Sunday, 9 October 2016

Far from Anywhere

Had to go into Rhodes Town on Friday, so we took the opportunity to go for a smoked salmon baguette at the wonderfully quirky Koukos [cuckoo] café. This part of the "new" town in Rhodes is rather nice to wander around, since if you take a side street or two you discover that it still contains some pretty atmospheric old streets (see top photo). It's the old centre of the original "New" Town, going back over a century to times before the new town hotels were ever even thought of, leave alone constructed.

The Koukos is a magnet for Greeks too, since its prices are very competitive and there's an excellent choice of snacks.
But what really prompted this post was the fact that this morning I cycled up to Asklipio to collect our mail. I haven't done it on my bike since last winter, since it's 4km of uphill dirt track all the way. As a consequence it takes me half an hour to get up to the village, but a mere ten minutes to get home again.

On the way up it felt more like July than October 9th. There was no wind at all and the temperature on the lane must have been around the lower thirties, since as I type this now an hour or two later it's 29ºC outside my office window in the shade at home. The smell of the pines in my nostrils as I walked my bike up the steeper parts of the lane reminded me of holidays long past. I used to wish I could bottle that smell and open it to take a whiff during the long cold winters in the UK. It's a smell unique to the maquis countryside of the Mediterranean, particularly where it's peppered with pines, as it is in the hills above our home here on Rhodes. There are olive groves all the way too and often I stop to simply absorb the environment, since gazing around at lots of places on that lane one can see nothing at all that's man-made, apart from the tracks along the lane that is.

There's the ever-present smell of the dry pines and the sight of soaring birds of prey catching the thermals above in the totally cloudless sky. Lowering one's gaze there's the vast expanse too of the blue sea, which consistently reminds me of how small I am. That sea pays no mind to the human wickedness that's made the city of Aleppo a household name, for all the wrong reasons. It isn't bothered by the Trump-Clinton fraças or petty arguments among ex-pats living over here who bicker and worry about "Brexit" or who's not going to which barbecue because someone else they don't like has been invited.

The vastness and beauty of the environment here gives one a big horizon, a big sky as Kate Bush once sang. And I love it. 

I arrived at the Agapitos taverna a pool of sweaty flesh under my t-shirt, owing in part to the rucksack on my back into which I was going to stuff the small packages (herbal stuff regularly ordered from Healthspan) that I was going to collect along with any other mail that may be waiting for me.

When you collect mail from a village bar/taverna as we do, you get used to the fact that you need to assign a little time to the task. When the bills are due, for example, they'll all be stacked in shoeboxes and each resident sits down with a box and thumbs through a couple of hundred envelopes until they find their own. Today there were three bills needing to be collected, the phone bill, the water bill and the electricity bill, thus incurring  at least a quarter of an hour of fingering through envelopes and concentrating on reading each name to be sure that I didn't miss anything addressed to us or our two closest neighbours. 

I asked Athanasia, who spends almost her entire life in the kitchen here, if I could have a portokala'da (a Greek orangeade) to sip while I sifted. You can see it on the windowsill in the 2nd photo below. It was while I sifted that I had one of those moments when you kind of stop and take stock of your lot in life. Go on, admit it, you do know what I mean. While I sorted through envelope after envelope, occasionally whipping one out and throwing it to one side to take back wth me, I became aware that a typical kafeneion morning was going on around me right outside. There must have been thirty or forty village men out there, many of which I knew, at least by sight after eleven years of living here, all seated around tables playing cards or backgammon, all arguing heatedly as they always do about politics or possibly football. Maybe basketball, which the Greeks simple call "basket".

I only had my rather ancient phone with me, which takes pictures of questionable quality at the best of times, but I snapped these couple of photos anyway because what I was witnessing was putting me in ruminative mood. These men (and of course there were no women present) had all known each other from birth, there was Giannis the manager of the Ekaterini Hotel, there was Giorgos from the Gré Café and the bloke who retired a year or two ago from the Gennadi post office, there was Dimitri "the horse" and the local Papas, Giorgo's father as it happens. There was the bloke I remember who drives the local JCB, whose name escapes me and so on it went.

As I finished my drink, slung my rucksack back over my shoulders, said "ta leme" to Athanasia and began to push my bike back up the hill out of the village and toward the lane that would take me the 4km back down the valley to my home, I walked beneath a terrace where a woman stood and called to the group of early-teenage children that were hanging out behind the Agapitos Bar/taverna.

"Giorgia!! Giorgia!!" she called, "Is Pelagia there with you?"
"NO. She isn't!" came the reply.
"Then where is she?" The woman called back.
"I don't know..." one of the other youngster then interrupted, "She's down the hill at Athina's!"
"Thank you!" the woman replied and went inside.

Village life. The group of young people, about five or six of them, all looked very different from the kids in the town. I wouldn't say that they looked dowdy, but they had a kind of wholesomeness about them, their clothes a lot more conservative without being too frumpy. They were occupying themselves with a kitten that one of the boys was carrying. I heard its mewing as they all petted it. I'd had no qualms about leaving my bike out there, safe in the knowledge that they wouldn't dream of touching it.

Life as it's gone on here for centuries. 

And I found myself thinking, "This is why I love living here. This is what adds so much quality to a simple life on a hillside on a Greek island." Here on a mountainside in this village that's "makria apo pouthena" there is a kind of equilibrium that transcends economic crises, American-Russian distrust, Pokemon, the Kardasians ...whatever. There's a rhythm of life that still goes on as it has from time immemorial. And it makes me feel, well, it makes me feel content, it de-stresses me, it reminds me of what life ought to be about.

I'm not being idealistic. The stoicism of these local folk is admirable. There are those in the village that I was cycling away from who are hard-put to pay their bills after all the cuts in pensions and wages, too after the weird holiday season that is now drawing to a close. The community, though, is still intact. OK, so it's rarer than it used to be. The whole world changes; here is no different. But to be able to spend one's days in this environment, as a guest among these open-hearted folk, well, one could do a lot worse.

I suppose what I'm saying is that we all need perspective and we don't get it from charging around chasing the dollar all the time. There's a good deal of perspective to be found in a mountain village on a Greek island that's "makria apo pouthena" - far from anywhere.


  1. Thanks for the blog John.
    Very nice.

    I wouldn't mind a few decades of that life myself but old age creeps ever onward.

  2. Just back from Greece and you echoed my very thoughts. Despite all the difficulties they have endured somehow the Greek people continue to value the important things in life. They can teach us all so much

    1. Excellent. Couldn't have put it better myself. That is why we have lived in the Lardos area for the last 10 years. Thanks John.

    2. Thanks Anon. You didn't sign your name, but I presume I know you? No matter, thanks for those kind words.

  3. Great sentiment I whole heartedly agree I get the same feeling when onna remote nature reserve or a mid week deserted walk if I didn't have that I'd go mad 😄😄