Once upon a time, there was a young English woman who went to live on the island of Symi for a year. She worked at a brand new English language school as the teacher and manager and lived ‘over the shop’ in the brand new apartment. She had lived there before, in the summer, and so had local friends and knew her way around.
The school opened at the beginning of September and all went well. Registrations were high, students were (by and large) happy and so was she. As the nights drew in, she met others who were on the island for the winter for the first time, too. Friendships grew and fun was had. The work was interesting, if not challenging (unlike some parents’ expectations and resulting behaviour, but that’s a PhD thesis right there) and every day life went on.
As it was long ago and far away, there was no Internet and there were no cell phones (imagine that, children!). Post arrived once a week by boat (unless the sea was up) and she took pleasure in having the letters reach her addressed simply to her first name, Symi, Greece. The phone lines were in short supply but she was lucky enough to have access to one in the school room.
But this young woman was born walking. She had a restless nature and these simple pleasures alone were not enough to contain it, nor were weekends on Rhodes (and the fun one in Athens). The walls began to close in, the animal(istic) noises at night and the burning stares around the harbour (from those who couldn’t read) became oppressive. What to do? The answer came in a phone call. Come to Paros!
She bought a one-way boat ticket and then thought ‘how will this work?’. A good friend (who’s even better now) took her to the doctor with strict instructions to look miserable and say nothing. The three outsiders (none was native to the island) sat in the consulting room and looked at each other, then the young woman cast her eyes down and her friend and the doctor talked over her. It was clear, said the doctor, that the patient was suffering from ‘Rock Fever’ and needed a pass. The usual prescription was for a few days on Rhodes. The patient shook her head miserably (as instructed). ‘Hmmm, this is the worst case I have seen in a while’, he said before signing off on a seven-day pass, sighing, and wishing the patient a safe journey.
Two other good friends (they are better now, too) were taken into confidence and the young woman set off on the high seas (and they were) to Paros. It was a long journey, but never dull, ending in the kind of docking that can only leave a lifelong admiration for the skills of Greek mariners. When told to jump, she jumped and landed safely on the harbour side. There then followed a week wrapped in quilts and tsipouro, with occasional dashes into the kitchen for her to cook nursery food or through the driving wind and rain to the food, company and real fire of a taverna.
As all good things must, this one came to an end. One of the good friends (now better), managed to contact her to say time and the game were up. Fond farewells were said and a dash was made for a light aircraft. The seven-day pass expired, the young woman felt weller and returned to work. Nothing was said, except by the children who said they’d missed her and her drawings (she used to illustrate their note books for them, you see). A rumour grew that she’d been to Paris, but it simply made her laugh and she fed it enough that it became a fact. The seven-day pass from the doctor had worked so well, there was not even a hint of ‘Rock Fever’ to follow and the young woman was able to serve out the rest of her contract calmly.
First published on axrhodes on 13/07/2013
My three days on Symi are nearing an end, so I’m back at Elpida’s for ship’s biscuit – my boat sails in four hours and this time I’m going to be prepared. I’ve been able to keep my room until I leave for Rhodes, as usual. An Italian couple, who were supposed to take it today, took one look at it when they arrived on the morning boat and fled, making horrified noises. Truly, I did nothing to occasion this reaction. Really, truly.
It’s been a good, long weekend. When I arrived, it was on choppy seas so decided to spend the day in the harbour area, swim from the steps below the room, and relax. Just after settling down outside the room to read in the shade, two people (one man, one woman) ran past me at high speed. Given the afternoon temperature of 35 degrees (Celsius, US readers) and that I was perched at the top of one flight of vertiginous steps, with another two flights to clear to reach the top road, I was very impressed at their haste.
The need for speed was explained when an overweight man in yellow polo shirt (sartorial mistake), with two black pouch bags slung around him, appeared, far less swiftly, at the bottom of the steps. He whispered at me and gesticulated. I thought ‘weirdo alert’ and studiously ignored him. This did not work. He came up another two steps and said, louder and slowly: ‘Where. Are. You. From?’ I replied by pointing in the direction of Rhodes. Encouraged by this, he then said: ‘Do. Not. Worry. I. Am. Tax. Man’. Why Marvel comics did not feature this character became apparent when he puffed his way level with me and pointed in the direction of the long gone runners. I am told that arrests were made and that ‘Tax. Man’ and his colleagues have now left The Rock. In any case, yesterday still had to happen – so it did.
