How Valentino Rossi saved a life

There is a man called Valentino Rossi, and he’s the reason my friend is alive.

Valentino Rossi is a Moto GP rider. You probably knew that already, but I didn’t. Not until very recently. I didn’t even know these guys were called riders rather than drivers; I had to look it up on Google. I barely know what the Moto GP is, except that it involves a bunch of crazy people whizzing around on motorbikes, mostly sideways, at speeds that I cannot begin to comprehend, and the rate at which they fly off their bikes or spin off course or go up in flames makes me wonder how any of them are still alive. But they are, and so is my friend.
     This Rossi is good, that much I do know. He is fearless on that bike, and determined; his critics call him an old man, and that makes me feel a vague affinity to him as we are roughly the same age and neither of us is done yet. And the old man regularly leaves his younger competitors behind. If it were me, I’d be tempted to stick two fingers up to the lot of them with every race I won or even completed, but Rossi doesn’t strike me as either arrogant or smug. He’s just a man doing what he does, and he does it well. And he does it regardless of everything: this is the man who suffered a double leg break recently, fracturing the tibia and fibula of his right leg in training. “I’m very sorry for the incident,” he said. “Now I want to be back on my bike as soon as possible.” And he was; within a few weeks he was. Back where he clearly belongs.

I am a writer, and my mind processes everything as stories. This is a story I like: this Valentino Rossi, always smiling, chasing a dream that he can never quite catch up with, because every time he reaches the finish line it moves to the next competition, the next Grand Prix; defying both time and death riding a motorbike sideways, and saving lives. I’m tempted to look up more information about him, to learn about his background, where he started from and how. How he got his first bike, how many times his dream went up in flames or spun off course, what obstacles he had to overcome to get to where he is. But I kind of like my version of him, the picture I’ve formed in my head, put together from half a dozen interviews and a handful of photos, and the way my friend talks about him. I like the way he feels to me, strangely familiar and unfalteringly positive, with that open face of his, and his laughter lines, and a glint in his eyes that tells of the kind of sense of humour I like: the ability to laugh at himself. I can imagine hanging out with Rossi, Vale, as the guys at his fanclub referred to him (I wrote to them; I sent them some half-deranged effort at fanmail-once-removed, and they were nice enough to answer), and feeling very much at ease. Though I have no personal desire to do so; I’m sure meeting him would be lovely, but I wouldn’t go to any distance to make it happen for myself. He is a hero to many, thousands who stand on the sidelines with their faces painted, screaming his name and urging him on, and I am only a fan once-removed. But I owe him a debt much bigger than the collective love and loyalty these people give him every day, because he probably saved my friend’s life.
     Probably. Symbolically for sure, though literally the life saving was more down to the surgeon who fixed his heart. Seven hours in surgery without general anaesthetic, because my friend (let’s call him Tom) refused to have the surgery he would most certainly die without if they put him under. He’d had an earlier brush with death, a motorbike accident that almost shattered him completely; he survived the crash, barely, and the helicopter ride to the hospital in Athens, only to nearly lose to his life to sleep, as the doctors worked on fixing his bones. The drug had refused to release its grip on him, and Tom refused the drug, this time around. Seven hours of heart surgery, fighting to stay conscious, fighting the urge to succumb to shock, and to the sweet release of giving up. And the surgeon, another hero in this story, holding onto him as tightly as he could, keeping him tethered to a life that kept trying to get away from him, a life not yet lived, by talking about motor racing and Valentino Rossi. Can you imagine? I can, and I can’t. Tom tells this story easily, because it belongs to him and he survived it, but I find it hard to listen. With every telling, with every devastating detail he supplies, as he sits next to me with eyes sparkling and a flush to his cheeks and limbs dancing and blood pumping rhythmically through his veins, thanks to a heart that was fixed, more alive than anyone I’ve ever known, all I can hear is how close he came to not being here at all. How frightened he must have been.
    Can you imagine? Twenty-seven years old, and definitely not done yet, probably not even started, lying pale and flat and still on a surgical bed when he should have been out and upright and flitting around like he always does, being reckless and wild and rebellious and fucking carefree, and a stranger to these bleeping machines for many, many years to come; fighting to keep his grip upon a life that had barely started, only because he was born with a heart that was the wrong shape for beating. Retroactively, it makes my own, healthy heart miss a beat. I’m crying as I write this, and if he knew he’d tell me off, and he’d be right, because he survived and his heart is beating. He’d be right, but it makes me wonder why it had to be so hard; why he’s had to try so hard to survive, when the rest of us, most of us, just muddle along. He’s had to be so strong, so tough; he’s had to harden himself up in many ways, and come to terms with how fleeting life is, how loose our grip on it, too many times, too soon. When he should have been fucking carefree.
