Butterflies in the trees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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,

 

10 meditations on 2017

Christmas is spent with ghosts.
Just like the three ghosts that visit Ebenezer Scrooge (or Frank Cross, played by Bill Murray in my favourite version, Scrooged), the phantoms of our past, present and future haunt us every year. I am not alone in thinking more about the big things in the days after the frivolity of Christmas while awaiting the shiny promise of a New Year.

If Christmas is for nostalgia, the Ghost of Christmas Past has been and gone by the 29th December, discarded like the turkey bones thrown into the food recycling bin. If you’re lucky to not be back in work this week it is like a no-man’s land, some call it ‘Twixt-mas’ or the in-between days before NYE’s fizz. We sit and watch repeats on the telly, internet shop and wonder what the future will hold. These days are prime hunting ground for the Ghost of Christmas Present, who asks questions about here and now, waiting the future to knock at the door as the clock strikes midnight onto 2018.

Every year I feel berated by the grace of John Lennon’s lyrics; “Its Christmas time and what have you done, another year older, a new one’s just begun”. I can’t help feeling he’s pointing accusations when I hear it. Yes, compared to a member of the Beatles, my life has been quiet from one year to the next. But I think it is fair to say 2017 has been a myriad of adventure between the UK and Greece – one which has given me a lot to be thankful for.

Here is my 10 tiny little meditations on 2017 from the Ghost of Christmas Present:

  1. Action: Things are learnt by action not by indecision. If I kept waiting for the right time – a momentary bliss when the earth aligned on its axis, the moon was cradled softly by a cloud in an open sky and there were no distractions, no moments in which my mind would wander and fill with the voices and dreams of other lifetimes. How long would I wait? Now is the time. Postponement is not a state to relish.
  2. Sunsets: by realising that sunsets are just an illusion of the end of the day as the world continues on round its path, I did not feel cheated. Instead I felt wonderfully relived, that these were not endings but merely intervals like curtains being drawn over one day to the next, they only had meaning when we see them collectively and gave power to them. 2017 was a year of many sunsets,  so many beautiful minutes of silence as the earth spun slowly round into the magic of the blue hour where the fading echo of the sun’s light turns the scene sepia gold  before turning away into darkness again. To witness this repetition is be sure of nature’s true hold of time.
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  3. Language: I am still a beginner at Greek and need way more practice with the language. If I believed in resolutions for 2018, this would be high on the list. Instead I just believe in giving it a go.
  4. Sunrises: also pretty special to witness. Nothing can beat that feeling of excitement holding cups of coffee to keep our hands warm on the deck of the Blue Star Ferry in early April, watching a dawn rising up from the horizon of port buildings in Piraeus with no idea what would happen when we arrived on Syros. Reflecting against the jumbled architecture of Athens port, orange and pink light reflecting off silvery towerscapes and crumbling warehouses, we looked outwards and held expectations against the unknown, fears and hope, not realising the possibilities those months ahead would reveal.
  5. Cats: when a little black and white long-haired furball with a mottle tail and one eye permanently dilated, turned up at the house in Greece, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It became obvious had moved into its territory and it eyed us up for a few days…slinking from one side of the terrace to the other, nose in the air and sniffing. Eventually she came closer, growing trustful when we responded with saucers of water at first, then later titbit snacks she would devour with her snaggled tooth grin. She sidled up to us and purred, played with string and sticks.  I think wherever she is now, she is still a little rebel-rebel like Bowie her namesake.
  6. Books: I have cherished the time alone this year with just a book. Some have moved me to tears, made me angry, hopeful and even disappointed – an act that felt voracious and needy, hungrily devouring their pages. It felt like a good year to a be a reader. I meandered through a range of fiction, biography, history, philosophy and poetry – losing count of numbers, but feel enriched and privileged by the worlds I have peeked into. I have already started hastily compiling a list for 2018. Please send me your recommendations!
  7. Writing: sometimes you come to the page with an intention, a fully-fledged idea and other times I come unstuck with just a few words, allow them to form and take you away. Anything can happen here. Practice, explore, mess around with structure – I am happiest doing this, easing off the pressure. Fight the will to compare or mediate or suffocate the process. Just let it flow. Anything creative with words will be a long battle.
  8. Noise: To take yourself away from the noise, not just the ever-present hum and whirr of traffic, over-crowded cities, distracted by the cacophony of digital attention and the rich/poor, left/right, good/evil, fake/true paradox that entrenches indifference. 2017 was filled with heartache, etched by news that broke at such speed and changed direction from despair to joy in seconds. Most of us prefer to keep up rather than check out – the competitiveness of being busy and misappropriation of information as wisdom. The only thing I needed in this year was to slow down and stop being afraid of what happens away from the noise. The internal noise of my own brain hasn’t yet shut up, chattering over long held beliefs and holding the stick of other people’s success up like a marker. But it is quietening down and allowing me to focus. I now like the sound of a ticking clock, the fierce meltemi wind, the sea waves crashing in a storm and the song of cicadas. This alone won’t solve much in the world but it allows me to think and process what I can do.
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  9. Fear: I held so much anxiety inside me in the UK I didn’t recognise another sensation when I wandered round grinning ear to ear, walking over hills scattered with spring flowers and being on the verge of tears of what felt like happiness. The weight of fear and worry is mostly based on imagined threats. By taking away those tiny small stresses that pile up to a mountains, I found myself standing differently, shoulders hang freely and hands that don’t fidget. I found it took me a while to ease into the blankness of living without them. I mean blankness as the only way to describe the feeling when the heaviness goes away and the catastrophe of worry subsides. I will save my worry for things I can change.
  10. Family (and friends): the time I have had with them this year has been up and down, but filled with stories and laughter. The annual Christmas journey from Kings Cross has been done countless times with my backpack, balancing presents and cake tins on my lap on an overcrowded train. The same ritual since I was 21 is still being recreated year after year, a return to a home-town that you no longer know but all is still familiar and steeped in memory. Family waiting by the door, food stock piled, the aging Advocaat bottle in the drinks cabinet, the sprout jokes and plastic After Eight chocolate (apart from that one year it went ‘missing’?). This time of fervent celebration is shaped by nostalgia, that busy time when you try to see everyone, give presents and have long talks over bottles of wine. Amidst the calm currents, loneliness and grief bubble up to surface of our lives. I am thankful for their health, happiness, support and most of all…jokes.

