Giaros Island Exile

Last week I made another visit to Gyaros, the angular jutting rock island that sits just a few kilometres from the west coast of Syros. It was a hot unrelenting day with barely a breath of wind which seemed fitting for the inhospitable nature of the place. In three years since I last visited, the former prison island hasn’t changed much, a few more collapsed walls and perilous roof sections in the main prison, smatterings of new graffiti scratched in walls. More goats and sheep seem to be reclaiming the decaying spaces, as we walked hawks circled above and rabbits raced in the wild grasses.

The islands past may be dark. But it’s future is in flux. It is protected now under the NATURA framework but since 2011 it has been considered as a site for development and plans to use the island as a site for wind turbines are causing friction.

The island is a case study of rewilding in action; without human disturbance nature wins. The fish and seal colonies can thrive, wild birds and small mammals can breed without the threat of being hunted. But at what cost does this future come? What is lost if wind turbines are exiled here? How will the island’s past compete with its future? It right to let the prison buildings decay without memorialising what happened here?

I left the island with more questions than answers; drawn to the barren rock again as a stark reminder of human capacity for inflicting pain and intolerance. The ways we tell ourselves it is easier to turn away, rather than confront. To stand by, rather than act. To believe it is not our story to tell – to let each life, human or animal, fade into dust, without asking why, or if they even mattered at all.


Or extra-ordinary?

I have wondered if the space between ordinary and extraordinary is perception – how you feel about the thing, how your emotions guide you in that moment. Its fair to say I, like many in lockdown, have veered from ‘this is amazing, look at the tiny flowers, I can hear the bees buzzing and watch the sky change all day’ – to the doom of big questions I have no control over, like ‘when will this end / when will there be more vaccine doses / when can we escape the island/ when can I hug my parents’. Yes, I have huge gratitude for the move to Syros (despite the kafka-esque bureaucracy I am only just discovering!) and the luck in keeping some work and projects juggling along the past year. But the pandemic induced uncertainty has definitely taken its toll on my mood!

One thing that has kept me going is finding the extraordinary in the ordinary – in the Winter any place becomes small and quiet, I found myself walking the same routes and discovering not quite a boredom, but an ordinary feeling of repetition, like I was no longer present. That this was a kind of life and I existed in it – but no emotions of note rose to the surface; it was neither good nor bad, no drama or excitement, just in the middle. Ordinary. 

Realising this was compounded by the smallness of life (a bubble of 2 sharing a living/office/everything space) and routine became the enemy. I have found the trick to make anything extraordinary is attention and mixing things up; jogging different routes around the village, swimming and walking at different times of the day. I walked to town at sunrise the other day – the sun rising as I passed one of the nuns on her way to Agia Varvara. So what if I take wrong turns and find new paths. Or new ways of understanding. Each day is different. Even if on the surface it feels the same, poke the feeling, question it. Do not accept it’s ordinaryness.

One thing I do love is how the little churches offer up quiet refuges on the paths. Someone always seems to get there early to light the candles, although I rarely see anyone else.   

The old ruins of an Ottoman era bath house (I think!) are a hidden gem in Ermoupolis, tucked away from view off a busy road. Sadly,  graffitied and neglected – there is little to indicate how old this or what it would have once been like painted in its full glory. But I imagine it would have incorporated water from the well or river (which once ran this way under the bridges at Lalakia). 

Now the days are flushed with change; longer, brighter, warmer. Orthodox Easter is on its way next weekend and although lockdown continues there is a sense of relief in the season changing.  Spring flowers bloomed early in February, only to fade with less rain the hills had started to look dry and yellow. But this weeks few days of rain have brought a fresh green glow to the hills again. The worst of winter has passed. Bringing forth the type of days you can feel the UV and slather on the factor 50. I feel relieved to have kept swimming, despite the chill and whinge at feeling cold – it always feels extraordinary and exhilarating.  

