“Domates, patates, karekles…”
The man’s voice, thick with dust and heat and cigarettes, plagued me every morning. “Tomatoes, potatoes, chairs…” A bizarre collection of things to sell, but wherever you go in Greece there will be a broken-down old van, slowly doing the rounds on the tight Greek streets with this foul voice coming through a cheap tannoy wanting to sell you “Domates, patates, karekles…”
Greece is a country of sounds. All of them loud. Crossing Filellion Street in Athens the men driving beaten-up cars that look like boxers’ face – the fronts like busted noses – thump at their horns. The car’s horns are dead though, through overuse, now just emitting a wheezing squeak like an old dog whose voice has become a croak. The real dogs, still with their voices very much intact, won’t let you take a walk anywhere in Greece of course. Just come up with the idea of taking a stroll and they’ll bark their livid complaints, sprinting out from alleyways with slavering jaws. comically rebounding at the end of their chains and barking even louder at the injustice. Howling dogs up on balconies, bad tempered men down on the streets below shouting out from periptero kiosks. People gathered and talking loudly to each other, just to reassure themselves, just to be sure that there’s someone there. Greeks often seemed to me like children afraid of the dark: they always needed company. Old men with nothing left to say must sit side-by-side with their friend in the cafe every day. Giristroula left me once for the weekend and I was enjoying the idea of a little time on my own. My mother-in-law called absolutely everyone she knew in Athens to come round to see me, fearful I would be lonely. Visitor after visitor, people I had never met before in my life, sitting on and on. The idea of being on your own in Greece is a madness, a sin.
My mother-in-law had been released from Evangelismos hospital. For a long time it had been touch and go as she had lain there on the top floor, overlooking Athens at night with the national gardens plunged in darkness, the Parthenon lit but alone. The family kept vigil day after day, smoking furiously, faces haggard and grim. She was out now though, and we were to take her to recuperate on the island of Lesvos.
The boat from Piraeus approached Lesvos in the early dawn light. The island on the horizon emerging and then changing shape as we got nearer, stretching and shifting like a cat waking itself up. We were heading to Lesvos as my parents-in-law’s koubaroi from their wedding, long ago, lived on the island in a red tower set all on its own on the Aegean seashore. The house was a few miles down the road from the town of Plomari. Before we even got off the boat, we could hear the trees full of tzitzikia – the insects filling the air with their clicking songs, sounding like a thousand guiro instruments rubbed with a thousand sticks. They say that if the tzitzikia ever go quiet, Greece will fall. But then they also say that if you take Greece apart and in the end all you are left with is just an olive tree, a vineyard and a boat, you can rebuild it again.
My mother-in-law spent her days slowly repairing herself on the veranda looking out to where the sea and sky met, looking out towards the edge of Turkey’s mainland and the Greek island of Chios. Meropi, the koubara, talked to me as she stirred her huge pans of food on the outside fire about how she was related to the great Greek poet Elytis from this island. Lesvos was once prosperous, but when the Turkish were routed in Greece the trading markets and the money was cut off. Just like her island, Meropi’s family also lost their prestige and money along the way, and she now lived in this one timbered-room Ottoman tower. Her husband, Mihalis, set off swimming into the sea every morning with his long hand-held trident to hunt for octopus. I watched him as he returned, flinging the octopus against the rocks in the shallows again and again and again to soften it for our lunch. We would sit on the terrace and drink ouzo – famous from this island, the very best you can find – glass after glass. “To proto!” Mihalis would toast with each new glassful – “The first!” – as you are really not meant to count how many you sink here.
Giristroula and I left her mother sat in her chair looking out at the water in the hot afternoon as the wind got up and created a racing sea with hundreds of white waves breaking out beyond – provatakia the Greeks call these waves: little sheep. We went to explore the island. Lesbos seems totally unbuilt on. From Olympus, its highest mountain, you can only see green hills. We walked through the smattering of villages. Past a bus stop where no bus looked as if it had ever arrived – a goat stood tied to the bus stop pole chewing at overgrowing weeds. A man with a taxi appeared and we flagged hims down. The man drove us manically down the roads past the hills carpeted in olive trees, throwing the car through the bends. I reached for the sea belt, but his hand came out to stop me.
