..........than a memory.........

 

KITHERA

 

 

We have come to Greece again, a happy annual pilgrimage which seems to form the pattern of our lives.

We'd spent a tortuous night waiting at Venizelos Airport for our domestic flight but due to strong winds over the Aegean several flights were continually being shunted through the timetable and ours was nowhere to be seen. I was grumpy. In future perhaps we should bring a camping mattress so at least we might rest on the grass outside the waiting area. Sandy is convinced that in our travails it's attitude that conquers stress - but then she'd had babies.

Then eight forty-one am and things began to happen. We were boarding - or were we? Anyway, we were well into mid-morning before our kindly taxi-driver dropped us at a taverna in the main village of Kithira and by then we were numb with fatigue.

But it never lasts and once we've been made welcome by the owner, and our omelettes and coffee are on their way, we switch off and watch the world with a passive, relaxed attention. Down in the valley below our window seats, a man is leading his young donkey along an old worn track; a lady adjusts her headscarf while listening to a friend; kids squeal excitedly in the square; there's hardly any other sounds except it is Sunday and the church bells toll. Near the bar a group of men playing tabla nod and warmly wish us 'Kalimera', right across the breezy room.

We are in Greece and it feels good.

After breakfast, we crossed the square to the tourist office where we were heartily greeted by an earnest young guy who looked like he had just crawled out of bed, barely dressed but earnest. After insisting we keep the office door closed so the air conditioner would work, he tried a couple of times to contact his friend, a local hotel owner, who usually had rooms for rent but there was no answer, 'Maybe you come back in an hour and we try again - it's Sunday.' Oh yes, we were definitely back in Greece.

We wandered to the taverna and took our seats near the Tavli men again. One of them had overheard our problem and offered to take us to the hotel where he was staying because he thought there might be vacancies. We were amazed. He actually offered to leave his drink and his friends to help us find a room - remarkable. But at his hotel, when he rang the reception bell, again - another no answer. He persisted until a bushy-bearded man appeared and warmly greeted our friend. He introduced himself as Nikos. After some talk our friend left and Nikos took us to see our new home, asking us on the way if we were the couple the guy in the 'info' office had mentioned. We turned a corner into a passage between the houses and stepped into a charming, older part of town. Along a narrow alleyway, up a flight of stone steps, through a stable door and into a small, beamed room.

Cosy and beautiful but the one next door was much bigger with the advantage of a large flat roof - big enough to use as another room and ideal for sleeping under the stars. So a price was struck, hands were shook and we returned to thank our friend for his help, but he'd gone.

We moved in and once our stuff was spread around, it became home. I checked the perfect two-ringed camping cooker and already my mouth was watering. It felt right to be in an old house within a community without shops or hotels, or even a taverna. A few doors away, lived an old lady who sat outside her little house all neat in headscarf and widow's weeds who'd nod and smile as we fussed about.

     The village spreads along the spine of a hill towards a ruined castle which overlooks a small bay and a narrow beach. We could trace a road that snakes down from the castle for about a mile before it straightens out parallel to a tidy beachside village. Half way there, amongst the trees, a pretty ouzeri sits back off the road right opposite a bridge that leads through scrub to a semi-secluded beach. It was all lovely and tempting but we were far too tired to do much more than get our bearings, ramble back into the village and sip a restorative lemon tea before we got some rest. At least the wind had died down and the sky was tinted rose.

We woke in warm peaceful early evening on the roof beneath a ceiling of stars, and there we lay and gazed in contented silence at our horizon and beamed. A rocky outcrop, the castle, the mountain behind us, the homes with their weirdly- shaped chimneys, the greenery and always - the dependable sky; the deep flawless, never ending dependable sky.

