A postcard from Athens

Athens March 2018

It’s been less than 48 hours since we left the UK and already it feels like entering another world. That’s not just the weather. But walking off a plane to face wind that felt balmy instead of arctic certainly helped soothe the soul! Athens is always a city of contradictions and chaos, staying Koukaki is a bit of both. It means we can walk to the Plaka pretending to be tourists or wander this neighbourhood pretending to be locals. I guess right now we are a bit of both.

Waking up in a new place always holds a kind of magic. Yesterday was no exception. First peering our heads out to a balcony in the actual SUNSHINE, followed by figuring out how to use the fancy coffee machine and then wandering out onto unfamiliar streets. Squinting upwards and stumbling onwards was the order of the first new day in Greece.

Later, after lunch I decided it was time for our long overdue visit to the Benaki Museum. This place is quite possibly the best treasure trove of a collection I have seen in a long time – its magnificently crafted displays have an eclectic range of objects from Ancient Greece ceramics and jewellry, to Byzantine orthodox art, folk costumes, paintings and even the interiors of 18th century mansions, including full wood panelled ceilings and rugs. Its like a potted history of Greece over 4 floors with around 6000 items in the collection!

 

I especially enjoyed the special exhibition ‘Travels in Greece 16th-19th Century’ which displays the collection of rare maps and travel material donated by Efstathios Finopoulos. Here is all the work of essentially the first tourists in narrated diaries and journals, promotional articles from the 18thC in English, German and French; rare posters detailing beautiful peasants and wide green horizons to promote the world to Greece for the ‘Grand Tour’. Books and notes by the most renowned Hellenophile Lord Byron are also on display.  It is well timed collection as Greece prepares to entice even more tourists this year. Although the methods may have changed a little these days.  Even the rare maps are wonderful with their inaccuracies and confusion between Delos and Delphi, mismatching the islands and mainland. Its at the Benaki Museum until 29 April 2018 (entrance to the museum is 9E, but free on Thursdays and the exhibition is an extra 5E)

Afterwards we climbed the steep slope to Mount Lycabuttus but clouds stood in the way of the sunset. Despite the warmer temperatures and the scent of orange blossom filling the air, it still has a chill in the air and eating indoors on an evening is still recommended. With this in mind we found hearty food and a warm welcome at To Kato Allo; a small place hidden behind the Acropolis. In a world of white tablecloths and hip food, it still offers wine from the barrel and homecooked specials on a chalkboard. We opted for moussakas and beef stew with horta. Perfect.

A few more days of feeling out of place and I’ll feel right at home.

 

September: a time of new beginnings

When people ask what I have been up to in Greece, I will refuse to be embarrassed. Despite busying myself with real work, writing and gardening, figuring out hiking trails and petting sweet, but sad cats, I’m happy to admit I spent a lot of time staring into the middle distance, relishing wonder and musing over ideas in a state of under-employment. I take nothing for granted and appreciated how it all worked out, after all time is one of the luxury items in modern life.

One of the things I have used this time for is to consider how life in London worked, and didn’t work.  Last week while we were packing up I went through some notebooks I kept last year and earlier this year – I can’t work out if they are the musings of a mad person (likely) or just someone very stuck in a depressive way of thinking (highly likely). It broke my heart to read it and wonder, just how I didn’t address a lot of those things earlier and let them slide?  Some of this stuff is just my own ‘over-thinking’. I know I am lucky to have created this breathing space, I have a shit ton of friends who just get on with it and have a far more complex life, juggling illness, complicated families and tiny tots. I also have friends they have so much outside of work that fulfill them on a deeper level that renders the 9-5 into pale insignificance. I am proud to say every woman I call a friend just lives by the GSD motto (gets shit done) without fuss or humble-brag.  We are constantly told that being still is an idleness, that you must be in perpetual motion, ‘busyness’ is an aspiration status of being in-demand and working all the hours makes you an ‘important person’. It will make you, not break you.  

Yet, a small simple truth I discovered in the act of making life very small and very simple, that time can allow you to refocus and remind yourself what matters – how you want to live.  

Our last 10 days on Syros were spent in a way that blurred the lines between a holiday and just enjoying the simple way of life we have relished there for months. Admittedly we went out a bit more and ate out a little more lavishly than before – but still the nagging idea about how we would feel back in the UK sat heavy on the horizon.

There were hikes to Gramatta and Lia beaches, Kambos and Sa Michalis  – despite the keenness that Autumn was calling, the temperatures stayed hot and the sun fierce.