     I don’t even know if he believes in something, in anything more lasting than each day he wakes up in this world; I don’t know if he believes in miracles, though it’s a miracle that he’s alive. Of the least religious kind there is, the kind of miracle that people make – the kind my non-religious soul can believe in. Tom is from a small Greek island, connected to the mainland, in the off-season months, by three boats a week. The surgery he needed, right now, to save his life, could only be performed at a private cardiology hospital in Athens. At a cost that his family could not afford, thousands and thousands of euro, in exchange for a twenty-seven-year-old boy who was nowhere near done flitting around. The people of his island came together and, within two days, collected the money to cover his hospital fees. And though the donations were anonymous, and his family did whatever they could to keep it from him, Tom found out. And when he did, when he returned to the island after weeks of lying flat and still on a hospital bed, he begged and threatened and managed to get his hands on the bank’s confidential record of those who’d made donations, and he tracked every last one of them down to thank them personally. And this is the man who won’t accept a thank you when he’s done something for you; and he does a lot of things for a lot of people. This is the man I call my friend, and I wouldn’t be able to call him anything if it weren’t for those people, and his doctor, and Valentino Rossi. There is a debt here, and it is mine, because my life would be poorer without him, and I can’t imagine a day when he doesn’t wake up in this world.
     They’ve all been thanked, the surgeon who took care of him, the nursing staff at the hospital, the people of this island who put their hands in their pockets, no questions asked – all, but Valentino Rossi. And perhaps this is my thank-you note to him, my half-deranged love letter from a fan once-removed. I’d like to stand before him and thank him personally, look into his eyes and shake his hand. But there’s a distance between that wish and its fulfilment, and from where I stand today, on a random little island in the middle of winter, it’s a distance that only my words can hope to breach.
    I have a fantasy, however: that I could bring those two together. That Valentino Rossi will turn up on our little island, and have a drink with Tom. Non-alcoholic because, you know: heart condition. That he’ll turn up, and surprise him, and be a miracle my friend can believe in, so he can start believing in other things, good things and positive outcomes and times ahead that are easy, and in himself, his own worth and his own strength. In things more lasting than each day he spends in this world. In impossible things coming to pass, and sharing a drink with the man who saved your life. Sometimes I revise the fantasy with reason: it is too far for Valentino to travel, out here to our random island in the middle of nowhere, and he’s a busy man. But he’ll invite Tom to his village, Tavullia (I looked it up), and they’ll have a drink there, and talk about getting their first motorbikes and how fast they went, or whatever it is that motorbike people talk about. In a life full of impossible things, in a world full of unlikely heroes, could it happen? Is there a distance I could travel to make it come to pass?
    I sort of wish Tom were a little boy, all cute and cherub-like and pitiful, and I could say “Oh Mr Rossi, would you come visit little Tommy and make him smile?”, and it would be a great photo opportunity and all the rest; the media would love it. But, for better or for worse, this Tom, my friend, is a thirty-year-old man with a shaggy beard and a death stare to challenge Darth Vader, and he is often grumpy, often prickly, almost always abrupt, and he is much more likely to send you to hell than to give you a compliment, but he’s the kindest, most generous man I know and, fuck, I’m glad that he’s alive. And he’s not the least bit pitiful – little Tommy wins on that count – but I have a feeling that Valentino, my version, would like him; I think there’s an affinity between these two men that transcends all the distances between them, that goes far beyond a shared love of riding motorbikes sideways and defying death.

So, Valentino Rossi: thank you. I owe you a debt that these words can’t repay. You are a hero to many, but also to me. I won’t paint my face in your colours, but I’m urging you on and I hope you never stop chasing your dreams. And if you’d like to join me in putting a twist in this tale and giving it an impossible happy ending, just show me the distance, and I’ll travel it.


Any inaccuracies in this story are my own.


Image credit: Ultimate Motorcycling

Your soul is always where it needs to be

I’ve said it before, that you can’t be depressed in a place like this. I’ve said it many times, but it’s a lie. It’s a line I feed myself when I feel it coming on and I’m hungry for nothing; deplete of everything and wanting nothing. It’s a line for when I sense it circling and I’m frozen on the spot because there’s nowhere to run. It’s a line that I throw at other people when they ask about my life, when I show them the set I live it on: the fields of thirsty silver and gold, the perfect line between mountain and sky, toy churches glowing in the sunshine and smudges of pink bougainvillea, the horizons made up of Cycladic blue sea. It’s an exorcism, for when my soul is in the right place. How can you be depressed in a place like this?

