On last month's equinox I was traveling with a friend of mine through the Aegean Sea. Over the 16-hour boat ride we passed hundreds of small islands on our way to a magical cluster of the Greek Isles called the Kiklades. They are all arid and pseudo desert-like and covered in small shrubs, olive and pomegranate trees, electric pink flowers, and lots of rocks. They are basically just huge rocks, and some are made entirely of white marble, broken off in the sea. Some are completely uninhabited, with nothing more than the remnants of an ancient wall dividing the agricultural plots (although what they grew in sheer rock face is beyond me), or sometimes small clusters of white villas accented with blue and a bright pink flower or butterfly. Until recently there was actually a Greek law that said you could only paint your beautiful plaster home white and blue. Good call. The preservation of good aesthetic quality is A-OK in my book.
We were two women traveling in a large boat all to ourselves. I had never been out to sea like that before, so I have nothing to compare it to, but judging from the way the waves rocked us violently back and forth at times, I guess it wasn't a terribly large boat. The romantic, introspective thoughts I was conjuring about the vastness of the ocean and space were kind of overshadowed toward the end of the seven-hour sail when the rocking turned from soothing and romantic to barfy-ill-making. I tried lying on my stomach with one foot on the ground like I do when I get the booze spins, but these were actual waves and real spins, so that didn't do shit. Even though the trip was only seven hours, I was sick for two days. But it didn't matter because I was in paradise.
The Kiklades are like a beautiful, more old Palm Springs. That night on Paros Island I had more stoned thoughts about the stars—like how crazy it is to see the same constellation halfway around the world, and how most of the constellations were probably named after the graceful or ruthless old gods here in Greece thousands of years ago. The big dipper has to be an American invention. Who else would name something as mystical and awe-inspiring as the stars after a gravy boat?
The next morning I awoke thinking about how I wanted to bash the shit out of an octopus. I had heard that this is what you do to them. All the old ladies gather at the docks and grab them off the boats, plucked straight from their gardens in the sea. And then they beat the daylights out of them because they are tough and must be tenderized. At any given port the tavernas hang the bashed octopi from hooks along the verandas by way of advertising their fresh offerings, and also to take some of the moisture out of the watery, pulpy tentacles. First though, because naturally I was drinking a lot the night before and communing with Achilles and Zeus and whatnot, what I really needed was a gyro, drenched in tatziki and raw onions, pork souvlaki, and crammed into a hot pita with french fries sprinkled on top for good measure. And beer.
At every meal after that we ate fried cheese (saganaki) and multiple kinds of sea creatures. There is also ouzo. LOTS of ouzo, which makes sense here. It goes with all the white marble, I think. There is a minerality to it, and when you lick the sea salt off your fingers and take a sip it is like having a salted licorice.
Eventually we were lucky enough to make friends with a couple who brought us around on their fast, cushy boat to all sorts of incredible secret coves and beaches. The woman was a very striking, for-real looking Greek named, of all things, Helen. She had very short cropped black hair, a strong body, very dead-pan low-voiced humor, and she smoked constantly while scaring the men with her Grecian warrior princess good looks.
On one of our blissful boat day trips, several bottles of Malagousia or Athiri or Agiorgitiko in, Helen brought us to the most perfect picturesque looking little restaurant on some random island in the middle of nowhere called Captain Pipinos. It was, hands down, one of the best meals I've ever had. Best-ever meals are normal on these islands, by the way. They all have incredible restaurants that probably serve five people each day, and they just keep going and doing their thing. Why are they so incredible? Because they pull their ingredients right out of the goddamn ocean one hour before you eat it. They bring a plate of barely-dead fish to you, you select which one you want, and then the little Greek boy goes down to the sea right in front of your table and guts and washes the fish in the sea. Then all the little fishes come and eat the guts! The symbiotic beauty of it blew my mind.
The little Greek boy washing the author's fish.
We sat there by the most beautiful cove in the most beautiful port and ate the most beautiful things. Illegal baby squid, for one, fried and so delicious (illegal because they are much smaller than what is normally allowed to be caught). Two huge calamari grilled with fresh lemon, the most delicious grilled octopus I have ever had bashed into perfect tenderness on the inside and charred just the right amount on the outside, and of course saganaki, which was the best of the trip, we all agreed—so crisp on the outside it cracked and slivered delicious crispy cheese shards when pressed with a fork giving way to mildly melted, yet very firm salted fresh cheese on the inside. I ate more than my share. Not to mention two or three different kinds of whole grilled fish and Taramasalata (a carp roe spread popularly served with a hot pita that we had almost everywhere we went. It varied from very pungent, thick, and sort of coarse, to extremely subtle, airy, and almost creamy, which is what this one was like, and what I prefer). After a bit of provocation from Helen (and ouzo), I sucked the brains out of a fish head and freaked the shit out of everyone when I made good suction and the brains hit the back of my throat with this really loud POP. Silky, silky brains. That is the quality of eating fish brains, or any brains, really. Smooth silky texture and a sweetness. There was also eyeball eating and a big glass dish filled with a very rare and coveted meze (Greek appetizer), called une, which is a sea urchin—specifically, those big spiky ones I kept almost stepping on.
After drinking a lot of wine and ouzo we went out in the boat and swam in caves in the most turquoise gorgeous water I have ever seen. We climbed the big melty rocks that formed arched caverns and dripped stalagmites (that were a lot sharper than they looked), ripped our bathing suits, and jumped off.
Although it is really hard to pick one, I have to say the surreal experience of cresting over blue-green waves in a high-speed sea limo with a glass of milky ouzo in one hand and a nice chalice of homegrown Greek herb in the other was the real highlight of the trip for me. On this day, as we approached a sort of sunken Atlantis-looking cove, the water seemed to turn from the intensely crisp icy blues of the open sea to an even more electric, neon-looking emerald teal that I have never seen before. Large sculpturesque rocks that reminded me of Stonhenge rose from the sea and were topped by light green, sandy lichens, and at the base clusters of barnacles and all sorts of little crustaceous things opened and closed and hid or undulated their bodies in the gentle tide. Helen chiseled some barnacles, called "limpets," off the rocks and we perched there like mermaid Atlantis people, cracking their shells open and eating them just like that—raw—using one half of their shells to pry them free. I felt primal and high… like I could live like this forever, fortifying myself with sea life, licking algae off the bright corals. My little house would be made of white marble and I would accent it with blue azure. I would hunt and bash my own octopi, and have a taverna down the hill on the water where I would live and whenever I wanted I would ride with Helen to the most beautiful secret beach where the mountain goats lie under the shade of olive trees.