A short story by Sunniva Midtskogen
Mykonos was made from the bodies of giants, the wrinkled old man at the corner of my hostel tells me. He spends all day just sitting in a chair looking at people. Kaliméra friend, he greets me the first time I pass him and smiles and waves. Kaliméra, I reply and he asks me where I’m from so I tell him I’m from Norway. He knows all the tourists, so hungry for stories from the big abroad. All one country, he says and laughs. All one country to me, and then he points at his own chest. I never leave, and then gestures to his surroundings. I see him every day and I get into the habit of picking up things to give to him when I am returning to my hostel. I don’t know why because I don’t think he is poor, but it makes me happy to be able to give him a sweet peach. The first time I gave one to him he shook his head and said no. I handed it to him anyway and he smiled and bowed and dug his teeth into the pulp. Hercules, he says, you know Hercules? He flexes him arm, mimicking being heroic. It makes me laugh and I assure him that I know Hercules. Disney, I say and he shakes his head. Disney is not right, different story, he says. Hercules kills the giants, they are dead, but they become—the wrinkled old man pauses and his face takes on the internationally known expression of searching for words. They become, he repeats and with a sort of jump, like in a cartoon, he makes his whole body go stiff like a log. He also knocks his fist against his head and says, rocks. I nod and say I understand. He smiles and nods and points to the ground. Mykonos, he says. Made from giants.
I spend my mornings on the beach. I get up with the locals, rub the sleep from my eyes and tiptoe out of the dorm. It’s a tip I got from a San Franciscan photographer I met in Mexico after my first couple of months travelling. He was interested in the people more than the places. Places shape people, he told me, more than we realise. He showed me his website where he posted the pictures he took. Just going from city to city in Mexico, he could see how the living conditions changed and how the people bent to them. He told me he never travelled to obvious tourist spots like Machu Picchu or Salto Ángel. Tourism ruins the soul of the place, he said, it destroys the identity and the locals become obsessed with money. I told him I understood what he meant—in many of the big cities of places I’ve travelled, it felt like I was a walking dollar sign, but not in the smaller villages. The difference is that in tourist places, they demand money for helping you with directions if you are lost, San Francisco said, but where the tourists don’t go, the people will change your tire, then thank you humbly if you give them one hundred pesos for the efforts.
The tourists sleep until ten, he said to me with a wink and a smile like he was accepting me by giving me this tip, acknowledging me as a true traveller and not just a mainstream tourist. Get up when the sun rises and that way you can wander the street while the locals are loading fruit onto their carts or drinking coffee at the porches, or getting their boats ready to take the tourists over to the island or into the national parks or through the caves—whatever natural gems the Marriott has built their hotels around.
Before he left he took my picture and two weeks later it appeared on his website. It looked nothing like me, of course, with my hair carefree in the wind and my aura almost poetic. He took it on a bench in a park. I looked content and that’s what he wrote to explain the picture. This young girl, he wrote, has a soft heart that melts for anything genuine and real. I didn’t think it sounded like me at all, but I liked that people would see this and see me and think that I was that kind of person.
Why did you travel here? the old man asks me and spreads his arms wide as if embracing the island. I reply with a shrug of my shoulders; the trip had been impulsive, I had never planned on going to Mykonos. You run away, he says and puts a hand on his heart and the other one under his eye in a fist. Heart breaking? I smile at him and say no. I am running, I admit, but I’m running to something, not away. You will find something here in Mykonos? he smiles a big smile, sun wrinkles tightening around his eyes. He always manages to look happy, blissful. He says he wanted to travel but he was so happy here and he had been in Greece his whole life. He almost makes me doubt my genius plan of finding meaning in the world. Maybe I am running a little bit, running away from the familiar, running towards the adventures. But how can I stop? Nothing really feels like home anymore. I have been floating along the airwaves for so long, I’ve forgotten how to live without change of at least four different currencies in my wallet. Slowly, steadily I’m crossing off places on my bucket list that I keep between the pages of my journal: Machu Picchu, Reykjavik, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Isla Mujeres. Mykonos had been sheer impulse, generated by a combination of mango margaritas, the Fleet Foxes on the radio and a German who knew another German who had heard from a Romanian that Mykonos was wonderful. Absolut überwältigend, he had told me. The Romanian had spent many a day on the hot Mykonos beaches—like yoga, it had calmed his breath. Mykonos sounded soft on the tongue, like calm waves and duck feathers and fitting because myk is the Norwegian word for soft. Mykonos, I had tried it out loud and it tasted like sunscreen and salty fingers.
I don’t know, I tell the old man, it is difficult to find something when you don’t know what you are looking for. Ah, he says and then taps the side of his head to show that he understands. He always talks like this, with his whole body. I wonder if he does this when he speaks in Greek too, just out of habit, his arms floating around in the air, not like extensions of his words but like the soul of them. He speaks fluently in every language because he knows exactly how to fill the gaps between words that no one ever notices when there are any gaps. Mykonos is right place for you, friend, he says with many small nods of his head. In Mykonos, you always find the right thing you look for. Mykonos have soul, he explains, pointing a finger to his chest. You wait, then see that the light will turn on, almost like god! He laughs. I say I hope he is right.
