Calm before a storm

Winter keeps score. It serves as a kind of truth telling; a way of washing away the last embers – a time for revision, remaking, reminding. If an island Summer is all bluster and body – a non-stop pirouette of colour and noise, then it’s gift when Autumn arrives to fold away that brightness with a mellow kind of laughter – a gathering of fruits under lengthening shadows as the days shorten. But I’ve noticed that what happens often here is that Autumn ends up being the star of the show – an encore of mild weather that lasts almost to Christmas; encouraging green growth with scattered showers and glorious blue days. Tonight I listen to the wind howl and the hailstones scatter on the roof, snow is forecast. But will it reach us on Syros?

Here we are in the first-kind-of-normal-post-lockdown winter since Covid. Everything open and events on across the island; from bands to theatre, to cinema to art shows and book readings. The sort-of-quiet December brought a twinkle of shopping displays and the syrupy charm of cinnamon, then January laid a muted calm over the island; we’ve had clear blue days where the sun felt warm enough to shed clothes and dive into the chilly sea. Glorious afternoons of empty hillside walks. For many that live here, Winter is when people seem to have more time. So night classes start up again, and often when I walk down the hill all manner of music and singing pours out into the quiet streets. A lone flute player rehearses at the music school and each time I hear it it brightens up an otherwise dark street. Each week I return to Greek lessons and attempt to get my head round ways of being heard in a language that evades my understanding. Slowly, Slowly – they say and I try out conversations with neighbours. Explaining who I am, asking questions. It’s like a half-pantomime filling in the blanks of my vocabulary. But it’s enough, enough that I don’t do too much damage with my clumsy words and it means that the kind Kyria fills my pockets with homemade pies ‘for the journey’. 

Last year I started Greek dancing lessons – joining a class with all Greek speakers , bravely being introduced to it by a friend. At first I found it overwhelming – just being in a crowded room where everyone else had such a better understanding of not just the instructions, but the music, the steps – all part of Greek traditions they’d all grown up with. Here I am Xeno, the outsider, trying to join in. But I persisted, despite the gulf in my Greek and my gratitude for all the kindness of translations and explanations. I enjoy it not just because the music is beautiful, always unexpected, but the way each dance is introduced by the teacher Anna with a little tale about where it is from. Each week we practice new dances and slowly the steps become familiar and known. Sometimes it’s just the small and understated steps, the way we all stand shoulder to shoulder and move as one, the way we change from right foot to left, the little hop steps and turns, small and fragile. Back straight, head up and together all holding hands or shoulders and mostly always in a circle. It has been so surprising to learn to dance like this in a way that looks so easy as an outsider watching. But the reality is so difficult and so different from the ones I have often seen being performed at festivals. Some from the mainland, like the kalamatianos (from Kalamata)- performed at weddings and parties, to the Syrto style in a circle to the wild but tricky Ikariatiko (from Ikaria). Each week it’s like a little glimpse into a place and its dance traditions. Sometimes it’s a dance for the mother-in-law, sometimes a dance for Carnival with a song with rude lyrics that are totally lost on me. Others with sweet little details of rituals and waving of scarves, leg slapping tricks.  Its a diverse group all ages – even a few men, who I have to say sometimes the men get to have special moves; stepping away and twirling. All that bravado. The class for me is like a peek into mystical moments of a world that is both enthralling and steeped in tradition, that doesn’t exist in my own culture. For what its worth, I’m not quite there with the steps, like they, say art is long and life is short. Slowly slowly. 

As I walk home after dancing, my face warm and pink hitting the cold air of the evening. My shadow is swift past the the shuttered up houses, hearing only the soft footsteps of other people like me walking, going out to a warm bar or returning home. The buzz of mopeds dashing across slick streets. As I climb the marble steps I notice how they’ve grown green with weeds and the sound of water rushes in channels and drips down walls, rendering the thought of summer drought and parched earth unimaginable. Like the lights shining from the harbour, the island holds on for the coming storm tonight and what it might bring.  

When the storms come the leaves fall and the prettiest birds fly away. Those who stay they get the honour of really knowing this place in winter – when it’s showing some elemental truth underneath the surface of summer. The same way we really only know ourselves and our friends when they are not on top form, when life gets messy and stripped back, uncertain and challenging. The darkness of just being. That is what it takes to know a place.

And learning the words, the steps….and persisting.

