Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Mama Mia, How Can I Forget You? Skopelos, Greece

We took a ferry to the wrong side of the island. That meant negotiating a taxi ride. In Greece not every cabbie will accommodate you. It's a thing where they'll often drive by and you kind of shout where you want to go through their window and if they feel like taking you there, they'll take you, or they'll keep right on driving. Don't take it personally. 

Walking up to the taxi stand we stated our destination, Agio Ioannis, and the driver sighed and shouted, “Mama Mia!” to the other drivers. I had seen the Mama Mia movie a couple years ago and had no idea it had been filmed in Skopelos, nor had I made the connection to Agio Ioannis. I joined the group going to Skopelos because when I wrote a recent novel I randomly chose it as a refuge for my shieldmaiden assassin. For me it was retroactive research.

Our taxi driver hadn’t had much sleep the night before and being inundated with a pile of perpetually cheerful female writers seemed to do him in. He asked what kind of car I drove and left me forever self-conscious about saying the word “Wrangler” with my American accent. We might have also called him The Nazi instead of Thanasi with our American accents, but mostly because he threatened to kill us at least three times.

The road to Glossa is full of hair pin curves and the driver talked with his hands. It was a memorable drive. Little shrines dot the highway. We assumed they were shrines to Thanasi’s previous fares, but a native later told me they’re actually a type of thank you to guardian angels from people who’ve had accidents there and survived.

Agios Ioannis

Agios Ioannis is a church on top of a tall outcropping of rock. However people managed to build it up there is a testimony to the human spirit. It’s spectacular. The hike up is a blast, going up paths and stairs. The view from the top is breathtaking. The Aegean Sea is so clear and the color of it from above talks to your soul. My cheery group of writers were the only people up there and we practically danced around examining every aspect of it. 

View from Mama Mia Church

One of us may or may not have moved the boards to examine the ancient outhouse (a hole in the ground, sorta hanging off the island), and if it had been me who decided to use this facility I’d never admit it even if there are technically photographs, because writers have some seriously messed up senses of humor. No wonder Thenasi threatened to kill us so much. We kind of felt the same way about him when he harshed our Aegean commune with nature by laying on the horn down below. (He’d only allotted us 30 minutes.)


After our day at the Mama Mia church (and no tourists or taxi drivers killed anyone) I later returned to Skopelos solo. My goal was to find the café and house I’d chosen for my main characters from thousands of miles away. It’s not too difficult to find a white house with turquoise shutters in Greece, but this one needed three stories so my assassin could jump from the balcony to the street below—and really freak her husband out. This is the type of realistic detail that can occupy the writer mind indefinitely. It’s why we play so well all by our onesies. Sure it’s fiction, but it needs a basis in reality.
Panagista of Pyrgos

Getting lost in the labyrinthine alleys, tackling never-ending stairs and wandering the backstreets of Skopelos was heavenly. I’d first spotted Panagitsa of Pyrgos from the port when my ferry stopped briefly at the island weeks before, now I had time to examine it up close. My hours were spent wandering to the places I’d only gone in my imagination with my characters as my avatars. It turns out that Google Earth is an incredibly accurate research tool. It was still a thrill to light candles in Saint Nicholas church myself, and stop at a juice bar that my clean-eating Carole Blank would have approved of. 


One of my tasks was thwarted. My To-Do list for Skopelos included trying cinnamon ice-cream, which might be the only commonality for the couple from my book, but the only place I could find that had it (gelato is far more popular) was once again on the other side of the island. I went to the taxi stand, and guess who was there just waiting to harsh my quest? Yep. Thenasi. He said he’d take me over for a price way beyond my ice-cream budget. I have a feeling he might have recognized me.

The Top of Panagista of Pyrgos

S.R. Karfelt

Instead of cinnamon ice-cream I tried a rice dish full of shrimp still wearing their feelers and eyeballs. My table rested against a case full of ice and a blackfish about my size. I decided to spend the rest of the trip sticking to the safety of Greek salads and the to-die-for yogurt with plums. Besides dark had fallen, the moon lit the sea, the last ferry of the night backed into the port, and my next research project awaited on a different island. Open-Air Cinemas are popular in Greece and a local one played Mama Mia a couple times a week. That might be outside the technical definition of my book research, but wouldn't you have headed that way too? Besides, just watch me use it in a novel. 

Friday, July 17, 2015

Greece All By My Onesie

S.R. Karfelt, Author, Writer, Writing, Greece, Alonissos
S.R. Karfelt/The Glitter Globe

Beaches have never been my thing.

Not beaches, not islands.

But Greece has won me over.

Right in the middle of insolvency and political messes I've fallen in love with the one your mother warns you about.


But, Daddy, I'm in love.

