καλως ορισες – welcome

So we are here in Greece again.

There were times in lockdown when getting back safely was almost unimaginable. Five long months in the UK we didn’t plan on went by remarkably fast and only now emerging into the raw sunlight of Syros, I think I am just about starting to comprehend the potential impact, on the way we live and what it might mean in the future.

I feel incredibly fortunate now to have left the UK. Greece is open, trying to stay safe and ensure the economy ticks over. This is a careful balance – we all bear this responsibility, never lightly. The journey (after many cancelled flights) was nerve-wracking but turned out easier than we had imagined. As we took non-direct flights we had multiple forms to complete – declarations stating we didn’t have COVID symptoms, contact addresses for where we had been staying in the UK and where we would be staying on arrival. Our temperatures were taken twice; before each flight. Overall, it felt safe and the real difference was that it all took more time at a slower pace than a typical flight. Check in had longer lines. Planes boarded and disembarked row by row. Airports were empty, spacious and had a only a minor feel of the apocalypse about them. Some shops were open, but everyone was calm and followed the rules. I even bought my first take-away coffee since March.

We had completed advance Passenger Locator Forms and been emailed QR codes to show on arrival in Athens. The arrivals lined up, some were tested – we were not. Outside the airport I wanted to fill my lungs with the fuggy heat of the city, all that gasoline and sun-drenched pine scent – but the mask stopped that! Eyes and ears had to be faithful senses for travel now.

It was so quiet, it looked more like January seeing all the taxi’s lined up outside the terminal with hardly any tourists to drive. The streets of Athens were also emptier than usual – not that we saw much of them! It wasn’t mandatory but we decided to stay 8 nights in Athens and rent a house in Pagrati for self-isolation – this was for us to mitigate risk and feel less anxious about onward travel to the island. When we took the Blue Star ferry last Friday – it was amazing how busy it was; packed with Greeks travelling to islands, escaping the mainland. Very few international voices. It does seem that holiday’s certainly have come earlier this year for everyone – out of necessity or choice. Parts of the journey were a sensory overload. I’ve basically been living in a small bubble of existence since March that getting back out there is a bit overwhelming.

Suddenly people are everywhere (at a distance); we arrive in the midst of normal lives happening, the bustling port of Ermoupolis with its cafe’s open, restaurant tables laid and delivery truck engines humming. I don’t mind being the first to say the beaches look better with less sunbeds crammed together. Social distance might be the best thing for the human and natural environment as well! The sea is clean and clear, with the cruise ships tied up and less boat traffic. Now what to do about the cars?! Another summer trying to not get ran over and hit with dust as we hike!

Unlike reports from other islands who mainly cater for international tourists, Syros feels steadily busy, not quite at the level of a usual July but Greek and some international visitors are arriving. It is all just a case of wait and see, stay safe, follow the rules – masks are now compulsary in shops which can only be a good thing. Everything almost as it should be here in Summer. It will be tough for businesses to make it work financially and encourage people back safely. But only time will tell.

I have to say that the first swim was magical – as was just waking up here, cockerels crowing, doves cooing, cicadas screeching; simple things back in March and April that were as wild and as far away as dreams.

It feels amazing and strange at the same time to be back – in our little home. After living in 5 different places in the past 10 months, unpacking and getting organised here was a treat! And yes, my store cupboard had yeast and flour and all the things I needed in the UK when the shops had ran out! Jam, anyone? Tomato chutney? Capers?

The ‘new normal’version of travel is undeniably different – with masks on and extra hand washing, plexi-glass screens in taxi’s and elbow bumps instead of handshakes. What is the same is the welcome, the land stretched out with adventure, the iridescent blue of the sea and the familiar heat of the sun, places that you leave only to rediscover again, the places you fall into that rhythm easily and feel a sense of coming home again.

