Sunday, 27 February 2011

Agios Mataios

The driver of the bus to Agios Mataios has a divine plan, clearly. Dictatorship or bust. When I ask if this is the bus that is going to Agios Mataios he nods and points imperiously at the ticket machine while enunciating – ticket! I head for the machine, where there is already a gaggle of people, some trying to help an old man, others, it is revealed, who are only there as onlookers. I do my best but can make no sense of the listed journeys from here to there, none of them seem to say Kerkyra – Agios Mataios so I give up and get back on the bus. The driver comes round, prior to departure, to check tickets. A woman sitting opposite me is told to go to the machine. She seems a little reluctant, but goes. When he tries it with me again, I just shake my head, holding out the money. He is then obliged to go to the front of the bus and print me out a ticket. Actually I understand, as there is usually a conductor who goes round and hands out tickets and change, but for whatever reason, he does not have one. A woman with a Downs syndrome son gets on at the last moment and after she has settled her son, is summarily sent to the machine. It's like a purgatorial punishment – especially as her son, left on his own, looks a bit distressed when the bus starts up and moves towards the entrance, and his mother still has not returned. But the driver waits at the machine until she gets on, clearly flustered and stressed, not surprisingly, as there is now a large crowd round the ticket machine which she presumably had to fight her way through, but successful, brandishing a ticket.

Once the bus leaves the town and the various other small towns that form an unbroken attenuated suburban sprawl, the road heads for mountains, with forests full of needle cypresses like thin sky streamers, plunged into the earth's skin. The road becomes single track and rises in incredible serpentine curves. We are crossing the island, from east to west, moving up and down this ridge of mountains, that stretches from one coast to the other like a series of bony knuckles. Approaching one hilltop village, the driver keeps having to brake when cars come along, for there is no room to pass. The cars then duly reverse, until a place is reached where it is just possible for the bus to squeeze past.

There are no tourist billboards in this village, it has kept its quirky and organic atmosphere, its dusty-looking buildings with their small plots of land and sprawling trellises enlaced with wandering and twisting vine stalks which will sprout and give shade in the summer. In the main square a woman wearing a long skirt, faded jacket and a robust headscarf, carries a bundle of sticks on her head. This village is off the main road and after the driver has deposited his passengers, he turns around in the central square and heads back to rejoin the main road. I say main road as it's marked in red on the map, but it is single track, and consists of wild hairpin bends, at such an angle that it is impossible for the driver to make the turn and he has to reverse a little way, turn the wheel, and then continue. I change my mind about the driver's attitude as I have such admiration for the feat of managing an unwieldy bus up these impossible roads.

On my side of the road I look down into steep ravines of olive groves. The effect of the landscape is visceral – felt mostly in the belly, but sometimes too, in the heart.

I get off just past Agios Mataios, walk to Gardiki, signposted as the ruins of a Byzantine fortress of the 13th century. There is an ancient guardian olive just outside the curved archway entrance. And inside, this vast area of wild grasses, almost completely covered with daisies, mostly white, and a few pink, and a scent of wild flowers. After Gardiki, I find a path off the road and the most wonderful grove of olives, with patches of daisies. Scents of flowers, bright sunshine, light humming of insects, a rooster calling. I sit down here for a while. It is another of those magical places and times, where the landscape reveals its secrets.

Schrodinger's Cat's Cousin and Hailstorm

A row of pigeons on the ledge of the tall yellow building I can see from the kitchen window. I can only see the top floor, rising above smaller buildings. A wan sunlight, that the pigeons are enjoying. Ginger cat appears in window, eyes the line of pigeons. I go to get the camera – by the time I get back the cat is on the ledge and only one pigeon remains. The cat moves slowly – it's a narrow ledge, high up, and it's slightly sloping, not level. The last bird flies off. Of course I only assume that the other birds flew away. Perhaps the cat knocked them off the ledge with its paw, one by one. How can I ever know? This ginger cat could be Schrodinger's cat's cousin, wearing its enigma in its ginger fur, delicately washing its paws clean of all pigeon traces....

