Three Questions.

Who are you?

I’ve been re-reading my diaries over the past two months, with a view to travelling light. I’m moving on again and want to carry memories, not evidence. I’m at the end of the last millennium in this task – and that’s where I am stopping for now. The 2000+ text will travel with me – I need that hard copy for a while. Over the years, my handwriting changed – I experimented a bit, broke bones, pre-cell-phone-drunk-texted, tried different media, wrote on the move – but I can still hear my voice on the page. I listen and recognise familiar tones from a distance, through remembered tears and laughter. It’s me alright, but it’s not who I am. Not now.

What are you?

Damascus was my second foreign posting. I chose it with my heart not my head. My interviewer presented me with a list of vacancies, ones she judged suitable for my skill set. All other locations were sold to me with animated, attractive descriptions – perfect for career development, ideal for those who enjoy outdoor recreation (she knew me well), opportunities to learn new skills, lowest staff turnover in the network. Damascus was still and silent. She didn’t know me that well. I asked about the job. There was a moment’s pause and a flicker of anxiety before she replied: ‘They need someone with your qualifications and experience’. That was it. When I arrived, I heard all she hadn’t said and felt the full impact of the pause in that workplace. Yet, I knew my decision wouldn’t have been any different. I had wanted to want to be there. The people of the city showed me why. They took me in: ‘What are you?’ they asked. They understood we all must be something. Now, I understand.

Where are you?

I move often and migrate at (almost) regular intervals so, from time to time, I receive texts, calls or emails asking ‘Where are you?’ A friend sent one such recently and I replied with one of my ‘in transit’ messages; giving date of departure, route out, date of arrival and destination. You see, I’m neither here nor there. Here, unrelenting waves of refugees and political rhetoric have washed over the national psyche so extensively that I believe the country no longer recognises itself in this uneasy stasis. I catch glimpses of my Greece when I’m off-guard, but it’s not where I am. Not now.


Hotter than July

It’s been a long month which has lasted forever yet which passed in a flash.

It started on the dot, with visitors – people I hadn’t seen in years and with whom those years became just yesterday. They arrived unperturbed despite international news of the certain uncertainty playing out here. They’d recently made it through the Scottish independence referendum, so took a scientific approach to the Greek one (admittedly, this was tricky as the why of the Greek remains unclear). Camera! Lights! Action! All we could do was wait and watch, through a glass darkly. In the meantime, the visitors enjoyed their holiday and I enjoyed playing the tourist in their company. They also provided me with a welcome distraction from a sudden attack of political fervour. Mine.

Seriously, I thought I was past caring. The intensity and strength of my feelings left me shocked and drained. Despite feeling exhausted, I was oddly reassured that I still had it in me to be so moved. I soon learned, however, that it was wisest to keep my opinions to myself. Tempers ran high, vitriol ran freely and I watched as others’ friendships disappeared. People chew up the air and spit out its bones! – cried one friend, in despair. I expressed my views in private, with those who I knew could reason before judging and who wouldn’t shoot the messenger. It became our secret society – qualcosa solo per noi. This kept me sane. Really. In any case, thanks to the visiting friends, and the arrival of my niece and her boyfriend, the outside socio-political invective drifted into radio static. Irritating, but easy to tune out.

So, I passed time reflecting with friends and family, as we looked through old photographs together, on how blessed I have been in my friendships and how tenacious my friends have been. This chance for reflection brought with it its own kind of understanding and I felt a greater sense of peace by the end of the month than I would ever have believed possible at its beginning. Of course, once the visitors had gone, I emerged, blinking, into an outside world. I looked around and realised that while the dust had settled, the heat had increased, the air had grown heavier and a deafening silence had descended. It became clear that we must find our own way now. Because now we are in the dance and someone’s switched the music off.


Rock, Paper, Pen.

A letter written to a friend in July 1993, when I was working at The Meltemi Bar in Symi, Greece.

                                                                                                                                                                       Symi, 85600

Dear T,

It was great to speak to you on the phone yesterday. It seems strange now to be working in the bar without seeing you around, even just for five minutes. Anyway, as usual, I had so many things to say and said so few (I always remember them just as I replace the receiver). When you left the island on Tuesday, I really wanted to come down to the boat to say goodbye, but understood it was best not to. I just watched from a distance, walking around the headland to see the ship disappear from view. I’m sure there are many things you won’t miss about The Rock – petty jealousy, endless gossip (to name just two!) – but am also just as sure that there will be people and places you recall with fondness. You are a difficult person to know or to feel close to, but I do believe we are at the beginning of a strong friendship. I have you to thank for a sense of perspective, smiles, laughter and relaxation.

In other news, I went out with A, Y and E on Thursday – we had a great evening together up in the village and remembered to exchange contact details to keep in touch after they leave at the end of the month. Of course, I don’t need to tell you that the teachers are always good company and that I’ll miss them sorely at the end of term. I’m happily convinced, though, that A and Y will be back in September, and as a married couple. There was a schoolchildren’s dance on Saturday night at the large new bouzouki taverna – the party dragged on some (long past everyone’s bedtime!) but a good time was had by all. There have been the now usual fights between the bars because of noise. One particular confrontation, four nights ago, resulted in a couple of bar owners needing medical attention – they’re now wandering around with heavily bandaged faces. Rumours continue to circulate that the police are coming next week to check IKA and work papers; right now, I have filed this under gossip.