“You don’t have to do that,” he chuckled. “Here is Greece! We do what we want… Do whatever you like!”
”Well, I would really like to to wear a seat belt…” I said.
“No,” he snapped, putting his hand hard across my chest.
We got to the village of Eressos – Sappho’s home. Sappho the great poetess of ancient times, and supposed heroine of homosexual desire. Sapphic, Lesbian, words that come directly from this island. Women still gravitate to Eressos to be free in their sexuality. Open displays of lesbianism and the freedom to celebrate individuality are quite rare in Greece, but here the women – cross-armed, legs astride the chairs – sit next to the old men in the cafes. The men with their big yellowing moustaches playing backgammon, hoping to get away from their wives for the afternoon, happily sitting side-by-side with the handsome lesbians smoking their cigars.
Giristroula and I swam out from the long stretch of orange-coloured sandy beach as the sun set, and we were still swimming as the stars rose in the sky. Then later, as the moon started to shine brightly and the stars got shy, we hitched a lift in the back of an old pick-up van and made our slow way back home, round the huge bay of Kaloni that has eaten deep into the island, giving Lesvos its odd shape – the island looking like an artist’s palette.
There was a piled up collection of life jackets on the beach in front of the red tower. Meropi told me how she would see the boats from Turkey, carrying refugees from the Syrian civil war, out on the sea at night sailing to Lesvos. They would land here, on her beach. Up on the road there would often be men shining lights shouting for the boats to come their way. They would then take the boats, take the motors off, take them back to Turkey. The refugees, staggered to be on land would rip off their life jackets, making their way up the pebbled shore, throwing them to the ground in relief to have made it. There hadn’t been a landing for months now on Meropi’s beach, but the jackets lay here as reminders. Hundreds of red and yellow markers.
Giristroula and I travelled further down to the south of the island. Skala Sykamias is a pretty little fishing village, known first of all for its oddly named church Panagia Gorgona – the Virgin Mary As A Mermaid; then it was known for the tree that the famous author Myrivilis wrote under. Later the village gained notoriety for Demetra, an old gruff fisherman who found her real self later in life as she promenaded up and down the small fishing boat harbour in stockings and suspenders and full make-up. Again, this was rare to see in Greece, newspaper men were even sent to report. More dramatically though, Skala Sykamias had recently become known throughout the world as one of the main landing places for refugees fleeing Iraq and Syria and north Africa. 2,000 refugees landing every day. The lucky ones.
I went for a swim just outside the village. As I dried myself on the beach one resident walking along turned to talk to me. “You know you’ve been swimming stin thalassa me tis nekres psihes.” – It took me a moment to translate this in my head…The sea of dead souls.
There was a chill feeling hanging over this village.
The Greeks, being Greek, have many theories as to why the refugees kept coming. Turkey, Germany, they’re sure someone is behind it.
“Tsipras came here,” one man told me. “In the days before he came there were hundreds of boats. When he was here, not a single boat came across. Then, after he left, I counted 48 boats coming over. How did they know? You tell me that…”
The island was suffering. The camp at the small village of Moria outside Mytilini was at bursting point. We had driven past the camp the night before and seen the refugees spilling outside, walking in bunches down the unlit roads, sat listlessly on the grass. Boredom, frustration. Tents pitched beyond the camp walls as there was no more room inside. Men praying towards Mecca in the olive trees. The refugees were penned in these camps in Greece as Europe waited to decide what to do: who to let through, who to send back, which borders should be shut, which, if any, countries will help and take some of these migrants. The residents of Lesvos couldn’t work out what was happening. Couldn’t understand what had happened to their island. But of course this confusion and the sense of grievance that their lives here had been altered by uncaring outside world didn’t stop them from helping – the hearts of the Greeks often as open as the sea itself. The people of Lesvos were even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts rescuing the collapsed boats, pulling people out of the Aegean to safety, helping the weary female refugees and their children make their way up onto the shores and into Europe. But when three old ladies of Lesvos were told of their nomination, they had little time for it.
