Salty-skinned lesbians dry six feet apart in the scorching sun, drinking margaritas and pondering how lucky they are to be here. It’s a lazy Thursday afternoon at Flamingo Beach Bar, Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross” plays as waves pulse on the shore and queer women — who’ve escaped through travel corridors all over Europe — let their lockdown hair down for the first time this year.
Flamingo is on the beach strip in Skala Eressos, a very special town on the island of Lesvos, Greece. For decades, it’s been something of a mecca for queer women. There’s a festival every September, lots of lesbians have bought land and houses here, and there are currently three lesbian bars in this tiny little town. Flamingo, owned by Eressos veterans Anita and Jo, is one of them. Both blonde and bronzed, they’re retired police officers from the north of England — though it’s hard to imagine this past career as they bust jokes in florescent masks and flip-flops.
The pair hadn’t worked in, let alone owned, a bar before they took over Flamingo two years ago. When they heard the bar (originally owned by a group of Norwegian women) was up for sale, they stepped up. “We were like, ‘Oh, my God,’ a women’s bar is going to go. And it’s this bar. We’ve been coming here for years; we can’t let it turn into another restaurant. We need to save it,” says Jo.
“We’re not rich people,” Anita adds. “We haven’t got any money, so we ended up remortgaging our house so we could save the women’s bar.”
And that they did. This year, this space feels particularly sacred. Usually in the late summer months, Skala Eressos is saturated with lesbians — dykes galore — stuffed in every hotel room and holiday rental and spilling out of tavernas and bars. With Auntie Rona’s omnipresence, there are far less of us — no Americans, Israelis, or Turkish lesbians and far fewer Europeans (who were either forbidden or too apprehensive to travel). It feels different here: less gay, more of a sleepy Greek seaside town where families and (straight) couples go to eat octopus, drink wine, and dip in the sea.
So seeing the gay flag flying at Flamingo is like spotting a lighthouse in the dark. Women with sandy feet and wrapped in sarongs nap on big blue sofas as Anita and Jo dash about with salads and frosty pints, warm and welcoming to everyone they see. “We want people to feel like they’re stepping out their front door and going to another one, like they’re coming home,” says Jo.
Opening this year wasn’t an easy decision. With a much shorter season and ‘rona risks, they knew they’d likely take a financial hit. They wanted to open to be there for their community and to open for their staff. “Most of our staff are seasonal workers; they need to work in the summer so they can get their winter money,” says Jo.
“Though it wasn’t packed like it is every summer, women turned up and supported us, so coming was the best decision we ever made. And it was really a special season. We spent so much time talking to people that we wouldn’t normally have the time to talk to, other than ‘Hiya, do you want a drink?’ You get closer to people. I think a lot of people have found this a special year,” says Anita.
No doubt it was a special year, but a strange one too. It’s strange seeing Flamingo half-empty, people walking around in dry face masks and damp bikinis. It’s odd watching friends who haven’t seen each other in a year reduced to an elbow tap, all the time overhearing conversations about flight cancellations and family members who’ve got it and tonsil-tickling Covid tests at airports and emergency alerts from the Greek government.
These moments of fear and stress are temporarily drowned out by the beauty of this place. The sun twinkling across the sea, a trove of diamonds glistening as far as the eye can see. The energy of being surrounded by women who’ve escaped the hysteria and stress of this year and come to their favorite place in the world. And here they are, (socially distanced) sitting in this superb lesbian bar, home in a faraway land, glasses clinking, toasting this moment — one they’ve dreamt of for months.
In the pre-pandemic world, Flamingo was known for its parties: the moon dancing on the sea, barefooted lesbians emerging from the bar at 4 a.m., not knowing where time and space had gone for the last few hours.
Of course, nightlife’s a forbidden fruit this year, with stiff penalties for establishments that violate distancing protocols. But Flamingo found a safe way to regain some semblance of normality. By moving the sound system and DJ decks outside, the Flamingo crew turned the cobbled street and terrace on the beachfront into a dreamy dance floor.
This particular evening, things start slow while Anita and Jo — strapped in Flamingo face masks and on the look-out for any protocol-breakers — take orders from seated lesbians. Two Athenian DJs play smooth tunes and a little disco, as the ouzo flows and the atmosphere rises — itching — until a masked Italian woman in cream trousers stands from her seat and starts to dance in place. She moves with feckless, infectious joy.
Before long, we are back, the lesbians of Lesvos — French women, Dutch, Serbians, South Africans, Germans, tons of Greek women, too — back on the (open-air) dance floor, standing in place but dancing once more. Though we are all dancing within the confinement of our own separate groups, we are close enough to feel energy but far enough to miss the previous synergy of pre-rona. “It’s starting to feel like Skala Eressos,” someone says.
The DJ duo seem to be playing whatever they fancy with little concern for genre — anything with a wild, liberating rhythm: Rihanna’s “Rude Boy,” Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lot of Love,” George Michael’s “Freedom,” Pussycat Dolls’ “Buttons.” All are an invitation to dance like a madwoman for the first time this year.
People in neighboring restaurants look on, smirking at the lesbian bar with its chair-side dancers — the envy of the town with the highest vibe around. Local teenagers walk through the improvised dance floor, as do middle-aged holidaymakers and grandmothers and daughters, ice creams in hand. The sight seems to bring delight to everyone who saw it.
Well, nearly everyone. Jo and Anita look around like they are witnessing Armageddon. They’re haunted by the €10,000 fine promised to any establishment seen violating Covid restrictions (dancing isn’t allowed and everyone must be sat down) and the strict 2 a.m. curfew. “When people want to party, it’s difficult. Pulling the plug on the music, it’s hard, but all the time we’ve got to be aware of what could happen in terms of Covid. And if we lose our license, that’s it — the bar’s gone,” Jo says.
Anita soon takes to the microphone. “Watch your distance. Please dance at a social distance, please,” she reminds us while Jo runs around with stools for rogue dancers to sit on. “Here ladies, I’m sorry, but please have a seat,” she says in her Yorkshire accent.
I am proud to see this group of lesbians being as cautious as can be. They are dancing with plenty of distance, all with face masks on. Anita and Jo are half terrified, half overjoyed at the night, always conscious of everyone’s safety as well as legalities. “Everyone’s having the best night in months, while we’re having heart failure,” says Jo.
As 2 a.m. approaches, the curfew looms and Flamingo needs to close. At 1:59 a.m., it is time for the last song. “Last song, last song,” people murmur and bemoan. Our eclectic DJs choose Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” People bop up and down, wailing to the moon.
Flamingo Beach Bar, Skala Eressos, Island of Lesvos, Greece – http://www.flamingo-lesbos.com.