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Saturday, 10 May 2008

Before and after

Just before we left there was a small hullabaloo in Democracy Street. We hurried out to join in, and found the Leftheris, and their children and friends peering excitedly into next door's garden where Bubble's litter, in a nest near a wall, were having their first look at the world. Even I could manage enough Greek to join in the glow of pleasure and the counting of the kittens - three, one orange. We left Ano Korakiana before sunrise on Thursday. We arrived in Birmingham just after midnight this Saturday morning - taking the 900 bus into town, where I phoned a minicab to avoid the higher charges of the hackney cabs, whose drivers knew there were no trains from the airport into the city after 2327. Waiting for the bus, we met two students who'd just arrived from Cyprus. We chatted and called them a taxi from Moor Street for a journey on to Wolverhampton. At Frankfurt airport I read a 9 May copy of USA Today - the headlined special report said 'Gas costs reshape daily life'. An on-line paper this evening starts:
With crude oil now above $120 a barrel and threatening to go higher, it is clear that our preferred and convenient means of going places, our car, the airplane and the rental car soon are going to be parked because they will be too expensive to operate...
* * * In Venice we left our bags at a friendly hotel on Fondamenta Di Santa Chiara; bought fresh bread and picnic'd in a shady park - Giardino di Papadopoli - near Piazzalle Roma, sipping Leftheris' home grown rosé from the cola bottle he'd handed us on Easter Sunday, feeding the pigeons and sparrows. I noticed visitors struggling with their bags over the stepped Scalzi bridge opposite the rail station to avoid paying a vaporetto fare to cross the Grand Canal. The new bridge - Ponte di Calatrava - when completed - will ease that walk. The trek from Venice's vast Marittima, where we disembarked, will be trickier to sort out. See the comment here on walking it in reverse: 'If you're adventurous and aren't hauling luggage, you can save time by walking along the sidewalk street below the southwestern edge of the Piazza (past the Garage Comunale) until you reach an old steel footbridge with a sign (in Italian) that says "authorized persons only" or words to that effect. This will lead you to Marittima's back entrance. Warning: The bridge is rusty with holes and patches, so walk carefully and avoid the bridge if you're heavy or wearing high heels. Also, the port police may not let you use the bridge from the Marittima side, probably because the cruise authorities don't want to be responsible if you fall through.' Luck found us a trolley by the ferry to cart our cases to the official exit where we were politely told we could take it no further. Thereafter, along Tronchetto we hauled across a couple of roads and a roundabout busy with motorised traffic to and from the Strada Statale 11, using piecemeal sidewalks, across the neck of the Ponte della libertà , to complete the 1500 metre journey to Piazzalle Roma, where, amid phrenetic queuing, new arrivals are divested of their cars, debussed and decoached. People aren't expected to actually enter Venice on foot, despite it being the finest walking city in Europe - once you're there. * * * 9 May 2008 0016. Between Croatia and Italy on the way north. Peering over a rail eleven decks above the distant wash of an immense ferry, I get vertigo as from a high factory roof. The blatancy of the artificial light, bathing the ship’s public spaces, blinds me, making the surroundings remote and unfriendly, despite the calmest of Mediterranean nights. I can make out an occasional star and a crescent moon. Its reflection on the sea or looms from distant lights are all but indiscernible. I'm enclosed by a claustrophobic acoustic landscape of rumbling propellers, rattling screens, vibrating deck plates, roaring extractor fans, humming air-conditioning. Inside, sleep is made difficult by lights that won’t turn off and the background sound of television. The passage of this great private leisure centre - self-described as the 'paradise of the sea' - is hardly apparent until we close the land becoming a platform from which to enjoy mountainous scenery or a panoramic view of Venice. This surging Adriatic juggernaut separates us from the sea; in my case the intimate orchestra of sensations afforded by sailing in a small boat – the starry heavens, the moonlit wavelets slapping the hull, the small flaps and creaks of sails and spars, the swirling phosphorescence of myriad creatures sparking in our wake, the friendly glimpse of oil lamps inside a cosy cabin when making a cup of tea for the watch, the dim luminous face of the compass, the rocking of our quiet passage, distant and occasional lights on land or other vessels - the generous bosom of the surrounding sea. Of course there are other nights of buffeting wind, crashing waves, invading spray, driving rain and difficult reefing - weather through which this great vessel charges impervious, when, seeing her passing, I would think with envy of a warm cabin aboard her, but I know where my preference lies. * * * We are tidying the crude panels nailed round the top of the stairwell – two sides with wood and the third as stucco atop more builders’ foam. Our work has often been accompanied by music on the laptop – tunes woven into these wonderful weeks - Queen, Greek bands from Corfu, Rachmaninov’s Liturgy, Fauré’s Requiem, Hadjidakis’ 30 Nocturnes, rebetika about Smyrna, Vangelis’ Bladerunner soundtrack, Eleni Karaindrou’s soundtrack for The Weeping Meadow, Theodorakis’ setting of Axion Esti, Mozart’s Requiem in Dm, Thomas Trotter playing the refurbished organ in Birmingham Town Hall, Lully, Marais, Saint-Colombe, Couperin, Savali (the last five from the soundtrack of Tous Les Matins du Monde). * * * On Thursday