There was once a very special phone box. It could be found in a small eastern town, ten minutes’ brisk walk uphill from the river estuary. It was on that corner; you know, the one where the main road joined that side road leading to the bungalow of the-best-friend-that-ever-could-be-wished-for. To look at, it was an unremarkable, standard-issue box. It post-dated the familiar, solid big red model: instead it had a brushed-grey metal frame, clear glass walls and a token red strip across the front. As the small eastern town was off the main vandalism drag (then), the phone box was rarely, if ever, attacked. It got grimy, as anything would left to its own devices on a street corner, but that was it. Once, while staying in Blighty, it turned out to be the nearest point of call to The Matronne’s lodgings. She did have a mobile phone and a landline. However, never being afforded any privacy for the all-important international calls on which her personal life then, as now, depended, she started using the phone box. Increasingly, it heard intimate details of life, love and death. While in there, it was her personal, private space. Close friends called her there at a pre-arranged time, knowing she’d be there and able to talk. Even after she’d moved to other accommodation, where no-one eavesdropped, it remained her private number. She never knew anyone else to use it. But they did. The Doc-Doc did, even before he was one Doc. The Doc-Doc lived further up the town and, from time to time, went to The Pub with The Matronne. When they did, they met and parted at the phone box. They were in and out of Blighty, on one promise or another, at regular intervals. Saying a final goodbye at that spot was a ritual, yet they always came back. Time after time, guaranteed ‘the post of a lifetime’ in one outpost or another, they still returned. Couldn’t leave. Eventually, convinced the phone box had a role to play in all this, both of them stopped trying so hard to go. One day, the phone box itself was gone. All that remained was broken concrete under foot. It was oddly unsettling. After waiting and watching for some time, it became obvious that no replacement was coming and that space stayed empty. That fact accepted, The Matronne left, too. And this time she stayed away. She did not look back. Now, she meets and parts from The Doc-Doc in other places. They believe the phone box still exists where it always has, in another dimension, on the other side. The Doc-Doc still looks towards that spot when he passes on the bus and thinks of ‘their’ phone box. He knows the door to elsewhere is still there; all he has to do is get there.
But not before we’ve given a nod to the joy that is the beach hut. Taken c.1934, this picture shows my grandmother, Doris Annie Elizabeth Lambert, outside the beach hut my grandfather, George William Manley, constructed at West Mersea, Essex. I spent many happy days there as a child and West Mersea remains one of my favourite places – whatever the season.
1994. Rhodes, Greece.
Two days of thunderstorms. And the rain, the rain! The streets become rivers, the air so drenched it is hard to breathe. Nothing feels dry, indoors or out. Dreadful road accidents leave a trail of casualties – four British tourists drowned in Archangelos. Concerned colleagues make sure I have lifts to and from work, and students keep advising me to be careful (especially after the tourist accident – the British obviously can’t handle rainy weather). On a dash into town I manage to reach the bank and withdraw my rent money for the Cretan florist. By chance, I bump into a couple I know who are leaving Greece to go and live in Sweden. We make time for coffee in a café full of the sound of dripping. I wish them well, they are good people. By the time I hand the rent over, the brown paper envelope containing my hard-earned drachmas is, just like everything else, completely sodden. The landlord nods, smiles and spreads the notes out on the shop counter to dry. I leave. My Level 1 class is calling (not very loudly, mind you). My beginning students learn many weather-words as we watch the drama of the storm unfold outside, safe in our (almost-dry) room. There are unlimited ways to describe rain. I’d not realized this before. 50 minutes with Level 1 in a downpour will teach you this. In the break, splash across the road to the main building to receive phone calls, trying not to be jealous of those who have landlines at home. By the way, I fail miserably at the not-being-jealous thing. Once in the main building, I have to queue for the bathroom. After five minutes, I’m in and I try to dry off. Don’t know why, but I do try. Then, I hang around, feigning casual disinterest, in the office. I circle the phones, to no avail. One of the secretaries has a worried mother in Athens who needs to know her middle-aged daughter hasn’t drowned/ been swept out to sea/had lots of other bad stuff happen because of rain that only distant mothers can imagine. That’s that, then. Break over, I swim back to spend two fun hours teaching one-to-one (there are few times I am able to use that phrase; those words, in that order) with the student known to other staff only as ‘Jane’s Albanian’. My callers get through while I’m in class. The not-drowned secretary leaves me notes, all of which say the person will phone back. If they can, of course. My lift home from work on Friday night, sparing me from the rain, is on a scooter – seriously. Wetter than walking – how is that possible? Forget the wet for a while at a birthday party. One of my colleagues is celebrating her 22nd, and a large group of us squelch noisily into a nearby pizzeria where a good time and many beers are had by all. Diving back into the rain on the Vespa gone midnight, I reflect that tomorrow I will have a sore head and wonder if I will ever feel dry again.
(Taken from the diary I kept at the time)
This is a pedestrian story. Long ago, but not so far away, I went to live on Rhodes. I am a walker; not a hiker, not a rambler – a walker. I like it. It serves me well. The locals viewed my love of walking with curiosity; it was not within the realm of anyone’s experience to choose to walk. My behavior was passed-off as English eccentricity, which was fine. However, despite this ‘acceptance’, attempts were still made to change my mind.
