Naxos

There is something beautiful about arriving to an island by boat. Obviously flying into Santorini was stunning, the island spilling out beneath me as we came into land.

Naxos appeared in the distance,  its white buildings lifting from the sea. As we got closer my eyes were drawn to the monument of Portara.

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Portara is a huge doorway  (and its literal meaning)  made of blocks of stone. An entry to a temple that was never complete, facing towards the island of Delos.

Its emotion is in the story of ambition which never quite reached fruition. Its beauty is in its framing of the island,particularly in the evening,  the sunset and sea on one side and the lights of the harbour restaurants and bars on the other.

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The harbour itself is busy, working from the fisherman of first light. If you go at various times of the day you can almost see the circle of fish from sea  to restaurant to table, including the sight of octopus legs hung to dry in the Greek sun.

It is the starting point for some winding walks to the old town. It appears from some of the history that these pathways would have been dangerous in times past, the castle at the top of the island offering warning of, and refuge from,  invaders. Now though, the only danger is the slip after a cocktail on the shiny cobbled walkways or the temptation of ice cream. They wind and you duck  beneath the stone archways and at every turn there is something else to explore.

naxos octopus

The excess can be slept off the next day on any of Naxos’ beaches. I stayed close to one for all but one of the nights I was there. I forgot to book one nights accommodation but error became advantage as on the last night I booked into a hotel on the harbour and sat on the baclony, drinking and thinking of the days ahead.

Telling Stories

Telling Stories is such a fundamental part of human communication, interaction and connection.  We remember the content of a good story but their power lies in the way they make us feel and the deeper more significant impact beyond the narrative.

Stories can connect us by experience. All of us have gone through a time of difficulty when we feel a hard period of our lives is never going to end. Stories of people who have gone through similar experiences can break the feeling of isolation, shining light in dark places. Sometimes stories show us that what we believed to be fixed about a situation is not, that life moves on and what we judged as wholly a bad experience can have, in retrospect, some positive benefits.

Stories can be a call to action. The telling of an injustice or an oppressive situation or a difficulty can not only connect us spiritually but unite us in collective action. They are a way of telling people why an issue is important to us and they can be the catalyst for changing a story or narrative in the future.

Stories can lead us to reflect, their potency in the effect they have on how we feel and what we do in the longer term. They can make us reframe something in our past or change our approach to something in the future. They can expose our fears, our vulnerabilities, our loves, revealing things about us hidden to others or even to ourselves.

What they do for us is as broad as the stories themselves. In the last week, I was given two great gifts, two stories told to me by people I met that made me think about two things, the nature of success and how in most people’s lives whatever they call ‘success’ is rarely a linear or straightforward story and secondly the nature of everyday courage through the beauty of hearing someone express a difficulty they faced and overcame, that many people would not admit to or share.

As the listener, I felt gratitude to those who told me their story and a deeper connection and affection for them. I was thinking about their stories many days later and reflecting on what they meant for me. It highlighted for me  the power we all have in sharing our own stories. They connect the ‘I’ to ‘US’, individual events becoming a shared experience of ‘life’.

If there is a power and beauty in listening to a story, there is an equal power and beauty in telling our own

Santorini Sails

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At any point in time, around the blue waters of the Greek Islands, boats and ships sway, bob, glide and course. All sizes, two men craft, fishing boats, pleasure cruises, luxury yachts up to the superfast ferries and catamarans. But it is the Blue Star ferries of Greece that are the majestic kings of these waters. Their grace as they move 20-30 knots through the water, their paths the veins and arteries of the Aegean, the lifeblood. I had always wanted to ‘island hop’ on any scale here and now I had the chance.

There is of course the opportunity to do significant journeys around these islands. Many start the adventure at Athens as the gateway by boat to the islands. My plan was more modest, focused on the islands of the Cyclades. I flew straight to Santorini from where the journey began.

It is probably the most iconic and most photographed of all the islands thanks to the stunning landscape of the caldera, particularly from the observation point of the main Island, Santorini. The pathway from the main town of Thira up to the northern point of Oia frames this stunning view. The view can be enjoyed simply, intermittently there are benches to sit at along the route or expensively sipping drinks at one of the many bars that spill over the edges of the white cliffs. The classic time to observe the natural theatre of this place is at sunset, as the colours run across the darkening sky. A slower golden Greek version of the Northern lights.

The town of Thira itself is touristic with shops and bars dominating the cobbled streets. Further inland is the islands main bus depot where you can journey to some of the beach areas such as Kamari and travel north to Oia, again a beautiful place to observe the sunset.