So, I’m writing this here in the bar. It’s very quiet in the day now – but I have my books and writing pad to keep me busy once I’ve opened up for business. There was a lot of cleaning to do this morning, for sure, as they didn’t close until 6 a.m. from the night before – hardly worth their while shutting up shop, really. Needless to say, once again, I’m the only one awake around here! Anyway, I’ll be finishing here next month, to help open the school in September. I move into the apartment ‘over the shop’ on Sunday, at last and I’m looking forward to it. The school passed its inspection on 13 July, so it’s now ‘official’ and there’s no more to do than sort out my work and IKA papers.

Every success on the family farm this summer – I hope you found everyone well and happy when you returned. All here send their best wishes (and a Ry Cooder tape, which is on its way as I write this).

Take care of yourself. I miss you and wish you well.


A Few Days in April.

Taken from my 2010 diary, written while I was living at The Blue Door, Colchester, England.

Woken up early by The Sinister Ice-Cream Van starting its rounds again and so the long Easter weekend comes to a juddering halt to the tune of ‘Three Blind Mice’. I’ve spent a sunny, quiet four days and here it ends. Soundbites come to mind and I think of letting them swim back into the air before trapping them in writing. I remember this day exactly 30 years ago, when I made myself invisible for a tiny while, paralyzed by life. That was until I realized I didn’t have to be that way and didn’t want to be, either. I survived, and still do, by managing my expectations – and that, in itself, is a triumph. It’s my victory over disappearance. Yet, still, if I knew I could control it, I’d embrace that oblivion: letting go, floating free, riding on thermals. I come up for air and go down for coffee. 

The Bash Street Kids have thrown a large boulder into my front garden during the disquieting nursery rhyme. They knock on the door to tell me it’s there and point at the rock. I adopt an air of pleasant resignation while they explain to me the need for vigilance ‘in these parts’. Two of the girls seem very bright – while they’re whispering to me ‘that boy by the palm tree done it’, I ask myself what hope there is for them here. Eventually, The Kids all agree to move the stone (using my wheelbarrow) and to keep an eye on The Blue Door for me ’cause it’s nice, innit, and a bit dif’rent’. The wheelbarrow is upturned unceremoniously onto the public footpath and returned by the tallest girl who confides in me that no-one will really ‘mess with the house’ as it’s haunted and, truth be told, everyone’s a bit scared of the place. She runs off. 

I’m into day three of a detox and realize there’s no coffee in the house. I sigh as I look into my cup of green tea. I’ve given the house a detox, too, hope it’s grateful. Four large bin bags of old paperwork have gone out and I’ve cleaned places I previously didn’t even know existed. The phone rings, the first of many calls of the day, and in my haste to answer it, I almost fly headlong over the pile of Sunday papers stacked neatly in the doorway. I remember, with a sense of satisfaction, making the time to read the whole damn lot of them this week. Don’t mistake my speed for eagerness, oh no. I know exactly why the phone is ringing and I don’t want to. All I can do to help, you see, is call and be called. But oh how I resent it, because it means I have to know. The-best-friend-that-ever-could-be-wished-for just died and I am numb. I have the energy to be angry, but shouting makes her disappear. I have the tears to shed, but crying washes her away. I have the words to say, but the more I talk about it, the truer it becomes. I pick up the receiver, take a deep breath, and start constructing that bleak reality over again.


A Thank You Letter

Dear You,

Thank you for standing and talking to me on the rocks whilst I was reading.

Thank you for taking a chance on me.

What I might easily have seen as an intrusion from another person, I had the good fortune and sense to recognize as honest friendship. My reward has been the true pleasure of your company. It’s never too much and always enough of a good thing. Your honesty, freshness and compassion have helped me immeasurably. You shook the dust from me and helped me see my world afresh.

Thank you.

Every heartfelt best wish for your next adventure.

I often do this, write letters I don’t send or show to the addressee. But I do keep them. I was raised to be polite and, where appropriate, would always say thank you for doing. I would not, though, express gratitude for being. I had a fear of exposure, of appearing weak. I’m a little better at it now. Just a little, mind. This letter was written for a woman I lost touch with years ago. Mary Wesley started the conversation which led to this friendship, though I didn’t tell her either.


Unsettled: A Letter to You

I’m writing you a letter. This is it, in fact. I’m writing it, but I won’t send it. You want to know why? Of course you do. Why is because I need to write it, but you don’t need to read it. Though I’d like you to, it wouldn’t be fair. I can cope with being unsettled but it’s not for you, this unease. It would affect your settled existence and that would never do. There’s the rub.

You unsettled me.

