There for you

There for you.

Our shadows pass lightly over the landscape. We pause and look out over the future. Your soft unquestioning eyes search for  mine – you are always a part of my journey. You amaze me.

We  turn away and leave that path to be together for a while.

Rushing time will soon wash us both up onto an unimaginable landscape, a pure place that  even our shadows cannot touch.  When you turn and look back for me I will be there for you. How could I not be?

Notes from the Word Hoard

The way the exercise works is explained here.

Phrases

the space beyond
a space in front of us
you are always there
always a part of my journey
space I have not touched
just near enough
the shadow in the landscape
we both look out over the same future
touched not even by our shadows
futures unimagined
not touched there
water and path

always a part of my journey* Selected

Thoughts

I have been learning about the spiritual values of landscape from a friend, and this moment with Charlie expressed that for me.

 

 

Over the child’s shoulder

Over the child’s shoulder

My music hurts him now, like me he remembers. Such a joyful, simple thing has been turned into pain by what you have done.

The chords I play cause him to sway and his lips to move as he copies your words, and then he catches himself. You are no longer here.

I think of you also, I look away from my friends and over the child’s shoulder I see you, laughing in your new world.

You are not really there, there is no-one. You are far from me now. But the child remembers as do I, he remembers your gentle song as I played these simple chords and I remember your arched back and the glint of the soft light on your teeth.

I cannot change the chords, I have only a few songs as my memory fades.

But the pain is an addiction, and so I play on.

 

Notes from the Word Hoard

The way the exercise works is explained here.

Phrases

because of you

your presence

we drink and we talk

now it’s cold

I won’t be with you

I know must you

With laughing instead

Over the child’s shoulder * Selected

Thoughts

I love this picture from Thessaloniki and  expected the short story inspired by it to be much longer.

But after just a few words I stopped. I might expand this from this flash story into something longer.

 

We run the streets

We run the streets

Darkness. A physical silence. The noise of them had passed, the sudden throbbing and pulsating pain of it – all gone. A slow drip from a broken pipe. Dark puddles on the concrete floor. Broken glass everywhere. I lay still where I had fallen then slowly turned my head. Night reflections of the city. Yellow and orange, inky black.

I close my eyes, trying to feel my body. I can taste the blood in my mouth. I see one of them again, dark shadows, fist raised.

It wasn’t personal, it wasn’t me. I just happened to be there. I raised myself up, looking around. I knew they had gone. Swept on by each other, feeling the rush, railing against the world. But I looked anyway. Pale smoke in the dark distance, there was a faint smell of petrol.

I remember parking, going to the store, picking up groceries. I had talked with him, I always do. We have talked most nights for years, I still don’t know his name. I had often though of asking, but it never seemed right.

Did I sense anything? Like those machines that pick up changes in the atmosphere, tornado warnings?

There was the usual tensions, the constant backdrop of bad news. Bad TV – riot pictures. Bad radio – interviews with nervous politicians. Nothing special.

He had seemed uneasy, fidgety. Maybe he felt something.

“You OK?”
“Tired that’s all. Just tired of it all. No energy. No business. No point.”

He looked around, scanning the street.
So did I.
Nothing.

“It’s late – you shutting shop?”
“Yes – you’re the last for today.”
“Well, good luck.”

I had paid and crossed the dark and empty road. Behind me I could hear him pull down the heavy metal shutters. The rattle of the chains. I didn’t look back.

I remembered reaching the car, putting my bag down, looking for the key. Hearing them in the distance, my heart jumping. A car alarm. Glass breaking. Seeing them running the street, yelling. Sweeping towards me, like flood waters channeled by the road. Dark clothes, so fast. Swarming. Moulded into a single presence, mindless, uncontrollable, powerful and full of malice. No chance of appeal. There had been nothing, then in a blur they were on me, brutal shocks, blackness and it was over.

Now it feels so calm. The storm has spent itself. No tension.

I stood up, slowly, wiping blood off my hand. Just scratches from the broken glass. Twisted wrist from the fall. Nothing broken. Maybe a tooth. Groceries strewn all over the place. Mindlessly I started to pick them up, put them back in the bags. I felt cold, alone. Helpless. I started to shake.

