In a Greek mid-winter the sun shines and rain pours, each day offers up four seasons of weather. Like the majority of the world Greece is in lockdown until at least January. I’d like to tell you it’s grim and boring, that everything is stressful. But that wouldn’t be true. Lockdown feels kind of normal now when you remote work and live in a place without family or many social ties. But I know we are the fortunate ones, as this crisis has exposed the grim reality of inequality across the globe.
A few days ago I walked from Ano Syros to Kini, as I watched the sunrise and clouds gather I wondered if the sky would clear and how long should I wait. I wondered how much of my life I have spent waiting. Waiting for the rain to stop, the sun to shine, waiting to grow up, waiting to leave, waiting to get the right job, become something, not knowing what it was at all; maybe something soft and slippery just out of reach – undefined. Waiting to fit – waiting to be small, waiting to be big, waiting to care about things, waiting to not care about others. A selfish human trait waiting around for something better.
2020 has been a year of waiting – inaction – I suspect that feeling dogged many of us – sitting on the sidelines waiting for life to return. But these 12 small months have been difficult. Actions and roles that shape our lives around have been swept away quickly. The year has been filled with make-do’s. But it has also been filled with joy. I knew that as I walked along the stone path, hemmed with green clover and delicate crocus in flower – this is precious, the path, the view, the air – the birdsong, the bees buzzing madly on flowering rosemary.
I have not had a drink with a close friend in person since February. The last time I hugged my parents was in January. I saw them in early March and they were both ill (we can only guess with what but both thankfully recovered). Media coverage of Covid19 was everywhere, given we had returned from London and a weekend in France. I look back now to the Saturday night, us finding the last available bistro table in a French town where it felt like everyone was out to eat, drink and be merry before the ‘end-of-days’. We laid in bed listening to the rain pelt on the window and the news ticker scrolled rising Covid cases across the flatscreen TV. The ferry back to Dover was packed to the rafters with kids returning from ski trips and EuroDisney. In between museums and beer, I spent the weekend looking for hand sanitizer in every pharmacy in Bologne Sur Mer. If hand sanitiser was goldust – then the P&O ferry was the Covid express. Not one person wore a mask. How little we knew.
When I visited my parents after that trip, we all stayed on opposite sides of the room. Instead of staying at their house we booked a hotel. I guess you can say we were early adopters of what would become social distancing before that was a commonly used term. That same week in March I left a job and I can see it clearly now as the tipping point of many things personally that create a confluence. The centre would not hold.
In my last week of work, I listened as Government advisors told the company I worked for that crowds were okay and large scale shows could go ahead. These were the same advisors that would 360’ the advice a week later and recommend a national lockdown. People were confused and worried. But there was a sense of optimism – ‘ah, it will all blow over’ I click-clacked in heels to meetings where we jokingly fist-bumped and on my last day I accepted hugs from well-wishers. On my way out I dumped a bag of office clothes and shoes in a charity shop, symbolic perhaps, brash even. An ending of things, a shedding of skin.
I was going to take a few months off to travel across Greece. I was going to write. I was completely freelance now with no steady income, I was done with waiting. I was leaping , I was ready, I was starting a new life. I had a flight booked to Thessaloniki, which soon turned into the place where the first cases were in Greece. Since then I have spent a lot of this year in AirB+B’s and hotel rooms waiting for my life to start.
My last pint of beer in a UK bar was in a Travelodge in Ashford frantically contacting AirB&B’s trying to find a place to stay before the UK went into lockdown. Next came an accidental 4 month stay in rural Lincolnshire. That Novotel in Heathrow waiting for the PLF form to arrive – watching one sad plane leave the deserted airport every hour. Refreshing the news, waiting every damn day for someone sensible to stop people dying. Waiting to leave, waiting for Greece to open its borders so we could get home or discover wherever home was meant to be.
I have scrolled Linkedin and Twitter in the early hours convincing myself I will never work again – resigning myself to the scrapheap of career success. Watching people get scared and angry losing their jobs, while other folks flew high posting about their promotions and success. All the while I felt utterly adrift. You see I didn’t realise this at first – without work as a liferaft, I wasn’t sure who I was. I even missed those bits of work that were sometimes piecemeal and frustrating – my identity was framed around them all. I prided myself on just showing up, no matter what I faced. Gritting my teeth and persevering. I was a stoic. But when I had nothing but a room to sit in all day, even if this was all Virginia Woolf said I needed. I was utterly lost.
I just let my mind tear round itself with what-ifs; what if I was on the road, I’d feel alive, instead of being in this waiting room of life. I’d be writing. Experiencing new things, the vistas, the views, walking a trail, navigating, map-reading, jumping on public transport. I would feel like I was doing – being – having. All those things I had worked and waited for.
Instead my brain had a million tabs open and I could focus on none.
And what happened mid-way through the year? Externally, the waiting stopped – for a brief flickering moment little glimpses of normality returned. But before that the waiting stopped internally, I started work on my writing – which is by enlarge the hardest, scariest, thing I have ever done. It meant I had to stop just writing in the dark as I call it – some of the finished stuff needed to get out into the light. And so I was lucky/mad/good-enough to have a few things published in online litmags. I know this is not a big deal to many people, but it is for me. I have no confidence in my own ability – if someone says they like it, I wait for the kicker, the criticism, the really, no this is not good enough, you are not good enough, you are not one of us (i don’t know who they are but whatever club it is….). The benefits of lockdown have been the democratisation of participation – online book clubs, online writing courses have offered opportunities for people not in the right place to learn virtually and ways to stay in touch. If lockdown taught the world one positive thing (no, not banana bread!) it is that we don’t have to be in the same room or even the same country to contribute and take part. I am super grateful for the women I have met on the writing course and how we are supporting each other along the journey. And all the writers I know and throughout this year have managed to keep in touch with.
Of course, I am trying to put a positive spin on the BAT SHIT YEAR, but I don’t think anyone will forget 2020 anytime soon. For me it’s been a journey of bizarre introspection and sometimes distortion; realising it is not about standing still but keeping everything in motion – even if that has meant waiting. I have blogged less this year and focussed on other stuff, freelance work threw up some interesting and challenging projects. It’s also Happy Blog Birthday – Four years of chaotic travel content and ramblings. I’ll think about what happens with it next year. But now it is almost time to down tools and take a Christmas break.
This year will be different for everyone, there might be no Tiers here but there are rules. The daily cases hover at the same rate 2k a day and see no sign of reducing yet. Like many countries they have set limits on celebrations, but our 2 person household won’t be affected! Although Christmas is not a big celebration in Greece; each year more and more trees and flashing lights appear – shops selling plastic Christmas tat are becoming more prevalent. Bakeries are still filled with treats like melomakarona cookies and the tree is up in Maouli Square, even though the shops, bars and taverna’s are closed. We are staying in Ano Syros where the views across town are beautiful, lights twinkle across the harbour and the sunrises are magnificent. Even if the rain makes waterfalls of the marble steps!
If the sun stays out this afternoon I’ll wander for a swim – sharp and cold with the soothing tang of winter. Nothing quite beats it!
Let’s not be impatient for 2021. Best to burrow down now in the season of slow and quiet, celebrating kindness and gratitude, no matter how far we are from the people we love.
P.S. Rukeyser’s poem reverberated around my head for a few months in lockdown. Written in 1968 and speaks volumes to the digital life we have normalised, finding ourselves and each other, reaching out, reconciling and making new ways of living.
I lived in the first century of these wars
By Muriel Rukeyser
I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.
I lived in the first century of these wars.