A Cemetery and a Mountain
Lisa ReilyMorning dew brings out the unsuspecting snail and we awake to find dozens of them in a bucket outside our apartment. Their escape is thwarted by a hard splash of water.
Katerina smiles at us on our balcony. ‘Kalimera! Do you like snails?’ She turns off the tap and the slimy snails are given a moment’s peace from her enthusiastic cleansing.
‘Good morning, Katerina!’ we reply. ‘We have eaten them. Yes.’
We are polite, but there is no way we’re eating those poor snails. They are a far cry from the non-entities drowned in garlic butter we have eaten before.
Katerina is the owner of our tiny, dated studio apartment in Corfu. In the few days we have been here, she has tempted us with fresh eggs, homemade kourabiethes (delicious Greek shortbread)—and now, snails. As my partner, Ion, is Greek-Australian, we are welcomed with open arms everywhere we go in Greece and often receive gifts of food. Katerina is no exception.
But it is a strange room she has given us, as its view is a small hillside cemetery. There is no one else staying during the off-peak season and I wonder why she has chosen the cemetery as our view. I have spent my evenings staring at it from our window.
Every night, a small oil lamp burns beside each grave, the lamps enclosed in glass boxes to protect them from the elements. Keeping the flames company are faded photos of loved ones, icons of saints, keepsakes and sparkling trinkets. It feels lonely, but also beautiful to see the lamps flickering in the dark.
Still, I am unnerved to find death at such close range. My mother died suddenly only months earlier, three weeks between a diagnosis of cancer and her painful passing. My dog of fifteen years died not long after her. I had hoped Greece would be a breath of life amid the sadness. Yet here I am in Greece, facing a cemetery right outside my window.
My eyes are drawn back to the poor snails, their shiny trails twisting and turning over one another as they live out their last days. Sometimes there’s no escaping things.
Ion and I retreat to the plastic table and chairs on our balcony for a traditional breakfast of crusty bread, olives, feta, wonderfully ripe tomatoes, and boiled eggs with yolks so yellow they are almost orange. Ion makes Greek coffee in our briki (a small pot used especially for making it) and we relax into the heavenly pace of travel which allows mornings to go on forever.
We contemplate a plan for the day. This is not as easy as it sounds. We have been traveling for a few months now and balancing touristy outings with we-live-here-for-now life can be confusing. We finally agree on a walk along the long village road we have discovered not far from our studio. Unusually, there is very little sun. The perfect time for it.
The road is seamless black, narrow and recently asphalted, so our stroll amid the olive trees is smooth and easy. We hold hands and walk in silence, just soaking in the scent of the earth. We head in the direction of a huge mountain, a few miles away.
Our quiet footsteps pass the healthiest of chickens. Plump with shiny feathers, they cluck and scratch amid the trees, retrieving worms and an assortment of bugs. Their small chicks are scattered nearby, startled back to their mothers by the tiniest noise or movement.
Goats graze and I can hear the crunch of grass between their teeth. I love the gentle clang of their bells as they wander. Sometimes they chase one another, and it is quite a spectacle to see them gallop, dodge and hide. Before Greece, I had never seen goats play. It is these simple things that brought us back here.
There is a realness to Greece that I cannot find back home in Australia. As I watch the goats, I am reminded of the local butcher’s window where their full bodies will someday hang, stripped to the skin. I think of their bare heads, raw and red behind the glass. Death is real and a part of life here; it is not sliced in seclusion and presented tidily under plastic wrap.
We walk for an hour. Miles of open land, trees and mountains, but no sign of anyone. We approach a rundown farmyard and the stench of smoke fills our nostrils. A huge pile of debris is aflame and, even at its considerable distance, the heat is blaring. It feels as if the gods have left it for us as a sign. Beyond the towering flames and the sputter of sparks, there is emptiness.
I wonder about my mother and say her name to myself. I try to remember her face, but she has already transformed into an image only retrieved by the memory of a favorite photo. But in this quiet place, surrounded by earth and trees and fire, I feel connected to her—like I am already dead, but somehow still aware. Ion and I are so far away from everyone. No one knows where we are; we could disappear.
