In ruins


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.


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.

10 meditations on 2017

Christmas is spent with ghosts.
Just like the three ghosts that visit Ebenezer Scrooge (or Frank Cross, played by Bill Murray in my favourite version, Scrooged), the phantoms of our past, present and future haunt us every year. I am not alone in thinking more about the big things in the days after the frivolity of Christmas while awaiting the shiny promise of a New Year.

If Christmas is for nostalgia, the Ghost of Christmas Past has been and gone by the 29th December, discarded like the turkey bones thrown into the food recycling bin. If you’re lucky to not be back in work this week it is like a no-man’s land, some call it ‘Twixt-mas’ or the in-between days before NYE’s fizz. We sit and watch repeats on the telly, internet shop and wonder what the future will hold. These days are prime hunting ground for the Ghost of Christmas Present, who asks questions about here and now, waiting the future to knock at the door as the clock strikes midnight onto 2018.

Every year I feel berated by the grace of John Lennon’s lyrics; “Its Christmas time and what have you done, another year older, a new one’s just begun”. I can’t help feeling he’s pointing accusations when I hear it. Yes, compared to a member of the Beatles, my life has been quiet from one year to the next. But I think it is fair to say 2017 has been a myriad of adventure between the UK and Greece – one which has given me a lot to be thankful for.

Here is my 10 tiny little meditations on 2017 from the Ghost of Christmas Present:

  1. Action: Things are learnt by action not by indecision. If I kept waiting for the right time – a momentary bliss when the earth aligned on its axis, the moon was cradled softly by a cloud in an open sky and there were no distractions, no moments in which my mind would wander and fill with the voices and dreams of other lifetimes. How long would I wait? Now is the time. Postponement is not a state to relish.
  2. Sunsets: by realising that sunsets are just an illusion of the end of the day as the world continues on round its path, I did not feel cheated. Instead I felt wonderfully relived, that these were not endings but merely intervals like curtains being drawn over one day to the next, they only had meaning when we see them collectively and gave power to them. 2017 was a year of many sunsets,  so many beautiful minutes of silence as the earth spun slowly round into the magic of the blue hour where the fading echo of the sun’s light turns the scene sepia gold  before turning away into darkness again. To witness this repetition is be sure of nature’s true hold of time.
  3. Language: I am still a beginner at Greek and need way more practice with the language. If I believed in resolutions for 2018, this would be high on the list. Instead I just believe in giving it a go.
  4. Sunrises: also pretty special to witness. Nothing can beat that feeling of excitement holding cups of coffee to keep our hands warm on the deck of the Blue Star Ferry in early April, watching a dawn rising up from the horizon of port buildings in Piraeus with no idea what would happen when we arrived on Syros. Reflecting against the jumbled architecture of Athens port, orange and pink light reflecting off silvery towerscapes and crumbling warehouses, we looked outwards and held expectations against the unknown, fears and hope, not realising the possibilities those months ahead would reveal.
  5. Cats: when a little black and white long-haired furball with a mottle tail and one eye permanently dilated, turned up at the house in Greece, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It became obvious had moved into its territory and it eyed us up for a few days…slinking from one side of the terrace to the other, nose in the air and sniffing. Eventually she came closer, growing trustful when we responded with saucers of water at first, then later titbit snacks she would devour with her snaggled tooth grin. She sidled up to us and purred, played with string and sticks.  I think wherever she is now, she is still a little rebel-rebel like Bowie her namesake.
  6. Books: I have cherished the time alone this year with just a book. Some have moved me to tears, made me angry, hopeful and even disappointed – an act that felt voracious and needy, hungrily devouring their pages. It felt like a good year to a be a reader. I meandered through a range of fiction, biography, history, philosophy and poetry – losing count of numbers, but feel enriched and privileged by the worlds I have peeked into. I have already started hastily compiling a list for 2018. Please send me your recommendations!
  7. Writing: sometimes you come to the page with an intention, a fully-fledged idea and other times I come unstuck with just a few words, allow them to form and take you away. Anything can happen here. Practice, explore, mess around with structure – I am happiest doing this, easing off the pressure. Fight the will to compare or mediate or suffocate the process. Just let it flow. Anything creative with words will be a long battle.
  8. Noise: To take yourself away from the noise, not just the ever-present hum and whirr of traffic, over-crowded cities, distracted by the cacophony of digital attention and the rich/poor, left/right, good/evil, fake/true paradox that entrenches indifference. 2017 was filled with heartache, etched by news that broke at such speed and changed direction from despair to joy in seconds. Most of us prefer to keep up rather than check out – the competitiveness of being busy and misappropriation of information as wisdom. The only thing I needed in this year was to slow down and stop being afraid of what happens away from the noise. The internal noise of my own brain hasn’t yet shut up, chattering over long held beliefs and holding the stick of other people’s success up like a marker. But it is quietening down and allowing me to focus. I now like the sound of a ticking clock, the fierce meltemi wind, the sea waves crashing in a storm and the song of cicadas. This alone won’t solve much in the world but it allows me to think and process what I can do.
  9. Fear: I held so much anxiety inside me in the UK I didn’t recognise another sensation when I wandered round grinning ear to ear, walking over hills scattered with spring flowers and being on the verge of tears of what felt like happiness. The weight of fear and worry is mostly based on imagined threats. By taking away those tiny small stresses that pile up to a mountains, I found myself standing differently, shoulders hang freely and hands that don’t fidget. I found it took me a while to ease into the blankness of living without them. I mean blankness as the only way to describe the feeling when the heaviness goes away and the catastrophe of worry subsides. I will save my worry for things I can change.
  10. Family (and friends): the time I have had with them this year has been up and down, but filled with stories and laughter. The annual Christmas journey from Kings Cross has been done countless times with my backpack, balancing presents and cake tins on my lap on an overcrowded train. The same ritual since I was 21 is still being recreated year after year, a return to a home-town that you no longer know but all is still familiar and steeped in memory. Family waiting by the door, food stock piled, the aging Advocaat bottle in the drinks cabinet, the sprout jokes and plastic After Eight chocolate (apart from that one year it went ‘missing’?). This time of fervent celebration is shaped by nostalgia, that busy time when you try to see everyone, give presents and have long talks over bottles of wine. Amidst the calm currents, loneliness and grief bubble up to surface of our lives. I am thankful for their health, happiness, support and most of all…jokes.