By then we were almost dizzy with hunger and went hunting down towards the swash and the swoosh of the sea in search of food. Half hidden in the woods where the road meets the beach we passed a rather large water tank and it was there we became bewitched by the fragrant aromas of cooking. Out of sight from the road, almost on the beach itself, we discovered a beautiful ram-shackle open-air estiatorio at the foot of some steps, and lying half-hidden amongst the bushes was a half-completed sign bearing the name, 'No-Name Taverna', and with no other diners in sight we wondered if it might be not yet be ready for the season. On the way in we brushed past a pretty girl who gave us the sweetest, shyest smile I'd ever seen. She was lovely. "Yiassas" she said, then she was gone.

Then, as you would expect from a genie popping from a bottle, we were greeted by a skinny bohemian hippy, his mighty floppy jet black hair waving about as he welcomed us. He brought us water 'to refresh' whilst he got under way, informing us of the specialities, he seemed intelligent, asked questions, and he was good-humoured. His name was Spiro and he was the waiter. We took to him instantly. As he rattled on, we discovered a compassionate man, a wise man, and one we felt we'd known for ages. Sandy thought he might be an old Zen sage from some previous life. We ate a delicious aubergine salad and vegetable moussaka then drank too much wine and talked and talked with our new friend about his trip to Africa, his love for the brotherliness of the Bedouin, and of painters and writers. What a fabulous evening. But later, climbing the hill to our little palace, we bought a bottle of Ouzo for a night-cap and under the stars we sat on the roof and filled our glasses but within a couple of minutes we'd floated off to dream our dreams.

Next morning a friendly sparrow fluttered between aerials until he landed on our roof in search of a mate. He threw back his head and sang his heart out. And how he sang. He was delightful. Every morning after that he'd come to profess his dying love for whichever female he might attract, singing, ruffling his feathers, puffing out his chest and sticking out his wings in unparalleled display. We took to leaving bread crumbs and water to help him keep up his strength.

Above the castle, buzzards drift and hover with at least two gold crests and countless noisy sparrows but my body wanted the sea and wasted no time in taking short cuts along old work tracks through scrub and bracken down to the secluded beach until at last it crunched onto the pebbles. Aart from the mask and snorkel and fins, I slipped naked into cool waters and launched forward into the silent whispering bay above a dappled sea bed - home to countless graceful sailors thoughtfully swimming in their own magic world. 

  Clouds of living colour meander above the creamy sand against the purple, blue and yellow of the flora and the rocks; the living organism that's the sea - and I was in it, back to the beginning - childlike in joy and freedom.

Swimming into caves and coming eye to eye with larger fish and the only sounds was of someone's steadybreathing and the click of a snorkel. In time, I cruised parallel to the shore and quietly came to a satisfied rest, peeling off my mask and fins, and clearing my sinuses with a snort.

Slipping and sliding, I crunched my way amongst boulders and scratchy undergrowth along an ancient river bed running through the cranky old gorge with the heady scent of thyme accompanying the gentle smell of the whispering sea.

As I dressed I remembered a guy from the other day who'd found a track up towards the castle and I wondered where it was. I searched for a toe hold or anywhere to begin my climb and then found overgrown steps amongst the rocks. A scramble led to a narrow path past a little chapel and beneath an arbour of olive trees to join the road at the bridge. With every twist and bend the steep road back to town seemed more arduous than before and by the time I reached the school I was quite breathless. But just as I was about to sit and regain some energy, the kids gathered at the gates and urged me on, shouting and giggling, cheering and grinning like team mates.

The town square is very beautiful with the usual surrounding offices, banks, school library and tavernas. In the centre is a large paved area where the kids go mad and play all evening till bedtime. Within its low walls grow geraniums and roses and even courgettes amongst the shrubs and almond trees. When the kids go home, they just leave, and all their toys and bags and balls are kicked under the benches for next time. 

We sat and marvelled at the simple joy and oneness of their feelings. Kids seem to have the capacity to experience the world directly, without the intervening filter of labelling that passes for knowledge. We had it as children too but were educated out of it and now I feel we need to recover our primal innocence if we want to enjoy the world as it really is.