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There was a calmness to those days, as the traffic reduced and children went back to school, things being put back into places and the fun of summer, not being finished, but certainly winding down. As Syros is mostly visited by Greeks, mid-September is quieter but sees another trickle of tourists arrive from Northern Europe to enjoying the less crowded beaches and off-peak prices. But in the main it was all back to work and school for most people.

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We packed up our little Greek house and I tidied the garden – plenty still in flower and the aubergine is still producing fruit. I did a final audit of ‘stuff’, carefully keeping the important things and recycling a lot we didn’t need. I spent a little time coaching the cat about fending for herself, the hypocritically feeding her tuna and other treats the needed using up from the store cupboard…bad kitty parent.

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The day we left was abysmally hot – 33c and humid, like the kind that makes your face sweat, even indoors! We swam early that day – I went out on my favourite bay loop to the two buoys tied together in such a way that they bob together in the waves. I call them the ‘kissing buoys’. In such times there is this horrible adjudicative of naming things ‘the last swim’, ‘the last espresso freddo at KiniTro’, ‘the last sunset’ behind the mermaid statue. It annoyed me by its bell-ringing finality everytime one of us mentioned it as an off-hand comment! By the time we had hugs and well wishes of ‘Kalo himonia’ (good winter), we were in the taxi, the road climbing uphill, the last glance down to the bay, the taxi radio playing ‘Dust in the wind‘ by Kansas (listen to it!) – it was all, just..so, you know…

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The reality is no one knows what will be our last anything, that’s why everything should be cherished. If there’s one lesson the past 6 months, or even year, has taught me, and often is so obviously overlooked as a cliché. But cherish and be present in everything. As I write this I’m sitting here in my garden in the UK – the sun is shining, an almost impossibly perfect late September day which marks the Autumn Equinox. The sun feels warm, hot even, there is dampness and freshness in the air from last night’s rain – I walked barefoot on the lawn this morning, enjoying its bouncy dampness and bright green freshness, colours that are so scarce on the dry and rocky Greek islands, that I forgot how beautiful they were. The colours of leaves are just starting to turn on the cherry tree – they hold fast – the sunlight bounces off the kitchen windows and reflects from the white patio walls. Days like these are to be cherished and luxuriated in every moment.

Like most of us, I find that questions that weigh one’s mind mostly are the ones that reflect an ideal state rather than the present we inhabit. Women (and men) my age spend an awful lot of time considering; is this the right job for me? Am I challenged enough? What will my next career move be? Where will I be in 10 years time? Am I happy with the next promotion/payrise? Would I like to be a parent? Can I ever afford a house? Will i ever be able to retire? These sorts of internal questions and ways of thinking betray a sense of ‘becoming’ all the time – like you are constantly on your way somewhere and waiting to arrive. Steps to a new role or state of being hangs in the distance like a destination to arrive at, rather than just occupying the space you inhabit right now. This journey-mentality might be the one that causes stasis rather than frees you. I can dig out a load of labels I have arrived at, that I am both happy and unhappy with – my job title, my rank in the pecking order of power and decision making, my income, my education, my marital status, my child-free status, my weight, my height, my class, my accent. It makes me wonder, is this who I am? It is, and yet, in so many ways it isn’t. Life is just made up of small grounded moments that take you out to sea, to the shore, to the path, to get lost and feel small because the world is vast. Life should not be lived using time up waiting for something to happen.  

With this in mind, we used two days in Athens to break the journey up and relax.  It meant we weren’t bothered at all by the late arriving SuperFerry, which although a more comfortable and newer boat than the usual Blue Star that does the daily Syros-Pireaus slog, it takes 45 minutes longer and had difficulties docking in the port which added to the delay. Avoiding any unnecessary baggage pain or stress, G had pre-booked a taxi which greeted us and we then had two nights to ease back into city life. Athens was a small shock to the system and not just because of the heat. The first morning there I awoke and sat with a coffee on the apartment’s small balcony overlooking a cross-street; it was like being immersed in noise and chaos, cars honked and mopeds sped by – police sirens blared and the whole neighbourhood stopped to observe the scene after 2 cars collided in the slow bumper to bumper rush hour traffic. It was certainly an event; builders stopped to shout down what they’d seen, traffic police turned up to cordon off the road and every person stopping at the bakery rubber-necked to see what was going on.  I shuddered at the noise of it all. Only 24 hours later I had been listening to nothing more than the rustle in the pine trees and the cicadas’ chirping – cities are a sensory overload.

