Like a Sigh

“One cannot collect all the beautiful shells on the beach. One can collect only a few, and they are more beautiful if they are few.” ~ Anne Morrow Lindbergh

When I was my daughter’s age and at university, I travelled to a wedding in Paris. Alone. It was my first solo trip out of Scotland. I took the bus to Edinburgh, the train to London, another train to the south coast, the ferry to France and then a train to Paris.

The following summer, I was invited back for a month and explored Paris on my own every day, on foot and by Metro, with nothing more than my little red ‘Plan de Paris par Arondissement.’

A year later, with a suitcase and a guitar, I travelled to my first teaching post on the south coast of England.

Six months after that, I flew to Greece on a year’s teaching contract, landing in Athens then travelling the length of the country till I reached a town where they blocked off the main street every evening to have the official stroll, the ‘volta’, which some locals still referred to as the ‘bride-bazaar.’

And all in the days before mobile phones. I wrote long letters and used to phone my parents from a public kiosk whenever I could afford it, but my heart is clenching at the thought of how worried and anxious they must have felt all the years I lived abroad.

I’m not a very bold traveller these days. I realised I was pregnant on the day of my mum’s funeral and somehow, part of my bravery slipped through the cracks caused by that collision of life and death. We came to this quiet wee Scottish town to be nearer my dad and raise our kids, but slowly, imperceptibly, my life furled in on itself; menopause crept up on me and I curled up, tight as a fist in fierce defence of my family’s safety and happiness. I made our home a harbour, but my kids never realised how painful it was for me to keep my own canvas tightly lashed to the mast as I watched them grow up and set sail on their own adventures.

So here I am, both kids at university now, wondering if I’ll ever fully unfurl again. Since the menopause, I even get panicky when I’m packing, which astonishes my husband as I used to live out of a suitcase when I spent months every year as an oral examiner all over Greece.

He understands, though, that these irrational flareups of anxiety can be genuinely distressing. He also realises how tired I can get if we spend lots of time with our Greek friends and family as I have to constantly do simultaneous translation. So this year, craving some quiet, quality family time, he’s arranged for the four of us to go back to the exact spot in Corfu where we went last year and had what he described as a dream holiday.

There’s something liberating about knowing it’ll be the same place, the same rooms, same bathrooms, bedside tables, medicine cabinets, kitchen appliances… No anxieties about what the place will be like; no worries about whether the mattresses will trigger off back problems. Just knowing what we loved and why we’re going back is a relief. It’s freed us up to look forward to endless days waiting to be filled with whatever each of us needs to do.

I know what I’m longing for: hearing and speaking Greek, living outside feasting my eyes on sea views and going to bed at night knowing that our kids are close by and safe.

Any time I spend within sight and sound of the sea opens me up like a sigh, but time spent in Greece at any time of the year is an energy transfusion. The trick is not to stay too long or I lose perspective and get haunted.

Because of the financial situation in Greece, last year was the first time we’ve ever been able to afford a detached place, far less a villa with a private pool and assorted terraces and balconies. I literally cried when we arrived and I saw it for the first time. For less than we’d paid for a package trip a few years ago, we’d landed in a little bit of paradise. We’d just had a death in the family and I really needed a haven. We found it.

My daughter’s boyfriend and a friend of my son’s came with us, so my husband and I were able to truly relax, knowing the kids were happy doing their own thing. We’d toured the island before, when the kids were much younger, so this time we were happy just to relax and enjoy having such a stunning temporary home; we only left the villa to shop, eat out and go to the beach. We just had carry on baggage last year so these photos were taken with a battered old compact camera but, as usual, I spent a lot of time taking snapshots of flowers…

…and of tables, chairs, balconies and glimpses of the sea, so you could join me there in spirit for a coffee or a glass of retsina.

Before breakfast on our first morning, I was curious and opened the black metal door behind the pool sofa and found a mountain path, the shortcut up to the next village. Younger Me would have ventured up; Menopausal Me thought “Snakes… maybe not.”

This year I’m planning to take my proper camera so I can show you more of the island and maybe attempt something a bit more artistic. Or I may end up just sitting watching the sun go down and raising a glass to Oliver Wendell Holmes who was entirely right when he said, “Where we love is home.”

I’ve asked you before, but it’s worth asking again… where does your heart unfurl or blossom?

(The shell photo is by Dani Jace on Flickr.)