So the sun came out but it had a sheen to it, a glitter, a veneer that felt almost artificial and I doubted I could trust this gloss-wearing sun. There were a few clouds but they looked fairly compliant and unmoving and they were to the north. But I sensed something unpredictable behind these clouds so seeming separate and innocent, and opted for a short excursion rather than the longer one I wanted to make, to a mountain in the south. So I ended up in some village in the lower slopes of Mount Pantokrator, and walked back to Ipsos, then headed for Dasia. The clouds above the mountain had thrown off their veils of innocence and looked entirely purposeful, and dark purple. I walked along the road to Dasia and found a bus shelter just as the rain began. It poured straight down, and I sang thanks to the little shelter. The schedule said a bus was due but I figured even if it wasn't coming this was the best place to be. The rain came in waves, like long breaths. It turned into hailstones. Just as it was easing off, the bus came, half an hour later than its due time but I could hardly believe my luck. First I'd found a shelter, then a bus. On the way back, the rain stopped. The pavements of Corfu town are dry. Except for the Esplanade which is soaked with sea spray.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Olive Groves near Lefkimmi

I explored the south of the island, taking a bus to Lefkimmi. The bus route goes all the way to Kavos which I believe is a popular resort in the summer. But Lefkimmi I'm told, not being by the sea, has not been so influenced by tourism. There's a minor road on the map that seems to lead to the sea. The day starts off sunny and Lefkimmi has a bakery where I buy a spinach pie for lunch, then head down the road. At the first fork I head for Alikies but at almost each house I go past, there are dogs, either chained or kept in kennels or huts or fenced in areas, and they bark their frustration. The presumed waterfront - presumed because I didn't get to see it - are lined with these purgatorial burnt dun coloured houses with their furiously barking dogs. They seemed to end in a muddy swampland so I head back to the junction and take the small road to Molos.

I was lucky to get a couple of hours walk in, before the rain came, as I completed a circuit and arrived back in the outskirts of Lefkimmi. The groves of olives between the turn off to Molos – it was worth it, for them. Hardly a car passes in fact I don't think I remember even one. The peace and silence was so welcoming, especially after the dogs – hardly any buildings at all – one memorable one has an old Citroen deux chevaux in the yard outside, beneath an orange tree. A few dropped oranges lie on its roof. A half-hearted fence gives out before it reaches the house which looks run down or left carelessly though not as abandoned as the Citroen, not quite. This amazing peace and silence continues, until a truly abandoned looking building appears, which seems to be a holiday resort.

The wild groves of olives – silent, peaceful and a slightly clammy feeling – cool yet almost close, despite a breeze – like an English early summer day, a June day, when there is this particular feeling in the air, a vibrancy mixed with the clammy atmosphere, stirring and exciting, giving off a feeling of anticipation. The olives turn their trunks in their olive dance – a slow-motion dervish whirl – even their lopped branches cut into logs have these ridges and hollows in them; the olives have an inbuilt pattern so it seems, that absorbs sunlight and returns it generously. Branches of orange trees hang over fences, weighed down with fruit. Then comes the empty large villa which is probably Orestes Restful Studios or Clytemnestra's Cosy Cavern or the Errinyes Eaterie – in the summer season, that other season they have here. There are only two – like an inhale or an exhale, an ebb and a flow.

In the ebb season, which is now, there is no tourist information office – open that is, it exists, but there are dead plants on the desk, just as the straw hat shop exists but is not open, and there are hats scattered around the floor as if the owner left in a hurry – and there is a hat there I want to buy, the perfect pale green colour – or I did when the sun came out but now that the rain and storms are back, it doesn't seem so pressing. There are no boats from Lefkimmi to Paxos or Paxos to Parga, there are no bikes for hire and I even heard that the Asklepium at Epidaurus is not open.

At any rate in front of this nameless and deserted building there are two statues – one of Atlas, wearing only the world and a fig leaf and one of a bathing goddess who could be Artemis, wearing a modest tunic. Apart from these two lonely figures, the olive wood rustles with presence and breeze. I pass only two people who are pruning some olive trees. Back on the main road, there is a vast and almost empty Dimitra store off an almost empty road. And soon after that, the turn off that will lead back to Lefkimmi. Just a few houses – still the outskirts.