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We arrived back yesterday under clouded grey skies of late afternoon. Watching the houses fall into focus as the plane descended into Gatwick; England looks mostly grey and green from the air, but has a bizarre imposition of order over chaos – everything here has a place and role, streets that are designed in symmetrical forms, even villages look like miniature worlds. Not at all like the ad-hoc buildings across rural Greece that look like they were built without plans, dotting the hills like wild seeds laying root wherever they landed.

Arriving at our house was strange. It was intact but felt empty, it seems (and smells) different, but it is the same. Like waking up and the past six-months were a dream. G just finished unpacking the kitchen stuff and declared, “it’s the same but different”. I suggested it’s the same space but maybe now he inhabits it differently – maybe nothing stands still. Unpacking the bags and getting out our things will take time. But the act of it all makes me feel un-grounded and all out at sea; going from basics and simplicity, back to luxury items like washing machines and toasters and TV’s and everything we have plenty of. Yet living without has proved to me that we don’t really need them. 

I have just pegged the washing out to dry in this sunny weather, it won’t be instantly dry like in Greece, but I can be thankful we can dry them outside still without having to put the central heating on. I feel once that starts, its such a big use of energy and really marks out the seasonal transition. 

On the whole, G and I have both found different benefits to being in Greece. For him, and I hope he won’t mind me saying this; it has been an affirmation of his focus and drive. But more importantly it has been the time he needed to climb out from under the shadow of grief after his father’s death. In many ways we learnt to love and respect each other’s space more – when you live in close quarters without the immediate support network that family and friends take up, you learn to talk more and share more with each other. Don’t worry I certainly won’t be dishing out relationship advice anytime soon.

Somehow in this time away I realised I need to give myself more credit… Yes, you heard that right, the eternal pessimist, always second guessing herself, and listening to the nay-sayers, and if there isn’t any actual nay-sayers, I’ll create them like shadows under the bed. Yep, like some self-aggrandizing t*t, I actually am starting arrive at a place where I get it; be nice to yourself. The whole jumbling tumble mystery of life, is just that. A massive mystery – no silver bullet, just evolving and ever changing, challenges to confront, acceptance of the good and being thankful the positive things that comes your way, hiding away good and kind things in your soul for when things won’t be as rosy – but most of all slowing down and being appreciative of everything you have; My family, my husband, my friends, fighting injustice and caring for the natural environment matter to me, as do words that make sense of this chaos. Perhaps one day I will leave the earth a more beautiful place with something I can create.  

This isn’t some bold epiphany, I am just ready to make it real – there isn’t any ‘nothing is impossible’ rallying cry or positive affirmation. It’s gentler than that. It marks out a way to live.

In the next few weeks I am making a promise to myself to keep the summer alive by writing out more Syros adventures and editing my 1000s of photos.  A small act to stave off the dark days of winter.

Watch this space.

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Sikinos, Cyclades August 2016

Sikinos is a little off the grid. And I think i’m safe in saying that it’s okay with that. In fact I think it would rather stay that way. When you are an island with only a population of less than 300 permanent residents, why ruin a good thing?

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It felt like being let into a secret, feeling bleary-eyed and weary after a 7 hour ferry journey on the Artemis in choppy seas. As we stepped off into the port, the tiny village of Allapronia stood shining in the night as Mr Lucas greeted us and a rambunctious Italian family, proudly whisking off our luggage to his harbourside apartments. Once the ferry departed the lights disappearing to the dark horizon, the engine noise, chaos and hum of arriving vehicles all dissipated, so we walked in silence, only serenaded only by the cicadas and wind rustling the trees as we walked along the path.

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After a late dinner of gyros pita at one of only two harbourside tavernas and a few beers on the balcony listening to owls hoot over the bay – it was a treat to wake up to bright sunlight and the sea lapping beneath the window. I sat on our balcony, sipping coffee watching a few yachts moored in the bay and the seagulls stalking the sea for small fishes. Blissful! Our apartment was traditionally decorated in Cycladic hues and thoughtful eclectic decor, the real deal clincher was a huge window opening out onto views of the bay. This was ideal for boat watching (I’m developing a fascination with Greek ferries). There was nothing more distracting to do but listen to the waves lapping below, read, and reflect. The owner described it as ‘the best apartment in the small Cyclades’ I wouldn’t even argue – it was.

