wholly holy holes

in the drawer of our hotel room we would later find a bible. but the first twenty blueroof churchwe encountered were stacked in the hotel lobby, alongside small candles and beaded crosses. while we had grown accustomed to blue-or-maroon-roofed churches on the top of hills in every little beach town on the island of syros, nothing readied us for the holy island.

on the day before our journey to tinos, michael and i found a list of things to do and see. we knew little about the place except it was a thirty minute ferry ride away and that ferry ride only cost eight euros. the most exciting thing on the list was the prospect of beer. as such we quickly forgot we were headed to a holy place. instead we called the microbrewery to schedule an appointment for a tour and felt as though we were headed home.

our hotel owner, george, picked us up at the new harbor of tinos and drove us around the corner to the old harbor on which our hotel beesroom looked out. he toldus of marble quarries and dovecotes and moonscapes and beaches with little mention of the church and the monastery for which the island is known to greeks. the vast majority of visitors to tinos are greeks on religious pilgrimage, but with michael sporting a bright red fanny pack and me sporting a lack of capacity to smoothly pronounce the word efcharistó (thank you) which i feel compelled to say repeatedly anyway, george was somehow not convinced of our grecian origin. despite the stack of bibles lingering behind george’s head during his tourist-focused description of the island, we had forgotten we’d arrived in a holy place.

we dropped our bags at the hotel and made our way toward the microbrewery. we learned its name after a series of fits and starts with a cab driver we were confusing. michael’s phone dictionary didn’t have the greek word for brewery and the cab driver was unsure of the meaning of the word in english. eventually i just said “we want to go to the place that makes beer” and as i said beer i did my best impression of the way i chugged the golden liquid from red solo cups at metal frat in college. the cab driver laughed and blurted out, “nissos!” with a face full of recognition. we were on our way. nissos does not mean beer, michael informed me. it simply means island. and since we were already on an island, we could have been headed anywhere, but i trusted my charades skills (at least when applied to alcohol consumption) and soon we had arrived.

we were on time. arriving at 16:00 and not confusing it with 6pm for once. but on time, we learned was quite early in tinos. so we waited on a deck shaded beer chandelierwith bamboo (they grow bamboo all over the cyclades) and centered around a beer chandelier for the brewery owners to arrive. with wine, my dear friend claire always suggested we buy the bottle with the most interesting label (that was within our budget). i know, i know judging the poor wine by its outsides. still, labels that had been painstakingly crafted we found most often paired with great wines. normally this meant a striking image or thoughtful name. while nissos’ turquoise banner in front of a ray-spoked sun is evocative enough of afternoons on the island, it wasn’t that part of the packaging that struck me. each beer in the chandelier had a description…that’s not the right word…each beer had a story on the bottle and it was the story that made me fall in love:

greek and artisanal, nissos beer is born on the island of tinos, calls the cyclades home, and sails the seas of the aegean. nissos loves summer afternoons, delectible food, cool shades, whitewashed chapels, and hand-hewn stone. it is inspired by the accomplishments of men, the yield of the land, the light, the surf, the summer winds, halcyon days, and the smell of spring. happy encounters, tradition, craftsmanship, generosity, persistence, and hospitality. these are the values of nissos.

the owners, alexandros kouris and maya tsokli, arrived just after i finished reading the story of nissos. they told us more stories. maya, a famous travel writer in greece, told us about how, after a life of constant moving, she and alexandros were finally started to grow roots on tinos. we laughed: if a travel writer is deciding to stay somewhere it must be somewhere worthwhile. but we already knew this story without words. we just needed one look at the view of the aegean from the brewery. alexandros told us of a fig tree that lived on the beer. he showed us its robust fruits as evidence. but michael only knew when he tasted the beer. like the experience of wheat bread just out of the oven on a cold winter day was the taste of cold nissos beer in the early fall where 72 degree days on the island remained constant. 

for just a moment we remembered this was the holy island.

