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.

Hydra – the crack of light

I did not think Marianne Ihlen would be so young. Her bobbed white blonde hair glimmers in the sunshine and the masculine white shirt she wears billows in the breeze, rolled up below her elbows. She looks ready to fetch the water from the wells with a bucket in hand before she turns in her cropped trousers she takes a cursory look at the crowd and peels her dark sunglasses down to the bridge of her nose to reveal gold patches under her eyes. They look a bit like those stick on eye patches that beauty-influencers use to ward off ageing as if it were a curse. Even then I blink back doubt watching this child-faced, small and swift Marianne move towards a group of fishermen with beards and flat caps who nod at her before going back to untangling their nets. A boy rolls a barrel which seems weightless as it bounces off the cobbles. Who am I to know what’s going on, after all I’m half witted in this withdrawal from petrol fumes. I can smell the mule poo and my own sweat now I’m on a car-free island. The braying horses and hooves have replaced the whirr of mopeds – my ears are only just recovering from the shock of Hydra, never mind my lungs, which have not inhaled such clean air for years. 

They say there is something about the air and the light here in Hydra – clear and golden, perfect for painting or conjuring words. That kind of expectation is long evident in inspiring all those marvellous creative folks to make pilgrimages here. I don’t trust myself. I’m no artist – I crave realism and all I am being offered this morning is abstraction. 

This light has been playing tricks on me from the moment I arrived yesterday, Yorgos met me from the boat and escorted me up the steep incline to the apartment, weaving through the mules and tourists. I spotted the old ‘Katsikas’ sign on a green-painted store we passed. Bah, I thought that’s been closed for decades. Once an infamous Kafenion-  bar – post office that served as gathering spot for the island’s international scene; the place writers Charmian Clift and George Johnson ran up a debt so high over the 5 or more years they lived here it wasn’t paid off until he finally sold the novel, My Brother Jack.  And anyway wasn’t Katsikas further down the harbour towards the clocktower, I thought. 

I ventured out at my first chance exploring the meandering stone streets, stopping to admire the Kala Pigadia, Good Wells which was referenced so often in Rope of Vines by Brenda Chamberlain. Once the gathering place for village women, a place to trade gossip and news. Despite its beauty and solace of the old crumbling mansions surrounding the square, the wells are sadly all locked up after being contaminated. I wandered back to the harbour, following a siren call. And there Katsikas old store was right on the harbour mocking my doubts. Doors closed, a layer of dust on the windows but as I peeked in cupping my hands over the glass it was like a window to another era. There was the long lean bar stacked with the green glass bottles, the baskets piled up and kewpies jugs waiting to be filled with water or wine.  Traditional taverna tables to the side, some scattered with squat wine glasses and old beer bottles. A pile of red and white chequered tablecloths neatly folded; aluminium buckets strung from the ceiling. It was as if someone locked up Katsikas in 1969 when Leonard Cohen left and threw away the key. Baffled – wondering how such a thing of beauty was closed, I walked away, telling myself I’d ask Yorgos later. He’d know. 

Then this morning I was up early, wandering and Marianne surprised me. Only minutes before I’d seen Leonard looking dishevelled wearing baggy trousers held up with an ill fitting belt, extra holes clumsily punched into the leather, pulling up a chair outside Katsikas. His frizzy mop of adolescent dark curls bouncing as he spoke. Others had sat down to join him, sharing the same wild eyes of wanderers in search of something yet unnamable.  The men with Leonard turned as a pair of Greek girls in headscarves walked by carrying large old-fashioned suitcases and baskets as their knee length cotton dresses bounced around their knees. An old widow in black prodded at the cabbages stacked up in boxes.  

It was only when the woman in the tracksuit marched past having a heated conversation on her mobile phone that the frenzy began. 


The director shouted and the extras moved and laughed – warm smiles replacing their stiff faces. Film cameras swivelled – a rabble of women and men in combat shorts with headsets appeared, shouting instructions in English and Greek. The horse harnessed to the water tank was relieved of its duty and led into the shade.


Of course I should have known this was the biggest trick of all. I asked the handsome chap dressed as a fisherman and he beamed, ‘Yeah it’s for the Cohen series, it’ll be on Netflix.’ 