I wanted to see you again, but had practised my diffidence so well that I believed it didn’t matter – us meeting. I had rehearsed Plan B; disappointment was not an option. With so much else for me to do, really you’d have done me a favour if you hadn’t shown. But you didn’t do me that honour. You came. And when you said you would. And it was all like before. Yesterday was all those years ago, yet closer. I mean that’s when we’d last met wasn’t it?

In your company, there was no time, there was no yesterday, just today. We laughed warmly, we talked openly, we walked miles in companionable silence. All in the now. Then you left. When you did, I cried. I was bereft; happy-nostalgic and sad-empty. I had no idea you’d affect me that way, none at all. Yet, you did. By being you for a day I could be me. That was in your gift.

You unsettled me.
I appreciate it.
Thank you.


Three Sundays: Back in Time

On foot:
I’ve just walked back from the swimming pool – one at a nearby hotel. It’s been a quiet, unassuming weekend and it was the perfect way to spend a fading Sunday afternoon. A cold drink, a swim, time in the hot tub, a good read – all with a cheesy 80s soundtrack in the background. Added sport included beating SoundHound to naming that tune. I’ve known the town as visitor and resident for many years now, but it wasn’t until last May that I walked into this hotel to meet an old friend who was staying there before she headed to the airport. Since then, I’ve been back, summer and winter. I like it. The place itself has become a friend.

By car:
The previous Sunday saw me on a drive down to the deep south of the island to two places I’ve watched change a great deal over the years, yet which I never tire of revisiting. A friend (of tenacious longstanding) was celebrating her birthday at a beachside restaurant with a group of tourists and residents. The temperature rose, the mercifully-cooling wind blew, we ate, we drank, we chatted, we laughed and we had cake. The beach was full of happy holiday makers, the sea full of determined swimmers. A slow drive back took us to a fishing village in a small bay dominated by a ruined castle on the rocky outcrop above. The birthday cake digested, we stripped off and jumped in the water with the local ducks.

By boat:
Two weeks back now, and my Sunday was spent on as well as in the sea. The friend who’d introduced me to today’s hotel, invited me to meet her on another island at a favourite bay. One catamaran and a speedboat later, there I was and so was she. The crystal blues of the water were clearer and colder than usual – choppy, too, as the wind blew hard. On the boat and at the beach, I met two Dutch women, who talked of heartbreak, survival and fortitude with gusto and good humor. For a while, I walked alone along the shore, I had time for reflection before the return boat journey. I travelled through time at speed, remembering the first time I was there, the lasting value of the friendships made then, moving past all those made since, arriving happily, bumpily, covered in sea spray, back in the main harbour with those made that day.


Nearly Knew – a Trip to the Cemetery.

This is about a day that dawned somber in May and an event seven months earlier and it concerns someone people nearly knew, but not quite (for some, certainly not as well as they believed).

In November last year I learned that a man I nearly knew had died suddenly and unexpectedly (to those of us left, that is – he may have realised it was time to go). It saddened me, of course, as this type of news does – this time around even more so as I wasn’t able to be there for the funeral. That, in itself, was odd as I’m normally relieved to have an excuse not to go to such events, finding them strained and unrepresentative of the person I remember.

In any case, when I was eventually able to do so in May, I visited people who also nearly knew this man and we talked of his death and his funeral until I felt I’d found out all I could. There then came a Thursday which dawned somber, humid and overcast and which found me in reflective mood. I decided ‘Today’s the day’ and set off, on foot, for the cemetery. I’d been offered lifts but wanted to go alone. I’d been given specific instructions on how to find the grave, how hard could it be?

I cut my summer-soft feet up as I walked there in flip-flops but lost my irritation when I arrived at the cemetery. I’d forgotten the sense of community and amount of everyday activity there. I wandered around and marvelled at the personal, yet uniform, touches to the graves and tombs. There were names I recognised and tombs which stood out in design and sheer size. One such was prominent for all the wrong reasons – it was hideous and also huge in its hideousness. When I saw and recognised the name on it, I was saddened. I remember her living vividly as a glossy, glamorous survivor.

After trying (and failing miserably) to locate the grave I was looking for (one of the few times in my life I’ve really wanted to see a dead person but couldn’t), I spoke to a priest who directed me to ‘the man who knew’ in the front office. Both men were kind, helpful and efficient. ‘The man who knew’ did indeed know, and instantly, who I was looking for and where he could be found. He marched me at a cracking pace through the cemetery to ‘Zone 26’. Once there, it took a few minutes of searching before I happened across the exact ‘In Loving Memory’ on a headstone. A marker notable for the information it didn’t give – an exact date of death. I think he’d have enjoyed that subtle difference. A very private man to the last, even right up to his last week in October.

I then felt I should ‘look busy’ like all the other visitors, so did some plastic flower tidying and left my lucky bracelet hanging on one of the synthetic twigs at the head of the grave. I liked that there was the sound of children in the playground just over one wall of the cemetery, the noise of speeding cars over another and, in the background, the sound of the sea on the nearby beach. I liked, too, that the cemetery was quite the hive of activity for the living – tending, tidying, visiting, shouting, driving and riding around. Layers of life and death surrounding that someone I nearly knew.