Saturday night, I’d spent time with friends discussing ‘What-do-we-do-if-it’s-still-choppy-out-there-tomorrow?’ I wondered if it was going to be another day swimming from the steps with ‘Tax. Man’ haunting the streets, while listening to Man U supporters sobbing into their beer. As it turned out, Sunday was plain sailing, so I headed to Agia Marina with two friends and we had a splendid time – catching the last boat back as the sun set behind The Rock. We did get soaked in the boat. We did not sing sea shanties (I was restrained).
In the evening, I ate late at Tholos – once again trying to be the last to order and once again being beat by a Greek couple. Close to midnight, a helicopter entered the harbour area and went straight to the landing pad – it emerged that a local restaurateur had suffered a heart attack and needed to be taken to hospital urgently. Luckily, he had received emergency medical attention on The Rock and the helicopter arrived in time to make a difference. I heard today that the patient is in a stable condition in hospital in Rhodes and that he may be moved to Athens for further treatment. Another reminder of the fragility of living on The Rock and the need for speed.
I wrote this for axrhodes on 02/09/2013
Before a sea crossing, I find it always helps to be hydrated and to line the stomach. Those who are carb-phobic, look away now. Yes, the ship’s biscuit is the thing – minus weevils, of course (unless you’re truly desperate for protein). Ship’s biscuit can be toast, plain cookies, potato chips or crackers and it does the trick. This also helps, incidentally, on other occasions when you might be feeling bilious for all sorts of other reasons – but that’s another post for another day.
I don’t get seasick – so am a very fortunate island native and dweller, but for some odd reason I do like to tempt fate (as in so many areas of my life). Last night, knowing I would be taking the boat to Symi today, I decided to go out for a drink (or two-ish). I’ve long passed the stage where I needed Dutch courage to face The Rock again, so can only conclude that this now-developing habit is to test myself (Am I really immune to seasickness? etc.). Luckily, last night’s test was way short of April 2012, when prayers and talking to someone about their terminal illness (scuppering my self-pity very successfully) were all that prevented me from throwing up as we hit the waves.
I had a reasonable night’s sleep last night, though Daft Punk on a loop at 3a.m. with ‘Get Lucky’ didn’t make me feel very fortunate. A very detailed, very good dream woke me up smiling anyway. At 6.30, I checked the shipping news by looking out the window and watching a couple of yachts and a cruise ship pass the lighthouse. Hmm, choppy and windy. I packed for my two-frock-trip, took a cold shower, closed the shutters (in a, probably, vain attempt to keep out lizards and an intrepid kitten) and left the yard. Departure was delayed slightly by my getting a three-day pass.
I went to have ship’s biscuit and coffee with a friend en route to the harbour. We chatted as we always do, and, once the world was put to rights, I left. However, I forgot to use the bathroom – big mistake, boys and girls, big mistake. Parents are right to tell you to go before you go. They so are. I was on the boat ten minutes before departure and found a comfortable seat on the air-conditioned lower deck in the middle of the cabin – proud of myself, I was budging for no-one. The Pride was bursting with people and I knew that, once we set sail, all those enjoying the view on the top deck would soon be coming down below to avoid seaspray and falling overboard.
I sat tight, the boat glided past the lighthouse and the captain put his foot to the floor (yes, I do know that’s not the correct nautical term). This is when I discovered that not only had I forgotten to use the bathroom while I had the chance, I had also forgotten my headphones to drown out the sound of children screaming and the general public vomiting. I sat tight, the boat bumped and bounced while I recalled last night’s dream in an effort to distract myself, and hoped no-one would throw up over me (or even within olfactory range).