Piraeus, November 2022

I arrive quickly only to depart again slowly as the rain falls. I wait in a cafe and the sun blind hours turn the sea into grey smoked glass. Piraeus is a steel and concrete circus of dancing splashing trucks where invisible ringmasters direct the show, fumes rise while cars idle waiting for a turn to cross the pools of rain and up the ramp into the deep belly of the boat. Dappled light in red and white reflect a slow applause on glistening tarmac. 

Ferries, large and small, get dwarfed by cruise ships bigger than buildings offer up a horizon tiny porthole windows, towering in the same white-dirt-colour as the apartments that line the harbour. I don’t know where the city ends and the sea begins. Everything outside plays tricks in the rain. Pedestrians like me board the bus and lurch together past each ferry as it readies for departure in the hours ahead. Gate upon gate yelling another destination in neon lights; Patmos, Kriti, Astipalea, Paros, Thessaloniki, Aegina, Rodos. Take your pick. Each island a series of events yet to happen. A dice to roll. 

The bus chugs past the empty warehouses and car parks, past the closed cafes, past the closed ticket booths. The man next to me asks if the bus ticket is free and I stutter some words that might not make sense, so I say sorry to him. To myself, for every word I haven’t yet learnt. We go past the long lines of bus shelters. In the rain its hard to believe people lived there. But now there’s no sign of them. Each day they were jolted from sleep by the angry noise of wheeled suitcases and reversing trucks. They sat beside everything they owned, holding on to heavy blankets and battered bags, water bottles lined up at the end of a plastic bench. I can’t help but wonder what a person goes through to try to begin again in the smog and spit end of the city port like this watching people leave freely every day and not be able to do so yourself. Where are they now? What place did they end up now it is winter?  

Only when the day has almost given up I see it.  A jolt of sun encores with a single gold streak across the winter sky. If the prisms of a rainbow are made after the rain I can’t find it. No pot of treasures, no basket of hope. The sun ends the day without fanfare. By the time I’m on the ferry the only sight on the horizon is the dark billowing kind of cloud, bending into loops of grey and somewhere out there a factory burns (the alert tells my phone vital facts – keep windows closed, stay inside). As we sail into the ink black outside I can’t tell where the city ends or where the smoke begins or where the sea touches the sky at the horizon. Or even if I need to know what is beginning or ending as everything, always, seems to be both.

June, 2022

Days cling to the calendar. Unsung notes from an instrument we are yet to hear. Quick on my heels, shadows of winter are locked away. I scarper up the hill, running against the heat, the mopeds, the Gods mocking in metallic and gasoline prayer. I become steel and bone shattered. The blood-red moon keeps me awake with her whispers. I wake in a sweat and believe even the sad days of the week mock me with hours unformed. Dead bells ring out – stopped before the clanging reaches any further down the hill. 

Time is gossamer thin. Hours and days fall uninterrupted by any single billowing idea. I wash and scrub and paint, letting thoughts flicker as softly as moth wings. Fragile. Ready to break or carry me away. Birds sing and fall silent. Protecting themselves from becoming as tired as the bells – regular on the hour, on dawn and dusk. Those frequent bells have yet to show me their language, a way of reading the day. The first few nights in the house are filled with deep slumber, the kind that is exhaustion and satisfaction rolled into long hours of dreamless sleep.  On waking, I wander from room to room, surveying a small kingdom – a fiefdom of sorts. Up high invisible as pirates, hidden just like the lessons from history, of the people who lived here first and last. I still talk to them, asking what they think – of the things we saved, the things we changed. If they could speak, I’d listen. But the house only ever rings with silence. 

After Easter, the summer heat came early, reducing the scant garden patches to dry bracken and gravel. Outdoors are scrappy paint pots drying out, crumbling wood and dust. The flowers that danced bright yellow have died down to a quiet song leaving bare stalks and stumps, brown edged leaves becoming mulch for another season. There is something wrong with the olive tree. The woodlice prowl at night, taking over – only the day’s heat drives them back underground. Even the caper bush died. (I say traumatised by concrete and tile, it gave up on us) Part ruin, part rescue – we live with what is left and it is a joy.

I chase the dust around from room to room. Only to find a new layer of it settles overnight. Only the silence of the house is a saviour. We open windows and the morning light honey’s its way across the ceiling. We have no curtains so I dash from the bathroom with a towel grasped to my body. The daylight changes and the sunset makes the walls blossom in apricot. We sit outside on wobbly chairs and laugh after a day’s work, feeling as empty as a drum, all washed out and muscles sore, and hearts swollen with well wishes. It is done. We live here. Raw and empty and saying thanks with mumbled lips to a million things that went right and wrong in life that brought us here – to this moment, I say and drain the glass of warming wine.

