The Legend of Vasillis

This blog entry about the events of Saturday, September 11, 2004 was originally posted on September 13, 2006.

DAY 18:  This tale should be prefaced with the following instant messenger chat between me and Tracy, my former Creative Director during my dot com bubble days (and fellow globaltripper):

ME (place annoying AIM “message sent” chime sound here): yo
ME: where should I go in greece?
TRACY (place annoying AIM “message received” chime sound here): i can recommend NAXOS
TRACY:  north east tip, tiny hamlet named [Town X]
TRACY:  find the hotel kouros and the owner, vasillis — tell him you are a friend of Mississippi’s.
TRACY: Vassilis calls me Mississippi
ME:  ok
TRACY:  its a great, small village. right on the water. he cooks for you at night and drink home made wine
ME: nice

Tracy was skeptical on letting me in on his special Shangri-la in Naxos — so special that he doesn’t want it to be overridden with too many people, like in the book/movie, The Beach.  Instead of using its real name, it is to be known for all intents and purposes as “Town X,” although anyone who’s been to Naxos can pretty much figure it out.

And so, like a character in a video game quest like The Legend of Zelda, I went off to venture on a quest to find the old man Vassilis in Town X, that tiny hamlet of Naxos, and to see what sort of treasure I could find there.

X marks the spot.

THERE IS AN INCREDIBLE back story to this quest, one of a long time ago (well, the 1980’s and 90’s), one that I do not completely know but have pieced together with stories from Tracy and his friend Stuart, the older Lotus-Eater that I had met on my first night in Naxos Town.  Vasillis was a man who ran the Hotel Kouros, an unattractive building at the end of the road in Town X, secluded at the edge of the bay.  What the Hotel Kouros lacked in decor and style was made up for in its hospitality; Vasillis was a master entertainer and his hotel was legendary for its livelihood.  Travelers stayed for entire seasons, befriending and bonding with local villagers and becoming so drawn to the laid-back, friendly vibe of Hotel Kouros and Town X, that they kept on coming back year after year — decades of merriment and great memories.  Tracy himself became a regular, going back every year for fifteen years, for it was like a second home to him, a place where everyone knew his name:  “Mississippi,” a nickname given to him by Vasillis because he drank so much that it was flowing like the Mississippi River.  Stuart, another member of the extended family, drank as much as his nickname “Lake,” and Vasillis was the greatest of them all, the “Black Sea.”  With them was another guy named Travis, known as “Geronimo” for a reason I forget.

“Those days are over,” Stuart had regrettably told me.  While he too was living in Naxos, he hadn’t been to the Hotel Kouros in a while.  He warned me that it wasn’t the way it used to be and that Vasillis was a changed man, incoherent and dependent on medications due to his non-stop, twenty-five-year-long drinking binge, entertaining visitors and family.


“WHERE ARE YOU GOING?” asked Maria, the old woman of the house in Naxos Town I was departing from.

“I’m going to [Town X].”

“[Town X]?” she pouted.  “But it’s too windy!”

At the Dolphins restaurant, I got more warnings.  “[Town X]?  There’s too much wind from the north,” Giorgo told me.  “You will not like it.”

“[Town X?]” the old man Gregory questioned when I told him my destination.  “Oh, be careful!”  He put his hand on my shoulder with concern.  “Listen, be careful.”

Hearing that, I was curious more than ever about the mythical hamlet and its legendary man, and set off on my quest on the back of a motor scooter.


I TOOK THE LONG WAY to Town X, first checking out some of the coastal towns and beaches on the west coast.  Naxos has some really good beaches with fine sands and blue waters, with many beach clubs and studio apartments available right across the way.  The farther out of Naxos Town I went, the more secluded the beaches were, and I was really impressed that Naxos really had it all — mountains, beaches, ancient sites, Venetian castles, some hiking trails, old authentic villages, nightlife, and a tourism infrastructure — when many young Lotus-Eaters in Santorini’s Perissa Beach told me not to bother because there was “nothing there.”  (It wasn’t Perissa or Ios.)  I almost wanted to call Naxos “Island X” to keep it unspoiled, although my impressions of it where only at the end of the season when not many people were around.

