Taking a break on Poros

Taking a break on Poros

Poros, I knew in advance, was not my island. By this I mean, that Poros was not the island that I would pick for a longer writing break. Poros, I thought, was a stopover, a place where I would settle down for a few days, take a rest and maybe do some planning before taking a ship to some more remote place in the Cyclades. This at least, is what I foresaw.

Straight into laziness

Poros actually is a pair of islands located by the southern shore of Saronic Gulf, barely an hour-long passenger boat ride away from Athens. The smaller of the two islands, hosting the port and the old town, is separated from the town of Galatas on the Argolid mainland by a 200 m-wide straight crossed by a regular car-ferry and taxi-boats. A 10 m-long bridge over the so-called canal connects to a more recent part of town on the larger island, the rest of which is mostly covered by a pine forest. The name of the islands, Poros (Πόρος), stands for these narrow sea channels, geographic pores through which the Aegean Sea flows. After cycling by the towns of Trapeza (Τράπεζα) and Panorama (Πανόραμα) in the gulf of Corinth, then in the vicinity of Isthmia (Ίσθμια) and Methana (Μέθανα), Poros was just one more place whose name seemed to be pulled straight out of any western language’s dictionary.

The place that I rented was located on the larger of the two islands, about a kilometre from town. It was advertised as a studio, but it really was a full-size apartment, larger than many of the places where I lived, perhaps three times the size of the flat I occupied for a year in Japan. A well-lit sleeping room opened onto a large balcony facing east to the sea. The rear of the apartment had a fully equipped kitchen with a table that could sit four, and this darker room became a convenient place for computer work in midday. The floor was made of grey tiles, which I found a little austere at first, but soon proved its use in keeping the flat cool, still a very welcomed feature in this early October. The only things that I missed there were some shading for the balcony and a bug net on the sliding door.

I had quite a few plans for Poros. I planned to update my blog, for I had not had much motivation to write or to rework photos lately. I planned to visit the nearby volcanic peninsula of Methana, which I had just found out hosted hot springs. I planned to take a ship to visit Hydra on the other side of the Argolid peninsula. I planned to do some research on where to settle for a writing break the Cyclades, and perhaps to begin with some preliminary work. But the truth is that I ended up doing very little of all that.

On my first day in Poros, I was content with mostly just doing laundry in the little bathroom sink and hanging it out to dry on the balcony. I had been cycling a lot and not stopping much recently, so that my clothes needed it. One thing that I think I did not yet written about, is that ever since my first longer stopover in Zurich, I have enjoyed break days perhaps more than ever before in my life. I have drawn much contentment in doing all the simple homely things like washing my clothes, in walking here or there without dragging all my belongings, or actually just walking, in shopping for food, cooking or brewing myself a pot of coffee.

Many places that I have rented in the Balkans were equipped with both a cezve, which is the long-handled pot used to brew Turkish (Greek) coffee, and some kind of alternative system. My studio in Poros, for instance, had an Italian coffee maker, but I much preferred to use the cezve, first as a matter of taste, but also because when brewing Turkish coffee, one needs to stay around the pot and watch it, otherwise the water boils and the coffee tastes burned. Some traditions even involve skimming the foam, which is the best part of the coffee, just so that even more foam forms. Opposite to a modern capsule-based coffee machine, not only in terms of price and environmental impact, the cezve forces you to be mindful about your coffee. A few months earlier, when my head was still full of unfinished scientific work, I would probably have burned my coffee half the time. But now, I had grown to really enjoy watching my coffee foam.

In late afternoon, I climbed down the long stairs from my apartment for a swim at the so-called canal beach. This was the first time in a while that I reused my snorkelling set. The sea was wavy and visibility was poor. Clouds of seaweed moved back and forth with the currents. Seashells and hermit crabs were nowhere to be seen, but fishes were swinging to and fro in the dusty waters. I thought that sea urchins were gone, until the waves pushed me towards rocks full of them and I had to battle my way back. I found a colourful urchin skeleton bearing purple stripes and little green dots, and decided to keep it as a souvenir.

When evening came, I tried to push myself to go out to town, for it was Saturday evening, and I thought that this was the place and time if any, when all the cool girls from a nearby multicultural capital would be in town. But then I also realized that I did not feel like it at all. Somehow the crave for social life that I had felt in Ljubljana, and later in Rab, had almost completely faded. At first I worried about it. I thought that I must be ill, perhaps on the verge of depression. But then I also realized that I was absolutely content with my own presence, and decided that it was a good thing. After I opened the bottle of wine I had shopped on my way back from the beach, I totally gave up the idea of going out that night.