With the sunshine picking out highlights in your hair and warming up your skin, how? How, when you have to lift your hand to shade against so much beauty, when there is more and more to love everywhere you look? When everything is so light, so weightless that you can imagine it just floating away on a jasmine-scented breeze, how can you possibly conceive of any kind of weight? But depression is the chill inside, where the sun cannot reach. Depression is the filter that turns everything flat and grey. It’s a desolate landscape. It’s the mathematical formula that multiplies everything by zero. Depression only understands love as lost, as unrequited; as regret. And it always tips the scales in its favour; there is no counterweight when your soul is in the wrong place.

At times like this, that sunshine, those endless, generous skies are like a personal affront. They hurt. Beauty hurts, lightness hurts when you feel ugly and weighed down by things you cannot see. Things you cannot hold or handle, cannot pick up and examine and toss aside, cannot show anyone and say look, see? Here is the thing that hurts me, so you can take it apart together and scare it away. Depression cannot be shared and when you’re standing in the sunshine against a sky of endless blue, that’s all anyone can see. A girl framed by light, and how can you be depressed in a place like this?

I’ve said it before, to guilt-trip myself into recovery, when depression has already taken hold. How self-indulgent, how ungrateful. How shameful, when other people would give anything to have a little of what you’ve got; how wasteful. But that’s depression talking, when it tells you you have the best of everything and yet you’re empty and poor. When it shows you all the love in the world, tantalisingly out of reach. When it says your soul is in the wrong place. Pinned down by grief, an inarticulated sadness, too heavy to flutter in the breeze.

It helps, to be in a place like this. It can help. You can take yourself for a walk to the top of a hill and gaze out to sea and place the magnitude of everything in context. You can force yourself to look at the spaces of sky between trees, all the entry points for light to filter through and heal you. It can help, to see depression contrasted with beauty, but it isn’t beauty that we forget about when depression takes hold; it isn’t beauty that we need reminding of. What we forget is that our soul is always in the right place. No matter how uncomfortable it feels, our soul is exactly where it needs to be.

I’d forgotten this yesterday, when depression took hold. It was with me when I woke in the morning and by late afternoon I could barely move for its syrupy embrace. I tried to summon gratitude as the antidote, but it is hard to be grateful for anything when there is nothing that you want. I tried to not be wasteful of the beauty all around me, but I sat in the sunshine and it just wore me down. I took my coffee outside and smoked a cigarette and gazed at mountains and sky, and there was only pain. Emptiness. A mockery of everything I could feel; everything I should, by rights, be feeling if my soul was in the right place. Pinned down by grief for all the love that was out of reach – but some instinct told me to reach. Only a little, only as much as I could. Only as far as sending my friend a message. Everything is shit, I said. I’m tired of everything. I don’t want anything at all. Will you come round?

And he came. And we sat on my terrace, on the sun-warmed stones as the sun began to set upon the fields of silver and gold. He didn’t ask to see the sadness, the intangible weight I was asking him to lift; he didn’t ask how, in a place like this, with the sunshine in my hair. We didn’t look at the sky changing colours in the west or the mountains turning to shadows behind us. Steeped in this beauty, we looked at each other, because all of it is background, the set we live our lives on, but the place is where our souls are at, and the people are what make it a living. Looking at the sea stretching out beyond your horizon can help you remember how small you are, how inconsequential your sorrows, but inconsequential talk between two people on a Wednesday afternoon is what will put you back in your place, right where your soul is at. A friend turning up to sit with you when you have nothing to offer, a friend bringing nothing but the fact that he came: that’s where it’s at. No matter what’s happening around you, in the background, on the set, this is the only place that matters. No matter how uncomfortable it feels, this is the place where you can never be depressed. How, when your soul is exactly where it needs to be, and love is never out of reach?


I am not making light of depression here; there is nothing light about it. But reaching out can help. It won’t be shared and it won’t be halved, but it might loosen its grip on you, to remember that you are loved.

Coincidentally, my friend Keith wrote about his own struggle with depression a few days ago. Read his post here.

24: All Mod Cons vs The Elements


This is an ode to off-season island living. This could well be a warning to anyone contemplating such a thing. This might be a test, in the tradition of Hercules’ Labours, though I wasn’t aware that there was anything to prove.

An epic battle took place in Sifnos this week, a battle of almost Homeric proportions. It was All Mod Cons versus The Elements. Electricity, Plumbing and Telecoms testing their strength against Earth, Wind and Water (with Fire sadly absent, as my chimney doesn’t work), and one semi-reclusive writer in the middle, mostly unwashed, trying to either make sense or art out of it. It was a lesson.