 On the south side of this square are five huge palm trees happily bombing those seated beneath it with oily palm nuts. There are lemon trees, bougainvillea, almond, plane, oleander, hibiscus and pepper trees. There's also one lying on its side that looks like it recently fell over. Cicadas create a cacophony. That may be because there are lots of tiny flying things that give a nip like the prick from a pin and I bet the birds think they're delicious. Sandy just presented me with an almond that dropped into her lap from above.
 
Spiro told us of a village set right in the heart of the island called Potamos. Every Sunday is market day and when the weather is right, the village square is buzzing. 'You can simply sit and merge with the vibrant parade of life.' That made me realise I wanted to see as much of the island as possible but with very little public transport I'd have to hire a car - or hitch. So next morning, I rambled along the only road with any traffic and put out my thumb. After only about ten minutes a car stopped and the door fell open. 'We're going to the Sunday market if you want a lift.' It was a family outing that squashed together to let the visitor in so in I squashed and instantly was bombarded with questions from the young boy and his sister. After a while, the little girl started humming a jolly tune and the boy joined in with the words and then the mother and father joined in and when they came to the end we all burst out clapping (except the driver) and soon we were all laughing and having fun together. I think I was in their car for about an hour but it seemed like minutes. They dropped me in the square and off they went to grandma's for lunch.
 
Fascinating crockery shops, butchers selling extremely fresh meat, flowers and plants for sale, comforting old stone-floored tavernas with high wooden ceilings and fat old wooden chairs looking like wooden chairs should; huge mirrors; wall lamps and posters advertising kitchen products; stairways that once led to heaven - or hell; a semi-circular bar; walls carrying old family photographs, and there were hardware shops, dark & musty, selling everything from delightful tiny oil lamps to sacks of grain and baseball caps. And for our breakfast we had bacon, egg and strong black coffee. The village felt safe - safe and buzzing - and as ever, the people are courteous and glad to share their lives. Off the main square is an area of old houses, with some for sale, and narrow passageways overgrown and crumbling full of real people in happy confusion .

At siesta things wind down and some stalls are taken down. I got talking to Ellen, a Californian ex-pat, packing up her oil paintings. Her house was near our castle and in around twenty minutes or so she could take me back. So I wandered round the square waiting and watching it clear of stallholders, but after quite a while, I felt trapped - once again - the classic example of being at the mercy of another's generosity and cut off.

Ellen and her friends were matured hippies, and groovy - but not where I wanted to be. Suddenly, I realised Ellen was nowhere to be seen and wondered if she'd forgotten my lift but one of her chums assured me she was busy with her weekly shop before heading back. The whole village was sleeping and Ellen was taking forever - but at least the sparrows were chirping. And then she reappeared laden with plastic bags and so I helped her carry them to her car. As we were loading up a man approached waving his hand in the air. It was the worker who'd found Sandy and I our roomy room at Nick's. He introduced himself as Yiannis Papadopoulos and invited me for a drink and how I would loved to have gone but if I wanted to catch the lift back to the Hora I had to say no. We shook hands and I thanked him once again and waved him off as he drove away.

The road to the Chora swims through an astonishing holy ocean of bright yellow furze that frees the mind - "there are no sins" - and scattered amongst this fairyland are abandoned buildings and shallow gulleys where once ran pristine rivers and lakes. It is still possible to mark their courses and even though well-drilling has drained most of them, some puddles still bravely hold their ground.

A turbid sky, hovered above the village as Ellen dropped me off, I could sense its anger in far-flung grumblings and it began to snap.

Our lady was sitting in her doorway and smiled, relaxed and twinkly, so I asked if she'd let me take her picture. She seemed happy. After rearranging her headscarf and making herself comfortable in her chair, she folded her hands upon her lap and the camera caught a most beautiful smile. But to my deep dismay, very softly she began to weep. I went to her and gently kissed her soft grey cheek and squeezed her hand and tried to reassure her. I apologised and just as I backed away, I bumped into the man from the info office who was standing a little way behind us.

