Why I Keep Returning to Agistri, Even in Quarantine

Island vacations are about much more than the few days we enjoy Greece at its finest; these moments of near perfection sustain us through trying times.

Every summer, there are a few moments that feel more perfectly magical than others. Sometimes I’m sitting on a quiet beach, its dark pebbles momentarily warm on the back of my bare legs, and I’m staring out idly past a few scattered islets at an eternal horizon.

Other times, it’s evening, and most everyone I love is gathered around two or three slightly wobbly conjoined taverna tables, and we’re chewing, drinking and talking in a murmuring babble of happy noise that almost drowns out the crunching sounds the waiter’s shoes make on the bright white gravel underfoot.

It might even be a morning that arrives with the sublime sensation of lazy waking in crisp cool sheets, and a dawn breeze coming in from the balcony window.

And although they are all different, I am aware of each of these instances as they occur. I recognize them for the treasures they are, and I grab them before they slip away. I seize them by memorizing as many details as possible – sounds, smells, tastes, colors and shapes, and the feelings they stir in me – in the full knowledge that I’ll need these holograms come winter.

In the gloom of a rainy December day, behind windows shut against the cold, I’ll sit on my couch and let my legs feel the pebbles again, my skin feel the warmth of an absent sun. I’ll spot that infinite horizon on the wall behind the television, listen for a while to the hiss of retreating waves, and I’ll recuperate some of that seasonal strength that summer always gives me.

This year, a year unlike any other I’ve known, my needs have changed. It’s long past winter, and the sky isn’t draped in dark clouds – at least, not actual clouds. Nonetheless, I still need escape, perhaps more than I ever did. Most of all, I need to move, happily unencumbered by unpleasant realities, sensible precautions and anxious thoughts. I need the past.

So this time, it’s not a moment or a single place that I’m bringing back to enjoy again, it’s a long walk, a rambling stretch of the legs that will carry me away, if just for a bit.

It was nearly a year ago, but I can summon it again: I’m on the island of Agistri, and it’s a little later in the day than sensible people choose for such endeavors, but I’ve overslept a little today and then there was a short stop at the bakery for a fresh cheese pie and an iced coffee to wash the chalky feel away, and the baker wanted to know who I was and how I’d come to be here, and all the while the sun was climbing in the sky.

So it’s already hot as I start out from Megalochori on the singular road heading south. The sun’s heat is percolating through the pines, dowsing the air with a resinous perfume. The first bit of the walk is uphill, but soon there’s a wide bend in the road and now I’m descending a light gradient, darting from side to side to keep in the shade as the asphalt snakes along, then turning off the main road onto the winding concrete lane leading down to Dragonera Beach. The water, clear as glass, revives me and I get the day’s second cold coffee from the food shack. I can’t resist a second dive into the water before continuing on my way.

Behind the tents in the improvised campground back under the trees, a dirt track starts. On the map, it looked like a road, but what I set off on is more of a trail, a rutted rocky way through a scrub pine forest where, across the width of perhaps two meters, the trees have been cleared and the earth gouged up and flattened smooth by bulldozers. On both sides it’s a rich green world, as if I’m looking out onto soft banks from the middle of a suddenly dry riverbed. There are birds in the trees, and lizards on the exposed roots and stones, and bright wildflowers, survivors from the spring.

Emerging from the woodland trail a few kilometers later, I’m back on the paved road I was on earlier, descending again in a series of gentle switchbacks that lead at last to the hamlet of Limenaria, the island’s southernmost settlement. My trip through the trees didn’t save me any time; in fact, it added nearly an hour to this walk. I don’t mind that a bit, not even back then when it was really happening to me, and certainly not now, when it’s happening again.

I take that last turn into Limenaria just in time for lunch, and I spot its modest roadside taverna where I know I will over-order and enjoy it, because I’ve already done so. In fact, I’ve taken this walk and lingered over this meal twice already this week.

I don’t know what the coming summer will bring, but for right now, inside the four walls of my apartment, last summer is still glorious.

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