The night settles long after the sun has set on the other coast and only then the sky turns violet and star-pocked with tiny lights. The buzz of cars and bbrrr zzzip of mopeds in Ermoupoli is far below. A woman’s voice echoes the alleyway with laughter.  Life is happening all around – every doorway once closed up is now open and voices musically drift out.  

We live here’ I say it again to help myself believe it. 

Sundays are a cacophony of bells dragging us from the edge of sleep – known and unknown, ringing out with uncertainty – overlaying each other in a chorus. Spoon small, sweet sounds. I make coffee downstairs and go upstairs to the balcony to sit – forgetting things, going back down – wandering, getting distracted – moving some trinket or other. The battle for space – between the old residents and new, it seems takes time. I talk to them, is this okay? Moving the old lamp into a new space. Better right, when it lights up the dark corner now? 


I hope they like what we’ve done. Brightening it up. Windows that no longer rattle and shutters that close, water that runs clean and a door that locks. A bathroom you don’t have to enter through the yard.  Upgrades – modern touches – nothing drastic. I pack up some more things; books, papers, cards – a picture of St Francis and a postcard of the Pope from 1973. A man’s photo stuck underneath a framed Virgin Mary icon, stamped 1956. I hide them like treasures under beds. This little archive of mystery collected by people I may never know. They live on and are part of the house, this neighbourhood – it’s life. The story it tells – just as we are and whatever future it holds. 

Nothing lasts forever. To savour the now in all it’s newness is enough. Just as paper crumbles and paint fades, dust will still swirl across the floor of the house long after we, it’s temporary guardians, are gone.

The never ending winter

After glutton days of carnival, Clean Monday arrives like a shiny diamond cutting through months of cloud.  Some went kite flying as tradition dictates out at the coast or on the green hills – some kids idly ran through the plateia just fast enough to make the kite lift a metre or two from the ground. A rare windless day. Washing hung out on rooftops and houses swept clean as the air sang with the promise of Spring. In the market the glistening tentacles of the octopus ready stretched next to bulbous fish. Taverna tables suddenly set outdoors for lunch marking the Lenten fast of sinless pleasure before the feasting of Easter. No meat, no dairy – nothing with a spine.

The weather held out for a day or two. Bright sunlight on winter tired eyes, relishing the feel of shedding seasons. Moving towards the light of longer and warmer days. Then the wind changed direction and the cold came back – the darkness too. The winter is never ending and in recent months the island was hit by not one snowstorm but two.  

What is positive is the greenness of the hillsides visibly quenched from all the delicious rain we’ve had. 303.0 mm in less than 3 months of 2022 the last time I looked – compare this with 181.6 mm for the whole of 2021. It’s a wet, cold and damp and windy and icy and cold and dark year so far. 

Kamara, Ano Syros – January 2022

Some days start off light. I am sprung wide awake before 7am and shyly opening the door to scare nervous cats who’ve been watching the birds flit around the ragged stumps of cut back bougainvillea.  The birds sing loudly, willing on springtime, nest building and flying back and forth fetching twigs with a prurient optimism. Weaving a home so when the warmer weather finally comes they will be ready. I admire their work ethic – feeling my patience drain with the waiting. 

The hills are lush with green vegetation, dancing yellow follows seem neon in the gloom.  There are days when hiking is possible and on one of these we found a carving on a rock. A lonely hillside memorial or a declaration perhaps. It’s on a path, not a well used one though – but must have taken a while to carve.

Carving, dated 1949.

We asked around. No-one seems sure.  Perhaps it’s to a soldier in the Greek civil war. Syros has more famous carvings at Grammata (letters) beach in the North. A place where ancient sailors marked thanks or prayers or declarations on the rocks.  The names of those who sheltered there or those who never made it home are scattered along the wide bay. Older than the island’s long-tail of memory.  Perhaps one could map the other markings; the names made by hands of those long gone – edged out of stone with knives or tools, like saxifrage that splits the rock. Proof that they were here once.  That would be something to know the why’s and who’s. 

My mind wanders, doom-scrolling  – opening tabs, closing them, starting thoughts, shutting them down again as fearful as hope in the darkness. I stop seeing. Not just the view, but the very things in front of me. The tea cup, the streak of sunlight showing up the dust, the way footsteps in the alley sound like drums.  Reading again the new words that sit heavy and fat on my tongue. Unable to remember them right at the moment I need them – I read and practise the letters – but my brain has a sieve-like approach to the lessons I take. Repeating, using and discarding them like crumbs. I learn. I unlearn. I learn again. 