When the clock strikes midnight and we collectively look towards a New Year wrapped up in possibility with its promise of newness, reinvention and satisfaction. I for one will be looking outward thinking about how I can do more in 2018 and keep the Ghosts at bay.

Enough: how I learned to live with less

I have a reoccurring nightmare when you die that you are confronted by everything you ever bought as a massive pile in a stinking landfill. A whole towering pile of plastic shoes, stringy vests and fancy dresses…I often wake up at night imagine being trapped under it unable to breathe.

It started October 2016, not a conscious act of rebellion but a small change of economic means, a way of saving money by not shopping. Not overnight and not completely, we all need to live, eat and function. But stop buying and accumulating the stuff that isn’t a necessity and having less by choice is something I have been working on since then. Progress has been made. My wardrobe is smaller despite getting out those clothes that were packed away in storage. But I have been again confronted by my self-created nightmare. I still have way more than I need.

I am a hoarder with emotional ties to objects and yet I am not one of those women who loves to shop.  I love the feel of a newly purchased top, sparkly shoe, statement coat as much as anyone. I hold such good memories with clothes and see them as a way of decoding ones past through dubious fashion choices. Fortunately, (*checks privilege) I live in freedom enough to decide this for myself and not fall for the constant bombardment of images women and men face. A UK woman spends on average £70,294 on their appearance in their lifetime…yes, £70K. That’s £1,352 a year or £112.65 a month. £70K could buy a plot of land somewhere and make that self-sufficient dream come true.