I start getting up with the sun, like San Francisco had suggested. I still make it a goal to find the moments that he spoke of, but I no longer think that I am looking for them in the same ways that he was. I am not like the girl in the picture at all, but I discover how much more extraordinary sunrises are than sunsets, because in the mornings the air is crisp and the world is quieter. I bring only my towel and a book and enough money for a freshly pressed orange juice. The old man is already at the corner in his usual chair. Sun-dried skin folds into wrinkles as he smiles at me and waves. Friend, he says, it’s a beautiful day, a day for good things. He reminds me a lot of San Francisco, but while San Francisco is travelling everywhere to find stories of people exactly like this old man, the old man stays in one place and collects stories of people like me and San Francisco.
I decide it’s not so much about other people’s moments as it is about myself in the moment. So I go to the beach to experience them. I discover them by writing six-word short stories in the sand, or through the fresh feeling of a short morning swim, infinitely more energising than a cup of coffee. Sometimes I look for sea shells and Greek children will come and help me, asking me questions and laughing happily at my confused expression. Kaliméra, I will say to them and they will giggle and huddle around me to look at the shells in my palm. I give them the shells and the older girls will braid them into the hair of the younger ones and then they will come running back to show me.
When the beach slowly fills up with families, I find a shallow spot in the shadows and just watch them. I think there is something tranquil about people on vacation. Shoulders come down and there is something genuine about them that can’t be found in the streets when people are trying to make their lives go around. I am saddened by the irony of having to stop life to be able to live it for a little bit and I roll my own shoulders to test how they sit. They seem relaxed to me and I recall the stiffness after coming back from Mexico, dragging my backpack everywhere. It must be Mykonos; I wonder what the wrinkled old man will say to me when I tell him. There is no pressure in Mykonos—maybe that’s what he was trying to tell me when he said the island has a soul. I pick my towel off the ground and go to tell him. I buy a peach from a fruit cart and when I approach the corner, the old man looks at me and the peach I wave in the air. I throw it to him and his hand smoothly reaches out to grab it from the air. Ten points, he says and laughs and nods in thanks for the peach. You will soon be Greek in heart, he tells me, pocketing the peach. Greek people are very generous with gifts, like you.
I tell him about my realisation and he holds up a finger to bid me to wait and slips into his house. Now we friends for a time, he says as he comes back out again with a large leather-bound book in his arms. Now you are wise, you know Mykonos, so now you can see book of the world that I have. He hands it to me and I flip through it. The pages look worn and here and there some are loose. The writing is neat, written in black ink with big loops to the letters. It’s all in Greek, of course, so I hand the book back to him and ask if he wrote it. Yes, he says, it is all stories from people. I talk all day, write all night, in here.
I wonder if he wrote about me and he flips to the end of the book and shows me a page with only a few paragraphs. Is not done until you go, the story is being told right now, he explains. I ask him if he will read it for me, but he shakes his head. Right now, you are learning. I say you are wise today, but not wise enough. Can always be wiser. You read it one day, but now it is early and you are not done learning. I tell you another story, my favourite. He opens the book at a bookmark made of the same rough leather as the binding. The spine of the book seems to rest naturally at the opening and I can tell from the colour of the pages that it’s been opened a lot. This one is sad, very sad, about a mother, he nods his head in agreement with himself. The mother was very young and she lost the baby. The baby also young, so young mother came to Mykonos to get away and to cry. In Mykonos she found peace here and here, he points to my head and then to my heart. She can never forget, only accept. Mykonos magic, helps the soul. Now she comes back all time, she has another family so she does not live in Mykonos, but she is back all time. It is good for soul. Heart does not hurt as much in Mykonos. He points at the ground under our feet.
He stares at me with his sharp eyes and for the first time I feel a little uncomfortable in his presence, as if he has just caught me naked. You, he shakes his finger at me and a wink appears in the corner of his eye and the unease is gone. I see you and you are like this woman, he says. I see Mykonos make your heart less sick. You say you don’t, but you run. Mykonos helps you, I know. He opens the book up again on the page he said was the beginning of my story. I will not tell all story, but I tell you title. I step closer to him to look at the two words on the top of the page. Ílios gígantas. I look up at the old man and he tells me what it means. Sun giant, he says. He points his finger at my chest, gently tapping it with the tip of his finger and says I am like Mykonos. You have heart like Mykonos, heart made of giants.
Sunniva Midtskogen is part of the Grattan Street Press team in Semester 1, 2018. She’s a writer and editor who spends all of her money on chocolate and plane tickets. You can read another piece by Sunni here.