Islands and lands of industry Part 1

I am writing this on the Blue Star Patmos as it weaves its way in the blinding July heat to Syros. It’s not as if the days in the UK weren’t the same temperature but I am adamant it’s a different type of heat. The fields across the SE and parks in London have yellowed, looking more like the end of summer rather than midsummer which is normally lush, green and bursting into flower. On the journey from the Airport down to Piraeus the suburban train it passes through some of Athens most industrial areas– I find them mesmerizing. Not just the trains warehoused and rusting near Lefkas Station, but the miles and miles of factories and even the crossings are still man powered rather than automated.

The train extension down to the port of Piraeus only opened in March so the track and stations are brand new. I can’t deny it’s a great service connecting the airport and port in under an hour – much less fuss than the Metro, which involves changing trains and less risk of traffic than the X96 bus.

As it rolls into the outskirts of the city, the brand new trains whoosh past the old rusting trains in the warehouses with falling in roofs and open battened down doors and windows. Hammered plywood and road signs for makeshift barriers. The train windows smashed, metal bent graffiti tagged and name of the brave scrawled over doors – I have no idea about this yards history or why they look so forlornly abandoned. The trees have grown in between the carriages and through the gaps in the rusting tracks, even sidings have been overtaken by creeping weeds. Nature is reclaiming it slowly season after season. The yellowed grasses and palm trees raggedly losing old brown branches and drying out in the sun. Trains seats gather dust in their graffitied tombs. As the train speeds by I see the breeze flapping patterned sheets on balconies that sit side by side in buildings that don’t match, thrown up in a rush next to older more palatial houses, now in a state of decay. The alleys are strewn with bike parts and toys, this is another Greece. Perhaps like a country within a country. This isn’t the world people come to see – it’s a gap between the past and the future. Its uncharted territory – a filament of light trapped in time, a glint, a door to what was and will never be again. A small act of reminding, like a tug on a thread to unravel.

The hand drawn railway barriers, loaded with weighted bricks are wound down and up to stop traffic. Otherwise it’s a free for all pedestrians, cars and bikes crossing over the tracks. The man stands next to hut or a brick house and whoever is on duty operates this all day and night – I imagine people don’t notice this much. This is probably the same in every big city, the areas left to their own fate once the businesses close up, sites for sale or rent.

The light in Greece is phenomenal – as soon as the boat races out of Piraeus and out of the bay of Salamina. The haze gives the coast line an ethereal glow. Cranes and processing plants look like oblique structures of beauty. The tankers and tug boats lined out at seas even look full of adventure, like a fleet ready to take battle. Why doesn’t the coast in Kent look like this? It is the Aegean light, basking an incandescent veil over industrial ugliness.

I wanted to tell you about Kimolos and there I was distracted with one thought colliding with the next. Easily done.

So Milos and Kimolos sit next to each other like two very different colleagues in the Cyclades. Some islands are sisters I think, but these two have their differences. Both in outlook and beauty. The Artemis on her faithful inter-cyclades loop was our steed to Kimolos first. Its beauty as an island isn’t right there on display, it needs discovering – it isn’t showy as you arrive, it’s a typical Greek island with a port, a strip of beach and flat low rise buildings painted white. We got whisked up to where we were staying by a friendly local who gave us the keys and a warm welcome to the island. The village is known as the Chorio – it’s the only real town settlement on Kimolos and turned out to be the best option to base ourselves for 4 days. The village has a sleepy ordinary feel, like everyone is going about their business –especially wandering through it at 1pm when small groups of elders sat chatting in the café that lined the square and children played in the shade. What I found lovely was the sense that despite it being June the island was just waking up and getting ready to open for summer tourism. There were 3 of 4 café/bars were painting and laying chairs out in the nights we were there. Many of the houses in the village are inhabited rather than tarted up for tourism and rentals or second homes. But that’s nice, why rush if most people only visit in August anyway. Which is a good thing to keep things smaller and more off the beaten track. The ‘tourist’ roads have only recently been built – given that the island still has active quarries and perlite mines, industry has always been the driver for infrastructure.

