Winter layers and prayers

Each day in lockdown gets less surprising, but what has kept me going has been the unpredictability of the weather. It’s been a mixed season on the island, so each day is a mystery unfolding that starts with staring out of the window, cross checking the weather forecast and dressing for all the seasons! As clouds gather in billowing plumes as the sun rises, I am left wondering what kind of signs are these. Planning a day inside or a long walk, and always if possible, a swim; a run to the supermarket in between rain showers. Life feels close and present, immediate and subject to change. That’s been a good thing.  

Normal Christmas (what even is that?) was not an option so we decamped from the coast to stay in Ano Syros. A few weeks tangled themselves into a joyous longer stay where I got used to scaling steps and seeing the world from the hill – watching the solitary shadows of light dance along the worn cobbles. The rituals of living in the oldest part of the island were a good reminder of what’s important; even if that meant it turned fetching drinking water into a near daily adventure and battling the cascading waterfalls flowing down the marble steps when it rained. 

Up and down the hill I trudged reminding myself of the strength that lies in belonging to the family of things. Order, history and belief. Long lean threads of life walking down stone paths and forever repeating. Out to the valley at Finikia, past the Springs – fallen leaves mulching in the damp earth. The stones marked by worn indents in holding the tide pools of years unknown. The path green soaked in growth and newness creeping over old Winter, shedding darkness from the edges of days. The smell of petrichor rising from the earth. 

Το άρωμα της βρεγμένης γης μας μεθάει γλυκά 

(The scent of the wet earth makes us drunk with sweetness)

The cold slap of footsteps on the path outside the house became a clock ticking- with so few people living there I found the noises familiar after a while. The mule’s steady clopping hooves – the builders chatter; the women leaning over the balconies to share news as they hung the washing out. After a while these sounds join the bells of each church and sound like music. Little orchestrated symphonies of daily life. 

It became easy to deduce the same person headed out to work – realising how that fact of leaving the house at a certain time, appointments and plans had become as rare as knowing what day it is. Those days past when schedules would have to be set; early showers and grabbed lunches from fridges, catching buses and trains, walking out onto dark streets waiting for dawn to signal out the day. Reading snatched pages of books of crowded trains, breathing in the scent of warm bodies and their breakfast.   

Other people have almost slipped into nothing more than memory – a conversation in person is snatched – brief hellos, requests at the bakery (the lady calling me Koritsi mou every time), simple and gracious passings of the time of day, the air is cold, the sea is warm; just a handful of words come out of my lips to anyone outside the house.  

Everyone recognises Ano Syros as the upper town. The medieval settlement dates back as 1202 when the first iteration of St George’s was built.  He’s seen a fair few makeovers, but since the 1830s its been the same recognisable broad peachy coloured Cathedral on the peak.  What I like about this town within a town is that it is and isn’t a ‘typical cycladic chora’ – it does have elements of whitewashed houses and blue domed churches, winding stone streets and shocks of pastel shades and bright leaves of bougainvillea, but it’s history and identity has been forged over many centuries of Catholisim since Frankish rule. Leaving a legacy of a greater concentration of Catholic worship in Ano Syros than any other. Much of this is reflected in its architecture which is as confusingly layered as it is diverse. No house looks entirely alike; balconies and terraces are jumbled, stone work and pastel hues compete with white wash, so none look entirely out of place. Each house built upon the next, walls leaning in to one another and layered over; ancient dry-stone walls competing with modern concrete. 

Ano Syros is possibly the only place in Greece with a Catholic church dedicated to Saint Sebastian.  In medieval times, Saint Sebastian was regarded as a saint with a special ability to protect from plague, and devotion to him increased when plague was active. 

In fact I was reading up about how well Syros fared in the Spanish Flu outbreak 1918. Apparently the enterprising nuns at Agia Varvara, the imposing Church on the road down to Kini took down the icon and brought her to Ermoupoli. For months the icon was displayed in Miaoulis Square to save the inhabitants of the island from Spanish flu. Whether you believe it was good timing or religious intervention, when Spanish Flu cases reduced they managed to get enough donations to start the building of the larger church of Agia Varvara after that. If you haven’t seen the icons and painting there I’d recommend a look – the original icons and ceiling painting are as beautiful as they are brutal. Saint Barbara is often the patron saint of soldiers and miners, used to protect those in battle or using explosives – which given that the site of the original church lies on the Ermoupolis – Episkopio – Kini path which leads to Varvaroussa beach (after Delfini) where other stone quarries were sited, I have wondered if there is that connection. Perhaps the miners and quarrymen stopped in on the way to pray? 

Perhaps if there’s ever a place to spend time in a pandemic, it’s a place that has already survived the plague, alongside a variety of epidemics like cholera, the black death, smallpox and the Spanish Flu. Alongside wars and invasions from pirates – whatever history has thrown its way Ano Syros has seen it all before.  Each crisis layered over and rebuilt, evolving into the place it is today.