“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”
– Henry Miller
Monday 15 March
When you visit Oia, the one place I am certain to tell you to visit is my cafe and patisserie, Skiza. Located on the main street, just along from the top of my stairs, it is one of my secret places in Oia. The food is good (with the exception of the bougatsa, a warm semolina, custard and filo pasty sweet, which is downright sensational) and the prices are a little higher than elsewhere (of course because of the view). The service is friendly, and locals pause for a while at inside tables to yell, sipping on their Greek coffees and blowing smoke while Latin music bounces from the speakers. I am always welcomed back and, no matter how long I stay, I am never rushed away.
But none of these is the reason I come.
Skiza possesses two balconies of such marvellous beauty that you will be transported to another place. I settle at the table on the far right of the bottom balcony and, somehow, hours pass while I barely realise it. The deepest of all relaxation washes over me: Skiza is a familiar embrace and, without even trying, I find my mind empty, the whirr of real life stilled for as long as I can sit here.
“Skiza” means burnt wood, and is an old Greek word for baked bread rusks. However, I read somewhere that, in Swahili, Skiza means “listen”, and it’s this that seems most right to me.
During the tourist season, cruise ship passengers pile into Skiza for their coffees and their photos, only to head straight to their next destination, unchanged. They are ghosts who never pause to hear, to feel, the true heartbeat of a place, even though they hold up their photos and claim “I was there”. Like a hand, pulled out of water, they never were.
Once, on the top balcony, I eavesdropped on a nearby table full of cruise ship staff. Most of them sat mesmerised by the view but one, a New Zealander, simply took a glance and promptly dismissed it: “It’s not as big as Lake Taupo” before he rolled his eyes at the menu for spelling “espresso” with an “x”. Too impressive to be impressed, I suppose.
In late October 2008, as I travelled through Greece, tales of financial panic unfolded. The Dow skidded thousands of points before Wall Street suits headed home, wondering what had happened. On my second last day in Oia, two Dutchmen took their coffee in Skiza, and we began to talk. When I told them who I worked for, their eyebrows raised, “Oh no”, they said, “just yesterday they have announced they borrowed E10 billion from the Dutch government.” Suddenly, the unfolding GFC had spat in my back yard: what might this mean for us in Australia, I wondered. Of course, less than 12 months later it became apparent: they sold us, I was unnecessary, and here I am again, the circle of life wonderfully complete.
When Erika kindly invited me to return for March, she made sure I understood most places were closed, but assured me the supermarkets and bakery were open. All I could wonder was “But is Skiza?” You see, for me no visit here is complete without Skiza, and the truly fulfilled feeling from my hours spent on that balcony, listening. While other shops have slowly woken from winter, it is really Skiza I have waited for. Since my arrival, I have wandered past and squinted into the doorway; from my house I have peered up at the balcony to see the increasing activity. An open door, men sitting inside; a man painting. Yesterday, the balcony doors opened briefly. I quivered with excitement. Today, on my way back from the bakery, the best sign yet: deliveries piled outside the front door. And, a little later, the balcony doors flung open and chairs and tables appeared, at last.
I tried to phone them on Skype: “Paragalo,” he said “Hello, can you hear me”, I asked, again “Paragolo”. The line went dead. Clearly not.
I headed upstairs and, sure enough, the door was open, a waiter inside, cakes on offer. Alas, two Greek men sat inside; I cannot claim to be their first customer of the season. And the set-up is a little different: instead of square tables at the balcony, they are round. Not to worry. I swivel around and perch myself in my usual spot, arm on the railing, foot on the marble edge, complete.
I order Greek coffee and orange juice and then, hours later, some pasta. There is no sign of the bougatsa, made fresh downstairs by a local lady, so I ask if it can be made soon. The Manager remembers me – it is too quiet now, but maybe there will be some next week. Meanwhile, Skiza continues to complete itself: the cash register is brought in, followed by fire extinguishers, dusted off from last year.
From my seat, the volcano top peers out of the water, hugged by almost the entire curve of the island. To my right, down below, House Paris sits ready to take me back when my tryst with Skiza is done for the day.
It occurs to me that this time – between Skiza opening and the arrival of that first cruise ship – is perfection, just as it was after the last ship had sailed at the end of 2008. But no matter who else is here, Skiza belongs to me. It’s in this place, wasting hours on a balcony in the sun, that I feel most myself: my mind turns to dreams of a different life.
The rocky water’s edge below transitions from aqua to turquoise to deep blue, the breeze and the tides tracing shadowy patterns upon it, and the surface glimmers like a million diamonds in the light. The sun warms my legs, birds soar above and, at last, I am home.