Today I hiked to one of the rocky beaches I can't pronounce to lie around, write, maybe snorkel a little. I stopped on my way and bought a pot of basil for the balcony of my pension and a two-piece swimsuit that I'd never wear among the witnesses of my own country. But I'll do it here. Hell, I'll take a potted plant to the beach with me here.

My skin hasn't been tanned like this in decades. It isn't something I pursued even here as I spent my weeks writing and evenings hiking, but the sun and sea broke through my resolve and 50 SPF sunscreen, although in that two-piece I'm sporting the whitest mid-drift in the Aegean.


Yesterday I determined to hike up the donkey trail to the Old Village. Seems most every island here has one. It's called Hora, which I think most are, and sits on a high peak at the end of the island. A white walled city bursting with brilliant flashes of color, bougainvillea blooms, turquoise pots, lilac trim. My fellow writers and traveling companions left--painfully pulled back to reality. Only I managed to stay on, demanding more time to investigate rocky coves, to ferry to other islands, to write and explore new paths.

Like the donkey trail.

Even though I had no clue where it was, I have Google Maps!

What could possibly go wrong?

Of course I got lost. It was something I suspected when cars and scooters passed me on said donkey trail, but I knew for certain as I stood in the middle of a chicken coop in some farmer's backyard. The weathered elderly gentleman spoke as much English as I speak Greek. We really wanted to talk too, and we both tried. He insisted I was British. A logical conclusion since it takes an American about three flights, a ferry, and three days to get here. In the end we straightened that out and had a long talk about his time in San Francisco. I think. It was all in Greek.

He offered to drive me to Hora--which I pronounce miserably wrong--that was very kind, but I was hiking DANG IT. So he helpfully pointed to the hot sun hovering over the forested hills to the west and said, "Follow the sun. You can't miss it."

Seriously? Is that legit lost advice? I swear on my heart's blood I can miss it.

If you think you can't get lost on an island you must not use Google Maps. I elected to trust my farmer and follow the sun, even though it has no path. I plowed through weeds, brush, and trees, not thinking about Greek ticks and snakes or ancient open pits hidden under greenery and full of tourist bones, or even about wayward travelers who get dehydrated in the desert no one can hike across on half a bottle of water, or those eaten by a bear because they inadvertently got behind the wrong fence. At least I didn't think about that stuff much.

The writer brain is a double edged blade. We get paid to come up with the worst and most unlikely scenario you realize?

But before I even had to open my Wikipedia app to check out the likelihood of Greek snakes and alleged bears, I stumbled onto a donkey-sized cobblestone path. After that I just followed my feet, which is really the only app or map a meandering wanderer needs isn't it?

All's well that ends well, right? Especially when you're in love. This is what a donkey trail looks like, for those of you who do use Google Maps.

Did you fall in love with a country this summer? Let's chat about places we love. Anyone else hopelessly in love even though it could never work out?

I'm here to commiserate with you, in Greek even.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Have You Ever Been Carried Forward On Air? Ode to My Summer Life

Have You Ever Been Carried Forward by Air? Summer, Life, Karfelt
Ode to My Summer Life/S.R. Karfelt

Have you ever been carried forward on air?

Those brief moments when gravity is suspended?
Your feet barely touch the ground.

Your bike tires crunch on finely milled gravel,
But you're flying like E.T. in the movie.
Only Amish bikers move faster, fit and trim,
Their smiles powering the jet stream.

Have you ever stepped out of a perfectly good plane?
Been lifted by wind, held suspended by that invisible force?
Was all the air once this clean?
How long can this benevolence last?

Did your bare feet once touch the firm bank of the river,
Taking you past tiger lilies and spider webs,
Touching pebbly pools and punishing thorns,
To dangle in the water where you were forbidden to go?

Was a stolen butter-knife all you needed clenched in your fist,
As you climbed the smooth limbs of a tree,
To carve your name in the bark,
While whispering apologies for the desecration.

Is the scent of stone and bat guano familiar?
Does it lure you deeper into the cavern?
A whisper of where you came from,
A strangely reassuring promise of where you'll eventually return.

Will you climb the long ladder where so few tourists will go,
Up the face of a cliff as dust coats your throat.
It powders your hair and welcomes you up,
To enter a kiva where no white girl belongs.

Do you pass through the desert on hesitant feet,
Where the toll is cactus spines burrowing deep?
Where your body dehydrates into the setting sun,
And your dry tongue never soothes cracked lips,
To pay homage to Saguaro Sentinels watching with blind eyes.

Can you dip beneath clear salty water to drop down deep,
And merge with the fishes who swim past your feet,
And open your eyes to glimpse universes out of your reach,
Full of canyons and valleys and wealthy with life,
To float carried on liquid air,
Far far past your strife?

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