20180622_20143920180620_17214420180620_17183620180622_105735It is sparsely populated – less than 600 islanders live their year round. There are a few small apartments and rooms to rent and so tourism is increasing. But no major hotels, or complexes. Plenty of people also day-trip there from Milos, via the small ferry that connects the two islands at Pollonia. Now an island bus connects the beaches with the Chorio and does a loop a few times a day. We eschewed the formal travel options and got our hiking boots on to explore.

20180620_142732On the first afternoon we found what ended up being our favourite swimming spots at Kara and Groupa. Both these places are less beaches and more pretty places for swimming from the rocks. At Kara there are beautiful boat huts carved into the rocks by fisherman. Framed by a natural pool for swimming It was late afternoon when we swam here on the first day and after a family packed up their picnic we were the only ones there. Nothing but little fish to keep you company in the deep blue reflected in the white sand and stone, and the fisherman sitting to repair their nets.

20180621_14060120180621_11432220180622_094210Walking to Skiadi Rock the next day was a great hike, it takes you out the back of the village, passing farms and out into the wild landscape. It was a beautiful trail, well-marked and also passes the remains of the Kastro settlement high on the hill and through old paved mule trails. We didn’t see another walker at all which was surprising given that the route is so well signposted and fairly manageable for all abilities. There is more detailed route maps to be found here: https://www.kimolos.gr/en/tourism-at-kimolos/walking-routes/detailed-outlines-of-hiking-routes-in-kimolos-island

The rock at Skiadi has been formed through two types of rocks. The softer rock is been eroded by the wind and the harder rock is more resilient and remains as canopy over the top – hence its mushroom shape. We picnicked here on traditional pastries and then climbed down to the deserted beach at Mavrospillia for a swim. Then on to Ellinkia where the remains of a submerged ancient city lie near the shore. Our untrained eyes didn’t see much. But it’s never the less a pretty and remote beach with only a few sunbathers and swimmers.

The beaches on Kimolos are all quiet different, some shingle, some stone and some white sand. A few have nice traditional tavernas on like Kalamatsi and Aliki beaches, which we also walked through as part of the Skiadi hike. It ended up being a full days hiking, 14k but with plenty of stop offs and swims. An evening spent feasting on goat stew and local cheese in the To Kala Kardia (the good heart) was a perfect way to refuel and recuperate.

Kimolos has a strong mining industry, like Milos and to this day still has active mines, including the perlite mine at Prassa. We walked there from Choria along the coastal road, passing the small harbour and bay at Agia Minas which we couldn’t find much about but looks like a man made boat landing cut into the rocks. It has much older stone buildings and the remains of stepped rocks, which look like there have been quarried and build up in walls and terraces to prevent the land from slipping. (if anyone can tell me what went on here, I’d love to know)

Before we reached Prassa we took a nosy around the Therma Loutra (thermal baths) – which were just two concrete covers over natural thermal springs that go into sea. One had very hot water and the other cold. Apparently you take buckets from each and make a bath in the thermal spring water in the bathhouse, which looked closed up from what we could see. Interesting to see anyway!

At is at the stage in the road after Loutra that the industry and working life of Kimolos meets tourism head on. Cars and ATV’s jostle for space on the unfinished road, while trucks from the perlite mine trundle up and down all day. Perlite is a natural mineral rock that is heated at high temps to increase absorbency and is a key ingredient in growing media like compost. The beach at Prassa is made of Perlite – small white shingle / sand which makes the sea take on a magic turquoise colour. It was much busier here with day trippers from Milos and boats parked in the bay.

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It is easy to see why people visit this beach – it stands out for its clean water and perfect blue colours, it has loungers and a beach bar so suits everyone. It is just really intriguing to be so close to an active mine and be lounging about while this all goes on. Given that Milos and Kimolos have hardly any unemployment at all compared with the mainland and mining contributes around 40% of the economy here, and 50% coming from tourism (mainly in Milos). Mining and tourism are strange but vital bedfellows.

Next stop… Part 2: Mining in Milos

Gyaros – an island of ghosts

Giaros

In the past two weeks I have visited three very different islands. Four actually, if you could count Syros as well. All within close proximity and all with very different personalities. A friend recently said to me that choosing your favourite Greek island is like choosing your favourite crisp flavour, I think she’s right. It’s all down to personal preference.  Each has its own story and appeal. But not all islands in the Aegean are whitewashed buildings and beaches for holiday fun. One island that many visitors pass on the Andros – Tinos – Syros ferry route in the Cyclades and probably know very little about is Gyaros (or Giaros, or Giara).

