Lost souls and All Hallows Eve

All Hallows Eve

100 days of solitude, Day 52: October 31, 2014

Mythology spills into life again and here, in Sifnos, the stories of Apollo and Daphne, Daphne and Orpheus and Orpheus and Eurydice all come together to the soundtrack of Pink Floyd.

I had forgotten about Apollo and Daphne, but living on Apollo’s island and thinking back, this morning, on another Sifnos romance of the past, I was reminded of my mythological namesake. Daphne was a Naiad, a freshwater nymph, and daughter of the rivergod Pineios. According to the myth, arrogant Apollo made fun of love god Eros and his trademark bow and arrow, telling him, in effect, to leave weapons to the big boys, such as himself. Eros, twisted little bastard that we all know him to be, responded to this insult by taking two arrows, one of gold to induce love, and one of lead, to incite hatred, and shooting them through the hearts of Apollo and Daphne, respectively. Apollo was seized by a helpless, passionate love for Daphne and she, in turn, couldn’t stand the sight of him.
    Apollo pursued her relentlessly but she was having none of it and kept eluding him, until Eros intervened and Daphne realised she was about to be cornered. She appealed to her rivergod father to save her and he cast an enchantment to transform her, where she stood, into a bay laurel tree. Her skin turned to bark, her legs grew into roots that burrowed deep into the ground and her arms became branches laden with fragrant bay leaves; Apollo caught up with her and tried to enfold his tree-shaped love in a desperate embrace, but those same branches shrank away from him in disgust. Undeterred and fiercely loyal, Apollo vowed to keep Daphne safe and honour her, and used his divine powers to give her eternal youth. And this is a true story, it has to be, because the laurel tree is evergreen, and its leaves are used in wreaths to crown the head of leaders.

The story of Daphne and Orpheus is also true, if a little less mythical, and it takes place in the town of Apollonia, whose streets are lined with laurel trees. Daphne, in this case, is a bored nineteen-year-old girl, back from her first year as an art student in London and trapped in the relative hell of a family holiday. Orpheus is a boy of eighteen, fresh out of school, with greasy, grungy shoulder length hair that often falls over his eyes, and a guitar.
    His mythological counterpart was a legendary musician, famed for his soulful playing of the lyre that could enchant men, women and inanimate objects alike. Orpheus fell in love with Eurydice, another nymph, and this – unlike Apollo’s doomed love – was, happily, reciprocated. They married, but on their wedding night Eurydice was bitten by a snake and sent down below, to the land of the dead. Hades, lord of the Underworld, and his wife Persephone, worn down by Orpheus’ incessant lyre playing, agreed to let him come into their realm and fetch his wife back to the land of the living. There was a condition: Orpheus must walk ahead of Eurydice and lead her out of hell without once looking back until they had both crossed the threshold. Orpheus lost faith at the last minute and turned his head, to catch one final glimpse of his love before the darkness claimed her forever.

Nothing so dramatic for Daphne and Orpheus of 1997, but he did save me from boredom, temporarily, with his guitar. I knew him, vaguely, from school: I think he was on the same school bus as me, and also had a fling with a girl in my class. I ran into him in town one evening. He was sitting on the low wall around the village square, feet dangling over the edge, strumming his guitar. I stopped and said hello.
    ‘Sit,’ he said.
    I sat.
    ‘Do you like Pink Floyd?’
    I nodded. And without further ado, Orpheus launched into the opening chords of Wish You Were Here. As the intro was nearing its end, he turned his head towards me and fixed his eyes on me from behind a curtain of dark hair.
    ‘Sing along,’ he said.
    So I sang.
    Tentatively at first, unused to the sound of my own singing voice in public, unsure of how it matched his, and I kept looking over at him for reassurance, and he kept giving these little nods of encouragement in response, and our voices came together on that song, his low and raspy and mine higher and trembling a bit, and somehow it worked.
And when the song ended, Orpheus rested his guitar flat on his lap, laid one hand on top of it to keep it steady, and placed the other on the back of my neck, drew me in and kissed me.
I kissed him back.
And thus began my most romantic of Sifnos romances that turned me, for a few summer nights, from Apollo’s Daphne to Orpheus’ Eurydice, with busking thrown in.

That first kiss: the way he just claimed it, as if there was no question that it could be denied. I didn’t remember Orpheus being that assertive at school; I didn’t remember much about him at all, except that he existed in the margins of my social life, an awkward kid who played in a band, a little too greasy for my liking. But there was something mesmerising about him now, and I knew even then that half of it was an act, but the other half was genuinely captivating. He smelt musty and manly and vaguely unwashed: skin, sweat, cigarettes and mildew, in a heady combination that made me press up against him for more. And he was a good kisser, deep and unrushed and fully committed to it – which is a bit of a deal breaker when kissing is all you are doing. But more than anything else, I think it was the music that did it; it was his golden arrow. Like the other Orpheus of myth, he could charm the pants off you with his guitar. Although I would like to point out that this observation is part conjecture and part unfulfilled desire, because my pants, though they were fumbled with, stayed firmly on that summer. Ours was a romance of serenades and slow, torturous kisses, and an achey longing that it never occurred to us to act upon. We would just pull apart, flustered and breathless, and sing another song.
    I don’t know how we graduated from that first semi-private performance of Wish You Were Here in the shadows of the square to busking, with a plastic cup by our feet, in the most prominent locations in town. I have no idea what possessed me, what emboldened me to do it. Orpheus identified as a musician, but I am not and never have been a performer of any sort. But I sat beside him, leaning back against walls and lampposts, with my knees drawn to my chest, outside bars and restaurants and shops, and sang with him, every night. I can only explain it through legend, a legend I didn’t know about at the time, and say that I had fallen under a spell.
    There was nothing original about our choice of songs. It was mostly guitar-led ballads, and Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb, and Yesterday and Let it be and a few other Beatles’ favourites. The repertoire varied slightly from evening to evening, but we always did Wish You Were Here, at least once, and often a second time, as our final song before we collected ourselves and our profits, spent the latter on ice-cream and beer, and found a dark corner to kiss in.
    I never loved Orpheus but I have loved that song, deeply and unfalteringly, ever since. I no longer associate it with that boy or that summer, but it began then, when we sang it together, and meant every word. Being teenagers, I don’t know what we thought we knew about lost souls, but we put ours into every word we sang, and for those few moments that it lasted every time, we really felt it, as if we had written the lyrics ourselves.

It’s been almost twenty years since that summer, and I’ve met some lost souls in that time, and lost mine more than once, and traded beauty for convenience, and compromised for the easy things instead of fighting for the worthy and the hard, and I have sung Wish You Were Here from inside my fishbowl, looking out at a distorted view of the world through the thick, curved glass. I know now a little of what those lyrics mean.
    But it seems that I have spilled out of my bowl, and found new ground in the old, and come to a place where I can see myself on the other side of that song and choose the things that matter this time around. And I don’t know if it was myth or legend or enchantment, the lyrics of a song or something else entirely that brought me where I am, but I do know that it’s here that it all, somehow, comes together. And yes, by now, I do think I can tell.


Pink Floyd’s Wish you were here is, in my very humble opinion, probably the best song ever written. Listen to it here.


100 days of solitude, Day 53: November 1, 2014

‘It’s Halloween,’ Eleni told me on the phone last night. ‘Did you light a candle?
    ‘What? No. Why?’
    ‘You should light a candle and place it by the window. You never know what might come in, on a night like this.’
    I thought about it. ‘I have my aromatherapy oil diffuser on, which is lit up and changes colours. Does that count? It’s by my bedroom window.’
    ‘I’m not sure,’ Eleni admitted. ‘I’m making pumpkin with paprika for dinner,’ she added. ‘I’ve burnt it a bit.’
    We both agreed, without quite knowing why, that this was appropriate.

Halloween. All Hallows Eve, the night when the spirits of the dead wander the earth. Another day I missed because I was absolutely convinced, all day yesterday, that the date was the 30th of October
    ‘It’s the 31st,’ Eleni corrected. ‘It’s tonight.’
    ‘That’s funny,’ I said. ‘I’ve just been writing about lost souls.’
    ‘It’s Halloween,’ Eleni repeated, as if that explained it. But I hadn’t known.