The journey to Town X wasn’t as perilous as lofty quests are supposed to be.  No goblins, no ringwraiths, no Nazi bad guys looking for lost artifacts.  I just drove there on my motorscooter, through the mountains and the windier side of the island, with only really minor setbacks:  almost losing balance on a hairpin turn, backtracking twenty minutes to get gas from the last available station, getting lost from direction signs pointing the wrong way, and overtaking slower vehicles.  I’d rev my engine up to speed up aside them, shouting “Punch the keys for God’s sake!” — Sean Connery’s immortal quote in the movie Finding Forrester (only second to the other immortal quote, “You’re the man now, dog!”)

I really felt the anticipation when I reached the final road to Town X, for it had been built up so much in my mind with the stories and the warnings.  Driving in, I saw that as expected, Town X was a sleepy little hamlet.  It wasn’t easy to get lost, for there was only one main road and an old, but clearly-marked sign pointing me in the right direction.  Just as the legend went, the unassuming Hotel Kouros stood alone at the end of the road at the edge of the bay (picture above).  It was deserted, just as the town was — numbers of tourists in Naxos Town were low at the end of the season, let alone a little hamlet that everyone was warned not to go to.

I looked through the front door window and saw an old Greek woman, hunched over the way that old women become in old age.  I entered the lobby and she turned to me, surprised.  “Uh, milas anglika?” I asked.  She didn’t speak much English, so she called out to the back room where a middle-aged, un-hunched German woman named Maria came to serve as a translator.  “Is the hotel open?” I asked.

“Uh, yes.”  She too was confused.  Nowadays, the only people who came to Town X were usually day trippers that left before nightfall.

“I can stay here?”

Maria said something in Greek to the other woman.  “Yes,” she told me.  “But the son of the hotel is sleeping.  You will have to wait maybe one hour.”

“That’s okay,” I said.  And then I said the magic words:  “Uh, I’m meant to ask for Vasillis.”

“You know Vasillis?”

“I’m a friend of Mississippi.”

Her eyes widened from the name recognition.  “Vasillis!” she called out to the back room before saying something in Greek with the word “Mississippi” in it.  I heard a man’s voice in the back cry out, “MISSISSIPPI!”

To his dismay, I was not the legendary Mississippi, but everyone was happy to hear a name from the past anyway.  I was invited back to the family’s residential section of hotel, where cassettes and a cassette deck still stood in the corner.  There was a blood pressure kit on the dining table and beside it in a chair was the legendary old man Vasillis himself.

“I’m a friend of Mississippi,” I told him.  “My name is Erik.”  He extended his hand for a handshake.  “You are a legend amongst my friends,” I told him.

Vasillis looked the part; he was the sort of old man you meet at the end of a quest, with white hair, his signature moustache, and a big beer belly.  At 79, he was portly and jolly like a Santa Claus without a beard or a sleigh, distinguished yet unrefined.  His face was full of experience and wisdom, each wrinkle representing a tale of a long, fulfilling life.  However it was hard to talk to him since he wasn’t exactly all there.  Regardless of English or Greek, it was hard for him to speak any coherent sentences at all.

“I don’t know the word in English,” Maria informed me, “But it’s when there is no blood flowing to the right side of his brain.”

I was invited to sit at the table while Vasillis’ wife Popi, the old hunched over woman, served me a cup of Greek coffee next to a side of cookies.  Most of my conversation was with Maria, who also lived in Town X after building her getaway house there.  She had been a part of the Hotel Kouros’ former glory days; she told me that Tracy a.k.a. Mississippi was actually with her when she went to see the plot of land where her house now stood.  Another girl that was with them at that time (I forgot the name) had already passed away.  Things were a lot different, yet things were a lot the same; Town X still retained its quiet magic, a magic that convinced Maria to spend her twilight years there after living in Berlin as a teacher.

“Why do you like it here?” I asked her.