Bear with me for the excitement (I did warn you that life was really small!); the corner shop has recently expanded its offer of a wider variety of bread and veg – suddenly upping the village retail game. Although to counter this we’ve discovered the joy of fresh sugary donuts from the supermarket bakery section as a reward for the hour and a half round trip walk. Just an adult version of those treats your parents used for rewarding good behavior in the supermarket, that is how we live! I also have been cooking and baking a lot (I mean what other options are there?) and might just have perfected my recipe for lemon drizzle cake after many disasters. 

Although it feels like things are about to open; the Greek PM made some positive proclamations on telly last night – I don’t think we are quite in the clear yet. But some kind of normality is on its way. People running businesses have lived in this climate of financial doom for months and need certainty to plan. Tavernas and cafes will be keen to reopen outdoor seating on May 3rd and inter-island travel should be allowed after May 15th, meaning hotels and accommodation can open too.

There are even things about the lockdown ending I will miss (even after almost 6 months of it!). The island will never be experienced in quite the same way; there has been a magic in the wide empty beaches free of sun loungers and  people. Maybe more of us have discovered hiking and found new routes to explore. The quiet streets of the town with closed shops and cafes have possessed a kind of eerie wonder, at times it felt like wandering through a beautiful living museum of marble pavements, shuttered windows, and the odd crumbling mansion. It’s been a place to lose myself in time and again. Each time finding something extraordinary. Even traffic levels have  been lower due to the curfew,  allowing the air to be cleaner and roads to be a little safer for pedestrians. Maybe there were less people here overall, using less power – and maybe making less waste. Despite the positives, I suspect the pandemic has resulted in a lot more single-use plastic; disposable masks, wipes and takeaway cups. 

It is Earth Day today and I have been reflecting on the changing elements of the natural world; even now the warm sunlight is helping the pot plants and seedlings bloom on the patio. The borders we construct between man and nature are hopefully changing for the better. That impact is something maybe I notice more here on an island; a paradise hanging so delicately in the balance, so close to ruin, so sensitive to climatic changes and polluting infractions we all make with each demand; on land and space, the soils nutrient loss, the buildings infringing on the wilderness, the water we pump from the sea and pump back into it – the landfill that rises with each season’s influx of people. How complicit we all are in its downfall. Yet the difference one person can make might be small, but collectively it could be huge.   

Will I be sad when I no longer have to text 13033 before leaving the house?  Maybe I’ll miss wondering if anyone knows where I am. Or maybe I’ll wonder if anyone even cared where we all were in the first place. And in that itself there is freedom.

Winter layers and prayers

Each day in lockdown gets less surprising, but what has kept me going has been the unpredictability of the weather. It’s been a mixed season on the island, so each day is a mystery unfolding that starts with staring out of the window, cross checking the weather forecast and dressing for all the seasons! As clouds gather in billowing plumes as the sun rises, I am left wondering what kind of signs are these. Planning a day inside or a long walk, and always if possible, a swim; a run to the supermarket in between rain showers. Life feels close and present, immediate and subject to change. That’s been a good thing.  

Normal Christmas (what even is that?) was not an option so we decamped from the coast to stay in Ano Syros. A few weeks tangled themselves into a joyous longer stay where I got used to scaling steps and seeing the world from the hill – watching the solitary shadows of light dance along the worn cobbles. The rituals of living in the oldest part of the island were a good reminder of what’s important; even if that meant it turned fetching drinking water into a near daily adventure and battling the cascading waterfalls flowing down the marble steps when it rained. 

Up and down the hill I trudged reminding myself of the strength that lies in belonging to the family of things. Order, history and belief. Long lean threads of life walking down stone paths and forever repeating. Out to the valley at Finikia, past the Springs – fallen leaves mulching in the damp earth. The stones marked by worn indents in holding the tide pools of years unknown. The path green soaked in growth and newness creeping over old Winter, shedding darkness from the edges of days. The smell of petrichor rising from the earth. 