at 7.00 in the morning we will take a ferry to Venice and home. We return briefly in July, and then for September. This afternoon Aln, who’s helped so much with the house renovation, is coming over with H to look at our progress. Yesterday he and she came with us on Summer Song to lunch at Agni. This time Summer Song's old engine sounded sweet staying merely warm to the touch. We didn’t use it so much. I’ve found in Aln and H two gifts. He knows how to sail and, with H, is content with zephyrous progress, passages marked by bubbles that drift silently beside our hull, or a landmark ashore whose position only changes when a conversational distraction stop us noticing it until we look again and see it’s slipped behind or drawn a fraction closer. In addition we had a jocund breeze – coming and going, to Taverna Nikolas in the cove. We came to the jetty at Agni under sail – with two seconds reverse from the engine and a hand with warps from Pericles – and we berthed at Ipsos the same way (though being sensible I had the engine running out of gear just in case). Our ancestors were forever seeing their surroundings under sail, or propelled by oars, feet, or on rumbling wheels, tied for all history to the headlong maximum of a galloping horse. Early rail passengers spoke with excited wonder of landscapes passing smoothly by at intoxicating pace. Trains began our affair with speed, embracing velocity as an ideal, experience what had previously been the province of birds and projectiles. To be pedestrian is to be tedious; ‘dawdling’ a weakness. Our hypermobility is our economy. It mustn’t slow-down. Speedophilia spread from increasing pace to shrinking the time spent on cultivation and manufacture, and from there to fast eating and other fleet sensations. Now speed envelops and traps the richest beneficiaries of modern economies who realise time can't be bought. When did my enterprising nephew in the city enjoy a long slow meal or a family walk uninterrupted by an e-mail or phone call? That phrase - 'a long slow' - brings to mind an aged pimp in Montmartre - when John and I and my daughter Amy travelled by train with our folding bicycles to celebrate a ‘carfree’ day in Paris. He lounged beside a grandmotherly dame and proffered us – the men – ‘une copulation longue et dureé’. Capitalism’s genius struggles to profit from the novel choice of slowness amid the conveniences and imperatives of speed. It will surely succeed - engendering anxiety about pace. Where once the punter paid for a ‘quickie’ and fusses when a fast-food queue delays a minute, slower pleasures will lead the market. The need, and therefore the demand, is growing. Entrepreneurs profiting from the business of popular air travel will take to bicycles, local produce and even commit to relationships ‘longue et dureé’. For the time being slowness is an esoteric good, a choice rather than a fashion, not yet a significant dimension of consumerism, a political rather than an economic choice. We peered at passing inlets, caves, paths into woods, private developments stealing the public cliff top path between Kaminaki and Nissaki, attractive houses nestling amid olives, blatant villas, gazed at verdant flower filled slopes, layers of rock bent into arches by durations that stretch imagination, the shaled fissures and towering crags of Pantokrator, close enough to the shore to rock in redounding wavelets above us two parallel contrails made into sky-filling ‘V’ by our perspective. Aln, H and Lin politely demolished my case for the irrelevancy of most news from the world, proving my dismal failure at Socratic method. I did however demonstrate the wonder of the simplest of knots that will hold secure to the strength of the rope with which you tie it, while remaining easily undone; a knot I can tie behind my back – the bowline. * * * 4 May. So far this is the longest Lin and I have been away from England or indeed from our home in Birmingham. “I don’t want to go back” she muttered; not “I don’t want to go home”. Which is saying a lot because we have plenty of enjoyment in England – places, people, events, but in these last weeks the accumulation of novel sensations – whether a multitude of candle flames reflected from brass trumpets and swaying tubas in the narrows of Democracy Street, shattering terracotta on the Liston, an afternoon breeze raising wavelets in the Corfu Straits, darkening the sea like raised nap on blue velvet; and doing the same, in reverse, to the olive canopy, turning up the silver side of their spinach leaves as we ride among them in the meadows below Agios Ilias – Lin, me, Jill and Sally, and the dog Molly; Kostas humming Ένα Το Χελιδόνι’ as he drives me to his home for a snack and pickings from his garden – eggs still warm, asparagus, peas, broad beans, lettuce, and, from his deep freeze three strawberry granita mixes – “made by myself’ - like small scarlet skating rinks; Easter Sunday’s clear air suffused with the scent of roasting lamb, strolling together beyond the village between flowered verges to be with Mark and Sally and their friends invited - delightfully privileged - to partake of their particular spitted lamb – a New Zealand body and a Greek head who’d been to tea with her husband - delectable morsels of quail roasted on a grid, pitta bread with sausages mustard and tomato sauce with fireflies gathering in the warm dusk, and the midnight before – when my candle guttered out near the bandstand at the top of the village and I reached towards the crowd already there and a flame was offered “Yasoo Simon” said a quiet voice in the darkness - Katia Thannassis and Costas Aspergis a fortnight earlier; Lin raising her candle to mark our front door lintel; Mr Leftheris outside his house in the street after midnight handing us a bottle of wine from his garden vine, shaking our hands “Kronia Polla” and Lin having some gift eggs ready from England for his