Nostalgia: Shiny and Oh So Bright

Nostalgia is wonderful to wallow in. Just for a while, a night, a few hours reliving something to remind yourself life has changed. Peeling away the layers to its comfort. It’s right there where you left it and when you need it most. Emotions are heightened, its noises are sharper and atmosphere visceral. It’s like walking backwards, scary at first, but a relief when you arrive in the familiar. Music has this quality. And for anyone who has lived through the 90s there is plenty of bands reforming, dusting off classic albums anniversary tours. It’s nice to get the older crowd out, and I include myself here. Dust off your old band t-shirt, have a few week-night beers, forget about work/wrinkles/kids/middle-age spread.

Last night we went to see one of G’s favourite bands of all time, the Smashing Pumpkins at Wembley Arena. He loves them, whereas I’m a slow-burn fan. As a teenager MTV was my gateway drug for music and the Pumpkins were on repeat for most of the 90s. Glassy-eyed I’ve absorbed the visuals of the band longingly from afar.

Next month, the band will release their new album ‘Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1 / LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun’ – the first to feature founding Pumpkins members Billy Corgan, James Iha, and Jimmy Chamberlin since 2000. The crowd is heaving but not sold out by the time the prompt start-time is adhered to. Corgan takes to the stage – a lone figure in metallic platform boots, a half-skirt half-suit costume – all theatrics with his trade mark bald head, porcelain skin and eye liner.  The ensemble, is not to hide but to emphasise the width and height of his 6ft2 frame. Behind him plays a montage of his childhood, sepia photos still-frame and home-video footage, child Corgan with his dimples – over laced with scrawling art slogans.

The video imagery was clever, but also left me wondering what artistic ego fantasy Corgan is playing out. He plays both the creepy looming 6ft Devil and the God-like protector of a virginal 1920s showgirl. As well as the 12ft St Billy Idol illuminated in fairy lights being paraded through the crowd mid-way through. A coincidence on the icy blonde on screen and the one missing from the stage, an obvious swipe or a clever inter-play on the missing D’arcy?

The three hour show was knowing and so referential about its own place in the value of nostalgia and served as a meander through Corgan’s own life as an artist and creator. He’s in character all night. James Iha is pretty chatty in comparison to Corgan’s silence. Crucially both are undoubtedly skilled musicians, their guitar solos more than prove this. Whatever I thought of him before, I realise Billy Corgan is the clever showman. Reported to be rather egotistical, a bit of a control freak with complicated relationships with ex-bandmates. After all it took him years to get the band back together. And let’s just skim over that time he set up a pro-wrestling company.

But this wasn’t just reliving the past, it went above that into pure theatrics. With vaudeville video intros by Mark McGrath, special guests and cover songs; Landslide with Amalie Bruun and a sprawling version of Stairway to Heaven.  It took the revival concept and pushed it into something polished. Corgan seems to step outside of his comfort zone when he isn’t holding his guitar as a crutch, even managing some dance moves (and even some smiles) –  which might have been a bit ‘dad-dance’. The cover of Bowie’s Space Oddity when he appears in a metallic hooded outfit was as hilarious as it was surreal, but was also fun in a show way which lifts the show way above plan old references to the past incarnations of the band.

With a set-list of 33 tracks Tonight, Tonight, Zero, Bullet with Butterfly Wings, 1979, Today – all the classic sing-along anthems had their place. The crowd, whether old fans or new all fused in the upswing of a familiar chorus, ‘despite all my rage I am still just a rat in cage’. I bet there are a few hung-over middle managers sweating it out in their office cubicles today. A bittersweet return to the emotional joy of youth. Even if just for a night, nostalgia is a nice place to visit.

in praise of standing still

In a storm we look out at the sea for the crash of the waves, the wild foaming froth and surge of the tide. Gauging intensity by how the trees sway and shake with each mighty gust.  We have had some almighty strong northern winds on the island, bringing cooler temperatures, blowing up dust and ripping clothes from washing lines. And it’s meant to be getting worse in the next few days. Thanks weather, sent to test the sea-legs!