It’s a rocky and arid island, with barely any natural resources and no significant mountains or rock formations. With a size of less than 23km sq this tiny outcrop manages to house a wealth of hidden stories. Even today 45 years after its complete abandonment, many of these stories remain untold and consigned to a history that many would rather forget. Between 1948 and 1973 under different Greek administrations it held up to 22,000 political prisoners.

Greece’s past doesn’t always rest easily with it’s present drive for tourism. So it is easy to see why the island has just fallen into ruin and visitors are discouraged. The red brick structures were almost invisible on the island until we got very close on the Agios Nikolas; the magnificent boat built in 1947 and chartered from Syros to take the group. The hiking group we travelled with had special permission to visit the island; it is off-limits to everyone without a permit, including fisherman who are forbidden to  fish near the shore as there are protected species of seals and wild birds that have flourished in its exile from human presence.  Although the site is currently managed and patrolled by the WWF under the Natura 2000 programme, visitors are strictly limited. Hearing about the history of the island from guides and about the wildlife preservation from the WWF representatives was invaluable.

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In the period after WW2 in the Greek Civil War 1947-1952 the island was used to build a vast prison to house the rebel fighters and dissidents . Like Makronisos island close to the port of Lavrio, it was far from the mainland and other islands, and crucially far away from critical eyes. These were not regular prisons – they were places of torture and forced labour.  In its first years of usage the prisoners sent to the island were split into the 5 camps around the 5 bays – initially to live in tents and dry stone constructions in all weathers; the furnace heat of the summer and cold and damp conditions in the winter. Under these inhumane conditions they were forced to construct the very prison which would house them.

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We heard from keen historians in the group that that once the prison was built, it had quite a limited time in use as was closed in 1953, but then opened again between 1955-1961, and then secretly used under the Military Dictatorship of the Junta from 1967-1974 – when the island was used to house Greek political prisoners and leftist dissidents. It was described by many as a concentration camp and ‘an island of the devil’.  Only when a German journalist took aerial photographs of the island which were published widely in the press that the Junta admitted its presence as an active prison. You can see the pics here. This eventually resulted in its closure and Greece was banned from the council of Europe on humanitarian grounds.

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We heard that the guards would know when the water supplies were due to run out and maliciously feed the men salty dried fish and dry foods – knowing that it might be days before a water ship reached the island in rough seas. There are no natural resources and rumour has it that the rats there ate metal, and grew as big as cats and were able to eat through barbed wires! There are herds of wild goats still roaming the island as well as hares and rabbits. It was such a fascinating island to have the privilege to visit – walking along the pathways between bays, there were ominous clouds and even when sunshine broke it was easy to image the horror of forced labour in the heat and dry of a summer’s day. This is a far off version of an idyllic Greek island.

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We were able to walk freely around the main buildings which were in a state of dangerous decay; the amount of dead goats in some building was astounding. The bones left piled up and dried out skins left to rest where they died.   

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The walking group gathered in the hospital wing, and then out round a path constructed to connect the bays – each would have formed a smaller separate camps. Each where the prisoners ‘lived’ in rudimentary conditions with small huts made of dry stone walls and in tents. Each day they worked under forced labour in the unbearable heat of the summer or cold dampness of the winter. There is also evidence of older buildings and fortresses from earlier inhabited periods. 

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At the outcrop of land on the furthest bay from the boat landing and main prison lies the graveyard. Given the number of prisoners housed here, it is surprising that only 16 graves are marked with rusting metal crosses and fading inscriptions of numbers. But perhaps less surprising to hear is that this was perhaps because when prisoners were ill and close to death they were taken to Syros. So for many, no record of their death on Gyaros exists. They died en-route or perhaps a few days later after they arrived  in hospital. Many would have been buried without ceremony in a mass grave. Here in the graveyard the group took a moment to remember those whose lives were taken by the island

To compare it to Alcatraz in California and other prison ‘museums’ I have visited would wrong – this was not a prison you could be granted release from once your sentence was served or even have hope of escape. Each detainee was forced through a ‘re-education programme’ of torture and starvation, and could only leave if they renounced their beliefs. Many of the people (and in the Junta period there could well have been women here as well) were leftist students, activists, writers and artists who protested against Military regime. They were often arrested in protests or turned in by the very people they knew and trusted. It was a complicated time in Greece’s history and certainly something I’d like to understand more about.

