My coffee steams on the stone wall its surface swirling anti-clockwise from my stirring. I am anti – clockwise. The small citrus trees in the garden are like children and the morning sun shines through them and their translucent leaves. Spiders weave silver thread ladders of light between branches. Yesterday we drank from a Venetian spring and climbed over a broken gate into a walled orange grove and shook sweet oranges from the trees – sweet, sweet oranges. We came back to Kardamili down the old kalderimi, my little bird chirruping and holding my hand all the way down. She noticed how the olive trees beneath us spread their shadows like roots across the ground.
I’m taking my time, the plane is delayed by an hour – spinach and cheese pie- pink oleander shake in the breeze on the edge of the highway.
Refugees land on Lesvos and there are photos in The Mail of disgruntled tourists passing by with stone in their eyes.
They lie on benches
beneath the old town colonnade-
tourists pass by on leisure bikes.
‘They watch us while we eat !’ –
don’t you see the horror
bedded in that child’s eye?
Why don’t you feed the thin
not just the cats
beneath the table
that rub your ample calves
with their purring snouts.
Back in Stoupa watching the sun on the sea, mindful of other shores.
Watching the sea go dark. There’s a solitary boat in the middle of Selintsa bay riding the restless bulk, with only a small light to stop night from falling.
Each evening I see him
on the dark bulk,
trusting caulked plants
with a small light that keeps
night from falling.
Strange music rocks his cradle
dithyrambs in the dark
on the rise and fall
of relentless breath.
He rides tideless hours
till dawn severs sea from sky
and he returns
with the lustrous dead, thyroid eyed
for the tables of the living.
Down in Stoupa watching a still sea. A man does exercises on the sand while I stroke a blond dog. All is still and quiet. The voices of two men walking along the front echo against the quiet. They carry packed lunches and flask and walk briskly in dirty boots.
‘καλιμερα’. I say.
And then their voices descend into the distance.
Bought some bread and croissant from the miserables and headed back up to the house.
12 noon – Kalogria
Pidgeons coo in the tamarisk trees – their shade stretches a cool canopy over me – and the heating sand – where Churny and Mark bake. The sea is calm and cold and drinks blue light from the sun.
When this day is done other boys will come and a new dance will begin. That man with the black hair over his body, I knew as a boy. He had a slanted chip on his tooth and a big smile.
– Behind me there is someone with a hammer and a saw and someone screwing.
Grass in Greece is unkind, even in spring. The same is true of hotel grass, it’s uncomfortable to sit on, a little sharp here and there, as if it’s trying to tell us what it wants to be, not what it’s being forced to be.
11.30am – Tom and me catch a taxi from Syntagma heading for Kifissos Bus Terminal and our connection to Kalamata. The traffic is heavy, our driver, Voula, tells us that it is Big Wednesday when many people leave the city to head to their villages in time for Good Friday. I hear on the radio that Greece’s new Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, is in Moscow for talks with Putin about the Greek debt crisis. I ask Voula if she supports Syriza in their fight against austerity politics. She confirms that she does, and sees them as the only hope that Greece has of relief from the iron grip of unpayable debt. In the coming months, I will hear this repeated many times by those who are not traditionally on the left of politics. It is clear that this proud people have become weary of the relentless oppression of economic and social collapse, meted out by the financial elites of Northern Europe.
We walk down the dark kalderimi to Stoupa. In the long grass there are strange lights like seedling stars fallen to earth. And behind us the strange musical whirr of something that we have stirred in passing, the invisible presence pursues us for a while and all is quiet beneath the majesty of stars.
In To Steki (which means.. the hangout..) We eat chicken pitta and drink too much wine. I talk to Giorgos, a tall handsome 58 year old man from Sparti. He tells me of his time as a student in Athens when he’d watch Nikolas Asimos perform his radical songs and performance theatre, in the squares around central Athens. Tom asks Giorgos if he works locally.
‘Of course not. I have worked for many years, both here and in Germany, but not now. I come here, I look at that (he points out of the open door to the moon that floats in shards on the rippling sea). This is all I need. For 1 euro, I can buy a coffee and look at this. For 1 euro I can fill my heart.’
I stutter through Athens on the Airport Express and see its worn out streets through a streaked veil of rain and dirt. Car doors, limbs ripped from carcasses are neatly lined up outside or above the many reclamation shops. Graffiti, political and puerile plunders every wall and brown rivers of rain run down dirty streets. The Acropolis, high white and proud in the summer, barely lifts itself above the miserable shroud over the city
We pass a church and a defaced poster of moaning Merkel, the woman next to me crosses herself twice. Praising God and warding off the devil? The traffic is heavy and the only colour is from empty cans on patches of rain soaked grass.
