September 24, 2016

The island where time stops

I submitted my dissertation and went to the sea.

The cheapest ferry ride took me back to the island where I licked my wounds four years ago. Nothing had changed, except September was even more beautiful than July. There are no cars on the island, or tourists anymore, only grumpy hilarious locals at this time of year. They complain about the new ferry because she is a riverboat, a shallow-draft vessel that leans in turns and high wind, whereas the previous rusty old favorite used to break waves like matchsticks. After being briefly on display in dry dock, it has now been scrapped, reminding everyone that one fell swoop is all that lies between breaking waves and breaking ships, and local teenagers have to find some other ropes to jump on and hang off of as the ship leaves port.

All ancestors' houses are the same, just like my family's farmhouse. They are haunted by generations' worth of memories. They have closets that smell of childhood and conjure up the past every time they open. They have cracks in walls and broken pipes that a grandfather built once, clamoring for repair. They have new furniture and tiles, as the new generations take over the upkeep. Stone, dirt, and wood mix with cement and metal as room is made for the young ones.

The seabed is still crawling with urchins, which means that the sea is as pristine as can be. There is an urban legend that female sea urchins adorn themselves by wearing pebbles on top, which, even if it isn't true, you still wish it were. The winds are haphazard and unpredictable: the southerlies make the sea warmer and draw a cover of pastel clouds above the sky, the easterlies bring sweet splashing waves, and the north wind chases bad weather away and chills the sea. The fishermen love the southerlies and the sailing ships come out to play when the north wind kicks in.

We swam. We fished. We played cards. No computers. Phones barely making touchdown with networks. We fed a herd of local cats whose nicknames were Batman and Robin, Squinty, Stumpy, Mother, Ninja, and Bro. After a week they were shamelessly stealing food from off our plates and we chased them away with a kid water gun, only to invite them back in when the rain started. We talked of going to the harbor for drinks, of climbing up to the World War II battery, of revisiting the snake hill, and the island where time stops dispelled all our plans.

There are two villages on the island, one historically communist, the other fascist. They hate each other and cannot live without each other. One road connects them, and on this road is a shared cemetery, separated by a wall. The last names on the tombstones are completely different, you will not find one village's names in the cemetery of the other. The men die at sea or in some senseless war, and their widows outlive them by forty years, roaming the tiny streets, gossiping and nurturing, clad in black for the rest of their days, as if the Adriatic island sun were some elixir of eternal life.

There is a woman in my brother-in-law's family, lovingly nicknamed “crazy Sonia.” Her husband died decades ago, and her son lives in the big city, simultaneously wiser than his years and a fatherless child at heart. She hasn’t left the island in ten years. Her crazy brother lives two houses down but no one calls him crazy. She is seventy but doesn’t look a day over fifty. She brings capered sardines, home-made bread and cherry cake and gives us all a lashing of her beautiful snake tongue. What nobody in the village knows is that there is a song from the eighties, a cover of Lobo’s “Baby I’d Love You to Want Me,” entitled “Sonia” in our language. It’s about a girl leaving a guy, and him still hearing her footsteps as she is in a hurry to get away. No one knows that it is about her, but the lyrics follow her everywhere she goes: “Sonia, just every now and then, please take me back again…”

I hate telling myself that all the sense-making will only make sense with time, but it's the truth. The taxi boat ride back to mainland is swift and exciting. My brother-in-law holds me down so that I don’t tumble out of the boat and my sister and I remove our sunglasses and let our hair down as we cut the waves and they spray us back, straight through a forest of blue-hulled sailing ships that seem to be playing ring-around-the-rosy in the azure archipelago. There are too many people and traffic lights back in the city, across the mountains and away from the sea. I am condemned to wait some more and make the best of the wait.