And an old woman emerges from a wooded grove, with her donkey. She walks very slowly, with the aid of crutches. Her donkey has a load of cut olive branches in the pannier on its back. It is perhaps a metre behind her and slightly to the side. It's attached to the woman by a thin rope running from its halter. The old woman is dressed in a long full skirt, with apron, and large shady headwear. Ella ella! she calls out sharply. The donkey comes obediently right up behind her, so close it's almost touching her. It matches its pace, its rhythm and its slightly rolling gait precisely, exactly, to hers. Something in the devotion of its imitation seems to be trying to take the burden from her, the difficulty she must feel, putting one step in front of the other.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Er's Vision, Life Choices, and Stormy Weather

The sky is thick grey in places, with patches of lighter grey. Every so often it releases rain as if it was emptying an enormous bag or a wineskin, suddenly. Then the clouds move on, restless in the wind.

On the ferry today I thought about Odysseus and wondered what he did and how he lived his life after getting back to Ithaca. How could he possibly I wondered, live a quiet and settled life after all these adventures? Would he not have felt restlessness rising up in him again, after a few seasons of these pellucid blue skies and vistas of clear green water? Would he have been satisfied with a life of collecting oranges off the trees, gathering the olives [though there may not have been olive trees there in his day], tending his animals, enjoying the milk and cheeses from his goats, watching his pigs grow fat? And Penelope, after all her weaving years, did she throw her spindle away with a sigh of relief, or did she decide to create new patterns, branch out into tapestry, focus on abstract designs maybe or go into figurative depictions?

So I think, as the ferry makes its way through a calm sea, with clouds adoringly crowding around the peak of Mount Pantokrator, but a sky otherwise clear, with no hint of rain to come. But it does come later, once we've docked in Igoumenitsa and though I'm grateful to a couple of people who inform me where I can get a bus to Parga, I discover that there isn't one for another two and a half hours. Waiting in Igoumenitsa in the rain then walking around Parga in the rain does not appeal, so after a late breakfast souvlaki, I head back to the port and get a ferry home.

By which time the rain has reached here too, and bursts of wind bang open shutters and loose doors. I like this wild weather, its spirit and its energy and what it makes you confront both in your surroundings and yourself. Normally at this time in the evening the sun would be turning its ethereal colours of pink and mauve but instead it's like a bunched up dark grey garment and the wind is shaking and rattling the canopy over the balcony.

Plato by Raphael, courtesy of Wikipedia

At the end of Plato's Republic there is a remarkable account from one Er, which surely must be the first recorded near death experience. Er, a soldier, was thought to be dead but fortunately before his funeral pyre was lit, he woke up again and recounted his riveting experiences while out of his body. If I remember rightly his visions included seeing a kind of clearing house for souls departing and coming in to incarnate, a spindle-shaped mighty cosmic axis, operated by the Fates, and the 'lots' or lives chosen (the basics of the life drama, once chosen, could not be changed, though there was some freedom of choice in the selection process). And the reason I think of this is that in his vision, Er also saw Odysseus, who had returned to earth for his next life and had opted for a very quiet and humble time, tending the land, and animals, far away from politics and heroics, after the vagaries and wild adventures of his previous life.

Change is good, yes? said the young woman who cut my hair last week. I agreed with her and I'm pleased with my new short hair. Whether or not the basic dramatic structure of our lives is fixed and unalterable because of the choice we made before incarnating, it is good that in the trifling day to day affairs we can make small changes like altering our hairstyle. And it seems that Odysseus had had enough of the hazards of travelling and desired change and so chose what is called an obscure life, unfêted and unambitious, peaceful and close to the land.

