Οία, Santorini, Greece
On Being A Stereotypical Tourist For a Change
Welcome to Get Lost, a newsletter by Real Queer America and Love & Estrogen author Samantha Allen. Named after the 1995 Magnetic Fields album, Get Lost explores unsung and undersung places, people, and texts through a personal lens. This third entry takes you to the Greek island of Santorini. Enter your email below to subscribe!
Santorini is not the sort of place I would usually feature on Get Lost. If anything, this small Greek island is too on the radar. Once a place is used as a shooting location on The Bachelorette, you know it’s about to be overrun by the Instagram set—and indeed, over the course of a single hour spent strolling the main road here in Οία, I saw no fewer than five couples doing an “influencer photo shoot,” which means that they paid a local €200 to take them to various pre-selected scenic vistas and capture them with a DSLR camera. It’s amusing to watch people whose brands depend on the perception of uniqueness being photographed in the exact same spot where a dozen other “Insta-famous” people posed that very hour. Some beautiful parts of the world—like Santorini—are at risk of becoming mere backdrops in a social media-driven travel economy.
This is the first time in a long time that I have gone somewhere expressly built around the hospitality industry. It’s not my preference—and it will probably be years before I come to somewhere like Santorini again—but for our “shoulder season” trip this year, my wife and I wanted to be stereotypical vacationers, with all the first-world guilt that entails. I wanted to sit by an infinity pool and read a locked-room mystery novel and watch the sunset while drinking the world’s most expensive bottle of Diet Coke from the minibar. We flew here from Amsterdam on a rare (and almost empty) nonstop flight, just in time for the end of the season. Our hotel closes two days after we leave. This late in October, we can actually afford a small cliffside suite with its own hot tub; during the summer, when millions of travelers swarm the island, it would be out of reach. The wealthy flock here in the summer for understandable reasons: In the mornings, the Mediterranean sun casts a dewy mist onto the white villas that cling to the bluff. And when you watch that famous burnt-orange sunset each night, it feels like you’re watching God himself go to sleep.
This is an excessively gorgeous place. The fact that it has become a luxury travel destination makes perfect sense. But because Santorini is not the sort of spot I would usually visit—and because I have nothing to do here besides look at the water, eat gyros, and work my way through Stephen King’s latest—the island has given me lots of time to think about why I do travel. About why I feel the need to do it over and over again. About why I experience travel not as a way to relax but rather as a compulsion, a need, or a “hunger” as Anthony Bourdain often referred to it.
This year alone, I have taken approximately 30 flights, visiting 14 states and two new countries, not to mention a weeklong road trip up and down the Pacific Coast Highway, stopping to see the redwoods. Much of that travel was for work, but when I’m not traveling on business, I always like to have a personal trip on the horizon. Maybe just a night in Orcas Island. Still, it’s not enough. It’s never enough.
On the flight from Amsterdam to Santorini, I finished reading Dispatches from Pluto, travel writer Richard Grant’s book about a year spent living in the Mississippi Delta. In one of the closing chapters, someone asks Grant what lessons he’s learned from his years spent exploring the globe and he replies, “None, really. The more you learn, the more complicated it gets.” It’s a response that starts out a bit flippantly—and, of course, it can’t be true, strictly speaking: Travel is full of lessons, both cultural and historical, as Grant himself readily acknowledges. But I think that “none, really” captures something essential about feeling the need to travel so much when you have the means to do so: It doesn’t make sense. It is, in fact, self-defeating: You can circle the globe hoping to sate your curiosity, but it only leaves you wanting to feel and experience more. It’s like going to a restaurant hungry only to find out its a gym.
Fittingly, we are spending much of our time here in Santorini eating. The island has a thriving fine dining scene—which we indulge in once, and even then it’s a stretch for us, financially—but the most delicious meal on the island comes from a casual tapas joint called Melitini and it costs less than €15: lamb sausage coated in herbs, drizzled with fresh-squeezed lemon, served with a cold bottle of Greek mountain tea to wash it down. When I eat this dish, half of my brain is here, enjoying these flavors—but the other half is wondering what else I might be missing if I’m still discovering new favorite dishes and drinks at age 32. I couldn’t possibly get to them all. Our world is finite but inexhaustible. The treadmill in that gym has no “off” button.
At one point, I think I approached travel as a project that could be completed. As a map that I could riddle with pushpins or a jigsaw puzzle I could assemble and frame on my wall. That fairly common mindset is why we use terms like “bucket list” and digest countless articles about what to see “before you die.” (The Santorini sunset appears on many of those listicles, I’m sure.) But these days, I think of travel not as a project but as a process—as something that has an inherent value irrespective of where I go. Moving my body to a different time zone, breathing different air, eating something strange, hearing foreign phonemes—all of that alters you, subtly and often without notice. I don’t know exactly what I’m learning while sitting on this Οία hotel balcony—in fact, I’m actively trying to avoid learning anything except the identity of the killer in my mystery book—and yet, I can still sense that involuntary inner shift.
Watching the sunset at the end of this year full of new sights (while sipping a much-less-expensive Diet Coke that I found at the convenience store a half-mile away), I can feel the fantastically defamiliarizing feeling of not being quite sure who I’m becoming or how. In one of my favorite films—Annihilation—a character exploring an unknown land worries that she may not be the same person at the end of her expedition as she was at the start. But of course she can’t be. No one comes out of travel unchanged. Even when you want to be a touristic cliché, it changes you. Once you embrace that fact, it’s hard to keep still. Movement for movement’s sake becomes the new goal.
Indeed, everyone has impulses that animate them—or, rather, everyone needs impulses to animate them. According to affect theorist Silvan Tomkins, feelings of interest and excitement are what literally keep us alive; if we weren’t interested in being alive, after all, we would allow ourselves to die. But because life can be long, we end up doing the things we’re interested in over and over again—and in my case that’s going places. We could get all Freudian and call this “repetition compulsion”—or we could simply say that we have to fill up our time with things we find fascinating. The trick with travel, as with any animating impulse, is to analyze your relationship to it, instead of trying to figure out where it’s taking you. Because there is no endpoint—none, really. There is only process, ritual, and repetition: another sunrise, another sunset, another place.
Thanks so much for reading Get Lost! The next entry will take you to the New Jersey coast in the offseason—and, after that, to Wilton Manors, Florida, the second gayest city in the country. Sign up below so you don’t miss a post!