“What special am I doing? Wouldn’t you do the same?” said the 86-year-old Maritsa Mavrapidou.
Fisherman Stratis Valiamos seemed stunned to be approached by reporters. “I’m out fishing, I can see people shouting for help. What should I do? Pretend I can’t see? Pretend I can’t hear?”
The whole of Greece had been affected by the migrants that had come to the country. There were many stories.
The baker of Kos who woke up early every morning to make 200 extra pounds of bread to give away to the migrants. The men of less good intentions, circling round Victoria Square in Athens with specious offers to smuggle the desperate away over the borders for cash. Cash that is of course never seen again. A few years ago I stayed with Giristroula’s cousin in Thessaloniki. Maria went every day to the Lagadikia camp outside the city. She played games and entertained the children there. She said it wasn’t too bad, the containers where the refugees were housed were heated, the spirits of the people hadn’t sunk too low. Now the camp had three times the amount of people as it should. The containers had been overtaken by hundred and hundreds of rain-soaked tents. Maria had gone every day to the camp full of purpose and hope – I sat with her on a bus one day as she went to work at the camp. We sat amongst the Thessalonikian commuters – Maria dressed as a clown with full make-up and curly red wig. The last time I had spoken to her she had lost her positivism, and her hope.
“I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of people arrive. They have nowhere to go, we are their very last resource. Where does the money go for them? Ta troi i marmaga? – it falls in the black hole? Between the EU and Greece? Or between Greece and the camp? I don’t know. These people have fled war. They just can’t believe that this is how Europe is receiving them…”
Arion of Lesbos, the greatest lyra player of classical times, once threw himself from a ship into this sea I looked at from Skala Sykamias. He threw himself into the waters to avoid capture by pirates. Arion is seen as a hero, a great example of the contempt for danger the Greeks have. His courage was rewarded by the gods as he was rescued by a school of dolphins. Arion and the dolphins have now been put in the sky as stars. There are no dolphins for the refugees though.
The people of Skala Sykamias are good, but they are tired. I talked to a woman as I walked on the dusty road just outside the village on the way to Molyvos.
“How would you like it?” she said to me. “How would you like it if a Muslim man gets off the boat and straight away tells your daughter to cover up, to not wear her bikini? Because he has never seen a girl’s skin before. How would you like it if your son was swimming in the sea and a corpse washed up on the beach? How would you like to live here?”
I thought of the small village I had seen. The church and the tree and Demetra the ex-fisherman sashaying by; the men mending their nets on the harbour wall; the tranquil beauty. I couldn’t answer her.
Theophilos’ house is in the port capital of Lesbos, Mytilni. Theophilos Hatzimihail was a primitive painter, from around the turn of the last century. He travelled around Greece painting themes from ancient Greece or from the war of independence or from everyday Greek life. Completely unrecognised and unheralded in his lifetime, he lived an itinerant life in poverty painting his scenes on the walls of coffee shops and tavernas for a few scraps of food. I think he was a genius. Giristroula and I walked around his house in solemn silence. His brilliant naïve art paintings and the black and white photographs of Theophilos himself up on the walls. Theophilos in his ancient tsolias soldiers garb of skirt and fez and sword, surrounded by local children half laughing, half in love with this incredible child-like man. A living sculpture. A great symbol of Greece.
Giristroula and I sailed away from Lesbos. Into the sea where Orpheus’ head had washed up after his death at the hands of the Thrace women who had torn him to pieces and thrown him into the River Evros. They say his head was still singing when it landed on the shore. The water is calm as our boat leaves, just a few dark waves hissing at the keel. There is no sign of Thessalonike, the sister of Alexander the Great. Legend has it that Thessalonike haunts the waters all round Greece as a fearsome mermaid. She is grief stricken at her brother’s death – especially so as she once carried a cup of water from the Fountain of Immortality but spilt it before she could give Alexander a sip. She appears to shriek at sailors passing by on the sea. “Zei o vasilias Alexandros?” – Is King Alexander alive? The answer you must reply is “Zei kai vasilevei!” – He is alive and he reigns! To appease the guilt-racked Thessalonike, otherwise she will rise the winds and the waters and your boat will be lost.
