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Friday, 9 September 2016

September in the village ~ Σεπτεμβρίου στο χωριό

“I wish we could take Amy and the family to this island” I said to Lin "With Oliver going to school" – his first day on Friday - "their visits here will be even more hemmed by the airfare pricing” 
"They can’t come when the ferry runs” Only July, August and September. 
"Yeah! Fares gauged to school dates!"

Lin and I were on the ferry to Vido - a sturdy caique that chugs hourly between the Old Harbour and a jetty on Vido, a kilometre opposite. We walked with our swimming things on a rough track to a cove we know with a jetty and a narrow shore to lay out our picnic blanket and wade into the clear warm water. “It’s so easy to float!” 

I drew long breaths bobbing gently, awash in the sea, sun piercing my closed eyelids. Later, drying in the breeze, we read until our beach slipped into the shade of overhanging pines. Behind the bar opposite the city an Englishwoman, northeast accent, speaking Greek with ease, remembered us. 
“Hullo again” she smiled, serving a cold beer and coke.  

We asat with others among the pink brown trunks of tall pines. Amid sparkling wavelets ships of every size plied back and forth. A cruise liner called sonorously for her passengers’ return from the city. After a while its enormous bulk was slipping soundlessly out to sea. A blot appeared in the dazzling sea, resolving into a shape 
“A rowing boat?” 
“That’s our ferry” said Lin 
“No it isn’t” 
“Yes it is. Look” 
The silhouette of a wedge had grown into our caique returning with lots of people to land, taking fewer of us back to Corfu.
The next day, Sunday, we rose late. 
I get up, empty the bins into a plastic bag, wee in the compost just topped with a swept heap of summer-shed leaves and blackened lemon husks. 

Wasps are everywhere. Their ceaseless buzz has an edge, different from bees “Not one of ours?” We’ve both been stung. After the first pain stings become an itch. Milder than English wasps. I sweep the space under the balcony; play bountiful with the cats that beg at the door, casting them handfuls of dried pet food – comforting routines. I’ve been cutting back wisteria, forever trying to play constricting serpent with our wood balcony; also tall soft-spiked branches of bougainvillea insinuated between the decking. From the public path where it’s piled, with gloved hands I stuff big black plastic sacks with chopped stalks and leaves. Six sacks. I take them to the top of the steps to Democracy Street; collect the car and fill it with green waste to dump in the first empty wheelie bin I find, outside the village beside the Sidari Road.
“Last day we have the car. Let’s go to Mon Repos, to the beach there”
Lin was in a vexed study. Tired out from responsibilities in England. I irritated her. We didn’t speak, driving through town to the Kanoni road, not easy to find, but we know the route so well. Parked by the gates to the palace, we strolled a broad shaded zigzag drive, past the lovely house, and then by a roundabout route, since we’d missed the direct track, we came to a strand deeply covered in dead dry seaweed, absorbing sound. All along a narrow stone jetty, reaching 80 metres out to sea, were Greeks with colourful towels resting on Sunday afternoon; one I saw, stood near the end of the jetty, ample flesh shaking a little. I waited for a resounding splash. She poised herself, splayed feet washed by gentle waves, and entered the water with a perfect dive, supple as a seal, disappearing, surfacing, disappearing, surfacing further than I’d have expected, shaking her wet black hair, diving again, heading seaward where the shores of the mainland stretched south, a hazy outline of flawless blue china. Mother Greece. 
The jetty below Mon Repos