Drenched people talk on cheap phones and rain falls in steel spears skewering eyes to the ground, or so it seems through steam clogged windows. Everything is an impression, a moving Monet of another miserable day.
Athens Airport Express
Crawling through exhausted streets
steel rain drips off door limbs
ripped from car-casses lined up neatly
outside reclamation shops.
Political and puerile graffiti plunders every wall,
and brown rivers run down dirty streets.
The Acropolis, bone white and regal in summer,
barely lifts itself above the shrouded city.
We pass a church
and a defaced poster of moaning Merkel,
the young woman next to me
crosses herself twice.
Colour is from empty cans
on sodden green patches of grass.
Drenched people talk on cheap phones
and rain falls in spears
skewering eyes to the ground.
Through condensation clogged windows
this impression, a moving Monet
of another, miserable day.
Just back from a swim in the ice water of Kalogria. Cold as it was the beach and the sea belonged only to me – I’m now on Churny’s shelf above the olive trees watching storm clouds gather strength above the wind whipped waves. The sun shines two spotlights onto the empty stage and I wait. Swifter than a winged devil it comes hurtling from the sea, dragging wet night in its wake. I retreat rapidly, with barely enough time to shut the glass door before it hits, blasting thick pebble drops against the glass that explode opacity, one after the other, little bombs of blindness. I can see the tall olive tree, its silver clad branches thrashed this way and that. I press my forehead against the running glass and the sky flickers like a faulty florescent strip light, then BANG! The air cracks and vibrates with the violence of a mountain splitting in two. The window rattles with more rain and electric noise, and then it stops.
I go outside and the aftermath is a crackle of drips like a bonfire that spits wet from wood. Sunshine wraps leaves in a cellophane sheen and a river runs down the road making pools from potholes. The black skin of my car is scarred by blisters, that burst and run down, or roast in the sun to rise as clouds.
Walked up the hill to Neohori. Half way up Frank and Joan stopped to give me a lift, we stopped at the olive press and I helped Frank carry his canned oil harvest back to the car. Had a beer in their lovely house then walked down the black lane beneath constellations and shooting stars to the village. Had a beer at the Kafenion and met Mary who was pleased with her haul from the gypsy market in Kalamata. Walked home watching flashes across the bay and stars disappear.
9.45 Pesto Pasta and bed. The storm draws close, but is yet to explode – there’s time.
I’m on my second cup of coffee and the breeze is up. For the first time I see that the trees in the ravine are changing colour and will soon shed their leaves.
I’ve wandered around Stoupa this bright cool morning and now I sit on sea damp steps watching leashed boat boogie. There is a meringue whip on the water as it swirls above hidden rocks. Dark clouds are gathering on Mount Kastro and I suddenly feel cold and alone, so I rise and walk along the empty path to nowhere in particular. I see a family sitting behind thick polythene that protects them from the growing wind and notice that there is a sign on the gate that says open. Not wanting to intrude upon the family indoors, I sit in the wind by the open gate and hope to be noticed.
She brought me meat and feta and said that I should come inside.
They smoked thin cigars and played chess, narrowing their eyes before every move. The wind rose and the polythene billowed, but we were warm and played the board while drinking yellow wine, Maria, Stavros, Yiannis, friends for a time.
The day is fading as I labour up the hill to home. Dogs bark and a large flock of birds settles in the giant walnut tree to chatter away the last of the light. I sit outside the house wrapped up, with a glass of retsina, and watch dim die to dark. The sky is clear and the stars stand out. I watch them for hours. Those that drop from black cliffs falling into forever – those that glide over this organic blip – and those that sit still years above the sky. I watch one fall to the left of The Plough and wonder ‘how?
December now and still it’s warm. Fallen olives dry on the flat moss top of the stone wall, birds prattle on olive vacant branches, goat bells cross the ravine and tethered dogs are quiet. Today the wind utters nothing so the day stands still. An insipid orange hangs from a child tree and low clouds cloy the mountain a mile from the sun, so it shines, oh how it shines!
Anthony Quinn danced in the sand here flicking grains with the toes of his dusty boots. On the beach a straw chair stands forgotten among the tamarisk trees – Pefko signs, with special offers, are wedged behind a gate and the sand has crusted undulations from the summer past. This place rests after the madness of the greyheads.
I’ve struggled around the rutted rocks searching for a path along the coast, my sweat drips in stars onto the frozen lava. But now I sit, just me, the sea, a bobbing boat with a canopy, distant Koroni and a man with a rod hooking ψαρι.
I’m thirsty and my heads a little light, but I’m thankful I’ve not had to deal with the fight or flight. I scramble up the dry mud cliff into an olive grove where a family are at work laying nets beneath the trees to catch the olives. The groves are green with lush grass, I greet the family as I pass and they greet me back enthusiastically, which is usually the way in these parts.
