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Moving

Spirit of Place

Alex Marshall is the Manager of Spirit of the Knights Boutique Hotel in Rhodes Old Town (more information about the hotel here: http://www.spiritoftheknights.com/). The accommodation remains open all year and is consistently awarded excellent ratings in travel guides and reviews, national and international. In 2013, I went to talk to Alex at the hotel about his relationship with Rhodes and the business itself. Alex first arrived in Rhodes, not unsurprisingly, as a tourist on holiday with a friend in 2001. Yet, for someone who later decided to live and work here, his first impressions weren’t positive. He only spent a short time on the island, mostly along the north-west coast where there were high-rise developments and strip malls. This left him with the feeling that, although this was a great holiday for many, it just wasn’t for him. However, something told him there had to be more to the island and, when he returned with his mother (Felicity) the following year, he discovered there was. The beauty, for Alex, on this second visit, was the quality of time that mother and son were able to enjoy together. Felicity was able to share her love of the place with Alex and he saw, through her eyes, a very different island from the one he’d visited a year earlier. He has not looked back, and since then has made Rhodes his home. By 2002, Felicity had already set in motion the project which was to become Spirit of the Knights. But the family was still a long way, and a great deal of hard work, from opening the business to guests. Alex believes that the lengthy process and great dedication which went into preparing the hotel strengthened his family. The Spirit of the Knights Boutique Hotel accepted its first guests in 2008. Alex certainly learned a great deal in the lead up to that date – about the business and the place itself – yet now, he is learning even more and at a greater rate. In himself, he has gained in confidence, self-awareness and self-respect since becoming so actively involved in this family enterprise. In addition, his respect for the island, and particularly its people and culture, has grown over time. He feels he now has a clearer view and sense of what is happening on the local and national scene, even if long hours of work mean he’s unable to participate as fully as he’d like in cultural events. Alex and his wife Lena (who works alongside him at the hotel) used to live in Koskinou. This is a village about 5 miles south-east of Rhodes town, famed for its distinctive traditional architecture. They spent four years there, before moving to live in Rhodes town, closer to the hotel. Initially wary of living somewhere which had seemed so quiet (he did, after all, grow up in London), they grew to appreciate the traditional community and sense of tranquility there. He and Lena were able to fully relax away from work once home. However, increasing demands from work (and dogs!) meant that a move to Rhodes town, walking distance from the business, made sense. I asked Alex if there was anything he felt he’d missed during the years away from the UK and, specifically, London. While he’s able to keep up with developments there by following social media and online news, and, of course, has friends regularly visiting him here – he does, just sometimes, long for the availability (‘anything at anytime’) and innovation (new, creative, ways of thinking) he feels is present in London. Those constructive, creative approaches he gleans from business and social networking (he has good working relationships with local business, too), he is keen to incorporate into best practice at the hotel – and it shows, but doesn’t intrude. He’s now more engaged than ever with the business and committed to this family affair. He feels more comfortable combining his knowledge, education and experience to enrich his results-oriented focus. The greatest challenge he sees for the business today is to maintain standards at the hotel during this worldwide, harsh economic period. It’s no mean feat to sustain such high status in clients’ personal estimations as well as professional league tables, but ‘Team Spirit’ do, and even make it appear effortless. This all helps to ensure that Alex’s job satisfaction is still there, growing alongside the brand identity of the business. He can always see ways (however small) to improve the stay experience for the guests. The Alex I spoke to is a man who enjoys engaging visitors and assisting them during their stay on the island. Despite being the hotel Manager, he’s most often met first by guests while helping them negotiate their way into the Old Town and down the narrow alleys leading to the hotel – as the ‘trolley boy’ (pushing improbably large suitcases on a luggage trolley and making it all look so easy). He enjoys the ‘cover’ of this role and, as with the rest of the team at the hotel, is not interested in uniforms or badges or status. Growing up in London, in his family, has helped him 100% in this work – it has equipped him to be as adaptable and flexible as he is today in providing the hotel guests with the best possible experience during their stay. A borderless family, a timeless place and an infinite capacity for service. The spirit of place is in this family affair.