A cable car or a donkey will take you down from Thira to the main harbour. It is at this point that passengers from many of the cruise ships land on small boats as their ship anchors between Santorini and the volcanic island of Nea Kamini. Further along the coastline is the ferry terminal and it is here that the journey to the other islands begin.

In the town of Thira, at the ticket office, on a chalk board the weeks sailings are listed, days, routes, lines. It is take your pick time and the options are universally wonderful. Santorini for me was a place of great beauty and anticipation. Another new beginning. Another adventure.

The sense of excitement as I waited a day later to board the ferry was huge. Lines meandered  as people waited for the Ferry’s arrival. On the horizon, the outline of the boat got bigger and clearer and before longer its height and scale lifted my head, eyes squinting in the sun. With remarkable efficiency, hundreds of passengers spewed out and I ran on. Before long I was at my seat on the top deck as the boat turned and started on its way.

Barcelona

img_291087By the time I travelled on the fast train from Madrid to Barcelona I felt a great deal of satisfaction at the journey behind me. Of course, travelling across Europe is by no means a hazardous journey but I felt a sense of accomplishment that it had gone well. Now all that was left between now and the return flight home was a night in Barcelona. I had been here before so I had no sense of ‘must sees’.

The food on this trip across Portugal and Spain had been a major highlight. Barcelona was no different and after checking into my room I walked on recommendation of the apartment owner  to a  local tapas bar and indulged. And then I walked and took turns through streets and squares until I came to a place where people were sat outside in the sun drinking with friends and there I went to a bar and I stayed and watched.

It was the thing that I had found most enjoyable on this trip, to be able to just sit and enjoy. If ‘sights’ are the things a city wants you to see it is in wandering, in taking turns, in following a group that you learn some of its secrets. Not spectacular or dark ones but the things that are not easily discovered.

In getting lost on this trip, I had also lost or left something behind,. a working life that had been mine for many years. I hadn’t dwelt on what might come next. I had enjoyed the moments, every one of them, and there were more to come

 

 

 

 

Transformation

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Picture courtesy of the New York Times

Many years ago, I watched a production of Kafka’s Metamorphosis by the Royal Ballet.  The physicality of it was gripping. The principal dancer contorted and writhed with the pain of his ‘Transformation’, his shadow fluid on the stage.  The tension heightened by the sound of screeching music and the austere white background.

The story provokes questions. What is happening to this man internally, externally? It provokes observations, the reaction of those around is ambivalence, disgust, and some support.

For me we all are at some point in our lives or indeed always an evolving Gregor Samsa, the salesman In Kafka’s book who goes through a grotesque metamorphosis.

When we go through times of challenging transformation it has characteristics to it that is worthwhile being aware of so we are better able to navigate these periods of our lives.

Transformation can be both external and internal and the two are related. Internally transformation often involves us ‘thinking’ differently, ripping up neurological habits in favour of new ways of thinking. This can be some of the hardest transformation undertaken, as demonstrated by the challenge of addiction recovery but all thought change is difficult. External change is hard also and often linked to internal change, doing something differently being predicated by thinking about it differently and its success dependent on it. Consider how most of us have chased the ‘new me’ post new year only to be disappointed by our ‘failure’ some weeks or months later.

Transformation is painful. Whether it is an event external to us that is the catalyst for it or something we do independently, moving from how we are now to our ‘future selves’ is rarely easy. It is why when change comes without notice we find it difficult and when we instigate it ourselves we can struggle to commit to it. It requires us to let go of the familiar, to allow for uncertainty and not knowing and to start to think and act differently to in the past. It is the letting go and the stretching of who we are that is the most painful.

Transformation is hard to understand both for ourselves and others. It isn’t always clear what is emerging and the destination we set out to ourselves will not necessarily be the one we end up at. If letting go of the old us is hard for us sometimes it can be equally hard for those around us,  relationships often dependent on the old version of ourselves can change or be lost as we transform. Alternatively, those close to us can be a great support

In life, Tranformation is inevitable though and ‘we’ will emerge different from who we once were. We should seize the opportunity to be aware of the nature of Transformation and develop the confidence to navigate it. We should consider

Being prepared for and accepting of what arises

How we look after ourselves physically and mentally through periods of change

How we keep momentum but at a pace that is right for the change to be successful

How we are mindful of others and the support they can offer

How we Reward ourselves and express gratitude

At some point we all must transform. How traumatic it is is down to our awareness and skills for the process.