The clouds are no longer pulling their punches and huge fat raindrops are pattering on balcony canopies and a gutter or pipe is splashing out onto the street. How lucky I am not to be at sea now, tossed around in a small boat, by Poseidon's storms.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Early Morning Dog and a Walk up Mount Pantokrator

Early morning – there is surely nothing to compare to that light, just making its appearance, bringing with it all the blurred memories and movements of the past night's dreams. The sense of hus
h, the echo to the footfalls on the creamy marble paving stones, funnelled through the narrow streets, that curious inward look people have as if they've not yet formed the face they'll wear to look out on the world.

Sunlight is soft, with a silvery intensity. Shadows are stark, and lie across the brickwork and the walls, forming long angles, like claims to kinship that go back so far that memory itself is stretched, and has not gathered the necessary forces to wrangle with words, preferring this long and sweet and dark complicity. Shadows hide behind tall buildings and thin seams of sunlight escape in gaps between them, full of confidence, as if the sun has cut slim wedges from its hot night bakery and is throwing them out into the streets. Scents of warm oil and pastry, baked bread and hot and salty cheese drift into the open air.

A large yellow dog stands in the open doorway of a bakery. Motionless and totally contained within its skin as if its whole self has been compressed and thickened, such is the quality of his concentration. He is not begging or demanding, he is not expecting, he is not even waiting, he is so completely in the present that nothing else exists for him. Of course I like to think that he will get something and as he is not lean or emaciated it seems that he has been successful in the past.

I'm up early to get a bus to where - as far as I can gather from the map, for there is no-one at the information desk to help out – is the best place to climb Mount Pantokrator. It only strikes me later that I should have consulted with the mountain first instead of falling into the lazy way of thinking that the landscape is passive and I can simply go where I want whenever the mood takes me, or the time is available in my schedule. What about the mountain's feelings, its desires, whether obscured by clouds or held in sunlight?

As I walk from near Ipsos-am-Meer to the village of Spartilas I think about how some people talk about mountain climbing, as if it was a 'conquest' of this or that mountain. The only things climbers have conquered I feel is something within them. Their fears or their doubts, possibly their limitations. To climb a mountain – so I think as I walk along the road that slopes gently uphill, in wide sweeping hairpin bends – is to come into its presence, to be within its incredible atmosphere. A mountain is like a reservoir - it has collected so much that's come from the sky, so that on its summit one can bathe in this sky-energy. To climb it is to draw close to it and to be grateful for its generosity, that it freely shares this atmosphere with you. For it is a gift, this high-up mountain feeling, that cannot be experienced anywhere else.

By the time I'd walked for over three hours, there were clouds gathering around the mountain peak. It's funny the way clouds do that, how they adore the high places, the mountain tops, how they lace themselves around the peaks in misty adoration.

It was getting chilly with the sun obscured, and the clouds looked as though they could easily turn dark and thunderous. I calculated from the map that it would take me at least another hour and a half to reach the top - and then I would have the long walk back. It was the clouds that decided me. I did not want to be caught out on the mountain in the kind of rain that I know this place is capable of. So I turned back and it was just as well. It did not rain, but by the time I got home I was very very tired.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

"In the Mountains, There you feel Free"

Nowhere is really lived until remembered. As if that larger world that we inhabit cannot be accessed in the present moment because our awareness is so focussed – on what we have to do today, trying to remember the Greek word for tomorrow [for example] – and why do some words stick easily in the mind and others resist recall like stubborn children who do not want to stop playing and come inside? I have resorted to aides memoire to help me remember some – vreHi (it's raining) – I think of the French vrai; avrio (tomorrow) [like avril]; - whil
e simera (today) and tessera (four) are easily remembered.

Now I no longer have to concentrate on where I'm going either when leaving or returning home – I can wander freely in the old town, discovering new streets and new routes, and knowing roughly what direction I'm going in and where I will end up. All these new sights claim my attention of course – or there's shopping at the market or thinking about the various different projects that I'm writing. I work on several things at once. Some of them do actually get finished. Some of them will no doubt end up as fragments, such as Solomos left after his death, to the great dismay of his ardent admirers. Fragments! You mean after all these years when we've been waiting for some wonderful things to emerge from his pen he's only left us fragments! More on Dionysious Solomos will appear later – that's one of the pieces I'm in the middle of.

