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Letters From Santorini: Lessons Learned

I’ve been at Atlantis Books for a month now. A roof has been painted, shelves stocked, many books sold, and a truly ridiculous quantity of feta cheese, olive oil and local white wine has been consumed. Numerous books have been read, ranging from Batfords Modern Chess Openings to the First Circle by Solzhenitsyn. 10,000 words of fiction have been written.

The temptation is of course to stay forever. Why not, after all? I’ve nothing that ties me to England. Why return to get another job, have the same old stress, nagging dissatisfaction, ethical struggles and romantic disappointments? This temple of books offers a simple and honest life. There is an appeal in that.

But I won’t outstay my welcome – Atlantis Books isn’t a place where people should live long term. It has been tried in the past, and it hasn’t worked well. The space shouldn’t belong to anyone for more than a few weeks or months at a time. We come, we have our time, and we go again, making room for the next person to be involved. This is the way it should be.

So, staying forever is out, and in any case, life here is not perfect. There are people that I miss and opportunities that I don’t have whilst I am on the island. But many things are very right here. The way of life, the ethos of the shop, is something inspiring that is to be admired and emulated. The challenge is to see if some of the things that I have learned here can be applied elsewhere, if I can take them with me like tiny talismans for the mind and soul…

Xenia – Xenia is a very important concept out here in Greece. You could translate it as ‘hospitality’, but you’d be missing some subtleties. Kindness and openness to strangers, the giving of gifts and charity to those around you, especially to visitors and guests. The Odyssey is obsessed with the concept. Pretty much the entire plot consists of moments of true xenia (Odysseus and Nausicca, or Menelaus and Telemachus) and corrupted or denied xenia (the Suitors, the Cyclops, Circe).

English society is polite but not friendly, suspicious rather than trusting, sensible as opposed to generous.  But that way lies isolation, loneliness, and a slow death of the soul. There is much to be said for trust, generosity and hospitality.

Simplicity – Simple living, simple pleasures. An economy of resources. Own less, use less. Create a space and inhabit it, don’t accumulate useless possessions. A straight line is the shortest distance between two points. Efficiency and simplicity have their own particular beauty, like the flawless motion of a dancer or a boxer. The temptation is to bloat, to become obsessed with the more expensive and more numerous pleasures and possessions. But there is no need – everything should be just so.

Love and Courage
– Too often, we do things because we feel we ought to, or because we are indifferent and take the line of least resistance. What’s the point? You should always choose your actions, and if you choose to do something, do it with love and determination. That’s what has built Atlantis Books. Not knowledge or experience or luck, just a passion for an ideal and the courage to see it realised.

That’s how to handle the stuff you want to do. For the stuff you have to do, you’ll need to rely on courage alone. Courage is after all, as the Hagakure says, just the process of gritting one’s teeth. A life must be directed through passion and determination, not by submission to cultural force.

These are some of the keys to a better life. These and books, of course, and chess, and writing and creativity and wine and nature and good company and all the rest of it as well. Life is wonderful here, but it is also fragile and fleeting. A haven rather than a home, a place to relax and enjoy and then leave without regrets, but with lessons learned.

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Letters From Santorini: A Day in the Shop

There’s no need for an alarm clock. The shop opens when we are awake enough to open it, and there’s no rush, the morning is a slow time for us. The impossibly bright Greek sun sneaks in through the windows, the crack in the door that is left open for the cat to wander in and out at night, and the Hole that connects the back room of the shop to the roof terrace. We get up when we feel like it, though we try and be up and running by 10 o’clock or so.

I unzip my sleeping bag and pull my clothes from the piles on the floor and dress. I wander into the main shop area, careful not to disturb the still sleeping members of the shop who are concealed up on beds that are found up improvised ladders, or hidden behind bookshelves.