We sail the Aegean. Through the islands, scattered like gems across the sea.
Lemnos to the north. An island of fierce femininity in classical times. The women here massacred all their menfolk and did everything for themselves. This massacre was due to their loyalty to the god Hephaestus. Hephaestus must be my favourite of the gods: lame, clumsy and ugly, mocked by the other gods, frequently picked up by the foot and contemptuously tossed out of Olympus by Zeus – usually landing down on the island of Lemnos. Here is a god at last you can identify with. But he was also the god of fire and the forger of metals, making golden palaces and beautiful jewellery. Better than being the god of war, I’d say. He was, quite implausibly for one so hopeless and crippled, married to Aphrodite, the goddess of erotic love and beauty. “I pray Aphrodite…” begins one of Sappho’s poems “…Don’t break my spirit with heartache.”
Of course Aphrodite was at it like a randy old goat with whoever she could get hold of. She would often take the war-god Ares as her lover. When Hephaestus caught wind of these goings on, he fashioned a gold-spun net above their marriage bed. One day, while Hephaestus pretended to be away on business on his favourite island of Lemnos, Aphrodite took Ares to her to bed. During their passions the net descended catching them at it together. Hephaestus called all the other gods to witness the humiliation of the naked, helpless, pair. The gods gathered round the bed pointing and laughing – though Hermes whispered to Apollo how that he’d happily suffer a far greater penalty for just one night of rolling around with Aphrodite. The women of Lemnos cheered for Hephaestus and so, in retaliation, Aphrodite afflicted them all with a terrible pungent odour. A repugnant smell that meant their husbands wouldn’t go near them, only having sex with slave girls brought over from Thrace. So, in return, the Lemnos women slaughtered every man and boy on the island. Leaving the land empty aside from the smelly women. Our landlady back in Athens was from Lemnos. The offensive smells seemed to have cleared up at least.
Giristroula and I, on our boat, passed Tinos – with its white-washed villages reflecting back the blinding light of the sun. The holiest of Greece’s holy icons is housed on this island. Visitors climb the long stone hill up from the port to the Church of Panagia Evangelistrias on their knees in veneration. The icon has great healing powers and wives crawl on their grazed hands and raw knees to reach the icon to pray for a sick husband or a suffering child. You see the prone women climbing inch by painful inch up the road – impatient husbands standing tall next to them, pacing by their side, like a farmer taking his slow donkey out for a walk. Tinos was the island longest in the Venetians possession so has the largest Catholic population in Greece. The people dividing themselves up to this day: this village Orthodox, this village Catholics. The clash between the logic of the ancient Greeks and the faith of Greece’s Orthodoxy always confuses me. The ancients believed you should question everything – but doesn’t the church say you should only follow? You can see it in the buildings in Greece – the light and rationality of the ancient temples… the churches dark and smokey and full of muttering crones. The churches, of course, which have been built on the same spot as where first the temples stood once upon a time. Greeks seem to feel that, as a race, they are made up of both these conflicting foundations. That they have the blood and spirit of both the ancients and the Orthodoxy inside them. I can really never see how they square the circle. Tinos was the home of the god of wind, Aeolus and his father Poseidon. Our ship captain looked very closely at the waters as we passed by, nervous to detect the slightest rippling on the waters. Giristroula and I didn’t have the money for a cabin. We slept each night out on the deck, the sea running just below us, breeding and breaking in threshing foam. We were woken in the morning by a flare of sun running over our faces. Patmos passed, looking as though it has practically no green on it. God spoke to St John through a hole in a cave on Patmos, with John writing down all the proclamations in his Book of Revelations – the predicted barbarian invasions, the downpours of rocks, the blocks of ice, balls of fire, earthquakes, explosion of the moon, floods and tidal waves.
