Of Santorini Sunsets
Winter in Scotland has been hard (and it’s hardly yet begun). The days are short and cold. It’s dark when I walk to work, and dark again well before I leave. Even when the heating is on (which it rarely is) the chill still seeps through the single-pane windows. In the mornings, the hill down to the bus stop is a solid sheet of us that I slide down. But what I notice is that the sun hardly rises above the horizon - it travels East to West but stays quite low in the sky.
It’s an interesting phenomenon - being forced to think about the sun. It used to govern so much of what we did - before electricity the sun was integral to daily life. But now it doesn’t really matter. While it’s nice to be outside in the sun (which I so rarely am these days), I can work 9:00-5:30 year round without much of an issue.
For Jews it’s a little bit different. In college I remember describing to a professor that I needed to be back from a Friday field trip before sunset. My classmates thought I was mental. Modern society has become so out of touch with nature that we’re scarcely required to acknowledge it - bananas in January, vitamin D tablets to get you through the winter, and sunwings vacations to Cabo all exist to prove to us that we’re the real masters of our reality. Winter doesn’t dictate our lives, it’s just something that we need to overcome.
What I love about Santorini is that nature becomes so visceral. All of the elements exist harmoniously on the tiny island. You’re surrounded on all four sides by the deep blue waters of the Aegean Sea. The wind whips across the caldera edge, causing the bougainvillea petals to dance in circles on the cobbled paths. The earth is so pronounced, rising slowly to the peak before plunging deep into the water below. And the fire comes at sunset as the setting sun reflects fiercely off the windows of thousands of white cliff-clinging villas.
Thousands of years ago, Santorini was called Stronghyli, meaning round island. That’s because it was, in fact, a round island. Then, around 1500 BCE, the volcano in the centre of the island erupted, destroying the island’s civilizations and causing the centre of the island to sink into the sea, forming the caldera (half-moon shaped island - don’t worry, I also didn’t know) that exists today. It’s crazy to look out at the mass of rock, as well as the few others that are leftover from the eruption, and envision how drastically a landscape can change. These things which seem so permanent to us, are really only permanent in the sense of our limited scope of reference.
In the South of the island lies a settlement called Akrotiri. Akrotiri was a thriving village founded around 5000 BCE. But during the volcanic eruption of 1500 BCE, the city was totally destroyed and covered in a thick layer of ash. For the residents of Akrotiri, life changed so dramatically. It must have been quite traumatic for them to leave their homes (they all left in advance of the eruption, and no skeletons were found at the site) and start up again elsewhere. Yet their trauma has made Santorini what it is today. What to them must have been a complete tragedy has given the current residents of Santorini their livelihood through a thriving tourist industry.
We see our lives through limited perspective. We don’t understand the larger picture, what led to certain events, what will come of them in the future. We don’t understand why things are the way they are, which can be very frustrating sometimes. And we don’t always have the power to change our realities, which can be hard to accept. Winter is winter, and we can’t change that, regardless of how much we want to be the masters of our lives. The only thing we can do is change how we react to our realities.
The big thing to do in Santorini is stay somewhere with a caldera view. As the island curves around the central volcano, there are sweeping views of the dramatic cliff edge with picturesque Grecian villages perched along the ledge. It’s beautiful. Rooms in the luxury hotels cascading down the steep stairwells cost upwards of €500, with nicer ones sporting private infinity pools and views looking out towards the sunset.
I didn’t stay at one of those hotels. I had a nice private room in a village halfway down the other side of the hill called Karterados. Karterados is really lovely. It may have been a 15-minute walk up to the amenities of Fira, but there’s something nice about getting away from the tourism and coming home to a normal town. I walked past kids playing in their nursery, the soccer team at practice, and locals stocking up on groceries.
I got a tub of Greek yoghurt and a jar of honey from the local grocery store, and in the mornings I would sit on the patio taking in my surroundings. This morning in Glasgow I ate my breakfast standing up in my room, getting dressed between bites and running out the door to my 8:30 assembly. As I tasted the tartness of the yoghurt, the sweetness of the honey, took in the sun rising over the white-washed, bougainvillea-draped courtyard in the middle of Karterados, I felt totally present in the space I was in.
That’s a really difficult feeling to find. Sometimes I feel like I’m running around so constantly that I’m never really in one place. But something that helps me feel grounded somewhere new is thinking about the physical elements around me, and how they’re the same all around the world. Swimming in the blue of the Aegean Sea is just like swimming off the North Shore in Vancouver. The crumbling hills of Imerovigli are made of the same dirt as the cliffs of Jodhpur. The wind blowing over the cliff edge feels the same as the wind blowing across the path down to Sha’ar Yafo in Jerusalem. And sunsets are the same everywhere in the world, whether it’s from the terraces of Oia, where tourists stand in clumps trying to get the best spot, or alone on the empty path between Firostefani and Imerovigli.
Seeing the bigger picture can be hard. Understanding the value of our experiences even without external perspective can be even harder. I think that Santorini taught me to take comfort from the things around us, and bring them back with me into my everyday.