It began last Wednesday, in the bathroom. Our lovely, modern wet room type of a bathroom, where the shower area is only delineated by the curtain hanging around it, and sloping tiles lead the water into the drain. Wonderful in summer. Not so much in winter, when cold ceramic tiles, two external walls and a draughty window make my ninety-second showers even less of a pleasure than they sound. (Ninety seconds, incidentally, is precisely all the hot water I get. At ninety-one it turns instantly cold.) On this occasion, however, around midway through the experience, I enjoyed the very pleasant sensation of warm, soapy water pooling around my feet. It took a few seconds for logic to break through the pleasure response in my brain and nudge me with the terrifying implications: warm water pooling around my feet. As in: not draining. I splashed around in total panic, washed the shampoo out of my hair, turned the tap off and watched miserably as the water spread out and my wet room lived up to its name as never before. I mopped it up as best I could, delighted at all the extra humidity I’d invited into my home on this already wet day, and pushed aside thoughts of over-full septic tanks as the water, slowly, showed signs of draining away. I practised the ancient art of Not Thinking About It, and carried on with my day.

On Thursday morning, the fun happened when I flushed the toilet. The water poured into the bowl, and rose and rose and rose, and I watched in utter horror and prayed in my head to the island gods and the fairies of rural septic tanks and even muttered some words out loud because there was no one there to judge me except the cats, and they judge me anyway, and I mentally ran through all the times I’d broken the cardinal rule of Greek island living (“Never flush paper down the toilet”, and variations thereof) and concluded indignantly that it really wasn’t that many, I mean come on, this isn’t my fault! and I held my breath as the rising water reached the brim, and stopped. One of the cats, who’d been watching this scene unfold from the bathroom rug, padded up to the toilet bowl, put his paws up on the seat and inspected the contents with mild interest. He gave me a look that clearly conveyed the sentiment you’re screwed, and stalked off to play with an almond.
    I called Antonis the plumber. I was surprised when he picked up; I’ve been borderline stalking him for the last few weeks, and I’m sure, by now, the sight of my number flashing upon his screen fills him with dread. The poor, kind man, upon hearing that I couldn’t use my fireplace because the chimney had totally failed at its job of drawing the smoke out, had offered to order and install a spinny gadget thingy that would assist it with said task, and prevent my death from CO2 poisoning. So far, so good, except no: so far, close to six weeks later, no gadget thingy had materialised, on account of a satanic combination of bad weather (cancelled boats), port strikes (cancelled boats), the Christmas holidays (nobody cares about your chimney gadget), and a fairly typical lack of urgency, overall. Basically, not so good. Hence the stalking.
    ‘It’s me again!’ I announced brightly. ‘But it’s not about the thingy this time!’
    ‘Right,’ he said, with understandable reservation.
    ‘I think my septic tank wants something,’ I continued.
    To his credit, Antonis appeared totally unfazed by this slightly unconventional request for his services. ‘Like what?’
    ‘Like maybe, I think, to overflow?’ I described the situation, and added my tentative diagnosis that the septic tank and its “absorption field” (I looked it up) had become oversaturated as a result of heavy rainfall. Whereupon Antonis emitted a most worrying array of sounds – grunts, gasps and muttered curses – mumbled something about pumping it out as a matter of the utmost urgency, and then cheerfully bade me farewell with no indication as to when this very urgent activity might take place. I was left holding the phone and repeating mantras of patience, and letting go of the need to control. Three cats gathered around my feet in a semi-circle and judged me quietly. I threatened to withhold their food if they didn’t improve their attitude, but I didn’t mean it.

