Like a bird on the wire.
Like a drunk in a midnight choir.
I have tried in my way to be free.
Leonard Cohen wrote the words to the opening verse of “Bird on the Wire” from his Hydra hideout in the early 1960s. The story goes that a 25-year-old Cohen retreated to Hydra to finish his first novel. He had been in London on a Canadian Arts Council Grant, uninspired by the cold and rain outside his Hampstead lodgings.
Legend has it that Cohen had just gotten a wisdom tooth pulled out and was meandering around the East End of London. It was yet another rainy day when a Bank of Greece sign caught his eye. Cohen went in and noticed the teller had a tan, his eyes hidden behind a pair of sunglasses. Cohen asked the guy about the weather in Greece.
“Springtime” the teller replied.
And on the spot, Cohen decided to head down to Greece. He was in Athens within the next couple of days. Years later, he commented on the impulsive move.
“I said to myself that I should go somewhere completely different in order to see how they live.”
The Bird on the Wire
Leonard Cohen arrived in Greece on April 13, 1960, and continued south, hopping on a ship for a five-hour journey to the island of Hydra where electricity was a novelty and there wasn’t a car in sight. Months later, six days after his twenty-six birthday, Cohen used some money left to him from his grandmother to purchase a home in Hydra for $1,500. It’s from this home, a few minutes walk down to the port, that Cohen wrote the opening lines to “Bird on the Wire.”
The story goes that Cohen looked out the window of his Hydra home and noticed a bird chirping on a newly installed telephone wire. When he first came, the island was blissfully disconnected. And as he better familiarized himself with the locals, he often found himself among the singing drunks stumbling up the cobblestones around midnight.
Go to Hydra and it’s is easy to see how this place had such a mystical grip over the man and how it revived his creativity. But you do have to go there to understand it. Words don’t do it justice. Pictures come close but ultimately fall short. People who have a religious or something of an other worldly experience similarly fail to find the words to describe it. That’s Hydra. It’s a place that’s continued to tug at me ever since I left.
“In Another Era”
Modernity has continued to swim up to the shores of Hydra since Cohen noticed a bird on a telephone wire. But compared to the likes of a square around a subway stop in Tokyo or Times Square, Hydra continues to feel like it’s in another era. Cars still aren’t allowed on the island and it just makes all the difference. The streets are tranquil, the air is fresh, and the cumulative weight of societal pressures––work, produce, get money, consume, repeat and stick with the plan––float away like a balloon.
It’s entirely possible that I was especially enchanted with Hydra because I was there toward the end of the low season. That meant clear blue skies, warm days and brisk nights, and small crowds. A daytime cruise ship did pull up one afternoon with throngs of hurried tourists running around the harbor to find their perfect Instagram background. But within a couple of hours, they were gone, and life went on.
There is a mythical aurora about Hydra, the kind that sticks to your bones long after you’ve gone. “That’s it. That’s paradise,” you tell yourself. It’s easy to imagine skipping the boat back to Athens, rebooking your flight, and sticking behind a little longer. Just another helping of dolmades with a bottle of Mythos to wash it down.
I need to burrow myself into the rational corners of my brain, the bits of goo unmoved by the palpable romanticism of a place like Hydra, to remind myself that paradise itself is a myth. There’s a quote that kind of touches on that.
“Once you’ve lived on Hydra you can’t live anywhere else, including Hydra.”
It was said by poet Kenneth Koch but apparently gets misattributed to Cohen. The fact that it gets misattributed to Cohen seems like a comment in and of itself on the disconnect between romantic notions of life on Hydra and the way it really is.
Still, you’d be hard pressed to find a better place where you can try, in your way, to be free.