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We were allowed to see inside the main prison, which like many other prisons is laid out around open yards, and blocks containing workshops and kitchens. The roof was collapsing and everywhere debris and bricks were strewn across the corridors. Most of the captives were in dormitories in closely arranged bunk beds, only let out to work and perform labour. Here are only a few solitary cells, hidden in darkness, years of salt air blowing through corridors meant the doors have rusted open, as they were left.

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Light fittings falling from the ceilings and the remaining plaster work slowly peeling away like layers of an onion skin. Smashed window panes swung in the breeze and shutters hang from hinges. All around I felt a sense of sad dislocation – like the building itself just wanted to heave its weighted mass into the ground. To let go of the pain it has held in the walls. Each brick forcibly placed there under duress by the hands of men persecuted for belief by their own fellow country man. A deep sadness remains. Could there be a more poignant reminder from history for the current time we live in?

Giaros

Zen and the art of tomato growing

We came back from Paros on the Artemis. It chugged its way into Ermoupolis just after midnight on Sunday. I couldn’t have been happier – not because we were back in Syros, but I was just happy and thankful to be able to head off on little adventures like that. The boat was quiet and we spent the time on deck watching what must have been a fishing fleet out in a circle formation. It was spooky as we were just able to make out the mast lights, intermittent red and green flashes in the inky darkness of the sea. We just had two nights to explore Pariaka, the islands main town and felt like we crammed a lot in. It was busy and nice to be among so many tourists. We did lots of people watching and idling time in cafe’s hearing voices from around the world, including a lot of young English backpackers as well. On the recommendation of the apartment owner, we went to Pete’s Place on Krios beach on Sunday. I swam in the turquoise sea and found a wallet sinking underwater into the rocks. Luckily it didn’t take much of my detective skills to deduce it belonged to the panicked man going through his belongings on the sand. He looked bemused when I strode over to return the dripping wallet.  ut he was thankful to have it safely returned. I like Paros, it’s a nice island with lots to see, and has some great restaurants and beaches, don’t miss the Panaya of Ekatontapilian – the Byzantine church. And if you are wearing shorts like me you too get to borrow a tartan wrap skirt to preserve your modesty and respect the place of worship. Plus, it kept me nice and toasty in the 30c heat! Although don’t make the same mistake of walking out to the Asclepeion – the Sanctuary of Pythian Apollo on the other side of town, as the site is all cordoned off due to falling rocks. But we did instead get a nice swim at little beach and a tasty lunch instead. 

It’s been a funny few days this week. It isn’t all stand up paddleboarding, gardening and dream making here –  in between work and play, there has been a lot of thinking. It seems to be that worry befriends you in moments of weakness and makes a mockery of each silly and happy thought. I was struggling this morning so I went swimming. I ended up swimming a full length of the bay in front crawl. That doesn’t sound like much but it was to me. Front crawl is my arch-nemesis, I have struggled to master it for years. The trick is in breathing and matching your strokes, with a head turn to ‘sight’ the shore. Today I followed the curved lines mapped out in the sand underwater by waves and the rituals of ocean floor creatures. Through shoals of small silvery fish. Each breath expelling tiny bubbles. My arms gathering strength as they ploughed through the waves.  I felt much better. If everyone went for a swim everyday, I am convinced we’d all be happier, healthier and in harmony.

I think my anti-waste mentality has exaggerated recently – ‘must not let things go uneaten’ I repeated like a mantra baking plum cakes and apricot loaves. Boiling up jars of apricot preserve will last for months. And if life (or a kind landlord) gives you courgettes; roast them, grate them, stuff them and even make cakes with them! Although not all is rosy in the garden plot; the tomatoes are proving tricky – blossom end rot has hit some of my crops, possibly water related or perhaps a fungus? Either way there might be a sad struggle to get some decent fruits this year. I walked back from the field my heart and head were full of doom about the tomatoes. Then I stopped.  