Το άρωμα της βρεγμένης γης μας μεθάει γλυκά 

(The scent of the wet earth makes us drunk with sweetness)

The cold slap of footsteps on the path outside the house became a clock ticking- with so few people living there I found the noises familiar after a while. The mule’s steady clopping hooves – the builders chatter; the women leaning over the balconies to share news as they hung the washing out. After a while these sounds join the bells of each church and sound like music. Little orchestrated symphonies of daily life. 

It became easy to deduce the same person headed out to work – realising how that fact of leaving the house at a certain time, appointments and plans had become as rare as knowing what day it is. Those days past when schedules would have to be set; early showers and grabbed lunches from fridges, catching buses and trains, walking out onto dark streets waiting for dawn to signal out the day. Reading snatched pages of books of crowded trains, breathing in the scent of warm bodies and their breakfast.   

Other people have almost slipped into nothing more than memory – a conversation in person is snatched – brief hellos, requests at the bakery (the lady calling me Koritsi mou every time), simple and gracious passings of the time of day, the air is cold, the sea is warm; just a handful of words come out of my lips to anyone outside the house.  

Everyone recognises Ano Syros as the upper town. The medieval settlement dates back as 1202 when the first iteration of St George’s was built.  He’s seen a fair few makeovers, but since the 1830s its been the same recognisable broad peachy coloured Cathedral on the peak.  What I like about this town within a town is that it is and isn’t a ‘typical cycladic chora’ – it does have elements of whitewashed houses and blue domed churches, winding stone streets and shocks of pastel shades and bright leaves of bougainvillea, but it’s history and identity has been forged over many centuries of Catholisim since Frankish rule. Leaving a legacy of a greater concentration of Catholic worship in Ano Syros than any other. Much of this is reflected in its architecture which is as confusingly layered as it is diverse. No house looks entirely alike; balconies and terraces are jumbled, stone work and pastel hues compete with white wash, so none look entirely out of place. Each house built upon the next, walls leaning in to one another and layered over; ancient dry-stone walls competing with modern concrete. 

Ano Syros is possibly the only place in Greece with a Catholic church dedicated to Saint Sebastian.  In medieval times, Saint Sebastian was regarded as a saint with a special ability to protect from plague, and devotion to him increased when plague was active. 

In fact I was reading up about how well Syros fared in the Spanish Flu outbreak 1918. Apparently the enterprising nuns at Agia Varvara, the imposing Church on the road down to Kini took down the icon and brought her to Ermoupoli. For months the icon was displayed in Miaoulis Square to save the inhabitants of the island from Spanish flu. Whether you believe it was good timing or religious intervention, when Spanish Flu cases reduced they managed to get enough donations to start the building of the larger church of Agia Varvara after that. If you haven’t seen the icons and painting there I’d recommend a look – the original icons and ceiling painting are as beautiful as they are brutal. Saint Barbara is often the patron saint of soldiers and miners, used to protect those in battle or using explosives – which given that the site of the original church lies on the Ermoupolis – Episkopio – Kini path which leads to Varvaroussa beach (after Delfini) where other stone quarries were sited, I have wondered if there is that connection. Perhaps the miners and quarrymen stopped in on the way to pray? 

Perhaps if there’s ever a place to spend time in a pandemic, it’s a place that has already survived the plague, alongside a variety of epidemics like cholera, the black death, smallpox and the Spanish Flu. Alongside wars and invasions from pirates – whatever history has thrown its way Ano Syros has seen it all before.  Each crisis layered over and rebuilt, evolving into the place it is today.


In a Greek mid-winter the sun shines and rain pours, each day offers up four seasons of weather. Like the majority of the world Greece is in lockdown until at least January. I’d like to tell you it’s grim and boring, that everything is stressful. But that wouldn’t be true. Lockdown feels kind of normal now when you remote work and live in a place without family or many social ties. But I know we are the fortunate ones, as this crisis has exposed the grim reality of inequality across the globe.