 

Notes from the Word Hoard

The way the exercise works is explained here.

Phrases

protest or just run
broken glass everywhere
caught up in everything
holding up the law
break in your hands
in the noise and darkness
swarming down the roads
writing on the walls
and everything breaking
to want just you
Broken glass everywhere * Selected

Thoughts

I chose ‘Broken glass everywhere’ and the short story turned out to be very close to the image. I first thought of running in the physical sense, and then in terms of ownership.

Thoughts on leaving Thessaloniki

On leaving Thessaloniki – my first visit to that city and indeed my first visit to Greece for over 20 years – what are my lasting impressions and thoughts?

Firstly the depth of historical significance that Greece has – it seems so obvious but walking in Thessaloniki and in the Vergina site I experienced a very strong physical sense of the influence of Greece over 3 millennia.

The frustration of the modern Greek people at the crisis, and their anger at the political system. Sadly the country may be to be moving towards large scale unrest in 2013, but perhaps centred on Athens rather than Thessaloniki, which has a much gentler pace of life.

The refreshing way that so many people speak almost no English at all. When I asked a taxi driver for the ‘Byzantium Museum’ – one of the best known places to visit in Thessaloniki – he had absolutely no idea what I was saying. I do find this to be a positive thing, so many countries understandably allow English to dilute their linguistic culture – Greece is more Greek to me because so many people know only their own language.

The friendliness of the Greek people to strangers. Maria said that wherever you are in Greece you will always find someone to share a coffee with you. Xenia (Greek: ξενία, xenía) is the Greek word for the generosity and courtesy shown to those who are far from home. Xenia was considered to be particularly important in ancient times when people thought gods mingled amongst them. It had a practical significance then – if one had not been a good host to a stranger, there was the risk of incurring the wrath of a god disguised as the stranger. I have no idea if there is any real connection with these ancient customs – but modern Greek people are certainly open and friendly, and keen to talk.

It would be so worth me learning just a few hundred words of Greek so as to be able to share that coffee with people who speak no English. I am determined to do so, and to visit again next year. Stefamos, a book publisher that I was fortunate to meet on the plane, shared with me that in Greece when they say ‘lets go for a coffee’ the coffee is totally irrelevant – its just a chance to talk.

And two general things that I am increasingly aware of.

Firstly the extreme importance to me of simply travelling. There is something mentally liberating in physically visiting new places that helps to open doors in my mind. Barriers of repetitive routines and the visual dullness of familiar sights are completely removed just by being in a new environment.

Secondly the the importance of climate on both my physical well being and on the culture of countries. The pilot gave us an in flight update with the weather waiting for us at Gatwick and he said “as you’d expect – cold, wet and raining.” I am beginning to wonder if I can live much longer under such physical clouds and dark days.

I saw the sunlight on the upturned smiling faces of the children in the square of Thessaloniki, and perhaps I need to spend significantly more time under the warming influence of the sun.

Striding Out – Full of confidence

I enoyed the Thessaloniki museum of photography today – and full credit to them for this image that is part of an exhibition that captures the evolution of Thessaloniki over recent generations. It is a small, fascinating showing that provides though provoking images of lfe in the city through various significant events since the invention of photography enabled such documentary images to be captured.

With this image – there are actually 4 large works on the wall – what struck me so much was the confidence of youth, striding out into the sunshine, confident in their appearance, tangibly excited by what life had to offer them.

I spent some time in fromt of these images – asking what these people would say to someone like me, so many decades later. Would they whisper words of encouragement? Carpe Diem?

I wonder. What would my father want to say to me now, if he had the chance to whisper something? I think he would say “go for it – you only get one chance Nigel”.

And I am listening.

Layers of Thessaloniki

Today I walked up into the hills behind the centre of town, heading vaguely in the direction of the castle which I knew to be somewhere ‘up on the top’. I am continuing my approach of not planning anything, not researching anything – just getting out there at every opportunity and seeing what happens.

Within the first few hundred yards I had passed the Roman Agora ( 2nd Century ) and the Aghios Dimitrios church ( 5th Century ) and then started the uphill climb towards the castle.