On one memorable, quite typical, occasion, I set out for the coast to see how far I could go before nightfall. It was an autumnal Sunday and the weather was perfect for a walk; warm sunshine, cool breeze and clear air. I had only been on the road for ten minutes when my landlord’s car pulled up alongside and I was offered a lift.
‘Where are you going?’
‘For a walk.’
‘No, where are you going?’
‘For a walk.’
Five minutes later, I was able to start moving again, but the car motored next to me for a further five ‘in case I changed my mind’.
Now, I walk here and others choose to do the same. There are sponsored walks and runs. On medical advice, people walk up and down the waterfront at the nearly-new marina development. Dog-walking brings yet others out. This has seen a growth in sales of specialist clothing; many feel unable to take to the roads of Rhodes without the full kit. At one charity fundraiser, many of the participants were in outfits so new, they still had the price tags attached. They want to look the part. They want to be seen to have ‘changed their mind’.
People forget how to walk. It’s true. They can do the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other thing, but put them out in public and there’s no pathway code. This much is clear in the summer, when thousands of visitors are disgorged from planes and ships onto the streets. Far from their cars, in the heat of the sun, they forget (if, indeed, they ever knew) that they are in a living, working town and they wander. They wander everywhere. They wander off. Stop/start/left/right/back/forth. Walking with purpose becomes a slalom course. As a resident, you’re often invisible. I am at once irritated, frustrated and exasperated. Yet, I smile.
Why? You may ask. Because this experience, wandering on Rhodes, just might ‘change their minds’ when they return home and help them see that ‘for a walk’ is both a purpose and a destination.
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)
For the first few years of my life, I lived at number 47 where there was (and still is) a door thing (there’s more on that here, at Number 47 ). Cleverly, my parents made a game of it. Thus, I would stand commandingly in front of doors at home and shout ‘Open Sesame!’ and when those doors did open (seemingly otherwise unaided), I was able to believe in the power of magic and that, somehow, I’d made that magic happen. Some might say my parents were setting me up for a fall. For sure, those came later. But I did learn a valuable lesson: faith over fear. I trusted in magic and respected the unknown. I believed. It worked.
Years later, I discovered ‘Open House’ in London (http://www.openhouseworldwide.org ) where the magic came from a built environment previously unseen – something everyone was totally free to experience. I posted about my most recent visit, on 20 and 21 September last year, in Testing Times. Then, this year, came my introduction to ‘Open Doors’. I’d heard of this project before, but not been fortunate enough to be around when and where it was taking place.
This past weekend – the last weekend of September – ‘Ανοικτες Πόρτες’ (Open Doors – European Heritage Days) reminded me, once again, of my childhood wonder. It was my pleasure and privilege to be able to volunteer for Rhodes Riches (http://www.rhodesriches.org) here in Rhodes, Greece. The local theme this year was ‘Divine Heritage – The three religions in Rhodes: Christianity, Judaism and Islam’. For two days, the NGO, in co-operation with the relevant authorities, opened the doors of four churches, two mosques and the synagogue to all who were interested to visit (and quite a few curious passers-by). At the same time, the organization celebrated its fifth birthday, so it was only fitting that visitor totals broke records: together with the longer-term exhibition at the Kastellania, the venues totalled 28,109 visitors over the weekend.
Behind closed doors, a close-knit team of people had worked tirelessly to prepare this event. Once those doors were opened, sponsors, volunteers and visitors came together to make it work. The storms came along, the rain came down, the sun came out; regardless, the visitors just kept coming in. I spent Saturday afternoon at the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent and Sunday afternoon at the Kastellania exhibition ‘The Talented Dr Hedenborg’. I met many people from around the world and many locals. It was a joy to experience their wonder as well as my own. We can all believe in the power of magic and that, together, we make it happen. Open sesame!
September 1993, that is… Back from visiting my parents in Rhodes over the weekend, I feel quite distant. Always takes me time to readjust to The Rock. Start the day by filling the well for an hour, delivering my laundry, going for a swim (really more of a ‘bob’ as there’s a swell), then to Elpida’s for coffee and OJ. Back in the classroom, am worn out by Junior A. They are distracted by a passing funeral procession; the route passes the classroom window, the kids always want to see the corpse and compete with the keening mourners. I manage to stay calm, while encouraging them down from the furniture they’ve climbed onto to get a better view, and debating bringing ear plugs to work. Expelled a student for the first time (hopefully last). This causes excitement across the harbor and, at least, gives people something ‘real’ to chat about. Competition hots up for the ‘vacant’ desk as mothers petition for their children to enrol. Indefinite wait, as none of us know when the owner will be visiting. The wind is still high, so the boat timetable is upended. There’s been no sign of the Rodos ferry, which eventually arrives 24 hours late. Two hydrofoils make it into and out of the harbor, though. Comfort comes in many forms. I picked up a BBC World Service signal again. Found five good reads in a local tourist book exchange, which I unashamedly swapped for some trashers. An invitation to birthday cake and drinks is followed by a surprise dinner at Tholos. Cycled to the restaurant, but the food was so good I ate too much. I had to walk back very slowly. Thankfully, at the school room in time to take my parents’ phone call – they’ve arrived safely in Athens. Upstairs to bed with the BBC. Much depressing talk of Russia but, more happily, Sydney’s won the bid for the 2000 Olympic Games. Taken from the diary I kept while teaching in Symi, Greece