“You can’t describe it,” she said.  “It’s just a feeling.”  Some people hated it, but some people completely embraced it she told me.

Vasillis looked on, but could only say one word English statements in his very slurred speech.  He’d almost shout them, the way a person with headphones does when his/her hearing is impaired from the music blasting in the ears.  “MISSISSIPPI!”

“He’s married now,” I told them.  “I have pictures.”  Tracy had e-mailed me recent pictures of him and his wife, and their new house in the suburbs, and I put my PowerBook G4 on the table to show them.

“She’s very beautiful,” Maria commented on Tracy’s wife.

“Yeah, she’s on television.  She’s a journalist.”  The digital pictures were from an assignment the couple had done in Egypt.  Tracy’s wife Toni posed with a fez, and in front of the Great Pyramids of Giza.

“TRACY.  NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC!” Vasillis said, again in a slur.

“Yeah,” I said.  Tracy had always been in project flirtations with the National Geographic Society.

“TRACY’S WIFE.  FROM EGYPT!”

“No, she’s from New York.  They only went there.”

“FROM EGYPT!”  He wasn’t all there, but I tried to have some small talk anyway.

“Stuart says hello.”

“LAKE!”

“So what do you do here these days?”

“He spends his days listening.  And thinking,” Maria told me.

Vasillis said something in Greek I couldn’t comprehend, but Maria translated that earlier that day he had gone to the dentist with his old friend Dimitri, another local from a neighboring village that was also integral in the heyday of the Hotel Kouros.  Tracy had told me that if I was lucky Dimitri would take me fishing, but he was no where to be found — there was only an old picture of him on the wall.  In fact, there were many pictures on the wall, like wallpaper in two rooms, pictures of all the memories.  Pictures in color, black and white, and sepia-toned, all of them fading but immortalizing the good times and great moments.  The glory days were no myth; I saw pictures full of smiles and parties and dancing with family and friends.  It was evident that Vasillis was the master showman I had heard about, or at least was.  Those days are over, echoed Stuart’s words in my head.

“TRACY!”  He pointed out a faded out picture of Tracy and Stuart on the wall.

“Tracy is coming here in October.  Next month,” I told them, relaying the news Tracy gave me, but reminding them that Stuart and I couldn’t exactly believe everything he said.  Maria nodded.

“TRACY IS COMING!  OCTOBER,” the old man said.  “HIS WIFE.  FROM EGYPT!”

“No, New York.”

Meanwhile, Popi was having a stomach episode, looking rather ill in a chair. Maria suggested I go off and see the town to kill some time until my room was ready for me.


TOWN X WAS SLEEPY indeed.  It was like a retirement community with old people wandering the streets and fishermen patiently wasting the days looking for a catch — most of the young people who grew up there had left to get jobs in Athens.  It’s only main archaeological tourist attraction was its kouros, an unfinished ancient rock sculpture of Dionysus that laid abandoned atop a hill.  I walked from there, to the little harbor area and the rocky beach, and back to the Hotel Kouros where Kostas, Vasillis’ middle-aged son was awake.

“I’m a friend of Tracy,” I told him, the new manager of the hotel.  He actually lived in Athens with his own family, but was in town to fix up some things and wrap up the season.  He showed me to my room, Room No. 7, in the middle of the hotel before going off to run some errands.

I was the only guest of the hotel that night — two prospective German women checked it out but were turned off and left — and it was a little like being in the hotel in The Shining.  Everything was deserted and a little dusty — the reception area and the cafeteria — plus there was a big ominous refrigerator at the end of my hallwayLooking out my terrace to the bay I noticed some locals walking along the beach, doing double-takes at me as if to think, Can it be?  Someone is actually staying there tonight.  My room was simple but peaceful, with no sounds but the relaxing sounds of crashing waves outside.  An ocean breeze filled the room, my temporary fortress of solitude.  This is the peace Maria came for, I thought.  X marks the spot.


I WAS LOOKING at the hotel’s photographic history in the lobby when Kostas popped his head through the door from the outside.  “Uh, can you help me?”

