I went to Greece for the first time in 2003. It was on that trip to a few islands in the Cyclades — in fact, on the back of a motorbike one hot afternoon on Naxos — that I began to piece together what would become my first novel. Lightning People takes place mostly in New York City and involves a number of disparate characters trying to come to terms with the messy pieces of their lives. One of the main characters is Greek, a woman named Delphine Kousavos, who is a rattlesnake expert and hails from the tiny Aegean island of Amorgos (at the start of the novel, Del is hoping to gain her green card by marrying the American protagonist).
It seemed fitting — or maybe ridiculously poetic — to go back to Greece right before the release of my book. I had planned a pilgrimage to the Cyclades, but then a good friend offered up her family's elaborate Hydra bunker for a week (her parents are artists who fell in love with the island in the '70s). Of course, anyone who loves Leonard Cohen knows something about the island. Cohen bought a house in 1960 and lived there sporadically, writing music in the solitude of the slow Aegean. Rumor has it that he not only met a woman named Marianne on the island, but began writing such classic bard songs as "Bird on a Wire."
Hydra is not so full of solitude now. As the hydrofoil docked, I instantly saw a few people I knew from New York walking along the port. We all seem to be lulling between different Mediterranean destinations, relying on the kindness of friends.
One New York fashion designer I know had taken it upon herself to feed the stray cats on the island. Whenever I ran into her, she had cans of cat food in her bag and would suddenly stop mid-sentence to shake out chunks of meat on the walkway while a zoo of felines emerged from under café tables and behind rocky crevices to consume the free meal (often to the chagrin of locals who saw those cats as hostile freeloaders). I had never known this friend to dump out food on the streets of New York. Then again, New York doesn't quite offer its eccentrics much opportunity to behave in a freewheeling way; idle weeks in Hydra allow the opportunity to let personal quirks blossom.
Another acquaintance, an art dealer, was staying on one of the grander estates of Hydra, owned by super-collector Pauline Karpidas, a lovely and quick-witted Englishwoman who had been married to the Greek shipping magnate Constantine Karpidas and who now runs an annual art gallery called the Hydra Workshop. Recent shows have been devoted to such American artists as Nate Lowman and Mark Grotjahn. Pauline's own house is like a medieval compound, complete with a Greek Orthodox cathedral and vertiginous views of the sea one hundred feet below. Legend has it that the house was originally owned by pirates in the 17th century who would light torches along the walls at night, confusing sailors into thinking it was the port. When the boats crashed into the walls, the pirates would collect the shipwrecked booty to redouble their wealth. These days, pillaging seems to have been replaced with contemporary art consumption.
A man I began to refer to as the mayor of Hydra, an Athenian artist and gallerist named Dimitrios Antonitsis, founded an exhilarating and unconventional art space called Hydra School Projects, which invites emerging artists for annual shows in the former elementary school. Jewelry designers were recently added to the mix, and posters all over town showed Antontsis's 19-year-old dog Babydoll wearing an elaborate gold necklace. Then there is billionaire collector Dakis Joannou's art space Slaughterhouse, for the DESTE foundation, a free-standing cliff-side building showing a video piece by Los Angeles artist Doug Aitken. In the short film, Chloë Sevigny (one of my favorite actresses and a dear friend) is seen moving through exotic locations trying to understand the phenomenon of constant dislocation.
While Hydra's port could easily be called Little New York, the rest of the island seemed to resist easy urban penetration. The house I was staying in was a twenty-minute hike up stone paths, and by up I mean directly up, which, I imagine, is how more entrepreneurial humans first invented the idea of the StairMaster. The views of the sea at sunset are more than worth the exercise. Roped by flowering trees and lined by the distant hills of the Peloponnese, the gorgeous sky colors of a bruised peach made me think that, yes, perhaps even I could have written those Leonard Cohen songs or paint like some of the great artists that have drifted here.
I don't particularly go for ghosts, but one night after consuming many drinks at The Pirate Bar in the port, I asked a Greek woman who often summers in Hydra if the island was haunted. She said yes, and, probably gauging the excitement her answer solicited, said you could often find them along the paths late at night. As I hiked homeward slightly drunk, I tried — in that hopeful and yet timid way one greets potential visitations of the supernatural — to find those ghosts of old Greek sailors or widows waiting for their ship-wrecked husbands. I passed an old woman resting against a wall and looked at her with horror thinking she might be such a phantom. She, quite un-supernaturally, returned the expression. I found no ghosts, just life.
FOR YOUR BEDSIDE TABLE →
Lightning People, by Christopher Bollen