The following day was the sixth of January: Epiphany. A massive religious and national holiday. The Festival of Lights except, when I woke up and reached for the switch by my bed, there was none. No light, no heat, no internet. No coffee. I threw some water on my face and some layers on over my pyjamas, and took to the streets. I banged on Manolis’ door but there was no response, so I continued down to Vangelia’s.
    ‘Do you have light?’ I greeted her at her kitchen door.
    ‘No light,’ she confirmed. ‘No one has light.’ She rattled off a list of names from the village who also shared this predicament while clearing a space for me at the kitchen table, randomly pushing objects aside. ‘Come in. Sit.’
    I did as I was told. ‘Coffee? I have a little gas stove. I made mine already, look.’ She swirled her coffee around in her mug, to demonstrate.
    ‘Oh god, yes please!’ I almost cried with gratitude as the Greek coffee began to bubble up in the pot, releasing its life-saving aroma into the dark kitchen. Vangelia mumbled highlights of neighbourhood news, health complaints, laments about the weather, her pension and the sorry state of our electricity transformers, even managing a bit of product placement inspired by the latest offers in her son’s shop, flitting from one subject to another as she flitted about the room, from stove to fridge to various cupboards, to produce the usual array of sweet and savoury offerings that she piled up high in front of me, and which included, on this occasion: four giants chunks of vassilopita cake, an industrial-sized tub brimming with savoury biscuits and rusks, several traditional Christmas melomakarona biscuits, homemade goat’s cheese, and a tin of condensed milk. ‘Eat,’ she said.
    ‘Thank you,’ I said meekly, almost completely obscured by this tower of treats.
    Our Powercut Party was gradually joined by most of the remaining residents of the village who, one by one, drifted to Vangelia’s kitchen and stuck their heads round the door; they asked the same question, ‘Do you have light?’, and received the same response, to the word. Chairs and stools were pulled up, more coffee brewed, more space cleared and more food items added to the table. Neighbourhood gossip flowed freely in that crazy lyrical Sifnos dialect that I am slowly coming to understand. I sat back on my corner of the divan, sipping my second coffee and smoking cigarette after cigarette, and let the banter wash over me, smiling at intervals, and joining in with the laughter, the head-shaking and the tutting where appropriate, but I said very little. This was my place: in the corner, on the margins of this community, accepted and given refuge from the dark and fattened up with treats, and added to the list of names who had no light, but quiet, unobtrusive; like a stray cat that you’ve let in from the cold and that you’ve grown to love, reluctantly, despite its wet paws and vagabond ways, but isn’t quite your pet. It could take off again, on any day, just like it came. But, unlike the cats: grateful. For the privilege of this corner, for the warmth that didn’t come from Vangelia’s stone-cold three-bar electric heater, still plugged in and waiting for the power to return. I had no tokens of gossip to give them, these people who’ve widened their circle to make room for me, nothing to elicit those rounds of raucous laughter and enthusiastic head-shaking that everyone else brought to the table. I raised a few smiles by pointing out the irony of this day being the Festival of Lights; I tried to make myself useful by calling DEI, the electricity company, to check on the progress of the repairs and, later, by bringing Vangelia a small jar of St. John’s Wart oil that I thought might help with a burn on her hand. But Vangelia outdid me, with her casual kindness, by sending me home, once the power had been restored, with a bagful of cake and biscuits and a tupperware box stuffed full of slabs of home-baked lasagne.

Home. Where, after I plugged all my heating appliances back in and turned on several lights, just because I could, I beheld The Leaning Tower of Sifnos. This local landmark was, in fact, a telephone pole installed in my field and connecting me and several neighbours to the telecoms network by means of half a dozen cables stretching out in various directions. And which had enjoyed a fairly upright position in this life until this morning, when the storm that had knocked our power out had apparently taken a swipe at this guy as well, and he was now dangling over my vegetable patch. This was not a sight that gladdened my heart. I contemplated life without the internet, and then seriously considered hanging myself from one of the looser telephone cables, tantalisingly within arm’s reach.
    But I still have things to live for, so I decided, instead, to take positive action. I tried several numbers for OTE, the Greek telecoms company. One was disconnected; another just rang and rang. All the others featured a stern, recorded message insisting that I call 13888, the general fault-reporting helpline. I gave in, bracing myself for the hilarity that was certain to ensue. I wasn’t disappointed. After patiently listening to all the recorded options, none of which included “telephone pole leaning precariously over your rocket bed”, I selected “fault on the line you are calling from” and was subjected to an automated check that established my line was, in fact, faultless. I was instructed to hold for an actual person who would deal with this baffling paradox.
    ‘Good morning,’ she said. ‘What can I help you with?’ She didn’t sound too enthusiastic, understandably, perhaps, given that 1) she had drawn the short straw and was on shift on a national holiday and 2) she had me pegged as a troublemaker, calling to be judgmental about a telephone line that was clearly operational.
    ‘Good morning,’ I replied. ‘Chronia polla!’ (“Many years”: all-purpose wish for national, religious and personal celebrations.) I explained that I was trying to get hold of someone in Sifnos, but had been directed to this helpline.
    ‘OK,’ she said drily, not keen on encouraging me.
    ‘It’s just that I’ve got one your telephone poles on my property, and we’ve had bad weather so now it’s tipped over to the side and I’m worried it’s going to go down and take the telecoms of the entire village with it.’ I delivered this in one breath, and added ‘So I thought I should report it’.
    A pause. ‘Indeed. What is the address?’
    ‘There is no address,’ I said apologetically. ‘I’m in Sifnos.’
    It was as if I hadn’t spoken. ‘But what is the address of your property where the pole is located?’ Slowly, Athenian to resident of Sifnos – wherever the fuck that was – who was obviously a bit rural and struggled to grasp basic concepts of civilised society.
    ‘Overgrown field, Eleimonas, Sifnos,’ I supplied, deadpan, as Sifnos Chick took over to stand up for all of us rurals who existed outside the tidy realm of street addresses and postcodes. It did not go down well.
    ‘Um,’ said the lady.
    ‘Haha,’ I relented, glaring at Sifnos Chick to silence her. ‘I’m sorry. I was trying to be funny. There really is no address. I’m in a small village.’
    OTE Lady recovered somewhat; enough to ask whether the pole was visible from the street. Desperately trying to snatch some order out of this chaos.
    ‘Well.’ Awkward! ‘There is no street, as such.’ I was a little worried for her then, that this might be the final stroke that would tip her over, much like the telephone pole that I was still no closer to setting upright. We both sighed.
    ‘Look,’ I said reasonably, ‘I’m sure if you pass this on to someone on the island, they’ll know where to find me.’
    ‘Yes,’ she agreed, sounding marginally less deranged. ‘I have logged the issue in our system. We will be in touch.’
    I thanked her, and wished her chronia polla again, out loud, and then I wished her well, silently, in my head, because it wasn’t her fault that islands and villages exist alongside cities, or that each of us exists within the specific context that we understand. City Girl reminded me of the days, not long ago, when the absence of a postcode meant you were nowhere at all, and I nodded as somewhere outside my window a telephone pole swayed gently in the wind.