At the top, within a few meters of the castle ruins, I was totally surprised to find the 14th century Vlatadon Monastery – a UNESCO world heritage site. I wandered around its peaceful courtyard – the only visitor apart from the peacocks and two workmen cleaning the walls. Even the bookshop was locked.

To me the city of Thessaloniki is like a multi layered palimpsest – centuries upon centuries of human activity forming a surprising three dimensional puzzle. Greeks, Romans, Jews, the great fire and two world wars all leaving their marks.

Many of the architectural finds in modern Thessaloniki are actually made when they are constructing a new building – they dig the foundations, find older habitations, stop the construction, excavate carefully, catalogue what they find and unless it is really significant they then fill it in again to construct the new foundations as planned.

On the steep walk up through narrow suburban alleys I was reminded again of the modern struggle that forms the constant backdrop to my visit – the crisis that now faces Greece as it struggles to find any kind of financial stability.

And that struggle is expressed in the Graffiti that I have been photographing every day. It is like the final veneer layered onto so many walls, and in these steep alleys you don’t need to walk far to find amazing juxtapositions of the modern and the old, they sit quite literally one on top of the other.

Sometimes the Graffiti rages it’s simple message of frustration and anger, but so often it is laced with humour and delivered with such skill.

I have no credibility at all to talk about Graffiti – I know nothing at all about it. But that is what my life is about now – finding out what I don’t know, pushing myself, learning and chasing information like a child does. And today I found myself drawn to it again and again – it expresses so much about this latest episode in the long history of Greece. And sometimes despite everything it just makes me smile.

 

The Museum of Byzantine Culture

Today I spent a peaceful and reflective couple of hours in the superb Museum of Byzantine Culture here in Thessaloniki.

The museum is perfectly laid out and presented over 11 very spacious rooms, organised chronologically from the 4th century all the way to the 15th century and beyond.

The explanations were presented in Greek and in English, the quality of the language used was excellent – so much so that I actually photographed some of the text so that I could enjoy reading them later. I even found some of the names of the rooms to be strangely evocative :

Yesterday I began to understand in a small way what Macedonia means to the Greek people, today I took the very first steps on a similar journey of discovery centred on Byzantine culture. And what a journey – to see such an empire migrate from Latin and Roman polytheism to Greek and Christian orthodoxy as I quietly stroll from room to room..

Each one of the 11 rooms had an attendant who politely watched my progress from work to work. And the main reason for me writing this post is that apart from myself they were the only people in the museum.

For the entire two hours that I was there I was absolutely the only visitor.

Of course I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of having such a museum completely to myself – but a part of me found this incredibly sad. It was gently raining, the perfect kind of day to spend some time in such an informative and cultural place.

Was this the economic crisis? At an entry price of 4 Euros I would like to think not – that it was just a happy coincidence for me. I so hope that just after I left a coach load of excited children rushed in and did their bit to justify the hard work that has gone into creating such a wonderful cultural space here in Thessaloniki.

Macedonia and the crisis

As we drive west across the geographical region that my guide – Maria – assures me is the true meaning of Macedonia rather than the modern political context – the day starts and we begin to pursue themes that need drawing together to make any sense of.

We are on the way to visit the tomb of Philip II, the father of Alexander the great, at Vergina – which can be reached in a little over an hour from Thessaloniki. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site, and certainly it lives up to everything I expect in terms of  archaeological significance and the way that such relics, visited in situ, will always move me spiritually.

The tomb at Vergina
The tomb at Vergina

They are currently excavating the area around the tombs to map the city and palace. On a hillside is the recognizable shape of a small theater – where the king could bring his guests to watch a performance – and  also look beyond the small stage to a most beautiful panorama of the fertile plains and distant mountains. Maria describes him inviting his enemies as well as his friends and allies, to both entertain them and to reinforce their understanding of his power and the extent of his empire. Who could not be moved by such a vista.

Importantly for me personally by the end of the visit I have a true sense of the word Macedonia, and what it means to the Greeks. And I realize that this part of the world has been one of the centers of the world’s attention for 3 millennia, and for much of that – including modern times – it has been a battleground.

