A Greek SabbaticalJune 27, 2006
This winter, I needed a quiet place to read and write about gruesome death. (My next book is about a murder, the guillotine & the dark side of Provence, and the first draft is due, panic of panics, in September.)
It so happens that acquaintances of mine run a collective bookstore in this village, Oia, on the Greek island of Santorini. The island is jaw-dropping beautiful: A broken ring of rock jutting from the Aegean with a volcano in the Caldera and traditional Greek villages sprinkled along the clifftops. There is energy here: In 1500 BC, the island was home to a mammoth volcanic eruption that sent 300-foot tidal waves crashing into Crete and sent a handful of villages on Santorini sliding into the depths of the sea, creating the Atlantis myth. (Some also suggest that the volcanic explosion happened at the same time as the Exodus and its tremors were responsible for parting the Red Sea for Moses and his clan.)
So, a good bookstore, staggering beauty, and some added geological pep to boot. It seemed like a decent choice for my writing sabbatical. I was able to rent this little cave house from a local lawyer for only twice as much as I expected to pay. But hell, how often do you get to have a balcony overlooking the sea and a volcano? In the tradition of the Greek cave homes, two thirds of the house was dug into the cliff, a way to keep it naturally cool in summer and mild in winter.
This is the view from the house when standing in the doorway looking left.
This is when you look right. A wide-angle lens would have reduced this to a single photograph, I imagine.
And this is when you look behind. My house was at the very bottom of the cliff village. It was 137 steps to get up to the top. The steps are made of stone, which can be quite painful if you happen to fall down them drunk after drowning your sorrows when your favourite football team (Olympique de Marseille) gets beaten by a squad of undeserving glamour boy ninnies (Paris-St. Germain) in the final of the Coupe de France.
The idea was to have the space and tranquility to read through 2,000 pages of court documents in French, as well as a selection of readings on the history and philosophy of the death penalty. This was my first mistake: It is not much fun to travel with 48 kilograms of books and papers. My second mistake was that it can get damn lonely sitting in your cave house all day with 48 kilograms of books and papers. So, I invited many dogs into my home for company. This is my little family on a cold February night.
This is Kory looking in through my bathroom window. She is one of the many wild dogs who live in Oia. During the summer, they get fat and spoiled by the swarms of tourists who succumb to their doleful begging and pass them fries, pita sandwiches, bits of lamb. My mother is a prime example of this touristly compassion. When my parents visited the island, my mother took to buying a pack of ham a day just so she could feed the wild dogs. Nutty stuff. But in the winter, when all the tourists are gone, the wild dogs get all skinny and mangy and desperately hungry. One winter, they even knocked down a woman and killed her, at least that’s a story I heard. The best bet for these dogs in winter is to get adopted by somebody and Kory was briefly my foster dog.
But, to be honest, I never felt Kory’s love for me was true. She wanted shelter, she wanted food, end of story. Many people have since chastised me for my ambivalence, heraldling Kory as a keen survivor who has managed to live it alone on the mean Greek streets. Yes, this is true. But I wanted to feel special and Kory’s survival technique was to make everybody feel special. She would cozy up to any human in town, and while I understood she had to do this, it kept my heart from truly opening to her. Thankfully, my landlord had three dogs and this is where my affections turned. This little blond dog is April, a patient and quiet boy dog (despite the name) who was briefly Petra’s lover but since moved into our cave-house complex and became the third dog in my landlord’s three-dog pack.
This is Petra, a timid but loving dog. My landlord saw her getting dumped in the wilderness one day. The dog had been beaten badly and couldn’t walk, so she just collapsed under a tree. For a month, my landlord brought her water and food each day, and then finally decided to take her home. Petra is a nervous dog, having suffered as she did, but incredibly loyal. By the end of my stay in Oia, she would follow me everywhere, often so close she stepped on the back of my sandals. My friend Tim once wrote me that Oia is best experienced with a black dog at your heel and he proved to be absolutely correct on this point.
And this is Mokoa, my true love. He is Petra’s son, a brawny and unrepentant alpha male with boundless energy and unbreakable stubbornness. He is a great walker, willing to roam kilometers along the coast or through the vineyards. And he is a swimmer, too, often accompanying my landlord on swims of more than a kilometer. He is a simple fellow and will never win a dog intelligence contest, but he is loyal, protective, loving, and fun. My father fell for him as well and returned to Canada with no less than 47 photographs of Mokoa.
My landlord wasn’t simply a dog maniac, though. She also had about a dozen cats.
Cats have a dangerous life on the island. In the winter, the wild dogs tend to hunt and eat them. Kory had a habit of picking them up in her mouth and sucking on their heads. And one morning, I awoke to find a cat corpse on my doorstep. And this is just the dogs. One of my landlord’s cats had kittens just before I left. My landlord told me that because of the lack of immunizations, the cats are also susceptible to disease and she expected only one of these four kittens to make it to adulthood.
You might be noticing a theme now. Yes, I became obsessed by animals during my stay in Oia. All those hours alone made me a little batty. I’ve learned four months locked up in a little cave house might be good for my work, but bad for my sanity.
You might wonder why I didn’t seek out the human company of my acquaintances at the bookstore? Because of this dreadful cur pictured above. A violent and aggressive beast, ‘Cowboy’ as he is called, attacked Mokoa on sight even though Mokoa never made an aggressive move toward ‘Cowboy’. One time ‘Cowboy’ ran 200 metres at full-speed just so he could leap at Mokoa’s neck. The master of ‘Cowboy’ (who happened to be my only close friend on the island) responded by throwing rocks at …. Mokoa! Another time, ‘Cowboy’ discovered Mokoa and I at the beach. Mokoa, a strong and determined dog, faced ‘Cowboy’ down. But then I did something terribly stupid. Not wanting to see a fight, I picked up Mokoa to carry him away from the vile ‘Cowboy’. And what did that coward of a dog do? The second Mokoa’s back was turned, ‘Cowboy’ attacked, biting me and Mokoa!
This was a tremendously upsetting experience for me, and challenged my very moral principles.Working on the death penalty, I have come to believe that if a society declares it wrong to kill, the society itself cannot kill. But, as I nursed Mokoa’s bloody ear, I began fantasizing about killing ‘Cowboy’ myself, perhaps putting him on a chunk of driftwood and pushing him out to sea.Or maybe staking him down burying him beneath a pile of rocks. Oh, how succulent my dreams of vengeance were! And how wrong! It made me understand that society must act as a moderating influence when pain and hurt blind us to everything but the deep rooted animal instinct for revenge.
So, yes, I ended up avoiding my acquaintances because of their pet dog.
As previously mentioned, four months alone in a cave house can lead to severe battiness.
Then, last month, I left. On the work front, I achieved about 60 per cent of what I’d hoped, but I console myself with the thought that I am usually overambitious when setting goals for myself. Aesthetically, it was a luxury to live in such a sublime location, though, I would never try such a solitary act for so long again.
And clearly, I miss my dogs.
:: Further Waystations ::
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