Tο σπίτι μας – our house

I sit here and listen. Just sitting here and listening with my eyes closed and suddenly it’s like I have hearing for the first time – as if wax has been unblocked from my ears. I hear the birds chirping away merrily, a couple of dogs barking in the distance, their sound enlarged and amplified by the hills, and a few goat bells tinkle away. Then a wood pigeon coos – it’s a sound that takes me back to childhood. A late summer echo from years ago. The wind stirs the trees, rushing and whistling, if I strain I can hear the sea…

And so here we are renting a little house in a village by the sea. With all its unfamiliar new noises and eerie early season silence. It’s a simple little single storey whitewashed ‘spiti / house’ – I’m going to describe it as traditional, simple kitchen and a basic bathroom. It has blue shutters and a big terrace running the length of the front, overlooking a big open space. Two big pine trees shade the house, we think planted after it was built and now towering over the terrace, there’s an olive tree at the entrance and a fig tree at the back. Scrubby grass dominating with four hibiscus bushes and 2 oleander’s to the left of the house, there is also a very wild looking passionflower climber which I’d like to train around the terrace. It is mostly very sandy soil, dry and almost clay-like. I think growing in pots will be best – our landlord advises the same and as soon as he noted my interest in gardening offered to bring over pots and plants he had spare. I feel very welcomed and already at home. In fact it look less than an hour to unpack…making a list of things to pick up from the big shop in Ermoupol. Rugs, bottle opener, seat cushions. All we need to make a home.

The first few nights were cold, we shivered under 3 blankets, both with full sleeved clothing and the AC set to heat. That’s the thing with a lot of the old island houses, built to protect them from the ravages of summer heat, they don’t fare well in the winter with cold tile floors and high ceilings.  Even through it was Easter week and daytime temperatures were 19c…after we moved in last week they started to dip to 14c and then down to 9c on an evening, now that really did feel cold!

Now a week after moving in the sunshine is back and the Easter tourists have gone home.

The water pump is fixed – a little problem on the first day as a new pump had been installed to pump the water from the ‘sterna’ (basement water tank) under the house. This is an old traditional system of storing water that should last the whole summer – now the houses have heated water it needs to get pumped to the roof and then to the boiler. But the pump had a few teething problems, so the local plumber (also our neighbour) spent considerable time here figuring it out. So much so we escaped to the souvlaki café out of politeness…where we met some locals and were bought a round a drinks courtesy of the landlord.

The following day, the plumber left us a bag of lemons from his tree. Making good on his promise, the landlord brought round 6 tomato seedlings and a pepper, as well as pots and herbs. I went for an early run this morning. ‘Yassoo / Kalimera’ – friendly waves from the bar, the taverna, the workman sweeping the path, the sly cats still glare with suspicion and the dogs bark.

But still in a week we feel welcomed in the village. We now have a place for the summer, a million lemons and some baby plants to look after….oh and a friendly stray cat that meows outside on the terrace.

I think that makes it a home already.

Rollin’ into Syros

I feel harassed to tell you what an issue I have created with my luggage, dearest Graeme has mentioned in several times. He mutters “That bag” pointing to the flabby kind of wheel along holdall big enough to fit an adult human in.

It reared its head at Gatwick airport, when I honestly had this moment which felt straight out of an absolute nightmare, that suddenly I had no idea what was in it. It felt like I’d packed it weeks ago (well 10 days to be exact) like something had got in there I didn’t need. Or was it just the sheer volume of clothes I thought I needed. (I do need – it’s cold here at the moment, jumpers, jeans and jackets are wardrobe staples, I need hiking boots, but then it gets really hot by June – so YES I DO NEED 7 PAIRS OF SHORTS AND 10 BIKINIS!)

Anyway I had a wobble about the big bag at the airport – Graeme sniffed, winding me up and said “your bag your problem”. Harsh, but fair. But it was under 20 kilos, so we managed everything we needed under 80kgs – I was impressed. Despite this we huffed, puffed and struggled when we arrived in Athens. Luckily our Airb&b host Nasos met us at Syntagma Square and took one look at us and laughed “you moving here or what?” Lol – ‘Yes actually!” we replied. He helped us drag the bags to his flat. All fine, see big bag is okay.

