Places

memories of chios

This time of year it’s hard not to reminisce on summers passed. The clouds start to lift. A reminder of a different kind of light grows, another world, rocky and spare, washed in bands of blueness unlike elsewhere. Chios now calls like the echo of waves. A tide swirling, tugging at my ankles as if to prompt my feet. It is not much like other islands. The Aegean. A sea flecked by the dust and rubble of ancient civilizations. Fragments. Faded postcards, from which Chios stands apart. It almost seems disinterested in being known, or iconic in the manner of the other islands with which it shares its sea. Make no mistake, though, there is history, both personal and grand, carved deep into the land, memory jagged as its coast. A haven for families seeking refuge from the daily weirdness of life. There is much memory, but it can also be a place to forget, temporarily, the tumult menacing Anatolia.

This island serves true Aegeans, Greek families and in-the-know Turks. An unfussy place. There are no sprawling resorts or multi-storey beachside hotels. There is a small airport some islanders believe inadequate, others, self-interested, do not want expanded. Its tallest building is probably the Chandris Hotel, on the southern edge of the port town. Here we rested in the aftermath of Turkey’s last failed coup, the fate of a country, friends and family uncertain. Sharing an all too small pool with a Dutch navy crew billeted at the hotel. Sofia and I already missing the friendly welcome of beachside Karavela at Komi and its orange loungers. Still there are worse places to be stranded, and many less fortunate in one of this world’s many waiting rooms.

Kampos. Estates with high walls cup lush citrus orchards in the centre of the island. In its midst, the Argentikon Hotel, opposite the islands’s Citrus museum, behind sandstone walls, the branches of its citrus varietals swell with softball-sized fruit. Old statues and esoteric symbols stare out wordlessly over fountains and paths worthy of storybook passages. A period piece in three dimensions. A window into the disappeared life of the island’s former Genoese gentry, their opulent lives overshadowed by a turbulent history with Ottoman Turkey.

Now a new type of agriculture dominates, though no less historic, in sheds and gardens in the south. Among the hillside slopes, Mastichoria, villages founded to harvest the sticky jewel-like tears of gum trees, mastic, once embargoed to all except the Sultan’s harem, yet often smuggled to the courtesans of Venice. Pistacia Lentiscus, a squat tree or a tall shrub, depending on your perspective, perhaps the island’s most valued residents today. Pyrgi, the painted village, its distinctive geometrically patterned buildings once considered the seat of this unique agricultural trade, is a sleepy place daytime.

For evening spirit there is Mesta, a labyrinthine nest of a medieval streets, a defense against pirates and raiders, at its heart a square which fills each evening with hungry families. Outer walls frothing with flowery sprays. Traditional food and chatter, no one concerned with corsairs or pillage anymore. Feasting conducted by a peaceful horde. Şevin is told she looks like Irene Papas by a woman chef of one of the taverns we favour in the square. The resemblance is, indeed, striking.

Many evenings, we opt for Nenita. Its square alive with local children on bicycles, tricycles and scooters. Games of tag. Preteen girls choreographing the latest routine. Playful argument over soccer matches. Sometimes a TV, teetering on a chair, power cord stretched taut along the line of an extension cord, broadcasting a game. Hercules, a majestic tabby looks on from a deserted bench with typical feline disdain. Off the square, the island’s best fare at Artemis. Rooster in tomato sauce, a faint whiff of cloves, drowning golden chips cut earlier in the day. Vegetable dishes from the owner’s garden. The paper tablecloths clipped to edges, soon splashed in olive oil and red sauce.

Sometimes it’s Emporios Bay that calls. A French couple, arrive on a zodiac, a Jack Russel springing ashore before them. She is quiet, poised, white linens encircling an elegant figure. He sits puffing Gitanes, words delivered in a voice deep and resonant as a TV narrator. The words almost unimportant. You cannot help but nod to them in admiration, they posses the aura of the heroic and legendary. They are the people you want to be when you grow up. On another night, sunlight behind us in the street, a young waiter, again at Neptune, our preferred haunt stops in the street. His mouth hangs a little open. He thinks I am Kivanç Tatlıtuğ, the Turkish TV and movie star, despite repeated demurrals. He asks for a picture for his Facebook page. It quickly becomes his most popular post to date. Days later they still believe even under the glare of a fluorescent bulb. Rumours float about our hotel that a famous actor is staying with them. On our last evening at Neptune, a man, the owner, I think tells me he enjoyed my last movie very much and also praises Şevin’s performance. I tell him we look forward to our next visit to his fine establishment. Denials only deepen belief.

Morning. The blessed quiet of the otherworldly Mavra Vollia, sea glinting off dark waves. Volcanic pebbles mark out a distinct shore unlike any other on the island or elsewhere. A location fit for a sci-fi opera crash landing. You needn’t ghost in the graphics of two moons. Chios, reputed to be the birthplace of Homer. When do we turn to the next page in our Odyssey?