Suddenly, huge raindrops smack the dry ground around us. They hit hard, like small water-filled balloons, and randomly splatter the road ahead. Despite their size, we somehow escape their aim and remain relatively dry. We continue our walk, enjoying the meditative slapping sound of water and the depth of color that comes with rain.
But our day becomes night in an instant. An enormous rumble of thunder growls from the heavens. Clouds move swiftly till no blue remains. The sky opens, and we are completely drenched.
We run stupidly to an overhanging bush by the roadside. Its few leaves provide minimal comfort and we stand underneath like drowned rats. Lightning flashes. Are you meant to stand under a tree when there’s lightning?
Relentless rain. So thick that the air is white. A waterfall in the middle of the road.
My feet squelch inside my sneakers. My jeans cling, revealing more than I care to display. Sunscreen trickles into my eyes and my hair sticks to my head. Ion fares better. He refuses to wear sunscreen and his short hair practically repels the rain. His wet shirt complements his shoulders and his Mediterranean skin glistens. Sometimes life is not fair.
I take a photo of us anyway.
I wipe stinging chemicals from my eyes and my hand is streaked with black. Eyeliner. I wipe and wipe, smearing it further, while Ion politely observes. Ridiculous giggling ensues, and we hardly notice the storm. We are alive. And happy… Sometimes life is fair.
Moments later, a small, white van approaches on the empty road. It creeps slowly past us and heads towards the mountain. The silent crawl of the beat-up van is unnerving; we are being watched.
The white stranger pulls up only meters ahead of us, its one shonky brake light glowing red through sheets of rain. An indicator snaps on. Blinks, and waits.
Ion and I stare at the shadowy visitor, now barely visible in the gloom, the flush of its brake light, the only sign of life.
It reverses towards us. Stops.
We watch idiotically. Shivering now. Until a door swings open and the driver frantically beckons us. It is difficult to make him out, but I can see he resembles Catweazle, the eccentric wizard from the British ’70s TV show. The same crazy, grey hair and disheveled appearance, but embellished with a formal jacket. We decide we have nothing to lose.
As we run towards the van, Catweazle directs us to get in the back. We do as we’re told, open the rear double-doors and get in—only to find we cannot sit down. The back of the van is decorated with dirt and hay, and smells suspiciously of chicken manure.
We squat awkwardly, relieved for the shelter. I hang onto the door handle for balance and we head off towards the mountain, further away from our temporary home.
Catweazle says nothing to us. He leans over the steering wheel, his hair wiry and wild, his full concentration on the wet road. The rain pounds so hard on the roof, a conversation could not be heard anyway. For once, Ion’s ability to speak Greek does not come in handy. We don’t know where we are headed.
Our journey along the smooth village road is abruptly interrupted when we reach the base of the mountain. As we tackle the first turn, we realize the van’s double-doors do not properly close! Ion grabs them and pulls them tightly towards us. We hang on for dear life, strategically spreading our legs for balance as the van goes up and around the increasingly sharp hairpin bends. Each incline adds to Ion’s white-knuckled grip on the doors. Each turn I feel myself falling through them. And as the van swings round, we veer so close to the edge I imagine myself tumbling down the mountain, smashing through trees and rocks as I go.
I am instantaneously brought into the present. There is no time to think, or to worry about the past; there is only the here and now. And in this ‘now’, I am squatting in the back of a van, my legs trembling in their efforts to hold me in a position that prevents me from spilling through two dodgy back doors.
Another horrifying bend. The old van rattles around it and I lose my balance. Ion snatches me with one arm and I am almost saved, with only one butt cheek hitting the van’s filthy floor. I now carry the delightful aroma of chicken manure.
We finally come to a stop not too far from the top of the mountain, beside a small row of village shops. Most of them are closed, as is usual on a Sunday. Catweazle opens the back of his van and directs us to a small café. We run in the rain to its shelter.
Once inside, Catweazle is immediately presented with an ouzo—obviously a regular. We shower him with thanks for rescuing us and haggle to repay him. This is not an easy thing to do in Greece. It is customary for the Greeks to welcome visitors and it can be seen as rude to insist on payment for their kindness.