Sometimes in my dreams I enthusiastically write things. Of course I only remember a whiff of them when I wake up. There is no save button in dreams, to my constant disappointment. Last night in my dreams I remember doing exactly what I did yesterday – walking in the mountains – blue sky, blue haze in the huge vista below me, and green bushes and trees around me. Blazing sunshine and a profound sense of peace.

There are moments, and sometimes these 'moments' can last a long time if we are very lucky – when the larger perception merges with the everyday one. In these moments we live the experience fully, we do not need to remember them later to enter into the enormity of the experience. Our narrow and limited everyday perception is wrested away from its mundane concerns, and opens to the larger one. It is these moments that I am always seeking, and these moments arrive usually after all attempts have been discarded. This is not about carpe diem, about taking action in the present, it is the opposite of seizing, it is more to do with surrendering. But that surrender seems to be closely linked to effort, focus and concentration, and then the relaxing of it.

I picked a place on the map which was dark brown, with a little road going off the main one. This place was called Troumbetia but it was really only about half a dozen houses, at the summit of a mountain. When the bus dropped me off I realised I'd made a good choice. I followed the little road, then on the way back found a trail that went off the road and returned to it later on. Only a few cars passed me. The first one stopped and offered me a lift!

This place was very different from Paleokastritsa. There were no ghost villas hotels and restaurants. It was itself entirely, independent of seasonal visitors. Just a few scattered houses on the way to Alimatades. Most of the time, it was just me and the mountains and the vast undulations of the valleys before they reached the sea. I could see all around the northern part of the island, the sea on the east, before the Albanian mountains, and the sea on the west which will eventually reach the Italian coastline. But there was such a haze of blue that the land and the sea were almost indistinguishable. The road looped in long hairpin bends. In the courtyard of a house below one bend, a woman was sifting olives in a large cylindrical black sieve, making a light thumping sound.

When I stopped for lunch on the track that led off the road, there was an occasional baaing of a lamb, distant roosters calling and birds singing. Now and then an insect buzzed past and there was the faintest most delicate sound as of the earth breathing, while a slight wind stirred the topmost branches of olive trees and cypresses. A flap of birds wings. A chirrup from the dense vegetation. A further away bird call with an echo – whee-hee-hoo it goes. The sun burns my bare arms.

* the title is from T S Eliot's The Wasteland which you can read if you click on the title link

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Sunshine on St Brigit's Day

>Right on cue, on St. Brigit's Day, the sun comes out and shines in a flawless blue sky. I take the bus to Paleokastritza - the supermarkets, shops, restaurants and hotels are all closed and shuttered. Spiros' taverna is shown to be a flimsy wooden affair, with some kind of marquee roof, stained and shabby-looking. The signs are faded and the swimming pools are filled with dark green opaque liquid. Of course it will all be cleaned, tidied, painted, spruced up, the swimming pools drained, cleaned, and filled with clear water before the holiday season starts. But it looks odd, as if a whole town has closed doors and shutters, put up metal grilled gates with padlocks in front of shop doors, and moved out. Which in a way I suppose they have. There are no shops open at all, not one, despite the plethora of 'supermarket' signs. Yet there are definitely still people living there. I saw someone lean over a balcony, after two cats screamed and yelled and fought in the middle of the road, before scampering up a bank – then heard her say something to someone else. Another woman was trimming dead wood off vines that would serve as a protective roof over a yard, once the leaves came out. A man was drilling, working on the façade of one of the big hotels that's built into the side of a rocky hill.

I walked up to the monastery and on along a path that ended in a tiny promontory overlooking the sea. It was so small I felt vertiginous, and moved very carefully around it. It is odd the way this dizzy feeling moves up your body, from your feet. Astonishing to think that we need to see ground stretching out in front of us, not just to feel secure but to be able to move with balance at all. When you see nothingness a couple of meters away, the body wobbles like a top running out of spin. Or mine does. There were upright poles round the rim of this tiny look-out and some bags on the ground filled with what looked like sand. I imagine that a low wall of some kind or even a fence linked to the poles will be built, to prevent the foreigners falling off and plunging to their deaths on the rocks far below. I shuffled close to the edge, holding onto a pole, looking out over the bay.

