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Thursday, 30 May 2019

Cycling to places

In an aeroplane, even the slow descent to Corfu airport, passing high over Trompetta, Skripero and 'our' Ano Korakiana to the runway at Kapodistria, 18k further south, I travel further with one bite of a sandwich sat in my belted seat, than on a morning’s cycle ride along the roads far below. Our residency papers were ready at the police station in Paleokastritsa.

It took me nearly an hour to get there from Ano Korakiana via Skripero – 8 kilometres crow-flight, perhaps 10k on country roads. Vasili, a polite young policeman in the office, had our certificates ready – 23 cents each with a stamp, a photo, signatures – official. We can now stay here more than the previously legal 183 days. I was delighted to cycle, without a break, past many tavernas and hotels. up the long hill out of Paleo to where my road headed, below the turns to Doukades, to a T-junction along a rutted road through wood and meadow to Skripero and home. My knees start to ache after a while, but not so they trouble me.  That only happens first thing in the morning when going downstairs I have to take one step at a time until my joints loosen up. 
Another day, my road south is another country road, gnarled by irregular repairs, with cracks from roasting that run in the direction of travel, and a winding four inch scar after the laying of wifi cable. Lined with hollyoak, cypress, olive, lemon and orange, prickly pear, oak, fig, kokykiaseucalyptus and pomegranate trees, some wrapped in ivy, its verges brim with wild flowers, hiding occasional plastic bottles, cigarette cartons, soft drink cans. This land was once part of great estates, but it wasn’t subject to enclosure, where, in England, swathes of land were hedged from the commons by landowners. 
It’s piecemeal – the vanishing remains of a busy pastoral economy in which all but a few were country people. No hedges. Those are reserved for private gardens; rather a shifting mix of makeshift separations – chicken wire, chain link and barbed wire held by metal posts, upright wood palettes, a bedstead, olive timbers nailed to posts – made discreet by burgeoning greenery. Gulleys, leading to culverts and dry winterbournes in the dips, make edges beside the road. At times there are just clumps of unmown verge, bamboo, brambles, oleander, long grass sprinkled with wild variety - corncockle, mallow, loosestrife, convolvulus, the brightest red poppies, spurge, pellitory-of-the-wall (especially prevalent this year), bryony, dwarf elderberry, wild geranium, wild garlic, clover, vetch, white and yellow daisy, honesty, nettles, and, now and then, fugitive garden flowers turning feral - clambering rose, grape vine, wisteria, tall hollyhock and other plants I struggle to name. 
Lin had made a shopping list  - a box of wine, 6 eggs, 2 packs of butter, 1/2 kilo of mince, 6 village sausages, 1/2 kilo of mushrooms, 6 large potatoes, a kilo of onions, a kilo of carrots, crab sticks, margarine, sweet corn. 
I start by walking my bicycle 100 yards down the stony path from our house to National Opposition Street. By the bus stop I turn the bike upside down and, leaning it against the wall there, I examine my tyres for embedded thorns from plants on the path that produce seeds like caltropstribulus terrestrisWe call them ‘yellow perils’.  I use a hard brush on the turning wheels, and the tip of my penknife to ease out suspects. 
I ride eastwards to the hairpin bend on the edge of the village, that leads south from the road to Ag Markos, freewheeling swiftly to Athanassios Street, taking the short cut that passes the olive oil works to 'barking dog corner' and the old main road from the village to town. This road has no steep slopes until Ag Vassilis. Then it descends more steeply to the main road between Corfu Town and Paleokastritsa. I’m heading for Kaizanis, the supermarket at Tzavros. 

I pedal by Luna D’Argento, night club converted to apartments, and the gate to Sally’s stables where I took our grandchildren riding, on past Stamati’s joinery and up a slight hill before passing the T-junction that leads down to Kato Korakiana and the shore. I continue through the hamlet of Ag Vassilis. The clouds are starting to drop rain. At the hamlet of Gazatika the rain increases. I find an open garage and shelter opposite an empty house. A few cars drive by, swishing on the wet road. Swallows settle on an electric cable over the way, preening fussily under the rain. I see no-one. The rain rattles louder on the corrugated roof of the garage, lessens and pauses. 
I’m working through the recovered footage of my stepfather's old Out of Town location film – 16mm reverse negative colour film 40 years old and more, synchronised with 1/4" reel-to-reel sound tape of Jack's commentaries, digitised, colour restored - brought here on a solid state hard drive. Where we have only Jack’s recorded voice, because the old studio image recording tapes cost so much, they got reused. I am filling in these. I'll be filmed in July by Paul Vanezis to make the next Out of Town DVD box set. 
Draft selection of recovered Out of Town episodes

