I’m not sure what caused me to remember an experience that took place more than forty years ago. Perhaps the tracings of an early spring dawn across my windows resurrected the past. However pale the Midwestern sun in comparison to the sun flaming over the Greek Islands, the glow was pervasive enough to evoke memories.
In the summer of 1975 I had traveled to Cyprus as a journalist to write a report on the aftermath of the Turkish invasion a year earlier that had partitioned the island into Turkish and Greek zones. Though the summer was nearly over, the oppressive heat remained. The Greek Cypriots who had been driven from their homes by the invasion were living in refugee camps of sprawling tent cities. As they told me their stories of fear and flight, they looked north toward their lost lands and wept.
Seeking relief from the emotions of loss and grief, I flew from Cyprus to Crete for a few days of rest before returning to the U.S., I traveled by bus from Heraklion to the Eastern tip of the island, to the port city of Agios Nikolaos.
I stayed in the small Astir Hotel overlooking Elounda Bay. The tourist season was nearing an end and only a handful of hotel guests remained. At breakfast, the dining room almost empty, the young waiter lingered at my table.
“A week ago I would have been hurrying from table to table,” he said. “Now the visitors are returning to their own countries. God willing they arrive home safely, so they can come back to us next year.”
That evening I walked along the beach, inhaling the scents of sea and flowers, thinking pensively of family and home. As I turned to start back to my hotel, on a bluff above me I saw the glittering lights of a cafe.
I climbed the slope and entered a cafe similar to others I had seen in Greece. The walls were decorated with murals of mountains and sea and the air was permeated with the aromas of spiced Greek sausage. There were about a dozen small wooden tables with only half a dozen occupied. In a corner a small platform held a shabby upright piano, patches of bare wood visible where the varnish had worn away.
The waiter brought me a glass of wine. When I asked the name of the restaurant, he told me, “Cafe of the Sunset.”
Moments later a young man and young woman ascended the platform. The man who was slim and handsome wore a white, open-collared shirt and dark trousers. The young woman who held a tambourine was also small and lovely wearing a rainbow-hued blouse and beaded skirt. Her raven-dark hair was looped into a ponytail. The man sat at the piano and began to play. The woman joined him, singing in a sweet, slightly tremulous voice.
“That is Yannis and his wife, Maria,” the waiter said “They are the owners of the cafe.”
Their first songs were laments of lost love. Then, changing the tempo, the music became vibrant and festive. Maria swayed her hips, flounced her beaded skirt and briskly shook the tambourine.
After a while the couple took a break. When they returned a few moments later, more tourists had departed. Only four of us remained, a young dark-haired man sitting alone, and at another table, a pair of young blond girls. As Maria and Yannis resumed playing and singing, the young man rose and began to dance.
I knew at once he was Greek because his movements were fluid and graceful. As he danced, he bent to the floor, his fingers sweeping his ankle and then he rose once more. Knowing I could not match his dancing, but emboldened by wine, I got up and joined him. We faced one another, arms extended above our heads, then whirling and bending. The young man danced to the table where the girls sat, and by gestures entreated them to join the dance. Laughing nervously, the girls rose and he led them to the center of the room.
The four of us danced with more vigor than grace, pausing only to drink more wine. As we emptied our glasses, the waiter quickly refilled them. During one of the breaks for wine, I learned the man’s name was Stephanos who worked as a reservations agent for Olympic Airlines. The girls, Ingrid and Marilyn, were stewardesses for Scandinavian Airlines. They had flown in that morning from Copenhagen for a few days of island sun.
We kept dancing, pausing only to imbibe more wine. Maria came from the platform to join us, kicking off her shoes, her toes gleaming like tiny pearls. The girls, Stephanos and I kicked off our own shoes, as well. As Yannis pounded the piano, Maria led us in a wild, vibrant Syrtos, ten bare feet stamping on the wooden floor echoing through the cafe like thunder.
The hours passed and we kept on drinking and zestfully dancing as if we were satyrs and nymphs, possessed by some mystical source of energy and frenzy. My senses blurring, I danced with the others and then I danced alone, all my inhibitions and restraints flung aside.
To this day I find it hard to believe how swiftly that night passed. I became conscious of time only when Yannis suddenly left the piano and pointed to the large glass window of the cafe and spoke, “Ximeroma,” the lovely Greek word for dawn.
The six of us left the cafe and walked bare-footed down to the beach. Around us night faded slowly, dark shadows retreating silently across the sand. When we reached the water’s edge, standing at the threshold of the endless sea, we watched the slow, majestic ascent of the day. The light came before the sun appeared, its glow brightening until it illuminated the horizon. The gray and purple shades of night were replaced by streamers of crimson and orange. And, as we watched in awe sky, sand and sea were suddenly overwhelmed by the flaming heart of the rising sun.
I cannot remember how we returned to the hotel or bidding my companions goodbye. In my memory the night ended with that resplendent dawn.
A few years later, on another visit to Crete I returned to Agios Nikolaos. I stayed at the same Astir hotel and, as soon as I dropped off my luggage, I started for the beach, eager to revisit the Cafe of the Sunset for a reunion with Yannis and Maria.
I walked along the beach as the sun began its descent, looking up beyond the slopes of sand, searching eagerly for the banners and streamers of the cafe. I walked a long time and saw nothing. Thinking I had somehow missed the cafe, I retraced my steps but still did not see the cafe.
By this time the twilight was darkening and I feared becoming lost. I returned to the hotel resolved I’d search for the Cafe again the next day.
In the morning I questioned the hotel manager.
“Cafe of the Sunset?” he shook his head. “I have never heard of it.”
“But it’s very close to the hotel,” I said. “The last time I was here I spent a whole night there.”
He looked at me gravely, shaking his head, his countenance indicating he had dealt with delusional foreigners before.
I spent the next few hours walking the beach, retracing my steps from the evening before. To my dismay, I found nothing.
Back at the hotel, I approached several island taxis lined up in the taxi waiting area. I asked each driver in the line about the Cafe. None had heard of it.
I searched again later that day, my body weary and my mind benumbed. I wondered if I had succumbed to some form of island dementia. Had I grown drunk on island wine and imagined the whole experience? Was the cafe hidden under the shadow of some orchard or mountain?
The following morning I left by taxi for the airport. I boarded the twelve-passenger single engine plane, which would transport me to the airport in Heraklion from where I would catch my flight home.
When the young, trim stewardess served me coffee, I asked if she knew Agios Nikolaos well.
“I was born there, sir.”
“The Cafe of the Sunset?” I asked. “On the beach in Agios Nikolaos? Have you heard your passengers speak of it?”
“I’m sorry, sir,” she said. “I’ve never heard of it.”
Back in the U.S., I went about my business, resuming the routines of my life. From time to time I thought about Agios Nikolaos and the Cafe of the Sunset. I decided that if I had searched diligently enough, I might have found it. Yet what nagged at me was that I had walked that same stretch of beach a dozen times and found nothing.
To this day, forty years after that visit to Crete, I am unable to explain the mystery of the lost cafe. How could I have invented the music, the Olympic reservations agent, the two Danish stewardesses, and the cafe’s ebullient owners, Yannis and Maria? Above all, how could I have imagined that magnificent rebirth of the day that rose with the same primal force as the sun that spawned our planet’s first tremblings of life?