Instantly I am ambushed by Maxi the cat. In a story that is almost too perfect to be true, Maxi was found newborn on the steps of the shop six months ago, eyes still closed and mewling for her mother. Nursed back into health, she now prowls through the shop, knocking books from the high shelves, curling up on beds and cushions, kneading and licking your belly in a vain attempt to elicit mothercat milk, trying to filch the meat from your plate on the rare occasion that we actually have meat to eat in the shop, and generally making an adorable nuisance of herself. In the mornings, as soon as she sees ankles she leaps out, claws into the sides of your feet and teeth into the hamstrings. She is playing, of course, but she likes to play rough.

I practice my boxing footwork, shifting and sliding around the shop floor as she stalks and chases my tantalising pale flesh, occasionally turning an ankle to present her with a target like a trainer flashing a punch pad to a boxer in the practice ring. She’s quick, but I usually manage to eke out a draw in the three minute round that we spar each morning. That is unless she pins me in a clinch, in which case she fights dirty and wins dirty, holding and biting her way to victory until she has driven me wincing and yelping from the front room and into the kitchen.

Coffee is the priority in the morning – the first person up needs to get on that post haste. Cafetieres are bullshit, instant coffee a crime against humanity – coffee from the hob boiled espresso maker is the only real coffee, mixed with warm full fat milk in a 60/40 split. This is how we roll.

Summoned by the smell of coffee, other members of the shop shuffle into view, pouring out cups and disappearing to the bathroom one by one to wrestle with our eccentric plumbing. The doors are opened, the sign flipped around, the trunk of second hand books popped open, the display books put out and the place is open for business.

As I said, morning is slow time for us. It is rare to see a potential customer in the streets, rarer still to see them in the shop. The only exception is when a cruise ship has stopped by in the morning, and the streets briefly fill. We despise the cruisers – loud, ridiculous people, tagged and labelled and led like fat cattle through the streets of Oia, drawn irresistibly to the crappy jewellery stores and souvenir stores. I don’t know if stupid people go on cruises or if cruises simply make people stupid, but they don’t make a good impression. In any case, they are alarmed by our steep steps and uninterested in our stock, and so they mostly leave us be.

Since the risk of customers is fairly low, we take breakfast at leisure on the roof of the shop – there is a nice set of battered wooden tables and chairs to lounge on if the weather is good (and it usually is unless the wind is up). Breakfast is muesli with chopped fruit and Greek yoghurt. After breakfast, the world’s most informal business meeting is held and a rough plan for the day is hammered out.

Midday and early afternoon are still fairly quiet and is the time to get things done. Perhaps we restock the shelves or play around with the displays, do some painting or repairing or shopping, dust the shelves and sweep the floor. Once every few weeks we have to go to Fira, the capital, and pay in some money and go talk to the accountant. Our meetings with the accountant are like that scene in the first episode of Black Books – we go to their nice clean offices looking like tramps and a dump a draw full of invoices, till printouts, used sweet wrappers and pocket lint onto their tastefully decorated desks. Adam, our long suffering accountant, looks up at us with weary affection and quietly shuffles off to sift through the crap and try and turn it into some kind of respectable business account.

Work or play is briefly interrupted by lunch – bread, olive oil, salad, freshly made tsatziki, cold meat and amazing creamy feta cheese – before resuming again. People take breaks as they wish, sloping off to take walks around the village, visits to the beach, napping on the terrace, studying, writing and reading or whatever they please. We take it in turns to keep an eye on the shop. Time passes quickly – the day is gone before you know it.

As the afternoon stretches on, the shop starts to get busy. Baffled to discover such a characterful bookshop in the middle of Oia, visitor after visitor is tempted to take a detour from their idle afternoon wander or shopping trip and venture down into Atlantis Books. Plenty of them are fascinated by the shop and in search of good reading, but most pay a regretfully hurried visit – the sunset is coming, and they are itching to make a purchase (or not) and get out for the star attraction.

As the famous sunset approaches, we have the shop to ourselves once more. All of our potential customers are jockeying for position on the roofs and terraces of Oia, waiting to break into applause as the sun to touches the sea. We watch from the terrace, sipping beer or the local wine and commenting on the relative merits of the evening’s natural light show.

