We step off the ferry into the cool night air, the lights of the port glimmering on the ocean, the water reaching the shore in short caresses, and I pause for a second to let the dizziness that crept around my edges settle.
A driver is waiting for us, and we make our way up the mountain and around curvy streets, past tiny villages nestled into the hills and then back down again through a little village on the ocean, and finally, we pull up to our pension. I’m travelling with a friend, and her friends await us at their balcony right above the entrance and they rush down and pull us into their arms. We put down our bags, and take quick showers, washing out the sand from a swim in the port as we waited for the ferry to take us from Athens to this small, distant island. The water is hot and the sand gathers around my feet and I put on a summer dress and we go down to the tavern to meet the others for dinner. We gather around a table outdoors and order carafes of wine and platters of food, and we talk about everyone’s journeys.
I had spent the past month and a half in Jerusalem, fear digging into my fingernails, creeping into the corners of my eyes, hammering into my skull. The sirens came again, and the missiles, and death, and I was thrown off my rocker, face-first on the ground, and I was supposed to, somehow: continue on as usual.
“At least you’re not in the South,” they said. “They have it really bad there. You’re in Jerusalem; that’s safe.”
But when the sirens sound and I’m supposed to run for shelter, and I don’t even have a shelter, and you have to wait wait wait five ten minutes to see if the missile lands on you or not, all of my fears come rushing out of my eyes and I just want to be held.
I want to be told that everything will be all right. Because right then, I don’t believe it. I see that I’m living in a country surrounded by people who want to kill us, kill me, and I don’t know how this will ever be all right, and how I can continue to live here, and whether there can ever be a solution to this ongoing conflict. And when the sirens sound and wait wait wait, will it hit me, no; I feel so completely and utterly helpless in the face of a conflict that is mine and not mine, and that will likely continue to haunt my children; and as the siren wails and pulls my heart right out of my throat, all of the questions come rushing at me and I wonder: where can I be safe and can I be safe?
She says: “Even a shelter is not safe, there have been instances.”
She says: “Your reaction is childish; if you had children you would have to pull yourself together”. I wonder: would I be able to pull myself together?
I crawl into bed at the end of the day, my window jammed open by a thick book. And for fifty nights, I sleep this way- my window open, my body tense and alert. My fear runs deep, my sadness deeper, and sleep is shallow.
We’re served Dakos, a salad of stale dark bread roughly torn and topped with juicy tomatoes, olives and crumbled feta, doused in olive oil, a dish of chickpeas stewed in a thick tomato sauce, and fresh baby okra that’s been cooked until it’s just falling apart.
In the morning we gather at the beach.
After a few trials and error, I learn how to order my coffee, and it comes in a tall glass and it’s sweeter than I normally drink it, and it reminds me of the coffee Yaki would make for me – whipping the sugar and instant coffee together with a tiny bit of water until thick and frothy, before adding the hot water and milk; an extra step that he would take when he wanted to pamper or comfort me.
I stare out into the horizon and let the endless blues soothe me.
I’ve never traveled in a big group of friends before, and I was a bit nervous about it – thinking I would need my space, that I would want to retreat into my room. But we settle into each other’s company easily, and it feels comfortable and warm, and I feel held.
We eat Greek salads a lot – juicy chunks of red with crisp cucumbers, brightened by lemon and topped with thick slabs of creamy, salty feta, and drink cold iced coffee and cold beers and we laugh and joke and spread out on the sand and read books and take long afternoon naps, our faces in the crook of our arms, big sunhats on our heads. We wander about lazily, more or less aimlessly, our bodies getting golden.
I wonder if I will renew my lease on this apartment that I fell in love with, but that no longer feels safe, and will I stay there because its beauty grips my heart, or will I need a place that has a shelter and where I will feel safe? And I wonder about the lengths I go to to make myself feel safe and if it’s good, and if it’s worth it, and what gets lost in the exchange.
And every siren shakes me up and I want to move far far away from all of this to a place where there are no wars and where I can take a shower without wondering if now is a good time, or maybe I should wait a little, because the last few times the sirens were between nine and eleven. And I, who during my normal, every day life don’t watch TV and look up news websites maybe once or twice a month, I find myself refreshing the news ticker on my iPhone every few minutes. And I’m consuming all of this: the media, the stories, the drama, 18 19 20 year-olds entering cities that look like mazes and have tunnels hidden beneath sinks and citizens pointing guns at them from windows, death looming, death death death, the same lines hashed and rehashed in an endless loop.
The fear immense and paralyzing.
How can I contain all of this?