I stifle a laugh, a cringe – a little too self-referencial smile for the meta-ness of this moment unfurling on this island’s myriad trajectory of literary and musical history. 

I swear I can hear Brenda Chamberlain whispering about horror of the other foreigners who treated the port like a playground and in that throaty Welsh rasp telling the crowd, here, ‘It is possible to live a lie until it is a kind of truth, until beauty comes out of even so timid a pretence’.

I watch the scene replay again; Leonard standing up and walking to the bar, the old lady poking at the cabbage, the horse parading past in its island finery, I can imagine Charmian Clift at the table listening in and writing in her note pad while a child clings to her dress. In Peel Me A Lotus, Clift describes her feelings about Hydra’s change when Hollywood came to the island to film Boy on Dolphin in 1956 with Sofia Loren. She captures a conversation overheard on the film set: 

“Oh, it makes me sick, Al!’ cries the ferocious young woman. 

Ruin, ruin, ruin! God when I see a sweet little place like this, and think what will happen to it after we’ve gone!’ 

And later as the summer crowds depart, Clift foretells them leaving the island. 

“I have a feeling this might be the last winter for idylls. You wait and see what next summer brings!” It will bring’..says George, ‘all the futility boys like homing bloody swallows. It will bring an enhanced tourist trade, in three dimensions, in full radient colour, and on the wide screen.” 

How right they were. Even 60+ years later those words ring true and each year, more and more ‘futilty boys’ come to worship at the alter of Cohen.  So too come the day-trippers, the fleets of yachts, the five-star pleasure seekers festooned on their private beaches. All looking for their slice of the Hydra light and air.

Tonight I’m contemplating heading to Loulou’s or Douskos for dinner – both old-time places tucked away. Places that those infamous 60s set used to hang out, my only worry is that on this island I might be walking right into a film set.

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.

Piraeus, November 2022

I arrive quickly only to depart again slowly as the rain falls. I wait in a cafe and the sun blind hours turn the sea into grey smoked glass. Piraeus is a steel and concrete circus of dancing splashing trucks where invisible ringmasters direct the show, fumes rise while cars idle waiting for a turn to cross the pools of rain and up the ramp into the deep belly of the boat. Dappled light in red and white reflect a slow applause on glistening tarmac. 

Ferries, large and small, get dwarfed by cruise ships bigger than buildings offer up a horizon tiny porthole windows, towering in the same white-dirt-colour as the apartments that line the harbour. I don’t know where the city ends and the sea begins. Everything outside plays tricks in the rain. Pedestrians like me board the bus and lurch together past each ferry as it readies for departure in the hours ahead. Gate upon gate yelling another destination in neon lights; Patmos, Kriti, Astipalea, Paros, Thessaloniki, Aegina, Rodos. Take your pick. Each island a series of events yet to happen. A dice to roll. 

The bus chugs past the empty warehouses and car parks, past the closed cafes, past the closed ticket booths. The man next to me asks if the bus ticket is free and I stutter some words that might not make sense, so I say sorry to him. To myself, for every word I haven’t yet learnt. We go past the long lines of bus shelters. In the rain its hard to believe people lived there. But now there’s no sign of them. Each day they were jolted from sleep by the angry noise of wheeled suitcases and reversing trucks. They sat beside everything they owned, holding on to heavy blankets and battered bags, water bottles lined up at the end of a plastic bench. I can’t help but wonder what a person goes through to try to begin again in the smog and spit end of the city port like this watching people leave freely every day and not be able to do so yourself. Where are they now? What place did they end up now it is winter?  

Only when the day has almost given up I see it.  A jolt of sun encores with a single gold streak across the winter sky. If the prisms of a rainbow are made after the rain I can’t find it. No pot of treasures, no basket of hope. The sun ends the day without fanfare. By the time I’m on the ferry the only sight on the horizon is the dark billowing kind of cloud, bending into loops of grey and somewhere out there a factory burns (the alert tells my phone vital facts – keep windows closed, stay inside). As we sail into the ink black outside I can’t tell where the city ends or where the smoke begins or where the sea touches the sky at the horizon. Or even if I need to know what is beginning or ending as everything, always, seems to be both.