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Sikinos is a small island, and as such even in August we felt part of a place that wasn’t filled to the brim with visitors, but was busy enough to feel buzzing. Some Italians and Greeks with holiday homes, a smattering of Germans and few Brits, and locals going about their normal lives. It didn’t feel, like other islands I’ve visited, that all was on show for the tourists. It just gets on with it, no fuss – even on the main beach in Allapronia bay, with it’s lovely shelving sand falling into shallow blue water, backed by tamarisk trees, has a play park taking centre stage on the beach. In keeping the community park ethos, as all beaches belong to the municipal authority,  it exists without the blight of sunbeds for hire and has umbrellas with park benches spread out along the shore,  ensuring that everyone shares and sits to chat, whiling away the hours with a picnic while children roam freely running along the bay.

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The community feel extends throughout the island, and it being  August we were lucky enough to visit while the island’s summer festival took place. Events range from poetry reading, music recitals and art displays, in Chora the main village perched on the cliff with sugar cube splendeur,  the town hall acted as gallery. In it  we saw some facinating amatuer photography and artwork.  Some captured traditions, including a set of great photos documenting a herd of sheep being swam round in the shallow sea in Spring to wash the lanolin off their woolly winter coats. A very affable gentlemen who led the project explained the photos and talked about how they would be kept on permanent display at the schools so the children could understand more about their past and the island’s traditions. It left us feeling warm and wonderful, and that wasn’t just the kind gesture of offering tsipouro or wine to the visitors! That just is part of the collective generous spirit of the islanders. There was a sense of unity there, and given its size and population that entirely makes sense. Everyone stopped and had time for one another. It was blissful sitting in a cafe, lingering over a frappe and watching everyone stop and chat. From the baker leaning over her counter to the teenagers being chastised for leaving their bikes strewn on the square. The centre of the village has all you’d ever need: an ATM, medical centre and a school, the formal square was built by the Italian’s when they occupied the island. Crucially tourism and traditional life manages to co-exits; they didn’t seem to mind us tourists dropping in and wandering through the whitewashed streets, watching their basketball games, being present in their lives momentarily.

The sell-everything-you’ve-ever-needed shop in Allapronia plays the centre of port life – a mother and daughter run this with efficiency: bill paying for the locals, tourist info for rooms and facilitating taxi-type lifts for lost yachtsmen. We witnessed a rather glam English couple anchor their boat and then rock up looking for a taxi to take them to a bar in Chora – presumably they had been mis-advised – although there is one lively bar that passes as the islands epicentre of nightlife, there is little else even the peak of August. and no taxis on the island at all. But  a few calls a later, and the couple had time for a glass of wine in the taverna before a car arrived to whisk them up the hill to Chora.

This sense stepping back in time was exactly was we were seeking, as we sunk in easily into an island which only has a handful of tavernas, cafes and bars – there’s a keen sense of life just ticking over rather than a hurried pace of money-making and vying for attention. Of course, the everyone work hard running the apartments and meeting visitors at the ports as the ferries arrive in their haphazard  frequency, but it seems as if they aren’t too worried about the infringement of large-scale tourism. No high-rise developments, no swimming pools – just lots of open sky and empty hills, near deserted beaches for relaxed amusement and quiet contemplation.

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We enjoyed some great meals in Taverna Lucas right on the front. As we were staying in Lucas Apartments it went without saying that we were always met with a smile and chat by the family members . The local version of Horiatiki Salata (Greek Salad) took some beating – feta was replaced with soft tangy local goats cheese, adding in fresh capers and herbs in abundance.  In Chora we sampled both of the side-by-side restaurants near the square; To Steki tou Garmpi and  Klimataria on alternate evenings, enjoying the simple menu and daily specials of goat in lemon sauce, garlicky tzatziki and homemade meatballs.

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Walks were our primary distraction and motive for the trip – highlights of the week were hiking up to Chora and Kastro to Moni Zoodohou Pigi, along some of the best preserved cobbled moni paths (donkey paths ) I’ve seen. The the paths are signposted and mapped with numbered routes thanks to brilliant work of the paths of culture project ran by  Elliniki Etairia– Society for the Environment & Cultural Heritage. This group have worked tirelessly to preserve, map and promote the excellent range of routes across many of the smaller Islands.

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The expansion of  the island’s road network from a single tarmac road from the port to Chorio only happened recently and grew to a few more uneven roads out to Ag Georgios, the Winery and the ruins of Episkopi temple. All are worth visiting, but a car isn’t necessary if you’re prepared to use the very efficient and friendly bus service (up and back to Kastro/Chora every hour). The network of paths cross the island and in a matter of minutes you can leave the villages behind and be on your own, listening to nothing but goat bells and dogs barking. It all evokes an overwhelming sense of barren beauty, only the small churches dotting the hillsides to punctuate the view.