Fortunately for us, Catweazle’s first glass of ouzo has primed his palate and he accepts a glass on us. He smacks his lips—it’s clearly his thing—and it feels good to be able to reciprocate for a change. He poses with us for a photo and, in his sweaty closeness, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for this scruffy stranger.
I am suddenly reminded of my own undesirable state. But despite my appearance, the café owner welcomes me with a genuine smile and invites Ion and I to take a seat for coffee. Given my aroma, we take our places outside, under the café awning.
Our small Greek coffees are thick and steaming. As the rain subsides, we laugh about our white van adventure and the bighearted Mr. Catweazle who brought us here. The only cost for his services, a small glass of ouzo.
We have experienced such generosity in Greece. On arrival, an old man in the village handed us oranges over his fence, just because we were passing by. We have been given home-grown tomatoes, lemons and zucchinis, and woken to bags of rosy plums hanging from our door. We’ve enjoyed delicious desserts, wines, olives and olive oil. We’ve had our clothes washed, dried and folded at no cost. We have been treated like family.
I stare at my coffee grounds and pretend to tell our fortune. I worry about our future a lot these days. I wonder what we’ll do with the rest of today. I wonder how we’ll get back to our studio. If only we had an old Greek yiayia (grandmother) to read our grounds. As if he read my mind, the café owner appears and makes his own prediction: he sees us heading further up the mountain.
Two large Greek noses step outside and point to the sky. The café owner assures Ion that it never rains like that twice in one day in this area and that it would be an unforgettable experience to continue up the mountain. If we walk for ten minutes more, we will reach a delightful vista and the charming Pantokrator (Ruler of All) Chapel. We can take the road there and return home along the monopati (mountain footpath).
I observe the two noses, their arms pointing excitedly this way and that. In the past, I would have thought they were having an argument. Their volume and intensity could easily be mistaken. But these days, I am able to catch a few Greek words. My clothes are drying and my hair has stopped dripping. If Ion wants to go to the chapel, I am up for it.
As we bid farewell to our new-found friends, the café owner hands me a small, handmade cross made of palm leaves. I had forgotten today was Palm Sunday, the feast day that falls on the Sunday before Easter. The Greeks make these small crosses to commemorate Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem. I take the cross and put it in my pocket; it feels like a good luck charm.
Ion and I head off and up the winding road. The day has mellowed. There is no sign of rain and we are surrounded by quiet hills and Cypress trees. As we take a third thigh-burning bend in our stride, hunger calls and we move onto our daily ritual: deciding which Greek treat we will indulge in for afternoon tea.
There is a zacharoplasteion (sweet and cake shop) near our studio and it has been our routine to purchase a sweet there most days. We have already sampled the traditional favorites: baklava (layers of filo filled with nuts and drenched in honey syrup) and galaktoboureko (filo pastry filled with creamy custard, bathed in scented syrup). But as Greek Easter is nearing, we are keen on tsoureki, a sweet Easter bread.
We have become addicted to this traditional treat. Tsoureki is flavored with orange zest; mastic, an aromatic tree resin from Chios; and mahlepi, a spice made from ground cherry seeds. These give the tsoureki its delicious flavor and sweet aroma. The tsoureki comes as a round, woven loaf with a red-colored boiled egg in the center, or a longer, woven loaf with several eggs on top. The eggs have been colored red to represent the blood of Christ. Straight from the oven, a tsoureki cannot be resisted!
But we need to focus. Things are getting sweaty and we begin to wonder if the chapel exists. The coffee has also kicked in and I have no choice but to squat in the bushes. Although not a single car has passed us so far, Ion gallantly stands guard while I struggle to pull down my shrunken, extremely tight jeans. I return from the bushes frustrated and moody.
Our ten-minute walk has gone way past the half hour. I wonder if we should turn back. I imagine the delicious tsoureki we could be eating. Our cheap studio with its hard bed and lumpy pillows feels remarkably appealing. At this point, I would even be grateful to wrestle the wild snake of a shower head in our tiny shower. I just want to feel clean and normal.