Oft used is the analogy to say that in the pandemic we are all at sea together in the ongoing storm, but on different boats. Not all of us are safe, not all of us had similar experiences of anxiety, grief, sickness or life affirmations; I had a call with some dear friends the other night and some common themes of our ‘lockdown’s across the world emerged. Some were positive; re-prioritisation, focus and time to slow down. Others were fraught; increased pressure, finances, childcare, work and it’s impact on our sense of self.

There is no universal experience to measure against. But for now, life has to go-on, wherever you made it to.

Easter now

This is the first Easter I have spent in the UK since 2015 when I chased my then 4 year old nephew around the garden on an egg hunt. The air was warm and I think we all got sunburned while he found a basketfull of slightly melting eggs. We realised later that we didn’t quite find all the eggs and some laid undiscovered until the summer! So here we are at the Easter Weekend in the UK. I don’t even know what that consists of these days. For those people lucky enough to still be working I guess it’s a weekend off…although talk to anyone with children there seems to be zero real time off or away from responsibility in lockdown. We persist and try to make the best of it, telling ourselves this is all normal.  

I do love Greek Easter – the rituals and long days of sunshine and feasting but the Orthodox celebrations won’t be taking place next weekend. Greece’s lockdown continues and so far it seems to be showing good signs – very few infections, low death rate and a health system that has increased ICU capacity. So Easter here and there, like life, will be different this year. No big church services – no fireworks lighting up the sky to celebrate Christ’s Resurrection ‘Christos Anesti!’ – no shops full of decorated candles for the children and bakers windows full of neatly plaited Tsoureki. No red dip dyed eggs and smashing contests. Of course some of this will happen in households but without the big village celebrations and family gatherings it won’t be the same. 

The first Greek Easter celebrations we experienced were in Patmos, an island in the Dodecanese; I recall watching the town gathering in the square for church services, flags adorning the churches and then midnight fireworks and bangs that went on, and on, and on. The next night there was music and dancing and long tables laid out in the square to share the feast. The lovely couple who ran the hotel we stayed at gave us ornately wrapped tsoureki with red dyed eggs nested in the bread and explained the significance of each;  the bread made with butter and eggs, to provide a rich treat after fasting. Designed with three plaits that are braided together to represent the Holy Trinity—God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit and the red eggs blood and rebirth. All to be baked on the Thursday before Easter and only eaten after the midnight service on Saturday when the celebrations begin with feasting. Oh, and one can’t forget that delish Magiritsa soup made from sheep entrails – which isn’t actually awful – just a rather unique taste! 

Easter Candles

I’ll be missing the sights and sounds of a Greek Easter next week but making the most of what we have here and trying to stay positive. I struggle to hear anyone talking about ‘exit strategy’ when this is becoming more obvious by the day it is a long range crisis with an unknown human and economic cost. Whatever normal is again, it won’t happen for a long time. Accepting that is scary and we (the UK) seem to be nowhere near getting a grip on it. But given that we are all in this together, even if that is in our own separate human ways, there has to be good to be found and here’s a few things that I have found joy in: 

1- Baking: having finally located flour in the store I have made an apple and fruit traybake, choc chip cookies and some no-yeast herby focaccia bread. There is a high chance I’ll bake again today…and will need to step up the exercise! 

2 –  Planting seeds: loving my little kitchen window experiments, I have not been this excited to watch cress grow from seed since I was 5 years old! Herbs, tomatoes and courgettes might be taking their time. But all offer hope and/or acceptance that we could be here a while! 

3 – Walking/running: out in fresh air across flat fields and bridleway paths. Never have I been more appreciative of low population and wide open spaces. Also the weather freakishly glorious.

4 – Writing: just words, one at a time, piecing themselves together and forming fragments of the world we live in. No, definitely not a time to pen a novel from scratch or finish a dystopian masterpiece, but keeping going is key. Also was also great fun having regular video chats with other creative folk and attending virtual sessions of the StayatHomeLitFest!  

5 – Distraction: “I have seen the best minds of my generation lost to Netflix”™ Deborah Levy. Not to say TV is bad, but away from the news it can be uplifting and distracting in equal measure plus we all suddenly have the time to watch. Currently dipping into Unorthodox, but haven’t even watched Tiger King. Should I? 