grandchildren; everywhere smiles, nods and "Χρόνια πολλά"s from strangers, neighbours and people we nearly know – we are half entranced full of dreams as our brains reorganise us for the novel contract we’ve made with one another and this village of Ano Korakiana which, through the fortunate drift of happenstance, seems to have found us. The other day Alan and Honey invited us to strawberries, tea, cream and perfect scones - made by a baker they'd found near Potamus. * * * I’m in the Med without tide and much windlessness. I need to know things about engines that never bothered me. Why was heat resistant paint smoking on one of the pipes through which water should be circulating? :”There’s your problem” said Dave in harbour. With my pocket screwdriver I removed a jubilee clip, slid off a piece of flexible pipe and removed the pipe joint unit. A wad of solidified salt had stopping water circulating round Summer Song’s 25 year old engine, while allowing it to emerge with the exhaust. Dave, impressed by my boldness in engine surgery, came with a proper spanner and removed the water circulating head. “Clear that salt; renew these cooling pipes; cut yourself some gaskets, and you’ll be fine.” I scissored out the shapes from 0.25m brown sealing paper from Kontokali chandlers - where I bought a meter of flexible pipe. The engine ran cooler than I’ve known with far more water gouting out of the exhaust, but then the batteries stopped charging. Without a working battery there’s no way to start the engine. Dave did some diagnosis with his circuit tester. “Could be the alternator; could be this relay (a scruffy little box suspended between wires); could be this regulator that’s been attached outside because the internal one broke.” I watched and tried to learn; took the alternator to the car electrician at Pirgi where a friendly son, Kostas, explained his Dad, Spiros, was the alternator man but spoke no English “…and I’m off to Athens, but leave it. I’ll call you”. An hour or so later I was called at Ano Korakiana where I was helping Lin with woodwork repair round the stairwell. “The old alternator seems OK. My dad’s replaced the old box. See what happens.” I drove down the leafy road to Pirgi, collected the repair and then to the harbour. Dave re-installed before my grateful eyes helped by the wiring sketch he’d made earlier. The jump-lead I’d bought gave us enough power from the domestic battery to start the engine. To my relief and delight Dave’s tester showed the batteries charging. After I’d run the engine 10 minutes and checked it’d restart from the smaller engine battery, I joined Dave at CJ’s for a drink. “Ben had a Greek grumble today.”said Dave. “ ‘Too many English yachts in the harbour. They should be in the marina!’” I have always wondered how long the free mooring could last. “It’s the season. People feeling crowded. There are eight English boats out there. We should be OK for the moment because we’ve got homes on the island.” * * * It’s May. A few white figures brave the chilly sea off Ipsos' pebbled beach; occasional cyclists and walkers are touring the back roads; amplified bass and mini-moke convoys are heard; contrails mark the sky as geese trail in from the north. This morning I woke from a nightmare of a conversation as the bewildered guest - in a fake castle - of powerful people of hideous character exchanging bland simplifications about governing others in order to realise their destiny. Especially galling was my own diplomatic fawning amid this company of the despicable. As we left – I was with someone else who was my crew, on the yacht - Summer Song of course - in which we’d journeyed to this landlocked place, a beautiful stone faced woman of indeterminate age, her face fixed into an arrogant rictus beneath an immaculate hairdo, remarked “You wear that silly hat and that easy smile, yet you rule the world”. [I realise - awake - I've dreamt of Corinna Harfouch as Magda Goebbels in the 2004 film 'Downfall' - 'Der Untergang'. Seeing images of a fine actress instead of the real person dispelled the aftertaste of my horrid dream. I'm friendly to the activation-synthesis theory, suggesting dreams are a mental filing process - nothing to do with Freud's sub-conscious wish-fulfillment and so no interpretation needed, though it's interesting to ponder the origin of these disjointed impressions being tidied into a story during slumber. It's pure coincidence this woman killed her children and was then shot by her husband on 1 May 1945. I was 3.] As my crew and I left in search of the castle car park – a car ride preceding our return to the yacht - we got lost. Attempting to shortcut across the battlements my companion disappeared. Moments later I heard his agonised cries for help. Then I woke. I read a newspaper round-up of ‘the news’ from the UK, trying to peer through the hedge of opinionated interpretation as editors and their journalists discard and connect dots to make a pattern – shaking out inconvenient imponderables, formatting daily meanings; ‘tales (with few exceptions) told by idiots’, prompting surrogate emotions and casual conversation about what’s happening. I’m drawn into chat about often poignant irrelevancies – events which if they happened in our street, our village or involved our family and friends would matter - would entail some action - but which distanced by time and place from us are no more significant than a good DVD which at least pretends to be no more than entertainment. I check the price of oil, food bills, exchange rates, demographies - trends that emerge like seasons, slower but no less dramatic. Socrates would be amused, far less pompous, about the news-makers having equipped his friends and pupils with precision tools for demolishing the certainties of people who think they know and restore a more proper perplexity about what we can know.

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