Another bend, and another. Ion keeps quiet; he knows I am not happy. But he risks his life and secretly takes a photo of me.
A car eventually appears and Ion waves it down. The driver stops and tells us that the chapel is close—only a few minutes’ walk. We smile and watch him drive away.
But a few minutes it is not. And we finally conclude that a Greek’s ‘few minutes’ walk’ can mean anything from five minutes to an hour.
We continue uphill. Thick, grey clouds gather. We are up so high we are engulfed in them, their streaks and swirls moving at high speed all around us. Our world becomes dark and cold and foreboding.
Then it pours. Hard. Like a continuous, full bucket of water poured over your head again and again. I squat and give up. Ion drags me onward.
We arrive, near-drowned, at the chapel gate. Ion creaks it open and we run into the flooded grounds. The water is ankle-deep and there is no one to be seen. We splash to the chapel’s alcove, our only available shelter, and watch the heavy downpour from inside.
I slump on a bench beside several stray cats. I am allergic to cats, but I am glad to share their shelter. I take the palm leaf cross from my pocket. Maybe my good luck charm has worked!
By the time the rain ceases, I am a shivering heap. I look out across the grounds and imagine what would normally be a delightfully shady and pretty garden with picnic tables and chairs. Ion suggests we check out the view, but I refuse. He leaves me sniveling among the cats.
I wring out my hair. Jump on the spot to warm myself up. I crouch and speak gently to the cats. They come close, brush against me, but I do not touch them.
In the silence, I feel my mother’s absence like an ache. I want to tell her where I am and about all the amazing, stupid things we are doing. I wonder if she was still around would we even be here. I miss her. And my little dog, Henry. I decide to pat the cats anyway.
When Ion returns, he suggests we follow the signs to the monopati, as advised by our ‘tour guide’. These small footpaths can be found all over Greece, providing convenient shortcuts down the mountains.
Our mountain path is haphazardly paved with loose flat rocks, vibrant with color after the rain. It is a surprisingly pleasant journey downhill, almost romantic as Ion takes my hand to support me on my way. Occasionally we slip on the worn surfaces. We laugh and jerk about to regain our balance. It is amazing up here amid the clouds. Like nothing else exists.
Despite the excruciating tightness of my jeans, the walk warms me and my enthusiasm returns. This is our first monopati walk in Greece and I feel quite the explorer. Ion and I imagine the feet that have crossed this path over the many years of its existence: the goats and sheep, the herders, countless villagers and, perhaps, the klephtes (thieves).
We later learn that the mountain is called Mount Stavros, named after the cross once placed at the top of the mountain whenever a pirate ship appeared. Seeing the stavros (cross), the villagers would be warned and have time to protect themselves. I think about the palm leaf cross in my pocket and wonder if it is my own warning.
We approach a confusing fork in our path, where almost all the rocks have been washed away. The earth is thick and muddy. We have come so far, there is no alternative but to choose a path and continue.
The ground transforms into a soft, red clay. With each step, our shoes almost disappear into it. We ply our sneakers from its grasp, to find each sole covered with a layer of clay at least three centimeters thick! But we are in high spirits; we can see the cemetery in the distance. We stop to take silly photos of ourselves in our clay-clad shoes, then head for home.
Back on our balcony, our tsoureki tastes better than it has anywhere else in Greece. The sky is clear and the cemetery seems cheery with its colorful plastic flowers and its few lamps still aflame. Our encrusted sneakers lay ruined on the grass. Only our budget insists that we tackle them later.
Ion and I sit back and look through the photos of our shoes, my too-tight jeans, and the two of us laughing in the rain. Mum would have loved to see us so relaxed and free. To see me so happy with so little. I never thought I would feel at home with a cemetery right across from our balcony.
I realize now that I have come to love this life of plump chickens and happy goats, white van adventures with wiry-haired strangers, cemeteries with their oil lamps glowing softly in the night, and our temporary homes, complete with snaky showerheads and lumpy pillows.
I pick up the palm leaf cross drying on our outdoor table. I now see it as a personal warning, a reminder to take each day as it comes. To appreciate my life, while I still have it.
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