distance of our B&B and consists of a couple of rooms in a two-story house near the waterfront. There’s no sign in either Greek (which we couldn’t read anyway) or English. The building’s bright yellow color and the white Christmas lights around the porch on the second floor are the defining marks we’d been told to look for, so we walk up the uneven stairs, passing small squids hanging on a line near the kitchen window. I wonder at their delicate gray and pink coloring, the way they seem to be looking at us like a nosy alien. I had never realized octopi could be so small or that hanging them on a clothesline would be part of the curing process. The smell of lamb on an open grill tantalizes my senses. Only a little while after this trip, I will decide not to eat any meat—especially lamb and veal. But now, the smell of fire-roasted meat makes me groan with pleasure. Our inn keeper sent us to this restaurant, describing his favorite dishes, promising us he’d call the owner, tell him to take care of the “two sunflowers from America.”

We eat everything the cook (a skinny, smiling man who wore his glossy black hair in a bun nestled at the back of his neck) heartily suggests, each of the dishes is even more phenomenal than the last one he suggests: large bowls of Greek fish stew, rolls of white cheese that taste like mozzarella, incredibly fragrant and dark tomatoes, bottles and bottles of Retsina. And as we eat, we struggle to hear each other speaking above the din of a hundred people sitting knee-to-knee, family-style; sharing big bowls of the stew passing long, skinny loaves of bread; refilling water glasses with Retsina. Waiters in floor-length white aprons balance half a dozen bowls down the length of their arms like circus jugglers.

Two hours later, my daughter and I are still seated at our table. Our new friend we’d just met that evening has promised some music and more wine. The doors are locked for the evening, the kitchen crew is done clearing the tables, and someone disappears into a back room then returns with a worn-out guitar. Augustus, our new friend, who’s been sitting next to us all night regaling us with stories of the island, takes the guitar. Suddenly, the waiters sweep the chairs and tables back against the wall. Our waiter takes our hands, lifting us out of our seats, and we are swept into the proud and dramatic line dance that soon has us laughing so hard at ourselves that tears stream down my daughter’s delighted face.

~~~

Mykonos

“It is believed that the island was named after its first ruler Mykons, a local hero, who was considered to be the son or grandson of the god Apollo. There are various references to Mykonos in the Greek mythology. Mykonos was supposedly where the battle between omnipotent Zeus and the fearful Titans took place. Also it is mentioned as the place where Hercules slew the Giants. The Giants were invincible while they stayed in the protected area of Mount Olympus. Hercules managed to lure them out of there and kill them on Mykonos.

Actually, it is said that the large rocks which are scattered around the island are actually the same petrified corpses of the Giants.”

~~~Cycladia.com, the complete guide on Greece

The island of Mykonos is a disappointment after the otherworldly mysticism of Santorini and the small-island Greek hospitality of Paros. It’s a tourist destination, crowded with Europeans. Paros has scrubby hills where goatherds roam with their shepherds, tiny country roads lead nowhere, locals have lived there for generations. In Mykonos, shop owners are businesslike. Cold. The hotel’s front desk manager brusquely demands our check-in documents and passports. I turn my suitcases inside out searching for the royal blue passport that’s almost filled up with stamped pages: England, Mexico, Scotland, Canada, Bermuda. I cherish my passport, physical proof that I’ve been an explorer, and also the physical proof I need to return home.

Half an hour later, I sit on the floor in the tiny lobby, a sweaty mess. The passport’s gone. The back of my neck is sweaty, and my eyes burn with frustrated tears.

The hotel managers want us out of the way. They avoid my eyes, speaking to each other in Greek, then shoot us glances my mother-in-law called “the evil eye.” Though I can tell they don’t want to, they acquiesce to my begging and let us check into the room.

I pace and worry and swear in the little room, unsure what to do. I know I’m ruining Jen’s vacation but the fear of being stuck in a foreign country without my passport makes me envision a dank, rat-infested prison where they throw foreigners and forget about them.

“You have no choice,” she says. “You have to go back.”