It was early, a morning like any other with the sun just peeking over the hills in the East and started inching its rays through the valley. Soon it would be hot. But now there was a cool damp stillness in the air. I listened to the breeze blowing through olive tree branches and traced the hum of a motorcycle passing a curve on the road miles away.

My fixation on the tomatoes unjust fate was unworthy of such attention. So what if each tomato rotted from the inside, slowly turning from green to brown and withering on the vine. It was something I couldn’t control or change, or worry about. I don’t need the tomatoes to feed me, I don’t sell them for income.  If I was simply annoyed that my energy and patience was being wasted on something frivolous and unfruitful. Yet, it only took a moment to look upwards and take in where I was to remind myself that this was it all. Under a blue sky sits mountains and rocks which will outlive me and all my worries. If this is the worst thing that can happen to me today, I am the luckiest person alive. Acceptance that harvests will fail, change will happen and not everything can be saved and stored away. It isn’t the simple fact of life but a way of giving into a life of simplicity.  

Like anyone I keep googling and looking at my phone for answers – brains turning to mush as we flit from one distraction to the next. There lies a tale of tragic modernity. There is no greater waste than looking for purpose or meaning where none exists. I don’t want notifications and gratification of my worth –  I scroll through Linkedin or instagram it makes me feel lost – not connected. I don’t know what my next step is (guess what, that’s okay!) and feel a need to return to the surface of things. Sometimes the surface of things begins where you least expect it.

In thinking about this I was reminded of a free verse poem penned by Jack Kerouac in one of his letters to his ex-wife. It took me a few readings to get it -I have time, it is #freelancefriday after all;

The world you see is just a movie in your mind.
Rocks don’t see it.
Bless and sit down.
Forgive and forget.
Practice kindness all day to everybody
and you will realize you’re already

in heaven now.
That’s the story.
That’s the message.
Nobody understands it,
nobody listens, they’re

all running around like chickens with heads cut
off. I will try to teach it but it will
be in vain, s’why I’ll
end up in a shack
praying and being
cool and singing
by my woodstove
making pancakes.

I’m not a massive fan of pancakes – but maybe you’ll find me singing in my kitchen baking cakes.

At dusk the tzitzikas will start singing- their presence marks the high heat of the months ahead. It is just a week before midsummer stretches out the daylight hours into evening’s orange glow. In the midst of every day is life. It is not just in adventures and wild ambition. It is nestled between the door that slams in an unexpected gust and the fridges that hum and click. The cockerels that wake up and commence crowing at 2am.  It is in the clocks that tick and the angry silent face of time passing us by. Life is in as much of these daily rituals as it is in the moments of joy and wondrous awe we seek. It is also in the hours we let ourselves get drawn into worry and pain. I’m learning to let each one go.

Self help?

I was in WH Smiths at Stansted Airport, (for my sins, budget travelling affords me the ability to fly back to work) I couldn’t use my national book token which left me gutted. But there was a plethora of titles in the non-fiction section that focussed in a similar vein of ‘Not giving a f***/ insert appropriate swear-word to be seen as poignantly angry yet with a little nonchalant dash of carefree’. But don’t be fooled. These advice guru’s are setting out their stall as being passionately different from you drones over there; standing in a line at an airport on a budget flight, steamrolling on through life with your hard-working ethos and pay/reward equation.

Do we give too much of a f***? . Yes, I think I do.

And it felt really raw and honest to write that. It is only easy to not give any f***s at all, if you don’t need money or a job, or can rest on the laurels of fame or success or family fortune and connections that can tide you over. The rest of us do have to juggle all these responsibility shaped f**s. Whether it’s to our employers  or partners, elderly parents or kids, our work clients, or boss, and even to ourselves. Like Bob Dylan sings “you gotta serve somebody

I can admit I had a hectic 10 days back in London and by the time I stood bewildered at the airport, blinking through hazy sleep deprived vision I had another 12 hours before I would reach my bed. I had been working at a pace that feels like a shot of adrenaline compared to life outside of work. I do love the exciting bits of my job – the days that the rewards come thick and fast; outcomes sometimes all tie together and goes off with a bang. But yes, admittedly a lot of the time it really is not like the past week at all. I could gloss over this and put a PR-shine on it. All THE CHAMPERS ALL OF THE TIME. But really it’s all planning, slow ideas forming and shaping, noting debates and discussions, and wading through mysterious treacle.