 

 

 

 'Hello. Please, don't worry about my grandma. I have come to sit a while with the her as I do from time to time since our grandfather died the last year. She has had a hard winter without him.' Then to my amazement, the lady came over to me and whispering something, patted my cheek before smiling again and following him indoors.

A strengthening westerly suggested it might be time to visit the waterfall we'd heard about over on the sheltered east coast and so we set off across the dusty yellow plateau until we came to a pretty dense old wood. We tramped down and down into a dell almost entirely concealed by the woods and there, as if by magic, came the most remarkable sound of running water. Though not huge, about twenty feet high, our waterfall was enchanting. Its water had a life of its own, warbling from the rocks above into an icy pool in the dell, and all enclosed by shrub and boulders and greenery.                

A sacred place of faeries, of spells and legend. We were like children again. We had never been so close to falling water, or felt its gentle droplets showered through the air, or been so entertained by the buzzes and tweets of its creatures, or ever felt the soft and comforting isolation of a secret grotto which then came and wrapped itself around us.

We left our glittering shadows to climb back to a path that took us past some very fine Venetian villas and into remnants of a mediaeval village, still alive with shadowy ghosts and our imagination. Two or three buildings lined what must have been a street and on some walls were faded motifs of goods on sale inside. We identified the taverna, a butcher's and a bread shop and the rim of a deep and dangerous gorge and saw the distant ruins of another fortification. It was treacherous to go much further so we headed back to a taverna by a stream where we could rest and watch the trusty ducks and geese parade.
That evening, as the blue faded into purplest navy with millions of stars overhead, we sank into a couple of chairs outside our favourite taverna, Byron's 'Beggera'. We ordered well-earned lemonade for Sandy and a raki for me but they were a long time coming.

Byron was engrossed in an item on the TV news about Rembetika until he glanced in our direction and said, "Please, go inside and serve yourself. This will finish soon." I could hardly believe my happy ears. We sipped our drinks, the TV item closed and Byron came to join us. Once he gathered where we'd been, he told us all about the ruined village. Once the medieval capital on the north east coast of the island it had been sacked by the pirate, Barbarossa, in the middle fifteen hundreds, and the several thousand inhabitants had been sold into slavery. Byron was like the waterfall now and rambled on about war, his friend Jacques Cousteau, historic Greece and life in general until our heads were swirling with imagery and disbelief. So another three rather large glasses of Raki later, I was forced to ask for our bill. He glanced at our glasses. "Five euros", and stood to go inside. Just then his wife phoned from upstairs to tell him his dinner was ready. Sandy joked, "Do you always go when your wife calls?" He grinned and winked, 'I like my dinner hot.'

Of all the windy nights I've known in Greece, that last night on the island was the most tempestuous - and yet the morning had started gently enough with our hard working sparrow chirruping, cicadas sawing in the pine woods and just an occasional door wheezing, and then the wind changed and started worrying every cubbyhole and cavity. We wanted to take home something for our windowsill pots, so not long after breakfast we wrapped up against the sandy gusts and spent the morning in the woods collecting seeds and marjoram and thyme. On the path that leads to an old wartime military post, I'd built a large stupa a couple of days earlier and was surprised to see it still balancing - particularly after the recent threats of a force nine. Anyway, it became a little too gritty for the beach so we went home to make our last lunch from whatever was left in the fridge: a goodhandful of local olives, some Livadi sesame rolls and a half glass of retsina each. A veritable feast. I smiled over the last of the cherries still clinging to the last cherries in the bowl.