Others on the Mon Repos jetty read, listened with earphones, sunbathed, chatted on their phones and to each other. A man like the charioteer came down on his bicycle, lent it against a tree, washed himself in the water of the Kardaki spring at the back of the beach. I stumbled clumsily into the water by the shore, made my way around the length of the jetty and stumbled back out. Lin sat and read. 
“Shall we go now?” I said 
“If you like” 
We ascended by the easier route through old woods of acacia , eucalyptus, scots pine and cypress. On the Paleo road home towards Ano Korakiana we stopped at Emeral for ice cream – mine dark bitter chocolate, Lin peaches and cream. 
“I’ll take the car back tomorrow. Come back by bus” 
“I’ll give you the money”
*** ***
Monday down at the airport I handed in our little hire car, paying with an envelope of cash, took my pannier and bike from the rear-seat, unfolded and pedalled into town, stopping at the new Green Bus Station to get the latest timetable. The way into the city, unless you stick to the pavement – which, if you’re on foot, gives out, ejecting you into a busy road - is blocked by a sturdy concrete central reservation on the short dualled carriageway that was Ethniki Odos Lefkimis. Impassable. Logic? Unassailable. Who would want to bring a cycle into a bus station? 
“I’ve a folding bicycle. It fits easily in the luggage space with passengers’ bags and pushchairs” 
“What did you say?” 
“Forget it” 
I’m not playing victim over so irritating a triviality. I cycle gently among pedestrians until the reservation ends, cross carefully to the centre to join motorised traffic heading up the gentle slope of Dinatou Dimolitsa, into Mitropolitou Methodiou and so, amid increasing bustle, to San Rocco Square, jostling with buses, cars, vans, scooters, into G.Theotoki, until across a barrier I’m bumping along the cobbles of newly pedestrianised Evgeniou Voulgareos, dotted with spring planted municipal trees. I pass among bright coloured strollers who shift like swimming fish at the sound of my tuneful bell as I weave elegantly up the narrow way to broader Kapodistriou behind the Liston, then down N.Theotoki – a flâneur on wheels amid noon’s contrasts of light and shade and the conversations of hundreds of people. Now and then a great plane rumbles overhead, glimpsed from the ground as it heads north freighted with passengers bound for work, brief holidays ended, Corfu’s green and blue falling below; swiftly hazed. I’ll catch the bus to Sokraki from the stop beside Sette Venti Café. I look for a bar without a queue that sells Ionian Beer, the green top bottles, and there just opposite my stop on the Old Port Road I sit inside a cushioned sofa sipping from a flute glass reading Orhan Pamuk’s Snow – the novelist imparting insight into the dynamic of political Islam beyond the reach of non-fiction; walking me through the snow-filled streets and the population of Kars - a contested Anatolian city - decaying - against closed borders with Armenia on the eastern edge of modern Turkey. !0 minutes before the bus I paid for my beer and found, nearby, a small grill. Waiting in the generous shade of a pavement acacia I picked happily at the bits and pieces of fresh pork gyro – tomato, crispy juicy pork, chips, fresh pita, licking sauce from my fingers as the bus arrived. 15 passengers boarded; people who would once have waited conveniently at the old Green Bus station, but aren’t going to walk, especially with their shopping, a mile across town to the new one. My familiar journey from the Old Port takes under an hour. Ticket €2.90. On level ground I continued reading, glancing at our whereabouts – Kontokali, Gouvia, Tzavros, Dassia, sinking into a reverie of falling snow and darkness, missing the landscape outside, rocked by the familiar racket of changing gears as turning and turning the bus climbs steadily up from the sea. Some passengers are getting off. Are we in Spartillas? Or are we already edging between buildings on the road through Sgourades, descending through olive groves to the sharp left turn at the T-junction in Zygos which, if you turn right,  leads north through Klimatia and Episkopi to the coast at Roda? I see gardens, frontages, stores, woodpiles, verandas, houses, forest slopes, whole villages perched on long ridges I passed when cycling this route. Stop anywhere. From a glance, I’ll know exactly where we are. Nothing’s odd or foreign. The undergrowth along the verges - parched kindling mingling with rich greenery - bracken, brambles, dry seeded flowers, tall tangled grasses, thistle, fig that grows like weed, feral vines, errant climbers reaching into the woods.
It’s cooler where I leave the bus in high Sokraki to freewheel blithely down the mountainside passing the two reservoirs that hold the village water, seeing the road below, half-wondering if it’s the road above, so circuitous are the zigzag turns; passing below the little church of Ag Isadoras, through the narrows of Venetia, into Ano Korakiana – all the way my feet resting on the pedals, my hands on the brakes checking my speed enough to avoid overheating the sides of my Brompton’s 16” wheels.
** ** ** **
An intransitive verb is simply defined as a verb that does not take a direct object. There's no word in the sentence that tells who, or what, received the action. It’s not as if I’m not prepared – when it comes to starting to read Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones. There are stages in making sense of its subject matter, that starts with someone born in 1942 learning. Remote from it in time and place I was nonetheless alive while these things were happening, and long after, when so many called  to account found ways to lie or deny their part. 
“There was so much propaganda, we didn’t believe such things” said my mum late in life. 
I don’t hold her to account for one second – nor countless others who could not believe or, if they tried, could not begin to understand and even if they did could do nothing. I mean those involved. David Thomas in Ostland – ostensibly a thriller – stretches that genre; asks what would you or I have done? Littell creates, in his SS officer, a character who, so far as I know, doesn’t exist. Why? Because he’s someone who, throughout the novelist’s account - I’ve got about 500 of over 970 pages to go - sticks steadfastly to the transitive tense, avoiding the evasive intransitive; not using verbs that duck the direct object; verbs reflexively, and usually disingenuously, placed in sentences without a personal pronoun; without an  ‘I’ - to tell who or what carried out the action, the einsatz. Littell’s writing, unparagraphed even during dialogue, has a quality of relentlessness and pace as though he is writing for his life. The great hanging proposition, supported by prolonged casuistry, innumerable examples, conundrums, utterly detailed research, that those who took part in these actions were no different from the rest of us, no different from me. So don’t, says this fictional first person biography, get into the minds of others when trying to understand and explain, go into the possibilities that exist in you, in me, as I recount this terrible tale. Did Bosch paint himself in hell? We can speculate. But Dr Max Aue does, in excruciating detail, with all the second rate, half-baked pernicious nonsense of a highly educated grown man striving to be honest.
** ** **
There’s something I can like about the torpor of high summer in Greece that is foreign to England. 
I don’t really like being so hot, but if I move slowly, use the weather as a reason for lying about reading with a cold drink to hand, I come to terms with it. 
August - from the village