(First published on axrhodes: 17/10/2013)

Categories
Moving

A World Away

I recently returned from five days on The Rock. The Rock is a hard place of barren beauty, indubitably physically attractive and compelling. It’s an Aegean must-see. And this long weekend was no exception for the now-familiar visitors: the luxury yacht guests; the day trippers; the stopover holiday crowd; and the refugees.

Marvels of naval architecture grace the outlying bays by day, where their guests swim, jet-ski, kayak and paddle before heading for lunch at a beach taverna or on board. By night, those private vessels small enough approach the main harbour, when, twinkling, sparkling and glittering, their lights add to the glaring shop and street illumination on land. Idling by, some of us try to go through the looking-glass, speculating on who we’d meet aboard these modern wonders of the world. Others, smelling the cash (and heady on the aroma), trip over themselves to entice that money into their business.

The vast bulk of people see The Rock for the first time as day trippers on excursion boats. Emptied into the hot cauldron of the harbour, organized groups recover awed breath (lost at first sight of the harbour), put cameras away and look around for their guide. The guide who’s going to tell them ‘all-about-the-island’ whilst leading them past sponge and herb retailers at a pace suitable for product placement (not for dawdling), before plopping them down, hot, laden with ‘facts’ and shopping, at a restaurant. Food, under starter’s orders, leaves the kitchen as soon as the group arrives. Later, some may choose to take the little train around the headland to enjoy the views, the breeze and cheesy music. Others may cool off with a swim or at a bar until departure time. Many are back on their boat well before it’s time to set sail, having ‘done’ The Rock and it having ‘done’ them, too.

Those of us who choose to stay awhile spread ourselves out over the few hotels, numerous holiday rooms and apartments. Slowly but surely over the years, the choice and quality of this accommodation has improved. With restrictions on water supply, however, its density is limited – which, of course, adds to its attraction. The Rock is a holiday destination which also attracts a certain competitive element. Loud, alcohol-fueled, conversations detail the speaker’s belief in their intimate knowledge of the island and certain of its inhabitants. One visit more, one year earlier, than their audience and they’re content. For all of us who choose to visit, for however long and since whatever date, the sheer beauty of the place and its environment helps steer us past certain human anomalies.

The island is a welcome relief to all of us, none more so than the refugees. For years now, people smugglers have dumped those who could afford their extortionate fees on or offshore and fled the scene. The hapless folk left to fend for themselves in the perilous waves and on the treacherous stones are soon found. Sometimes, just in time. For those of us fortunate enough to be entitled to the right passport, the return taxi-boat fare from the harbour to the island’s southernmost beaches is €14. For those others, it is currently €4000 one-way in unspeakable conditions. Holidaymakers and locals take care of the people for whom that beautiful view is breathtaking for completely different reasons. Once found, they are taken to the police station, given medical treatment and looked after until they can be moved on. From the arched first floor of the police station, men, women and children from Syria and Afghanistan look out over the luxury yachts, the neo-classical architecture and the Aegean and wait.

In this world and yet not of it: we all escaped something during our stay. The Rock is a world away.

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Living Moving

Good Fortune.

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Moving

Rock Fever: A Short Story ft. Symi

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.

The End.

First published on axrhodes on 13/07/2013

Categories
Moving

Running the Island

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

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Moving

Ship’s Biscuit

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

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Moving

Some Like it Hot: A Weekend on Symi

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

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Moving

The Agia Marina Blues

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

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Moving

Crete: First Impressions

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.

Categories
Moving

Wandering

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 me to a tee. When my father talked of his travels with the RAF, I went with him in my imagination.

I never wanted stuff; stuff tied you down. My maternal grandfather warned me to beware possessions as they end up possessing you. Years later, watching the movie ‘Heat’, I smiled ruefully as Robert de Niro’s character, Neil McCauley, said: ‘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, stuff tied you down.

As soon as I could walk I was off. My maternal grandmother quickly nicknamed me ‘Dot’ (in the distance). Feet on the ground I was off, at a cracking pace, into the distance. I understood solvitur ambulando long before my Latin lessons. 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. By moving, I grew into myself. I do travel, 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)