Making sense of distance

The month has turned to November. The season ebbs, showing frailty, reminding us of mortality. A blue moon rose last night so large in the sky it was easy to feel small, far away and distant. 

We have just returned from a little slow travel around the Dodecanese islands – unplanned, on a whim, every few days we moved on, savouring what felt like the last of summer.  Only after the clocks changed last weekend did I really acknowledge a sharpness of shorter days. 

Over three weeks we visited Leros, Symi, Kalymnos, Lipsi and Patmos. Each very different and with their unique charms. Although the weather was glorious there were little markers here and there of the season ending; tour boats returning to the docks to repair. No more bobbing in the harbour plying their trade; ripped flags flapping in the breeze. Their chalk boards with itineraries and special offers wiped clean. The odd restaurant closing up early – places opening late in the day or not at all. Everything seemed on a whim and I liked the sense of unpredictability.  Not having spent a full autumn in Greece before (normally a return to the UK calls) I was enamoured by the sense of things winding down – the slow and thoughtful preparations for change.   

In Leros my dream of staying in a windmill came true. Circular rooms, no corners or edges to hide in. No shadows. Out on the terrace high above Panteli I sipped coffee at sunrise; the clouds billowed and the bare islands jutted out near the distant coastline of Turkey. An almost silver shimmer to the metal coloured water. Islands seemed to float and merge and change shape with the weather. Stillness in the air – a far off chirp of birds, the cicadas soft singing. I wondered if this was happiness and if it was, I’d be thankful that it made me the luckiest person alive. Or perhaps it was so quiet and still that I was the last person alive. Either could be possible this year. Leros was strange and fascinating – slightly dark and edgy history with a lot of abandoned military sites and buildings that I’ll write up soon.  


Last week in Patmos I took the day off for a hike.  Finding myself alone on a beach in the village of Grikos, the sea lapped calmly at the shingle and the sun was hazy but still warm enough. Still warm enough to swim. Still warm enough to wonder why no one else was here. How precious it all is – the silence of uninhabited places. With hotels at this time of year you can never really tell when they closed their doors – whether it was years ago or just last week. All signs of life stripped away, folded up, closed inside. Hinges rusting in the salt air. This is why I stay; to see the seasons change, to hear the voices fall to a whisper, to hear the sea untamed and feel the distance. Perhaps that itself reminds me how close we are to the people we miss. 


I’d call this a year of almost-things. Almost-here, almost-there.  For many the year hasn’t happened – strike off 2020 and call it over. In tourist-heavy places like Kalymnos and Symi the talk with locals was of the summer that never happened; the cancelled bookings, the tourists that never came, opening so late with such uncertainty, a few good weeks were the best they had. Businesses may not open next year. Wherever we went I noticed hand scrawled for sale / for rent signs. They seemed to multiply overnight, raggedly hanging from lampposts, little scraps of yellow hope. People are rightly worried. The looming lockdown across Europe makes us all hold our breaths, keep conjuring the spell of distance, play it safe. 

Back on Syros the village has returned somewhat to its primordial state. After the rain on Tuesday the hills have been washed clean of the summer dusty burnt haze and looking fresher. The summer houses and apartments are closed up. This is probably the last weekend for the beach tavernas – as warm days will become rarer. Taking advantage of pleasant weather a few people swam the 2km along the coastline from Delfini to Kini – that was a first for me. At about halfway the waves seemed to build; my goggles steamed up and my strokes felt as if they were taking me in circles. I looked down at the jagged rocks below and up to the path on the headland, realising that keeping going was the only option. 

Autumn seems to be marked by vacant spaces making bells, birdsong and animals seem louder. Kinder sounds like these replace the hurried revs of mopeds and cars. Even the sheep are bleating across the terraces. Scraggly sheep herds have been brought down to the village to graze on patches of land.  Earlier I watched a dozen goats munch their way through a patch of land sandwiched between two houses. Happily chewing through the freshly sprouted grasses and green clover that has grown suddenly in the days since it rained heavily. Nets are being hoisted to the fields and laid out ready for the olive harvest. The air is fresh, cold by sundown when long moonlit nights await.  

Perhaps there is a slow violence as the season changes – a shiver of fear creeping into the last of the warming sunshine. Perhaps it reminds me of distance. The idea of distance from all that summer was; slow and welcome, syrupy warm. When it comes, winter arrives in the opposite direction; rushed and cold. Our eyes face the horizon anticipating the storm. Wondering at the last minute if I have gorged on enough of summer to get through the winter, much like a bear puts on fat to survive hibernation. 

I’ll prepare for winter with what we have, where we are.

Kalymnos – Maritime Museum