In between

On the last day of February, cracked clay pots were thrown from balconies in our neighbourhood, an old custom to curse the head of March to end the bad weather.  Yellow daisies dance on green hillsides and wrists are adorned with the red and white threads of the Martiou bracelets. These are the in between days; not quite Spring, not quite Winter.

Last night the main street Ano Syros was packed with revellers kicking off the big three day weekend for Apokries (Carnival). It starts here with a dance group performing a Zebekia about the abduction of the bride (Archihanumissa) who is the wife of the Captain.  To contemporary eyes, there is much to dislike. Not only the comical big-man-dressed-as-woman trope but add in the dark painted faces of both the Captain and his ‘wife’ – it’s uncomfortable viewing. I’ll leave the discussion of that for later.  I understand its origins as a Turkish custom brought to Syros by Greek refugees from Asia Minor after the Greek Revolution of 1821. However, what I am interested in, is how the dance continues as a tradition specifically in Ano Syros at Apokries. Apparently the same dance was performed by troops in all the towns’ neighbourhoods on various days running up to carnival. Men, and only men, in this particular world of the tavern and the bouzoukia, and the card games, is the place where the Zembekia comes from . The dance groups would pay an outlay for the costumes and spend winter evenings practising. It’s an interesting piece of social history and I did find a video filmed in Ano Syros. Watch here and you’ll see an 85 year old man named Antonis Halavazi talking about the ritual of the dance and witness a little slice of history, (I think) filmed in the space underneath Lily’s Taverna judging by the barrels and scale of the space. Antonis, who talks in the film lived near Agia Trianda and I’d like to imagine may also be related to Nikos Halavazi (b.1901) the man who owned our house. Perhaps. They’d be around the same age and share a surname. What is a joy to see in the streets of the piatsa unadorned by the ever increasing plethora of commercial signs. I get nostalgic for a world I’ve only ever seen in photos and imagined only the good. A street lined with useful shops; a baker, a butcher. Of course, no-one can stand in the way of change. Not even my wild imagination.

But I do find it impossible to live here and not think about loss. The swift erasure of things long unnoticed and then gone, before anyone could remember what they were. Of changes we yet don’t understand, in ourselves and the role we play. The mediaeval neighbourhood is modernising and becoming something else. The dust blows with grit and the paths are splattered with green growth and nature at this time. Sometimes the rocks the houses are built on are so soft they feel like skin worn with wrinkles, gulleys in stone like veins. Those things don’t change, nor do the names carved upon the rock as witnesses.  But the present always feels like a knife-edge.

Someone I know described Ano Syros as melancholic. I don’t disagree. There is a poetic beauty in its veneer of abandon. But has the balance shifted? There is an infuriating sense that our neighbourhood is seen by the powers that be as a secondary place. Caught between the idea of being ‘a historical traditional settlement’ and ‘an opportunity for development’ in the same breath. So you can admire the architecture while it lasts and wander it’s peaceful alleyways – but please, stop by the gift shop on your way out after sipping an overpriced cocktail and toking a shisha pipe. Because that’s what the neighbourhood’s famous for, right?

But I cannot complain. In the toll bells and dead ends, the sound of footsteps in alleyways and low whispers, they sound out the words. I am part of the problem. I am the outsider. Even if lots of people live here all year round, they might not for much longer if the neighbourhood is focussed only on the desires of tourists, over the needs of locals. Many houses have been renovated, more are occupied, and like every other town betting on the tourist game, more are rented out as short-term, nightly lets. I am not a fortune teller, but each summer on every Greek island, the sun umbrellas multiply and more bars open, each more blandly mainstream than the last. Welcome to watered-down-Greekness. So whitewashed you could be anywhere from Malaga to Manchester. A lone beach covered in concrete and plastic bags. A place where the only Rembetiko music rings out from the speakers at the Vamvakaris Museum on rotation. Greatest Hits. Nostalgia packaged neatly sized for instagrammable moments. #liveyourmyth  

This weekend marks the in between days. The days when weekend rituals of feasting that call us away from Winter and into Spring. Bells ring out and confetti settles in the cracks in the pavement. The air is laden with meat smoke.  When I take a walk I am on the hill of Alithini meeting dusk’s cooler air with a scarf at my throat. Despite the building work ringing across the valley all day, by now the men have gone home and again the joyful chorus of birds almost nesting rises. The kid goats bleat with a vigueur reserved for endless green hills, never imagining the dry scorn of summer. These days we live in the space between belonging and not. Always caught between the twin follies of desire and compromise, like the cockerel confused at the hour of day, calling out again and again, and never understanding why he never gets an answer.