This post is overdue. Way back in June after our week in Istanbul, we did a hop, skip, and a jump to Athens where we set off to sail the Greek Isles. The Cyclades to be exact. If it sounds romantic it should, though that would have meant ditching my in-laws and their Italian friends. We did not. That would have been quite rude and, considering our novice sailing abilities, quite stupid.
Now, to my mind, when I hear “sailing” I think exactly what our boat rental company’s (Istion Yachting) tagline implies — incredibly beauteous folk indulging in what most of us only dream of. You know, the champagne, caviar, and sun bathing on creamy bright white 600 count Egyptian cotton towels. This is narrow-minded thinking. Sailing doesn’t have to be so exclusive.
Take our group. Or should I say the group that we were kindly invited into? It was led by an experienced Italian sailor who at some point in time taught the majority of the group members how to sail. Going in as a group and just before the high season are both financial advantages for the non-Jay-Z’s and Beyonce’s of the world.
Sailing like this is similar to camping. Except you spend your days swimming in the crystal clear blue waters of some exotic sea (in this case the Aegean) instead of in a murky lake whose swimming areas are cordoned off by fraying rope and buoys that were clearly manufactured in the late 1960’s judging by their shades of burnt orange, pea green, and my favorite mustard yellow. Obviously, there are no campfires when it comes to sailing. Which also means no marshmallows and thus no s’mores. Is it pathetic that I am fantasizing about the gooey goodness of s’mores as I punch out the details of a European sailing trip? YES. Enough of that.
Here’s a real similarity: you’ll be lucky to get a hot shower whether camping in a state park that inevitably has “Pines” in its name or staying overnight in a Grecian island’s port that has one (maybe two) shower that requires a key to get into and is only open from 9am-6pm. You know, those hours when everyone is actually out sailing.
A typical day on the trip looked like this: wake up, throw your bathing suit on, eat breakfast on the boat. This usually consisted of toast slathered with jam or Nutella with a side of Greek yogurt and a piece of fruit or two. Considering that we were with Italians, I shouldn’t have to tell you that there was always espresso. Some days, Iggy and I skipped this and did our own thing like the morning we discovered strapatsada. After eating, the cook and dishwasher on board, which happened to be my mother-in-law and me respectively, would visit each port’s small grocery shop to replenish the pantry — fruit, veggies, wine, and bottled water.
Meanwhile, my father-in-law, who was the skipper of our boat, discussed the day’s route with the other real sailors onboard.* There was always a destination, a new island we planned to reach before the last rays of sun disappeared. Beyond that, the days varied depending on the wind and mood of the group.
After the morning’s chores and once everyone had been rounded up, we left port on the boat’s motor until reaching open water, where the mainsail and jib would be unraveled in a highly coordinated fashion.
If the wind was cooperative, we’d sail for a couple of hours until coming to a suitable bay where we stopped to swim. The shock of cool water always came as a surprise to me, but I was able to warm up quickly once back on the boat. I soaked up the sun while we passed around plates of salad, pasta, cheese, and bread. If there was still some left, the cured meat from Italy would be served. If I was lucky, we had olives to nibble on, whether on their own or in the pasta itself. Most of us sipped wine from white plastic cups and some drank cans of Mythos.
Obviously, this all sounds very delicious. It was thanks to my mother-in-law. But in case you’ve never cooked for Italians, be warned that you should know a few things. For example, do not — I repeat — do not break your spaghetti noodles in half before placing them in a pot of boiling water. I suppose this is akin to stepping on a crack in the sidewalk. Do not overdo it on the garlic and never include raw garlic in any dish. Lastly, do not try to convert Italians to dishes of the world. One day my mother-in-law treated us to Russian style potato salad that was to die for. Sadly, only my husband, in-laws, and I felt this way.
After the swim, lunch, and a quick snooze or sun bath, we’d pull up anchor and sail away. We would read or chat our way through the afternoon with my in-laws translating between our English and their friends’ Italian. In addition to the puffy white clouds, radiant blue sky and matching water, we pointed out the unfinished, drab construction visible on the surrounding hills. We hypothesized about these concrete shells. Would they be finished when Greece’s economy improved or would they forever be vacant eyesores?
Eventually someone would shout “bagno!” indicating that it was time for one last swim. This often occurred when the sun was in mid-descent in the late afternoon sky. This was also the time when I opted out. The rich blue water looked inviting, but its frigid temperature hardly enticed me.
Soon enough we’d dock in a new port. Quite an event with our group given the three languages — Italian, Russian, and English — being shouted on board between those manning the anchor at the bow and the skipper behind the wheel. Add in the Greek being hurled at us from the guys running the port and helping us dock and you can imagine the cloud of tension that hovered over our boat during this nightly task.