I must digest the spirit of my stepfather’s words before the start of the location films. It scares me. I observe a process of rumination and procrastination.
The unusual grey weather that lingers across the western Balkans wandering daily over Corfu, is here, the village’s pall. We had local and European elections in Ano Korakiana, but where before the village website would swiftly list the results of the polls, they remain unentered, but for an epitaph to the daughter of the village diarist. How could TS, so cruelly bereaved, muster the spirit to continue recounting the village story? The worst thing that can happen is to lose a child. The grass on the paths to her grave at St Nicholas Church is flattened by daily visits – toys, a hundred fresh flowers, a kite, a portrait, small heaps of lovingly arranged pebbles. Beside that a couple of instances of cancer in treatment, a pair of unexpected and irreparable separations from marriages entered only recently, with celebration and ceremony, pass almost unheeded. Even so they make this grey weather dispiriting, reflecting harm in the affairs of a community - ένα χωριό, μια κοινότητα.
Low cloud over mountains drifts in the street
I walked by the village mayor on Democracy Street, working on repairs and alterations to the home occupied by our new papas. FM has striven hard for the village, sorting out street lighting, leading neighbours in keeping village waste sorted and removed without mess, arranging for its collection from homes without cars, pushing for a recycling area near the long abandoned football pitch that is at last being laid out in full working order below the village, ready I suspect for astroturf. He told me he would be Mayor for just 3 more months. The vote last Sunday had been 430 for him to stay and 435 for a new Mayor. 
“Five votes” he said holding up his hand “Just five”
Papa Evthokimos’ house in the village is just opposite what was Stamatis’ Piatsa bar. That’s closed. Our Papas parks a car where we and others sat to drink and chat. Mark says our new Mayor will be Stavros Savanni, elder of Ano Korakiana, but we'll miss Mayor Fokion.
I sense, now and then, gouts of nostalgia; like a slide show my brain presents remembrances. Walking just a few weeks ago with my grandchildren down the rough track from Ano Korakiana to the sea on a route - Κλειστός δρόμος - now closed by a small landslip to vehicles, or seven years ago, with Amy and our new grandson and the dogs - hers, Cookie, my mums', Lulu, and our Oscar - beside the shores of the Moray Firth, over there the Black Isle.
Oscar dog, Oliver, Amy, Lulu, Cookie beside the Moray Firth near Ardersier
Oscar is old now, losing his sense of continuity, barking to go out just after he's come in, blind and almost wholly deaf yet wagging his tail enough to show he enjoys bits of his remaining life. The thought of these fragments of past is entirely bearable, yet contemplating them I sense being on the edge of suppressed grief. I'm old. I will have to go after Oscar in a few years. Am I up to all that - being bereaved of my wonderful life?
"You are old, Father William," the young man said,
"And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head—
Do you think, at your age, it is right?"
"In my youth," Father William replied to his son,
"I feared it might injure the brain;
But now that I'm perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again."

Lewis Carroll taking the mickey out of Robert Southey. When I was young I gave no thought to what the world felt like to old people, and they, quite rightly, had no intention of bothering me with their concerns, far more interested in sharing things the young hadn't experienced. Said my great grandmother, Lucy who died, aged 99 in 1969, once "We thought Oscar was a fool to take on Queensberry" I didn't understand her remark but I remembered it and much later gave it context in what happened to Oscar Wilde. I remember so many things she shared with my seven, eight, nine, ten year-old self, visiting her from school, having lunch at an Italian Restaurant in South Kensington and always talking about the world she'd known. How she fell in love and eloped to London, leaning out of the carriage window, saw her future husband, George Halkett, waiting at the end of the London platform - was it Euston? -  for her train from Oldham "and I knew, just seeing him standing alone in the distance, I'd made the right decision." I had no sense, then, of the risk she'd taken.
My bicycle just after I bought it 6 years ago
I peeked out from my shelter in Gazatika. The rain began again, sheeting down – then as abruptly stopped. My road continued past Angeliki’s, the physiotherapist, opposite the island’s electrical sub-station. I cycled across the Stravo river, waterless despite the rain, to the main road opposite Sgombou and travelled another kilometre to Kaizani. There, pushing a trolley, I work through Lin’s list, enjoying ticking off items without her back-seat shopping eye. I keep the invoice of course, as she'll check it carefully. Outside I calculate I have about 13 kilos in my basket.
My old box shopping basket when it's at home
The bike would like to fall over with the weight. On my way, gently uphill, the 10 kilometres back to Ano Korakiana. When it comes to gears my favourites involve the lowest gear on the rear chain set and the sequence - left hand lever - that changes the position of the chain on the seven sets of cogs on the pedal chain set. All of these from 1-1 for climbing steeper hills to 7-1 on the level, I like. On a descent I'll shift to 7-2 but the bike doesn't like it that way round. 7-3 is fine but switching up to 7-2, I've lost the chain, and oiled my hands putting it back. I don't know why. It's how things are.

The rear chain set on my bicycle

Shopping is an adventure on a bicycle. Walking up the steep path from the bus stop I push myself and the bike  ten steps, then rest for 10 seconds, then push another ten steps. Easy pacing.
"I'm home!" I shout as I prop my faithful vehicle against the wall of our house and unload freight from its rear basket.
"Hi" replies Lin from somewhere in the house.
Our grandchildren, Oliver and Hannah, walking down to the sea from Ano Korakiana

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Simon Baddeley