It was a dark night, moonless and cold, and I had been sufficiently spooked on my way to the supermarket, up the deserted, windswept path, intermittently and insufficiently lit by pale street lights that somehow make the inky blackness in between seem even deeper.
    ‘There are so many weird noises,’ I told my mum, whom I’d called for company on the walk, as trees shook their branches threateningly at me from the shadows – and I think they were elms.
    ‘You sound different,’ she said, and I could tell by her tone that she was concerned.
    ‘I’m the same,’ I assured her. ‘I’m fine. But this is different. It’s kind of savage, you know? Wild.’
    ‘Even the locals say so,’ she agreed.
    And I remembered how Mrs. Souli is always telling us about the darkness, about the absence of light in the neighbourhood, and how nice it is when we turn up and put ours on. I never knew what she meant, until now.

On Halloween, they say, all journeys must be completed before sunset, but the sun sets at half past five, and I didn’t know what day it was, and I went out at 7:45. I needed to buy baking paper. My granddad was displeased. I called him on the way back and he worked out, by the way I was slightly out of breath, that I was walking. His voice rose in panic and anger.
    ‘What are you doing out at this time of night?’ he demanded.
    ‘It’s eight o’clock,’ I pointed out, with a laugh.
    ‘No it’s not!’ A pause, while he presumably checked his watch. ‘I don’t care what time it is! You shouldn’t be out, it’s dangerous!’
    I looked around, at the blackness and the ghostly lights and the shadows whipped about by the wind, but I’d had my moment of weakness, my accidental Halloween, and I was feeling brave again by now.
    ‘Don’t worry,’ I told him. ‘It might sound scary, but there is nothing bad here at all. It’s probably safer than any other place I could be.’
    He wasn’t convinced, I know; he never will be, but these are my darkened streets and I’m the one who walks them, and I can’t expect everyone to understand.

No one knows exactly how Halloween began. Some say its origins are purely Christian, the eve of the feast of All Saints, a time to remember the saints and the martyrs and the faithful departed. Others trace its roots back to pagan harvest festivals, and the Gaelic Samhain in particular, which is celebrated from sunset on the 31st of October to sunset on the 1st of November, halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, and marks the passage from the bright days of summer and harvest season to winter and the darker side of the year. This is a time when fairies slip through the cracks and walk among us, and the dead revisit their homes and are offered food at our tables.
    On Halloween, the veil between words is thinner and fire is important. Candles are lit in Christian graveyards to commemorate the souls of the dead, and the pagans light bonfires to ward off evil spirits. And in a house in Sifnos, an oil diffuser flashing pink and green and red and blue stands guard at the window to keep the darkness out. Accidentally, because I didn’t know about lighting candles until Eleni mentioned it, and I didn’t know it was Halloween. And I still don’t know if it counts, because it isn’t fire, it’s just brightness that you plug in, and maybe the spirits don’t recognise electric lights but only living, dancing flames.
    But I wonder if any of it is really accidental. I didn’t know about Halloween yesterday, and I spent the day writing about lost souls. And I didn’t know about Samhain either, not until this afternoon when I did some research, but this morning I was out in the garden, patting the soil into beds and planting seeds for winter.
    I think some things are woven into the fabric that we’re all made of, and a lot of what we dismiss as accident or explain as coincidence is just the natural way of everything falling into place to form a pattern that was drawn long ago. And maybe on Halloween, on certain days during the year, it’s us, on this side, that break through into other realms, and tune into something bigger than ourselves, something that is ancient and unstoppable, like the passage of seasons and the changes that it brings. This is a Christian island, but it was bonfires they were lighting yesterday, not candles for the dead; bonfires to burn the last of the summer away and prepare the fields for the cold months ahead. There were no masks and no pumpkins and no rituals, but these people celebrate what’s important in their everyday ways.
    And maybe some of their ways are rubbing off on me, or maybe it’s the water or the wind or the soil I was kneeling on this morning, but it seems I’ve fallen in line with the pattern, and it wasn’t an accident. And maybe tonight I’ll place a light in my window deliberately, a comfort for my neighbour and a beacon to invite the spirits in, and then I’ll set the table for all of us to eat together, because the darkness outside frightens me only a little, and there is nothing bad here at all. It’s the safest place I can be.


This is Day 52 and 53 from 100 days of solitude, written and first published on October 31 and November 1, 2014.


Pictured in the photo, at the top of the hill, is a gateway to nothing. I thought it was appropriate.

Bring it on

ohi day

Depression came. She came to tell me to go my bed. She came with the storm but, like the storm, I had felt her rumbling approach long before that. She likes to give warning, build up the anticipation, set you up for the plunge into her horrible anticlimax, the flatness she brings that neutralises everything into nothing.
    The day before, the Tuesday, was symbolic, and there were signs of her already. It was a national holiday, ohi day, the day of no, and it completely passed me by. On the 28th of October 1940, Benito Mussolini delivered an ultimatum to the Greek Prime Minister, Ioannis Metaxas: allow the Italian forces free passage into Greece, to occupy certain strategic locations, or there will be war. Metaxas refused but, contrary to popular misconception, he did not just say “no”; he responded in French, the diplomatic language of the day, and said: ‘Alors, c’est la guerre’. Then, it is war. But the Greeks love slogans and battle cries and, in contrast to their everyday conversation, they like them punchy and to the point. And they couldn’t very well take to the streets shouting stuff in French; they had their national pride to consider, especially on a day like this. So Alors, c’est la guerre became a resounding Greek No!, ohi, a short, two syllable word of pure defiance, and that’s the word they chanted, in their thousands, when they spilled out on the streets of Athens, until their throats were raw. And then, there was war.
    There are parades on ohi day, and marching bands, and bunting, and the Greek flag flies everywhere. The children gather in the village square, dressed in white shirts and navy blue skirts and trousers, and march proudly through town, and the officials make moving speeches about the courage and integrity of the noble race of the Greeks. All this took place on Tuesday, and I missed it, cooped up in my house on top of the hill, typing away on my computer. When I passed through town in the evening, all that remained was the bunting, a long row of blue and white flags flapping about in the breeze over the empty benches in the square.
    I felt her approach in the late afternoon, after the celebration that had gone ahead without me. Nothing too obvious, but there was a restlessness that often preludes her arrival. I dressed myself in several layers and stepped out into the final vestiges of the gloomy day. I would walk, I decided, down to the ring road and follow it round in a big circle, all the way to the supermarket, past the playground and back home; it would take about an hour. This was not a road I’d walked before. You wouldn’t do it in the summer: it’s too busy with cars using it to bypass the traffic at the centre of town and, like most of these island roads, it makes no provision for pedestrians.
    I should have known better than to expose myself to all that nothingness; I should have known I was making it too easy for her to find me. I had counted on quiet roads, a peaceful, contemplative walk to settle me down, but I’d forgotten about ohi day, and I got more than I bargained for. There was nobody around, only stillness and, every now and then, the parked up vehicles of everyday labour, abandoned only for this one short day of celebration that seemed to stretch, infinite, into the future and the past. This is a small island, but the emptiness made it seem vast, and it was exciting at first, like a child suddenly free to explore all the secret places that adults usually guard, but then I became acutely aware of my own smallness in comparison, and the feeling turned to awe.
    It wasn’t loneliness, but the actual, physical fact of being completely alone. I let myself think about it and it frightened me. A donkey stuck his head over the fence as I was passing by, and I jumped so far that I found myself on the opposite side of the road before I realised what had happened, felt immensely silly and crossed over again to pat his muzzle and apologise. I walked on, and I could hear my footsteps on the tarmac, a dog barking, echoey, in the distance, a birdcall, the dry rustle of creatures low in the grass. Nothing else, no other sounds: nothing mechanical, nothing human. An eagle circled overhead. The shadows grew deeper. A single motorbike drove past, and the noise it made seemed completely absurd in the ever-expanding stillness.
    It was a good walk, despite the fear; it made me feel alert and alive. But I should have known better than to walk alone, when she had warned me she was coming; I was too easy to find. And she came to me, like a bad fairy, and sprinkled me with her flattening dust. I took the emptiness home with me, and into town, later that evening, when I met Christina on one of her flying working trips, for a bite and a glass of wine. The process had been set in motion, and all the warmth and the unexpected company could do was stave off its inevitable conclusion for a time. I had exposed myself, and I was infected.
    And so the day of ohi passed me by, and then came Wednesday, and depression. She came with the storm, and I surrendered without a word. As the rain began to fall, I felt her twisting me up inside, turning me inside out, and then she was there, with her soothing, hypnotic voice. ‘Just lie down,’ she said. ‘Just give in, and lie down. There is nothing else to do.’ I surrendered and took to my bed, and she came to tuck me in, full of tenderness and gentle words, like a nurse for the terminally ill. Palliative care, with no hope for recovery. Just give in to it. There is nothing else. I closed my eyes, and went to sleep.
    When I woke up, the storm had been and gone but depression lingered, her heavy flatness making it hard for me to move, like a stiff old blanket that she’d laid over me while I slept. I kicked it off, and shook some life back into my limbs, enough to carry me listlessly around the house, pretending activity by making tea. Depression lingered, and whispered desolation.