Back in the early 19th Century it was Greek travellers out on these waters that saw how the outer world loved ancient Greece. It was only after Greek merchants visited France, Britain, Germany that they became aware, with a shock, of the hold which the language and civilisation of ancient Greece had over the minds of their European contemporaries. How they were the heirs to a heritage that was revered throughout the civilised world. This national consciousness grew quickly, as did the Greek rising resentment of continued Ottoman rule.
We put in at Rhodes. Being in the famous Old Town was depressing. A magnificent ensemble of medieval architecture, but spoilt. Spoilt by Mussolini, who thought the fascist Italians were the inheritors to the Knights of Jerusalem, who had reigned this island in the Middle Ages, and so he had reconstructed a film-set Palace of the Grand Masters that is now touted as the great tourist spot of Rhodes. The Old Town is spoilt by the businesses hawking for tourist loose change: the tacky tavernas, the nauseating gift shops wedged under the Streets of the Knights. The Greeks might have been surprised and suddenly proud of their ancient roots when they were told how much they meant to the outer-world; they might maintain today they have a mistrust of Western ways, but they took Western materialism closely to their hearts. Becoming intoxicated with the tacky trappings of success, it resulted in the terrible buildings from the 1960s onwards; the rich and the middle classes’ lack of taste; the bars and the restaurants built since the monied 80s and 90s, all gaudy and grotesque. Greece’s recent struggles meant that some of the vulgar displays had been arrested – you don’t see so much the men who used to pay a fortune for endless flowers to throw in great piles at warbling torch singers up on the tables every night, the terrible plates smashing, the braggadocio of showing how little money mattered. But bad taste was still rife in Greece.
Rhodes Old Town heaved, so we crossed over the broad moat surrounding the old city walls and hitched a lift around the island. The centre of Rhodes is full of green trees, but it just doesn’t look right somehow, it seemed unnatural. Two thumbed lifts got us to Lindos. We slept the night under the acropolis perched on the rock cliff, and in the morning as the sun left the waters of the east, we swam in St Paul’s bay with the overhanging ruins high above us. White stone columns, standing like bleached bones of an ancient empire, blue sea and sky. The day building up. A growing hammer of heat. We cadged another lift from a young woman with a dark, powerful face. Her name was Sevin, her family were from Turkey.
“Ah If you can call them family. They all live over there…” she waved a hand out towards the sea. “In Marmaris. They only come to see me when they want a holiday.”
As Rhodes was under control of the Italians when the population exchange occurred between Greece and Turkey, the ethnic Turks in Rhodes were not affected. So now there are nearly 4000 people with Turkish roots on the island. Although, who in Greece can say they don’t have a heavy Turkish influence on them anyway? After 500 years of Turkish rule, the DNA, the cuisine, the types of entertainments, the look and the dress… Although, of course I learnt quickly not to say this to the people who shout about “pure Greekness.” When I travelled in northern Greece I met a man who didn’t believe there was any Turkish or Slavic influence in Greece at all. Like a dog on a chain, he was also spoiling for a fight between the countries.
“We’re ready for Turkey this time. Not like what happened in Cyprus… We’ll get them this time. Oh-ho, you better believe we’re ready…” he clumped his bunched fist into his hand in happy anticipation.
It was that sort of grind of a conversation. The know-all, speaking for Greece as a whole. The prickly sensitivity to any perceived insults, waiting on a hair-trigger just waiting for me to suggest I didn’t agree. This man also showed that strong regional loyalty I’d noticed many Greeks have to a ridiculous degree. I talked to him about the Peloponnese.
“Bastards,” he said before I’d even finished.
“Peloponnese bastards” he repeated.
I told him my wife was from the Peloponnese.
“All the Peloponnese were raped by Egyptians.” He said it simply, as if it was an unequivocal fact.
The only other place, other than northern Greece, he seemed to like was Italy.
“Ah the Italians,” he said. “They are just like us. ‘Una fatsa, una ratsa!’ – that’s what we say: one face, one race!”