The evening winds down naturally enough. Sometimes there is another rush of business after people have finished eating at the tavernas, sometimes not. In the shop a mass supper is cooked and eaten in the shop, or by a fire on the roof terrace if business is slow and the wind is down. When yawns start to dominate the conversation (usually around midnight) we close things up.  Sometimes we go for a walk beneath the stars, or finish the evening up with a film on the projector. People go to their personal corners of the shop to read and think, before finally retiring to wait for the sun to rise again for the whole thing to begin over again.

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Letters From Santorini: Painting Roofs and Pricing Books

April in Oia. Every shopkeeper  is getting ready for the high season. Shipments arrive from Fira and the mainland each day, and everyone is painting roofs, making signs, organising stock and planning sales tactics for the coming months. There are a few tourists about, and once every few days a cruise ship disgorges a hoard that fills the streets for a few hours in the morning.

But this is the time to prepare. Just like every other business on the island, Atlantis Books is kept alive by the summer – in a few months, we have to make enough money to keep the place afloat through the long slow season of the late autumn, winter and early spring. We have to get everything in order before Easter and the summer when the real business is done.

At Atlantis Books, bringing the bud of the bookshop to ripe fruition means two things – painting and stock management. My first few days were spent on the roof, painting doors, windows, and the roof terrace. Hot, sweaty work, but painting on a roof terrace in the blazing sun to the sound of melodic German techno and pop rock, with cold beer and a beautiful sunset to wind down the day is probably some of the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

We aren’t finished yet, but we’ve broken the back of it – the roof gleams a brilliant, blinding white, complimented perfectly by the deep sea blue of the doors and windows. Just don’t look at the frames or the floor of the terrace yet – they’ll be ready in time. Fingers crossed.

Painting has been put on hold because the shipment arrived a few days ago – over 2000 books from Random House, Faber and Faber, Penguin, and various other sources. This is the good shit, the best books in the shop, our premium sellers in English fiction, non-fiction, plays, poetry and Greek interest. Every new box opens up fresh treasures – excellently selected books in the very best editions. A flotilla of Faber and Faber poetry books, an armada of Penguin Modern Classics, and a battalion of beautiful Vintage Classics from Random House are amongst the highlights.

This is a shipment that has been put together by people who know and love their books, though in certain cases, the literary loves of the shop organisers has clouded their commercial judgement – we have more Raymond Carver, J.D. Salinger and John Fowles than we know what to do with. Such are the perils of a love affair with books – the desire to hoard rather than to sell.

There are a lot of boxes to get through. We were up until 4 in the morning after the shipment arrived; pricing, cataloguing, stocking, and so on and so forth. We got about a third of the way through. Ho-hum. Many days of slogging ahead before the shelves and stock are even vaguely in order (and there is an entirely new, experimental stock system to try out and perfect.)

But the shop is slowly taking shape, is becoming the beautiful temple of books that it is meant to be. It’s a lovely time to be here. The island is waking up from its winter hibernation, and is ready to burst brilliantly into light, colour and life in the coming months.

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Letters From Santorini: The Books

I now live in a world of books.

On the many driftwood shelves of the store, there are books in Greek, French, Spanish, German, Italian, and English (though fortunately for me, English dominates.) The selection is comprehensive and diverse – what has sprung out of  an improvised set up by some enthusiastic amateurs five years ago has evolved into a stock collection that puts many a professional bookshop to shame. Cookery, coffee table books, fiction, non-fiction, Greek interest, contemporary Greek authors in all languages, classics, poetry, philosophy (in the philosophy tower)…all is represented.

We have a library of our own behind the till (mostly consisting of poetry, high faultin’ fiction, Greek language books and chess books), alongside a set of beautiful old Penguin classics and leather bound books. Ostensibly on sale, we massively overprice them in order to keep them in the shop.