The next morning, the Saturday, an electricity pole went down and plunged the entire island into cold, damp darkness. I was amused and also patently not amused when I was thus informed by the dude on phone duty at the local DEI office. The “click and nothingness” exercise felt too much like Groundhog Day on this second day running. I wasn’t up for another full-on Powercut Party, so I gatecrashed Manolis’ morning coffee, instead. He is a private man, quietly content in his own company, but he received me very graciously and provided only the essentials: a large cup of Greek coffee and an ashtray. He muttered something about biscuits, almost as awkward about the formalities of impromptu visitor hospitality as I am, but I shook my head, held up my cigarette and touched the brim of my cup. ‘This is exactly what I need.’
    He smiled. ‘Yes,’ he agreed, lighting his own cigarette and taking a sip of his coffee. ‘This is all we need.’
    We sat in companionable silence, only a little brittle, and broken, occasionally, by references to topics of mutual interest, such as the weather and our joint-custody cats. Who, we observed philosophically, were not at all bothered by the lack of electrical current flowing into our homes. We let that sink in for a while and made a comment about the things we take for granted, as we warmed our hands on our coffee cups. Manolis reminisced about the days when domestic power was only supplied for a couple of hours each day and before, when there was no power at all. But once you have a thing, you forget about not having it. You forget how not to have it, and what to do with yourself when it’s taken away.
    By midday, power had gradually been restored to most villages, but not yet to Polyna’s and the neighbouring village of Kastro, which are closer to the fallen pole and more remote than the rest of us. At Polyna’s house, the electric garage gate was holding the car hostage inside and it was hours before they managed to manually override it and escape. They picked me up in town, Polyna, Nefeli and Yiannis, and we drove to Kamares in shell-shocked silence, still reeling from our sojourn into the chaos and wilderness that was an entire morning without electricity. At Katerina’s cafe, we were given restoring hugs and steaming cups of coffee, and we all huddled around the radiator in our usual corner, and exchanged tales of horror of all the necessities we had been denied, like internet access and hot water for showering, and hair straighteners. Later, we had a big, banquet-style lunch in honour of Yiannis’ nameday, followed by more coffee and chocolate and a game of cards, and the morning’s trauma was consigned to history, the heroic tale of how we survived that morning when the power went down, to be retold with an air of stoicism, while fridges buzzed and radiators burned hot and our mobiles pinged with facebook notifications.