When the clock strikes midnight and we collectively look towards a New Year wrapped up in possibility with its promise of newness, reinvention and satisfaction. I for one will be looking outward thinking about how I can do more in 2018 and keep the Ghosts at bay.

Enough: how I learned to live with less

I have a reoccurring nightmare when you die that you are confronted by everything you ever bought as a massive pile in a stinking landfill. A whole towering pile of plastic shoes, stringy vests and fancy dresses…I often wake up at night imagine being trapped under it unable to breathe.

It started October 2016, not a conscious act of rebellion but a small change of economic means, a way of saving money by not shopping. Not overnight and not completely, we all need to live, eat and function. But stop buying and accumulating the stuff that isn’t a necessity and having less by choice is something I have been working on since then. Progress has been made. My wardrobe is smaller despite getting out those clothes that were packed away in storage. But I have been again confronted by my self-created nightmare. I still have way more than I need.

I am a hoarder with emotional ties to objects and yet I am not one of those women who loves to shop.  I love the feel of a newly purchased top, sparkly shoe, statement coat as much as anyone. I hold such good memories with clothes and see them as a way of decoding ones past through dubious fashion choices. Fortunately, (*checks privilege) I live in freedom enough to decide this for myself and not fall for the constant bombardment of images women and men face. A UK woman spends on average £70,294 on their appearance in their lifetime…yes, £70K. That’s £1,352 a year or £112.65 a month. £70K could buy a plot of land somewhere and make that self-sufficient dream come true.

I don’t think I ever fell into that category of spending, but when I was in my early 20s on my first (meagre) wage, I did spend a lot of money on clothes, and shoes, and handbags. (I can’t be alone in the phenomena of earning so little but not living in London meant I had loads of disposable income. It frightens me, where did all my money go?)  The thrill of spending it on high-fashion, low-cost goods from Primark or H&M, where quality was an afterthought and all those mini-skirts, bo-ho noughties fashion, and party dresses have trailed around many parties and now long been recycled off or charity shopped. Sadly, these clothes are just fast-fashion-fads, made in dubious sweat shops, producing high pollutants in the atmosphere and most never get recycled. In more recent years I moved towards higher quality clothes in an effort to get my wear out of them. Zara, M&S for staples and second hand clothes for more interesting purchases that last longer, repurposing hand me downs and charity shop finds. I still get excited about my £100 second-hand wedding dress that made me look and feel like a millionaire. The landfill image as a thought alone has been enough to keep me away from the shops on my lunch hour, away from shops on the weekend, and from shifting through online browsers and click-bait shoes.

I think many of us are using purchasing things as an emotional prop, a browse online when feeling low grants an immediate hit, a sugar rush as you check out in 2 clicks to secure that delicious fabric print and high heel.  Then another glow when the purchase turns up and you twirl around in it. Social media means we wear more outfits, but repeat them less frequently for fear of being shamed. That makes me sad.

