May 16, 2006

Oia Sunset

An hour before sunset, the cafe terraces at the top of the villa-crowded cliff are filled with people. Then more crowds start walking in down the boutique-lined street, taking all available standing room at the walls overlooking the sea. We go to the ruined stone watchtower where the cognoscenti gather, and take a precarious loose-rocked perch at the tower's base, overlooking the zigzag cobbled path that descends hundreds of steps to the tiny (one sailboat dock, four shoulder-to-shoulder tavernas) port. Then we sit, and for the next hour gauge the descent of the yellow sun. People keep coming -- we're lucky to have found a spot, and this isn't the high season nor a weekend. A constant happy multilingual chatter arises -- English, American, Aussie, German, Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, French, occasional Italian, and even some Greek.

"I'm rather disappointed in the progress of this sun," I remark after a while, because there's nothing to do except watch it and shift position -- and of course, look at the whitewashed houses descending stepwise down the cliff face and wonder who gets to live there, and who has the foresight to rent them. This is Oia (Ee' uh), one of the famous sunset spots of the world, and cruise ships disembark every afternoon for their passengers to see it. People are taking minute-by-minute photos of the sun, probably most of which will not come out very well. People are calling friends on other continents and saying, "I'm in Oia watching the sunset." There are no tourist children present, but one little Greek boy hidden in a recess of a cliff house is bawling steadily about whatever children bawl about; he has no idea the impact he's having on a herd of sophisticated adults.

Eight-thirty or thereabouts: the sun is starting to get noticeably lower. Quiet relief among the watchers. The click of camera shutters becomes louder, more frequent. The chatter subtly softens, as does the golden light. The band of purple-gray beneath the sun broadens. Another several minutes and the bottom of the sun touches the ridge of the island below which it will set. A little more waiting, and the sun is a scoop of orange ice cream on an invisible cone; then it's a flat disc, then a thinner flat disc, then a lens, then a line, then a point. Some people began to leave even before the sun disappears: they have places to go, and they want to avid the departing crowd, and they've seen sunsets before. Those who stay applaud hesitantly, not knowing if it's proper etiquette. (Susan was the first to clap.) On a sandy level spot beside the wall of a tower, a black dog lies curled up half-asleep, looking away from the sun.

Now the light is out, and everyone trudges back to the long, narrow shopping street, looking for restaurants. In truth, it wasn't the most spectaculat sunset I've ever seen: I've seen better in the West Texas desert and on the Mendocino coast and even in Madison, WI, overlooking Picnic Point on LakeMendota from Observatory Hill. But on Oia the sunset is a celebration. Here we are, from all over, and the sun is alive and so are we, we can eat and drink and laugh and shop and walk up and down endless flights of cobbled steps. And that's the way it will be every day from now till forever.

That was last night. Today, we took a boat ride into the caldera -- the volcanic crater, similar to Crater Lake -- to swim in the sulfurous waters of a hot spring (not as hot as we'd expected) and to walk up the slope of a volcanic island dating from 1957 and peer down. We got red sulfur stains on our bathing suits; the sun and spray and sulfur lightened and reddened our hair; we reurned lunchless to our room and snaacked on Edam cheese and fruit, and then took our rented car back out for the evening's traipsing and store-browsing and taverna-searching. I already know the best little place to eat: it's got no menu except a chalkboard, and when I went there 12 years ago an orange and white Manx cat (tailless, with high rear end) was prowling the floor, so much a twin of my dear departed cat Jasper that I stood up and shouted in the middle of the restaurant.

I'm writing this from an Internet cafe in Fira, the main town on this island, and I may or may not be able to get back here in the next three days or so. We're taking a two-hour ferry to Crete on Thursday afternoon --I guess that's Thursday morning for you -- and we'll see the Minoan ruins at Knossos -- the dolphin frescos, the bull-leaper fresscos, and Ariadne's dance floor -- then drive that island's winding mountain rads and see its Venetian port city and stop in a couple of villages. I'll try to post more during that time, but it will depend on the available resources and the schedule. We've been busy!