Back in Athens I’m invited to stay for ten days with a Spanish girl, Deborah, who I know through a friend from the squat. This is originally offered as a room to myself while her flatmate is away for Christmas, but by the time I get back to Athens Deborah has taken in another couple of homeless travellers and I’m in the lounge. Still, I have a room to myself, at least during the night, and a stable place to stay for ten days straight – which for me is incredibly settled and gives me time to reflect and reconnect with myself a bit. David is still in Athens, but although I’ve enjoyed travelling with him and see him as a friend, our different needs and travelling styles are becoming increasingly apparent and I suggest we find separate hosts for a while.
One thing I realise as I begin my reflection is the obvious: I need to get out of the city. The city in general, and Athens in particular. I need to hear birds. I need to see trees. I need to be somewhere where cars and shouting are not the dominant noise and concrete is the exception, not the rule. I mention this to a few people, none of whom understand what I’m talking about. I feel very, very alone in this city of 750,000 people.
Christmas might have been as depressing as my birthday if I celebrated it, but I don’t. Instead I go for a long solitary walk around the city. The streets are deserted save for the odd car, late to the family meal, or a couple of kids on bikes. Even the tourist areas are quiet – the North Africans are still attempting to flog their handbags and Christmas toys, but nobody’s there to buy them.
David leaves on Boxing day. I see him the night before to say goodbye and give him some postcards and a small package to take back home with him: Sustainable Lightfoot Post (except he’s actually flying, so maybe not…) That evening I’m invited to a gathering at the house of Paros, one of my favourite people in Athens, and probably one of the nicest men in the world. We first met outside the migrant social centre waiting for the Saturday afternoon food. He’s, friendly, easy to talk to and even insisted on lending me over €100 since my replacement cashcards have still not arrived and David’s account is now refusing him money. At Panos’ gathering I discover that not only is he super-nice himself, he also has the nicest friends in Athens. It’s almost a shame to leave the city the following day.
I wanted to take the boat during daylight, to watch the islands pass. But it was 5:30pm or 7:25am and that’s too early for me to cross Athens in time. I watch Piraeus pull away from the boat as daylight drowns in darkness. It’s a four-and-a-bit hour crossing: a good amount of time for a bit of food, bit of coffee, bit of writing and some serious study from my new book “Learn Greek Without a Teacher”.
The floor of the deck is an artificial primary blue, covered in wet splodges, despite the roof. A few windswept smokers sit about the deck, gently vibrating along with the white spray-stained tables and everything else. Under the thundering engine and the hissing waves, I can hear the boat singing: kind of a melodic, repetitive chime, barely audible. It sounds happy.
The island is reportedly dead in the winter. I’m looking forward to it. Wendy emailed to warn me: “We are a bit in the middle of nowhere here, about 15 mins drive from town, no running water or electric! Paros is pretty quiet in winter, so not alot to do as a visitor! Sorry if that sounds like I’m trying to put you off, really not, just being honest!” I wrote her back immediately: “It sounds beautiful, amazing, perfect. When can I come?”
I scan the small crowd of people for familiar faces at the port, and smile when I see a far off figure in long flowing skirt and long cardigan. I used to work at a festival café at Glastonbury Festival every year. Wendy is one of the people I met there. She’s older than me by about twenty years, but I don’t feel the age gap as we take walks around the valley and she shows me which plants we can gather to eat and points out the ruins of the old church, old school and village bakery. Only about four people live in this village now, which has fallen from the map.
Wendy’s partner Patrick is another ten to twenty years older than her, a loveably cranky guy who’s been living in this simple, beautiful house up a mountain on this Greek island for the past seventeen years. He met Wendy some years ago, they fell in love and she moved here to be with him a year or so ago. Patrick has recently discovered The Internet. He sees it as something of a modern miracle, which I suppose it is. My favourite night shared with these two is where we each take turns putting songs on Youtube and dancing round the living room together. Pat appreciates Gogol Bordello and I enjoy The Highwaymen songs he puts on.
My third night we go to a cheese and wine party. I take vegan cheese with me from the supermarket (note to all vegans: soya cheese available in almost every Greek supermarket!) Everyone there is British: one Irish, one Scottish and many English people, plus the French partner of an English woman. Each has lived on the island between one and twenty-five years and they have become something of a community here. I’m surprised to discover that even after that amount of time, not one of them can speak Greek. Two people are trying to learn, but most just say the same thing, “it just doesn’t interest me”. I get on with these people, despite our (many, glaringly obvious) differences and there’s a jolly, jovial atmosphere.
On my last day on Paros I take a solo walk up the ‘red road’, behind Wendy and Pat’s place. I fail to find Butterfly Valley or walk to town, but I do get windburn cheeks, sore ears and a beautiful view. I also meet a man from neighbouring island Antiparos, (yes, it is a stupid name – imagine building a city near London and calling it Antilondon?!) who likes to cycle a circuit, around the road up to Anepatzia, up the red road into Butterfly Valley, then back down the steep way “without any pedals”. He has grey hair and a child’s glint in his eye.
I take the boat back to Piraeus in the daytime, so now I can see the other islands – some bigger than Paros, others just rocks jutting out of the dark sea, which today reminds me of black jelly with whisps of vanilla ice-cream. It’s a beautiful day for a boat ride and I have the best seat on deck, where the sun hits directly. All the tables are covered in a fine layer of salt. There’s a chill when the sun is swallowed by clouds, but I’m warm in my jumper and woolly hat.
Pireus port is approaching. What will Athens have in store for me this time?