Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is one of the most misunderstood and misused songs ever written. Just recently, it was played during a rally by Donald Trump’s campaign team. It has a special charm with purportedly religious people, because they misinterpret the hallelujah. Understandably, Cohen’s estate put out a few words making it clear that they had not consented and offered the rights to You Want It Darker instead. A late, honest and bleak song in which Cohen looked death in the eye, it is also very befitting the state of the world today.
It was befitting my mood as well in late August, when due to the Hungarian government’s unpleasant but not unsurprisingly hasty decision, our Greek trip was suddenly blown to shreds. Uncertainty over whether residents could return after the partial border closure was one thing, but WizzAir soon cancelled our flights too. It felt like the bardo, the liminal state between death and rebirth Cohen, a student of Buddhism for most of his life, would have been familiar with. Only I didn’t see any hopes of rebirth. My much wanted and, I felt, plentifully deserved holiday felt dead and buried.
Yet only two days later, like a Phoenix reborn from the ashes of my despair, Ryanair flight 1243 took off from Ferihegy airport headed to Athens. The right of residents to return had been confirmed, and Ryanair, in an unexpected turn worthy of South American telenovelas, suddenly became my favourite airline. I forgave them even the horribly drawn safety instruction card, the landing jingle, the insolent price of a dry croissant. We passed through a cold front moving north-east across Europe, the plane vibrating constantly for most of the flight, but little did I care, for as we descended towards Athens, in the darkness of late evening I could soon discern what was, undoubtedly, the shimmering surface of the sea.
Originally, we’d planned to go to Santorini by direct flight, but plan B meant Athens, and what would have been a longish ferry journey to Santorini. I took a quick look at the map of Greece, which always struck me as akin to a large bunch of grapes, with tiny grapes, the islands, having fallen off onto a plate. I needed a nice grape closer to Athens, I was flirting with both Naxos and Paros when I remembered Hydra. I’d long dreamed of going to Hydra, ever since reading that Leonard Cohen had lived there.
I generally associate any Greek island with a state of intense bliss. There is something essential and primordial in the endless blue of the sky meeting the endless blue of the sea, the often rugged, almost barren landscape nevertheless bearing fruit, the fragrant air and a light that is vibrant and pure. Surely enough, in recent years a normal trip to a Greek island meant some doses of that, plus packed planes and transfer buses, rides through hastily assembled plastic neighbourhoods serving the invading hordes, forests of tacky souvenir stalls, parties thumping in the distance in the dead of night and I do want to insist on them, drunk Brits. I’d read that Hydra wouldn’t be like that, as it is fairly small, has no sandy beaches to speak of and still does not allow vehicles. With the decreased number of travelers of this odd season, it might be even more similar to the Hydra I’d read about in Cohen’s interviews and biographies.
Earlier this year, I’d ordered Polly Samson’s A Theatre for Dreamers, a book set on Hydra, among the colony of expat writers and artists Cohen joined in the early 60s: Australian writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston, Swedish novelist Göran Tunström and Norwegian writer Axel Jensen, whose wife was Marianne, she of So Long Marianne fame, as after acrimoniously splitting from Jensen she would become Cohen’s lover. Samson masterfully recreates the atmosphere of creative effervescence, emotional turmoil and escapist hedonism of the colony, with a particular focus on the fate of women, suspended between their roles as muses and ambitions as creators. It thus surprised me only a little to discover that Samson herself is married to a successful musician, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. (Rumour had it that the couple spent a good part of the lockdown on the island). The plan at the time was to read the novel somewhere on a Greek island, or at home dreaming of a Greek island.
But I’d gone one better. Book in my suitcase, I was lost in Piraeus port looking for the ferry to Hydra. I’d done everything the right way until then. Booked transfers and accommodation near the port, where we’d spent a comfortable first night after our late arrival. Based on a quick assessment of Google Maps, the port was however very close, and this would be a piece of cake. Reader, take note: never, ever make quick assessments based on Google Maps and it is never, ever a piece of cake. After a sweaty forty five minutes of hoisting our luggage through possibly the most unsavoury and crime ridden neighbourhoods of Pireus we arrived at the port, where for a further two hours we were lost in the unfathomable intricacies of Greekness. Signs were few and far between, and confusing. People were idling about, sipping bitter dark coffee and being strangely just as confused as we were: oh, the ferry to Hydra, a man pensively said, and I was worried that he may not have been familiar with either concept, though, by all external signs, he was employed on a ferry. Not the one to Hydra, that was for sure. Finally, a daughter of the nation that birthed upbeat philosopher Emil Cioran, I reached unknown peaks of despair and existential angst and, based on the advice of a taxi driver, may grace follow him wherever he goes, I booked a ticket on FerryScanner. For the price of a mere 28 euros, our passage to Hydra was assured and we now knew the number of our gate. It was obviously at the very opposite end of the port, but we had time to spare and great prospects.
The trip by Flying Cat (which is a sort of fast ferry, but I just love the name) lasts about an hour and a half and takes you southward through the Saronic Gulf, with the final destination of Spetses. Before making it to Hydra, the Cat calls at Poros, in what is indeed a truly amazing pit stop, described by Henry Miller in The Colossus of Maroussi (another recommended ‘on Hydra’ read) as a sort of rebirth. It is indeed spectacular, as the ferry sneaks through the narrow canal that divides Poros from the mainland, with houses occasionally coming so close to passing boats that you could see through the windows- if they were open, which in the noon heat was not the case.