In many ways what I am living with perhaps isn’t so different from what I had thought I would do after quitting a job.  It just hasn’t worked out in any way that I considered.  A month ago when I packed up my virtual desk we lived in a totally different world. The map has changed, the lines redrawn and exist in different place now, physically and mentally.

Being present in this day to day is my only option; the prospect of getting other work has diminished vastly, any plans of travelling, volunteering or setting up a new venture are in flux and for the first time in my life I don’t have a fixed point to race towards. Yet in all this chaos there is calm, stillness, patience. In this state of now I am being really thankful for everything I have and can exert control over. 

For now, everything else will have to wait.

Amorgos: hiking in the clouds

I hadn’t seen The Big Blue so didn’t know what to expect. In the pre-instagram age of the late 80s Jean Luc Besson’s film catapulted this small Cycladic Island community onto the tourists radar. Even 30 years later people still visit to plunge into deep blue waters. Numerous places to stay are named after variations of film’s title as well as an annual ‘Real Big Blue’ diving competition. This was all lost on us. We went to discover Amorgos’ rugged land, famous hiking trails, not just the blue sea.

The early start in the island capital’s Chora coincided with dawn shuffling over the grey sky. We packed our rucksacks with supplies for the long hiking route #1. Stepping out into the eerie village  we were greeted a wild moan of wind rushing through the streets like an omen. Hadn’t we come here for the Hellenic sunshine?

The first part of the walk seemed easy, down a cobbled traditional stone path, seemingly headed right into the Aegean. Instead it dipped into a tarmacked road and became a car park at the famous whitewashed Monastery clings dramatically to the rocky cliff face. Panagia Hozoviotissa has captivated worshippers and travellers since the 11th century. Described eclectically as a chest of drawers by one intrepid explorer in the 1800s – it still holds true as a revered place of Orthodox worship.

“Bonjour, Ca’va?” a voice came from a hobbit-sized doorway. We were greeted by a monk laying out skirts for the women visitors to wear. Respectful dress codes still apply. Most visitors are French or Italian, so he practices less English. He chats in between offering a shot of honey infused raki and a bite-sized Loukoumi. We tell him of our hiking plans and he is surprised we are taking such a long route, ‘you are strong, right?’ he says doubtfully looking at our slight frames. Smiling he waves us off with “Kala Tichi” Greek for good luck. Between the dark clouds rolling in from the mountains and the doubt from the monk, I feel only trepidation as the rugged path stretches before us. The full route is 20km to Aegiali – the sign post states 4hours 40mins. We take this with a big pinch of greek maybe time!

After a sharp ascent and narrow drop to the sea, we keep pace traversing a shrubby plain weaving in and out of gigantic boulders. The 4 other hikers are crossing the opposite way, it becomes apparent we are doing the hike in reverse. The path direction less travelled.  Traditionally the Orthadox biers of Easter are taken in procession across the island from Aiegali to be laid the Monastery. Stopping off at every church on the way to give blessings. Hiking the path backwards perhaps is fitting in summer. The wild goats don’t seem to mind. As we reach the peak when the path converges, the clouds are descending fast, I feel like they are whipping round us and making the morning seem like a foggy winters eve.

20180828_10394820180828_102814It warm but the sun is nowhere to be seen. Never mind the big blue, this visibility means we can only see about 10 foot in front of us. Soon a clatter of goat bells clang harmoniously and we round a corner to see a whole herd emerging out of the clouds.  They converge round us unafraid and bleeting.

Onwards high above the roads and scattered farmhouses that remain in this harsh landscape. Past vast terraces of land once cultivated for wheat and grains, vines and olives. Reaching the abandoned village of Asfontylitis marks the half-way point in the middle of the Great Strata path. Although a couple of the houses are restored, village life hasn’t changed here in centuries. We saw two men carrying water from the well helped by their sturdy mules. The church marks the centre of the settlement, they waved kindly at us, probably used to stray hikers nosing around. Some amazing rock paintings of stick men appeared on large stones as the path veers left and up – were they a warning?