The Greeks are always being defiant; we’re always looking for things to be defiant about. And when it comes to inventing battle cries, we are truly undefeated, the most notable of all being the immortal two words uttered by Leonidas of Sparta in response to the Persian King Xerxes’ demand that they lay down their arms and surrender: molon labe. Come and get them. The man had balls.
    I had mislaid mine for a day, the day of defiance: I’d been a bad Greek, and let it pass me by. But then I found them again, a day late. I found my defiance, but not as I expected. I found the saddest, most embarrassing, most heartbreaking Greek songs I could think of, and played them loudly, standing up in the middle of the room, and cried, for no reason whatsoever: for nothing. And I surrendered in defiance, and I said no, a day late, but just on time. It wasn’t war, it was guerrilla warfare; dirty tactics and sad Greek songs and Leonidas’ words, paraphrased for the 21st century: bring it. Bring it the fuck on.
    There were no flags and no fanfare, but it was a celebration, nonetheless, because as I cried over nothing, I realised I had nothing to cry about, and that made me laugh. Depression slunk off, taking her blanket with her, and I turned the music off and drank my tea, and painted my toenails red. Leonidas winked, and the Greek Prime Minister said some stuff in French that I didn’t understand. And the day ended, and Thursday came.


This is Day 51 from 100 days of solitude, written on October 29, 2014.

Babysitting fires

There was little light by the time we finished. The dullness of the overcast day, another day when Southern winds brought clouds of desert dust to settle over us from the Sahara, now gave way to the thickening darkness of dusk and made the bonfire glow even brighter.
    ‘I have to go,’ Yiannis told me, gathering up his chainsaw and his knife and a plastic tub of petrol, and shaking the ashes off his hat before putting it on. ‘Stay a while. Have a cigarette. Watch the fire; make sure everything burns away.’
    Babysitting the fire, I thought, but I didn’t say it. There is no word for babysitting in Greek. I nodded, instead, from a small distance away, still collecting loose twigs from among the nettles, which have grown to gigantic proportions and sting even through your clothes. Underneath, livid skin and deeper down feelings to match: irritated, raw, unprotected despite the layers. Stung. But this work we’d just done helped. It soothed. The burning of things helped. The flames.
    Before he left, Yiannis kicked a few smouldering branches that had escaped to the perimeter of the bonfire back into its centre; he had his work boots on, that allow for such actions. Mine would have melted: Pull & Bear do not make boots for stomping on fires. I was envious, once again, as I often am, of Yiannis’ gear, of his preparedness, of how he knows what he needs to navigate this life, this wilderness, the tall grasses and the rocky, treacherous hills, these fires that we set. Aware, once again, of how ill-equipped I am, in comparison. How I’m just winging it, in high-street boots and too-thin jeans, and clumsy in my eagerness to fit in.
    ‘There,’ Yiannis said.
    I picked up another twig and tossed it onto the fire.
    ‘Thank you,’ I muttered. I didn’t watch him go. Yiannis may burn bright in my world, in his own way but, by now, I was all about the flames.

We’d started pruning this almond tree months ago, before Christmas. It was old and overgrown and dead in places, draining itself to support too many branches, too many possibilities reaching up and out and coming to nothing. Uncared for, untouched for years. Yiannis had shaken his head and sighed. The state of the tree almost a personal affront.
    ‘Look,’ he’d said. ‘Just look at it.’
    I looked as instructed, while he climbed up its trunk and motioned me to pass him the chainsaw. Ruthlessly, he pushed the blade into the flesh of the tree, and sent branch after branch, whole trees in themselves, crashing down with a thud and a sprinkling of woodchip confetti. Ruthlessly, but not mindlessly: every now and again, he’d stop and contemplate another branch, tilt his head and sigh, and then shift up or down or sideways, maintaining a precarious balance that makes me hold my breath every time, and apply the chainsaw again. Reducing this giant to a collection of stumps. A desolate sight, if you don’t know.
    I’d always thought of pruning as a cosmetic procedure. But it’s surgery, it’s critical; on this scale, as devastating as it looks, it’s saving a life. It’s the toughest kind of love, love with a chainsaw, but it’s exactly the kind of love that’s needed. I never knew; I’d never had cause to think about it before. Yiannis says plants and trees direct twice as much energy to dead branches as to living ones: think about that for a moment. Think about how much energy we expend to keep dead things attached, how much of ourselves we put into sustaining them. Perhaps we all need a man with a chainsaw to come along and ruthlessly rid us of the dead weight. Perhaps, for all our romantic notions and our greenhouse-grown flowers, we are all crying out for a tougher kind of love.

My task begins when Yiannis jumps down from the tree and takes the chainsaw to the felled branches, separating the ends, the bonfire fodder, from the sturdier parts that we’ll keep for firewood. We already have the fire going at this stage, and it’s my job to feed it, pulling the gnarly branches away from the tangle and tossing them onto the flames. I’m slower than I could be, although I’ve gotten better with practice, because of my pyromania. I say that as a joke, between us, and Yiannis laughs when he’s in the mood for my jokes, but there is something in it: a compulsion, a draw, something that has me stopping and staring at the fire every time I feed it another armful of twigs. I cannot turn away, not easily.
    We couldn’t get the fire going that time, before Christmas. It happens: not all fires want to be lit. It was weird weather, uncooperative, undecided. The wind kept changing direction, then dying down completely before raising violent gusts that had us running away from flying embers, but did nothing to stoke the flames. And almond wood is notoriously hard to burn. We gave up, halfway, intending to return the next day, but we never did, until now. When we were greeted by the result of our neglect. Bits of tree everywhere, half buried in the giant nettles, and the pruning itself not quite finished.
    ‘Oh, fuck,’ said Yiannis. ‘Is this the state we left it in?’
    ‘Yep,’ I confirmed. ‘Apparently it is.’
    But the fire gods were on our side this time around. And soon, after some breath-stopping rearranging of burning wood on Yiannis’ part and scavenging of flammable materials on mine, we had a beautiful raging inferno, ready to consume all of our offerings. To reduce all of our troubles to ash.

