In her pathbreaking 1971 album Blue, Joni Mitchell balanced songs of deep introspection with an infectious pop ballad called “Carey.” That song, carried on a seductive, guitar-driven beat, was pure invitation: “Come on down to the Mermaid Café,” she sang, “and I will buy you a bottle of wine. And we’ll laugh and toast to nothing and smash our empty glasses down.”
Mitchell herself was clear about the general location of the Mermaid Café: Greece, on the island of Crete in a coastal town called Matala. “And they’re playin’ that scratchy rock ’n’ roll beneath the Matala moon.” But as any fan knows, this star has always prided herself on her enigmas. When Joni-lovers tried to track down the Mermaid Café, there was none to be found. At least by that name.
And that’s how the Mermaid Café passed into modern lore, became not a ramshackle water’s-edge hut gawked at by tourists and trading on its notoriety, but a myth.
It’s a lovely myth, too, the editors at Sky thought, someplace where “the wind is in from Africa,” where you could “have a round for these freaks and these soldiers, a round for these friends of mine.” And it struck us that what the Mermaid Café represented was a pure type of destination and travel experience. So we asked a favorite corps of Sky writers to interpret the Mermaid Café, to tell us what it was for them and where it might be.
Mitchell’s geographic clues did nothing to deter a wonderful network of mis-speculations. “Corfu,” wrote one friend. “I read it in an interview.” “You know it was Ibiza, don’t you?” wrote another. “I was there right after she and James Taylor left.” The very best theory came from a writer who at first played coy with the location he was “completely sure of,” and then decided to divulge: “Central City, Colorado.”
Which was precisely the point. The Mermaid Café is anywhere you make it. It’s anywhere where you feel comfortably freed from not just the daily but the earthly chores . . . at least for a while. It’s a place where the sand will be warm to your feet when you first sit down, and then cool off as the sun goes down and the moon rises, a place where some serious thought can be given to the texture of sand and how it feels sliding between the toes.
“We’ll go to the Mermaid Café, have fun tonight,” Mitchell sings at the end of “Carey.” See you there at the usual table?
The Taverna at Vatos is empty for most of the day, as all but a handful of its regular customers prefer to spend that time on the beach at Pelekas: lounging in the Aegean, or dozing on their towels spread across sections of the smooth sand, or reading in the shade of the olive grove that starts 100 meters from the water and stretches in terraces all the way up the hill to the Greek village. But when the sun starts to fall, and the whitewashed walls of the courtyard that surround the simple wood tables and benches begin to lose their midday harshness, and everyone takes their showers outside the bar at the beach, it starts to fill up like a theater just before showtime.
Small Coke bottles are loaded with ouzo made in a distillery just down the street. Salads of lettuce, tomatoes, olives and feta cheese are put out on tables, and bowls of cucumber, garlic and yogurt mixed together are passed around with plates of pita bread. Bouzouki music is played on a tape deck, the shots of ouzo flow a bit more freely, the skin feels warm from yet another day in the sun, and you can’t help looking hard at some of the new arrivals as they walk by. Young, blond, lithe, and most from Scandinavia. I also gaze at the owner’s stately daughter, Thespina. Just out of college, she is already hauling bottles of retsina and ouzo like a pro, and I can’t resist. I suddenly yell like Zorba, “I love all the women.” Thespina gives me a dirty look. Her mother looks up from the stove and threatens me with her spatula. And four complete strangers—an Aussie, a Swede, an Italian and a South African—raise their glasses. At least someone agrees with me.
The music gets a little louder, the sun a little lower. There is deep talk of Lawrence Durrell writing The Alexandria Quartet not too far from us on this island and which of the books is better. There is debate over the quality of Stevie Wonder’s work, and much praise for Songs in the Key of Life and an unforgettable tune he wrote and sang called “Saturn.” There is discussion on the virtues of Mediterranean living and vows never to stray from this blessed land. There are more toasts, a bit more food, some hugs among new friends and jabbering in four or five different languages about everything from French politics to the best places to visit in the Middle East.The evening goes on like this for five or six hours, for five or six Coke bottles of that anise nectar only a country with a mountain full of gods could produce. It is a spirited climb to friendship and friskiness, to losing inhibition and gaining insight all at the same time. After the midnight hour, we start to drift back toward our tents and lean-tos and shacks, back down the darkened trails to the still of the olive groves and the rumble of the sea and the knowledge that anyone we didn’t get to chat with that night will surely be available for a talk and a toast the following night, when the taverna at Vatos opens for business once again.—John Steinbreder
“It’s hard to believe that’s the same moon as back home,” I say, though he doesn’t know what the moon back home looks like. Not my home, anyway.
“Yeah,” he says, and I try to imagine what he’s seeing as he gazes beyond the moon of here and now. The luminous disk—almost but not quite full—shimmers in reflections on the water of the placid little bay.
Waves lap gently with small hollow noises against the yachts—large and small, new and worn—bobbing at anchor and nestled side by side at the small dock. I hear a murmur of conversation from the deck of one, where four Americans share a bottle of wine and stories of grandchildren. The limpid breeze smells of brine, suntan lotion and gasoline.