On along a pasta week

So I had needed a full day of real rest. On my second day though, I was even lazier than the first. The balcony had already turned into a solar oven, so I backup up to the coolness of the kitchen and tried to write. I had a two-weeks delay in my blog. I was trying to recall the storm of emotions I had felt after being turned back by the Greek border police, feeling lost in Brindisi and completely disoriented in Igoumenitsa. But the words did not come. So I made another coffee and watch it brew. I tried to clean my sleeping mat and the footprint of my tent, which had collected quite a bit of mud and smells by now. I even installed a stupid game on my telephone just because I wanted to do something stupid and non-consequential. Two days. Good, maybe I needed two days of rest after all. From the third day on I stopped counting.

I had booked the flat originally for three nights, but extended my stay to seven and eventually to ten nights, which was, incidentally, the same pattern as I had followed in Rab. The apartment complex where I stayed did not have the charm of the more private housing I had rented in Rab. Neither was I particularly excited about Poros. In fact I was yet to explore anything beyond the way between the supermarket and my rental flat. But the place that I rented was cheap and highly convenient. At fifteen euros a night, I could easily have afforded to stay here for a month or two. And as I cooked most of my meals, in fact I believe that I spent less in Poros than on a typical cycling day. My only reason for not staying longer here was that Poros did not have the remote feel that I sought for my writing. The island actually barely felt like one. The Argolid mainland, after all, was only four laps of an Olympic-size swimming pool away.

While this was October, temperatures reached everyday above thirty. I was eating on the balcony, but usually hurried back inside all sweaty as soon as I was done. I worried about what I would post on my blog, so I took photos of my food. Cooking was something I had begun to really miss. What I thought I really wanted, of course, was to cook for someone else. So I just pretended that someone else was me, and from then on I enjoyed it just as much. Besides that had the extra advantage that nobody complained about the lack of diversity in the menu : pasta with pesto and red peppers; pasta with tomato sauce, capers and tuna; pasta with pesto, seeds and cheese; pasta with tomato sauce and some interesting ball-shaped zucchini; and the same again but with a different kind of pasta; pasta with capers, cream and tuna; pasta with red peppers and pesto again for a lack of ideas; pasta with zucchini, olives and blue cheese; pasta with olives and blue cheese because that is all there was left.

Everyday, I tried to push myself to go visit the hot springs in Methana. I love hot springs. I especially love hot springs when it is twenty degrees below freezing and my hair frosts in the steams. I love hot springs when it is snowing ten centimetres an hour, there is as little to hear as there is to see, and huge flakes come melting in the pool. I love hot springs after a day of snowshoeing the birch-covered slopes of a volcano in Hokkaido, or cycling a foggy road in the mountains of autumnal Tohoku. But a quick peer on my balcony told me that none of that was going to happen anytime soon in Greece. Besides, Methana was a twenty-kilometres bike ride away, not counting the ten-minutes ferry ride to the mainland. Oh, that suddenly felt so long. So I pushed back visiting the hot springs to the next day. And to the next day, and so on. A friend later commented that she could see symptoms of me turning Mediterranean.

On my third day in Poros, I cycled the coastal road to the so-called love beach, a place which, according to the internet, has enough trees that it is one of the best in Greece to make love. In reality though, the place is fully occupied by a bar where sex on the beach can be savoured on sunbeds for eight euros a pair but mostly just comes in fake plastic coconuts. Since I was not a pair, and since the sun was nearly gone and the tourists too, the owners generously agreed that I could sit there for free. It is there actually, that I began to think more practically about what I wanted to write.

On my fourth day, I had a walk in the old town, so I could get photos for my blog of something else than pasta. This is how I finally came to realize that Poros is actually a very pretty town. On the steep slopes above the port, tightly built white-walled tile-roofed houses hid an intricate maze of cobblestone or concrete staircases, where each step is marked with a streak of white paint. A few steep concrete ramps allow the motor scooters up, but only few streets are wide enough for a car.

Up to the sanctuary of Poseidon

On my fifth day in Poros, which was halfway through my stay, I finally got the motivation to hike up to the Sanctuary of Poseidon, some temple remains located 200 m above the sea near the top of the larger island. I could not find a hiking path, so I walked along the road, which was unfortunately a bit noisy from all the scooter traffic, but went through beautiful pine forests, its edges covered with a carpet of fallen needles. There was, to be honest, little to see at the sanctuary. Of the main temple, which is thought to be 2800 years old, unfortunately nothing remains. Only the foundations and wall bases of slightly more recent secondary buildings were excavated intact. Yet the entire sanctuary was covered with autumn flowers, and there was a certain aura about it. Besides, ever since I had faced a car-only undersea tunnel in Preveza and had to cycle a 150-km loop all the way around the Ambracian Gulf, getting my paws picked by prickly pears on the way, my relationship to Poseidon was a bit blur, so I wanted to clear that up.

