The first Paxos hero I met, almost 30 years ago, was Yiorgo, the manwho sold my father a piece of land that had belonged to his uncle in Agia Marina. It faces the magical bay of Mongonisi on one side and the open sea on the other. It also faces the steep cliffs of the neighboring islet of Antipaxos, where few live and where we sometimes go by boat to swim off white sandy beaches and have lunch at a restaurant up a steep stone staircase with a view of a blue universe. If a musical had been shot on Paxos in the sixties, Yiorgo would have been the fellow singing the song after dinner and some pink-faced beauty in a pale blue dress would have been crying in her room later that night. His eyes have a certain melting quality, his hair is silvery white, he is trim and seems never to eat, but smokes and drinks a little. His wife, Irini, looks like an older sister of their two daughters, Amalia and Olga, and the three run an apartment-rental agency.
It was on the desk of Sir John Figgess, a British diplomat and expert in Asian art, that my father caught sight of a brochure advertising houses on Paxos and said casually, "Why don't we go there?" My parents' house was designed by my brother, an architect, on three levels to suit the terraced site above the ruins of a Roman basilica. My father, who was born on Rhodes (in the brief spell when it was Italian), rediscovered his roots and the language he'd grown up with. Initially he spoke Greek hesitantly, then better and better with every passing summer.
When we first went to Paxos there was a boat called the Camelia that brought you from Corfu. You traveled with a goat or two and groceries and it took several hours to reach Gaios, a town of pink, yellow, and sienna houses facing the harbor. Lakka is a 10-minute drive away. You go past the town of Magazia, with its low whitewashed houses and a café where a cat nearly always sleeps nestled in one of the chairs, and Apostoli, where you can watch the sun sink into the sea. Lakka itself has been somewhat appropriated by the English, many of whom reach its shores by sailboat and at night crowd its bars and cafés.
You choose a restaurant based on what you feel like eating—pasta with shellfish at Rosa di Paxos, charcoal-grilled fish at Nassos; in the more rural little towns, stifado at Magazia, with tables set on an accidental square where the road widens between two houses; Mongonisi for eggplant and tomatoes stuffed with rice and grilled octopus; grilled chicken at Karkaletzos'son a terrace beneath a corrugated tin roof transformed by a multitude of aqua-green potsplanted with geraniums and begonias, and overhung with flowering vines.
The man Karkaletzos and his wife are what make this last place the Paxos you think of. He goes up to little babies, sticks his ruddy face right up against theirs, and growls at them, and they seem to love it. He sits by himself at the last table of the restaurant and observes the scene as though it hardly concerned him. He smokes a cigarette.
Leaving, the last time I was there, I saw Karkaletzos through the car window, his hair grazed by a tendril from an orange bell-shaped-flower vine, nonchalantly surveying his empire. A little girl was telling him a long story; he listened as though his life depended on it.
Marpissa is on the other side of the island from the port town of Páros, a ride of about half an hour over a mountain. At a sudden turn in the road, it appears below, white and compact against the dark brown of an extinct volcano. I have been going to Marpissa for about 20 years. At first, the village was almost completely desolated, but year by year the small, interconnecting houses, abandoned when so many Greeks from the islands and provinces went to earn their livelihoods in Athens, have been reclaimed by them or their children as holiday houses and rebuilt.
There is tourism, lots and lots of it, which, along with the production of wine and olive oil, has made Páros rich. There's no arguing with that, but the richer the island becomes, the deeper the division between the old Greece and the new. When I'm in Marpissa I'm frankly never sure which Greece I am more attracted to.
An hour's walk from the village to the sea is part of my daily regimen, so each day I have to decide which of the two paths to take there.
The Piso Livadi way takes me past a gleaming new zaharoplastion (coffeehouse), which has refrigerated glass-and-chrome cases filled with pastries, and along a lovely paved path through an almost litter-free pine woods to the port town of Piso Livadi. I once saw a 1950's photograph of the beach there, when the solitary structure was a fisherman's shack; now the port is replete with hotels, and along the seafront there are shops and appealing restaurants. Here all the signs are in English; Greek is almost a second language. I like the many low stone walls, for the stone is in fact large chunks of marble, the most common building material on the island and one for which Páros has been famous since antiquity (the fourth-century B.C. sculptor Praxiteles used Parian marble for his statue of Hermes). I come to Punda beach, and I have to admit that the change here is too much for me; the change from the time when I first discovered this beach and everyone—men, women, and children—lay naked and gleaming in the sunlight. Now it is a compound of bars, a swimming pool, and a tattoo parlor, and the beach is packed with people showing off expensive bathing suits and lying not on fine sand but on rented lounge chairs, and the whole is acoustically aflame with American hard rock and rap so loud that, like intense heat from a raging fire, it makes the air quiver. I feel a sudden aversion to the new Greece, which seems to have nothing to do with the Greece I know.