In time for Easter

The ferry from Pireaus was simpler this time. In fact everything we do now is strangely predicated by this statement; ‘ last year’. Which hangs on every action like a shadow in the midday sun. I know I feel less fraught and nervous about it all now I am here. For months we have had the questions from well meaning loved ones and negotiations with work stuff to deal with. It has been worth it. Things will be different and change is inevitable. After last year’s inventive skateboard / suitcase transporter incident which involved a hill and a tantrum, our luggage a little more streamlined. No more wheelie massive body bag, which has been resigned to the end of its travelling life. Everything we need, nothing we don’t, well so far at least.

Even in this Easter week, we have had glorious days of sunshine that feel like summer but it’s cold at night. Duvets and extra blankets are needed – as are warm socks to keep out the chill. It won’t stay like this but Spring has a way of tricking you every time.

I do love the thrill of the ferry ride, its escalators upwards to the desk when you arrive. Not quite the grand treatment but I do appreciate the welcomes you receive from the staff with their Blue Star waistcoats. Makes the idea of ferry travel somehow like a cruise. Although I’ve never been on one – I’ve seen enough of  Jane MacDonald’s attempts at promoting them on that TV show to have a good idea 😉 We bustled through the port under darkness and onto the ramp, were the man pointed us to the Mykonos bag storage section. Of course he imagined that most tourists in March would be heading there. “Oxi, Syros parakelo” “ahhh, endaxi” he looked surprised. Loading our 4 neat bags on the shelf and headed upstarts to get coffee.

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Instead of a golden sunrise full of pinks and oranges, when we left the mainland there was a dull slump of dark grey into light grey. A nothing sunrise. I was okay with that. The Blue Star left the smokey harbour and crazy traffic behind, half empty or half full with passengers depending on how you see life. To me then, as the wind whipped round the deck and setting sail across the Aegean, it was half full.

There is a magic moment when the boat comes towards the port at Ermoupoli just a few minutes after the captain sounds the horn echoing across the island and the Church at Agios Dimitrios replies by chiming its bells. It then turns to let the two hills come into sight in all their pastel shades tumbling into the blue sea and stretching upwards to green hills in the distance. It gets me every time – even in the grey patched clouds this time it looked spectacular. 

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Arriving back in the village was a little like time travel – the same turns, twists and views from the taxi.  Finding warm welcome’s and hello’s, noticing new things as we stumbled blindly retracing our steps like survivors of a small but significant storm. The past week has been both strange and familiar at once. Getting into the swing of life again here, settling into familiarity and making a home.  Separating out the week for work, shopping tasks and buses into town. Enjoying time with friends and neighbours, sampling new places and old favourites.

We took time out for a walk to Aetos beach last Sunday under clear blue skies and a howling wind. It was funny as we both had completely forgotten how to find the right path, we remembered the jumper tied to the post and the gap in the wall. But then we went too far and walked through a threshing circle before looping back and starting over. 

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Eventually we found the right path, it looked like not many had walked it as the bushes were so overgrown. This meant we were rewarded with Aetos beach to ourselves and it was the best place for the first swim. Bracing and brave would be two good words to describe it! 

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Since then I have swum a few more times at Kini beach. As it is Easter week there are plenty of people here as the Island prepares for one of its busiest times. Last night we ate a feast of calamari and fava; as its traditional to eat seafood during lent (nothing with a backbone) and only eat meat after tonight’s church service – when the magritsa soup is cooked. Not quite sure if I’m up for making lambs entrails soup yet, maybe next year… As traditions go, Easter certainly goes with a bang here and there will be fireworks near midnight after the services to celebrate the resurrection of Christ. We have been given red dyed eggs – so can battle them in a cracking match tonight!

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At this time of year there are beautiful wild irises dotting the paths, bees buzzing in bountiful flowering sage and wild thyme, a wonderful reminder of nature’s hold on the seasons. In these weeks after the Spring equinox and the shift to summer time it feels right to celebrate change, growth and rebirth. 

Happy Easter – Kalo Pascha!

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The trick is to keep swimming

Its not the kind of pool you can dive into, so I walked in to the water at the shallow end and started swimming when it reached my hips. Back when it was built in 1992 it was perhaps designed to emulate a beach with its vaguely nauseating tropical colours. It’s now fading a little and showing its age with tiles missing –  still functional and happy to be open and being loved by the daily swimmers.  Towards the back a wave machine hides behind dark vents in the deep end. Luckily in the 2 hour early morning session, the orange and blue fibreglass slides are switched off and silently snake their way round the high ceilings.  I swim towards the floating lane markers and start charting the waters with slow strokes. Although miles away, this local swimming pool here in a corner of zone 5 is in many ways like the leisure pool I learned to swim in as a child. A little too warm and chlorinated, stubbing toes on tiles and showers that frustratingly switch off after 10 seconds, leaving you holding down the button  to rinse away the bleachy smell.