Ι’ve found the former home of the great man Nikos Kazantzakis. It is said that it was here that he met the legendary Zorba and the events that unfolded were the inspiration for his novel Zorba the Greek. Even today this is a tranquil spot, the house is tucked away by the mouth of a deep cut ravine. There is clearly plenty of water because the vegetation is prolific and on a warm day such as this the heat is tropical. I can see the man himself high on the balcony of this house that is grown from the rock beneath it. I can see him inhaling the morning air his head full of ideas as he draws water from the deep stone well in his garden. The great man is here and his legacy is in the words he left, words that make men like me seek him out.
5 pm. Steki’s for some wine and a giros pitta. The spell is broken by a conversation with a couple of Daily Mail readers who buy the lie of austerity and blame the Greeks for their current plight. I do my best to break through concrete then leave, in the dark, for the uphill climb home.
The sun is here again and the heat will rise to an unseasonal 21/22 c. There’s a wind growing so I wedge the shutters open with a thick dictionary and sit before a familiar view. This window is captured space, my space in my time, constant. The curves of the coast from Agious Nikoloas to the faded beyond won’t change. Things move across. Humming bird bees in a blur of wings hover as they dip their probes into the tired flowers of the over raped bougainvillea. A small group of swallows add a vignette of elegant dance. A red kite glides across, scouring the rough earth, its elongated twin syllable cry adds a dash of death.
All pass and others come and go, but the curve of the coast stays the same. There are sudden storms that close the picture down, but behind the curtain of cloud and rain the curves of the coast are the same.
When the fat dictionary that quotes the dead is withered by wet and wind. When its pages are mush dried by the sun and crumble in hot winds to be blown away. These shutters will close and behind the shuttered blank of latticed wood, the curves of the coast will be the same.
I’ve never known November air so thick with olive smoke,
that rolls up mountain flanks to make the sunshine choke.
I’ve just had a go at chopping the bougainvillea, but will need ladders and hours. The rain was heavy last night and rushed in rivers down the streets of Stoupa. I was ankle deep, best boots soaked. This morning is calm, just the mournful barks of tethered dogs and a light breeze that carries a damp cool.
Dark clouds gathering above the olive press have already consumed the sun. Thin branches on the untamed olive trees are beginning to stir. Across the ravine there’s a dead boat by the dead caves, a mile from the sea. It seems re-floated upon the swaying trees, waves of branches swirl it around as a storm grows close.
Thunder rolls across the sea and dogs bark.
A butter sun fights back with milky light.
There are chainsaws in the olive groves and rising smoke from hidden fires. Out to sea is varied light – to the west the sun screams through gaps in the cloud and limbs of light make Trachila stark black, and the hump-back peninsula a ghost – no, now Trachila is blessed by the only sharp light.
A giant cloud sent from the mountain trawls darkness across the land, blackening this house, all houses. It steals the silver from olive leaves, sapphire from the sea, emeralds from the fields. Tethered dogs make mournful cries and cocks make raucous crows ‘spare the life of me…spare the life of me!’ People hide in bars – lock themselves in cars. Those in the open hug the gnarled trunks of trees, pressing fleshy cheeks into calloused bark. Yellow birds dare not fly, dare not dart, dare not sing lest they die. It moves out across the sea and in the air thunder rolls, light flickers on the bellies of olive leaves and glitters on the ruffled rug of a disturbed sea.
They feed us the banquet of the dead – food rotten when first served decades ago – is now fluffed with downy hairs of mould – they tell the Greeks to eat shit or die – so they eat shit and still they die – let’s die with hunger’s rat eating our insides – not with rotten food wrapped – in the mould of age old lies.
An attractive woman smokes and leaves herself open to me.
I drink wine as the weather closes in again. In time I will be a column of smoke taken by the wind.
Front terrace, sunny warm.
Last night rain and wind swarmed around the house. Now it’s calm. A few black olives lie on the stone wall and broken branches litter the damp kalderimi, but the tumultuous night will soon be forgotten.
I took a box of chilli con carne to Julia before the storm, she told me that Colin had died. Today I smarten myself up and walk down the broken road to the church.
I meet Colin in the flesh, lying there, old ex-pats looking at each other wondering who will be next. A Greek man comes into the church with a bunch of wild flowers and places them gently on the dead man’s chest. Two Greek men sing from a heavy book while the Pappas stands above the dead man, stern. Two scruffy Greek men heave the open coffin from its place before the alter and cart it unsteadily from the church. We follow, there are no tears. I leave before the burial and head for To Steki’s for a coffee.