But now the enveloping heat of August, but not the wasps, has been chased decisively away by two 24 hour intervals of rain, wind, thunder and lightning. 
Gabriella, a friend from Rumania rang to ask “Are you alright?” 
“Oh my dear, there’s been news of a typhoon in Corfu, flooding and cars washed away.” 
"Blimey. So sweet of you to call us. No we’re fine. Just a bit damp.” 
I’d read on facebook about someone who’d described flying towards Corfu entering the blanket of cloud that’s been covering the island on a plane full of people frightened, as we would be, by extreme turbulence; how their holiday plane seemed to descend for ever through a tunnel of unbroken cloud rushing by, windows slashed with rain, the interior lit by flashes of lightning, and still no sight of ground – 'some were crying, others screaming now and then' - until the pilot gave up and diverted to Thessaloniki, where passengers were boarded at a local hotel with vouchers for food. This contemporary bout of terror reminded me of how passengers on a 19th century sailing ship, embayed by a sudden shift of wind strength and direction, might be given hours of fear as her crew work to balance weight of sail against risk of losing spas, praying to weather a distant cape.
The start of September

*** ***

We’ve been at Stamati’s Piatsa, most evenings, less than a minute from our front door. Three years it’s been going, converted from a shop; a small plaka’d triangle right against an especially narrow few yards of the road through the village. I have come to enjoy this unpromising place for a bar. 
Aristeidis Metallinos - sitting over to the right - carves the peddler in to the village Cat 222 1985 marble relief 55 x 69cms

It’s a small theatre. The wings are east-west along the road that bisects the village, on one side almost invisible, but with the doors and canopy of the baker’s shop and its customers comings and goings glimpsed askance. On the other, a 50 metre stretch of Democracy Street down to the Philharmonia rehearsal and teaching rooms, that disappears round a bend on a slope. Entering left and right we see bicycles, scooters, vans, cars and the municipal refuse truck that passes through at night...