They used to frighten me, these bonfires. The recklessness, the absolute insanity of starting a fire in a field, on a dry, windy island; the illusion of control. The infinite possibilities of losing an entire village to one false move, one gust, one flaming twig blown the wrong way. I’d never have the audacity to start one myself, even now, all these months and all these fires later. I always stand aside, respectfully, and let Yiannis do his magic. And even when it comes to stoking it, I take my cues from him, two steps back and clutching handfuls of straw, watching him and the fire for clues, waiting for a nod or a shake of the head, never approaching until he bids me forward. Respect where it is due, and knowing where your place is: neither is small or easy to learn. But my place has never been on the front line, and not all of us can be firestarters. I have a different role to play and once those flames get going, they are all mine.
    The illusion of control, coupled with the absolute knowing that it is only temporary, that it is only until the fire decides otherwise. The mesmeric proximity to a force so primal, so powerful that it can reduce your entire world to nothing on a whim. Respect that’s very close to fear, and the new-found courage to stand in front of a fire that’s almost twice your height, and throw half a tree onto it to make it grow taller. It used to frighten me, too, this process, this task that I knew I wasn’t equal to. Nothing in my former life had prepared me for this one. But I know what I’m doing now; I’ve worked out the jigsaw quality of this game, the mad game of flaming Tetris that we play. I know how to angle the branches and how much force I need to put behind my throws; I know how close I can get and when to stand back, when to wait and let the fire settle and how to watch for changes in the wind. All these months and all these fires later, and I can do it unsupervised, and Yiannis can keep his eyes on his chainsaw and only glance over occasionally to make sure I haven’t set myself alight. Because I, too, can be dangerous if left unattended, thoughts instead of flames consuming me to the point of destruction, reducing my entire world to nothing on a whim, subject to even the smallest changes in the wind. Or I can burn, bright and steady and beautiful, light and warmth for those who know how close to get and how to stoke me right.
    That’s what we all are, that’s all we are: fires. Forces of healing and of destruction, primal creatures that contain all the possibilities and all the dangers. And firestarters, too, pyromaniacs, and guardians of the flames, babysitting the fires that we set to light up our lives, not controlled and not in control despite the illusion that we live by, the tacit agreement that we will set each other alight but not be consumed. Mesmerised by the flames. Gentle in love and tougher in love and devastating, at times, when we need to be, to save our own lives. Unprepared and ill-equipped despite all of our gear, playing a game that we don’t quite understand, playing with fire, literally, and getting burned, sometimes, when we get too close, or letting the flames die down because we didn’t have the courage to approach: clumsy in our eagerness to find our place. That’s all we are, that’s all we’re doing: winging it. Babysitting fires that we set ourselves and hoping that someone, somewhere, is glancing over every now and again, to make sure we don’t go up in flames.

Christmas Eve, undecorated

It is the day before Christmas. And quite a few creatures are stirring, actually, though mostly outside of the house. Slow, black beetles and skittery spiders and bees buzzing around the rosemary bush and a bright green lizard disappearing between the stones in the wall. Boy Cat rolling around contentedly is his favourite deck chair, and the Black Cat That Coughs leaping through the grass, chasing a pale yellow butterfly that she will never catch. Flies zooming in through the open windows, and out again, back to the light. There is a lot of light.

Christmas Eve in Sifnos and the town is all astir, despite the warnings and the scenes of mass exodus at the port. This is not a town of ghosts. Everyone who’s still here is here, it seems, picking up last minute supplies for dinner, and their pensions, and presents from the two or three shops that are open, with stars and snowflakes drawn in glitter across their windows. A lady in the supermarket is looking for fresh mushrooms, which cannot be had; the butcher’s is busy, the meat cleaver falling loudly, crunching bones. Cars crawl down the road, blocking it frequently as they stop to exchange words with other cars, or motorbikes, or people on foot. Everyone is going somewhere, but slowly, their mellowness in contrast to the jagged, manic edges of every other Christmas Eve I’ve known. I wouldn’t know, but for the decorations.

There is no Christmas Village in the square, but the village knows it’s Christmas, and tinsel twinkles everywhere as it catches the sun, sending strange reflections across the whitewashed walls. A nativity scene, lifesize, has appeared in the yard of an unoccupied building, and classical music drifts out the café up the road. Golden baubles hang in windows and over doors, dangle from pergolas and awnings, and dance in the breeze. The village knows it’s Christmas, despite the brightness that causes everyone to raise their hands up and shade their eyes, and the warmth that has them all loosening their scarves and wiping their brows. On every step and every doorway there is someone lounging in the sun, with sleeves rolled up to expose their arms to the heat. I take off layer after layer and end up sitting on a high wall in my vest, with a bundle of clothes rolled up beside me, looking over the edge of the land towards Paros, where our bigger island neighbours are getting ready for Christmas, like we are, but with bigger roads and bigger shops. I feel like waving, but I don’t. I’m getting enough curious looks as it is, sitting here in a pink vest and leopard-print leggings, and staring at the sea.

On the way back a transition, through the outskirts of town where houses and shops give way to fields and orchards, past the gas station, quiet, with long flags hanging limp from long poles, and those funny little bundles that are curled up cats, on ledges and rooftops, following me with their eyes, and several dogs, chained and free, yelping excitedly when I get too close, and then onto the ring road, private, sloping upwards just for me. I walk in the middle, along the white dividing line, trusting in the absence of cars and half-blinded by the sun, until I reach the top and the mouth of the grassy path carved by the stream that will bring me home. There I stop, and listen, and look: Christmas Eve in Sifnos. Mountaintops and sky. Bells, intermittent, as the animals shuffle from one patch of grass to the next. Little birds twittering in the bushes, an eagle flying silently overhead. A flock of doves, mostly white, cooing as they alight, in perfect synchronicity, on a telephone wire. A cock crowing insistently on a distant farm over the hill. In the valley below, the echo of a dull, rhythmic tapping, manmade. Fields of the greenest green dotted with yellow and purple flowers. A secret garden of citrus trees that I’ve never noticed before, walled in amidst the olive groves. A single tree on a hilltop outlined against the milky blue horizon. A stone dove house on the edge of a cliff, semi-derelict, triangle openings and flapping wings. And everywhere around mountaintops and sky. So much sky, for such a small piece of land.

Christmas Eve, and now the church bells are ringing, summoning the faithful inside to sing the psalms of Christmas in yellow flickering candlelight, as the day grows dark outside. Boy Cat is still in his deck chair; he stirs as I pass him, and gives me a look that is almost trust. I turn the lights on, all of them; the house seems darker, somehow, at this time, just before sunset, than it does in the blackness of night. I will do some yoga now, and cook dinner, and wait for the church bells to ring again. I will not heed their call, but I will listen. They make a lovely sound.

Christmas Eve, undecorated. Of all the good decisions I’ve made or stumbled into, this is one of the best. Christmas Eve in Sifnos, with nothing much to distinguish it from any other day, and this is the one I’ll remember. Of all the Christmas Eves I’ve spent in decorated houses, houses much brighter than this, with presents and carols and tables laden with food, wearing the spiky garland of stress that we wrap around each other for the holidays, like fairy lights tangled up in the branches of the tree – this is the one. The only time I heard the church bells ringing; the only time that sound has reached my faithless ears, free from the noise of every other Christmas Eve I’ve known. I wouldn’t know, but for the silence. This is the one that means something to me.

It is the night before Christmas. And whatever it means to you, wherever you are, whether you’re where you want to be or somewhere else, make it a happy one. The church bells are ringing. You might not hear them through the noise, but they make a lovely sound. You wouldn’t know. But listen.


This is Day 101 from 100 days of solitude, written on December 24, 2014. Happy Christmas, everyone!

Christmas without Christmas

I have decided to defy local advice and spend Christmas here, alone. Despite being expressly warned against doing so. It was Vangelis who issued this warning when he last picked me up from the port.
    ‘I can see that you’ve got a good thing going,’ he praised me, ‘but don’t get any ideas about Christmas. That’s when it gets really hardcore. Everyone that you see here now? They’ll all be gone.’
    This is an island that relies, largely, on tourism, and the locals need to be around for Easter and the summer season. Christmas is the only holiday they can get away, and they do.
    ‘I know you,’ Vangelis added, making me smile. ‘You’re thinking about it. Don’t do it.’

But do it I will. I think all the praise has gone to my head and is making me reckless. Only last week, I was pronounced an authentic Sifniot, by a man who is a Sifnos tradition in himself: Marios, proprietor of the legendary general store “A Bit Of Everything”. The shop is closed for the winter, as the locals have little need for postcards of chisel-chested Greek lovers smirking seductively against a background of bright blue sky, but Vangelis lives in the back, and I saw him coming out of his door one morning, on my way to the square. I stopped to say hello.
    He did a double take. ‘You haven’t left?’ he said.
    I shook my head and stood before him, with my arms held out, to demonstrate my continued presence on the island.
    ‘Your family?’ he asked.
    ‘Long gone.’
    ‘But you have stayed. You’re an authentic Sifniot, you are.’
    High praise indeed. And that’s not all, because, two weeks ago, I can now reveal, I was admitted to the royal court of Sifnos by peeing on the beach. There was no ceremony, on account of the fact that there was nobody around to witness this act, which is also the reason I was able to perform it. I had walked six kilometres to the port, and had enjoyed three cups of coffee in quick succession before leaving the house. My bladder dictated the rest. I found a bush and I crouched, and I became Sifnos royalty. Not Queen: you don’t get the crown for squatting behind a bush. But a lady-in-waiting, at the very least. Despite my most unladylike behaviour.