A few days ago I walked from Ano Syros to Kini, as I watched the sunrise and clouds gather I wondered if the sky would clear and how long should I wait. I wondered how much of my life I have spent waiting. Waiting for the rain to stop, the sun to shine, waiting to grow up, waiting to leave, waiting to get the right job, become something, not knowing what it was at all; maybe something soft and slippery just out of reach – undefined. Waiting to fit – waiting to be small, waiting to be big, waiting to care about things, waiting to not care about others. A selfish human trait waiting around for something better.

2020 has been a year of waiting – inaction – I suspect that feeling dogged many of us – sitting on the sidelines waiting for life to return. But these 12 small months have been difficult. Actions and roles that shape our lives around have been swept away quickly. The year has been filled with make-do’s. But it has also been filled with joy. I knew that as I walked along the stone path, hemmed with green clover and delicate crocus in flower – this is precious, the path, the view, the air – the birdsong, the bees buzzing madly on flowering rosemary. 

I have not had a drink with a close friend in person since February. The last time I hugged my parents was in January. I saw them in early March and they were both ill (we can only guess with what but both thankfully recovered). Media coverage of Covid19 was everywhere, given we had returned from London and a weekend in France. I look back now to the Saturday night, us finding the last available bistro table in a French town where it felt like everyone was out to eat, drink and be merry before the ‘end-of-days’. We laid in bed listening to the rain pelt on the window and the news ticker scrolled rising Covid cases across the flatscreen TV. The ferry back to Dover was packed to the rafters with kids returning from ski trips and EuroDisney. In between museums and beer, I spent the weekend looking for hand sanitizer in every pharmacy in Bologne Sur Mer. If hand sanitiser was goldust – then the P&O ferry was the Covid express. Not one person wore a mask. How little we knew. 

When I visited my parents after that trip, we all stayed on opposite sides of the room. Instead of staying at their house we booked a hotel. I guess you can say we were early adopters of what would become social distancing before that was a commonly used term. That same week in March I left a job and I can see it clearly now as the tipping point of many things personally that create a confluence. The centre would not hold. 

In my last week of work, I listened as Government advisors told the company I worked for that crowds were okay and large scale shows could go ahead. These were the same advisors that would 360’ the advice a week later and recommend a national lockdown. People were confused and worried. But there was a sense of optimism –  ‘ah, it will all blow over’ I click-clacked in heels to meetings where we jokingly fist-bumped and on my last day I accepted hugs from well-wishers. On my way out I dumped a bag of office clothes and shoes in a charity shop, symbolic perhaps, brash even. An ending of things, a shedding of skin. 

I was going to take a few months off to travel across Greece. I was going to write. I was completely freelance now with no steady income, I was done with waiting.  I was leaping , I was ready, I was starting a new life. I had a flight booked to Thessaloniki, which soon turned into the place where the first cases were in Greece. Since then I have spent a lot of this year in AirB+B’s and hotel rooms waiting for my life to start. 

My last pint of beer in a UK bar was in a Travelodge in Ashford frantically contacting AirB&B’s trying to find a place to stay before the UK went into lockdown. Next came an accidental 4 month stay in rural Lincolnshire. That Novotel in Heathrow waiting for the PLF form to arrive – watching one sad plane leave the deserted airport every hour. Refreshing the news, waiting every damn day for someone sensible to stop people dying. Waiting to leave, waiting for Greece to open its borders so we could get home or discover wherever home was meant to be. 

I have scrolled Linkedin and Twitter in the early hours convincing myself I will never work again – resigning myself to the scrapheap of career success. Watching people get scared and angry losing their jobs, while other folks flew high posting about their promotions and success. All the while I felt utterly adrift. You see I didn’t realise this at first –  without work as a liferaft, I wasn’t sure who I was. I even missed those bits of work that were sometimes piecemeal and frustrating – my identity was framed around them all. I prided myself on just showing up, no matter what I faced. Gritting my teeth and persevering. I was a stoic. But when I had nothing but a room to sit  in all day,  even if this was all Virginia Woolf said I needed. I was utterly lost. 

