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.
6 thoughts on “To make a home”
After a lifetime renovating old houses in several countries. I had thought of buying in Syros myself. But I had to let go of that last dream just before Covid when my health told me I’d better stay close to Athens. So it’s fascinating following your story.
Thank you Carmen! Hope you are enjoying Athens 🙂
I’ve been dreaming of buying one of those places in Ano Syros – or maybe a semi-ruin in Ermoupoli – for years and was again when I was up there this September (for the last -5 years or more I’ve made it to the island at least once a year, often more before covid). Still haven’t given up – I wish you joy and good fortune with yours.
Thank you so much – I hope we make a sympathetic and historic house! Next time you visit Syros perhaps it will be ready to see 🙂
Beautifully written! Reminds me so much of acquiring my house on Tilos – I love the way you treasure all the old things…
Thank you Jen! I am excited to have a little museum here 🙂 Hope all is well on Tilos