This week the school bands are practising for Greek Independence Day on 25th of March. Given their dedication of a daily hour long practice and the sound as it rises up the town, the parade with all its pomp and military grandeur will be back on. Just like normal. A word we use now with such frequency. I forget I don’t know how it was before and find myself nodding along, smiling. Feeling blank and turned around, my back against the dark clouds.

By afternoon all hope of sunshine has been lost. I come back again to the path on a walk to clear my mind from the doom-scrolling fog. Counting stones underfoot, the springyness of grass and leaf, tumble of tangled root and unfurling tendril. The yellow and white flowers grasp upwards for sunshine – bobbing in the breeze. Even the pines are shimmering green and proud branches stretched outwards. They almost look like Christmas trees. Last August they stood like skeletons – stringy and bare after the droughts and extreme heat that persisted all summer. But now they shine. Sticky scent rising as I pass. 

The chickens have scampered up onto the wall again close to Sa Mikalis Church, where they peck and pose. I often see a man come past who shoos them back in the garden they belong to by shaking a bag at them. After they scatter he hops over the wall to collect their eggs. 

I walk on and the sun is about to go over the hill at Alithini, I climb to the top of the village, finding a spot to shelter away from the worst ravages of wind. I find more words carved into the rock. And more. I wonder if I am suddenly looking for them. Or is it that the words can only be seen in light, when the sky opens and the shadows are cast upon the rocks. 


I make promises to myself. To the wind, to the sun, to the clouds. I meditate on my lowliness, my thanklessness, remembering the skull and claw of time itself. Always seasons. Always light. Always dark. 

One discovers the light in the darkness, that is what darkness is for; but everything in our lives depends on how we bear the light. It is necessary, while in darkness, to know that there is a light somewhere, to know that in oneself, waiting to be found, there is a light. What the light reveals is danger, and what it demands is faith.” James Baldwin

To make a home

It’s been a few months since I posted here and much has happened. After a long and tedious process, the paperwork finally amassed into an orderly pile. On an unseasonably hot afternoon, we sat in the notary’s office wearing masks and with limits on numbers, the sellers took turns going in and out the office to sign. Once each page was signed – the house was ours.    

‘Here you go’… the agent said handing over a single key with a plastic tag with the family’s name on it. 

Up the hill to Ano Syros we walked. Sweating with one sad key in my hand. All I could think was – there are three doors, how can there only be one key? 

That was six weeks ago and Summer has now faded. In the courtyard of a closed cafe above the piatsa I sit on a bench and enjoy the last warming rays before the sunshine sinks away. I hear the bells,  chiming out the tune for a quarter to four, they are as grateful as I am that the sun is still shining in November. The land has become green again, day by day, nature reclaims by blade of grass and leaf, small pockets of crocus bursting open stems of saffron on the hillside, slowly slowly with each damp and cooler night, the winter green sprouts begin and the bees dash between flowers dancing in this false joy of seasons. 

I watch a black and red butterfly flit between the pink petals of bougainvillea in it’s last full bloom of the year. A few days ago I accidentally trapped a butterfly in the bedroom. It must have been caught snoozing on a shirt from the pile of laundry brought in, fresh and crisp from the line. I chased it gently round the room, cooing at it as if it were a bird, too frightened by its fragility to use anything other than my hands. I gave up after a few minutes, afraid it would be scared and hide somewhere only to wither away, but I shouldn’t have worried as the next day it was hurling its wings softly at the window pane. The butterfly knew when he was ready to leave. The second I opened the window it flew to freedom in the morning breeze. 

The wind has brought in stormy weather marking the colder nights and chillier days. A sudden change to jumpers and coats, winter boots. With the clocks changing, by late afternoon the sun is ready to bow down behind the hills to the West. Listening to the solemn silence of the alleyways and glad of the shrinking daylight, the slowing of time. 

Up here in the closed cafe, I have the view all to myself. The air so still that I could hear the man making the departure announcements from the deck of the Blue Star Ferry ‘Piraeus. Piraeus. Departing in a few minutes.’ Up here I can watch for pirates and invaders – while the town goes about its business. But many of the houses are just used for the summer, some have been restored, renovated, many have always been kept that way – with a fastidious daily sweeping of the porch and watering of the plants, feeding of the cats.  I watch a neighbour packing away outdoor furniture, tying up plastic sheets over the tables and stacking up plant pots. He’ll be back in Spring for sure. Just like the lady over the way, whose daughter came to collect her and take her somewhere else for the colder months. I make it sound like some place of exile – perhaps it is – but I see it as a refuge, rather than a punishment. 

