The idea of xenia, or guest-friendship, has been central to Greek culture since ancient time as implied in numerous mythological stories. The suitors in the Odyssey deserve their label as “enemy” because of their violation of exactly this idea of guest-friendship—which is based on hospitality, mercy towards suppliants, and reciprocal gift-giving. The house of Bauchis and Philemon was saved from the all-devastating plague because they were the only ones courteous enough to shelter a pair of poor wanderers—who were actually Zeus and Hermes in disguise. Suppliants are protected by Zeus—guardian of strangers, and those who afford their guests such hospitality are guaranteed ample blessings.
Throughout my visit to the land of the gods, I had the chance to observe how modern Greek people that I encountered still adhere themselves to this idea of xenia. Some corporate group used this term to name its chain of four-star hotels and restaurants (such that I saw in Delphi, Nafplio, and Epidaurus)—but that was not what xenia was all about, as it would deny other wandering strangers who knocked on their door but could not afford the form of reciprocity required. But in general, Greek people I met have been very kind and helpful towards this backpacking wanderer. The guy from Zeus hostel in Athens helped me to my room when I was too drunk to carry myself up the stairs. The Corinthians I met were nice enough to take me to the bus station when I was lost in the city. The bus driver and passengers in Athens supported my testimony to the police when I lost my ticket, and thus could not show it to him. Thanks to them, I escaped the 18(or 80?)-Euro fine. However, some people seemed to have forgotten this tradition, for example the taxi driver in Athens who tried to rip me off (I don’t speak Greek, my friend, but I do know how to read the meter); and few sketchy workers at Epidaurus who tried to ask me out.
Interestingly, I received the warmest xenia from a group of youngsters in the caldera of Oia—a town in the island of Santorini, in the Cyclades. They were in the midst of building their own bookstore. They had as their base a cave-house right underneath the castle. And from their terrace once could admire the magnificent sight of Oia’s caldera and, of course, its world-famous sunset.
I got to know about the bookstore by chance. I met Will in Fira’s bus station when about to leave for Oia. He seemed approachable and something about him told me that he would speak English. I have been traveling alone for a week, so I was excited to find someone to converse with. Will was very friendly and quite open, telling the activities he did with his friends, how he came to the island, what he had been doing, etc. All of which sounded exciting: climbing cliffs, teaching English, swimming in secluded lagoon, and the main event: starting up a bookstore.
So Will showed me the shop, and I met the rest of the team: Craig, Maria, Tim, Oliver, a friend from England [I’m sorry I forgot your name], as well as Athina and Catty. And in no time, I was drawn into this… energy, this… whirlwind of enthusiasm, creativity, warmth, and hard work. Craig was building the racks, someone (Tim?) was continually taking pictures, classical music floated from the radio in the shop, books were scattered everywhere, papers, writings, sketches, designs… The vibes caught me so fast that I was truly impressed—especially after Will told me they were building the place from scrap, and my quick observation in the shop testified to that. I browsed the books while Craig was sawing, accompanied by classical music. It felt so peaceful, and I found Kundera’s Ignorance—one I was reading back home but forgot to bring in this trip!
Maria offered me some coffee or tea, but I told her I was fine, and that I wanted to take a walk around, see Oia a bit. So I went to the castle above the shop, took some pictures, and read a couple of chapters from the Odyssey for my Greek mythology class. There were people enjoying the sights from there, as well as some students making sketch of the caldera. After that, I went exploring around, taking pictures, getting a glimpse of the lagoon, got lost. I eventually found my way back, but it was already time that I had to take my bus back to Fira, and then take another bus to Mesaria, to my hotel. I was running out of cash, for this was my last day, and I did not want to take a taxi. However, if I got in the bus, I could not stay for the sunset.