I thought about stability while watching the waves crash on Loto beach early in the morning; things that we take for granted in a storm are those things that stay still. Against the big calamitous waves, churning up the sand and seaweed we lose sight of the rocks and the landscape. By focusing in on the changes around us, fixating on the crush and weight of it all, obsessing over the tiniest and often irrelevant details, this is the great blundering commotion of living isn’t it? Like the waves in a storm, it is change from which the human spirit grows. The sand patterns get redrawn every day by the currents, nothing stays the same.

It is an incredibly human attribute to react and adapt. There is so much that I thought impossible 10 years ago; the ability to do your job from any desk, the confidence to strike out a path that veered away from some conventions.  I am so lucky and thankful that this works for us for now. None of this comes without challenge. I want to say that some of life’s joys are in living passively, slowing down and just accepting, perhaps being in motion stands in the way of stability. But what is stability other than the safety of things that do not shift? 

The natural world offers up stability enough to withstand change. Getting out there and hiking helps to remind me why life should be taken at face value. Stand still and look around you. It is just wild hills, centuries old paths and dry stone walls, secrets in caves and big wide horizons.  We did a hike the other week starting in the tiny hamlet of Syrigas (one church, a well and 3 houses) and then down to Cave Leonidas. It was a bit of a rough track downwards but easy to stick to the trail. It passed the Skizomenes (σχιζομενες) which are a huge natural chasm in the rocks. I’m not sure if I even know the right words to describe it as a geological phenomena – an earthquake must have caused the rocks to split open and create a crevasse about 30m wide and 200m high. It’s an amazing place, perfectly still and quiet. Pausing there you can hear a pin drop in its echoey silence. It also has capers growing all the way up.  A wonderful reminder of nature’s ability to adapt to even the wildest of climates. A perfect place to stand still. 

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Little things never cease to amaze,  like seeing that some random seeds that fell from the first cosmos flowers in May have actually grown into real flowers. They opened this week, pale dusky pink flowers in the soft light of mid September. We have been walking back through the village at night serenaded by the heady perfume of night flowering jasmine.

I’m really thankful that it’s been a genuinely interesting spring and summer for my horticultural skills; helping with the potato harvest, picking bucket loads of capers till my thumb turned green and helping with the grape collection for winemaking taught me a lot  (not just about how my fave drink is made!). On the homegrown front, the tomatoes have been a success. They were much better out in the field on the veg patch than in containers. Same for the cucumbers where we had a few weeks of being reliable and crunchy, before it got too hot in July. Courgettes were rather good and we had a regular supply…maybe a bit too many! Aubergines were big and showy, I made a decent moussaka and pondered a hundred recipes to use them up…G has sworn off aubergines for life…or until next summer at least.

Sadly, despite my soothing words and constant watering, the melon was a dud. Herbs and the fiery chillies have been a great addition to more adventurous cooking, trying out curries and spicy dishes. Growing, eating things up and preserving have been an obsession for me – “NO WASTING FOOD!” I cry! Jams, picked, frozen, sun-dried – I’ve tried them all.  The fig season came early this year in the hot July, the village was awash with figs, figs. And more figs. They were traded and given as gifts, I made fig cakes, baked figs, figs in balsamic, dried figs, fig and red onion chutney. That one is being saved for Christmas…

I’m might not have been blogging so much (this is my 65th post – is that time well spent?) but I have been delving into things, piecing together little bits of information like a patchwork of ideas.  Syros above all things is  an island with a complicated history.  I’ve been visiting the archives in the old Ladoupolis Mansion in Maoulis Square. During World War 2 it housed the Assistance Civilia ran by the Italian occupying forces. A tragic time for the islanders as the great famine took the lives of thousands – it wasn’t unheard of for the well off to sell furniture and even houses for a bag of bread.  So you can imagine the devastation it had on working class families. The achieve ended up being left with all the records intact after the Italian forces left in a hurry when the Germans took over – so was preserved as a records office and now houses the archives. Trying to work out if some things I am learning about can make sense or go further. Playing around with words. It’s kind of like being a detective or an archaeologist, but without any tools to rely on.

20180920_134451Maybe there is happiness in just standing still wherever I find myself. Keeping a watchful eye out. Soaking up the stories. See where they lead.

