Orcadian Amy Liptrot visits the Greek island of Santorini
I arrived on the island on the same day as the swallows. From the terrace of the bookshop where I am working for a month, in the clifftop town of Oia on Santorini, I look down on swallows and swifts and martins performing aerial acrobatics around the houses and cliffs below. Thisside of the island rises steeply from the Caldera, a deep blue sea cauldron formed after an enormous volcanic eruption around 3,600 years ago, and is topped with white villages. The houses are built precariously into the cliff, on top of each other, one building’s roof becoming the one above’s terrace. The bookshop is at the top. Kalliste, an ancient name for the island, means ‘the most beautiful’, and I cannot disagree.
I’m from the Orkney islands but have been living in landlocked Berlin for six months and missing the sea and island life madly.As my plane from Athens came into land on Santorini, Venus was bright over the Aegean Sea. The taxi took me up narrow curving roads that rose and rose in the dark, past silhouettes of what the driver told me were ‘the black mountain’ and ‘the red mountain’. Although I was in a car, I could feel the strong wind and knew I was back on an island and and it felt familiar.
One theory holds that the 1600 BC eruption, which perhaps destroyed the Minoan civilization on Crete due to tidal waves or volcanic rain, is the source of the legend of Atlantis(after which the bookshop is named). Plato told of the lost island of Atlantis, home to gentle and wise people before violent earthquakes and floods sunk it into the depths of the sea. Atlantis is the archetypal island and by coming here to live and work I hope I can understand a little more of what it means to be an islander.
I can’t help comparing Santorini to Orkney. The main island Thira has the same size population as the Orkney mainland – around 15,000 – although crowded into a fifth of the area. The main town Fira, is, I immediately think, like Orkney’s capital Kirkwall. The Caldera is Scapa Flow and the smaller island of Therasia to the west is Hoy. Oia has many similarities to Stromness in Orkney where I lived last summer. It’s the smaller, prettier town on Santorini, clinging to the south west edge, built around a narrow winding road. The ferry from Athens passes twice a day, like the ferry to mainland Scotland. I’m used to the rhythms of a harbour and to living daily life in a tourist destination.In Stromness and in Oia, I appear in the background of holidaymakers’ photos, taking out the bins, popping for milk. I have short encounters with visitors from around the world.
I am sleeping in a bunk built into the bookshelves, above Fiction in English, penned in by Greek History. In the night I’ve been inhaling flecks of the poetry painted onto the crumbling walls. My bed is at the same level as the street and I’m woken by the wheels of tourists’ suitcases and donkeys’ hooves. The lanes of the town are too narrow and steep for vehicles so dogs run free and donkeys are used to carry supplies. I watch a donkey carrying gallons of wine, a donkey carrying a fridge. The town is opening for the tourist season: walls being whitewashed, terraces built, swimming pools uncovered. Brides are popping up everywhere – couples come here from China to take wedding photographs in front of the famous Santorini sunset.
Hanging my clothes out on the bookshop terrace, I watch a plane descend carrying another cargo of holiday makers. A wedding dress has its own seat. There is a cruise ship in the Caldera, carrying passengers hungry for books we hope. Like Orkney in the summer, the island is swept by waves of tourists. Everyday is leaving and returning. Everyday is a holiday and a wedding.
Two women from Santorini come into the bookshop but tell me they no longer live here, they sold their house which is now a hotel. Tourism is almost the sole business of the island, winemaking has dwindled. There are no livestock in the fields and disused wine terraces are taken over by astounding wild flowers. In Orkney although tourism is one of the the biggest industries, it exists alongside farming and other life. On an Oia back road, I am relieved to find a normal shop selling kettles and hoovers rather than just souvenirs.
We are stuck out 200km in the Aegean, on top of a cliff, so I don’t know why I’m surprised that it’s almost as windy here as it is in Orkney. I lose pairs of tights off the washing line into the Caldera. A storm blows in and there are power cuts and cancelled ferries which surprise my London colleagues but are familiar to me. There is street gossip and seabirds. There is an eclipse. A man drives the outskirts of the town in a van shouting in Greek through a loudspeaker about fish.
In both Santorini and Orkney, we can trace back civilisation to prehistoric people through stone archaeological remains. The Minoan site of Akotiri, like Neolithic village Skara Brae in Orkney, was covered by debris for millennia before being excavated. From the 11th to the 14th centuries, around the time Orkney was under Norse rule, Santorini was occupied by the Venetians. The influence of these cultures, Viking and Italian, remains in the architecture, place names and proud identities of both island groups to this day.
The C shape of the Santorini archipelago around the Caldera adorns mugs and baseball caps and psyches. Islanders are highly aware of our where we are, on the map, on the globe, within our coastlines, out in the sea. From the shop terrace I can see the sea on two sides of the island north and south, like when I lived on Orkney island Papay. The horizon stretches all around, with other islands in the distance. I look north to Ios and Sikinos and south to uninhabited rocks of the volcano but keep thinking I see Westray and Sanday.
I grew up on a farm on Orkney’s west coast with visible coastlines and horizons, accustomed to wide and gorgeous panoramas and the sun setting over the ocean. Although my parents came from England, my home island formed my visual vocabulary and spatial memory and I carry it with me. I’ve just discovered the splendidly pessimistic 20th century Greek poet C.P. Cavafy, whose books have been selling well in the shop. In his poem about the futility of travel, I read “You won’t find new parts, won’t find other seas… The place will follow you”. All islands are Orkney, I keep being washed up on the same shore.
Islanders usually have distinct identities, formed from our piece of rock in the sea and our curious mixture of freedom and constraint. Even if they have lived away on the mainland for years, people like the women in the bookshop will always say they come from Santorini or Orkney. The islands exist in winds and surrounded by sea, through erosion and natural disaster, through waves of occupations, tourists, boom and bust.
Many things here are different to Scotland of course: the warmth of the wind, the lack of tidal range, huge prickly pear cacti, lizards disappearing behind rocks. I see hoopoes and a black-winged stilt and a sunbow. After southerly winds and rain, the town, flat white roofs and terraces, is covered with fine red dust from the Sahara. Whereas Orkney and Shetland are at the meeting of the Atlantic ocean and the North Sea, the Cyclades (of which Santorini is part), are at the meeting of the African and Eurasian tectonic plates. Although the last eruption was in the 1950s, seismic activity continues. In 2012, the island rose six inches from the sea.
In my last days in Atlantis, I go to the island of Therasia, population 300, down from 900 after people left following the 1950s volcanic eruption. I’m the only tourist on the small ferry crossing over and locals on the boat might be speaking Greek but the relaxed way they deal with the routine and deliveries and gentle gossip reminded me of a crowd on the pier on Papay or Westray. On the peaceful island there are clapped-out cars, stray cats and locals who look about 100 years old, and I am calm and at home for a morning.
For four or five days, Santorini was alive with swifts, swallows and house martins but I gradually realise there were only a few of them around. Most of them had moved on, onwards from Africa back to northern Europe. The year’s first swallows are back in Orkney now, I hear. And soon it will be my time to go. At Greek Orthodox Easter I follow a procession singing strange hymns through a fire-lit village and I know I am a tourist. This isn’t my community or religion. I’m working here but I’m still just passing through. I was sprinkled with rose water by old women and bitten by a dog and feel like I’m under a spell. It’s been an enchanted month walking in wild thyme and fragrant flowers, swimming in Homer's “wine dark” sea, sucking the Aegean out of my hair, tipping volcanic grit from my sandals, bitten by mosquitos, and sleeping in a bookshelf on a cliff on the lip of the volcano, but this is not my island and, like the birds, I am a passing migrant.