Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Nothing on Naxos

I am sitting in my room. Outside it is raining, the sky dark with storm clouds. I am drinking an ouzo and reading a history of the Ottoman Empire. I am very happy. I feel I should be doing something else, but as it is not obvious to me what that might be, I shall, for now, continue not doing it.
So, what is nothing? No money. No plans or prospects. No regrets. Just food (enough). Warmth. A glass of krasi. Tobacco. Coffee. Something to do. Or read. Or watch. No “God”. Just whatever is, today, now, this instant.
God” went west in May. With Him (it was/is a “He”) out of the way, life became simpler. One foot in front of the other, one minute, hour, day, at a time. And the real god (we need a new pronoun for the real god) started shining through. In the kindness of strangers. In happy accidents. In children. In friends, old and new. In bus timetables, ferries, taxi drivers. And, eventually, in Naxos.
Eliot wrote “April is the cruellest month” but for me, it has always been late August. Everything dead, or dying. Crops in. Trees still green, but dull, no longer exuberant with life. But here October brings a second spring – the ground covered with swathes of wild cyclamen, autumn crocus, cistus, daisies, wild thyme, the trees greening, bees busy buzzing, fungi everywhere, the hillsides as green as Ireland, meadows and terraces covered in sorrel and dandelion – the Greeks call it all “orta” (weeds), and eat it with abandon.
So you walk. And look. And breathe. And live.
Walking is good. It takes time. You meet raki distillers. You get lifts. It gets you from A to B (sometimes) quicker than a car – they weren’t idiots, the old Greeks; nor are the new ones – they give you a lift when you ask. Modern roads cost money, and modern cars don’t like to go uphill too fast. So, not many roads, and they take the long way round to get from here to there. The old footpaths go straight, up and down hill, and get you to where you’re going in short order. And while you’re walking, you have time to notice things. The view. The flowers. The time.
I always thought sculpting would drive me mad. It takes so long. Bashing away at a piece of rock with a hammer and chisel, slowly finding a shape. Actually, it’s a kind of meditation, a complete absorption in the material, the process. And an enforced detachment – Naxos marble is beautiful, but very crystalline, so it glitters like diamonds and lets light shine through, but is also painfully liable to crack, just when you think you have made something worthwhile. It’s done it to me twice now. You just have to start again. Fail. Fail again. Fail better.
From our eyrie, 1200 feet above the Aegean, looking north and east, on a clear day, we can see Ikaria, where the inhabitants are reputed to live to over a hundred. Beyond is Patmos, where Saint John wrote his gospel and strange revelations. South east on the far horizon, between Donoussa and Amorgos, you can see Rhodes, the original home, after Jerusalem and Cyprus, of the knights of Saint John. And, after dark, we see the flashes of thunderstorms over Turkey, and the lights of Smyrna reflected on the clouds, 150 kilometres away.
We live on Lagos Raki – the Hare’s Back – a kilometre or so north of Mesi, on the northern tip of Naxos. We are off the grid – no electricity, other than what we can make for ourselves, no water other than what god chooses to let down on us by way of rain on the roof funnelled into a cistern, no heat other than sunshine and firewood. I had a bath (a wash in a plastic basin with water heated on the stove) the other day, and found out how long it takes to gather and chop enough wood to heat water for a shave and a thorough clean. About 45 minutes. It makes you think twice about turning on a tap and getting instant hot water, or getting water at all.
Ditto food. We gather – fungi from the fields, peppers, tomatoes, beetroot, beans, potatoes, from Stuart’s garden. Bread may come, from the nearest village, 6 kilometres across the valley, an hour’s walk. Fish, if we hear the fishman’s van, crying his catch, and get to him before he’s gone on to the next village. Meat from Chora, 50 kilometres and two hours’ bus ride away to the south. Some days we don’t eat much.
I run out of tobacco. To get more, I must walk for an hour down to Apollon. Hope the little shop is open. Hope Yanni has some tobacco. Walk back up the hill to the Hare’s Back. Do I really want a smoke that badly? I want to see Eleni, my sculpture teacher. Friends have a car and drop me off. I stay the night. Yanni plays his lyre and baglamas, a kind of small bouzouki. On Sunday morning, the sky is clear although it is blowing a howling gale. I look at my map. It will, I think, take 4 or 5 hours to walk home. I could go by road, and take the chance of a lift (everyone will stop, but you can walk for two hours and not see a car) or walk over Mavro Vouni, the third high mountain on the island, and have an adventure. Seven hours later, I get home. I have walked over Scottish moorland, down verdant spring fed valleys, been blown sideways by the wind, seen both sides of this little kingdom in the sea, got lost twice, and been frightened, a bit.
I am richer than Croesus. What he had could be taken from him. Having nothing, there is nothing to lose, and everything is pure gift.

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