On this trip, one of our members’ self-appointed roles was to scout out the restaurants we’d be eating in each night. It didn’t matter that he, a retired police officer, spoke not a lick of Greek. Somehow he would decide on a restaurant and menu for the group. More importantly to him, he would engage in the price negotiations for the food and wine (always bianco). It was impressive to see the result of his effort, which was often times aided by my mother-in-law, who ensured that we had a little variety and that we always had tzatziki, which I personally feel is a daily, obligatory indulgence while in Greece.
I realized on the trip that there are two types of sailors. Some like to kick back, relax, and enjoy the ride. Like me. Silky smooth, calm waters were my friend, even if meant turning on the engine. No flying sail or jib meant more sun and warmth.
Others view sailing as a sport. The experienced sailors on our boat preferred our last two days when the clouds rolled quickly above us bringing better wind and choppy waters. Their thrill came when the boat leaned far to its side, pushed by the wind, its bow smacking the water after each wave. I got used to the adventure soon enough, but — true confessions — I silently prayed and hoped the patron saint of sailors (is there one?) would hear me.
Of course, we didn’t just sail for the entire week. There were other adventures. By the time we arrived at Livadi on Serifos island, there was no room for our boat at the dock, so we dropped anchor in the bay. Later that evening, around about 11:00, on our commute back from dinner on the island, Iggy, his dad, and I almost got stranded in our dinghy. “We” turned off the engine too late, so overshot the back of the sailboat, which we were trying to grab on to. Normally, this would not be a problem, but “we” had some trouble getting the dinghy’s lawnmoweresque engine going again. Good thing two out of the three of us are engineers. Ahem…after ten minutes or so, we were back in business and quickly back on the boat.
The following morning, some of us taxied up to the small village, also called Serifos, that overlooked Livadi Bay. We followed red hand-drawn arrows on the sides of buildings that lined its narrow, winding cobbled pathways, stepping aside for a construction worker and his mule, to find the village’s highest point. There we rested on the walls surrounding a small church that looked down upon the sailboats in port, ours included, that now looked so tiny. We admired the uniformity of the town. The white washed buildings adorned with blue shutters except for an occasional lavender or lime green set provided a splash of color against the backdrop of barren, gray-brown hills.
At Loutra on the island of Kythnos we had an interesting dinnertime chat with an Anthony Hopkins look-alike. He inserted himself into our conversation over the sub-par glass of red wine I was served (chilled red wine…really, Greece?) and offered me the remainder of his bottle that was room temperature. He told us he was sailing alone. His musician wife — an American, like me, but even younger than me — was not on the trip. Just what I wanted to hear from a grandpaish looking bald guy — even one that gave me good, free wine — especially after just turning thirty. He was from Denmark or Sweden. I can’t recall exactly, but my mother-in-law can correct me if I’m wrong, since he was only talking to us ladies. For the record, he was every bit as creepy as Hopkins’ character in Silence of the Lambs. So much so that when he invited us to join him on his boat for lunch the next day, I thought he was going to tell us he was serving “liver and fava beans and a nice Chianti,” but lo and behold, it was just Greek salad. Still, it wasn’t hard to turn down the invitation. My only worry was that we’d run into him at the hot springs the next morning.
Don’t get too excited, dear readers. The Loutra hot springs experience consisted of two shabby concrete ringed tubs, situated side-by side and a few steps from the Aegean. One was painted blue, the other yellow. The blue one was warmer since it only had hot springs water in it. The yellow one was slightly cooler as a result of the holes in it that let some of the sea water mix in. The tubs were shallow with only a couple feet of what looked like dirty river water. Still, though, we plunged in and I especially enjoyed the water for its warmth.
After our nice warm dip, we had to pick up some fruit and other essentials for the boat. My mistake that I walked up a hill, which I thought led to a small grocery shop. Instead, I found myself on the stoop of a shop with touristy and religious knickknacks inside. A skinny old woman with stringy hair, glaucoma-looking pale blue eyes, and translucent skin sat in her house dress in a chair near the entrance. She was all too pleased to get a customer so early in the morning and her pushy sales technique would have been impressive if she had something I wanted to buy. Before I stepped inside she got out of her chair and made it to a refrigerator from which she pulled a container that held something other than its original edible contents. She was desperate for me to try whatever it was that was in there, which she was digging out using her index finger and thumb. Clearly, she did not know me or my Howard Hughes like tendencies, though I’m sure the look on my face betrayed my polite refusal of her offering. My squeaky high-pitched “No thank you! No thank you!” accompanied by frantic hand gestures that clearly communicated NO THANK YOU must have done the same.
We ended our week back in Athens and ventured into the city for one final group dinner near the Acropolis. The crush of tourists milling about the streets greatly contrasted to the quiet islands we had just visited where we never had to wait for a table nor fend off pushy salespeople (minus the old lady).
*Our group was so big we had to rent two Bavaria 44 Cruisers.