I told him I’d only ever heard Greeks say this phrase, never actually the Italians. The man thought about this for a while.
“Yes,” he said. “Bastards. Italians love only themselves. Only themselves.” He sniffed deeply in the air. “Bastards.”
Sevin, back in Rhodes, drove us through the centre of the island over towards the east coast. The car chewing its way along the road over the hills of as we crossed Rhodes’ belly.
“I didn’t like the stupid Greek culture when I was young,” she said. “I didn’t like all the dancing on the tables. I’m shy. I believe in respect.” She told us she wanted to marry a Cretan or someone from Thessaloniki.
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“I want to be told what to do,” Sevin said. “I want a dictator. I want a Hodja…”
Sevin dropped us at the bottom of a hill.
“The Filerimos Cross is up there,” she said, nodding up the thick tree-lined climb. “You should go… You go up two, you come down three…” she said, cryptically. Giristroula and I didn’t know what this meant, but we clambered up to the top anyway, and the huge cross and a tiny broken church.
An old woman was lighting a candle. “Ah you’ve come to the cross eh? You are looking for the Panayia to help you with a child eh? Light a candle, she’ll help you…”
We rushed down again. Back down towards Rhodes port.
We should have sailed out between the legs of the Colossus. But the great sun-god had a very short life, standing over the sea here for just fifty years. When it crashed to the ground the Rhodites didn’t dare touch it so as not to displease the gods. It was a Turk who finally collected all the gold and metal nearly a thousand years later and sold it all off. The grim-humour story is that Rhodes got back its Colossus during the attacks by the Ottoman fleets in the form of cannonballs.
We sailed even further east. Lumbering underneath the southern coast of Turkey, with its bare tall mountains, past the deserted rocky island of Ro where Despina Achladioti had lived. Despina Achladioti – the Lady of Ro – and her husband moved to this inhospitable rock, just 800 meters off the Turkish coast around the time of World War 1. No one could understand why. Despina’s husband died in 1940 and for the next 42 years, the Lady of Ro lived on her own on the island and every day, in every sort of weather, she would raise and lower the Greek flag. While Greece and the neighbouring islands were evacuated and occupied by the Germans, the Lady of Ro continued with her loan ritual of flying the Greek flag on her completely deserted little islet. Greek pride and resistance. When she died in 1982, Despina was buried with full military honours. The island is left deserted again now.
Giristroula and I landed on the very final flung island of Greece. Kastelorizo. A military gunship sat in the harbour. It rumbled and growled all day and night, like a small wary dog, ready for any sudden movements by Turkey across the water. We walked along the quayside. I’d heard people talk about Kaselorizo and how sorry they were for the people who have to live there. “Akritiko” people say of this island – far away and forgotten. But actually Kastelorizo was doing very well for itself. The cafes are prosperous and full. The taverna owners busy and rich. Once upon a time there were 10,000 people living on Kastelorizo, now there are about 400 residents. Many people from Kastelorizo emigrated to Australia. “Kazzies” they call themselves over there. Australian accents are now outside the tavernas as people come back to visit the island they had descended from. The harbour has big sea turtles that float languidly by, but the tourists have fed them with tidbits from their plates and now the turtles have got a taste for meat. A swim across the bay is fraught with danger as you run the risk of a snapper going for you. Giristroula and I swam nervously around the island, the sea crystal clear, our shadows stalking us below as we swam. Sea caves and grottos bluer and more beautiful than Capri. Kastelorizo was, bizarrely, chosen by prime minister Giorgos Papandreou back in April 2010 to declare that Greece was bankrupt. He stood by the achingly pretty harbour, next to the sparkling waters and told the nation down the television camera that they had all eaten the money together.
“Giorgos Malaka we call him,” said one of the taverna owners to us as we sat and drank a souma – a tsipouro with a taste of mastiha, popular in the islands in this part of Greece.
“When a prime minister comes to your island, you think he’s going to improve the island, not say we’ve all gone bankrupt… Then the malaka went for a swim!”