I don’t think I ever fell into that category of spending, but when I was in my early 20s on my first (meagre) wage, I did spend a lot of money on clothes, and shoes, and handbags. (I can’t be alone in the phenomena of earning so little but not living in London meant I had loads of disposable income. It frightens me, where did all my money go?)  The thrill of spending it on high-fashion, low-cost goods from Primark or H&M, where quality was an afterthought and all those mini-skirts, bo-ho noughties fashion, and party dresses have trailed around many parties and now long been recycled off or charity shopped. Sadly, these clothes are just fast-fashion-fads, made in dubious sweat shops, producing high pollutants in the atmosphere and most never get recycled. In more recent years I moved towards higher quality clothes in an effort to get my wear out of them. Zara, M&S for staples and second hand clothes for more interesting purchases that last longer, repurposing hand me downs and charity shop finds. I still get excited about my £100 second-hand wedding dress that made me look and feel like a millionaire. The landfill image as a thought alone has been enough to keep me away from the shops on my lunch hour, away from shops on the weekend, and from shifting through online browsers and click-bait shoes.

I think many of us are using purchasing things as an emotional prop, a browse online when feeling low grants an immediate hit, a sugar rush as you check out in 2 clicks to secure that delicious fabric print and high heel.  Then another glow when the purchase turns up and you twirl around in it. Social media means we wear more outfits, but repeat them less frequently for fear of being shamed. That makes me sad.

My problem was that high always faded so quickly. I ran through a shopping centre a few weeks ago to go to the chemist and I saw whole families treating shopping as it is was a genuine joyful pursuit of their hard-earned leisure time. Maybe it is. The endless accumulation of material goods is something people aspire too. But when is enough, enough?

I don’t feel my changes are a revelation, more a slow evolution. A quiet adult acceptance of money and spending what I work for. I went completely without buying clothes or make up for 6 months and only bought 5 items of clothing in 2017 (jeans, replacement trainers as I’d ran them out, leathers sandals and 2 shirts). Note: I am really hoping Santa delivers me some new underwear! My trick has been to think about buying something for long enough the moment passes, like anticipation is often better than the event itself. Which is a bit like my desire to write…I mull over it so long the argument against is lost. I take out my battles here on the page. Down-sizing, shedding, getting rid of the extraneous word and thought. I don’t want you to think of me as a puritan nor shameless hippie. Just someone who thinks economically! It is hard to define necessity but that definition helps set boundaries– I do need a travel card to get to work. I need to feed myself but I don’t need to spend £7 on lunch or a £3 coffee. I have ‘finally’ trained my master-of-all-skills-husband to cut my hair instantly saving £45, incidentally I stopped colouring my hair a year ago now – I have cultivated a natural ‘ombre’ look.  This isn’t all about appearances either.

In the year we finally spent 6 months living simply in Greece, we earned significantly less and yet lived more – swapping urban life for experiences and simplicity. Which is such a funny thing to admit isn’t – actively scaling back your earning potential marries quite well with stopping spending it on stuff you don’t need. Now we are back in London, the TV lies unplugged, books need to be read (library books encouraged) we make packed lunches, eat seasonal cheap food, shop sensibly and reduce wastage. All tiny little incremental steps.

Standing here almost at the dawn of 2018, with a pervasive global environmental and human crisis at our heels, so much of our consumption is in the endless pursuit of fulfillment and happiness – whole industries thrive on this need. I too seek happiness, but realise I won’t find that on the high street or in ‘self-help’ book or green juice diet.

For me, voluntary minimalism feels right in the season of excess and consumption. Clearing out, letting go and treasuring what we have. Because it is more always more than enough.

Now in November

I have been doing many things over the past 6 weeks, but one of them hasn’t been writing this blog. I have been distracted, open mouthed and furiously plotting. I picked up my old copy of Now in November by Josephine Johnson on Saturday as I sat down to write. Having not read it since university, I was overwhelmed as these lines really centered my thinking.

Now in November I can see our years as a whole. The autumn is both like an end and a beginning to our lives, and those days which seemed confused with a blur of all things too near and too familiar are clear and strange now. It has been a long year, longer and more full of meaning than all those ten years that went before it.”