Amorgos: hiking in the clouds

I hadn’t seen The Big Blue so didn’t know what to expect. In the pre-instagram age of the late 80s Jean Luc Besson’s film catapulted this small Cycladic Island community onto the tourists radar. Even 30 years later people still visit to plunge into deep blue waters. Numerous places to stay are named after variations of film’s title as well as an annual ‘Real Big Blue’ diving competition. This was all lost on us. We went to discover Amorgos’ rugged land, famous hiking trails, not just the blue sea.

The early start in the island capital’s Chora coincided with dawn shuffling over the grey sky. We packed our rucksacks with supplies for the long hiking route #1. Stepping out into the eerie village  we were greeted a wild moan of wind rushing through the streets like an omen. Hadn’t we come here for the Hellenic sunshine?

The first part of the walk seemed easy, down a cobbled traditional stone path, seemingly headed right into the Aegean. Instead it dipped into a tarmacked road and became a car park at the famous whitewashed Monastery clings dramatically to the rocky cliff face. Panagia Hozoviotissa has captivated worshippers and travellers since the 11th century. Described eclectically as a chest of drawers by one intrepid explorer in the 1800s – it still holds true as a revered place of Orthodox worship.

“Bonjour, Ca’va?” a voice came from a hobbit-sized doorway. We were greeted by a monk laying out skirts for the women visitors to wear. Respectful dress codes still apply. Most visitors are French or Italian, so he practices less English. He chats in between offering a shot of honey infused raki and a bite-sized Loukoumi. We tell him of our hiking plans and he is surprised we are taking such a long route, ‘you are strong, right?’ he says doubtfully looking at our slight frames. Smiling he waves us off with “Kala Tichi” Greek for good luck. Between the dark clouds rolling in from the mountains and the doubt from the monk, I feel only trepidation as the rugged path stretches before us. The full route is 20km to Aegiali – the sign post states 4hours 40mins. We take this with a big pinch of greek maybe time!

After a sharp ascent and narrow drop to the sea, we keep pace traversing a shrubby plain weaving in and out of gigantic boulders. The 4 other hikers are crossing the opposite way, it becomes apparent we are doing the hike in reverse. The path direction less travelled.  Traditionally the Orthadox biers of Easter are taken in procession across the island from Aiegali to be laid the Monastery. Stopping off at every church on the way to give blessings. Hiking the path backwards perhaps is fitting in summer. The wild goats don’t seem to mind. As we reach the peak when the path converges, the clouds are descending fast, I feel like they are whipping round us and making the morning seem like a foggy winters eve.

20180828_10394820180828_102814It warm but the sun is nowhere to be seen. Never mind the big blue, this visibility means we can only see about 10 foot in front of us. Soon a clatter of goat bells clang harmoniously and we round a corner to see a whole herd emerging out of the clouds.  They converge round us unafraid and bleeting.

Onwards high above the roads and scattered farmhouses that remain in this harsh landscape. Past vast terraces of land once cultivated for wheat and grains, vines and olives. Reaching the abandoned village of Asfontylitis marks the half-way point in the middle of the Great Strata path. Although a couple of the houses are restored, village life hasn’t changed here in centuries. We saw two men carrying water from the well helped by their sturdy mules. The church marks the centre of the settlement, they waved kindly at us, probably used to stray hikers nosing around. Some amazing rock paintings of stick men appeared on large stones as the path veers left and up – were they a warning?

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We took a lunch stop after the vast valley of Oxo Meria facing the tiny chapel of Agia Mamas. Two men stood around in the shade. Soon one was whitewashing the church walls with a long extended brush. The other took photos with a rickety clicking digital camera. This must be the proof of their mornings work. How else would anyone know if the painting at been done, the church was a good few hours walk from any of the main roads.  Only hikers or mules would be witnesses to the new coat of paint.

Finally around 5 hours later we took the final decent down the path into Aiegali, the clouds seemed to part as if by magic and the sun blazed down.  There was no question then, the big blue sea beckoned us for a cooling dip.

Perhaps we were learning what the fuss was about after all.

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In ruins

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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.

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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.