My problem was that high always faded so quickly. I ran through a shopping centre a few weeks ago to go to the chemist and I saw whole families treating shopping as it is was a genuine joyful pursuit of their hard-earned leisure time. Maybe it is. The endless accumulation of material goods is something people aspire too. But when is enough, enough?

I don’t feel my changes are a revelation, more a slow evolution. A quiet adult acceptance of money and spending what I work for. I went completely without buying clothes or make up for 6 months and only bought 5 items of clothing in 2017 (jeans, replacement trainers as I’d ran them out, leathers sandals and 2 shirts). Note: I am really hoping Santa delivers me some new underwear! My trick has been to think about buying something for long enough the moment passes, like anticipation is often better than the event itself. Which is a bit like my desire to write…I mull over it so long the argument against is lost. I take out my battles here on the page. Down-sizing, shedding, getting rid of the extraneous word and thought. I don’t want you to think of me as a puritan nor shameless hippie. Just someone who thinks economically! It is hard to define necessity but that definition helps set boundaries– I do need a travel card to get to work. I need to feed myself but I don’t need to spend £7 on lunch or a £3 coffee. I have ‘finally’ trained my master-of-all-skills-husband to cut my hair instantly saving £45, incidentally I stopped colouring my hair a year ago now – I have cultivated a natural ‘ombre’ look.  This isn’t all about appearances either.

In the year we finally spent 6 months living simply in Greece, we earned significantly less and yet lived more – swapping urban life for experiences and simplicity. Which is such a funny thing to admit isn’t – actively scaling back your earning potential marries quite well with stopping spending it on stuff you don’t need. Now we are back in London, the TV lies unplugged, books need to be read (library books encouraged) we make packed lunches, eat seasonal cheap food, shop sensibly and reduce wastage. All tiny little incremental steps.

Standing here almost at the dawn of 2018, with a pervasive global environmental and human crisis at our heels, so much of our consumption is in the endless pursuit of fulfillment and happiness – whole industries thrive on this need. I too seek happiness, but realise I won’t find that on the high street or in ‘self-help’ book or green juice diet.

For me, voluntary minimalism feels right in the season of excess and consumption. Clearing out, letting go and treasuring what we have. Because it is more always more than enough.

A summer reading list

Everyone loves a reading list, maybe. I didn’t really start off with a list or even any grand intentions for my capacity to spend time reading, although I did wonder whether a 100 book challenge for these six months might be fun. But soon realised the pain of compiling one might take the joy out of it all. So my reading list is a kind of organic ‘see what happens’ and a bit whimsical, but always open to suggestions and recommendations. Thankfully I was generously given a kindle voucher which has been my savior! 😉

So this is some of what has been keeping me busy over the past few months, and I think it is almost on the order I read them. Given that I read Zorba over a 2 week period and its less than 250 pages I wouldn’t exactly say I am powering through these!

Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazanzakis – a beautiful, heart-breaking and insightful read by the Cretan author. If you have seen the film, or even just think about the Zorba Dance whne you think of Greece, I implore you to also read the book as it is a marvelously poetic piece of work. The novel contrasts the intellectual life of thoughts and words we get from the narrator, with the actions and mayhem of Alexis Zorba, who becomes the inspiration for the narrator to realise he must live life to the full. This is where G and I get the ‘be more Zorba’ mantra from. Also Kazanakis writes the novel with a Greek protagonist narrating which actually works much better than the downtrodden English man in the film version. It’s a must read for anyone who wants to understand some more of this beautiful county and its changing landscape in Greek rural society in the late 1940s. It’s not a ‘fun’ read but it’s a great adventure nonetheless.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi – amazingly well written autobiographical book by a brain surgeon from the US. It charts his life and death after learning that he has terminal cancer, the thought processes it takes to accept and challenge his fixed ideas about his life plan. The beauty of his memoir is in fact how Kalanithi learns to how to live by accepting his own death.  I heartily recommend this to anyone looking for something contemplative to read and think about holding on to precious moments. I bawled by eyes out for at least the last 10 pages. Amazing and life affirming.

Death by Any Other Name (short stories) and For Now: Notes on living a deliberate life by the Greek author Daphne Kapsali were quickly devoured over days! Beautifully written, thought provoking short non-fiction life reflecting pieces mostly set on the Cycladic island of Sifnos. Her first self published work 100 Days of Solitude is a collection written when Kapsali gave up her life in London and spent 100 days in Sifnos, writing a hundred little reflections on being herself and creating the freedom to live as a writer.  You can tell I love it, huh?

