On my day off I often walk into town on the old Kini Path. The bit I don’t like much is where you need to follow the tarmac road on its bends past the quarry.
But once I reach Alithini the trail is old and it meanders down into Ano Syros, past farm terraces and goats bleating in their pens. It is like a glimpse into another version of this island, away from the mopeds whizzing by, the traffic and the noise. Often I see no one else. But not always. There are fragments of the old ways of rural life, which still go on if you know where to look. On one of these walks I passed a man with a basket, it was the old woven kind that you see now in touristic oldie worldie stores. I see whatever is in the basket is is wrapped in a white cloth like muslin, is it cheese I wonder? Or bread? Or covering an ornate silver urn with his wife ashes in? Who can say and I won’t know unless I stop and ask questions to pry open the basket. But a short ‘Kalemera’ will suffice. That is the thing about observing the details, the differences; that is all you have to go on. The rest is all your own assumption and imagination.
But on I walk through spider webs and crunching over the bracken-like dry branches that lie scattered across the stone path. Small harsh reminders of a dry climate and the passing of an unusually dry winter. I can see a man ahead of me on the path, perhaps he’s been feeding his goats or collecting eggs from the hens. He strides purposefully carrying a plastic crate back to the car park, maybe into a battered flatbed truck and he’ll drive off to his apartment in the centre of town, placing the eggs next to yesterdays offering in a humming refrigerator with an ice-maker on the door. Is his connection to his family’s land reaffirmed by each morning’s rituals? Or is he wishing it all away and glad his grand-children won’t rely on these ways?
By the time I reach the bridge that leans over a dried up riverbed there is a man collecting figs. He stands at the side of the road under the tree, the soft tarmac is littered with spongy fruits spilling their red flesh. His arms are frames reaching upwards and his left hand acts like a basket stretched open to hold seven ripe figs. I pass treading on the drying mess, inhaling the decaying honeyed scent of late summer.
Entering the old medieval settlement at the Portera it is always the white washed houses and twisted streets you expect that wind up to the Catholic Church of Agios Nikiolas. But it is the silence I anticipate, a hushed quietness of early morning, the sound of a dove cooing and swoosh of a broom sweeping away papery leaves. It’s not a ghost town but its population has dwindled since the end of the WW2. All the people I encounter are older. At every turn there are a fair share of empty houses. Not always abandoned but many are shuttered up against the seasons. Even in August. Perhaps the owners no longer make their annual summer return to the family house. Some have for sale signs, some are even newer realty agents with logos and neat lettering. Some have faded POLEITAI yellow notices sellotaped onto their doors, others are just a phone number daubed on the remaining brickwork with paint. The weight of possession hangs heavy before any tourists wander up here. When they do they’ll sit coffee in the little square, listening to Rembetiko and take photos of the mules that are still used to deliver water and goods to the tavernas. Little pockets of white-washed Chora charm and bouganvillia spilling over doorways. A few new art spaces and cafes have opened up and younger people are moving up here now, which I think makes people pleased to see.
With time enough to wander I do. I am being followed round by a cloud that seeks home and connection, like a nostalgia for something I don’t yet know. This translates into a sadness when I see abandoned houses. The ones that look like people just walked away from them, shut the door and never returned. I peek into a house whose shutter has rotted away to nothing. On the floor lies discarded items, at first not noticeable for the layer of dust, but a boxy handbag sits upright by the door in my line of sight. It’s the type my grandma would have carried in the late 1950s. Small and boxy with a clasp on top – short curved handles. There are papers all over the floor as if before they left someone frantically was searching for something. A treasured photo, a lock of baby hair. The room is lit only by the sun steaming in through a gap in the rotting roof. The raw smell of decades of closed up stifled air intermingling with bare earth, seeping out from the window gap I can just about see into, through a gap 3 inches wide. All I can think of is a lady holding that handbag, clasped on her lap, hands folded over it. Proudly smiling, she is going somewhere, waiting patiently at a station.
Further up there is a grander house. Its door has been recently left swung open – vandals, a photographer or keen documenter of social history, the artistically inclined? The door gapes like a forlorn sigh in the breeze. Dust everywhere, circling down though the shafts of light from the shutters. A towel hangs on the rail in the farthest room. Blue paint peeling open to layers of rose pink and dusky orange. A suitcase lies open, sheets of music strewn and yellowing like it just coughed them out of its leathery bowels. A solitary shoe kicked off in a rush as the composer packed his violin and ran away to be with his lover.
Aside: Once you notice the ever present mystery of the lone shoe, you’ll soon realise their prevalence; one sad hiking boot washed up on a beach, a solo boot thrown in a ravine, one trainer strewn on the highways miles apart from its partner, a canvas sneaker strung up by it’s shoelaces on telephone wires in inner cities…everywhere in the world is full of estranged pairs of shoes. In a house we moved into there was a solitary shoe decades old mouldering in the basement. I thought about it for months.
You see I’d never go in to an abandoned house. I couldn’t, it’s the right side of wrong to peek, but going in would burst open that rule. So I stand and look. Then get conscious that even by looking I am intruding on a life and a death and all the love and betrayal that goes on in what was and still is someone’s home. Everything that goes on in these rooms is the fabric of our own search for belonging and realisation of our mortality. Everything that remains is what is left of a life. I am drawn to abandonment, it is like the metaphysical partner of the idea of home.
So much of what happens is always a sign of the turbulent times we live in. This week we all heard the news that the Greek Crisis is now over, which seemed to pass like a rumble of slow thunder through the country without any fanfare. The end of the real debt-repayment will go on until 2060.
This news won’t immediately change the lives of the pensioners or the unemployed that are struggling. The man running the shop will still wring his hands at the end of the day and wonder how next year taxes can ever be paid in advance. The rural ways are in decline – it’s a split country, as the cities grow and villages are left without services and infrastructure. The economic is changing rapidly and Greece’s population is still in decline with lower birth rates and scores of young people moving away for better job prospects.
The houses which look abandoned are more likely up for sale as just a way of trying to reign in the assets against the Government’s ever increasing property tax hikes. It may be a land of ‘Kefi’ song and dance, enticing visitors under blue skies and white-washed villages– but it is also a land where it was, infinitely easier to shut the doors on empty buildings and let the ruins crumble, than try to rebuild and restore.
A country you love can be like a home, just like a history or story you don’t belong to can help you think about your own in a different way. Shine a light on the differences, the human sameness and all the grey shadows in between. Sometimes that’s all I’m looking for.