Butterflies in the trees

It’s July, no scratch that. It was and now it is August and the sun melts one day into the next, like ice-cream pooling at the foot of a screaming child. I used to think August was a yellow month, it marks a peak of summer, the light starts to fade and days do become shorter. But now I think it is orange and dusty because of the wild Saharan winds blowing over the islands. Each day ticking past with that sunset closer and closer. Family have visited us and we tried to show them the things we like, and places we go. But time together was what mattered most over the touristy things to do. The sea is warm now so we swam on busy beaches and even my mum went swimming for the first time in years. I was witness to her frolicking in the waves and I have to call it that, she had a childish grin and giggled. She even managed to get just the ends of her hair wet and ruin a good straw hat. I think it was worth it. I haven’t seen my mum properly get in the sea in 15 years or more, maybe 20. It was a brilliant holiday, a Greek Staycation of the finest order. Time off work and lots of eating out and wine and good conversations and stories.

I thought a lot while the family were here – and they gave me lots to think about, in a good way. Not just considering what they think of how we live here, but also how my life is so different from theirs was at my age. We talked about choices and acceptance – it has changed so much from one generation to the next, what was a wild adventure in 1960s, is now a common place weekend away. What was a safe career choice back then doesn’t exist now – house prices, global economic gloom, climate change are all a reality that affect us all.  I wasn’t sure how but it seems like choices that are available have made us expect more from work and life, and as a result are more anxious.  A pervasive fear about what success should look like, or feel like, is perhaps not a balance between ambition, expectation, obligation and gratitude. Perhaps it is just a fabled Arcadia.

It reminded me of an overheard conversation a few weeks ago. Three people, shared a table set out with tiny white cups of Greek coffee and glasses of water. A loaf of fresh bread, perhaps brioche, was being slowly eaten as they talked, hands tearing the bread into pieces.  They are much older than me, but spritely animated with hair in various shades of grey bobbing up and down in my eye-line. It is one man and two women.  I have an espresso freddo to keep my notepad and pen company in the shade of  Maouli Square at noon. There could be no better place to spend time than this. Under the shadow of the Ernst Ziller designed Town Hall, a plateia of marble, both extraordinarily historic and splendidly grand. My dad agrees with this when he visits – he’d sit there all day watching the pigeons if we’d let him. Each of the three are taking bites of the bread and slurps of coffee between slow and long proclamations in English, Greek and a few words of French. They are talking about their families. “Everyone talks about money as if it’s the solution” one of the two ladies starts and they listen. The other lady eventually responds nodding “In this life it is difficult, it should be difficult, things need to be valued” The man chips in “they want another house, a new car, a holiday not one but three times a year.  Pah, it never ends”. Their conversation turns to grandchildren – ‘always wanting more, toys and fun parties and things to possess’.  I gather the gist only from the English they use with the wringing of hands that this is a worry. A familiar generational difference the world over. Each generation tricked or cajoled into the lifestyle trappings affordable to only the privileged few. ‘Isn’t health and time worth something now? she says.

I try to swim in the morning when the beaches are quiet.  There are regulars with rituals to observe. ‘Kalo Banio’ they call to one another ‘have a good swim’. The couple who hold hands and set their towels out under the same shade every day. They arrive by car, although I suspect  they don’t travel far. There are two old men that arrive at the same time, in similar worn baggy shorts and greet each other like old friends. They discard their plastic beach shoes neatly next to each other as they chat. I imagine they are talking about the current, the swell of the sea and its deep mysteries with intricate detail that could only be gleaned from a lifetime of summers spent swimming here. There are three women who wave at the men ‘Yassas’ as they bob and chat in the water. Their faces hidden from glare by their white cotton hats. It is a ritual of daybreak. That cleansing swim to ward off ills and keep going against the tide of time.

We are 2 days into 10 days of land-sitting for our landlord. It’s not an arduous task, just watering the fruit trees and crops, looking after the chickens. For me; it’s bit of a good life fantasy to have something like this one day. Yesterday we went to the field in late afternoon, which is really what in the UK we’d call early evening,  when the sun is lower in the sky and the days heat is starting to dissipate. Walking though the fruit trees at the back we disturbed a lot of butterflies, as they started to fly around us and G immediately panicked thinking they were moths! It was quite a sight to behold. Somewhere between 30 or even 50 pairs of orange and brown wings fluttering in different directions. All flying out from under the shady canopies of the dark green leaves of the citrus trees. It was the type of sight that would have been amazing to capture on a photo, but it wasn’t a time I had my camera.

Not everything can be captured and stored away in a digital file, sometimes the memory is good enough to last.