Talking of books based in Greece there seems to be a theme emerging. I downloaded The Illegal Gardener by Sara Alexi – quite a good fictional story set to a backdrop of an English woman escaping to Greece after a divorce and finding an unexpected alliance with a gardener she employs and befriends. He is an illegal immigrant from India and it contrasts her life of ease with his painful journey and struggle. I also powered through Girl Gone Greek by Rebecca Hall one afternoon at the beach. Perfect accompaniment  to waves lapping at the shore; a light-hearted tale of an English teacher spending the summer in northern Greece and discovering new things about Greece and challenging her own ways of thinking. On a recommendation I downloaded Passing Thyme by the journalist  Gordon Coxhill who it seems lot f people in Syros know as he spent many years living in the 90s – it’s a nicely written book, and captures a time before many people ventured here but probably only appeals to people who know and love Syros, or those who look back fondly about ‘the good old day’s’ of Greece’. It is well written and evocative, but has some ‘tittle-tattle’ aspects of people he knew and I can imagine not all were favoured by his rendition of events when it was published. It’s pathos and tragedy reminded me of “This Way to Paradise” by Willard Manus, which is of a similar memoir style but set in Lindos, Rhodes in the 1960s.  Whilst in the ‘Greek’ phase I was gifted a paperback copy of Who pays the ferry man? By Michael Bird, its based on his 1980s TV show set in Crete as an English man returns to find lost love and settle old scores after fighting there with the Greek partisans during WW2. I’ll honestly say I hope the tv series was better than the books – its incredibly predictable and a bit stale!

 I also powered trough the Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan; again a perfect feel-good tale when you need a fascinating page-turner with mystery as well as romantic twists and turns.

I have also dipped back into Dave Eggers who I love his earlier work like  A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), which is his memoir about raising his younger brother in San Francisco following the deaths of both of their parents, as well as Zeitoun, based in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and You shall know our velocity.  So with good confidence, I read The Circle from 2013. It was a suburb contemporary novel about internet data dominance in a fictionalized silicon valley social media giant. A great thought provoking and timely read about reality, technology and the internet’s dominance in our lives. I have read that is is now a film starring Emma Watson as the protagonist Mae…mmm, I don’t think I‘ll rush to see it. So feeling in an Egger-esque mood I then picked up The Heroes of the Frontier, not quite post- apocalyptic but set very on the edge of societal breakdown, his narrative is led by a tough female mom of two, excellently characterized and like Mae in the Circle, Eggers seems to be able to tap into the female psyche and write strong believable protagonists, and is something his writing suits.

The Girls by Emma Cline was just outstanding, and I know I am way behind the curve as this was touted as the summer read of 2016! Cline is incredibly talented, whether she is worthy of the status bestowed upon her by publishers only time and follow up novels will tell.  But here she captures the heart of teenage rebellion in her masterful fictional retelling of the 70s cult Manson murders. It’s creepy and complex, the dark scenes of distress that really get under your skin with the way she characterizes female teenage desire and obsession. I can’t recommend highly enough!

There has been  a few  false starts with books that I hope I will end up finishing such as A Brief history of Seven Killings by Marlon James (just didn’t grab me enough) and Zero K by Don Delillo (I struggled with empathizing with the strange protagonist in a sci-fi tale of brain preservation, felt coldly unemotional)– both had such good promise (and rave reviews).

I am just about to finish the mammoth American Gods by Neil Gaiman – I quite enjoyed stardust and given that will be a TV show it is certainly getting mass-appeal. From the outset there is an enticing premise in this epic novel with Gaiman’s magical play on myths and legends – steeped in Norse mythology, Far Eastern legends and even leprechauns, Gods from the old world have been living silently in America for centuries and now threatened by modern monsters of worshiped by the masses, they must battle it out as ‘the storm’ is coming! Sounds quite far-fetched, but its protagonist is a mortal ex-con named Shadow, he seems like an archtypical muscle hero but as the story unfolds Gaiman weaves him into a fairly interesting character. Perhaps this will make me want to watch the show too – the novel is quite episodic with grand battle scenes, so I expect it will translate quite well to TV.

Other books I am itching to read this summer are:

  • The Power by Naomi Alderman
  • Capital by John Lanchester (a friend gave it to me so I have to read it)
  • Eleni by Nicholas Gage ( a Greek classic)
  • Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
  • We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates

I think the kindle works well for some books, but I do enjoy the feel of a real book in my hands. Luckily, there is also a book swap in the village so will definitely sniff some books out there too!

I’d love more recommendations, especially classics I should try. Why not, I think I have the time…