It’s true that the island empties out over the Christmas holidays. Polyna confirmed it. She was telling me about a soup kitchen she and some friends will run for two weeks from mid-December, to provide meals for those in need. They started it last year and sixty people turned up daily; this year, they expect closer to a hundred.
    ‘But if there are that many people that need help, wouldn’t it make more sense to do it once a week throughout the year, instead of two weeks running over Christmas?’ I asked.
    ‘You’d think,’ said Polyna, ‘but the neighbours help them out during the year. The neighbourhood takes care of them. But they all go away for the holidays, and these people have nothing to eat.’
    A sad fact, but also a happy one: for fifty weeks out of the year, there is such a thing as a neighbourhood here.
    My neighbourhood is empty already, so I don’t think I’ll notice much of a difference. I’m pretty sure Mrs Souli won’t be going skiing for her holidays, and neither will Vangelia. All the shops will be closed for a couple of days, so I’ll have to get my supplies and cigarettes in advance, but I think that’s it: my Christmas, planned.

I think I like the idea of the 25th of December being just another day. ‘It might be liberating,’ Eileen said when I told her; I think it will. It’ll be like an extra day in the year, a day added to my calendar, almost brand new: Christmas without Christmas, a day I’ve never had before. I don’t like Christmas. In my experience, it’s been a day of have to, of dry turkey and presents that no one really wants. I love my family, but I can eat with them on any other day, and, besides, I have no presents to bring. I was thinking of going down to Kamares and picking sage from the side of the road: there’s a long stretch just as the sea comes into view where it grows wild and in abundance. I could hang it up to dry, and make bouquets and tie them up with ribbon; I think they’d make nice gifts. But I can give them later, it doesn’t have to be Christmas. They’ll keep.
    I think I’d like to go into town on Christmas day, when everyone, those few who haven’t left, will be at home eating dinner with their families. To see Sifnos all decked out and twinkling for Christmas, with not a soul on the streets: that’s an image I’d like to have in my head. An image to come back to when I need something rare and unusual to counteract the hectic tedium of ordinary life.
     I don’t like Christmas, but freed of the have to we might become reconciled. I might look at the decorations that are already appearing outside the houses, strange and colourful against the white, and see effort and beauty. I might look at the twinkling lights and just see twinkling lights. If I stripped it of its meaning, it might come to mean something else. Maybe I’ll come to like it, the 25th of December, reimagined. Maybe I’ll even take some sage bouquets over to Mrs Souli and Vangelia, or bake some cookies in the shape of stars. Maybe I’ll go up to Artemonas, to the annual Christmas Village, and wander around and look at ornaments and trinkets and smile, and wish people a happy Christmas.
    It doesn’t have to be Christmas. I can get together with my family and friends on any day, and eat, and give out sage instead of presents. But I think I’d like to reclaim this day, the 25th of December, just this once, stripped of its meaning so that it means something to me, at last. Even if it’s just a day when I had nothing much to do, and had to do nothing: that’s better than turkey and presents. That’s liberating. Against local advice, I’d like to give it a try.


This was Day 83 of 100 days of solitude, written in December 2014. It is now December 22, 2017, and I’m about to spend my third Christmas in Sifnos. No one is advising me to leave, and I have no plans for Christmas day, thank you very much. Happy Christmas peeps!

That’s how long

I ran into Yiannis in town this afternoon, and he said the most astonishing word to me. The word was: snow.
    Another word that has come up is loneliness. Yiannis said it, and so did my dad, and these are both people who, more than many others, understand what I’m doing here. Yiannis doesn’t know me that well, but he knows what brings someone to this life; he is a man who chose Sifnos over the city. My dad is a poet, and the words in his head need space, just like mine. If you gave him a desk in a room in a quiet place somewhere, he’d sit down and start writing. I don’t think he’d ask any questions. But both these men said loneliness and I listened, this time.

I’m not anti-social. I’m just not overly social, and there’s a big difference, which I’ve learnt in the last few months. Solitude and isolation have taught me how to enjoy other people’s company in a way I never had before. I have not become socially inept, so used to my own company that I’ve forgotten how to relate to others, nor have I gone the other way and become desperate for those rare instances of social contact. There have been days, not few, when I’ve not spoken to another person at all, and I’ve not even noticed. But when I spend my time in the company of others, I’m actually there, fully present, ready to offer what I have and open to receiving what they want to give. I am available. I’m not in my head, I’m not chasing thoughts and trying to catch up with myself. A little bit of loneliness is the space to do that in my own time, and leaves me with time to spare, to give to others, to catch up with them.
     These are my social interactions over the past week: Last Friday, I spent an hour with Margarita and her sister Evi, chatting and drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, while Margarita cut my hair. They gave me advice tailored to the holiday season, and I told them tales of my solitude to make them laugh. Yesterday, when I was in Kamares, I stopped by to see Martha in her shop; I met her once before, in the summer, when I went in to buy something, but she got in touch when she read my blog. I only stayed for twenty minutes because I had a bus to catch. Next time, we agreed, I’d come for coffee; she told me she could drive me home. Today, I talked with Yiannis for a few minutes as we walked through town, and with a neighbour who was hanging up her washing on the line. I have smiled at many people, and they’ve all smiled back. I’ve said hello to everyone I’ve met.

I think what makes us become anti-social is the constant demand to engage with other people, to give something of ourselves even when we’ve nothing left to give. There have been times, in the past, when I’ve felt so depleted that I couldn’t handle even one word exchanged. When I’ve chosen a shop further away, where nobody knew me, so I wouldn’t even have to make eye contact. There have been times when I’ve walked the streets with my head bent down and a shield raised around me, a cloak of hostility, a force field to protect myself. Don’t speak to me. Don’t look at me. Don’t touch me. And people always do: they speak, they look, they touch. It’s this constant exposure that makes us shrink away. A little bit of loneliness is the space to take the shield down, take stock and replenish your reserves. There have been times, too many, when I didn’t have that space.
    Now, when I walk down the street and hear another person coming, I look up and meet their eyes and say hello as our paths cross. I have smiles and hellos to give, and I replenish them daily. I have the time to do that, now. And I walk away from these exchanges with a feeling of satisfaction and reciprocity. I walk away feeling whole, like a person interacting with another person, both giving something, both receiving, but nothing being taken away.

Yiannis said loneliness before he said snow. I ran into him by the square and we walked together for a while. He asked how I was doing, and I told him how easy it’s been.
    ‘I told you you’d make it to Christmas,’ he said. ‘No problem. It’s afterwards that it gets tough.’
    Everyone says that. Nikoletta called January and February “the bad winter”, as opposed to December, which has been good.
    ‘So what if I stay?’ I asked. ‘What’s gonna happen to me then?’
    Yiannis laughed. ‘Nothing will happen to you. It’s just the loneliness. Whether you can take it.’
    ‘I can take it. I have so far.’
    ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘but how long for?’
    And I thought about it, and I told him what I tell myself, that it’s a choice. That’s it’s temporary, and I can make it stop at any time. It’s easy because I’m choosing it, and there’s solitude left in me yet, so I’ll carry on choosing it until it runs out. That’s how long. Yiannis nodded, as if he understood.
    ‘I’m not going to Athens for Christmas,’ I added, to back this up perhaps.
    ‘Good plan,’ he said. ‘The city is a shock. You have to wait to cross the road, and you keep saying hello to people on the street, and they all think you’re crazy.’
    ‘I know! I did that, last time I was there!’
    We both laughed, united in our crazy island ways.
    He stopped outside the doorway to his shop when we reached it. His wife was inside; she gave me a nod and a smile.
    ‘It’s only until mid-March,’ Yiannis said, in parting, ‘and then you’ll see a whole new kind of beauty, if you stick around. And,’ he added, ‘we might get snow in February.’ He grinned, knowing this was a carrot he was dangling.
    ‘Snow? In Sifnos?’
    ‘Snow,’ he confirmed. ‘In Sifnos. It happens sometimes.’
    Nevermind the bad winter; I want to be astonished. I choose the snow. I can take the loneliness for that long.

