Greeks count their swims. They’ll ask one another “How many swims have you had?” More often than not, the answer that comes back is an exact number like “fifty-six”. The count stays open, maybe even until the winter holidays; a warm November day can always up the tally.So there’s never really a last swim of the year. But there is always a first.
Mine’s in Hydra, an essentially beach-less island, at least in the holiday brochure sense; there are no long stretches of silky sand. Hydra’s best “beach” is hard, immaculate. Just as you round the postcard-perfect harbor at its western edge, boulders meet a deep clear sea far below. Terraces of cement for just one or two are hidden among them. Connecting the landscape’s private worlds are little sets of stairs going every which way, some right down to platforms on the water.
A small boy whose feet must be made of steel clambers on rough rocks down at the sea’s edge. A ship has just passed, its swell crashing against the rocks; his mother calls him to higher ground to let the churning subside. Much higher up, silhouetted against the sky, a woman suns herself as a man stands, shirtless, leaning against the heat of the rock.
There’s not a cell phone in sight; the purity of the moment makes even the idea of a selfie unthinkable. We might as well be in 1960: our beach is nostalgically cinematic in its austerity. And yes, “our beach” – the two German girls, the mother calling down to the boy, a retired English-speaking couple – she in a swimsuit while he appears content just to watch; there is a discrete camaraderie among us all.
The island has actually been a great friend to black and white – in Phaedra and A Girl in Black. Of course the intense jewel tones of the sea are just as kind to technicolor in the more famous Boy on a Dolphin.
We’re getting a little of both this afternoon – a turquoise that reaches down to even the very deepest points, the boulders are golden like straw. But then the page of my book darkens; the sky – and from here there’s lots of it – is filling with drama. The air smells like rain and the sea has gone nearly black and curiously calm.
But you can tell that won’t last for long; I set aside my book and go down. Several ladders descend from the platforms, just like at a hotel swimming pool. The water is cool, too cool to take in all at once. But the last rung of the ladder just barely grazes the water’s surface – a Hydra swim is uncompromising, an all-or-nothing affair.
And truly, it is cold. But in the end, it’s only the sound of thunder that finally calls us all back to shore.
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