Well, I survived today’s self-imposed test (with the no-headphone variable) and set foot on dry land to head directly to the butcher’s wife’s rooms. My room wasn’t ready, the previous occupants had just left on the boat that brought me in. The cleaner took my bag, gave me a key and said I should come back in an hour. I went for a walk around the harbour, marvelled that there was (a) a breeze on Symi and (b) that the breeze was cool. Then, I remembered I needed the bathroom, urgently. I arrived at Elpida’s to hear her husband had sailed for Datça – so, I used the bathroom while she got news that he’d arrived in Turkey. She then brought me coffee, juice and ship’s biscuit (this last unordered but guess I looked like I needed it). It’s done the trick. I’m now going to my room…more from Symi later, people.
I first posted this on axrhodes on 31/08/2013
Yes, it’s not hot enough for me in Rhodes Old Town, so I’ve swapped cobblestones for steps and am spending the weekend on Symi. My feet are happy, my calf and thigh muscles in shock. There’s no special occasion, it was simply high time I took the trip – so I did. This report is coming to you from Εlpida’s cafe – from her front row seats for the few super yachts which can squeeze into the harbour – in a rare space of peace and relative quiet (no shouting, yet).
My Symi weekends start on Saturday night and end on Monday afternoon – thanks to Dodecanese Seaways’ current schedule. I leave Rhodes on Saturday at 19.00 and am usually in Symi by 19.50. Although this weekend there was a switch of boat and harbour and arrival time to 20.45, this still will impress those of you reading who remember the halcyon days of the Symi I (more than two hours, even with a following wind, and seamanship to rival Captain Pugwash – enough said). I return on the 17.00 boat – back in Rhodes by 18.30 on Monday. These days, two nights every few weeks is just about right for me.
When the boat pulls into the harbour, I still get a buzz from the view on deck. It’s one of those skylines in the world which never tires, for me, along with (say) London from the air, Colchester from the train and San Francisco from the sea. What gives me an even greater boost is knowing that my room is only five minutes’ walk from where the boat docks and, even better, there are few steps to reach it. I stay in the butcher’s wife’s rooms – Stamatia’s place.
My room has a view – all of Stamatia’s rooms have a view. It is of the sea and yachts and Turkey and my favourite restaurant (more on that later). It is set back a little from the main drag and attracts photo-hungry tourists. I’m not sure why, but it does mean that I have to be careful when going outside to remember that it’s not secluded or private (nowhere on Symi is private) and to make sure I’m decent (well, as close as, for an Essex girl).
Saturday night I’m a latchkey kid – the key is left in the door for me, I see myself in, wash, change clothes and head out. I say hello, take in some of the sights and sounds, block out some of the others, smile broadly at anyone on an expensive yacht who looks remotely sentient and go to the Vapori for a drink – I just have one for the road back round the harbour before yachties and ‘regular visitors’ arrive.
‘Regular visitors’ are a type of tourist who eschew that term – Symi and Lindos in this region, in particular, attract them. You know, they’re the ones who’ve been here 394 times (not counting that first time they came on a daytrip from Rhodes – a place they now claim to loathe) and are best friends with simply all the people who matter (but still can’t understand or use the language their best friends speak).
On Sunday (that’s today), I head out to a beach on a boat. Recently, I’ve developed a serious Agia Marina habit. That doesn’t look like it’s going to change today and I’ll probably take the 11.00 boat. Sometimes I have company, sometimes I don’t – either way it works – today, I’m waiting for a call to find out whether a friend will join me on the beach or if we’ll just meet for dinner tonight.
Monday, the furthest I’ll go is Pedi or Nimborios – push comes to shove, I can walk back from both even when the heat is blistering; because I have a boat to catch and can’t be too careful. In the morning, I walk round the harbour to have a final catch up, before heading to the butcher’s to pay. Now, here’s the thing – I could leave the money in my room, I could hand the money to Stamatia when I see her in the harbour, I could leave the money with a friend to pay when they go to buy meat, but I don’t. I really enjoy going into the butcher’s to pay the money over the blood and carcasses. It gives me a buzz – money, blood and meat. Something visceral about it. Maybe I spent too long in Sicily?