“Sure, no problem.”  He was finishing up a landscaping job outside, planting trees he’d brought from the mainland since the sea had destroyed most of what was there before.  I simply had to help him move a big potted plant to the backyard.  Doing so broke the ice for conversation.

“[I didn’t really know Tracy that well.]  When he was here, I was in Athens,” he told me.  Of course he had heard about the legendary Mississippi — everyone thought that he might even get married there.

“He’s married now,” I told Kostas.

“Child?”

“No.”

“Maybe he is waiting to come here to make one,” he smirked.  He showed me around the back of the building — the family had a garden for fresh vegetables and a small vineyard to make homemade wine.

“Is there food here, or should I go into town?”

He thought for a bit.  “If we have food, you eat with us.”

When you’re here, you’re family.

Like father, like son; Tracy had told me Vasillis used to cook for his visitors, mostly with whatever they had laying around the house.  There wasn’t much in the cupboard that night, so dinner was simple but satisfying:  a bowl of stewed chick peas, bread, tomato chunks, local cheese, and their strong, homemade wine bottled in old plastic water bottles.  Popi did kitchen duties while Vasillis sat in a chair and watched an episode of Lost subtitled with Greek letters.

“Tracy has not been here in many years,” Kostas said.  “If Tracy comes back, he will see my father is a different man… But before, he was the boss.  He would be cooking, not my mother.”

Vasillis listened in on the conversation — I’m told he could listen better than speak — and only said one word things I could understand.  “TRACY!” “LAKE!” and “Ne” (“Yes.”)  He ate soft cheese because of his recent dental work.

“You know the kouros?” Kostas asked me.

“Yeah, I went up there before.”

“It’s an unfinished statue.  Like this place.  Hotel Kouros.  Unfinished,” he joked.  “When I fix it, maybe I will change the name.”  Vasillis had already passed the hotel business to the next generation; Kostas had taken over three years ago.  He was trying to restore it for when he moved there with his wife after retiring from his job as an electrical engineer in Athens — another circle of life sort of thing.

We chat over food and the homemade wine about various topics:  that global warming affected the oceans (I might have gone fishing if the seas weren’t abnormally rough); that Damon Lindelof, creator of Lost, went to high school with me; that Tracy and I were together five years ago, both seeing the Twin Towers come down before us from the roof of our office on 19th Street; that yes, I’m actually 31 and not 24 like Popi had thought; and that, according to Kostas’ experience, Americans were great people, despite the regime of Bush.  “Americans are like the Greek people,” he said.  “[They know how to live.]”  Like the mainstream American consciousness, he too was annoyed at the French.  “They come and only order a Greek salad.  And for four people!”

Kostas took his father’s blood pressure, as he did everyday, to figure out how much medicine he’d need.  Shortly thereafter, the old man went to bed.


WITH THE OLD COUPLE TURNED IN, Kostas took me to his friend’s bar down the road, seemingly the only place open that night.  We brought over a bottle of the homemade wine and shared it with two relatively younger locals, Efthimios and bartender Panos, who were both wrapping up the season before heading back to Athens.  They were both impressed that I could write their names in Greek letters, even in an inebriated state.

The rest of the night is fuzzy, but I recall it being a blast, full of homemade wine and shots of raki.  “Slow down with the wine,” Panos told me as I sipped another glass of the strong concoction.  “That’s local wine.”  I remember us drinking and laughing and listening to music from Panos’ laptop hooked up to the bar’s speakers — he was a huge Motown fan.  It was, without a doubt, the best night I’d had in Greece.  Maybe this is what it was like during Mississippi’s days with Vasillis, I wondered.

I outlasted Kostas, who went back to the hotel at I don’t know what time.  Efthimios, Panos and I were the last men standing, quite possibly the only people awake in town.  I don’t know what time it was when I stumbled back to the Hotel Kouros, but I know I was pretty wasted.  If anyone was around to see me, they would have seen a bumbling, drunken idiot empty all the items out of his pockets in the hallway looking for his room key.  In the end, I couldn’t find it — or was just too drunk to — so I just passed out on the couch in the lobby.