Luckily I had done some research and come up with a genius idea weeks in the planning to check our bags into the long term luggage storage at Athens Studios – brilliant place, 3 euros a day for a massive locker and no need to even think about the bags for a whole week while we took enough stuff to last us through Meteora and Delfi. Perfect. Not to end up torturing ourselves with the bag shuffle to Piraeus last Sunday, we cleverly decided to ‘treat ourselves’ to a taxi. “Not a problem” nice taxi man helped – earned a tip and left us to huffle and puffle the bags into a wardrobe sized lift to the 5th floor in the aforementioned ‘hotel of ill-repute’..

After a  sleepless night in Piraeus at such a dubious hotel, I won’t bring myself to mention its name we set off to walk 800 meters to baord teh ferry to Syros with THE BLOODY BAGS!

Again, all fine the bags made it on the Blue Star Naxos – piled in the safety one of the luggage hold areas on the car deck.  We relaxed, snoozed and wandered around gazing wistfully at the Aegean in the blue lit hours after dawn. It always makes me think of the line in Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek; “The sea, autumn mildness, islands bathed in light, fine rain spreading a diaphanous veil over the immortal nakedness of Greece. Happy is the man, I thought, who, before dying, has the good fortune to sail the Aegean Sea” . It truly was a sight to behold, an unwritten summer of adventure and discovery opening up before us on the horizon…plus the travelcalm tabs had kicked in so I was feeling a little soppy.

After 3 and a bit hour’s of people watching and cheese pie eating (nb. blue star snack bars are actually pretty decent for coffee and snacks these days), soon enough the ferry starts slowing into to Syros. Its bulk heaved into the port at Ermoupoli, its twin hills glinting in pastel shades under a turquoise sky.

We had a few words between us on the ferry about whether to get a taxi to Avlitis Studios, they were a 12 minute google mapped distance and I was convinced they were tricky to find up a hill. Anyway we set off walking after the chaos of a ferry arrival, cars beeping, families reunited and tourists looking for hosts and busses on the port. We walked and dragged the bags…oh my big bag felt like someone had replaced all my shorts and sandals with lead, its wheels were useless on the cobbles and the pull along handle isn’t quite big enough to get a speed up. “Grrr”, I was sweating – wearing a coat and the sun blazed down. There was a moment when I gritted my teeth and muttered inaudibly “should have got a taxi, stick to your instincts Lindsay, don’t listen to this crazy penny pinching idea of walking..grrrrr”. We kept swapping over the bags and each talking it in turn to pull/push THE BIG BAG. Then Graeme, detecting this was getting harder – cracked out an ingenious idea! The longboard, of course, that trusty steed!

Next thing I know he has placed the bag on top of the board, its smooth alloys mean the bag moves along with much less effort. Brilliant! – Oh, look there’s a hill we have to climb. He hands over the reins to me, no problem this is a breeze the bags weight is reduced by half and I pull it gently up the hill – at the peak I am almost jubilant, we can see the Avlitis sign, we are really close to the studios. We both look at each other relieved, excited, the big Greek adventure. Then, suddenly everything just slows down, my grip recedes from the bag, the bag now on its super-fast wheels starts to move…downhill.

I freeze, my instincts make me shout at the Bag “Stop, Stop!  STOOOOOPPPP!” I am a fool, an idiot – the massive bag shaped ‘vehicle’ starts speeding up, it careers down the hill, I try to chase it continuing yelling. Graeme swears, I can feel tears welling up, I am panicking, he runs like a superhero. All the while the bloody 20kilo monstrosity keeps going down the hill, faster and faster, down at least 400meters, I can’t breathe! Then by some miracle the big flabby bag gives up, it skids off the longboard. It rolls like a car in a highway chase and then skids to a halt. Okay – this we can cope with. But no, that would be okay, but we still have a problem. The longboard isn’t one for slowing, so it keeps going until the end of the road and does a grand finale and jumps! I think it’s just into grassy scrubland, or is it a ravine, or a dried up river bed. I just stand there crying, heaving, thinking over and over, “What a numpty” and worse…Graeme jumps down into the concrete base and grass – he doesn’t yell, he shakes his head and I just die a little bit inside knowing that he loves that board and if its splintered in two, all the money in the world won’t make it right…just when I’m about to really cry, he triumphantly emerges from the grass holding the longboard still in one piece! This means our marriage is still in one piece…all can be saved!