June, 2022

Days cling to the calendar. Unsung notes from an instrument we are yet to hear. Quick on my heels, shadows of winter are locked away. I scarper up the hill, running against the heat, the mopeds, the Gods mocking in metallic and gasoline prayer. I become steel and bone shattered. The blood-red moon keeps me awake with her whispers. I wake in a sweat and believe even the sad days of the week mock me with hours unformed. Dead bells ring out – stopped before the clanging reaches any further down the hill. 

Time is gossamer thin. Hours and days fall uninterrupted by any single billowing idea. I wash and scrub and paint, letting thoughts flicker as softly as moth wings. Fragile. Ready to break or carry me away. Birds sing and fall silent. Protecting themselves from becoming as tired as the bells – regular on the hour, on dawn and dusk. Those frequent bells have yet to show me their language, a way of reading the day. The first few nights in the house are filled with deep slumber, the kind that is exhaustion and satisfaction rolled into long hours of dreamless sleep.  On waking, I wander from room to room, surveying a small kingdom – a fiefdom of sorts. Up high invisible as pirates, hidden just like the lessons from history, of the people who lived here first and last. I still talk to them, asking what they think – of the things we saved, the things we changed. If they could speak, I’d listen. But the house only ever rings with silence. 

After Easter, the summer heat came early, reducing the scant garden patches to dry bracken and gravel. Outdoors are scrappy paint pots drying out, crumbling wood and dust. The flowers that danced bright yellow have died down to a quiet song leaving bare stalks and stumps, brown edged leaves becoming mulch for another season. There is something wrong with the olive tree. The woodlice prowl at night, taking over – only the day’s heat drives them back underground. Even the caper bush died. (I say traumatised by concrete and tile, it gave up on us) Part ruin, part rescue – we live with what is left and it is a joy.

I chase the dust around from room to room. Only to find a new layer of it settles overnight. Only the silence of the house is a saviour. We open windows and the morning light honey’s its way across the ceiling. We have no curtains so I dash from the bathroom with a towel grasped to my body. The daylight changes and the sunset makes the walls blossom in apricot. We sit outside on wobbly chairs and laugh after a day’s work, feeling as empty as a drum, all washed out and muscles sore, and hearts swollen with well wishes. It is done. We live here. Raw and empty and saying thanks with mumbled lips to a million things that went right and wrong in life that brought us here – to this moment, I say and drain the glass of warming wine.

The night settles long after the sun has set on the other coast and only then the sky turns violet and star-pocked with tiny lights. The buzz of cars and bbrrr zzzip of mopeds in Ermoupoli is far below. A woman’s voice echoes the alleyway with laughter.  Life is happening all around – every doorway once closed up is now open and voices musically drift out.  

We live here’ I say it again to help myself believe it. 

Sundays are a cacophony of bells dragging us from the edge of sleep – known and unknown, ringing out with uncertainty – overlaying each other in a chorus. Spoon small, sweet sounds. I make coffee downstairs and go upstairs to the balcony to sit – forgetting things, going back down – wandering, getting distracted – moving some trinket or other. The battle for space – between the old residents and new, it seems takes time. I talk to them, is this okay? Moving the old lamp into a new space. Better right, when it lights up the dark corner now? 


I hope they like what we’ve done. Brightening it up. Windows that no longer rattle and shutters that close, water that runs clean and a door that locks. A bathroom you don’t have to enter through the yard.  Upgrades – modern touches – nothing drastic. I pack up some more things; books, papers, cards – a picture of St Francis and a postcard of the Pope from 1973. A man’s photo stuck underneath a framed Virgin Mary icon, stamped 1956. I hide them like treasures under beds. This little archive of mystery collected by people I may never know. They live on and are part of the house, this neighbourhood – it’s life. The story it tells – just as we are and whatever future it holds. 

Nothing lasts forever. To savour the now in all it’s newness is enough. Just as paper crumbles and paint fades, dust will still swirl across the floor of the house long after we, it’s temporary guardians, are gone.