Emptying the Mind on the Island of Naxos

By Tyler Maroney

Someone told me about an octopus here on Naxos—at the end of the dirt road, past the rows of olive trees, through the unlocked steel gate, down the crumbling limestone steps, onto the pebbled sand, out near the northern point of the first cove, and ten feet under the soft Aegean swells that roll in from the eastern edge of the island of Paros, just five miles to the west.

Black sea urchins dot the rocky bottom and bobbing and darting around me are small schools of Mediterranean rainbow wrasse (hermaphrodites!) and seabream. Someone else told me that glory accrues to those who hunger after the unusual. 

This unmarked beach, these coves, these inlets—on the western coast of an island named (perhaps) for one of Apollo’s sons, with more land mass, fertile soil, and taller peaks than any other island between Athens and Crete—are nameless and appear on no websites and are referenced in no guidebooks. This is how it should be. I spent a wordless day offshore here in search of that octopus, floating in the surf with borrowed diving gear: no human contact, alone with the disjointed thoughts the mind conjures only when the body has found solitude and distance. 

My being there was a corollary of sorts to my family’s sudden decision, mid-Covid, to uproot from Brooklyn and settle in Hollywood. When friends ask why we relocated, we sometimes struggle with a satisfying answer. But we take comfort in the unanswerable. I sometimes think of Philippe Petit, the Frenchman who, having walked a steel wire he had rigged between the rooftops of the newly constructed World Trade Center towers in 1974, was questioned by the media and the police: “There was a very American, finger-snapping question, ‘Why?’. . . The beauty of this is I didn’t have any “why.” There is no ‘why.’”

Three decades earlier, a traveler of a different sort, Henry Miller, wrote, “To keep the mind empty is a feat, a very healthful feat too.” In his Greek travelogue from 1941, “Colossus of Maroussi,” Miller continued, “To be silent the whole day long, see no newspaper, hear no radio, listen to no gossip, be thoroughly and completely lazy, thoroughly and completely indifferent to the fate of the world is the finest medicine a man can give himself.” And the flourish, “You wonder what people are struggling to accomplish by their frenzied activities.”

Naxos is part of the Cyclades, the archipelago that sprays southeast from Athens, and which “cycles” around Delos, once an ancient center of Greek spirituality. 

The islands’ 6,000-year history of human settlement is—sometimes literally—Byzantine: Phoenicians, Minoans, Mycenaeans, Dorians, Ionians, Persians, Athenians, Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, Crusaders, Ottomans, Turks, Russians, and intermittent battalions of marauders and pirates. They have all held claim to these pockmarks of arid land. 

The winds that blow through this part of the world, bordering the Levant to the east and North Africa to the south, ensure that winters will be lonely affairs: one Greek wind, called the voreas, and another, called the sirocco, emerge from hibernation during the colder months, discourage both tourists and locals (who escape to Athens). During the scorched summer months, the meltemi wind, which blows down off the Russian steppes, intimidates. The Greeks themselves, meanwhile, whose countenances, I find, tend to invite more often than repel the foreigner, are less likely to intimidate. 

In many Southern European countries with food and sun and sex and siestas, foreigners are sometimes grudgingly tolerated, and only then for their economic value. 

A week before my trip to the islands, I had met an Italian named Chiara on a rooftop in Athens (Athenians are fond of their rooftops), and she explained that the traditions of her countryfolk are firmly ingrained: It is simply unacceptable to order more than one cappuccino in a sitting—and never in the hours after breakfast. This conservatism, she explained, is not limited to the boorish demands of outsiders: It is also unacceptable for Chiara herself to alter a single ingredient in her grandmother’s pesto recipe. 

The Greeks, of course, have no less nationalism (and equal parts patriarchy) than their Mediterranean neighbors, and yet modern Athens, for all its ancient marble and mythology, was built for refugees and migrants, a cosmopolitan camp of sorts where the tents are constructed of modular concrete that house half of the country’s nine million residents.

Miller again: The Greek “is an adventurer: he is reckless and adaptable, he makes friends easily . . . I would say that there is no more direct, approachable, easy man to deal with than the Greek. He becomes a friend immediately: he goes out to you.”

I sensed a similar realism during my travels. Except for the obligatory boosters—the mayor, a handful of ministers, executives whose livelihoods (air travel, cuisine) are dependent on human itinerancy—many Greeks I met were unwilling to buttress the public relations narrative that Greece—crippled by debt, nepotism, and Covid—is somehow ascendant. 

“We’ll have to wait and see,” said a journalist I met for a drink at a hotel bar with views of the Parthenon. An art dealer I encountered snorted with skepticism when I tested the same optimistic line: “Is that what you’ve read?”

As I waited at the Naxos port to board the hydrofoil to Pireaus, the Athens neighborhood that indeed feels ascendant—where you can find the “creative” class ensconced in renovated commercial warehouses, drinking more than one cappuccino in a sitting—I sat on the patio of the Sea Salt Society at the end of the pier gazing at the causeway that runs north to the islet of Palatia. 

The meltemi blew through the majestic lintel, all that remains of the Temple of Apollo, begun in 522 B.C., now a stage for frame-within-a-frame Instagram posts. 

In the bay, a sloop, returning from a day trip, lowered its jib. I sipped a Greek coffee. And an octopus, grey and limp, hung from two hooks on a broom handle laid across the backs of two chairs; at last, I encountered an eight-limbed mollusc. Soon, the ferry would depart. 


Tyler Maroney is a journalist turned shamus and author of The Modern Detective. He can’t quite explain why he recently gave up Brooklyn to live in Los Angeles.