Each morning, we’d wake to the sun spilling onto our starched white bed and walk down to the tourism office at the water’s edge. It was tucked between the donut shop (best you’ll ever eat) and the Internet cafe, its windows plastered with blue decals boasting neighboring islands we’d never see.
A ferry strike a few days prior had left our foursome stranded on the tiny island of Paros, intended to be a mere overnight waypoint—the name of the ferry hub scrawled noncommittally in pencil on our overstuffed itinerary.
At the top of each day, two appointed early risers would descend the dusty hill to check if the strike had lifted. We’d toss “hello”s at the moped rental shop owners, bearded and friendly, and pass the restaurant that opened evenings where we ordered “the usual.”
We’d return as the sun climbed but the island still slept, the small cemetery, romantic and mysterious, to one side, and the water, oddly calm without traffic, on the other. We’d call out to our hostel owner—“Another night!”—and gather our things to head for the closest strip of beach, where we’d drink in the Mediterranean sun, and some ouzo, and watch the Norwegian tourists perched on the jagged rocks.
The best plans are those unlaid, yes, but I was struck even more so by how little it took for this foreign place to become familiar. For a time, our world was the whole of that island, where we were united in our uncertainty over what came next.
At first, we were earnest and unsettled. We held a self-guided tour of the ancient cemetery, the sole historical site within walking distance. It sat across from the waterfront, its dull decay a curious juxtaposition to the bright beaches and boats, its permanence at odds with transitory, sun-kissed travelers.
Our tracks soon tired of the space surrounding our hostel. In truth, there was little to see. We rented mopeds and circled the entirety of the island—stopping now and then to sink our feet into the beaches’ golden sand—our sense of Paros’ periphery growing intimate, innate.
Through tourist chatter, we learned of an excursion boat, still running, that would take us to neighboring Antiparos, a small slice of land due southwest. Antsy for new vistas, we packed a picnic lunch—fruits and breads and cheeses from the local market—and set out. We stood ankle-deep in clear waters, palms shading our eyes, and, from opposite shores, looked back on our well-trod strip, eateries and trinket shops dotting the familiar coast.
Eventually, we stopped seeking exploration or escape. Talk of life beyond the island shores—stateside lovers, a new lease—slipped away as we settled into the myopic immediacy of the moment.
There is a particular intimacy bred of circumstance. How close you become when your world shrinks around a shared experience—like when strangers kiss during the spirited intensity of the Boston Marathon or trail mates abandon conventions of personal space and hygiene along the Appalachian to share a sleeping bag or salami.
Heidi Julavits explores this phenomenon in her recent book, The Folded Clock: A Diary:
Crushes thrive in small spaces. Humans must be programmed to respond positively when faced with a small sampling of other humans in, say, caves.
This has happened to me many times. It happened to me on a canoe trip; the minute we returned to civilization, I recanted my crush on the guy I’d angled to sit next to at the nightly campfires.
In the Paros hostel, I roomed with James, the lone male among us. We were far from old friends—more chance travel companions joined by an empty stretch of time and a penchant for Ancient Greece. Nevertheless, each morning, we’d wake with my head resting in the crook of his arm, our skin slick with shared sweat.
One warm night, an eatery along the main strip hosted an outdoor movie screening. I don’t remember the picture, or even what language it was in, but I recall the feeling of pulling up a plastic lawn chair behind the rows of others—where, it seemed, the entire island had gathered. Tourists mingled with locals, and we drank and we laughed and we crammed onto that single wedge of grass. How friendly everyone became when they had nowhere else to go.
Such is the peculiar brand of affection fostered by this remote togetherness, this isolated intensity.
It is the sequestered jury, strangers stranded in a broken-down elevator or huddled in a hotel lobby to wait out a passing storm. It is every band of ragtag teammates that comes together to win an unlikely championship.
It is Naomi Shihab Nye’s “shared world” outside Gate A-4, where mutually delayed travelers see past skin color and suspicion to share cookies, complimentary apple juice, and companionship. It is bunkmates and shipmates and castmates and brothers of war.
It is as if the world throws together a random assortment of its inhabitants only to prove that home can be anywhere, with anyone.
And indeed, it can be.
On Paros, we unwittingly set down roots in an unfamiliar place. We swiftly suspended itineraries and agendas and, with ease, sank into the makings of a little life.
Evenings meant gathering at restaurants along the shoreline, our skin stinging, bodies sun-weary. Around tables littered with mixed drinks and spanakopita scraps, we’d send our stories into the island night. One of the Brits would rest his head on my shoulder, and though we’d met but yesterday, it wasn’t strange. Buzzed, we skipped rocks across stilled waters.
Mornings arrived reassuringly, bringing the quotidian trip to the tourism office and Turkish coffee, its thick sludge pooling at the bottom of the cup, stagnant.
It was in this very smallness, these most banal rituals—the evenings along the harbor, the morning walks, the donuts, the coffee—that we found the thread of the universal. It is the routine and ritualistic that grounds us—even on strange land. After all, the elements of the everyday look much the same for everyone.
Life is but a series of random ricochets, like atoms colliding in the ether. You share a drink with a fellow traveler on the ferry over, a night under the island sky with a new friend—you realize how much you have in common at your core. Strangers walk in and walk on, but your lives are forever linked. As Carolyn Kizer said, “You cannot meet someone for a moment, or even cast eyes on someone in the street, without changing.”
Every person becomes part of your story; every place you rest your head, if only for a night, becomes your own. And each encounter tells this truth: you can throw down your anchor anywhere.
Ferry service resumed, the island emptied—its inhabitants once stranded together, now scattered. I haven’t seen those travel companions in a decade or stepped foot on Paros since.
But for a week, it was home.
Photo by Heather Moore