My dad hesitated before saying it. I was telling him about my sage picking expedition, my walk down to the port. Sitting on the beach and watching the waves roll in, before heading back home.
    ‘It’s a nice life,’ I said, conscious of how he’d spent his day, behind a large desk stacked high with papers, and phones ringing constantly, and people coming in, with more papers to look at or sign.
    ‘It’s a very nice life,’ he agreed, ‘but.’
    ‘But what?’
    ‘But lonely.’
    ‘I suppose,’ I said, resisting the instinct to be defensive. And then I listed the people I’d spent some time with in the last few days, to soothe his worry, and mine. Few people and little time, but all of it good. And I knew, as I told him, that neither of us have anything to worry about. This is a choice I’m making, and it’s making me more social, not less. Loneliness isn’t the price. It’s the space to see other people for what they are, the space to invite them in.

Hell is other people but, also, other people are the reward. But you have to be open to receive it, you have to be available, and you can’t do that when your shield is up and you’re wearing your cloak. This life of mine, this solitude, is temporary, but the space I’ve claimed can last for as long as I choose it, and I can carry on choosing it wherever I am. I don’t know how to do this in the city; I suppose I’ll have to learn. I’ll have to learn how to be solitary in a crowd, just like I learned how to be social in isolation. I’ll have to learn how to stay open when the crowd closes in around me, and keep a little loneliness aside for when I need it, for myself. And remember these crazy island ways, and the life I had here, for a while, and the astonishing things that sometimes happen, and keep choosing them for as long as I can. And maybe, sometimes, smile at people on the street, even if they don’t smile back.


This is Day 97 of 100 days of solitude, written on December 19, 2014. I’m still here, and I have seen snow in Sifnos twice.

Moving mountains

It’s been a rough couple of days. I found myself in crisis with a person that means a lot to me, a crisis mostly of my own making, and I couldn’t see my way out of it. It began with a misunderstanding, a small thing that we’d both brush over and laugh about later on any other day – but on this particular day, something about the situation triggered all of my fears, all of my insecurities, all of the worst, most desperate, most terrified parts of me, and I lost it. I completely fucking lost it. I lost my grip on reality, on everything I know about myself, about this person opposite me, about the way we relate to each other and live our lives. I took a load of crap from the past, whole armfuls of crap that was borne of other situations where those fears were valid and justified, and threw it all at his feet, and then pleaded with him to clean it up. And when he wouldn’t, because he couldn’t, because that crap did not belong to him, I panicked. And panicked people do not make good decisions. I made one bad move after the other, and dug myself deeper and deeper into a dark, airless hole, and I couldn’t breathe. “You’re drowning in fear,” my sister said; I was. And I was waiting for someone else to pull me out.

It wasn’t all my fault: he was abrupt when I was oversensitive. Whatever; shit happens. The trouble begins when we can’t see our shit for what it is, when we see it through a lens of all the other shit we’ve collected over the years, all the other shit we carry and insist on bringing along where it doesn’t belong. When we throw it at another person’s feet and expect him to take it away. He won’t; no one will. It’s not their job, it’s not their place. Even if their place is beside you, even if that’s where they want to be, they can’t take your shit away, and it’s unfair to ask. Imported fears don’t translate into excuses; they may explain, but they do not justify. There is no justification for the way I acted: it was unfair and it was untrusting. And I may have broken something; I may have broken a thing that’s very precious to me. I hope not; I hope it’s sturdy enough to take this beating and survive, and morph into something better as a result. But I don’t know.

I had firewood to deal with this morning. Whole mountains of firewood that we’d cut off three massive almond trees in the field adjacent to mine, and then sawed into bits small enough to fit into my stove. Whole mountains that I had to move, bit by bit, piece by piece, across the field, over two walls, and into my garden, where it will eventually be stacked. The final leg of the journey – my task this morning – involved dismantling the mountains and flinging the wood, bit by bit and piece by piece, over the dividing wall and into the back end of my garden. I started with limbs as heavy as my heart and nerves shattered to fuck, what with all the drowning and fighting for breath, and trying to convince myself of the curative properties of physical labour. Which certainly provides a reprieve from that terrible, sticky idleness of fear, but does nothing to stop the chatter in my head. So I flung and I thought, and I flung and I analysed, and I flung and I regretted, and I flung and I ran through a thousand worst-case scenarios, and it wasn’t easy work, what with all the roaring waves of fear that kept crashing into me. And still the mountains appeared undiminished.

I don’t know how I came up with the idea, but the idea that saved me from drowning was this: each piece of wood became one of my fears, one of my insecurities, one of those desperate, terrified parts of me that make me lose my shit with people I love. With each piece that I picked up I spoke of a fear, and then I threw it away, as far away as possible, over the wall and into the distance. With each fear that I threw, another one came, and another, and another, and I spoke each one and I threw and I cried, partly with relief, and partly because, fuck: I’m scared of so many things. So many. But eventually I ran out: of steam, of mountains, of fears. I wiped my eyes with my sleeve and steadied myself against the wall; my back hurt and my arms ached, but the mountains had been moved to my garden, and all my fears had been spoken and tossed away, as far away as I could reach.

This piece is not intended as literature, nor as testimony for the curative properties of physical labour. Only, perhaps, as a breath of air instead of fear, a glimpse of the most reassuring, most frightening possibility: that we all have it in us to pull ourselves out, bit by bit and piece by piece, one desperate, terrified part at a time, and to survive. And that we can move mountains if we need to, if we must. And when it comes to throwing stuff: logs are better than shit. No contest.

The time has changed

The clocks went back this morning. The autumn equinox has been and gone, and Halloween marks our advent into darkness. In Sifnos, the ban on bonfires will be lifted from November first, and soon the fields will come alive with flame as we all burn away the remnants of the season just gone, dry grasses and cuttings and the husks of summer plants, to make space for winter. Smoke signals and scorch marks calling a new season forth. We are ready; we have been ready for a while.

Last night, finally, it rained. The wind died down and there’s a stillness in the earth-scented air. The plants look greener already, the soil darker. It’s quiet, too quiet, except for the church bells announcing that it’s Sunday. The once-a-week faithful are inside, where the candles burn bright; they will emerge, later, half-drunk on incense and the repetitive chanting of the priest. They will linger in the churchyards, where the rain has formed small puddles on the uneven flagstones, and they will talk about the rain, how it finally came and how it’s not enough, not nearly enough for the thirsty olives. There will be headshaking and then, in time, goodbyes, as they all make their way back home.

In Greek they don’t talk about clocks going back, they say the time has changed. As if the shift is real, a slip into another time, rather than just a collective decision to call four o’clock three, and a few taps on a keyboard to inform the digital clocks of the world of this event. Those who still have mechanical clocks and watches will have to perform this action manually, of sending the hour hand back to the previous number, of consciously giving themselves an extra hour in this day. Except not, not really, not consciously: the action is as mechanical as the device. They will not think of what they’ve gained as they wind that hand back, just like none of us think of what we’re given, every day, when there are twenty-four hours ahead and every chance to make them count.

We have lost our sense of time; we have lost the sense of why it matters. We use it to make appointments, to erect the boundaries of our freedom, the can and cannots that make up the structure of our days. We invented it, and built it into the wrong kind of god to worship and obey. We created a relentless god, and we worship resentfully within the hallowed margins that we set to make sense of our lives, but we have forgotten why it matters. We have forgotten that it isn’t cogs turning and digital numbers changing that make this world tick, just like we’ve forgotten that our other gods don’t live in the churches we built for them or in the chanting of their priests. But the world has no need for clocks; it keeps its own time. The kind of time that makes an hour last forever when you’re waiting, the kind of time that causes three months to hurtle past in a flash. When you hear a song on the radio, and all of a sudden you’re in a basement nightclub with your friend in 1998, sweating beer and squinting at boys through the smoke, and you say “But it feels like yesterday” just as it hits you it was a lifetime ago. When you realise that there is no such promise as tomorrow.