Giristroula and I climbed the rock strewn hills of Kasalorizo. From the high peaks you can see the chain of islets in the sea running from here to Turkey, like a rope barrier saying ‘this is the end of the line – no more Greece beyond.’ Coming back down the side of the hill above the island’s stone police station, I saw a man pissing against the wall. This was Mohammed. I stopped and chatted awhile. Mohammed and his friend Ahmed had come from Syria. They have been waiting here for two weeks to be allowed to take a boat to the mainland. The island’s one policeman had allowed them to sleep in the cell each night. Ahmed told me he had previously walked all the way from the border with Turkey at Erdine to Thessaloniki. But he had been sent back to Turkey. He didn’t know what to do. He knew Lesvos was a bad place to end up, the camps at bursting point. He looked on Google maps and saw how close Kastelorizo was to Greece.
“No one knows this place.” Ahmed said to me. “But it looked so much closer.”
“How did you get over?” I asked him.
“Swam” he said. “It took all night. I had to keep going under the water. Waiting for the police boats to go. I had one bag round my neck.”
“You’re a good swimmer then?” I said.
“No. I hadn’t really swum before. I waited in Turkey. I stayed in the town of Demre and every day I went to the sea and I practised swimming. I swam and the next day I swam a bit further. Then the next day I practised swimming a bit further. I swam for one hour, then the next day two hours, then the next day three hours. When I could do two kilometres. I knew I could swim over the sea to here.”
Ahmed and Mohammed wanted to go to Sweden. Mohammed had a brother there. Over the next few days as Giristroula and I sat around Katelorizo doing nothing, bathing like fat seals in the sun on the harbour front, I saw Ahmed had managed to get himself some work while he waited and waited to be told if he could leave this tiny island. An amazingly bad tempered café owner barked orders at Ahmed as he limped with a bad leg, lugging crates of empty bottles. Ahmed would wrestle with the umbrellas on the beachfront every night.
In the evenings I would stand on the rocky hills, at the end of Greece, at the end of the continent, and watch the sun dying into the sea and would lose myself in thought. My country was leaving Europe. I wondered if I would be allowed to stay. Nothing was ever said by governments and ministers. Politcians had decided it was best just to leave people dangling. Would I need citizenship? But then a nagging thought hit me. A thought that had been there but which I tried to ignore… Was I even really so sure I wanted to stay in Greece anyway? It came as a shock to even think it, but I had to ask myself. Where was I going in this world? I had fallen into the classic Greek mess of living in a house on top of my wife’s parents – trapped in that oppressive, loud, emotional theatre of home life as all Greek parents seem to want for their children. Daily I had to deal with the Greeks with their pride and their reluctance to ever apologise or admit ignorance and laughing like schoolboys when caught cheating. The absurd conventions and rituals that meant the Greeks would run you over as you cross the road if you haven’t met before, but would do anything for you if you were a friend of a friend of a friend. The huge capacity for generosity and kindness. The huge feeling of suspicion and anger.
As I watched a sunset like coloured glass shattering into the sea, I knew I needed the beauty of Greece. The air and the light that always seemed as if it had just been washed clean. But did the Greek people secretly know they didn’t really deserve all this? The old men and women walking around wearing faces of bad luck and unhappiness like the masks from some ancient tragedy. Could I ever really be accepted here? But then, this strangeness of Greece actually underwrote my existence. I was free in Greece. Why would I want to be back in Britain? I knew as soon as I left, I would be desperate to return.
Giristroula walked up the hill and joined me in the last of the day’s orange light. I wanted to tell her how I knew that I should stay. Giristroula looked at me.
“You have to stay,” she said, with a bite of her lip. “The Panayia of Filerimos seems to have worked her magic. Yiname tris tora…”
I worked this around my head, looked out across the sea while I translated. Then looked back at her. There’s three of us?
Giristroula took my hand. “Ehis rizosi tora pia stin Ellada.” – Your roots are deep in Greece now.
We turned to look at the sea together. The sky and the water had turned dark, but all I could see was colour. I realised, inside, I was singing.