The morning sun woke me up around 6:30 when I heard the footsteps of the old man Vasillis walking across the room to the hallway.  I don’t think he noticed me.  A bit sobered up but not completely, I went out to look for my room key — it was on the pathway to the bar in plain sight.  I slept the rest of the morning in my bed, waking up a couple of hours later to the peaceful sounds of crashing waves.


KOSTAS WAS OFF running errands, so it was just Popi and Vasillis who saw me off later on that morning — but not after sitting with them one last time with Greek coffee and some more cookies.  When I asked to take their picture, Popi blushed and stood on her tippy-toes to simulate her younger days when she wasn’t so hunched over.

“Thank you for everything,” I told them.  “I like this place.  Efkharisto.”

“Parakalo,” Vasillis replied.  “MANY GREETINGS…” he started before slurring off into something Greek.  Popi tried to translate with body language and I managed to figure out that they wanted me to tell my friends about them with that computer I had with me.

“Yes.  I will,” I said.  (A few days later, this blog entry appeared.)

I rode off on my motorbike away from the tiny hamlet of Town X, after only a single day — but I wanted to based myself in Naxos Town the night before I left for Athens so as not to rush around in the short amount of time I had left.  I may have not been at the Hotel Kouros for enough time to get my picture on the wall, but at least I got a taste of that visceral feeling one can’t describe that Maria had told me about.  Plus I had met the man, The Legend of Vasillis, and saw that his legacy and lust for life would not be forgotten, and would continue on.






Next entry: Bag of Winds

Previous entry: When You’re Here, You’re Family




Commenting is not available in this channel entry.

Comments for “The Legend of Vasillis”

  • AH, BACK IN ATHENS… I’m pulling an all-nighter in a wifi-enabled bar,
    watching soccer and drinking beer, before my early flight in the morning.

    Here’s one more for you before I head off to Germany; it’s a doozy at
    over three times my usual word count. Enjoy.

    CHEZ LOUNGE: Get to the old man in Town X. He’s waiting for you…

    Posted by Erik TGT

  • Loved every word of it…

    Posted by ali (1st)  on  09/14  at  01:04 AM


  • Loved every word of it…

    Posted by Ali (1st)  on  09/14  at  01:05 AM


  • That was a great entry Erik, one of my favorites ever I think. You
    captured the Greek people very well, I want to go back!!

    I’m glad you got a ferry back with all that wind. I got stuck in Paros
    due to a “Meltimi” which is what I think they call the big fall windstorms.

    Posted by sara  on  09/14  at  01:55 AM


  • ET you’ve done it! I literally got chills reading this one. You’ve made
    me miss that place more than ever, yet you’ve prompted me to question if
    I should ever go back. Re-living the glory days is never a good idea.
    The stories I could tell (if I could remember them all…sounds like you
    know EXACTLY what I mean) are filled with laughing, drinking, eating and
    conversing with some of them most real people I have ever known. Thank
    you for taking me for a brief moment to a place that has captured my
    imagination for many years. I recall saying to matto on 9.11.2001 late
    in the afternoon… “I wish I was at Vasillis’ right now” - to which he
    slurredly replied, “What?” I am very happy you made the trek even for
    the night… Vasillis is kind of like a second father to me and I have
    met many a friend around that kitchen table. I always considered the
    Hotel Kouros sort of the crossroads of the planet. I am saddened by the
    health of my old friend, but as all things go, we must follow. Thank you
    my new(ish) friend for writing about my old friend and HIS town in such
    eloquent ways.

    Posted by Chez Lounge

  • i have never met vasilis, but have heard so many stories about the
    legendary host, that i feel i know the man. and now we have one more
    great tale of the big man from that little town…thanks.