Anyway, back to dinner, my favourite restaurant, there’s another thing. After my one drink at the Vapori, I walk right the way back round the harbour, past my room, through the boatyard and on to Tholos. That is where I eat. Yes, there are loads of other restaurants to choose from – up hill and down dale, prices to suit all budgets, food to suit most tastes – but Tholos is the only place, for me. If someone asked me to describe my perfect place to eat, I would describe Tholos. Here’s why.
Location, location, location – it’s on the point at the far end of the harbour, bringing breeze and (some) peace away from the main drag. It is on the water’s edge – your dinner may be swimming at your feet and you may feed your dinner to someone else’s (future)dinner. Style – less is more. There’s no music; you can hear the sea, the wind and each other when you speak. Plain white table linen and crockery and simple, effective lighting – no walls, it’s all outside, so the decoration is the view (from all sides). Service – polite, discreet, effective, unobtrusive. Food – cooked on site, from fresh – understood and treated (as are those who eat it) with respect. I never look at the menu – food is suggested, I agree. And it’s a family affair.
I am always happy when I’m there – if I could choose where I had my last meal on this earth, that’s where it would be. I’d die smiling and haunt for second helpings.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, the noise levels and heat have increased here at the cafe and I have a boat to catch.
First published on axrhodes on 21/07/2013
My favourite Agia Marina is still the small bay on Symi – there the blues are as blue as they could be. Over ten years ago, the land there was bought by an Italian woman and her husband and they set about developing it at great personal cost (in many ways). What they created, and now lease to others who have added their own touches, is a great place to relax, eat, and play sport – as well as swim, of course.
I visited several times last year and plan to do so again soon, in time for the name day of Agia Marina on 17 July, but the visit I remember most fondly is one in September on the weekend of the blue moon. I went with a friend and her son and it was such a perfect day I doubt anything could have been added to improve it. It’s possible to walk to the bay, but the boat trip is part of the whole experience and means you can arrive feeling fresh and having seen those blues up close already. So, we went by boat.
We took beds and a parasol under the trees at the far end of the beach. Then we swam – I like to swim to the small islet in the middle of the bay and go for a walk there. This time I swam there with my friend’s son. Almost at the islet, wordlessly, we both stopped to tread water and look around. We could smell the dry herbs from the bay behind us and see the small chapel on the islet, but what had stopped us were the blues.
Such blues. He had plans to study abroad and I was about to leave for California. However, right there, right then, those blues we agreed were unique and would stay with us – to join whatever colour palette we put together on our travels. He swam back to the beach and I carried on to the islet, had my walk and swam back around the yachts, through the sea clear as glass.
We then ate food I still can’t quite believe I had – it was so good. The way it looked on the plate, the tastes (expected and unexpected – all a joy) and the smells. Luckily, my friend took pictures or I’d still believe I’d dreamt it. Then it was off to dodge hornets while playing table tennis – personally, I think my game improved as a result (fear of being stung, maybe). All the time, there was a soundtrack of light jazz, people chatting and children playing. Eventually, I caught as late a boat back to the main harbour as I dared, leaving just enough time to catch the night boat back to Rhodes.
This was first posted on axrhodes on 17/07/2013
I’ve visited Crete several times now, always in the winter. I was predisposed to like the place and its people: from listening to my father’s, rarely told but always heard, stories from World War II; from reading tales of ancient history; and simply from meeting Cretans themselves. Eventually, my first visit came in early January 1992 during my seasonal break from teaching in Rhodes. The text which follows comes from the journal I kept at the time.
I sailed into Heraklion, the ship gliding on a glassy sea. It was a crisp January morning, under a bright blue sky, and snow-covered mountains fringed the city. Those sugar mountains were my very first impression of the island as I came up on deck after the night crossing. I checked into a twilight hotel in this bustling city of faded, charming, careworn streets, then went out to meet up with my beaming, absorbed, Cretan friends. I’d never seen them on home ground before and they appeared transformed, larger than life, so happy to be ‘home’.
I was mesmerized by the street markets and traders – it was the season for bananas and they were everywhere at 400 drachma a kilo. They were just part of a wonderful selection of fresh fruit and vegetables – all brightly colored and even brighter tasting. There were cheese wheels, animal carcasses, loaves of bread, paximadia, and loukoumades. These last I had for breakfast – I’d never tried them before – a syrup-coated dough confection, deep-fried and covered with chopped nuts.