And yes, life is fleeting and temporary and ethereal, always, and so insanely out of our control, but in the midst of work and friends and dinners and that endless pile of dishes – that existential angst fades to the background, making it possible to go about this crazy, heartbreaking, chaotic thing called life and fixate on such things as what to make for dinner and which shade of lipstick to wear, and these earrings or those.
But when the sirens come they expose the underbelly and I question the type of life I’m living; I question all of it.
And when I step into my apartment and unlock the door – all of these thoughts come rushing at me and I gather my things and take a cab to my parents.
And most of my friends go about their lives as usual, their voices dropping a notch when they ask if I’m still at my parents’. And I receive judgment and consolation.
And most people are strong and hardened by a history of war, and they show up to work despite the sirens and they go grocery shopping and take their children to the zoo. But my mind is constantly on alert, constantly scanning; I walk the streets, hold conversations, all the while mapping everything I pass; if it sounds now, I could dart into that stairwell, or crouch against that wall, or run run run into that school. And my mind scatters, listening for air-raid sirens and sifting through the noises of the city- ambulances and motorcycles zipping past, and cars revving up their engines, and oh- there we go: RUN, YOU’VE GOT 90 SECONDS.
And what about the places in the south that have sixty and thirty seconds? The places that have fifteen?
It takes me about fifteen just to catch my breath.
And my heart is ripped into from all angles – a four-year-old boy killed by a mortar when his parents didn’t have a chance to grab him in the three seconds it took for it to hit, and the soldiers coming back from battle with death in their eyes, their youth robbed from them, and not knowing when it will stop and when things will finally get better, or if. And I have to go to work and answer calls and push push push, and all the while my heart has this big giant tear in it, gushing blood.
We wander through small, whitewashed villages at dusk, grapevines interlaced over narrow alleys, old men chatting on benches, the sun setting over the ocean in the distance. We sit down to bowls of fava, a thick, creamy lentil spread that we scoop up with bread, and platters of zucchini fritters, hot and aromatic, the oil leaving marks on our fingers. We drink cold local beer and Amorgian Raki, a deeply-spiced, cinnamon-y liqueur, thick and heady and sweet, the specialty drink of the island.
And every time we step in and out of the family-owned pension, with the blue shutters and the fiery red bougainvillea, Marios looks up from his desk and greets us with a huge smile and a hearty “Yassas”!
When Shelley became sick, Marios’ cousin offered us herbs from her garden and a pot to boil them in and raised an eyebrow when we asked for some whiskey to put in her tea. Her friends went on a walk and gathered herbs growing on the side of the road, and filled our room with them. And I tried to relax and let go and breathe into all of this.
Soon it was time to move from our little seaside village to Chora, the capital up in the mountains, with its winding streets, and stray cats and cute cafes, and restaurants spilling onto the streets. We settled in at a little pension, with tiny rooms, and spectacular views all the way to the ocean.
At night we drove through the haze that hovered above the mountain to the ocean and climbed down a steep flight of stairs carved into the side of a cliff, and we swam in a water filled with plankton that glowed like a million stars in our wake, and we stretched out on the shore with our arms beneath our heads, and when we looked up at the pitch black sky, all around us stars were falling.
Ayman Sikseck (Hebrew)
Ran Appelberg (Hebrew)
Sleep: Askas Pension
Eat: Limani Restaurant
Relax: Iris Yoga Studio & Massages
Eat: Nikos Taverna
Sleep: Marousso Pension
In between: Jazzmin Café
General Info: Amorgos Island Magazine
1 lb (450 grams) okra
2 tsp. kosher salt
2 tbs. lemon juice
1/2 cup olive oil
1 onion, grated
1 28-oz (800 grams) can whole peeled tomatoes, pureed with their liquid
5 tbsp. minced parsley
1/2 tsp. sugar
3 thin lemon slices, rind removed
1 medium tomato, thinly sliced
Trim stems from okra without puncturing pods. Rub cut ends with kosher salt and transfer to a strainer. Let sit for 30 minutes. In a large bowl, combine 3 cups water with lemon juice; add okra, and stir; drain and set aside.
Heat oil in a 12″ skillet (or medium pot) over medium heat. Add onions, and cook until soft and golden, about 6 minutes. Add pureed tomatoes, parsley, sugar and lemon slices. Cook, covered, for 10 minutes.
Add okra to tomato sauce, and stir gently. Top with tomato slices and cook, covered, stirring, until tender, 15-20 minutes (mine took close to an hour and a half!!). Season with salt and pepper.