I have no idea what the procedure will be, what I’ll need to do to recover the passport, but I do know we only have part of the day in Mykonos, which might not be enough time. I need to be prepared to make the next leg of the trip—to Athens—alone. And so does Jen. This wasn’t what I planned. I feel like the vacation is going to hell in a handbasket. She’s fine, though. Much more calm than I am.

Early the next morning, I haul my frustrated ass down the hundred marble steps that supposedly make it easier to climb the almost perpendicular hill. I pass the iconic mills, their windmills turning slowly in the sea breeze, and then wind through the harbor’s maze of streets until I find the Mykonos police station.

An hour later, I sit in a stiflingly hot gray cement office surrounded by five Mykonos police officers who seemed vaguely amused by my predicament. I am not amused in the slightest.

Another hour passes, and I’m coming down the marble stairs yet again, this time dragging my giant suitcase. Back on the Fly. Back to Paros. A visit to their police station. I retrace my steps all over the island with their help. The passport is nowhere to be found.

Back to Mykonos. Jen has spent the day alone. I’m stressed and in tears. We are to be in Athens the next day. I’ll go to the Embassy then. There’s nothing else to do.

We sleep in the tiny room without having spoken to each other for the better part of the day.

~~~

Athens

“They say that after Athene’s birth, she was reared by Triton, who had a daughter named Pallas. Both girls cultivated the military life, which once led them into contentious dispute. As Pallas was about to give Athene a whack, Zeus skittishly held out the aegis, so that she glanced up to protect herself, and thus was wounded by Athene and fell. Extremely saddened by what had happened to Pallas, Athene fashioned a wooden likeness of her, and round its breast tied the aegis which had frightened her, and set the statue beside Zeus and paid it honour. Later on, Elektra, after her seduction, sought refuge at this statue, whereupon Zeus threw both her and the palladium into the Ilian land.”

~~~ Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3. 144 (trans. Aldrich) (Greek mythographer C2nd A.D.)

In the taxi to our hotel in Athens, neither of us has anything left to say. I stare out the window at the torn-up city streets. Streets blocked off. Giant holes in the sidewalk. Athens is an ancient city, the taxi driver tells us. Every time someone digs a hole they find an artifact and everything must stop. It’s become a particular problem now because the city is preparing to compete to host the Olympics, so hotels and businesses are attempting to spiff up their establishments. It’ll be a slow process.

We dump our bags in our hotel room and rush back out, because the taxi driver has promised us a night tour of the best known sites in Athens. Tomorrow, Jen will see the rest of the city alone. My dream of soaking up some history is over. I’m going to the American Embassy first thing in the morning to see what I can do about my passport. Since our flight home is early afternoon, I don’t expect to be doing anymore sightseeing. After two days of almost pure panic, I’ve come to the conclusion that I can’t do anything until tomorrow, and I might never be in Athens again, so why not try to enjoy it tonight?

Four hours later, our cab driver (Stephanopoulos) had given us the chef’s tour. We’ve had our pics taken with palace guards in harlequin-like uniforms, let our voice echo in the Theatre of Dionysus, sighed in amazement when we saw the Acropolis lit from within as if the gods still celebrated in their own temple. We agree with Stephanopoulos that this city’s long-dead creators could still educate those alive today. It’s a cliché, I realize, but there’s some truth to every cliché. Some things are purely and simply larger than we are.

There’s a concert somewhere in the ruins. We stop talking and the three of us cock our heads, straining to identify the song floating toward us on the ancient air.

I grab Jen’s hand. “I’m sorry about the passport mess. I hope it hasn’t ruined your vacation.”

Her brown eyes are glassy in the reflected light from the ruins. “It’s okay. I can take care of myself.”

The theatre caverns out below us. My stomach lurches, and I force myself to look up.

BIO: Dawn Reno Langley – My work spans most of the written genres. The only one in which I’m not published is screenplays. My most recent novel, The Mourning Parade, released last summer, has received great reviews, and I’m signed for a nonfiction book entitled You Are the Divine Feminine that will be published next year. My works include literary and commercial novels, children’s books, nonfiction books (my specialty is Native American and African American art), essays, short stories, and poems, theater/dance/music reviews, and hundreds of articles. I received my MFA from Vermont College, and my PhD from The Union Institute and University. Currently, I write full-time and teach part-time in the MFA program at SNHU.