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We took a lunch stop after the vast valley of Oxo Meria facing the tiny chapel of Agia Mamas. Two men stood around in the shade. Soon one was whitewashing the church walls with a long extended brush. The other took photos with a rickety clicking digital camera. This must be the proof of their mornings work. How else would anyone know if the painting at been done, the church was a good few hours walk from any of the main roads.  Only hikers or mules would be witnesses to the new coat of paint.

Finally around 5 hours later we took the final decent down the path into Aiegali, the clouds seemed to part as if by magic and the sun blazed down.  There was no question then, the big blue sea beckoned us for a cooling dip.

Perhaps we were learning what the fuss was about after all.

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In ruins

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On my day off I often walk into town on the old Kini Path. The bit I don’t like much is where you need to follow the tarmac road on its bends past the quarry.

But once I reach Alithini the trail is old and it meanders down into Ano Syros, past farm terraces and goats bleating in their pens. It is like a glimpse into another version of this island, away from the mopeds whizzing by, the traffic and the noise. Often I see no one else. But not always. There are fragments of the old ways of rural life, which still go on if you know where to look. On one of these walks I passed a man with a basket, it was the old woven kind that you see now in touristic oldie worldie stores. I see whatever is in the basket is is wrapped in a white cloth like muslin, is it cheese I wonder? Or bread? Or covering an ornate silver urn with his wife ashes in? Who can say and I won’t know unless I stop and ask questions to pry open the basket. But a short ‘Kalemera’ will suffice. That is the thing about observing the details, the differences; that is all you have to go on. The rest is all your own assumption and imagination.

But on I walk through spider webs and crunching over the bracken-like dry branches that lie scattered across the stone path. Small harsh reminders of a dry climate and the passing of an unusually dry winter. I can see a man ahead of me on the path, perhaps he’s been feeding his goats or collecting eggs from the hens. He strides purposefully carrying a plastic crate back to the car park, maybe into a battered flatbed truck and he’ll drive off to his apartment in the centre of town, placing the eggs next to yesterdays offering in a humming refrigerator with an ice-maker on the door. Is his connection to his family’s land reaffirmed by each morning’s rituals? Or is he wishing it all away and glad his grand-children won’t rely on these ways?

By the time I reach the bridge that leans over a dried up riverbed there is a man collecting figs. He stands at the side of the road under the tree, the soft tarmac is littered with spongy fruits spilling their red flesh. His arms are frames reaching upwards and his left hand acts like a basket stretched open to hold seven ripe figs. I pass treading on the drying mess, inhaling the decaying honeyed scent of late summer.

Entering the old medieval settlement at the Portera it is always the white washed houses and twisted streets you expect that wind up to the Catholic Church of Agios Nikiolas. But it is the silence I anticipate, a hushed quietness of early morning, the sound of a dove cooing and swoosh of a broom sweeping away papery leaves. It’s not a ghost town but its population has dwindled since the end of the WW2. All the people I encounter are older. At every turn there are a fair share of empty houses. Not always abandoned but many are shuttered up against the seasons. Even in August. Perhaps the owners no longer make their annual summer return to the family house. Some have for sale signs, some are even newer realty agents with logos and neat lettering. Some have faded POLEITAI yellow notices sellotaped onto their doors, others are just a phone number daubed on the remaining brickwork with paint. The weight of possession hangs heavy before any tourists wander up here. When they do they’ll sit coffee in the little square, listening to Rembetiko and take photos of the mules that are still used to deliver water and goods to the tavernas. Little pockets of white-washed Chora charm and bouganvillia spilling over doorways. A few new art spaces and cafes have opened up and younger people are moving up here now, which I think makes people pleased to see.