We created an indifferent, unforgiving god, and there is no redemption. We serve it joylessly, with contradictions. We lament its passage while wishing it away; we mourn for lost time when we’re the ones who waste it. We say life is short and live as if we have all the time in the world. But the world keeps its own time: the clock of the world is light, I think, and the seasons. Two more things we have forsaken, along with our sense, in the ever-lit cities we have built to contain us, where we live to serve our man-made gods, for rewards that never amount to redemption. But there are places, still, where light asserts itself over our schedules, where the seasons impose unequivocal can and cannots that blow through our structures. There are places, still, where the old gods rule, unfazed by our clocks and our wires and the plans we like to make. Where promises are renewed with every dawn and redeemed at sunset, every night. Where time is still a loop, the rotation of our world around the sun. No matter if we call it Tuesday or five o’clock or June, it is the light and the season and our position in the sky that have the final say.

A week has passed and it’s November fifth. Bonfire night in England and fireworks going off, uselessly, in the sky, while in Sifnos we toss the summer into the flames to call the winter forth. Fires burn all over the island, thick smoke signalling the end of one thing and the transition into the next, the changing of seasons, the passage of time. Old time, timeless time, the time of the old gods, that still rule here: Sifnos is one of those places. We check our phones for the time and the date, but it’s the weather and the light that dictate when we set things on fire. When we spread our nets to collect the olives and press them into oil. When we prune the trees. When we turn the soil over to give it room to breathe. When we sow and when we reap. What promises we can make, and keep.

I am guilty, too, of wishing time away. I spent the summer longing for winter, for shorter, darker days, for deeper nights, for the quiet and the emptiness. Summer disrupts our time on the island; in places like this, visitors bring along their own schedules, their own agendas, packed tight in their suitcases next to bikinis and sarongs and inappropriate shoes. They drag along their city gods and set them up to rule, and we all pander to their whims as they tap their watches impatiently and demand relaxation, right now. But this seasonal imposition is just another thing the seasons impose, in places like this. The old gods aren’t flustered, like we are: they know about time, and the ways that it matters. And all of a sudden three months have gone by, and my plan of walking down to Kamares for coffee is answered with an unequivocal cannot by the light.
     ‘I was gonna come down and see you,’ I said to Katerina, ‘but the sun sets at 5:24 and I have run out of time. What happened?’
     ‘It’s winter,’ she responded. ‘Isn’t that what you wanted?’
     And I had to concede that yes, it was, but I’d forgotten, perhaps, what it means. All of what it means. That as our world turns towards the deeper nights that I asked for, those spectacular sunsets that set our sky on fire come earlier each day, and between my lit-up home and Katerina’s steaming coffee machine lies an hour of darkness that I cannot cross. That the quiet and the emptiness come at a price, and the old gods always collect. But I was wrong when I said I’d run out of time. The time has changed, that’s all. And as my eyes adjust to the light, as my mind adjusts to the darkness and what it actually means, I am grateful: for change and transition and the passing of seasons and the turning of the world; for the chance to experience them, here. For real necessity and real rewards; for reaping exactly what you sow. Packed tight, as we are, in our ever-lit cities that give us twenty-four hour days and never enough time for our schedules to be fulfilled, we miss out on that: the changing of time, the changing of seasons, and of all what it means. The indifferent gods we serve wipe out the sunsets and the dawns and the space for living in between; they reduce the difference between one season and the next to nothing more than wardrobe choices. There is nowhere we can’t go and nothing we can’t have, and there is no redemption. The time changes but we do not; we simply put our clocks back, or forward, and rush off to our next appointment.

I have been guilty, but I’m changing. I say to Yiannis: ‘Do you remember when it was August and we were counting days until winter? Doesn’t it feel like yesterday?’ But it’s November, and we are finally allowed to burn things, and those endless days of summer are cast into the flames, along with weeds and gnarly branches and rotten bits of wood and mouldy mattresses and any old junk that’s been taking up space in our fields and our homes and our minds. I feed the fire and watch it grow and rage, roaring and crackling and spitting out sparkles in all directions; I take a step back every time and watch it, before picking up the next branch, the next armful of weeds. Yiannis tells me off when I stand too close, but then he often stops and joins me in staring. There is a primitive joy in this that I’ve never experienced before; there is a peace that you wouldn’t ascribe to the violence of fire, these relentless, all-consuming flames.
     ‘It’s cathartic,’ I say, and at first he shrugs, a question, because he’s done this a thousand times before, and I am speaking from a City Girl perspective, fascinated by the things he takes for granted. But then he nods.
     ‘Cleansing,’ he adds, and we both lose ourselves in the flames for a while, and imagine how neat this field will look when we’re finished, how much space there will be for everything that’s new.
     I don’t mention the gods, how this is our offering to them, our sacrifice, perhaps, to redeem ourselves for having stolen fire from them all those years ago, as Greek mythology has it. Our way to acknowledge that, despite our technologies and our progress, the new gods we’ve created to make sense of our lives, it is still the old gods that rule. A practical ritual made all the more meaningful for being practical as well as symbolic. Not like the useless fireworks in the sky, not like when we cross ourselves, unconsciously, in response to another hallelujah. There is more divinity in this smoke that stings our eyes when the wind changes direction than the sweet-smelling incense of our priests; there is more communion here, as we work side by side, wordlessly, than in the hallowed structures we’ve built to contain our faith. Fires burn all over the island, and we call to each other through the smoke; we will all go home with ash in our hair and soot on our clothes and in that, today, we are united.

There is no such promise as tomorrow, but it comes; most of the time, it comes. And you notice it, here, how that promise is renewed with every dawn, how our toil, our faith is redeemed with every heart-breaking sunset. And in between, not hours ticking on the clock, but hours of light and hours of dark, and what you do with them, with all that space for living. For sowing and for reaping. For remembering what matters, and why. For changing, with time. Because all of a sudden it will be years from now and today will feel like yesterday, but it’ll be a lifetime ago, and you’ll have had your last tomorrow.


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Love, what a bastard you are.

Love, what a bastard you are. When you come and when you go. What a bastard, when you linger. When you turn up uninvited, fucking gatecrasher, and make yourself at home with your feet up on the sofa and it’s like you were always there, but you’re just as likely to leave as you are to stay and there’s no telling which. When you loiter, fucking hooligan: kicking us over like rubbish bins so all our things spill out, when you set us on fire and watch us burn. When you scrape us from the inside, when you scrape us raw, when you scrape us clean of reason; not new but worse than new, not naïve but worse because we have known better, because we’ve known this before, but then you scrape us clean of knowing and there is only love. Fucking bomber planes in the sky, fucking minefields: explosions. Running wildly, in all directions, but not away – towards. Easy targets, lonely, frightened people, with our hopes despite, with our dreams regardless, with our romantic notions intact and our defences shattered. Scattered, all of our never agains and our better off alones, every I don’t need you and I’m not looking for anything, actually we’ve ever uttered; BOOM, lonely, frightened fools, fooling ourselves we can live without love. Running away as if there’s anywhere else to go. Fucking twister hurricane, spinning us round so we don’t know where or what or why but only who, this one person all of a sudden, and how the tides might turn, oh how they turn, when you think you’re standing on dry land and now you’re drowning. Fucking earthquake, and that deep rumble that means that the world is rearranging itself, that terrible screech as metal snaps and stone crumbles and everything collapses, defenceless, the wafer-thin structures that we cower within: I can live without you. Fucking asteroid, granting no wishes except your own, crashing into our lives and gouging holes into the nice, neat path that we’ve chiselled for ourselves so we can walk in a straight line and not stumble. The ancients were right: the sky does fall down on you sometimes, and the earth is flat, without love.

Fucking wonderful, fucking terrifying, to meet a soul that’s made like yours. When you hear them click, those two separate souls, above the noise, above the rumble. What a bastard you are, for granting us this without guarantees, what a bastard for putting us through this ordeal without promises. Fucking gypsy, preying on our hopes despite, our dreams regardless, tracing the lines in our palms and hinting at destiny, pulling the stars down from the sky and putting them in our hands and asking nothing in return except faith, all of our faith in impossible, wonderful, terrifying things like meeting a soul that’s made like yours. What a bastard.