The next day, I headed out on the road to Rethymnon – passing ‘banana houses’, bee hives, new hotels, coves, mountains, olive groves, lemon and orange trees. Once past the, seasonally-deserted, tourist strip, Rethymnon was a pretty, quaint town with obvious seafaring links. Many of the houses were faded-painted, some had outside wood-paneling and carving. The sugar mountains loomed large in the distance as I went out to eat in the small, brown-wood-worked, sheltered fishing harbor.
From Rethymnon, I traveled south-east to Ierapetra. Europe’s most southerly town. Not for the first or last time, I was struck by how different local people appeared in each region of Crete – maybe reflecting the history of the island, certainly its geography. The town itself still showed its roots as a small market town quite clearly, despite being pervaded by tourism. Here, with very little choice out of season, I checked into a hotel which made me miserable. It was seedy and upsetting and felt grey, cold and almost sinister. I was the only woman ‘guest’ and this generated a great deal of unwanted attention. I was, at least, grateful for the good weather – meaning I could be out of doors for most of the time I was there – and for the view of the mountains from my room.
Hours there seemed like weeks as I waited to meet up with a group of local friends to celebrate Epiphany. Finally, my rescue party arrived. By this time – really not very long at all – my British irritation and inhibitions had set in. I took some time to ‘defrost’; they took me to VIP Bouzouki Club. I thawed out – as we drank, smiled, and danced all night surrounded by people so joyous and proud it could gladden the heart of any die-hard cynic (British or not). Even though I had to return to that hotel, I slept very soundly indeed, waking up just in time to check out.
I was glad to leave the next day; despite ‘normal’ life resuming after the holiday there was nothing to make me want to stay. The sudden return of the everyday meant that the whole town did take on a warmer, busier aspect and the shops looked enticing – but I still left while I could. I moved on to Sitia along a green and fertile coast, watered by full rivers pouring into the sea. High, terraced mountains marked a route used by farmers and shepherds to drive livestock to Ierapetra from outlying villages and sometimes back again. I was told that, for some, this market journey could take two days on foot.
Heading inland, so upwards, I passed windmills, windswept hills and olive groves. I stopped to visit an olive oil production unit at Nea Presos. This was then a small place working with Italian and Greek machinery to produce 8 tonnes of olive oil per day. Indoors, out of the piercingly bright January sunshine, I remember dark green smells, sludge and shed leaves, producing dark golden oil at the end as the small black rich olives were processed.
Arriving in Sitia, I was relieved – I felt better there than in Ierapetra. It was then a town not obviously dependent on tourism, even though in season it patently existed, and had the air of an old trading port. People from different places had settled there over time; some very classy flotsam and jetsam along with the usual quota of embittered expat types. I checked into a 26-room hotel to find I was one of two guests for my entire stay. This type of knowledge usually only encourages me to kick up my heels and behave skittishly – I did rein it in, though, as I was still ‘a stranger in town’.
Yes, despite the ‘people from different places’ thing, I was stared at constantly as an obvious outsider – I might have been the only person in town with blonde hair and blue eyes. Many men and women stared until I caught their eye and then hastily looked away and moved on. I was grateful that other outsiders were around to draw the fire of eyes once in a while – the gypsies had turned up at the same time as me. The man, women and children were in town to sell colorful rugs; happily and noisily living in the open, washing and cooking by the sea from the side of their open lorry.
As all good things must, this trip had to end – I was sad to leave Sitia, sadder to leave Crete, but anxious to go as the ship I’d been promised had decided not to sail (or at least not to call in at Sitia). What to do? A hasty visit with a friend to a local office of Olympic Airlines, where I was instructed to look way more distressed than I felt while they did the talking. OK, so I did have pangs of guilt as I was supposed to be back at work after the holiday and don’t like to let people down, but I had fallen in love with Crete and wasn’t too fussed about leaving. In any case, there were no seats available on the next flight out. I did being distraught and sobbed loudly (it pains me to write this, but I did). A phone call was made. A local woman decided she didn’t really need to travel that day. I had my ticket.
