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Leefstyl | Lifestyle > Gay > Rubrieke | Columns > Egon se nuusbrief uit Israel

Visiting two islands

Egon - 2010-09-30

Once upon a time I had a friend. His name was Bruce and he used to entertain me with stories of how as a young gay man he had fled the conservatism of South Africa. He had been to London. He had been to Italy. But the stories that stayed with me were his accounts of Mykonos.

Walking the streets of Mykonos this past week, I found myself looking for Bruce. Of course, he is not here, because this week we have remembered not only his birthday but also his death eleven years ago. I wonder how he would have liked the modern-day Mykonos with its loud clubs and blatant advertisements: The Bedroom Club – “Come closer to the breathtaking bedroom boys who want to warm your heart and heat the rest ...!” Tropicana – “Where fun and enjoyment reign” – with photos that make clear the kind of fun they have in mind.

On the other hand we see gay couples who are clearly committed and enjoying the freedom that Mykonos offers them just to be themselves. “We aren’t out at home,” Martin from Germany tells us, “so for us this is really liberating!”

Mykonos churches

Mykonos streets

Mykonos Windmills

We walk and take photos – it’s difficult not to take beautiful pictures here – but in the end we spend most of our time at our pleasant accommodation called Sophia’s Village. “Wasn’t there a Sophia in Mama Mia?” asks Judy.

View from our room

We read and play cards at the poolside patio or sip cold Greek wine on our own veranda. We booked a week here because that gave us a really special price and we enjoy our rest. If raving or lying on the beach is not your thing, there’s little else to do. Well, maybe shopping – there really are lovely shops and sophisticated art galleries.

Yet ...

Before coming here, we spent a hectic 36 hours on Lesbos, the origin of the word lesbian, to find out what it was like and to attend a little bit of the Women’s Festival in Skala Eressos. This was the home town of Sappho, the 6th-century BC poetess whom Plato referred to as the “Tenth Muse”. From the moment we got into our rented car we were in love with the island. It offers the tourist so much in the way of things to do and see, of different types of landscapes, from tranquil beaches to steep mountain passes; olive orchards and vineyards. We were completely blown away. We began by visiting the ruins of the Temple of Meson dedicated to the triad of gods, Zeus, Hera and Dionysus, and where the name of Sappho appears as having led the women in praise of the Hera.

Temple of Meson

Lesbos Rose

We stopped in a little village to sit with the old men playing cards in the town square, drink a coffee and eat delicious sweet figs. We had lunch at a tiny fishing village called Sigri – delicious – golden crisp cheese pies, rocket salad garnished with slithers of parmesan and sun-dried tomatoes, and tzatziki tasting unlike any of the other variations of this classic that we had eaten.

Sigri Restaurant lunch

Sigri Restaurant lunch

At last we arrived in Skala Eressos and were delighted by the presence of so many women on the streets and in the cafés. The old men still sit and play cards and fiddle their worry beads but there are women of every description. There are straight women cuddling up to their husbands, there are women so butch you have to look twice to decide that it is a woman. There are young gorgeous little gay girls obviously abroad for the first time and lesbian couples older than ourselves who probably remember the times when being gay was not only not chic, but also dangerous. There are sophisticated women dressed in the height of designer beachwear and women in outfits which are genuinely aged by years of too much use. They come from the USA and Canada, from the Netherlands and Germany and Scandinavia and Spain and South America and we spot a South African flag cap – "I worked for an NGO in Mozambique and regularly visited South Africa,” Breda tells me with an American accent.

Skala Eressos Sappho Travel

Skala Eressos Women’s Fest Ads

I chat with Wendy Jansen from the Netherlands who is one of the original founders of the Women’s Festival. “My then partner and I came here more than twelve years ago on holiday and liked it so much that we came back the next summer to work in some of the bars. The following year we returned hoping to stay and we did. We started the festival as a way of extending the tourist season, but it has grown into much more,” she tells me. She explains that women had been coming to Lesbos to pay tribute to Sappho long before, but they wanted to exploit this as a means of stabilising the local economy.

“I heard about Sappho long ago,” says Theresa, who comes from Athens, “but it was only in 1984 that I discovered that women like me were coming here to be together in the place where Sappho wrote her poetry.” Theresa now runs one of the beach bars where many of the women hang out during summer, but returns to Athens to work there during winter. Her flirtatious friendly manner puts everyone at ease and we find ourselves drawn back there later in the evening when it is time for supper.

Wendy tells me that she is in the process of registering Sappho Travel as an NGO so that they can look for sponsorship and so expand the programmes they run. At present the festival program includes a lesbian film festival, and there are women’s art exhibitions – they were expecting a group of 22 women artists, of whom only five are gay, to arrive from Turkey to exhibit their work. There are workshops in Greek dancing, drumming and various other activities.

Festival women going on an outing

“But,” says Wendy, “if we can get funding we can also run programmes for the local women during other times of the year – not only for gay women but for all women. We want this to be a women’s festival for women regardless of orientation and age and we hope to expand our activities beyond the confines of the festival.”

We chat with Bindi, who comes from London to sell her original jewellery made in leather, silver, wood and bone. “I go from festival to festival throughout the summer, but now I am heading home for the winter months and some quiet,” she says. Later we meet Katerina Litsardopoyloy at her exhibition of woodcuts. Born on the island of Corfu, she studied in Thessaloniki and has lived on Lesbos since the end of nineties. “I love living here. I support myself by teaching because I could not make a living with my art.” This year she designed the programme cover for the festival.

Skala Eressos: Bindi doing business

Skala Eressos: Artist Katherina

After dinner at Theresa’s bar – “best pizza ever,” says Judy – we go to the outdoor cinema to see the Spanish movie Nacidas para Sufrir (Miguel Albaladejo 2010) about a 72-year-old spinster, Flora, who has a “marriage of convenience” to her housemaid, Purita. It is both sad and very funny and we enjoy it very much. Earlier we had seen clips for Gendernauts (Monika Treut), an older documentary made in Germany in 1999 on gender fluidity. What we saw was very thought-provoking.

Before dropping dead tired into our bed at the Sappho Hotel we visit one of the discos happening near our hotel. “Next time,” we promise ourselves. All those women dancing and talking and having fun makes it look very inviting, but we’re just too tired.

Lesbos Sunset

As we drive back across the island to catch our ferry to Mykonos we start planning our return visit. We both feel we would enjoy being a part of the festival and start brainstorming how we could make this possible.


Then, the other day we heard this delightful story: since earliest times the men from the island of Lesbos were known as brave and excellent sailors. When the Greek king, King George II, was heading the Greek government-in-exile in London during the Nazi occupation of Greece, he attended a parade of members of the loyalist Greek Navy. He was a very shy man and, unsure of what to say, he commented to the captain of the group that they were a bunch of fine men. “Thank you, Your Majesty,” replied the captain, “they are all Lesbians!”