With time enough to wander I do. I am being followed round by a cloud that seeks home and connection, like a nostalgia for something I don’t yet know. This translates into a sadness when I see abandoned houses. The ones that look like people just walked away from them, shut the door and never returned. I peek into a house whose shutter has rotted away to nothing. On the floor lies discarded items, at first not noticeable for the layer of dust, but a boxy handbag sits upright by the door in my line of sight. It’s the type my grandma would have carried in the late 1950s. Small and boxy with a clasp on top – short curved handles. There are papers all over the floor as if before they left someone frantically was searching for something. A treasured photo, a lock of baby hair. The room is lit only by the sun steaming in through a gap in the rotting roof. The raw smell of decades of closed up stifled air intermingling with bare earth, seeping out from the window gap I can just about see into, through a gap 3 inches wide. All I can think of is a lady holding that handbag, clasped on her lap, hands folded over it. Proudly smiling, she is going somewhere, waiting patiently at a station.

Further up there is a grander house. Its door has been recently left swung open – vandals, a photographer or keen documenter of social history, the artistically inclined? The door gapes like a forlorn sigh in the breeze. Dust everywhere, circling down though the shafts of light from the shutters. A towel hangs on the rail in the farthest room. Blue paint peeling open to layers of rose pink and dusky orange. A suitcase lies open, sheets of music strewn and yellowing like it just coughed them out of its leathery bowels. A solitary shoe kicked off in a rush as the composer packed his violin and ran away to be with his lover.

Aside: Once you notice the ever present mystery of the lone shoe, you’ll soon realise their prevalence; one sad hiking boot washed up on a beach, a solo boot thrown in a ravine, one trainer strewn on the highways miles apart from its partner, a canvas sneaker strung up by it’s shoelaces on telephone wires in inner cities…everywhere in the world is full of estranged pairs of shoes. In a house we moved into there was a solitary shoe decades old mouldering in the basement. I thought about it for months.

You see I’d never go in to an abandoned house. I couldn’t, it’s the right side of wrong to peek, but going in would burst open that rule. So I stand and look. Then get conscious that even by looking I am intruding on a life and a death and all the love and betrayal that goes on in what was and still is someone’s home. Everything that goes on in these rooms is the fabric of our own search for belonging and realisation of our mortality. Everything that remains is what is left of a life. I am drawn to abandonment, it is like the metaphysical partner of the idea of home.

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So much of what happens is always a sign of the turbulent times we live in. This week we all heard the news that the Greek Crisis is now over, which seemed to pass like a rumble of slow thunder through the country without any fanfare. The end of the real debt-repayment will go on until 2060.

This news won’t immediately change the lives of the pensioners or the unemployed that are struggling. The man running the shop will still wring his hands at the end of the day and wonder how next year taxes can ever be paid in advance. The rural ways are in decline – it’s a split country, as the cities grow and villages are left without services and infrastructure. The economic is changing rapidly and Greece’s population is still in decline with lower birth rates and scores of young people moving away for better job prospects.

The houses which look abandoned are more likely up for sale as just a way of trying to reign in the assets against the Government’s ever increasing property tax hikes. It may be a land of ‘Kefi’ song and dance, enticing visitors under blue skies and white-washed villages– but it is also a land where it was, infinitely easier to shut the doors on empty buildings and let the ruins crumble, than try to rebuild and restore.

A country you love can be like a home, just like a history or story you don’t belong to can help you think about your own in a different way. Shine a light on the differences, the human sameness and all the grey shadows in between. Sometimes that’s all I’m looking for.

Butterflies in the trees

It’s July, no scratch that. It was and now it is August and the sun melts one day into the next, like ice-cream pooling at the foot of a screaming child. I used to think August was a yellow month, it marks a peak of summer, the light starts to fade and days do become shorter. But now I think it is orange and dusty because of the wild Saharan winds blowing over the islands. Each day ticking past with that sunset closer and closer. Family have visited us and we tried to show them the things we like, and places we go. But time together was what mattered most over the touristy things to do. The sea is warm now so we swam on busy beaches and even my mum went swimming for the first time in years. I was witness to her frolicking in the waves and I have to call it that, she had a childish grin and giggled. She even managed to get just the ends of her hair wet and ruin a good straw hat. I think it was worth it. I haven’t seen my mum properly get in the sea in 15 years or more, maybe 20. It was a brilliant holiday, a Greek Staycation of the finest order. Time off work and lots of eating out and wine and good conversations and stories.