... men hanging on dashboards front and back, a miasma of rot in their wake. We wave to them and they wave back. Now and then when a parked car narrows the road even more Stamati walks into the street waving directions. Our entertainment includes surmising how vehicles going opposite directions will pass one another. From the bandroom, from time to time, we hear their rehearsal music. Add to this pleasing melange of sounds, the rub-a-dub-dub-dub on some evenings of the lads on their motorbikes. 
There are other ways onto the stage; from a Venetian arch over steps just below, from the house opposite – three metres across the street. Dogs and cats are extras, lying insouciant on the patchy tarmac as wheels pass inches from their reclining paws, or barking at something off-stage, or wandering between our feet, being stroked and patted, as we sit at the outside tables.  As in classical drama actual action occurs outside the theatre, retold and discussed by us as anecdotes, tales, opinions, judgements. 
Aristeidis Metallinou 1984 Cat 205, marble relief 40 x 59cms*

I doubt Aristeidis Metallinos would charge us with being ‘the snails of the village’? Do we gossip? Yes but we also debate and discuss and laugh a lot. 
“Socrates asked three questions of an informant” I was told the other day by Yani Metallinou – that 'M' name traditionally diffused throughout Ano Korakiana - and one who recalls, as a ten year old, seeing the laic sculptor at work, rhythmically chipping at stone and marble. 
“First question. Is it good news? Second. Is it true? Third. Is it helpful? If not ‘yes’ to all three, say 'no more'"
Above our theatre, but below the sky and the Trompetta crags that tower over our village, there’s the next floor of the surrounding houses with doors, french windows, shutters, a balcony. Perfect for hanging out washing and enacting a conversation with those below, Juliet to Romeo.  From May to July, even early August, swallows nest and raise their young in niches all around, adding their chatter to the sounds of children – playing football, skateboarding, cycling – easily moving out of the way of vehicles. The other night, as happens now and then, Stamati organised music, sardines, souvlakia. Two musicians – an old man and young man, son of a neighbour, played for four hours almost without a break, keyboard, guitar, for a while, bouzouki. People danced – Zebetiko - and sang – "laiki musiki" - seeming to know all the words and tunes.
*Translation: 'When the village’s snails are alone they sit and boast about their big horns. But when somebody comes up to them they try to hide their horns, one behind the other, between their legs'
*** *** ***
My goodness! A leap in time. Bignells Cottage in Itchen Abbas. My half sister, Oriana, sent me this picture the other day - a watercolour by my great-aunt Florence Apperley, who I called Auntie Flo.
Bignalls Cottage, Itchen Abbas 1940

She painted the cottage in September 1940 - at the height of the Battle of Britain, this thatched house belonged to my great grandmother Lucy Halkett, with whom I spent much time as a small child. She taught me to read. I am unsure when Gaga (my name for her) bought this lovely place. I believe she sold it in 1949. I was born in 1942. Born in another thatched cottage on the other side of England, I spent part of my earliest childhood at Bignalls, on my own and with my sister, Bay, 18 months younger. The house stood next to an avenue of lime trees that led down a gentle slope to the River Itchen. My room, my nursery, is the upstairs window on the far left. The next two upstairs windows were to Gaga's bedroom. Early on summer mornings, as I recall 70 years later, I would get out of bed and climb into hers. She'd start reading to me, teaching me letters and words as a story proceeded. I recall the first of many classical tales - that of Baucis and Philemon. In her 70s then she could complete the Times x-word in half an hour. Later in her 90s she complained of her mind going "It takes me an hour" she grumbled. In 1969, she died in her sleep at 99, after heading upstairs with her usual nightcap of malt whisky. About six years ago I was in Winchester for work. I found a few hours to cycle out to Itchen Abbas and catch a glimpse of Bignell's Cottage and stroll beside the Itchen in whose crystal water I saw brown trout through the reflection of my face as I gazed down from a low bridge hardly two feet above the river.

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Simon Baddeley