I think I’ll have to draw this story to a close manually, because once you start along the path of things being imperfect, there is no shortage of examples, just as there are infinite moments of perfection scattered in between, and lessons that both perfect and imperfect might teach us, in themselves or in their juxtaposition. Once you get started, the battles and the trials and the labours never end, and this particular tale spun off, from where I left it above, into three full days, Sunday to Tuesday, of total plumbing breakdown. Three days when the oversaturated earth could take not a single drop of water more, and every tentative attempt to run a tap, fuelled by denial and hope, resulted in raw sewage bubbling up through the bathroom drain. Three days when I couldn’t wash myself or my clothes or my dishes, couldn’t flush the toilet, couldn’t pour the pasta water into the sink, and developed a fear of consuming liquids for the inevitable consequence of them coming out. There were terrible moments involving a child’s pink plastic potty, and al fresco peeing in a snowstorm with an audience of over-excited cats, and dignity was just a word I’d once heard mentioned in passing. Three days of increasingly desperate phonecalls to Antonis, and being confined to the house waiting for him to turn up, and not feeling brave like Hercules at all, only filthy and tired and helpless, and wanting nothing more than the things I took for granted to be granted once again. But in between, reassuringly, moments when I glimpsed the funny side, when I declared myself a veteran of island living, having proven my worth, and deserving at least of a medal, if not a small statue somewhere, in a village square; when I turned this trial into a tale and made people laugh, people living in other contexts, within the safety of postcodes and apartment blocks, where they could flush their toilets with wild abandon and not a trace of fear. Moments when I remembered how much there could be to be afraid of, and that a fear of flushing toilets actually features quite low on the list, and that the balance of have and have not is blatantly tipped in my favour, even on days when I have to pee outside; and Powercut Parties, and coffee and cake and kindness and community and cats, and that wonderful ability of humans to forget and carry on and turn their trials into epic tales of how, once again, they survived.
    And when Antonis finally turned up, like a Sifnos Superhero, armed with the unlikely magic of pumping shit out of a septic tank, everything was instantly right with the world, all bright and sparkly and rainbow tinted, and I skipped around, trying to be helpful, as he did unspeakable things with a pump, a hosepipe and my mop, and I used the word “perfect” far too many times – but how can it not be perfect when a man with a pump can literally take all your troubles away? We sat down after, in the kitchen, and I gave him coffee and a bouquet of fresh rocket to take home, and I made him laugh with the story of OTE Lady and the Leaning Tower of Nowhere (an anecdote already, though the tower still leans over the gaping hole of my septic tank), and then we talked about my book and how many copies I’d have to sell in order to winter-proof my house. We didn’t speak of the spinny gadget; that was a battle for another day.
    When he left, refusing to discuss payment, I ran to the bathroom and peed to my heart’s content, and then I flushed and watched as the water poured into the bowl and disappeared down the drain with a happy gurgle, and I remembered to relish this moment, the only time in my life when flushing gave me such joy, because the next time I did it, I would take it entirely for granted. Which is exactly how it should be, in this perfect world of All Mod Cons, and if we went around being grateful for electricity and plumbing and upright telephone poles all the time, we wouldn’t get much else done. But there is room for appreciating them, sometimes, granted though they are, like when I finally had a shower that evening, and I appreciated the hell out of it. Except I was so busy being grateful for hot water and the coldness of the tiles beneath my feet that I forgot about the ninety second rule, and my gratitude session was brought to an abrupt and freezing end. And as I shivered and rubbed myself dry under the judgemental gaze of two cats (who were obviously tasked with monitoring my bathroom activities), I thought about my week of trials, those seven days of tests I wasn’t sure I’d passed, or what passing them meant, or what even counted as passing; and how, apart from giving me a few stories to tell, the events of those seven days had changed absolutely nothing at all, and I was exactly where I had been a week ago, showering and flushing toilets and turning lights on and off, with the fridge buzzing and the radiators burning and facebook informing me that someone’s baby had worn a hat. And it occurred to me, in a moment that’s becoming history even as I write about it, that perhaps the lesson is that, for all of the tests that we pass or we fail, there has never been anything to prove.


This piece was published in my book For Now: Notes on living a deliberate life, which is available to buy on Amazon, in paperback and on Kindle, and free to read on Kindle Unlimited.

Say thank you and I love you

the_first_thanksgiving_cph-3g04961Day 76 from 100 days of solitude (November 27, 2014)

I slept very well last night, on account of the fact that I forgot to switch my electric blanket off, which meant I didn’t wake up freezing in the early hours as has been the norm in the last few nights, since winter arrived. I forgot to switch the electric blanket off and it did not burst into flame overnight, and I woke up warm and uncharred this morning, for which I am thankful. And thus began my Sifnos Thanksgiving. Waking up, alive, is always a good start to the day.

We don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in Greece. It’s not on our calendar, but we hear rumours of it, of Americans gathering round dinner tables to fill up on turkey and pumpkin pie and be thankful for stuff. I have a very vague understanding of the origins of this holiday, other than that Pilgrims and Indians are involved, so I looked it up. In a tale that seems to be as much myth as it is history, the first Thanksgiving dinner was held in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621, when the Pilgrims invited the Indians to join them in a feast, giving thanks for the Indians’ help and the colony’s first successful harvest. The Pilgrims had arrived in the area the previous year, entirely unprepared, and the local Indian Wampanoag tribe had taken these crazy white people, the “coat men”, under their wing, and shown them the ropes and how to grow things, so they didn’t starve to death. It’s a nice story and I hope it’s true, in part, even though it’s part of a bigger story, and sadly, unarguably true, where the colonists slaughtered the natives all over America, and stole their land and weren’t at all thankful.

