“Despina was the name of the boat that brought me to Mykonos. It was more of a bathtub but, somehow, it had character, something I would include in a painting. The trip from Piraeus to Mykonos took nearly 11 hours, with two stops in between: one on Syros, the capital of the Cyclades, and the other on Tinos. Mykonos then was a fairy tale island, its architecture ‘organic,’ and made to human dimensions; even in the narrowest alley one felt comfortable, not claustrophobic. It was like one house that extends into the next, and the next, a series of neighborhoods that were cozy and warm, especially for children. They could play and get lost, but someone would always recognize the crying child and bring him back to his mother.
The made-to-human dimensions apply also to the landscape. No beach is too big, and the sea is friendly, warm and refreshing: it welcomes you. No sharks. Nothing frightening about it. It’s even easier to float here than in other seas, due to the water’s high salt content. The landscape, I found very paintable, full of textures: rocks, boulders, the stubble of the dry wheat, and the beautiful cypress trees, with their dark greens, and the silver gray-green of the olive trees. The stone walls I sometimes render deep red to convey the heat of warm days.
All these features are bathed in the wonderful, diaphanous Aegean light. When the Meltemi blows, the wind of late summer, the Aegean Sea becomes wine-dark blue, and one can see forever.
The town I didn’t find that paintable in the beginning. It’s so picturesque, just as tourists see it, all white and blue as a watercolor. It was a challenge to paint the narrow alleys and chapels and not come out with sweet watercolors. It took me a while to even attempt to paint the town, it was so difficult to abstract it. The landscape I found more appealing, so strong and full of subtle colors—during summer, that is. In winter, it’s all green, or was when the Mykonians grew wheat, and full of red poppies. That type of landscape you can now see more on Delos, Apollo’s home—Apollo, the god of light. How wise of the Ancient Greeks to choose Delos for his birthplace, the first place the sun sets its eyes on at dawn. Pity that so many tourists come to Mykonos now only for the nightlife and the glamour, and they don’t even bother to visit the magic island of Delos. It’s just a short trip from Mykonos, but do read something about its past, however, before going.
Mykonos, the town, is a gem of architecture. And during the 1960s it was invaded by architecture students from the world over who came to take measurements in order to try to determine what, precisely, made the streets so warm and cozy—their proportions, the relationships between the height and width of the alleys, the windows and doors, the thickness of the walls, etc., etc. It’s all white, yet at dusk the walls reflect the color of the doors and balconies and it’s not just white any more. I remember an Athenian art critic wondering where I found so many colors, Mykonos being a ‘white dove.’ Invariably, people accuse me of bringing my Mexican colors with me.
I find myself often using the past tense in referring to Mykonos but, actually, thanks to that wonderful man Konstantinos Tsakos, who was in the Mykonos Museum in charge of issuing (or not issuing) building permits, Mykonos’s architecture continues to be beautiful, at least in the town. The landscape, unfortunately, is another story, since Mr. Tsakos left Mykonos. The Cycladic style of building is being replaced by the ‘ego and my swimming pool’ type of architecture, even when the house is located right next to the beautiful Aegean Sea. But who am I to criticize anything? I’m just a foreigner who loves the beauty of the island.Another thing which made a big impression on me when I first came in 1960 was the freedom of the locals to sing aloud while walking home from work, any time of day or night—not drunk. As a matter of fact, it was rare to see a person drunk in the street. Drinking was done in tavernes, in the company of friends, while eating, always followed by a song and a dance—an impromptu dance regardless of who was around, and not with the purpose of showing off or of entertaining tourists. The Mykonians still do this at paniyiris, or festivals, but it’s not quite the same now.
I consider myself lucky to have experienced Mykonos when I did because I came to Greece to live in Greece: the international disco scene you can find anywhere. Come to Greece to enjoy it (and also have the disco scene, if you want it).
I was also lucky to meet Greeks like the Kousathanas family, Vienoula and her children. Most of them were in the weaving business, producing colorful spreads and blankets, and helping foreigners appreciate their island with their friendliness and willingness to impart information about anything concerning Mykonos. The mother, the late Vienoula, had spent time in England while a young girl, and she taught her children English and they extended hospitality, and warmth, to foreigners. If you were looking for a specific place or person, they not only gave you directions, but would take you there by the hand. The oldest son did the dyeing of the wool, and there was always singing and dancing. My first party on Mykonos was on the occasion of Anouso’s (Vienoula’s eldest daughter’s) birthday, the music provided by local musicians playing bagpipe, drums and accordion. It was still March and quite cold, but dancing and retsina kept us warm. Everybody was dragged into the semi-circle of the dance.
I didn’t come to Greece with the intention of staying, but I found a paintable island with plenty of material for a lifetime. The tourists one met here came from all over the world not looking for disco glamour, but looking for the magic of Greek culture. Many of them had already been to London, Paris, Rome, etc., and they wanted something different. They found it in Greece. I believe it’s still here, but you have to look for it. It’s much easier to travel around here now. There are planes and fast, comfortable boats. You can rent motorbikes and cars to get around, but don’t overdo it. The air on Mykonos is still clean: don’t bring your fumes and speed with you—go slow; you’ll see more. Tourism has changed many things here, but it’s not all been negative. Young people have more access to the world than before; many young people can now go to university. There are many doctors on the island; women are slenderer, less work-worn, and educated. Most people speak English and other languages. It’s rare to find someone who doesn’t speak English. There’s even a health food store on the island, but you can still buy vegetables and fruit from the farmers who come to town with their donkeys, and the fishermen sell their catch on the watefront. You can still find moussaka in the tavernes, but Greek cuisine is now much more than moussaka and tzadtziki. Why limit yourself? Try other menu items as well. Very good wine is now produced on the island, especially dry red wine. Try to find places where you can hear Greek music and see Greek dancing: it’s all part of the real Greek, the real Mykonian, experience.”