“Only you! Only you could do that” he shouts from the bottom of the hill! Then starts dragging the bag up the hill again, with the might of the Greek legend of Sisyphus pushing the rock to the top. Although if you know the tale that really should have been my punishment. Only this time unlike me, he doesn’t let go – we make it just round the corner, I run ahead to the studio and Antonios runs out to greet us and help with ALL THE BLOODY BAGS.

Once inside the haven, for the first 5 minutes we can’t look at each other. Antonios Mum, Maria makes us strong Greek coffees and laughs at how much luggage we have. “Only a week here” I smile and blink back tears. When they leave us in our room, I am red faced. “They must think we are idiots” Graeme looks at me “No, you are the idiot and that bag is your idiot bag”

One day we’ll laugh about this. Not yet, maybe in a week or a month, or even a year – but I really hope it will be funny.

Miraculously, no children, mopeds, goats or cats were injured in this incident. But there was a bemused farmer who looked on from the hills and probably thought “Idiot Brits and their MASSIVE BLOODY BAGS”. Which I imagine means the whole island knows about our arrival…

Greek train travel to Kalambaka: order out of chaos

The journey to Kalabaka to see Meteora by train was a rather unique experience. Even though I’d consider myself an experienced train traveller, I’m a daily South Eastern London commuter and with a few trips across Europe and the US under my belt, I naively thought how hard can this be? Buyng the tickets online was easy enough. Yet all that experience didn’t bear relevance whatsoever when it comes to train travel in Greece. Arriving at Larissa Station in Athens isn’t really how you’d expect the national train station to be. It only has 4 platforms, no working departure or arrival boards, no newsagents or snack bar, no announcements and passengers just take it upon themselves to wander over the tracks to get across. Despite it being very chaotic, there was a strange order at play – a calm very Greek statement of fact about it all.  The Station Guards wear stab vests with the word SECURITY emblazoned across. This was both unnerving (who attacks a train man?) and reassuring (obviously a man who’s acting as bouncer knows everything). When such one man sent us across to Platform 4 he clearly wasn’t in the know. This platform did look a little underused with weeds littering cracks in the concrete, another guard shouted us back and said ‘NO, the train to Kalabaka goes from here..maybe’. All the locals were as bemused as the tourists, all united in trepidation as we  waited for the same cross-country train. London Kings Cross at rush hour this most certainly wasn’t – but maybe that’s why I enjoyed it so much.

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Passengers were asking each other and I have a feeling that the most informed man among us was the humble Koulari seller, who seemed to know the timetable from memory and advantageously I I grabbed two Koulari’s (seasame seeded bread rings which are a traditional breakfast snack) for a bargain 1 euro. Once the train arrived looking every bit like a state ran 1980s engine as I’d imagined, the chaos really kicked up a notch. Everyone seemed to pivot towards cramming onto two sets of the 5 carriages – it make no sense we all had mandatory reservation, why was everyone rushing? We had seats in carriage 5, we boarded where we could but there was no signs indicating which carriage this was! Old ladies, bustled through with boxes and bags, every man, woman, child for themselves, shoving elbows to place bags in the shelves and shouting ‘signomi’ ‘parakelo’ through the carriage. Tourists stood aside in a mix of awe and fear clutching tickets. I asked a young teenager which carriage we were stuck in the middle of; he simply smiled, shrugged ‘then xero / not sure, maybe next 2 along?’. We gave up and submitted to this style of travel decorum as the train started to shunt out of Athens, we just sat down where we could and hoped for the best. It wasn’t long until the guard came along and checked everyone’s tickets, this is a very organised aspect, as he holds a manifest of every named passenger on the train- he kindly said our seats were a couple of carriages back but we were fine to stay where we were as they weren’t reserved. Phew!

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The journey was beguiling once out of the city of Athens and sailing through the suburbs, a gentler pace sets in as the train trundled through real Greece. A country so different than a sum of it’s cities and tourist resorts, past high mountains and snow covered peaks, flat farmland and grazing plains, places where more tractors graced the roads than cars. All under clear blue springtime skies and golden sunlight, the trees blossoming with pinks and whites as we shunted past – stopping at one horse towns and tiny stations connecting lines through to Thessaloniki and Lamia.