Maybe there is a balance to be found here –  not stopping caring completely, but just focussing on the big stuff. Like not worrying if I have given every single person every piece of relevant information that they may need, or worrying if I’ll fall over in front of a head of state, or forgetting to address them correctly. Really what is the worst that could happen is none of these things, it is probably opening my mouth and everyone realising what an idiot I am – #impostersyndrome in action. The magic art of not giving a f*** is exactly the reverse of imposter worry: it is worrying less, reflecting more and being thankful for the opportunities I have. Not giving credence to the doubting voices – I might not live up to everything expected but I’m living up to my own expectations at least. A little mantra of “I am worthy of this and worked hard to be here, and importantly played my part well”. I can spare you the need to read the books with that gem of wisdom!

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Obviously a big part of my job last week was to spend time admiring the best gardens in the world at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. There were show gardens that delight, amaze and most of all remind us how important the act of growing is. For me, I don’t need glitz or glamour, but seek the simple reasons why gardening is vital, no matter where in world the garden is. That’s why I really loved seeing the attention the Lemon Tree Trust’s Garden gave to the refugee situation in Iraq. Tom Massey designed the garden after visiting Domiz Camp in Northern Iraq – it is home to over 40,000 displaced people fleeing war in Syria. The Lemon Tree Trust have worked to set up everything from gardening plots, agricultural skills and even growing competitions. Many people finding themselves in the camps were already gardeners and skilled growers, by helping facilitate plots and spaces to grow, providing tools and seeds, the Trust have given refugee gardeners and growers, not just space to use skills or learn new ones, but a place they have control over, to be creative and be altogether more human. Unfortunately camps are changing from temporary shelters to semi-permanent homes. It is that connection to gardening that often resonates with the idea of home and sustenance. The show garden was wonderful, using native Mediterranean plants and middle eastern designs; fig trees, lavender, damask roses and spectacular pomegranate trees (a first for Chelsea?) After speaking to designer Tom and others from the Trust, it so wonderful to hear the passion they display and the story they managed to tell the world. I wish them every success at rolling out more gardening programmes for refugees.

After a week of inspiration at the show, I was itching to return to my own plants, pots and plots. I was just in time to feast on the first cucumber harvest and tie up the ever-growing tomatoes. G had done a stellar job of keeping things alive (with a lot of help!). All the calendula seeds have grown well, even the marigolds and cosmos from seed are now flowering. It might not be Chelsea Gold, but I love the gardens here in Greece, not just for what they show but the joy they bring. There is a lady a few houses down from us that tends to her 30+ pots of geraniums each evening with such pride – all resplendent pink and red colours bobbing in the sunshine.

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While G cooked dinner (amazing pan-fried chicken, courgettes and roast potatoes, should you ask) Johannes and I went to his fields to collect capers (caperi) at sunset; 2 hours later we were laden down with 2 buckets full of the tasty berries and I had a sore green thumb. The picking technique is to use your thumb nail to cut the caper at the stem – giving real meaning to being green fingered! I didn’t realise that he meant I could keep what I collected. This was incredibly kind and now we will have enough capers to last at least a year (or two)! After giving us a rundown in how to salt and dry them, G and I spent an hour before dinner sat on the terrace sorting them into large sizes for drying and small sizes for salting and pickling. Although we swatted away mosquitoes and listened to the wild wind rustle through the trees – it was still blissful. Just talking, sorting and salting, close to the earth and not a worry crossed our minds.

I think often that the world doesn’t need any more stars, after all we can’t all be the best in show. But the world certainly does need a lot more light in it.  Help comes in many guises and for me it is the small simple joys of gardening wherever I can find it. 

Steps βήματα

Breaking it down into tiny steps seemed to be the only way. One foot in front of the other. Squinting in the bright sunlight. Not looking up ahead to what may lie at the ridge and especially not looking down. There seemed to be more dramatic views the higher we got – not that I saw any of them. I enjoyed them later with aching legs and safely sat on low ground when G showed me them on his phone.