that night we slept full of beer and woke full of desire to see the island that
convinced a travel writer to settle stay for a while. the only way to see much of tinos during the off-season is to rent a car (the bus runs just a few times a day once summer ends) or a moped (but michael and i would look pretty silly trying to sit road kowon one of those together). we picked the car. for me much of tinos was a blur of cliffs that could send us to our death if i so much as jostled the steering wheel and cows and cats and goats that i swerved to avoid or slowed to pass.

the blur became more focused when we stopped to take pictures of a golden roofedgolden church church or pulled off at a monastery where a nun explained to michael the rock we were looking at was a kefáli (head). sure enough on second glance we realized we were staring at a woman’s skull. later we’d learn she was a saint. from the monastery we drove over more blurry roads to a museum explaining marble graveyardhow marble is extracted and shaped throughout tinos. just down the hill mountain from the museum is a graveyard where that marble is implemented in creating monuments to the lives of tinos’ dead.grave of marble worker

after the graveyard, we drove down another
hillmountain and swam in the bay at panormos: craggy cliff on one side, a picturesque port town on the other, and an island in between. just as we stopped swimming, the rain started. salt water puddled with fresh and we drove back around the mountains to chora (the main town) on roads slicked and blurred.

we woke up our last morning on tinos having forgetten it was sunday. our ferry was set to arrive at 2:45pm to take us back to syros. with the time left we thought we’d journey up the central road of chora to the church. yesterday’s rain was still sporadically drizzling. we should have known it was sunday. it felt like sunday.

when i was a child my family regularly punned with the words holey and holy and even wholly to such a degree that old socks became holier and holeyer while making me more whole. the words are not opposites or even capable of existing distinctly for me. to mention one is to mention all three. 

so as we walked accidentally to a sunday service at the church of panagia evangelistria, the words from the guide book describing tinos as the holy wholly holey nissos (island) came back to me.

and to describe the whole-holiness of holes that followed, i can only attempt to do so with poetry:


We come to the street
not remembering it’s Sunday:
the street where two months prior people crawled
on the now wet rubberized carpet toward the church.
Candles, taller than the children carrying them, remind us.
We buy a candle on one side of the street or the other.
They were always for sale.
We’re unsure what the colors mean.
The taller ones are more expensive.
Ours is red.
We’re unsure what the candles mean.
We follow past
the statue that does not stop
crawling in October.
We follow up
the first stairs of the church
and a woman says nothing
but cuts the wick of our candle
to the right shortness to burn beside others.
We follow the candles to a room 
where even silver looks saffron in the glow.
We must take fire from one of the candles 
we followed to have some of our own. Or at least we do take. 
We want to leave the hot room housing the candles but we must nod 
at a picture in the corner.  Or at least we do nod.
Back on the steps of the church there is no longer 
the distance required of follow. A child in front holds his mother’s face 
and yawns, “eímai kourasménos” over and over. And we are tired. 
A child behind us pushes grandfather forward with all her strength. 
Grandfather only moves when the crowd moves but leaves
the credit for the child. And we are responsible.
Ahead of me a man leans on a shrine built into the wall.
The brunt of his lean is weighted on a palm the color of dried figs.
Attached to the palm were three fingers. The same three fingers
my grandfather had to hold his olive coffee mug.
As we move forward toward the ritual most hands 
search their pockets for coins. Coins we know are being 
placed in metal offering plates somewhere ahead.
But the specters of my grandfather’s 
fingers traced the wall, not wallets.
The children in front of us know 
the sign of the cross more fluently than we speak
other languages in our dreams. Presumably 
they also know what the music means 
and how to kiss the icon in front of us 
without angering the priest who wipes her down 
repeatedly with some antibacterial laced material.  
We bow gently at her and don’t look enough to remember 
the face by the time the crowd moves us away.
I try to pray for the hands of my grandfather
but there’s no way to watch how the others compose their prayers.
Or at least to know.
And later I’ll learn the icon should be 
asked for healing or safe passage at sea.
Neither of which I prayed for Sunday morning.


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