[The following is an excerpt from a work in progress—a piece of creative nonfiction which, as the title suggests, I have been developing slowly for some time…]
I take my glasses off to swim. I leave them tucked in the folds of my discarded dress, follow the softened outline of Lucas’s body down and into the water. I let it form the world for me. Definition is unnecessary in water; fluidity renders mute any firm lines or clear distinctions. The water has its own clarity, one of light going forever down, and a brilliance of deep colour—Homer’s wine-dark sea. I did not understand the metaphor until we arrived and saw it, this water with its surreal intensity of blue. Lucas dives and tells me that it just keeps going, past the point of view.
The fish are black-and-white-striped, or blue with yellow tails. We play with an underwater camera, a new toy, swim past each other, picturing our bodies and the image as something other than the blurred and awkward forms the camera ends up showing. We are like children, trying to imagine what we will become.
When, finally, we come out of the water, I don’t put my glasses back on. Lucas leads me to our towels and I sleep, held warm in the soft bed of shells on the shore.
It is September, 2016. Greece has been struggling through a year of economic turmoil, including a referendum on the terms of an economic bailout from the EU, and the resignation of political leaders. We are on Spetses, an island in Greece’s Saronic Gulf. We are traveling for me to attend a conference on Australian literature on nearby Hydra, but we have made it a holiday as well. The second day on the island, we hire a quad bike and ride a full lap of its coastline. We aren’t meant to be on the roads, as tourists. There has been a new law passed on the island which bans access to quad bikes without a local driver’s license. Too many drunk Englishmen, the man in the shop tells us (‘We’re Australian’, we say hurriedly). He hires us the bike anyway, and points us towards the best spots.
The road occasionally peters into dirt, but mostly it is sealed. It demarcates a clear line between the touristed shorelines of the place and the Greek centre. To our right, a mountain is constantly rising in dusty nonchalance. There are no houses in view, only slack-wired fences, the odd gate and bent mailbox. To our left, there is the coast, and luxurious holiday houses hiding in olive groves, heli-pads and maxi-yachts, private beaches marked by signs in three languages. From time to time, the road lifts above a cliff, and the views we are given stretch across the blue haze to other islands in the archipelago. They seem impossible, fantastical. They are just another colour on the horizon.
We stop several times to look out, or swim, or eat. It is a wandering day, a soft kind of progress. The bike struggles to suggest anything of adrenalin, seems happy to laze in low gears. At each beach, the shoreline is manned by a gentleman in an apron and button up shirt. He holds laminated menus with convenient colour pictures, and guides you to banana lounges, where he brings drinks in glasses decorated with condensation, and small dishes of olives, bread and yogurt, or sweets as we desire.
The food, the whole of the trip. Some meals stand out. Our first evening on Spetses, we order one of everything on the menu, a glut of fish, tomato, dips and bread. Later, in Athens, on our way home, we eat eggplant on a tiny table in an alleyway. In Athens, the effects of economic downturn are more visible. There is political graffiti on walls, and entire apartment buildings are empty. We are asked for money regularly, in markets, along touristed streets, while waiting for our dinner at a roadside gyros stall.
The eggplant comes from the ground-floor corner room of an apartment block, which has been converted into a kitchen, a window open as a serving hatch. The street is filled with people eating. A woman brings us beer and ouzo, chilled milky-white by ice, brings us bread, brings us taramasalata, brings us an omelette with tomatoes and liver-coloured sausage. She shuttles back and forth from the kitchen and around the tables, not asking or taking orders, but simply depositing different dishes and noting each on a pad tucked in her apron. The buildings around us are tall enough that the sun is a narrow strip sliding across the pavement. Occasionally tables have to be moved to allow a man on a moped to deliver vegetables. Everyone there is laughing.
In the literal sense, I am short-sighted. Without the ‘corrective influence’ of a lens, the world beyond my nose is soft and unclear, marked by movement and colour more than defined shapes. My day is enclosed in the parenthesis of blurred vision, waking without my glasses, the world coming into clarity as I reach for them, signalling the start of the day, and then softening once again as I take them off at night.
It is difficult to explain why this is relevant, except to show that I am quite used to retreating from sharp detail. It does not frighten me. If anything, this blurred world is the one I am most comfortable in, the most relaxed. It offers a delicate experience of embodiment. It speaks of naked spaces, of a certain self-intimacy, wherein the world is limited to the reach of my arm. Importantly, it makes no demands.
There are moments when I am suspicious of this desire for the moment of internalisation. I suspect that really, I do not want to see.
On our last day in Athens, a woman with a baby in her arms approaches us. We are sitting in the sunshine, eating ice-cream. We are killing time before our flight home. We have just spent the morning shopping for presents and souvenirs. She is not Greek, and she says nothing. She seems caught. She shifts her weight from one foot to the other, looks down at her child and then back at me. She doesn’t know what to say, or perhaps how to say it. But she looks at our ice-creams with such obvious hunger that I find some money and offer it to her. She blushes when she takes it, and hides it up her sleeve.
Catherine Noske is a lecturer in Creative Writing and editor of Westerly at the University of Western Australia. Her research focuses on contemporary Australian place-making. She has been awarded the A.D. Hope Prize, twice received the Elyne Mitchell Prize for Rural Women Writers, and was shortlisted for the Dorothy Hewett Award (2015). Her first novel is forthcoming with Picador.