Living in a bookshop, I am surrounded by literary temptation, but there are limits to how far I can indulge myself. It is general policy that we don’t read the new books, but that the second hand books are fair game. Like Tantalus in the underworld, there are countless books that I crave to pull down and read, but professional duty obliges me to resist. I hunt through the shelves, looking for the creased spine, peeled away corners and yellowed, misshapen pages that mean it is ripe for plucking.

There are so many books (and they are so essentially involved in the design of the shop) that you begin to feel like a book yourself after some time  – skin turns to paper, blood to ink, and perhaps you can even feel the reading creases of your life when you run your hand down your spine.

What kind of a book would I be? Not a Faber and Faber poetry book, which is what I’d like to be, for I am, alas, not beautiful enough for that. Perhaps a Penguin Modern Classic – tasteful black and white cover, silver backing and white lettering. Not as noble as the Penguin Classic, nor as heart warming as the old orange paperbacks, but it has a charm of its own. A slightly knackered copy that has floated around in backpacks and on dusty bookshelves for many years. Perhaps it has been dropped in the bath once, and the pages have that stiff and crooked character of paper wetted and dried in the sun, but a book that is still intact, respectable, not showy but inviting to read.

The first book I sold? East/West by Salman Rushdie.

The first book I read? I found a very handsome copy of Fitzgerald’s majestic translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, one of my favourite pieces of poetry. Still in a daze, I read it to still my mind, and those rhyming quatrains, dedicated to wine, love, pleasure in the moment and the acceptance of entropy and change, seems to capture something of the spirit of the bookshop…

Come, fill the cup, and in the fire of Spring
The Winter garment of repentance fling,
For the Bird of Time has but a little way
to fly – and lo! the Bird is on the wing!

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Venice and Farewells

“But in vain I set out to visit the city: forced to remain motionless and always the same, in order to be more easily remembered, [Venice] has languished, disintegrated, disappeared. The earth has forgotten her.” Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

On first coming to Venice, one does not want to leave. The beguiling streets and endless canal vistas call out to be explored for months, or even years.

Yet over time, Venice reveals absences – not in itself, but in those who travel there. Any loss or void in your life is magnified by the city until it becomes unbearable. Lack of love, lack of purpose, lack of contentment, lack of knowledge. Perhaps only the perfectly happy can be content in Venice. Perhaps even they are shown the critical flaws in their own perfection.

Whatever it is you are missing, you have to find it outside of the city. Venice is a place where love, like the ending of a story or anything else, is often lost but never found.

One more note – you also know you are ready to leave the city if, even for an instant, you treat it like  your home. Even a single instant of normality (in my case, becoming absorbed in a newspaper whilst drinking coffee besides the Grand Canal) is enough to shatter the illusion, to let you know the bewitching spell of the city is ending and that it is time to move on.

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Venice and the Secret People

It is strange how easy it is to lose people in Venice. The main streets and sights crawl with people, but take two turnings and you are alone in a canal street or small square as beautiful as San Marco or the Rialto.

It is as though the people exist only through your will and imagination – they disappear at the whim of your mind. That is why it is best to come to Venice on your own. Travelling alone, you lose only strangers. Come with one you love, and you could lose her forever in the shifting streets if you close your eyes, become distracted by music playing, or forget for an instant what it as you loved about them.

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Venice and Stories

I am deafened by stories in Venice.

At each opening window, fragments of an opening dialogue can be heard (even by those like me who speak no Italian). A father lectures a flirtatious daughter who will inevitably disobey him. An old widow is lost in memory, and tells her guest (a reluctantly dutiful nephew, perhaps) a story of when she was young and beautiful. Or a moustachioed officer with the touch of grey at his temples discusses a duel he fought with the son of the man he killed.

Just around the corner of each deserted alleyway is a crucial character who must be followed – a girl with long flowing hair in a backless top, an old merchant who cheated me from my fortune many years before, the friend I left for dead long ago on a distant battlefield. Everytime I sit down, the view in front of me becomes the first few pages of a novel, the first thousand words of a short story.

But there are no endings to be found here. Venice is a city where stories begin and do not end.

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