The house we bought has taken a few weeks to get to know. It might have been unlived in for nearly 10 years, but it was anything but empty. The shutters had been closed up and plants left to die – inside the layers of dust coated every surface and peeling paint made patterns on the floors. The photos beside the bed, the umbrella on the hook in the hall. The towel in the bathroom. The jar of jam, next to a knife and a plate. As if the occupants left after breakfast one day and the house is still waiting for their return. This is how we bought it, just as we’d seen it in the visits with the agent; times thinking it through, trying to decide, nudging our way around the rooms, trying not to disturb anything.  

Of course I make up stories. Even if history is ordinary, it is no less important. The house is a story about a Catholic family in Ano Syros who owned the land and built the house, the people who lived there and and those who came to eventually sell it. The first few weeks were strange. Every time I went over and opened the door I felt there was something new laid bare in every room. It felt like we had intruded; opening drawers, chests, cupboards. Each thing I found I turned over in my hand imagining what it meant – for a few weeks I was a detective, filling in the blanks, drawing lines only to cross them out again. Every bill paid for the past 10 years was stuffed into a bag and hidden in a cupboard.  The hilarious false teeth in the glass cabinet, the ancient bottle of brandy under the sink. A nescafe jar from 2005. The neat stack of memorial cards kept from funeral services. A set of binoculars amongst the many crucifixes and dog-eared pictures of Icons tucked away in unexpected places. A drawer of string and wires, nails, padlocks – a methodical approach to tools and salvageable items.  I counted over 16 keys of varying sizes and none that fitted the upstairs door.

Every time I found another key I ran upstairs to the door wondering if this was the one. 

What was in the house is not just a story about what outlives us but also one about waste and consumption . The house is just a glimpse of Greece’s and Europe’s industrial decline.  Plates stamped with ‘Keramikos – Made in Hellas’. I counted 50- odd dining plates and glasses of every possible size and potential use. Greek people love to entertain, but I did wonder about the extent of ever using so many. More cutlery than a restaurant. Enough battered and ancient chairs for games of musical chairs with all the people living in the neighbourhood. What wasn’t stamped with ‘Made in Greece’, battered stainless steel kitchenware to plastic buckets and mop handles, looked homemade. There must have been a moment when everything that you needed you made or was manufactured here in Greece. Even the chest of drawers and the wardrobe had a furniture store’s name indecipherable to me. The broken trunk made in Athens. Hard to imagine the factories that now lie abandoned where textiles, shoes and household goods were all manufactured right here on Syros.  

As we start renovating sympathetically every single thing we discard in the house needs to be taken away by hand or mule. Everything we bring to the house needs to be carried there. I worry about how difficult it is living in a pedestrian only area without car access, every journey involves marble steps and steep hills. But before buying anything for the house we have to consider it deeply, and that can only be a good thing. 

We agreed from the start that it was important that we try to save and remake as much as possible. Weeks have been spent clearing, cleaning, sorting, recycling, giving things away – people have been kind with their time and I am always grateful for offers of help. The Soviet Union Encyclopedias have gone to the Municipal Library (thanks K for weightlifting 36 volumes down a hill!) The last stack of plates have been given away. All stuff that would otherwise be junked has been sorted – ‘Yia-yia’s things’ as a tradesman called them with a chuckle.  I am excited about restoring furniture; chairs to sand and recover; a two seater art-deco-esque sofa that I think is stuffed with horse hair, a small traditional chair that needs its reed seat re-threading (I need to find a chair repairman which used to be pretty common, or watch enough youtube videos to learn it!). Things that will keep us busy over the winter. Its exciting to be able to make a home here and scary as the hard work is about to begin. I know already it won’t be easy or quick – but we are willing to give it a go and somehow maybe that is what matters. And perhaps with some luck we will find the all the right keys…

After 6 weeks the house feels less like it belongs to someone and more like a blank canvas, one waiting to be given a new lease of life. On quiet afternoons I sit on the stairs imagining all the things yet to come; a bathroom, a working kitchen, deciding which room has the best view, discovering how cold it gets in winter, finding flowers to plant that will burst bright red against the clean of a fresh painted white wall; wondering who the voices belong to as they make slow steps in the alleyway, whether there is a way of learning which of the churches ring bells at which hour. I listen to the house, the tap dripping, the grains of plaster falling from dry cracks and a fly buzzing against the window. In the ether, in the dust, potential is a ghost that circles around each room – and I say a few words.  A prayer to something I am not quite sure of. Perhaps it is an idea, a lost thought, uncertain if I am saying goodbye to it, or yet to meet it.