After our banquet we climbed the ramparts for a last look over the curling roads we'd walked, the beaches we'd swam from and the woods where we'd lost our way. Our visit was done. But there was one final surprise to come. At end of the castle hanging over the drop to the beach we found the remains of a chapel. We must have missed it before and were quite surprised how intact it still was - and then, just as we turned to leave, something caught our attention. An array of some very interesting colours on a wall - and then it hit us. It was a fresco - naked to the sky. The fading image of three two-dimensional figures living there, right before our eyes and somehow still clinging to the plasterwork and the stone after all the tempests and the years - a great parting gift and quite a metaphor.

On our way back through the delicious fragrance of wood-smoke and jasmine, Sandy found some peculiar pods amongst some flowers by the gate. She prodded one and it shot up in the air hitting my leg. The one I held seemed to move so I threw it down thinking some creature was living and moving inside but in fact the pods were bursting with sap which it ejected whenever they were squashed, and this propels them forward to seed again.

With the idiot wind there was a good chance our flight would be grounded or delayed or both and we became quite anxious, to say the least. By bedtime the air was hot and windy and our usual good humour had no joy as we packed our bags to the of rattling latches every time there came a gust. Neither of us could sleep and with every door in the neighbourhood banging its head off and anything that couldn't bang - crashing, that night we dozed at best. I thought of that tree in the square and thanked Zeus for cardboard and its wedging properties. I'd put my pillow in the fridge - a tip given by another light sleeper - the chilling would help me get some rest and we'd even dowsed ourselves in citronella against mosquito attacks. We kept our doubts to ourselves but, unable to ignore the groaning, we knew we would not be sleeping deeply. Outside the wind seemed to be organic; a roaring, worrying, muttering howl of a storm. It disturbed us continually although once, on my way back from the toilet, I'd cast a bleary eye over the village and noticed there'd been a power failure. The only light came from the billions of silent, peaceful stars twinkling, as we were ourselves, in the immeasurable vast universe of night and silence.
Then I heard a buzz. No doubt my nakedness would be breakfast for the local mosquito if I stayed outside our room. So we sat on the bed and tantalised the nasty through the glass. It was furious. We could clearly see it and hear its tinny selfish whine.

 Six am could not come quickly enough. Through the French windows the sky was leaden. Suddenly, the alarm and we were glad to be on our way. Oranges and lemons clustered like a new dawn against the stars. It was time to leave the Villa Nick and take our bags to the taxi. Standing in the lane, we heard a shout and to our great astonishment and joy, there was Spiro leaning out of the door of his old banger and grinning behind his shades. He had just finished his shift and was sipping coffee at the wheel. Clearly, he was drunk. "Get in."  
I winced at his battered old car. "No thanks. We're in a Mercedes."
"Yeah, but I have the best music."
And he knew we wanted to go with him and as we talked he actually held our hands and it was hard to be brave. Then he said, "I'll see you at the airport. I am meeting my wife." And he was gone.

I wondered if we would ever meet her and soon we did. It was in Arrivals and the moment we met she said, 'I know you.' Then I remembered her from when we first visited the 'water tank'. She was the smiling girl we had collided with at the entrance. Spiros told us how they met. 'It was Tuesday April 13th 1999 and I was at a party and had drunk too much wine. As I fell asleep at a table, my hair caught fire. I asked an old girl friend to put it out but before she could, a very slim, attractive girl, a complete stranger, whom I had admired all evening, tenderly patted out the smoke. It was love at first sight and we have been together ever since.'

It is always good to be in Greece. You learn the peace of mind that people have with fewer desires. They seem more content with their lot. They're happy just being, and not so interested in 'becoming' and they don't measure success in terms of acquisitions. They realise success as a deeply personal thing - not an accolade awarded us by others. 

And soon we were on our way again, homeward bound, and once again it's at the airport that we realise it never is the place so much as the people who show you who you are, that become part of you, that you take home with you.

And always the feelings you feel last much longer than the moments you remember.   

 

  

Cape Kapelo


www.grecofilia.co.uk


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