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Greece on a Small Scale

Greeks are friendly people. Particularly friendly, according to certain travel writers, are the inhabitants of the island of Kythnos. Statements such as these make me curious to investigate whether they hold water or not.

"Welcome to Kythnos" is written in blue letters on the white paper tablecloth that a young waiter is spreading on my table in Ostria, a waterfront tavern in Merichas, the main port. A map of Kythnos, drawn on the paper, shows that Merichas is situated on the west coast. It forgets to mention where we are geographically; in the Western Cyclades, six small islands forming a vertical string, of which Kythnos is number two from the top.

The corners of my tablecloth depict compasses and anchors, necessary equipment for the big ferries from Piraeus and Lavrio and also for the many yachts calling at Merichas. The town is popular among yachtspeople whose expensive toys dominate this part of the harbor. Fishing boats are in the majority, though, moored at the mole straight ahead. A few skippers are still bustling about in the light of the lanterns.

Dinner with a View

To judge by the inrush of customers, Ostria must be the leading tavern. Its three waiters practice division of labor and are furthermore assisted by local children. The one laying tables is all in white, with a transparent shirt and the whole time grumbling to himself. Another, in a blue shirt and dark jeans, takes orders but seems to ignore me. "No English!" he mumbles, pointing to a colleague who is going out of his way to bring people their food, in such a hurry that the back of his stripy shirt is soaked with sweat.

Never mind, the view keeps me happy. The eye catcher of Merichas is Posidonion in the innermost corner of the bay: a monstrous hotel ruin of six floors, the first of them occupied by the owner and his family. The local beach, edged by shady tamarisk trees, is their neighbor. At the opposite end of the beach lies the rallying point of Merichas, a corner of the harbor where busses and taxis start from, with the busy cafes Maistrali and Kavos. Every day during my breakfast there, I watch a dramatic embarkation - when a courteous elderly gentleman takes his two not so lithe ladies out sailing in his cutter.

"Swordfish!" the waiter announces. Delicious. My thoughts drift away again, to the shopping area behind the beach. To keep their contents cool in the extreme heat, the supermarkets' cold counters and freezers make loud efforts, constantly sounding as if they were on the point of breaking down. Outside a little furniture shop, "Rooms to let" in big elegant letters adorns a canopy, under which I met Panagiota, my hostess, both this time and many years ago. She is a mild and humorous lady who also has a more scary side; she often comes tearing along on a four-wheeled red motorbike loaded with laundry bags.

At a Distance

The scorched hillsides on either side of the bay are characterized by low stone fences although quite a number of new white buildings have appeared. Akrotiri, the building on the top to the right, is a weekend disco. The spot offers a perfect view of Merichas' position: just where the valley ends and becomes a long, well-protected bay. On the opposite hillside, the main road climbs upwards to the capital Chora and to the resort Loutra up north. Being the main port, Merichas too has developed into a kind of tourist resort, popular among Greek tourists, especially from Athens. Foreign tourists are few, probably because of insufficient ferry connections with more famous Cycladic islands like Paros, Naxos and Mykonos.

A piece of cake lands on my table. "On the house!" the waiter informs. This kindness reminds me of two other waiters, in the tavern at the nearest out-of-town beach, Martinakia, after the first bend in the main road. Even those waiters, middle-aged gentlemen, avoid the English language, a fact that made them appear moody and sour. As I returned the next day, determined to practice my limited Greek vocabulary, the two guys sang a different tune, one of exuberant friendliness, which generously included an old tomcat; it had collapsed in the heat and was allowed to recover on a tavern chair, lying on its back with all fours in the air.

Lots of elderly people find their way to Martinakia, and elderly Greeks go swimming with their hats on. It's quite practical since they stay in the wet element for a long time, doing exactly what they normally do, talk, but in a slightly different way. In the water, they do not gesticulate or shout at each other. Apparently, they stay afloat without the least movement, and the completely calm sea, dotted with light hats in every color, is a picture of total harmony.

Stripped of Chairs

I have been absent-minded, so not until now do I notice that someone had removed all the chairs from my table, except the one I'm sitting on. It might look like an unfriendly gesture. Such are the rules of the game, though - when you have paid, you are supposed to leave. I realize new customers are actually waiting to take over my table. To speed me up, the waiter plants a Reserved sign right under my nose.

It's time for a conclusion. With the present situation in mind, I would conclude that people in Kythnos are less friendly than the Greek average. However, using myself as a yardstick made me hypersensitive to possible unfriendly signals, almost asking for them, and caused me to misinterprete natural reserve and a sense of business for unfriendliness. The only secure conclusion is that Kythnos is very Greek and that travel writers often use too many cliches.