I just let my mind tear round itself with what-ifs; what if I was on the road, I’d feel alive, instead of being in this waiting room of life. I’d be writing. Experiencing new things, the vistas, the views, walking a trail, navigating, map-reading, jumping on public transport. I would feel like I was doing – being – having. All those things I had worked and waited for. 

Instead my brain had a million tabs open and I could focus on none.

And what happened mid-way through the year? Externally, the waiting stopped – for a brief flickering moment little glimpses of normality returned. But before that the waiting stopped internally, I started work on my writing – which is by enlarge the hardest, scariest, thing I have ever done. It meant I had to stop just writing in the dark as I call it – some of the finished stuff needed to get out into the light. And so I was lucky/mad/good-enough to have a few things published in online litmags. I know this is not a big deal to many people, but it is for me. I have no confidence in my own ability – if someone says they like it, I wait for the kicker, the criticism, the really, no this is not good enough, you are not good enough, you are not one of us (i don’t know who they are but whatever club it is….). The benefits of lockdown have been the democratisation of participation – online book clubs, online writing courses have offered opportunities for people not in the right place to learn virtually and ways to stay in touch. If lockdown taught the world one positive thing (no, not banana bread!) it is that we don’t have to be in the same room or even the same country to contribute and take part. I am super grateful for the women I have met on the writing course and how we are supporting each other along the journey. And all the writers I know and throughout this year have managed to keep in touch with. 

Of course, I am trying to put a positive spin on the BAT SHIT YEAR, but I don’t think anyone will forget 2020 anytime soon. For me it’s been a journey of bizarre introspection and sometimes distortion; realising it is not about standing still but keeping everything in motion – even if that has meant waiting. I have blogged less this year and focussed on other stuff, freelance work threw up some interesting and challenging projects.  It’s also Happy Blog Birthday – Four years of chaotic travel content and ramblings. I’ll think about what happens with it next year. But now it is almost time to down tools and take a Christmas break. 

This year will be different for everyone, there might be no Tiers here but there are rules. The daily cases hover at the same rate 2k a day and see no sign of reducing yet. Like many countries they have set limits on celebrations, but our 2 person household won’t be affected! Although Christmas is not a big celebration in Greece; each year more and more trees and flashing lights appear – shops selling plastic Christmas tat are becoming more prevalent.  Bakeries are still filled with treats like melomakarona cookies and the tree is up in Maouli Square, even though the shops, bars and taverna’s are closed. We are staying in Ano Syros where the views across town are beautiful, lights twinkle across the harbour and the sunrises are magnificent. Even if the rain makes waterfalls of the marble steps! 

If the sun stays out this afternoon I’ll wander for a swim – sharp and cold with the soothing tang of winter. Nothing quite beats it! 

Let’s not be impatient for 2021. Best to burrow down now in the season of slow and quiet, celebrating kindness and gratitude, no matter how far we are from the people we love.

P.S. Rukeyser’s poem reverberated around my head for a few months in lockdown. Written in 1968 and speaks volumes to the digital life we have normalised, finding ourselves and each other, reaching out, reconciling and making new ways of living.

I lived in the first century of these wars
By Muriel Rukeyser

I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.

I lived in the first century of these wars.

Making sense of distance

The month has turned to November. The season ebbs, showing frailty, reminding us of mortality. A blue moon rose last night so large in the sky it was easy to feel small, far away and distant. 

We have just returned from a little slow travel around the Dodecanese islands – unplanned, on a whim, every few days we moved on, savouring what felt like the last of summer.  Only after the clocks changed last weekend did I really acknowledge a sharpness of shorter days. 