Ironically, as I walked around the temple grounds, clouds had been gathering above the island. After a week of very constant and incredibly hot and sunny weather, it started raining. I grew a little panicked about it because for once I was not dragging my wardrobe around, and instead had left my studio in shorts and t-shirt, certainly not worried a bit about the weather. Still I walked to the place where there once stood a temple to the god of the seas, storms, earthquakes, horses, and car-only undersea tunnels, and prayed that he blesses my way with good weather and let me cross the autumn seas and reach my island, a place somewhere in the middle of the Aegean Sea, where I would stop cycling and start writing. And then, believe it or not, I heard a calm little voice in my head. That voice said: “well, regarding this world’s weather, I can’t promise anything because, you know, I have my own business. As for your own mind-storms, don’t worry, you will make it through.” And I can already write that at least the first part of this proved true.

The rain did not last long. I barely had the time to realize, that a little October rain by thirty degrees Celcius is actually not that uncomfortable. And then the cicadas started singing again. I walked back on a different road, and the hike ended up being a little longer than I had anticipated. It was dark when I reached again the outskirts of Poros. So I treated myself with dinner at the first restaurant and celebrated making peace with Poseidon.

It took me a few days to remember that I had picked a lost telephone on the roadside on my way to Poros. I had put the phone to charge and had been stunned to see it power on. The thing looked like it had been thrown away out of a car window like the plastic bottles that surrounded it, but it still worked. There were hundreds of notifications and messages in Greek that I could not understand, but indicated that the phone had spent more than a week in the hills. Meanwhile, my own telephone, which I had bathed in the waters of Krka National Park a while ago now, still refused to power on. Some people are lucky, I thought. The lost phone was of course locked, but after a few days, I received a call. I could understand that the person on line was a friend of the owner, but he spoke very little English and we had trouble to communicate. So after consulting with the apartment’s complex reception, I decided to bring the phone to the police station. Which was, following my attempt to cross the border overland from Albania, my second interesting interaction with the Greek police.

I first went to the port police, for it was easier to find. After they understood what I was after, the port authority redirected me to the town’s police station, and was even kind enough to print a map so that I could easily find the tiny building among the maze of narrow streets. So I went to the true police station, walked in and ask “Kalimera, do you speak English?” To my surprise, the officer replied with a long sigh, and then “no”. So I tried some other Greek words I had learned but not yet had a chance to use: “milate galika? Germanica maybe?”. Looking exhausted to be faced by such an illiterate, but also making clear that she did understand English, “so what do you want?”, the officer asked.

So I explained my long story about finding a phone on a tiny road between two tiny villages in the mountain, for which I could even provide the geographic coordinates if she wanted. Ah, no that was not in Poros. Another sigh. I explained that I had received a call but could not understand the person on-line. Raising both her voice and her eyebrows in irritation now, the policewoman asked again: “so what do you want?” So trying to still believe in it, I explained that I thought I could perhaps give the phone to the police, so that they help return it to its owner. “You want to give it to us?” she asked to confirm. “Yes”, I said, and then had the bad idea to add “actually the port police suggested that I come here.” Now that was really upsetting. I could see the officer’s eyes enlarging in bewilderment. “Eh, the port police? Reallyyy?” she asked “Whyyy?!” I said that I did not know.

Eventually the police decided that they will keep the phone. The only piece of information they asked about my identity was my name. “Julien”, I responded. But when hearing such a bizarre word, the eyes of the police officer nearly jumped out of their orbit once again. “Whaaat?!”. Making clear that this was really too much for a day, she reached out for a paper and a pen and theatrically dropped them on the counter as if I had not yet understood how upset she was. Even during my entire year of living in Japan, I think I have never felt so sorry for having such a complicated name. I was shocked by the experience. Poros is not an isolated mountain village. It is a touristic destination and popular weekend escape for Athenians. All the restaurant and hotel staff here speaks very good English, and some speak French, German or Italian. I was horrified trying to imagine how one would feel going to the police to ask for help. No, I preferred not to think about it at all. I was worried whether the phone would ever return to its owner. I thought that perhaps I should have included my meishi, my business card, into the foldable cover. I would never know the follow-up of that story.

As my stay in Poros was slowly coming to an end, I began to feel more motivation for writing. Two days before leaving, I finally completed my long blog post about arriving in Greece through Igoumenitsa, cycling among dead frogs and camping in stinky places in rainy Epirus and Arcadia. That was only one of three articles I wanted to write while here, but the text ended up to be twice as long as my other posts and I felt like it was the most accomplished so far. My regrets and low moods had turned into a nice story after all.

On my last day in Poros, I gave up visiting the hot springs in Methana or taking a boat to the island of Hydra. Instead I tried to remember when was the last time in my adult life that I had done so little in ten days. The only thing that came to my mind was the week of meditation I did in Western France’s Plum Village in the early Spring of 2018. Even towards the end of my academic career, after I had begun to slow down, my top priority for break time was to hurry to the great outdoors. Even during the lockdown, I had remained quite active with giving French lessons and writing the Confinés au Groënland. This is how much time it takes to slow down. On my last evening in Poros, to celebrate this very fact, a new record in lazy living, I went back to the restaurant which I had visited on the first day and since remained my favourite in town. The Taverna Poseidon.


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