I thought a lot while the family were here – and they gave me lots to think about, in a good way. Not just considering what they think of how we live here, but also how my life is so different from theirs was at my age. We talked about choices and acceptance – it has changed so much from one generation to the next, what was a wild adventure in 1960s, is now a common place weekend away. What was a safe career choice back then doesn’t exist now – house prices, global economic gloom, climate change are all a reality that affect us all.  I wasn’t sure how but it seems like choices that are available have made us expect more from work and life, and as a result are more anxious.  A pervasive fear about what success should look like, or feel like, is perhaps not a balance between ambition, expectation, obligation and gratitude. Perhaps it is just a fabled Arcadia.

It reminded me of an overheard conversation a few weeks ago. Three people, shared a table set out with tiny white cups of Greek coffee and glasses of water. A loaf of fresh bread, perhaps brioche, was being slowly eaten as they talked, hands tearing the bread into pieces.  They are much older than me, but spritely animated with hair in various shades of grey bobbing up and down in my eye-line. It is one man and two women.  I have an espresso freddo to keep my notepad and pen company in the shade of  Maouli Square at noon. There could be no better place to spend time than this. Under the shadow of the Ernst Ziller designed Town Hall, a plateia of marble, both extraordinarily historic and splendidly grand. My dad agrees with this when he visits – he’d sit there all day watching the pigeons if we’d let him. Each of the three are taking bites of the bread and slurps of coffee between slow and long proclamations in English, Greek and a few words of French. They are talking about their families. “Everyone talks about money as if it’s the solution” one of the two ladies starts and they listen. The other lady eventually responds nodding “In this life it is difficult, it should be difficult, things need to be valued” The man chips in “they want another house, a new car, a holiday not one but three times a year.  Pah, it never ends”. Their conversation turns to grandchildren – ‘always wanting more, toys and fun parties and things to possess’.  I gather the gist only from the English they use with the wringing of hands that this is a worry. A familiar generational difference the world over. Each generation tricked or cajoled into the lifestyle trappings affordable to only the privileged few. ‘Isn’t health and time worth something now? she says.

I try to swim in the morning when the beaches are quiet.  There are regulars with rituals to observe. ‘Kalo Banio’ they call to one another ‘have a good swim’. The couple who hold hands and set their towels out under the same shade every day. They arrive by car, although I suspect  they don’t travel far. There are two old men that arrive at the same time, in similar worn baggy shorts and greet each other like old friends. They discard their plastic beach shoes neatly next to each other as they chat. I imagine they are talking about the current, the swell of the sea and its deep mysteries with intricate detail that could only be gleaned from a lifetime of summers spent swimming here. There are three women who wave at the men ‘Yassas’ as they bob and chat in the water. Their faces hidden from glare by their white cotton hats. It is a ritual of daybreak. That cleansing swim to ward off ills and keep going against the tide of time.

We are 2 days into 10 days of land-sitting for our landlord. It’s not an arduous task, just watering the fruit trees and crops, looking after the chickens. For me; it’s bit of a good life fantasy to have something like this one day. Yesterday we went to the field in late afternoon, which is really what in the UK we’d call early evening,  when the sun is lower in the sky and the days heat is starting to dissipate. Walking though the fruit trees at the back we disturbed a lot of butterflies, as they started to fly around us and G immediately panicked thinking they were moths! It was quite a sight to behold. Somewhere between 30 or even 50 pairs of orange and brown wings fluttering in different directions. All flying out from under the shady canopies of the dark green leaves of the citrus trees. It was the type of sight that would have been amazing to capture on a photo, but it wasn’t a time I had my camera.

Not everything can be captured and stored away in a digital file, sometimes the memory is good enough to last.