Men are wise in proportion,
not to their experience,
but to their capacity for experience.
– George Bernard Shaw, 1856-1950
My husband Tom and I squeezed through the narrow space between two huge boulders and emerged into a lunar landscape. Somehow we had shimmied our way through a portal from the parking lot of a Santorini taverna to a Martian Club Med.
From the narrow ledge of the steep cliff side we found ourselves on, we looked down at a skinny scree-strewn trail that led to gleaming turquoise waters far below. The thin crescent of beach there was a shade of rich red, scattered with silvery seaweed and studded with the lime green circles of open beach umbrellas. Behind the sliver of ochre sand rose a massive rock wall the color of devil’s food cake, backlit by a cobalt sky.
Such was our first glimpse of Kokkini Beach, named for the Greek word for “red.” Treading carefully on the gravelly path, we inched downward, pausing frequently to check our footing–and admire the dramatic view and vibrant colors created by the volcanic rock of Santorini and the Aegean Sea. As we neared the bottom, a spectacle of another sort captured our attention.
We saw a short, squat man emerge from the mouth of a cave along the shoreline, with each hand gripping wicker baskets overflowing with grapes and other fruit. A traditional fisherman’s cap on his head and a scruffy gray beard of several days’ growth covering his deeply-tanned face, he meandered down the beach, stopping at each occupied beach chair. A broad smile on his face, he proffered his treats to each reclining bather, waving off any attempt to offer him money, and then moving on to the next recipient of his generosity. Reaching the end of the shoreline, he nestled against a large red rock adorning the beach, sat back and smiled, a position and attitude he retained for the remainder of the afternoon.
After basking in the sun for a spell ourselves, we ventured further down the beach and investigated the cave from which the happy old salt had appeared. Entering the mouth of the hole in the wall, to our amazement, we found a well-stocked and organized concession in a huge subterranean room, sporting electric lights and huge refrigerators. The enterprise was clearly family-run, and the cave teemed with generations managing various aspects of the booming business.
Tom and I wondered aloud how far back in time the clan had operated a storefront from the grotto. We had walked to Kokkini from ancient Akrotiri, the archaeological site of a Bronze Age Minoan settlement, less than a quarter-mile away. It was easy to imagine that the man in the Greek fishing cap had a predecessor dating to that era. Perhaps he, too, had snuck away from daily commerce to watch the eternal ebb and flow of the Aegean from the shade of a volcanic rock.
As we headed toward the steep cliff face to leave the secret red world behind, we passed the current patriarch, still enjoying his seaside perch, laughing at the waves. Whatever his thoughts, he was clearly extracting exuberance from his simple existence.
It is when I can appreciate the simplest pleasures that I too am at my happiest. As someone who can complicate a free lunch, this is a concept I haven’t always understood. I am grateful for this relatively newfound awareness, even if it came late and I can’t always put it into practice easily.
This past week I was graced with many such moments. I attended a grammar school assembly and watched awkward adolescents dance with varying degrees of abandon and was deeply moved by both the grimaces and the grins. I felt my husband’s arm around me and knew I was understood and loved. I stood on a mountaintop with a fierce wind blowing and laughed, exhilarated and proud of myself for having conquered a fear to get there. I beheld the light through gold and orange autumn leaves and felt tears of wonder. I helped someone sort through a difficult experience through the act of simply being myself, a recognition that inspired awe and immense gratitude.
And as I sit here, suffering from a change-of-season cold and swaddled in blankets, by choosing to contemplate earlier instances of contentment, I can conjure up some more.
Return to View from the Pier’s home page, which offers the latest articles on a variety of the world’s cultural traditions!
See my Travel Photos for more Images of Greece.