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It wasn’t that the hike was particularly steep. It wasn’t meant to be particularly challenging either – we’d walked from Kini to Gallissas on a route I love as it takes you out into wild headlands and over the stone steps that connect the two villages.  The route out to Katokefalos (only funny because Google translates it as the ‘headache’!) was described as a medium easy hike. Of course it totally felt like that at the start pondering up the incline at the end of Gallissas beach – we looked up and found the path, fairly steep at first for 100mtrs and then balanced out into a fairly flat but HIGH up – a goat clinging path. With every turn and whoosh of the warm breeze, it got slightly worse and my vertigo-fear kicked in.

The walk paralysed me with fear. Just focusing on getting through the steps ahead was the only tactic. Giving myself over to the crunchy gravel-like stones that’s seemed to be shifting underfoot creating a moving surface. When there was flatter rocks and boulders, it was slippery underfoot. My faithful spider stick was now doubling up as a leaning stick. By the time we were at the end of the Katokefalos headland, I was clinging on. Trying (and failing) to channel my Inner Cheryl Strayed.

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If there is one comparison to be made between hiking and life, it is this: by attempting to look at the whole route will do nothing but set out intimidation to block your way. To look at every pitfall and high ledge with fear might feel natural. Yes, that path looks to be fit for nothing more than skinny goats, it probably is. But you’ll try anyway. G led the way – he had this look in his eyes that was less about his fear and more about the fear I have of falling and how he’d need to support me if I freak out.  Leaning silently on one another is needed in relationships. How to be supportive, without leading and telling. Being scared and making mistakes, giving them space to find their feet and way of seeing things.

Life’s preciousness has a brutal way of reminding you not to take it for granted. Like the path it is impossible to take it all in at once – it is too much to process, every twist and turn, marker on the way, snake in the grass and wildflower clinging to the rocks. Looking for too long and too hard can leave nothing but a sheer drop into the deep frothing sea. But by taking the path for what you can see can be part of this. Not just the few metres in front –  just each step. One by one. No looking back, no looking up and ahead. Not down to the vertiginous plants clinging to the rock, not to wonder how they survive in an impossible feat of nature. Just take life for what it is. There on the path I learned to follow these rules.

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In the village there are white painted steps that rise up from the main road and lead to the church – on one side and on the other.  A common sight in any Greek village – instead of all roads leading to Rome, nearly all paths lead to a church in Greece. The steps are painted white so you can see them in the dark, there often isn’t street lights on every path so that helps. I have little routes around and across the village, to the small harbour one day, then across Loto the next. Up one way and down the other. As someone who grew up in a large town and lived in cities all my adult life, I find the village atmosphere refreshing even when I’m on my own. It isn’t scary to be alone. The  funny thing is you can’t really be lonely in a village this size, there are Kalamera’s and Kalaspera’s and other nods and smiles, and often, a crazed barking dog on every wander. I spent 5 days here alone while G was in the UK and am more than pleased to admit I wasn’t bored at all. I took myself out to lunch and on a trip around the Industrial Museum. Drinking coffee and watching the day slowly unfolding with quiet dramas of island life. I was social and went out with people for dinner which was fun as I like listening to people’s stories. The stories about the villages, the politics of places and people who live here are fascinating. Syros is an island of contrasts – rural farming and goats grazing, beaches and bars, heavy industry and commerce. An island of nomads – why they came, how they live and what grounds them here.

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Last Saturday I went out early to pick caper berries from a bush a little further out from the village. It had been damp overnight and the smell of seaweed hung in the humid air as I walked over the soft wet sand on Loto beach. The caper bush I found was abundant with flowers and berries, all graciously unpicked. I know won’t really be a secret – I bet at least one wise lady knows it’s there. But that’s why I only took enough to half fill the jar, barely making a dent on its bounty. I love walking alone, although always consider the risk of snake-bite, which people warn us about as now’s the time of year they roam around. The other night we overheard a conversation about a snake bite. A typical tale involving a trip to the hospital, anti-venom injection. Always a lucky escape.

I’ve still never seen a snake on the path and hope it stays that way.

I myself have always found that if I examine something, it’s less scary. I grew up in the West, and we always had this theory that if you saw – if you kept the snake in your eye line, the snake wasn’t going to bite you. And that’s kind of the way I feel about confronting pain. I want to know where it is.”- Joan Didion,