But of course we are also driving across these plains at a time of a different battle – the modern economic crisis in Greece – and  this backdrop is always in my mind and is a source of much of our debate.

Maria is passionate about the crisis, it is a very personal pain to her, as it must surely be to all the individuals caught up in it. Over a long coffee on the veranda of an isolated estate in the hills, where we are the only customers, she cries as she describes her frustrations of trying to run a business and bring up a family.

The Kalaitzis Estate, Vergina
The Kalaitzis Estate, Vergina

The recurring theme is that the political system is rotten – she quotes a Greek proverb  “The fish stinks from the head.” She compares modern life to ancient Greece, and remarks “Thank heavens that at least we had an ancient civilization that knew what it was doing..”

She compares the modern government with their shifting policies and a relentless pursuit of “taxes, taxes, taxes” to Phillip II – who was to her a great king – inspiring his people and giving them direct participation in his success by giving land to soldiers who fought for him in successful battles. To her he was a constant force, deserving of respect and she compares this to  the modern political system which she describes as a shifting quagmire of corruption and policy changes that makes planning difficult and success almost impossible.

I simply listen and ask gentle questions of her, as she is clearly deeply upset. Of course I have no solutions, but I leave Vergina understanding so much more about the trials and tribulations of both ancient and modern Macedonia than any classroom or western media can teach me. I am inspired to learn more, to spend time in this beautiful and fascinating country.

By getting on a plane so that I could hear these things from a passionate Greek lady while sitting in the winter sunshine a stones throw from the tombs of a Macedonian king it has all become so very real to me.

 

Get out there and celebrate the moment

One of the most important things I think I have finally, absolutely learnt recently is how fantastic it is to just get out and do stuff. You learn, live and celebrate.  Why do I ever take my eyes off of this very simple goal?

Two great examples form the last 24 hours here in Thessaloniki.

Yesterday evening, after two glorious days of December sunshine, as the sun went down it started to pour with rain. Rather than sit and read, listen to music or write – I looked out – saw the street reflections – reached for the camera and just tramped around for a couple of hours in the dark. What a great decision.

I spent the time wandering around in Ladadika – a very small area of Thessaloniki treasured for small intimate cobbled streets with cafes, bars and restaurants – a short stroll from the sea and opposite the main port. And about 500 yards from my hotel, so no effort at all.

Rain on tables

I ended up with some photos that I love, two of which I have posted here – I learned about the camera which is still new to me – but more importantly I have some memories that I treasure because they were created out of the moment by me getting out and just living. Upside down tables and puddles were transformed into something quite magical – and all I had to do was be there and look.

Then again this evening – no rain but its windy and cold – and off I go. No hesitation. This time the experience wasn’t driven by photographs but simply by going into a bar to shelter from the wind. Inside it was small, very dark and intimate. I ordered a glass of wine, warmed up, got settled –  and very gradually started looking around.  It took me a while to work out that I was the only guy in the bar.. I had managed to wander into a gay women-only bar without realizing it.

After my over-polite exit i fell into the next bar where the barmaid – Nandia – thought it was extremely funny, and so did I. The girls in the bar were  amused, hospitable and I am sure I didn’t spoil their evening, I was just a crazy English bloke who didn’t understand what way up anything was and left as soon as he did.

And to round off the the experience I did manage to order a sparkling water ( to go with the chardonnay ) in Greek without Nandia hesitating – although she did smile – for all the wrong reasons women have been smiling at me all evening – and how nice is that?

Just get up and get out there – it’s such an exciting planet!

The Importance of Music

Music has been a big part of my first visit to Thessaloniki.

Drummers in Thessaloniki

 

Drummers in the square, children singing, a man playing the accordion for his friends in a cafe – and street bands have all been very uplifting for me.

 

 

 

Music so lifts me up.

Thessaloniki accordian player

People sharing music here just seems so natural – unpretentious.

But actually the biggest high so far was last night – when I finally realized I could plug my laptop into the room sound system and listen to Spotify through proper speakers. I haven’t yet started a Greek channel – but I am sure I will.

 

Lots of bouncing around the room for joy – no photos of that, fortunately..