Over three weeks we visited Leros, Symi, Kalymnos, Lipsi and Patmos. Each very different and with their unique charms. Although the weather was glorious there were little markers here and there of the season ending; tour boats returning to the docks to repair. No more bobbing in the harbour plying their trade; ripped flags flapping in the breeze. Their chalk boards with itineraries and special offers wiped clean. The odd restaurant closing up early – places opening late in the day or not at all. Everything seemed on a whim and I liked the sense of unpredictability.  Not having spent a full autumn in Greece before (normally a return to the UK calls) I was enamoured by the sense of things winding down – the slow and thoughtful preparations for change.   

In Leros my dream of staying in a windmill came true. Circular rooms, no corners or edges to hide in. No shadows. Out on the terrace high above Panteli I sipped coffee at sunrise; the clouds billowed and the bare islands jutted out near the distant coastline of Turkey. An almost silver shimmer to the metal coloured water. Islands seemed to float and merge and change shape with the weather. Stillness in the air – a far off chirp of birds, the cicadas soft singing. I wondered if this was happiness and if it was, I’d be thankful that it made me the luckiest person alive. Or perhaps it was so quiet and still that I was the last person alive. Either could be possible this year. Leros was strange and fascinating – slightly dark and edgy history with a lot of abandoned military sites and buildings that I’ll write up soon.  


Last week in Patmos I took the day off for a hike.  Finding myself alone on a beach in the village of Grikos, the sea lapped calmly at the shingle and the sun was hazy but still warm enough. Still warm enough to swim. Still warm enough to wonder why no one else was here. How precious it all is – the silence of uninhabited places. With hotels at this time of year you can never really tell when they closed their doors – whether it was years ago or just last week. All signs of life stripped away, folded up, closed inside. Hinges rusting in the salt air. This is why I stay; to see the seasons change, to hear the voices fall to a whisper, to hear the sea untamed and feel the distance. Perhaps that itself reminds me how close we are to the people we miss. 


I’d call this a year of almost-things. Almost-here, almost-there.  For many the year hasn’t happened – strike off 2020 and call it over. In tourist-heavy places like Kalymnos and Symi the talk with locals was of the summer that never happened; the cancelled bookings, the tourists that never came, opening so late with such uncertainty, a few good weeks were the best they had. Businesses may not open next year. Wherever we went I noticed hand scrawled for sale / for rent signs. They seemed to multiply overnight, raggedly hanging from lampposts, little scraps of yellow hope. People are rightly worried. The looming lockdown across Europe makes us all hold our breaths, keep conjuring the spell of distance, play it safe. 

Back on Syros the village has returned somewhat to its primordial state. After the rain on Tuesday the hills have been washed clean of the summer dusty burnt haze and looking fresher. The summer houses and apartments are closed up. This is probably the last weekend for the beach tavernas – as warm days will become rarer. Taking advantage of pleasant weather a few people swam the 2km along the coastline from Delfini to Kini – that was a first for me. At about halfway the waves seemed to build; my goggles steamed up and my strokes felt as if they were taking me in circles. I looked down at the jagged rocks below and up to the path on the headland, realising that keeping going was the only option. 

Autumn seems to be marked by vacant spaces making bells, birdsong and animals seem louder. Kinder sounds like these replace the hurried revs of mopeds and cars. Even the sheep are bleating across the terraces. Scraggly sheep herds have been brought down to the village to graze on patches of land.  Earlier I watched a dozen goats munch their way through a patch of land sandwiched between two houses. Happily chewing through the freshly sprouted grasses and green clover that has grown suddenly in the days since it rained heavily. Nets are being hoisted to the fields and laid out ready for the olive harvest. The air is fresh, cold by sundown when long moonlit nights await.  

Perhaps there is a slow violence as the season changes – a shiver of fear creeping into the last of the warming sunshine. Perhaps it reminds me of distance. The idea of distance from all that summer was; slow and welcome, syrupy warm. When it comes, winter arrives in the opposite direction; rushed and cold. Our eyes face the horizon anticipating the storm. Wondering at the last minute if I have gorged on enough of summer to get through the winter, much like a bear puts on fat to survive hibernation. 

I’ll prepare for winter with what we have, where we are.

Kalymnos – Maritime Museum