Worried about the monetary situation, I got in the bus; even though my heart was screaming that I should stay for the sunset and spend more time at the shop. As the bus pulled away, I was getting restless. As we left Oia, I was on the verge of screaming, “Stop the Vehicle!” But it was too late. The bus already strolled away through the curvy roads leading back to Fira and refused to stop. The sun was hurrying away, as the West hemisphere opened its gates to receive the golden chariot.
As soon as the bus stopped in Fira, I ran to where the taxis parked. I just knew I had to do this, or else I could never forgive myself—both for missing the sunset and for not returning to the shop as I said I would. “I want a taxi to Oia, to see the sunset, and then to return to my hotel in Mesaria.” I found a driver who was taking three other passengers to Oia, and then I tagged along. The second we got there, I stormed my way in direction to the castle, stopping to pick a lovely komboloi my sister at the jewelry shop on the way to the shop.
There were hurls of tourists climbing to the castle, getting ready for the sunset. Instead, I went down to the shop—and met Craig on the way. “Mind if I see the sunset from your porch—to avoid the crowd?”
“Not at all,” he said, making a gesture with his head to invite me in.
So I came back, and said ‘hi’ to everyone. Some people gathered on the porch. They brought me tea, and I chatted with Oliver, a friend from London, and Sean. Originally from New Zealand, Sean knew where Indonesia was (my home country). Also, it turned out that Oliver graduated from Tufts, and he knew Wesleyan, my campus. Small world!
We continued to chat while the sun performed its magnificent feat “just” for us. The sky turned pink, purplish, and bluish at the horizon. The sun’s golden circle was easily observable without having to shelter the eyes—and it descended and disappeared behind an islet, and finally beneath the sea. [An anecdote: Maria was cleaning the toilet and had her head stuck in the bowl all the while. When Helius was gone, she came out and complained, “I had my head stuck in the bowl the whole time!” To which Sean responded, “Yeah well, you know that thing is not meant to wash your hair!” / “I wasn’t washing my hair!” she shook her head in regret for missing the sunset. I told her she could still catch the next one. “I guess it’s true,” she said. And I wondered to myself, these people had been here for about two months then, and were still fascinated by this particular feat. It must be such a place to live in. It made one never want to leave, I said. Sean confirmed my statement, “Yes, this place has that effect.”]
The sunset was stunning. The tea was nice. The conversation was inspiring. They offered me to stay for dinner. “Gosh, you don’t know how I would love to stay!” (Especially since I haven’t had a warm meal for a week by then.) But I knew my taxi was waiting, and I had to pack to leave the island the next morning. So I thanked them and excused myself. The Atlantis crew told me the address of the website, and asked if I would like to write a journal entry for them. I told them I would. And now I apologize for only doing this now…
So I hopped into my taxi, which stole me to Fira, and then further away to Mesaria. I was smiling all the way—satisfied and happy, although still hungry. But it didn’t matter. As I packed my stuffs and got ready for bed, I concluded that my journey in Greece had been very successful, although not entirely. True, I didn’t get to see Olympia, Delos, or Crete. But I felt I saw enough for a two-week trip. True, I didn’t party the whole night as a climax of the trip, but it felt that stumbling into Atlantis Books was even better. I felt rewarded, and motivated. I couldn’t wait to get to Athens and to the US, to my campus, so I could get back to my own projects, my own studies, my own plans for all the things I’d always wanted to do.
If this narrative sounds more about me rather than about the bookstore, I apologize; but what I want to convey is this: how captivating an “Atlantis experience” can be! The Atlantis crew has left a lasting impression in my mind, even in an encounter that was but pathetically brief. Here, million of miles away in the US, I can still feel the burst of creativity, enthusiasm, and willpower whenever I remember that evening in Oia, and whenever I visit the website. The radiation is indeed immense and far-reaching—and it never fails to inspire me. Perhaps, the Atlantis people had demonstrated the logic behind and the benefits of the almost forgotten concept of xenia: while extending welcome towards everyone, cooperation is earned, and as a collective, they have built something—driven by imagination and team work.