There's a restaurant just beyond the monastery, which is closed of course. But when I was on the promontory and looked back I saw a man standing on the terrasse, watching me. When I came back up the path to the road, he walked out of the restaurant and spoke to me. He had a severe limp and one side of his face drooped a little. He pointed to another path and said there was a good view there, a panorama, he insisted I go and have a look. I felt I could hardly refuse but as I suspected, it was no better than the one I'd already seen. A newly-made wall lined the edge.

When I came back he invited me into the restaurant. The chairs and tables were all stacked in one corner, and there was just a bare aluminium sink and counter with nothing on it but a glass of ouzo and an ashtray with a burning cigarette, underneath a no smoking sign. He offered me a drink of ouzo but I said no thanks. Metaxa? No thanks, nothing at all. When he stood still, his hands on both sides of the steel counters, his whole body trembled. I guessed he was a caretaker and wondered if he was lonely here, in this empty outpost of natural power, with just the sheer rocks and the deep breathing of the sea for company. And the monastery across the road. Twin outposts on this rocky outcrop, representing the spiritual and the temporal. The guardian of the temporal asked me where I was from and if this was my first time here and I said I'd been in the summer, last year. The tourists would start arriving the week before Easter he said. He asked where I was staying now and I told him, in Corfu town. I congratulated him on his English and told him that since I'd been here, I'd only learned a few words of Greek. I asked him if there was a path up the cliffs on the other side of the bay. He said no. So I have to go to Lakones and take the road from there? Yes, he said. His name was Christo he said, as we shook hands before I left him in his solitary refuge high above the sunlit turquoise sea.

I thought I remembered from last year seeing a sign for a path to Lakones, rather than going by the road, which was the way I had discovered. Sure enough, after a short walk back up the hill, there was a small and indistinct sign. It wound initially up past a few houses. A dog barked from one of them. Then it went steeply uphill, among olive groves planted in layered terraces so that the fallen olives would not roll away downhill. Long black snakes of netting were rolled up around the bases of the trees, netting that would be spread out when the olives ripened, to catch them when they fell.

The path became steeper. The sound of the waves could still be heard. I stopped to rest. The sun was high in the sky and the air was motionless. Sunlight painted the green foliage, the olive trees, the orange trees, and there was complete silence apart from the distant breathing of the ocean, one buzzing insect and an occasional rooster call. Yet there was that almost- sound that trees and plants give off, when the sunlight touches them and they drink it in and respond to it. Like the trees I rested in this warmth, my jacket off and sleeves rolled up, wrapped in this perfection of light and shade, this stirring of life, this wave of peace.

The path eventually came out onto the road, by a little wayside shrine and a magnificent view over the bay. This was the road I'd walked up last year and the going was easier now. I followed the road for a while and turned off another path that passed through level olive groves, and dotted with orange trees. I picked up a couple of oranges that had fallen from a tree and ate them. They were sweet and tangy with a faint trace of blossom scent that I'd never tasted before in oranges.

I turned back just before reaching the village, as I had to get the last bus back from Paleokastritza. I followed a different path, less steep, that came out further down the road. I caught the scent of roasting meat and of wood smoke. A trail of smoke came from a chimney. I reached the road end, where it joins the main street if it can be called this, a ghost street, dotted with empty buildings, some set back from the road, others lining it. Passing some litter bins, my footsteps startled a cat who jumped out of the depths of the bin onto the rim, gazing at me with a penetrating look as if to fathom my next move. I walked all the way back to the bay and sat on the sand, with the whole bay to myself, listening to the deep roar and hiss of the water hitting rocks and sand. The sun hovered above the trees on the road up to the monastery and the restaurant and the bay view promontory. I watched the ice-green waves rise and fall. Sometimes the sunlight shone through the rising water so it was a thin translucent film of pale green. When the sun

touched the tree tops, long shadows raced across the little bay. I got up and walked to the bus stop and a few minutes later the bus came, a huge green creature glinting in the sunlight, negotiating the narrow road.