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In search of Leonard Cohen’s moonlight

Cohen's description of his time in Hydra is evidently influenced by his Zen Buddhist leanings

A view of Hydra port. Photo: Alamy
A view of Hydra port. Photo: Alamy

Around this time last year, fans of the late musician Leonard Cohen unveiled a bench on the picturesque island of Hydra in Greece. They came from as far as Japan and Lithuania to commemorate his death in November 2016. The bench, overlooking the Aegean Sea, was imagined to be at the spot he viewed the sunsets that inspired his poetry.

Going by TripAdvisor threads, one would think all anybody does in Hydra is search for Cohen—his sunset bench, his home, the café that hosted his first “concert". But the internet, as we know, has its own truths. While vacationing in Hydra last month, my husband and I kept our phones at bay—it would be vulgar to use Google Maps on an island with no motor vehicles. So we were at the mercy of directions that hinged on “the only bright yellow house on the island" and “by the clock tower’s shadow". The sun was still in the sky at 8.30pm but we hadn’t yet located the bench. When I finally spotted a bench after a couple of hours of walking, I decided it had to be it. My husband is a Cohen devout but since I was his only travel companion, he probably decided it was wiser to agree (this is how faith works, if you had any doubt).

Two colours stand out in the Hydriot landscape: the pink of foxgloves and bougainvillea and at least 10 shades of blue. At sunset, it is these two colours that briefly wrestle and then marry in the sky, one giving in to the other.

The next evening we decided to look for his house with slightly better preparation. The houses on the island rise around a marble-quayed harbour. We knew that Cohen’s house was high on the island, had a grey double door and a hand-shaped knocker with a Star of David as a nod to his Jewish heritage. It turned out this was no preparation at all since most houses on the island have hand-shaped knockers. Our search only served to startle officers at a marine institute and women picking cherries from wooden crates. We were, instead, directed to stories about Sophia Loren, who spent several weeks in Hydra for her 1957 movie, Boy On A Dolphin.

I was determined to find the house though, partly because one has to do things between being seduced by yet another meal of octopus and ouzo.

The young Canadian, then a 26-year-old emerging poet, had bought the 19th century stone house in 1960 with $1,500 (around 1 lakh now) from his grandmother’s inheritance. It was here that he wrote his only two novels; here that he decided music was the best way to ship his poetry to the world. On the trip, I was reading Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, and in an introduction to a new edition, she writes: “Dinginess is death to a writer. Filth, discomfort, hunger, cold, trauma and drama, don’t matter a bit... dinginess, the damp confines of the mediocre and the gradual corrosion of beauty and light, the compromising and the settling; these things make good work impossible." Even though the house Cohen bought, and went on to inhabit for the next seven years, had no electricity or running water, there was certainly no dinginess for him in Hydra. I haven’t seen a sunnier place in my life.

Cohen’s description of his time there is evidently influenced by his Zen Buddhist leanings. It rings of Basho: “There is nowhere in the world where you can live like you can in Hydra, and that includes Hydra." Even after Cohen moved away to pursue music around the world, he returned to Hydra during the summers.

It is in Hydra that he met Marianne Ihlen, who inspired numerous songs, including So Long, Marianne, on his debut album. His poem Days Of Kindness is about Ihlen, and their time in Hydra.

Greece is a good place

to look at the moon, isn’t it?

You can read by moonlight

You can read on the terrace

You can see a face

as you saw it when you were young

We reached the house after several flights of steps through winding alleys, with the odour of donkey shit and the sound of bad Greek pop songs for company. It was a whitewashed stone house with a grey double door. It had the hand-shaped knocker, and the Star of David. Overgrown pink bougainvillea fell in streams from one side of the wall. It was under renovation and the debris was like construction debris anywhere in the world. We sat on a pile of cement bags and read his poetry in the moonlight. In the end, the house was anti-climactic. But it was never about finding the house.

Anindita Ghose tweets at @aninditaghose

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