The cafe is just a few feet from the quay and we sit facing the water, our feet propped on the splintered wood railing. I’ve been peeling beer labels tonight, and the table between us is littered with damp paper shreds.
“Meditation,” I call the habit, and he laughs. “I only do it when I have something on my mind,” I explain. He doesn’t ask what’s on my mind, and I don’t volunteer.
“Would you choose this life forever if you could?” he asks, touching the back of my hand lightly with one finger.
“If I could,” I say. “But maybe not forever.”—Sophia Dembling
A Round for These Freaks and These Soldiers
It was Freddie’s idea to get as far away from the club’s contrived 19th hole as possible after our usual 18 holes on Saturday. So one afternoon our little foursome took off for parts unknown and wound up on Tybee Island, 18 miles east of Savannah, Georgia. Tybee means “salt” to the American Indians of the area. To us, it means plopping in plastic chairs, plunking beers on a wobbly metal table and whining about the birdies that got away. This all happens at a place called the North Beach Grill, a flea-bitten oceanside shack—painted turquoise, pink and purple—that would blow away at the mere rumor of a hurricane.
Bette Davis would call it a dump and say it with feeling this time. But we like it. Great fries, great fish tacos, and the only music is the sound of muffled merriment floating between the breeze and the surf. Trouble is, we can never completely surrender to the sea. Golf is too much on our minds. “If I’d hit a 9 instead of a 7 on 15, I could have whipped your buns,” says Laura to Freddie. Or I say, “They’ve got to do something about that weekend pin placement on 18.” Or Danni says, “Putter just wasn’t working for me today.”
All the while, bodies in bathing wear stream by. Quizzical glances are cast at our strange tan lines and the scorecards scattered before us. Last year a guy took one look at us and with revulsion snarled, “Golfers.”
Sometimes, as the afternoon wears on and the sun switches from bake to low broil, we get some wedges and balls from the trunk of the car and go out to the scrub-covered dune that stretches between the grill and the beach and make believe it’s the world’s biggest sand trap and that Tiger Woods has said that there are only four people he knows of who can handle it: us. It helps that we’ve had a few beers.
Back on the weather-beaten deck, we ask the college-kid bartender, who wears two earrings and a smile beyond his years, for a round of Cokes for the road; then we fall silent, watching a huge, dripping scoop of orange sherbet melt into the ocean and quietly congratulating ourselves for having found such a terrific place to forget about golf.—Jolee Edmondson
It Sure Is Hard to Leave Here
The wind here is from the Mediterranean, with Africa just across the sea. The sky over Collioure, on the coast 30 kilometers from the Spanish border, was dubbed “the bluest in all
France” by Henri Matisse, who lived and painted here. The light and ambience brought other artists, too: Picasso, Salvador Dali (famous for his silver-tipped cane), Raoul Dufy . . . and legions of wanna-bes, writers, film stars, philosophers and Parisians looking for summer beach fun. And, for many years, I followed in their footsteps by making Le Petit Café my watering hole. A literal hole in the wall just inside the ancient village walls, a Pernod bottle’s throw from the beach, it opened every night at 10 p.m., and often said goodbye to its loyal customers at 9 the next morning.
The bartender, a burly chap I nicknamed “Monsieur Gorilla,” would greet me with a grunt and a nod. A former wrestler with the heart of a pussycat, he nonetheless ruled with an iron hand should the lively client discussions about philosophy and football spill over into hand-to-hand combat. A man of few words, he was nonetheless quick to offer a drink on the house should one’s love life not be going quite as planned. I received many free drinks from Monsieur Gorilla, I recall.
It was and is the kind of bar where, while food was served, food was not the point. Countless late nights stretched into mornings debating popular culture, village politics and the vicissitudes of life with assorted rakish artist, writer and journalist pals. Occasionally a French movie- or football star would swoop in with entourage in tow, looking for a dark place to relax and not be bothered. Le Petit Café complied with grace.—Mary Alice Kellogg
| Five Signs You’re at the Mermaid Café |
1. Sun Direct exposure turns the hairs on your forearm a golden blond, which will appear silver when the moon rises.
2. Sand Direct exposure to toes and feet provides something to do with excess energy.
3. Sea There is a gentle lapping at the shore’s edge that, indistinct at night, seems like a purr.
4. Sound The jukebox magically plays everything you want to hear and nothing that you don’t.
5. Sustenance The menus are ketchup-stained.
Five Signs You’re Not
1. Selection The wine list is longer than three items.
2. Sommelier He’s wearing one of those funny things around his neck.
3. Snobbery The people at the next table are knowledgeably discussing the difference between the ’89 Chateau Petrus and the ’90, using phrases like “mouth-clenching tannins.”
4. Stemware There are specific ones designed for specific beverages.
5. Standards And if you should decide to “laugh and toast to nothing and smash [y]our empty glasses down,” it will add very appreciably to your bill and you’ll be asked to leave. Immediately.
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