Αν τ’ ακουμπήσεις λίγο κάτω, όλα αυτά που κουβαλάς

Μου ‘πε ο Γιάννης να γράψω μια ιστορία για τα ξύλα, κι εγώ είπα ίσως, ποτέ δεν ξέρεις, και γελούσα – μα ίσως να μπορώ, τελικά. Για τα ξύλα που τ’ ανεβάζω απ’ το ποτάμι, ανηφόρα και χώμα και δυο φορές σκαλιά – μία ώσπου να βγω απ’ το ποτάμι στον περιφερειακό κι άλλη μία από κει και πάνω ως το σπίτι – και τα ντανιάζω, όμορφα, πλάι στην αμυγδαλιά. Που πριν απ΄αυτό τα ψάχνω και τα ξεδιαλέγω, εδώ τα μικρά, εδώ τα πιο μεγάλα, εκεί κάτι κούτσουρα που με δυσκολία τα σηκώνω, αυτά για προσάναμμα κι εκείνα για ζέστη, και τα μαζεύω σε διάφορα σημεία, στρατηγικά, για να τα ξαναβρώ μετά, στην επόμενη βόλτα. Τα ξύλα που τα παίρνω τα μικρά στην τσάντα και τα μεγάλα αγκαλιά κι ανηφορίζω πάλι για το σπίτι, ιδρώνοντας και με κομμένη αναπνοή, κι ας μη φαίνεται τόσο μακριά. Έχει ύψος και κλίση και τα σκαλιά, ανομοιόμορφα, δε βοηθάνε κι εγώ πάντα κουβαλάω παραπάνω απ’ ότι μπορώ. Πάντα λίγο παραπάνω απ’ ότι μπορώ.

Μπορώ να γράψω για τα ξύλα πως με κουράζουν, αλλά μ’ αρέσει να τα μαζεύω. Μ’ αρέσει να πηγαίνω και να ‘ρχομαι, φορτωμένη. Να κουβαλάω πράγματα χρήσιμα, που θα με ζεστάνουν το χειμώνα. Μ’ αρέσει να κουβαλάω τα ξύλα, αντί για τις σκέψεις που κουβαλάω συνήθως, που δεν τους φαίνεται αλλά είναι πιο βαριές. Μ’ αρέσει, παρ’ ότι πονάει το σώμα μου παντού κι είμαι γεμάτη γρατζουνιές στα μπράτσα. Μ’ αρέσει που το σώμα μου μαθαίνει σιγά-σιγά στο κουβάλημα και τα πόδια μου πού να πατάνε στο μονοπάτι για να μην πέσω. Μ’ αρέσει να ψάχνω μες τα χόρτα για ξύλα, ν’ ανακαλύπτω κρυμμένους θησαυρούς που ‘χουν κυλήσει μέσα σε θάμνους ή σε γωνίες ή κάτω από σύρματα. Μ’ αρέσει που έχω αρχίσει να ξεχωρίζω ποια είναι ελαφριά και ποια είναι βαριά και ποια είναι κούφια, και πως όλα κάνουνε, όλα έχουν τη χρήση τους. Μ’ αρέσει η διαδικασία, και η ανάγκη της, πως πρέπει να την κάνω γιατί αλλιώς δε θα ‘χω ξύλα να κάψω για να ζεσταθώ. Μ’ αρέσει που πρέπει, γιατί το πρέπει αυτό είναι απλό και πρακτικό, όχι σαν τ’ άλλα που ‘ξερα παλιά. Στην άλλη μου ζωή.

Ήμουν τουρίστας στη ζωή μου εδώ μέχρι πριν λίγο. Ήμουν εδώ αλλά δεν ήμουν γιατί κρατιόμουν από αλλού. Γιατί έλεγα πως είμαι εδώ μα ζούσα, λέει, στο Λονδίνο. Εκεί που όλα μπορείς να τ’αγοράσεις μα δε σου μένει τίποτα. Εκεί που όταν αρχίζουν τα κρύα, την πρώτη στιγμή που κρυώνουν τα πόδια σου στο σπίτι, πατάς ένα κουμπί κι ανάβει η θέρμανση κι έρχεται μετά ο λογαριασμός. Και μετά πληρώνεις. Κι εδώ δεν είχα καν θέρμανση. Είχα κάτι καλοριφέρ του κώλου και τα ‘βαζα στην πρίζα και κρύωνα όλο το χειμώνα, αλλά δεν πείραζε γιατί ήμουνα τουρίστας. Ήμουν τουρίστας μέχρι πρόσφατα κι ίσως την περσινή χρονιά να μάζευα θάρρος αντί για ξύλα. Να μάζευα λόγους να ‘μαι εδώ, να μάζευα τρόπους για να μείνω. Μαθήματα. Κουράγιο. Το πλήρωσα, πάντως, κι αυτό μετά. Μετά πάντα πληρώνεις. Αλλά εγώ ότι είχα να δώσω το ‘δωσα, δεν έχω πια. Δυο-τρία πράγματα που έμαθα και λίγο θάρρος: αυτά. Κι όλους τους λόγους για να μείνω. Και να μαζεύω ξύλα, γιατί δεν είμαι πια τουρίστας και θέλω τα πόδια μου να ‘ναι ζεστά μέσα στο σπίτι.

Στην άλλη μου ζωή έπρεπε πολλά και κουβαλούσα άλλα τόσα. Και τα πλήρωνα. Κι αν μου λεγαν τότε πως θα μάζευα ξύλα για να ζεσταθώ και πως θα μ’ άρεσε, θα γελούσα. Αλλά ποτέ δεν ξέρεις. Κι αν τ’ ακουμπήσεις λίγο κάτω, όλα αυτά που κουβαλάς, κι αφήσεις χώρο για τα άλλα, ίσως ν’ αρχίσεις να μαθαίνεις. Πόσα μπορείς και δε μπορείς. Πόσα δεν ξέρεις. Πόσα αντέχεις.

Μ’ αρέσει, που εδώ προετοιμαζόμαστε για τα επόμενα. Μ’ αρέσει που δεν είναι όλα εύκολα, που πρέπει λίγο να τα σκεφτείς. Που δεν πατάς απλά ένα κουμπί κι όλα λύνονται. Όλα λύνονται, αλλά κάπως αλλιώς. Μ’ αρέσει που δεν ξέρω τίποτα και τα μαθαίνω, που έχω ανθρώπους δίπλα μου που θέλουν να μου τα μάθουν. Μ’ αρέσει που μαθαίνω πως δε γίνεται πάντα μόνη μου, δε χρειάζεται, κι ας κουβαλάω ακόμα πιο πολλά απ’ ότι αντέχω. Κάποια στιγμή θα μάθω ή ν’ αντέχω πιο πολλά ή να αφήνω κάτω αυτά που δε μπορώ να κουβαλήσω. Ίσως ακόμα και ν’ αφήνω κάποιον άλλον να σηκώνει αυτά που δε μπορώ. Και μ’ αρέσει που όταν πάω για ξύλα ακουμπώ τις σκέψεις μου στο σπίτι, για να ‘μαι λίγο πιο ελαφριά στο δρόμο μου, για να ‘χω χώρο στην αγκαλιά μου για όλα αυτά που θέλω να μπουν.

Δεν έχει άλλη ζωή: αυτή είναι. Κι είναι μικρή, κι ας φαίνεται μεγάλη. Δεν είναι για να κουβαλάς βαριά και άχρηστα και να ξοδεύεσαι, να σπαταλάς την αγκαλιά σου. Γι’ αυτό, απ’ όλα αυτά που κουβαλούσα κάποτε, κρατάω εκείνο το ποτέ δεν ξέρεις, και πάω για ξύλα. Να ανεβαίνω απ’ το ποτάμι φορτωμένη και να τ’ αφήνω όμορφα πλάι στην αμυγδαλιά. Να χτίζω βουνά από ξύλα. Αυτά, από τα πρέπει. Κι έπειτα: λίγο θάρρος, κι ανθρώπους δίπλα μου που θέλουν να με μάθουν, και να ‘χω ζέστη μες το σπίτι το χειμώνα. Αυτά που δεν τα πληρώνεις γιατί δε μπορείς να τ’ αγοράσεις – δε χρειάζομαι άλλους λόγους.


Apologies, once again, to the non Greek speakers among you. This piece is sort of about no longer being a tourist in my own life, and in this life they speak Greek; I need to adapt. But I will try to write an English version in the next few days.