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Corfu: Island of White Light

A long-bearded priest in black robes, who had been sitting on a stone bench by the walled garden, preceded me into the church and pointed to where I should sit. I remarked on his hat: black—naturally, as Orthodox priests wear the—but with a border quilted in a pattern of leaves; he had sewn it, as well as the other clothes he wore. He said he would give it to me if I gave him mine, a crushed black cotton thing that was my meager barrier against the sun. Suddenly, he took my elbow and pulled me out of my seat, waving his bearded jaw at a framed object at the back of the church. It was an embroidery he had made in the course of 30 months, three hours a day, using silk, gold, and silver thread, representing the death of Mary. He had sewn it while he was still at the Monastery of Mount Athos, where he had spent 30 years steeped in silence. "Too many tourists here at Paleokastrítsa," he complained, "too many veemen in chortzes."

He showed me the ex-votos, strings hung low with gold rings, crosses, charms, and medals across the bottom of images of saints and Madonnas. "Peoples everythings problems come heres: no married, no baby…problem heres, and heres…" He pointed to a knee, an elbow. "After baby okay, after finish problem, give wedding rings." A golden leg and foot made into pendants were some of the other "thanks" for favors received.

In the following days, we went to a beach called Pagos (which means "ice") because it is bathed by icy cold waters, and to another, in Sidhari, called Canal d'Amour, where swimming through the sinuous channel of cerulean water between tall eroded rock formations guarantees everlasting love, according to local lore. We visited every part of the island except the southernmost, which can be reached only by four-wheel drive or boat. I would say that the charm of Corfu is concentrated in its city and its villages—in the Venetian elegance of the one, and the bucolic white, pink, and turquoise Greekness of the other. The island was occupied by the Venetians for more than four centuries, until 1797, by the French Republic for two years, briefly by the Turks and the Russians, by the imperial French till 1814, then by the English (hence cricket as a national sport and ginger beer on every café menu). It was finally ceded to the Greek state in 1864, along with the other Ionian islands.

Near the end of our stay on Corfu, during a cocktail party in Ileana's drawing room, I felt the parquet floor wobble beneath my feet, and my body rock. I thought it must be Kula the cook bearing a tray of glasses from the kitchen. But the rocking increased, and two women and one man, as though in a relay, said, "Seismos," "Seismos," "Seismos." Even I knew what that meant—earthquake. Everyone continued to talk and sip white wine; the powder blue taffeta crinkled, the gold medusas on Versace sunglasses flashed, the cravat tucked into a shirtfront glistened, and floors rattled. The woman in the taffeta pushed a gray lock slightly off her forehead and said placidly, "A little shake does everyone a world of good."

In our hotel room that night, there were seven long-stemmed red roses, wrapped in cellophane, lying on one bed. A note said, "Welcome to Corfu! Love, Babis." Did my mother have a secret suitor?She denied the charge, so I called the concierge to inform him that the roses must be for someone else. No, he insisted, he was quite sure they were in the right room. A minute later, the phone rang: "This is Babis," a male voice boomed. Then, more menacingly, "Remember Babis?"

"No," I mumbled, beginning to feel it was a conspiracy, "you must have the wrong…"

"Babis!" he yelled into the phone, "Marika's Babis!"

Finally, I saw the light: he was the son of a woman on Paxos whom my parents had known for 20 years; he owned a restaurant on the road past the new port of Corfu. "Oh, Babis!" I cried, relieved.

Now that he had at last been recognized, that he knew himself to be among friends, he became violent. "You are here. You don't come to see Babis. Don't eat in Babis's restaurant. Not even coffee. I do something wrong?i am very angry!" he concluded with unexpected vigor, considering I had met him only once years before. We made amends by allowing him to feed us for two hours at his restaurant, under an arbor, with the cars speeding by on the road, but beyond it the sea and fishing boats painted white, turquoise, and red. Little fish and big fish came to the table, with fried potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes, cucumbers, and feta. On the speaker, to bouzouki accompaniment, a man sang in English with a pronounced Greek accent, "How do you like, mum-zelle, dee Griss?"

Mum-zelle liked. The Corfiotes had welcomed us with open arms, included us in every plan, dinner, beach excursion…earthquake. As our departure approached we were ships receding on the horizon of their affection. Have a nice winter, they said, no one will be left but the cats. Still, Corfu is a place in which to dream of being an expatriate: worldly enough to tempt one with the notion of living there year-round; remote enough to be an escape. A place where a dog, even a spirit dog hovering close to the ground, can admire the underside of cats, the cushioning of their paws.

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