So, I had to travel under her name – Paraskevoula (surname withheld, just in casing). A taxi took me up to the tarmac strip with a small hut at the end of it, which served as an ‘airport’. I couldn’t believe this was really the place, and only let the taxi driver leave me when I caught sight of the windsock. Once in the hut, my passport was checked against my ticket and I was nodded through with a wink (after all, ‘Jane’ and ‘Paraskevoula’ are uncannily close). I waited with a coffee for the light aircraft which would take us to Karpathos, then Rhodes. It landed, we boarded – me, a youth football team, their coach, their manager and a priest.
The football coach and manager were already completely drunk (Dutch courage, perhaps?) and the priest was exceptionally fervent in his praying and need to bless the aircraft – especially once on board. To while away the time, the pilot chatted me up and told me how lucky I was that he was interested in me as he was otherwise faithful to his wife, but once in Rhodes he would be staying at the Grand Hotel and I should come up and see him sometime. Of course, it was entirely my choice (he said) but he’d never had any complaints (he said) though of course he was faithful to his wife (he said). He did provide a welcome diversion from the vomiting/ unconscious ‘responsible adults’ travelling with the football team and from the increasingly hysterical priest. I was quite impressed when we did a flypast of his auntie’s yard while she was hanging out the washing in Halki. To give her her due she waved and smiled at the aircraft.
Back in Rhodes, I left the airport at speed and avoided the Grand Hotel for a while. I made it back to work in (fairly-ish) good time and was soon into the swing of things again. It took some time for those rays of Cretan sunshine to leave me though but, well, in truth you know they never really have.
I first published this on axrhodes on 01/11/2013.
As a child, I admired characters, in life and on the page, who had no fixed abode in time or space. My heroes were loners who moved on at the drop of a (cowboy) hat. This was in me from the start and was fueled, too, in those rare moments when my father talked of his travels with the RAF. My maternal grandfather also played his part. One of the earliest pieces of advice he gave me was to beware possessions as they may well end up possessing you. Much, much later, I smiled to myself while watching the movie ‘Heat’ as Robert de Niro’s character, Neil McCauley, delivered the line: ‘A guy told me one time, ‘Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat…” Because, yes, that was it. In a way, it was what I aspired to.
I have always understood those creatures which choose the migratory instinct over the maternal, even though others may see this as ‘un-natural’. As soon as I could walk I was off. My maternal grandmother quickly nicknamed me ‘Dot’: I was off, at a cracking pace, into the distance. The dot in the distance. Ambulans solvitur joined me as my motto, and stayed. Walking does solve it, whatever ‘it’ is. I walk it out. The more I walk, the weller I feel. Kierkegaard felt the same: ‘Thus, if one just keeps on walking, everything will be alright’ (letters). Chatwin put it more sanguinely in ‘The Songlines’: ‘I had been sitting on my arse for a couple of weeks and was beginning to feel the disgust for words that comes from taking no exercise.’
For many years, I moved a lot and traveled very little. I was not myself and not at home. Once I broke through the glass wall around me, I grew into myself and learned to breathe deeply and fully. I do travel, and far, farther than others and not as far as some, and there’s farther still to go than I ever will or want to. Though I move and have no residential address, there are places I feel at home. These are the places I stay. There is a clear difference between living, visiting and staying. Living is what I do, gratefully, every day. For me, it has nothing to do with place, no connection with an address. Visiting happens with new places, or with courtesy calls to those who describe themselves as ‘living’ in a particular location. Staying is what I do when I find somewhere I like and want to get to know. That’s where I lay my (cowboy) hat. Before staleness sets in, though, it’s time to move – because there’s always back to come.
Is there a purpose? I cannot say. All I’ve talked of here is function. The best description was coined before I was born: ‘We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time’ (TS Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’). In any case, I shall leave the last words to a favorite of mine, John Donne: ‘To live in one land is captivity, To run all countries, a wild roguery; Waters stink soon if in one place they bide, And in the vast sea are more purified: But when they kiss one bank, and leaving this/ Never look back, but the next bank do kiss, Then are they purest. Change is the nursery/ Of music, joy, life, and eternity. (Elegy III: Change)