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.

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