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We enjoyed several afternoons at Dhialiskari beach – where the church of Agios Nikolaos sits – it’s a well signposted 30 min walk. Its an unspoilt bay with jsuy umbrella shades and no facilities – perfect for diving off the rocks and snorkelling. The island also has beaches at Ag Georgios that you can reach by a regular boat service from the port.

When out walking you’ll notice is the imposing landscape, terraced ledges with stone walls for cultivating grapes and olives at dizzying heights. The island was once known as Oinoe (Island of Wine)  in ancient times and famous for grape growing across the region and beyond – we enjoyed plenty of decent wine and pleased to see the revival of the tradition with the opening of the Manalis Winery which we didn’t have time to visit but it’s definitely on the list for next time. After 7 magical days I was sad to say Andio!

The only downside to Sikinos was its tendency to suffer from the Meltemi wind in August and September. This is the prevailing north wind that blows through the Cyclades island in Summer – this wasn’t an alien concept to us, we’ve experienced it in the islands before where it had a much needed marvellous cooling effect. But in Sikinos it seemed to take on a new form – once the sun set, the wind howled through and became cold and damp, whipping through the streets in Chora and the sensible travellers among us were prepared with a fleece jacket. I however, only had a cardigan! Brr!

That’s the surprising thing with Sikinos – it draws you in;  you have to make the effort on the ferry to get there (at best 2 hours to Santorini -at worst 6 hours from Athens). It’s not the immediate breathtaking beauty that starry neighbours Folegandros and Santorini might have, but it welcomes you, encourages you to slow down, bathe in its peaceful glory and forget the world.

 

Patmos in Bloom

It’s been a magical week in Patmos. We’ve experienced the warmest hospitality, discovered Easter traditions, walked for miles surrounded by wild lavender on the trails.

I even managed to visit a garden centre in Kambos. Everywhere we looked were beautiful gardens, full of lillies, petunias, beaurganvilla and hippeastratum in blooms. I bought some aubergine seeds from a lovely English lady who married a local and now runs a florist and plant shop in Skala. It’s an island full of garden plots and vegetable growers. I’ll be back Patmos.

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Inspired Greek Cuisine from the islands

As a committed Grecophile and taverna cuisine aficionado – ha! who am I kidding! In all reality I love Greek cooking, it has a basic premise that is heartfelt seasonal simplicity and I love cooking up a storm (translate = chaos!) in the kitchen. This weekend I had a friend over for dinner so decided to get stuck in and prepare a meze menu for sharing.

I read through Belinda Harley’s ‘Roast Lamb in the Olive Groves‘ for inspiration . I have struggled to find many Greek cookbooks – so let me know if you come across any treasures. It’s a very skilful modern take on some of the wonderful and traditional recipes she found during her time spent on Paxos. The island is a true jewel in the Ionian sea – we visited Paxos a couple of years ago and had enjoyed two weeks of pure bliss, walking, swimming in deserted beaches and enjoying some of the finest local cuisine. The island is a treasure – recommended to me by my parents who have only visited it in 1976, it was their first taste of what turned into a long term love for Greece. I have inherited their adoration of helios and retsina, and convinced myself in the 30 odd intervening years Paxos had changed only a little, with just the modern conveniences of wifi and imported gin as the real markers of time. But I do want to get round to writing a longer post on Paxos as it is a small island that deserves a full exploration. Watch this space

But in terms of my menu plan, the island inspired me to cook Spanakopita – a deliciously buttery feta and spinach pie.

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Spanakopita

Using Harley’s recipe for a colourful panzarosalata (beetoot salad with radish and feta) with it’s peppery taste to liven up the palate and offer a colourful visual for the meal. In my humble opinion any Greek menu is incomplete without a good basic tzatziki, served with bread and olives drizzled with lemon oil and thyme.

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almost ready – midia saganaki
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My love of olives

To add a little texture and taste I cooked midia saganaki – which is mussels in a winey tomato sauce, with an added shot of ouzo, sprinkled with herbs and feta. It’s a perfect sharing dish with the sauce just crying out for soaking up with bread.

I also grilled some simple pork kebabs seasoned with herbs and lemon,  a Greek salad – drizzled generously with wine vinegar and topped with feta. There is a love of cheese throughout this menu, so I went all out and grilled halloumi to serve drizzled in honey and sesame seeds.

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Just like a taverna

All served with a bottle of Retsina salvaged from Sainsbury’s and chilled to perfection. It may have been February in Kent, but we all agreed it was a Greek summer in our bellies…