I don’t think I come from a ‘swimmy’ family – ok let’s be realistic I don’t come from a sporty family. Although my mum swam for the county as a girl (can we verify this?) and my Dad in his retirement is now a fully-fledged-lycra-clad bike fanatic in a cycling club.  My paternal grandma only learnt to swim when she was in her 70s so she could swim with me and my brother.

I think swimming played a big part in my childhood. Water-babies, 100 metre badges, diving classes, life-saving with junior school which seemed to only involve being made to swim a length in your pajamas and dive for a brick made of rubber. We spent a lot of time in that leisure centre as a family and it’s comforting that my nephew learned to swim there 30 years later. Then school swimming galas – breaststroke saw me getting placed last in the heat. Coming home afterwards I sat on the kitchen worktop eating the top half of a white bread bun spread with tomato paste and grilled with grated cheese. I remember feeling sad and sorry for myself for letting everyone down– but I also remember how nice the mini-pizza snack was. The snap of swimming cap, the smell of talc, the humiliation of being forced to the dreaded wear verruca sock and being treated like a leper. I swear everyone had a verruca and those kids that refused to wear the dammed sock were the cause of constant plagues circulating on those wet tiles.

Most people have a similar relationship with exercise. The new year is a time of battles with the body and mind, I have reset my intention and dabbled again with swimming. But its complicated. You love exercise as a kid, because its just activity, fun and freeing, it wears you out. But nothing prepares you when puberty hits like a sledge hammer and the thought of standing in front of your class mates in basically your pants is horrifying. You should have seen the notes I forged at comprehensive school that managed to get me excused from any sporting activity, my fiction was invented here.

I think I stopped swimming at 13 and apart from holidays, didn’t swim properly again until I was 29. By then I was mad enough to sign up for a triathlon and swam in cold water to train at Parliament Lido. That was freezing, in April it was 13c and found myself braced in an expensive (secondhand) wetsuit, neon cap and goggles. Like a superhero armed for the chilly water battle. Slowly in those cold mornings and late evening swims in the lido I learned to fall back in love with the rhythm of swimming. It wasn’t without its humiliation, to be in a lane with the super-triathlon swimmers twice as fast as me, overtaking, splashing their skilled arrogance with arms flying outwards and then under like a pack of wet skinned seals. But I did it, in spite of the mucky smell of the Thames on the day of the race miraculously I didn’t drown or get kicked in the face. The gun set off and 200 people swam like a hungry snapping school of piranhas. I even signed up for other races, even swimming in Dorney Lake smelled much cleaner than the Thames.

I think I had a favourite swim last year. It was on Easter Sunday in Ermoupoli, after sipping hot coffee in Maouli Square. The café owner asked us very sweetly if we didn’t mind just leaving the cups when we’d finished as he wanted to shut up to head home to eat Easter lunch with his family. Who could argue with that? Eventually we sauntered off in the bright sunlight to Vaporia, past the blue domed Agios Nikolaos  church. There is a bathing platform here that gets crowded in summer, but here on an Orthodox holiday in spring it was near empty. Just a handful of others sitting in the sun and a brave lady in a flowery bathing cap swimming slow breast-stroke in the turquoise water. I stripped off to my cossie in the breeze and timidly at first dangled a foot in the water. It was fresh, cold and clear. I felt reborn, baptised – my first swim of 2017 in the Aegean in April. Like lizards warming our cold blood, we laid out drying in the sun afterwards on the concrete of the closed Asteria Café.

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In the summer I swam over the same section of Kini bay most mornings. Day after day, charting laps between the orange buoys until I had memorised the topography of the rocks and sand and could say greetings to the fishes. Breath and rhythm become an underwater meditation. I kept swimming until my arms were tight and felt strung like a bow.  Then I would sit quietly in the beach crunching tiny cracking bubbles in my neck, stretching my legs out on the warming sand.

I think sometimes I have lost my love for  exercise and suddenly surprise myself as I fall back in love with its endorphins every so often.  I need it the most when it takes me away from the fuzz of every day and creates breathing space.

A few days ago after my morning swim, I stood under the unisex showers with shampoo in my eyes. I glimpsed the future…there it was; a bundle of noise – gossiping, putting on swimming caps, snapping costume straps into place. Loud voices talking over the changing room “How’s slimming world, Pat?’ “I’ve lost 7 pounds!”. Then one lady turned to me “Is the water warm, love?” I beamed back “Positively tropical today!” I was a bit taken aback, having spent a few years of my adult life in posh-gyms, crap pay-as-you-go gyms, try-hard gyms,  yoga-death-stare-silence gyms. I hadn’t heard people chat like this in changing rooms ever…well maybe since I was back in the pool of my childhood. This was leisure as it should be – fitness and fun. No pressure.

I longed to stay all morning and hang out with these spirited retirees, all full of life and laughter.  As I was leaving, the Shirelles ‘Will you love me tomorrow’ sang out over the loudspeakers and the instructor shouted “let’s get going girls” Aqua-fit is the future, I can’t wait to be retired.