Madrid welcomes You

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In Lisbon I’d watched as the UK voted for Brexit and David Cameron resigned. That and the European refugee ‘crisis’ seemed to dominate the summer. People, countries were  reacting their own way to this, some more positively than others. It was wonderful in Madrid to see a sign draped across City Hall stating ‘Refugees Welcome’. Very fitting for the ‘City of the Hug’. In the basement of City Hall an emotional exhibition recreated the long and perilous  journey refugees make. In a darkened room a film was projected on a wall showing the infra red of 3 people huddled together, talking of their discomfort. It soon became apparent they were travelling hidden in a lorry. It was claustrophobic and emotionally draining to watch. The film left it unclear as to whether they made it or not. It made me reflect on the privilege of my life, the purple passport I carried that allowed me to journey unhindered across the world and within European to pursue a new life should I wish.

Buen Retiro Park offered a  great space to think and an opportunity to see more art at the Palacio de Cristal. The exhibition included a textile representation of the doomed Titanic sailing, suspended it from the ceiling it hang downwards. The weight of it was emotional and even more so in the context of the other refugee exhibition. In very different circumstances the occupants of many boats trying to reach for a new life in Europe were not making it also.

Travel is an escape but it is also an opportunity to understand how events are viewed differently elsewhere, how other people are reacting, an opportunity to learn and reflect. Some days later the Madrid banner was viral and was being photoshopped to reflect the ‘plight’ of those in the UK who voted to remain part of European Union. ….British Refugees Welcome!

It was a tempting offer. The art and cultural offer in the city’s museumss delights and in this capital city there are expansive open spaces to sit and enjoy. But the final leg of my journey through Portugal and Spain beckoned. Barcelona would be my final stop.

 

 

The Granada Life

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I’d booked modest rooms as I traveled through Spain and Portugal. In Granada, I probably took my search for a bargain room too far. The street the hotel was on was a backstreet of shuttered up shop units and graffiti, like a scene from Edward Woodward’s ‘The Equalizer’. However, I try not to judge a hotel ‘book’ by its cover and given I was only there a couple of nights I was prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt.

The woman on reception was pleasant and showed me the facilities- sadly not a spa but a lounge with a tv and a kitchen should I want to cook (she obviously doesn’t know me). On the way up to the room we exchanged pleasantries and I asked the woman if the hotel was busy. ‘Not that busy’ she said ‘No one is crazy enough to come and stay here in the height of summer’. Charming, but I later realised she had a point.

The room was clean with a singled bed and shower/ bathroom. It was however a homage to stained wood – shutters, skirting, wardrobe. It reminded me of the nuns or monks cells we used to learn about in RE at school (see pic below). I noticed the room was warm and dark and that’s when the penny dropped as to why it was so cheap- no air condition or a fan. Oh well I’d have to simply sit by a fan with a cold beer in a pub for most of the evening to beat the heat. Terrible.

I only had one intention going to Granada and that was to see the Alhambra Palace. Given the volume of visitors it gets it is necessary to book ahead for the Alhambra Palace and an allocated slot to go into the Nasrid Palace. I picked up my tickets that first evening from a cash machine where you can collect booked tickets from and had a walk to get my first view and picture of the palace

Unlike the bold colours of Sintra, the lines of the Alhambra almost blended against the pink blue sky, surrounded by lush greenery. Its magnificence unique. Unlike the room I returned to some hours later back at the hotel. I took a cold shower to cool myself but an hour after trying to get to sleep I was blessing the sheets with cold water and fanning myself with the wardrobe doors. As the humidity rose I sat bolt upright in the bed, like a scene from the exorcist.

At some point I must have fallen asleep and slightly jaded the next day I headed for the Alhambra Palace. It’s a 20-minute walk to the palace from the centre and I headed straight for the Nasrid palace first for my allotted time so that I could be more flexible for the rest of my visit. They are strict on the timed visits, arrive late and you miss out and arrive early and you will just be told to wait at the back of the queue. The formality and rigidity whilst understandable put me off a little. At one point, I felt I missed a bit in the Nasrid Palace and attempted to retrace a step. No can do! But despite this it is a magnificent building with fantastic rooms and courtyards. After I enjoyed the other highlight for me, the gardens of the General Life. Even with the number of visitors there it was a place of beauty and peace.

And Peace was what I needed! When I returned to the hotel the receptionist was brandishing a large plastic gun and playing a shoot em up game on her PC with her feet up and a FAN!! It was the last time I saw her. With some success in regulating my body temp I slept a lot better and left the next morning.