Athens - Kalabaka

Athens - Kalabaka

Athens - Kalabaka

The diversity in the landscape is most surprising; seen as a microcosm of the nation, from high rise new apartments to gypsy encampments under bridges and huge expanses of concrete mixers sidling on half-built highways and infrastructure projects, rows of abandoned factories, old trains and wagons lie rusting in their faded glory next to the tracks. The reality of a post recession Greece and the impact of economic boom and bust, sits side by side the postcard pretty olive groves and sheep farms.

Athens - Kalabaka

Arriving for a few days hiking in Kalambaka was beautiful – it deserves more pictures than words. Its beauty instilled a peace in my restless mind that I hope will have a long-lasting effect.

7 days in Greece

Well, a week in to this adventure and where do we find ourselves? Back in Athens and ready to roll on to Delfi. I awoke this morning to the buzz and beep of traffic, we are staying in a studio sandwiched between Ormonia Square and Exharia, not the prettiest of places in Athens. But rather interesting, revealing a different side of the city away from the Plaka and tourist shops, here in the belly of the city lies a diverse set of characters, immigrants, travellers, and rough street hustlers jostle for space. On Tuesday night we were kept awake by some sarky street ‘ladies’ plying their trade and shouting at passers by in stuttering Greek until 4am. Many of the areas scruffiest streets are a mix of once beautiful neo-classical mansions, now seemingly abandoned and left to decay, but many have balconies adorned with flowers like an oasis amidst 70s apartment blocks adorned with angry anarchist slogans and families living side by side. All of urban Athens as a melting pot, a diverse side of the city displaying all its grit and complexity. We ate at a great Cretan restaurant last night in Exahria ‘Oxo Nou’ – lively and great food, a pleasant reward after a days work.

Athens - Kalabaka

Since arriving, its been a journey of many parts making the week seem much longer, having hopped from place to place. The first 3 days were spent in the Plaka area of Athens, revisiting some bars and tavernas we enjoyed on our first visit a few winters ago. I took an early morning walk up to Anafiotika, one of my favourite areas of the city – built by the islanders of Anafi. Its whitewashed streets perfectly peaceful in the early sun and nothing but a few cats to greet me as I climbed towards the Acropolis.

Athens - Kalabaka

After a few days in Athens we headed on the ‘most chaotic train trip ever’ to Kalambaka in Thessaly, to visit the monasteries in Meteora. We hiked upwards to the strange rock formations, wandered through spring meadows and forests – gazing upon the most beautiful views across the flat plains of farms and snow peaked mountains to the north. I used the time wisely and tackled a fear of dogs and heights!

Athens - Kalabaka

We leave for Delfi this afternoon a three-hour adventure on the Ktel bus service. I feel alive and my eyes are open.

Holding on to the holiday feeling

It doesn’t matter how long to escape your everyday for, it seems just a matter of hours back and you will soon find yourself feeling as if you’ve never been away. I often wonder how long its possible to retain the holiday feeling. Not just the tanned glow, but both its physical and emotional manifestations in ones mood and outlook.

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Skin is soft and buttery, hair blonder, smoother from kinder water and fresh air. I have to confess to avoiding that first post holiday shower -fearing not just the tan washing away – turns out is just the sandy coloured dust making you glow – but the feeling wasjhing away too. Anything to hold on to that holiday buzz. Not checking work email, just sliding along with sand in between your toes, thinking about a glass of wine at sundown rather than how long the pile of washing will take to sort, hoping the garden has survived a drought spell and wondering what is left in the fridge. Life is fast, it rushes by and sometimes a holiday is exactly we need to remind ourselves what matters.

I do think its something we can all benefit from;  slowing down, taking stock, living in the moment, looking outside ourselves away from screens and cities.  I’m making a promise to myself – the sand has washed away and the freckles fading – I might be standing on a packed commuter train in golden Autumn sunshine but in my heart and mind I’m standing in the sand looking out to the Aegean sea.

 

If anyone knows another secret to keeping the holiday going do let me know, it will certainly help get through the winter months ahead!

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