    Posted by chez lounge lady  on  09/14  at  05:55 AM


  • What a great long read! Fantastic..the way you lead up to getting to the
    hotel I felt like singing “Hotel California” You can check in anytime
    you want but you can never leave! A few more bottles of that local wine
    and you might not be able to leave!
    Rose

    Posted by Anonymous  on  09/14  at  06:29 AM


  • Erik, great entry. I only got to read the entire Global Trip 2004 after
    it happened but managed to get in on Mali as it went down. So I was
    really excited about catching this one. Out of every entry, this was by
    far the best???in my opinion. Each entry has had its own unique
    perspectives, its discoveries, its adventures, its insights into people,
    places, history and events. But this one had everything???with a bit of
    charm. Excellent writing. Thanks for sharing with us. Looking forward to
    Germany!

    Posted by Dan 3  on  09/14  at  07:10 AM


  • THANKS FOR THE COMMENTS. Sincerely. I’m glad to know the 3-4 hours I
    spend each day on this blog (even more for this entry) is entertaining,
    and even touching someone out there. TG&B has come a long way since that
    pee picture in the first entry…

    Posted by Erik TGT

  • I have a feeling Oktoberfest might lead back to more pee pics grin

    Posted by markyt  on  09/14  at  05:13 PM


  • On a less serious note; is the old guy in the “old people wandering the
    streets” pic walking around in split pants?

    Posted by Dan 3  on  09/14  at  05:28 PM


  • Yes I believe the old guy has split his pants.

    There’s another guy on another Island, (Patmos) that reminds me of
    Vasillis. He runs a campground right on the beach and it’s a tough place
    to leave.

    Good story Erik.

    Posted by connor  on  09/14  at  05:59 PM


  • Eric, that’s beautiful, you caught the spirit of it all just right. Glad
    the old days weren’t so over that you couldn’t still feel them -the
    ghosts and the memories and the still vivid reality of it all while you
    were there. Vasilis is a legend for many of us,good that you met him and
    Poppi and sent us all your fine impressions. Yammas! and watch that
    local wine my man.

    Posted by lake  on  09/14  at  09:52 PM


  • Even though it is obviously different, I enjoyed reading it all. Thank you.

    Posted by tallgirl

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This blog post is one of twenty-five travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Tomatoes, Grease & Beer" (originally hosted by Blogger.com), which chronicled a trip to Spain's wild Tomatina festival, Greece's awe-inspiring islands, and Munich's world-renowned Oktoberfest in August/September 2006.

Next entry:
Bag of Winds

Previous entry:
When You’re Here, You’re Family




THE GLOBAL TRIP GLOSSARY

Confused at some of the jargon that's developed with this blog and its readers over the years? Here's what they mean:

BFFN: acronym for "Best Friend For Now"; a friend made on the road, who will share travel experiences for the time being, only to part ways and lose touch with

The Big Trip: the original sixteen month around-the-world trip that started it all, spanning 37 countries in 5 continents over 503 days (October 2003–March 2005)

NIZ: acronym for "No Internet Zone"; a place where there is little to no Internet access, thus preventing dispatches from being posted.

SBR: acronym for "Silent Blog Reader"; a person who has regularly followed The Global Trip blog for years without ever commenting or making his/her presence known to the rest of the reading community. (Breaking this silence by commenting is encouraged.)

Stupid o'clock: any time of the early morning that you have to wake up to catch a train, bus, plane, or tour. Usually any time before 6 a.m. is automatically “stupid o’clock.”

The Trinidad Show: a nickname of The Global Trip blog, used particularly by travelers that have been written about, who are self-aware that they have become "characters" in a long-running story — like characters in the Jim Carrey movie, The Truman Show.

WHMMR: acronym for "Western Hemisphere Monday Morning Rush"; an unofficial deadline to get new content up by a Monday morning, in time for readers in the western hemisphere (i.e. the majority North American audience) heading back to their computers.

1981ers: people born after 1981. Originally, this was to designate groups of young backpackers fresh out of school, many of which were loud, boorish and/or annoying. However, time has passed and 1981ers have matured and have been quite pleasant to travel with. The term still refers to young annoying backpackers, regardless of year — I guess you could call them "1991ers" in 2013 — young, entitled millennials on the road these days, essentially.




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