The funeral party turn up and join me at my table. I last half an hour, make weak excuses and escape along the coast to Trachila. Here I am at the end of the world, in the sun with tzatziki, olives and the blue swell beating the harbour wall – It’s good to be alive.
Driving back, melancholic – emotional. Goodbye is a small death, something ends in the tick of a second, never to be retrieved.
Alone in the car, no banter, even The Cure get on my nerves.
Back at the house – a cup of coffee left by Jules in the early hours, congeals.
Sitting outside the house, shielded from the sun by a small orange tree, listening to the bells of Neohorio as they pour past, rolling down the ravine to the sea. There’s a breeze strong enough to shift the weakest branches that bend with the weight of over ripe olives. In the shade I feel the slow slap of winter, in the sun, more than a memory of summer.
Met the neighbour Julia, she lives in the house two olive groves away up the hill. Her husband collapsed the other day and lies in a coma at the hospital in Kalamata, Colin.
My Jules sleeps behind the bougainvillea, warm as a burrowed mole, shuttered in the dark, dreaming dreams in light that should have come inside the night.
The sun climbs unhindered and we have another day of wood smoke and warmth. How to grasp the trick of standing in the sun, it is harder to hold than water. An eye has a reservoir for tears held back until times of need, it take in light, but can’t hold onto it. The brain stores facsimiles, poor prints of lighted days. Light is ill remembered, this is why we try to live in it and want it to carry us through our days.
Shirtless John reads poetry.
Jules lies in the sun.
Jules sits in the olive grove by the rock holding the final moments of her stay.
John sits on the balcony creaking in the blue chair, feeling the fading heat of the final day – eyes closed, face aglow with falling sun.
Tomorrow I drive them to Athens.
Tucked beneath the breast of the mountain Saidona is a small, high village. Tonight we are joined by locals Richard and Claire and eat in Katerina’s one room kafenion, us on one table the family on the other. The fare is fine, with local wine and talk of football and politics. The Syriza star is rising.
Sitting on the wooden bench outside the house I wait for the sun to rise above the black jag of the nearest peak. At home we light bonfires today and the night will scream. Here the day comes with the voices of varied birds and the promise of warmth from the sun that climbs the eastern flanks of The Taygetos. Sparti will already be sparkling on its plain and the Evrotis will be snaking silver towards Gytheio, but I must wait in the cool a little longer, with steaming coffee and steaming breath.
I lay with the night – her voice owl eyes in dark trees – her heart the half dark moon – her children stringing away to forever – wide-eyed awake I lay with her – the night.
I’m not tired. The sun comes!
Across the ravine on a high rock by the Lazarus caves I sit with my face in the sun. It’s hot already, I can see that the house is still shuttered – John and Jules languish in dark rooms not yet ready to allow the day in.
Kalogria with John.
A man in black trunks does Tai Chi in the waves. Tai Chi in the waves! What a place this is.
In the waves with John, the calm of yesterday is gone and we are thrown about like children. There is just a young woman on the beach now, alone, beseaching the sky, drawing in the sand with ballerina toes. Elegantly engrossed with all of it.
Last night in bed I thought I was dead. Now this – surely the closest thing to bliss.
I meet the coast path half way between Agious Nikoloas and Stoupa. To the right Stoupa is hidden by the castle rock, to the left Ag. Nik. nestles a km away around the bend of the coast, just visible is its 17th century tower house. I turn my back on the sun that has edged above the mountains and let it warm my neck and hair – do not face the winter glare. The sea is still – a small white boat, no more than a dab of a brush on a painter’s canvass, sits and waits. An old man walks by on the path above my sitting place in the rocks. He carries a transistor radio that sings Greek music from a tin and hurries on, flattening the back of his hair with his hand, he doesn’t see me.
Beneath the sea a rock sparkles, catching the sun. Sparkles a rich vein of light through dark cold lava. Mountains line up ridge on ridge down to the sea – stretching east one upon the other until they fade in the mist of morning. They are waiting to join the White Mountains of Crete or to stride out to Africa.
Kalogria Beach with John – warm sun – luke warm sea. Sunlight falls from a cloudless sky – it’s bonfire night tomorrow, a day of smoke, damp and cold. The sea laps its eternal music against the shore – a man and woman in wetsuits climb aboard a small boat with a Greek captain. The sun beats down on sand pitted by absent feet, the undulations of a summer gone. November and the sun beats down on John and me.
Late Afternoon To Steki’s.
A cloud comes in – alone – flat as a thick pancake seen side on – it stays – blue above – blue below – sun wedged in its fold – dripping syrup to the sea – that flows in gentle pulses to our feet – ‘it’s beautiful’ I say to a woman who sees the same as me – she smiles ‘it’s almost nothing, yet it is beautiful’.