You’re almost sorry not to have gotten off at Poros, but then any regret evaporates. I guess it’s time to let the cat out of the bag: Hydra is THE quintessential Greek island. Cohen arrived here by chance, but kept coming back, as if drawn by an invisible force. As he was a very wise man, this had to mean something. The port indeed looks like a theater, the sea the stage, the rounded docks home to the spectators. Any boat is still greeted by happily expectant faces: as the island has no airport, everyone and everything arrives by boat, so the satisfied grin could be elicited by either a much missed family member or friend disembarking, or an Amazon package.
While passenger ferries dock on the left hand side of the port, the right hand side sees the arrival of smaller freight vessels. It is here that the ‘curvature’ of the stage is dotted with three cafés that used to be preferred hangouts for Cohen’s crowd: The Pirate Bar (known back then as O Peiratis), Tassos and Roloi (known back then as Katsikas). Here they would write, a little, drink, a lot, and wait for the noon boat with the hope of receiving acceptance letters and checks from their publishers. Their financial dealings were generally a minor to major disturbance in the bliss of Hydran lives, but Cohen got a lucky break when his grandmother left him enough money to buy a house up on the hill.
The island has only one official settlement, also called Hydra, and theoretically no street names, though some of the main arteries do have them. The one known as Kriezi, alternatively nicknamed by Cohen crazy street or donkey shit street, both very apt descriptions, leads from the small beach of Kamini to where the house, still owned by his children, can be found. Older blogs contain useful tips on how to identify it, mostly by the corner shop nearby, named after Maria Kontopithari, the lady who owned it since back in the 60s, but these days romance is dead. Google tells you exactly where the house is, and they helpfully named the tiny street after him. With the Greek for street, odos, in front of it, Odos Leonard Cohen, it sounds like poetry. The cobblestones of these steep streets are smooth and shiny like slabs of silver, a result of plentiful winter rains, and one can imagine the struggle of getting around in the colder season. But on warm September mornings, when I made it a habit to take a walk to ‘Leonard’s’, they truly felt like a little corner of the promised land. Perhaps it sounds overblown, perhaps there is something mildly cheesy in walking around with Bird on the Wire in your headphones, petting cats and getting ecstatic at the sight of even more bougainvillea and the fragrant scents of jasmine and cypress. But in many ways, that was Cohen’s ultimate gift: to make the sacred almost mundane, and the mundane almost sacred.
I would leave our guesthouse, pass by the small but carefully kept local football field, and take in the silence before putting on a song. This is not complete, dead silence: there are cicadas, church bells, calls of kalimera and yassas, the complaints of quarrelling cats and exasperated donkeys. But after a while you realise you feel as if cleansed, the rumble of our exhausted and exhaust filled cities a distant nightmare. I would then turn into the small square which houses the Xeri Elia (Douskos) taverna, where Cohen, then more of an aspiring writer than a musician, would take out his guitar and play a few songs for his friends. Never one for classical hero worship, I did surreptitiously touch the tree against which he’d played one evening, as demonstrated by photographic evidence. An incredibly large and lazy tortoise shell cat eyed me with pity. Then I would turn onto Rafalia, the street which leads to the pharmacy of the same name, proudly owned by the same family since the end of the 19th Century. The blog’s industrious photographer stocked up on their locally made soap, while I pondered how Cohen must have come here to stock up on certain medication that helped him function. That was the 60s, after all.
On Kriezi I dodged donkeys carrying up the haul from the morning’s ships or occasionally a nun from one of the monasteries higher up in the hills and learned to politely say kalimera to any little old lady making her way down for shopping. They knew I was a stranger, the steady population of Hydra is around two thousand souls, but they answered with open smiles (sometimes only with smiling eyes from behind a mask) as if they were happy to see me. Close to Leonard’s I would see the occasional sheepish visitor who was there for the same reason as I. We glided past the house, attempted a Greek yassas, switched to English when we both realised what we were.
When you reach the shoreside road at Kamini, there is a bench near the spot from where, legend has it, Cohen watched the sea. He did often swim at this beach (beaches on Hydra are either glorified slabs of rock or sharp pebbled affairs, and all the more beautiful for that), so it’s probably true. Walking around Hydra, every now and then you’ll see the famous quote ‘I came so far for beauty’. Watching the sun slipping behind the contours of the mainland from this spot, the silhouette of a lone pine bush bleeding into the darkness of the evening sea, you will understand why that is true. Hydra is beautiful in an almost old fashioned way, like an elderly gentleman in a well turned out suit. That’s of course an embodiment of Cohen later in life, on Hydra he was ‘almost young’, had frugal meals, stole hearts, walked down to the sea for a swim and spent hours with his green Olivetti typewriter, almost as famous as his blue raincoat, and tried to become a novelist. He never really did, and that is alright. He wrote songs, all true, some misunderstood, and these songs have every so often guided people, like they now guided me, from darkness to light.
When the plane touched down on Ferihegy airport and I returned to the most unholy of mundane troubles, two weeks of uselessly enforced quarantine, I slowly muttered as the border guard filled out my papers : ‘I will try, in my way, to be free’. He must have thought I was Kriezi.