I slept well last night, but I had a dream about my friend Ali, a vivid, elaborate dream that went on for what felt like hours, and whose details escape me now. I woke up missing her. I haven’t spoken to her for months. We have drifted apart in the last few years, which is stupid because whenever we get together I can’t think of a single reason why. I had sent her an email a few days ago, when I heard a song that reminded me of her, but she hadn’t replied.
    I went to my desk, still reeling from her presence in my dream, with the intention of sending her another message, urging her to get in touch. I sipped my coffee as I checked my email: all junk. And then, with a discreet ping, a new email dropped into my inbox. I clicked on it, both shocked and completely unsurprised, and read Ali’s message. My second thing to be thankful for, today.

Perhaps I’ll host a fantasy Thanksgiving dinner tonight. I’ll be the Pilgrim and the locals can be the Indians. I have no turkey, but they can share my chicken soup; I took a chicken breast out of the freezer last night, for that purpose. It won’t be much of a feast, but it’s a large chicken breast and if I chop it up really small there should be enough for everyone to get a taste. I’ll add onions and rice and potatoes, and cook it all in a big pot of broth. I’ll also make a salad with lettuce and radishes from the garden, to celebrate the harvest, and flavour the soup with lemons from my tree. The locals can bring offerings, too. Though I hope none of them will bring dead deer, like the Indians reportedly did, or little birds shot out of the trees. But I wouldn’t mind a few eggs, or a bit of cheese.
    Manolis can come, and his mother, and his wife, if she’s not at work. Antonis the plumber and Makis the carpenter. Vangelia and Yorgos and their children, Vasiliki and Simos, if they’re free. Margarita the hairdresser, and Post Office Man No.1, and Loukia from the butcher’s. The entire souvlaki family, mother, father and daughter, and the cashier from Alpha Bank. The girl from the chemist, and the guy at the kiosk who remembers what tobacco I smoke. The two sisters who run the supermarket at the top of the hill. Nikos the farmer and his wife. Polyna, of course, if she’s around. The man who advised me to plant rocket and spinach and sold me the seeds. I am thankful to all of these people, these and many others, and I would like them to come round tonight, and sit down at my table and share my chicken soup, and be the natives to my coat men, the ones who have taken me under their wing and shown me the ropes.

I am the coat men of Sifnos, even though the coat I wear, a blue rainproof jacket with fleece lining, was purchased right here a few weeks ago. I walked into a shop I’d barely even looked at before, a shop I’ve walked past hundreds of times but never deigned to consider entering, where two women were watching a cooking show on a large TV set mounted on the wall. I went fearfully from rail to rail, keeping a safe, aloof distance from the garments on display, convinced that there was nothing there for me, with my high city standards. Until, right at the back and hiding amidst an alarming amount of faux fur, I found exactly what I was looking for, and in my size. Which was, apparently, XXL, and made by the excellent brand MISS PASSION.
    ‘You’re lucky,’ said the lady behind the counter. ‘It’s the last one.’
    It fits me perfectly, my Sifnos jacket, made in China.

I got another email from Ali later this morning, all in capitals and full of exclamation marks. Sit Down by James had just come on her radio, and that’s a song that reminds her of me. Of times long ago, when we saw each other every day, and danced the nights away in shady London nightclubs. Of singing along with plastic cups of lager in our hands, of sitting down on the dirty, sticky floor whenever the chorus demanded it. Sit down next to me.

Life is up to its tricks again, and two songs and a dream bringing Ali and I together today are no coincidence, but today being Thanksgiving is. It means nothing to me. I have the same objection to Thanksgiving as I have to Valentine’s Day. Shouldn’t we be thankful and in love every day, instead of saving it all up for special calendar occasions? We get together, on these holidays, and stuff ourselves with food and exchange our gifts, and we forget what we’re there for, and we forget to be thankful for the fact that we’re there and together at all. We don’t say thank you enough. We don’t write love letters. We wake up every morning and don’t notice we’re alive.
    I am thankful and I am in love. Today, on this day that is just an ordinary Thursday on the Greek calendar, and tomorrow, and the day after, and every day that I wake up, alive. And I’ll have my fantasy dinner, tonight and every other night, and I’ll invite everyone, because it’s a fantasy and everyone will fit, everyone I’m thankful to, everyone I’m grateful for, everyone I love and have loved in the past, the friends I talk to every day and the ones I haven’t spoken to for months, and we will all sit down together and share my chicken soup, Pilgrims and Indians and natives and coat men, crazy white people all of us, regardless of what shade of skin we come in, who would do well to remember that we’re lucky to be alive. And say thank you and I love you, while there are still days.


100 days of solitude is available from Amazon, in paperback and on Kindle.