Arrivals

What matters not are the facts of how we got here. As we walk out of the chattering warmth of the café and into the cold silence, the stars seem to scatter across a wide sky. Through the village where stillness marches along with our footsteps and woodsmoke drifts in the cloudless air.  What matters more is the quiet hum of the earth telling us to slow and tread lightly. A moon arches and hangs poised in wait what next? it asks from a silvery perch.  Each arc of light across the dark hill a sign of life, tucked away next to fires, hearths and wrapped in blankets.

After a night of deep but dreamless sleep, we wake to a heavy rain storm which lasts as long as the daylight hours, only dissipating at dusk. It sends much needed water soaking the fields and filling up sternas. In this fading light I venture out onto the damp paths and stare at grey waves edging at the beach. All evidence of summer swept away until next year. A string of festive lights sway across a balcony, making flickering signals to far away fisherman. I hear the feint call of the sea like a stranger.  

This morning the air clears and clouds passed quickly to again reveal the blue skies above the mossy green hills. In summer these hills are parched and yellowing, now clover and grass have sprung up after the first rains. Sheep and goats are now returned to graze.

This place is the same one we left, but now weathered by difference. Winter has sharpened it from familiarity, stripped back its edges, a wilderness prevails over comfort.  

We walk to the supermarket – giddy in the early fresh air and excited by filling baskets with welcome treats. Pointing out not so familiar things on the way. The shutters closed, the church locked, the building work now finished.

In the afternoon sunlight I venture into the sea. I cheat the cold with my wetsuit and swim in the clear water of the bay. Salt on my tongue and sand in my toes again. The quiet roads and wide skies accompany us back to this little house. The little kitchen I’ll make lentil soup in. Eating the sweet dozen clementine oranges we have been given saying ‘These are the best I’ve ever tasted’ with sticky juice dripping from our chins.  Once the sun sets it brings in the cold. We fill up hot water bottles and put on extra socks.

It’s winter here in Syros and we are learning to live off -season.

Still living by the sea

Ramsgate. It isn’t Syros. It’s not London either. I sit here in the basement bay window craning my neck to get a peek of the grey sea. I lay in bed on a morning and listen to seagulls, squawking around and flying over the backyard. I walk over the road to stare at the sea at least twice a day, as if I need to remind myself it’s still there. The tide patterns remain full of mystery. People wear shorts here in October like they are trapped in a perpetual summer. They all have at least one dog to walk. Some say hello and have conversations about the weather. Or recipes with spinach. The sunrises are spectacular.  And sunset’s grand. It is making my sentences short. Like a wave. Nipping against the moon’s rhythms.

I think I like it very much.

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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