Johnson’s first person narrative tells the struggles of a poor white tenant farmer family battling with nature, religion and social class in the Great Depression. Although only 24 when it was written, she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1935 and fair to say coming 5 years before Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, Johnson was ahead of her time.  It is an emotionally raw and illuminating read, written from the daughter’s perspective in the landscape of the dust bowl. It felt like a good opener to remind me of the power words can have. 

The 11th month of the year marks my birth month, so it also calls for beginnings as well as endings. I always think of November as a reflective brooding time, the shorter days slowly folding itself into Christmas and then a new year. There has been a lot of catching up and family time in the past few weeks, and generally aligning ourselves back into a rhythm that we had lost. I have relished being back in a fully operational kitchen, I even baked a Greek honey and almond cake. As well as trying to replicate the souzoukakia recipe from Stou Zaloni’s. They weren’t bad!

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Now in this November I found myself walking along Regent’s Park with a dear friend in the biting cold on a Sunday afternoon. We walked and talked. Catching up conversations about work and ambition, life, love and all the stuff that chatters around our brains in-between. I hadn’t felt that absorbed for a long time, as we crunched golden leaves beneath our feet and squinted in the sunlight. It was nice to be out in the fresh air, breathing it all in and bathing in daylight. After our taxing walk we found a cosy pub and shared more long conversations over pints and stodgy food. Proving that this is a time for reflection, we managed to put the world to right over kind words and ideas.  This is autumn loveliness at its finest.

I am lucky to have been able to walk through St James Park on the way to meetings. Dawdling a while to stare at the ducks around the lake, admire the tourists posing and see how the fig trees are getting on. One of which is reported to be the biggest specimen of Ficus carica (brown turkey) in Britain. I always wonder if the figs are tasty from that big old tree. One day I’ll check them out in season. 

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I didn’t really appreciate how glorious fig trees are before with their deciduous vast flat leaves. I always thought of the fruit first rather than the tree. How the overripe figs would fall and collect in sad splatted piles, smelling sickly sweet while they rotted. Often they were pillaged by giant ants marching in a line of military precision. I ate dried figs at my parent’s house a few weeks ago when they opened the box of Kini figs from Theresa. They had been sun-dried in the traditional way with sesame seeds with a bay leaf on each layer and wrapped in tissue paper.  Their sweet taste made me feel sad and happy all at once thinking of summer.

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I do miss the fig trees that leaned over our garden in Syros. By now their leaves will have also turned into shades of golden rust. I keep seeing pictures on social media of northern Greece where the forest leaves are aflame in all the radiant hues of autumn. A November walk in the Greek hills sounds about perfect right now.  In Greece the olive harvest is always traditionally done after the first rainfall. Spreading out the nets and raking through the tree branches to make the ripe olives fall, it’s back breaking work. I might sit in an office all day but that’s no comparison to the hard labour of the olive farmers.

I had got used to having a lot of freedom over how I spent my time, which manifests itself in getting frustrated over the constrained time squeezed into work.  I relish snatches of time being alone on the train and staring up at the sky whenever the opportunity presents itself.

I miss the sky , the big ol’ blue Hellenic sky – the sheer expanse of the horizon. You don’t get big horizons like that in London… even from the top of the Sky Garden it looked pretty grey. 

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I think it is the light and colour I miss the most. I leave in the dark gloom of dawn, a train ride through terraced streets with hues of brown and mud coloured buildings flashing by. If it’s cloudy all day before getting dark at 4pm, a whole day can go by in this strange wishy washy landscape without seeing anything bright and inspiring.

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Compare that London grey smudge with the palette of Ermoupoli in its candy coloured houses and pale blue domes, bright skies and sea of turquoise, dotted with terracotta, bright pops of pink and  emerald green. I have been cheering up the dark nights by sorting some of my pictures from walks around the town. These are just a few of my favourites.

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The weather certainly won’t be as nice there now as I remember it, but everyone will be starting to hibernate for winter as  the grey skies and stormy weather sets in. But I can look over these pictures to remember the light and hope it keeps me going through the dark days of November.