Sunshine and Shadows

I found the following fragment buried in a file of old drafts. I was always going to do something with it, stretch it into a short story or shrink it into a poem, but I never did. Woven from composite memories of love and loss from decades ago, it was a response to a writing prompt, an exercise in blending fact and fiction; it’s the closest I’ve ever got to explaining why I left Greece.
The sun brands your soul with memories…

Athens. Blinding white glare off the pavements and buildings as we walked in the fierce mid-day heat, up steps and through the narrow bustling alleyways of the Plaka, different tunes from every shop, bouzouki strings and soulful singing, brightly woven rugs, strands of leather goods and sandals, carousels of postcards and tourist guides.

We rose steadily, hand in hand past the beckoning waiters and blue and white checked tablecloths at crowded restaurants; everywhere the smell of oil and fish, roast meat, oregano and wine – cutlery and plates, glasses clinking over the babel of laughter and languages. Past jewellery and hand painted ceramics, blue glass and brass, icons, inlaid backgammon boxes and amber beads, we climbed steadily through alleyways of steps worn smooth towards the grubbier, darker alleys where there’s nothing for foreigners to see except scrawny kittens and closed doors with peeling paint.

Beyond the tightly closed shutters of a darkened, rented room, the throbbing pulse of cicadas singing to the death; we lay in the dark, sweat mingling for the last time.

Greece has left me haunted, hating and longing with a love so deep it runs like a drug through my veins, a love crying out with a thirst that only the light from the sea can ever quench but never does. Greece sates the senses but cries out More… love me more. Don’t leave me… ever. If I hadn’t left when I did, I would have died there too, strung out between love and grief, bliss and death, fear and a fierce, proud longing, like the sun-bleached sails of an ancient ghost ship that never reaches Ithaka.

A country of extremes, of blinding light and shadows deep enough to drown in. You pay for its poetry with your soul.

~~~~~x~~~

What memories has the sun branded your soul with?

A Glimpse of Greece

for whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves that we find in the sea ~ e.e.cummings

As promised, here are a few photos from last summer’s surprise bargain holiday to Greece. It’s taken me a ridiculous amount of time to retrieve, resize and upload them – my troubled relationship with technology and social media will probably end my pathetic journey as a blogger – but even though they’re not technically that brilliant (I visit photography blogs with jaw droppingly stunning photos!) I took them so I could share a wee heart journey with you.

As I clicked away on a small, borrowed digital camera, like a child shrieking Wow! every time I saw something new, these little hymns of gratitude organised themselves into stories and journeys: my first day, discovering the stunning views from our windows and balconies; the glorious flower beds that bordered the many steps down to the restaurant and tiny, private beaches; the deserted, secluded swimming pool which we had all to ourselves for a week; the day trips to favourite hidden coves, as empty now as they were thirty years ago when I first discovered them…

We opened the shutters when we arrived and found this… a little bit of heaven on earth…

It took me five minutes to walk down to the café, pool and beach as I kept stopping to take photos on the way down…

I love organic design and glimpses of the sea!…

glimpse of the sea

Then there’s my obsession with flowers…

 

On our search for the swimming pool, I discovered a wee bit of heaven – a tiny cove, thirty seconds from the pool, two minutes from the café restaurant…

..then this gate… leading to my son‘s idea of heaven!…

We then went exploring and discovered the private beach next to the café…

…and stopped off at the restaurant itself for a beer before tackling the thirty million steps back up to our wee apartment! (There’s a reason our balconies had the best views!)

This is the view from the restaurant one lunch time…

…and at dusk…

The rest of the week, we were happy to stay close to home, occasionally visiting old friends or taking trips along the coast, showing my son old haunts he’d been to as a child but couldn’t remember…

He couldn’t believe he had his pick of deserted beaches. My daughter and I used to find amazing heart shaped stones here…

heart stone beach 2

We had iced coffees and ice creams in local cafés…

…and I was allowed to indulge my obession for photographing doors and windows…

One night, as we sat on the balcony, simply enjoying a beer till the last smudge of light disappeared over the horizon, I said a quiet prayer of gratitude for it all and for my husband, who understands me and makes it all possible. The things I’ve spent my life doing – parenting, homemaking, caring for my elderly dad since his heart attack, writing, translating, teaching, painting, singing, songwriting, photography, homelife coaching – all require intense presence, focus, engagement… an ability to love details and just enjoy being. Greece is where I refuel my soul when life has left me depleted.

I’m glad you visited today; I really did take these with you in mind.