Three Questions.

Who are you?

I’ve been re-reading my diaries over the past two months, with a view to travelling light. I’m moving on again and want to carry memories, not evidence. I’m at the end of the last millennium in this task – and that’s where I am stopping for now. The 2000+ text will travel with me – I need that hard copy for a while. Over the years, my handwriting changed – I experimented a bit, broke bones, pre-cell-phone-drunk-texted, tried different media, wrote on the move – but I can still hear my voice on the page. I listen and recognise familiar tones from a distance, through remembered tears and laughter. It’s me alright, but it’s not who I am. Not now.

What are you?

Damascus was my second foreign posting. I chose it with my heart not my head. My interviewer presented me with a list of vacancies, ones she judged suitable for my skill set. All other locations were sold to me with animated, attractive descriptions – perfect for career development, ideal for those who enjoy outdoor recreation (she knew me well), opportunities to learn new skills, lowest staff turnover in the network. Damascus was still and silent. She didn’t know me that well. I asked about the job. There was a moment’s pause and a flicker of anxiety before she replied: ‘They need someone with your qualifications and experience’. That was it. When I arrived, I heard all she hadn’t said and felt the full impact of the pause in that workplace. Yet, I knew my decision wouldn’t have been any different. I had wanted to want to be there. The people of the city showed me why. They took me in: ‘What are you?’ they asked. They understood we all must be something. Now, I understand.

Where are you?

I move often and migrate at (almost) regular intervals so, from time to time, I receive texts, calls or emails asking ‘Where are you?’ A friend sent one such recently and I replied with one of my ‘in transit’ messages; giving date of departure, route out, date of arrival and destination. You see, I’m neither here nor there. Here, unrelenting waves of refugees and political rhetoric have washed over the national psyche so extensively that I believe the country no longer recognises itself in this uneasy stasis. I catch glimpses of my Greece when I’m off-guard, but it’s not where I am. Not now.


The State We’re In

This rock’s been in the news this week, a lot. Of course, it’s been newsworthy in recent years for its tourism; good and bad. Most often found in the foreign press travel supplements and rarely mentioned even in the national press as a bit-player in the ongoing economic crisis – Rhodes has now entered The News. It’s gone all international. It always has been, of course. International, that is. In recent history, it officially became part of the modern Greek State in 1947, and has since taken in visitors, workers and residents from all over the globe – maintaining its international face, while keeping its parochial heart. I am one of those visitors. Rocks are my favourite places to be. I’m an islander by birth and persuasion. I am a citizen of the European Union, a British passport holder and English by birth. I have chosen to live here. I was fortunate enough to have that choice. And I can also choose to leave, to move on elsewhere. A gift from my parents, the choice, by virtue of their British passports and my birth in Colchester, Essex. 

So, being here is my decision. And with every decision comes responsibility for the consequences. Here, despite much-heralded promises of reform, those consequences continue to involve eye-watering levels of bureaucracy. Much paper, many offices, many voices, type-stuff. Monday marked the day I finally had my name put on the electricity bill, after two months. The law changed in January this year, you see, and, in any case, clear steers have never been easy to find here. A good accountant found, I was on the home straight as I walked back and forth between his office, the tax office and the Public Power Corporation office. I was done as the security guard closed the doors behind me and the cleaner let me out of the compound. I went to a cool, quiet, dark space, drank a very cold bottle of water and breathed deep.

A short time before, just over the road from the tax office, a wooden boat carrying undocumented migrants had broken up on the rocks. Locals ran down to the beach and pulled the refugees from the sea as quickly as they could even while emergency services arrived. Despite their efforts, three died. The survivors were taken to the port police station or to the local hospital. They had nothing material. People continued to help by donating clothing and other basic necessities, as well as, importantly, care and affection. As news filtered through online, the, by now sadly predictable, voices of intolerance and ignorance seeped out from their pit. Some voices from my rock of origin, ignorant of history and their own mongrel background, poured forth views better suffocated at birth.

In any case, by Thursday, it was clear that survivors were being well cared-for and prepared for their onward journeys. St George’s Day dawned sunny and bright, with a clear, cold wind. I took part in a historical visit to the Old Town, learning more of the story of this island, this land of migrants – touring a building designed to fortify the town and repel the unwanted, which had grown almost organically with the years. We stood on the top of the structure, our group of the allowed, and looked out over hundreds of years of history from our vantage point in that UNESCO World Heritage Site. As we did so, Rhodes stayed in the news – photographs from the rescue effort on the beach had gone viral, and European leaders met to discuss ‘what to do’. In fact, with a General Election close by, the UK PM, suddenly conscious that the electorate saw this not as an immigration issue, but as a humanitarian one, was quick to the table.

On that day, one of the refugees was delivered of a healthy baby boy. His mother named him for the man who pulled her from the sea, and the saint on whose name day he arrived. Today, he’s three days into life on this rock. As he’s held and fed and loved and his mother contemplates the next stage of her journey, a marathon race will pass nearby. Those runners will set out on a mapped path; their progress monitored, their pace in their power. For that baby, his uncertain journey is just beginning. He’s yet to know the state he’s in.


A World Away

I recently returned from five days on The Rock. The Rock is a hard place of barren beauty, indubitably physically attractive and compelling. It’s an Aegean must-see. And this long weekend was no exception for the now-familiar visitors: the luxury yacht guests; the day trippers; the stopover holiday crowd; and the refugees.

Marvels of naval architecture grace the outlying bays by day, where their guests swim, jet-ski, kayak and paddle before heading for lunch at a beach taverna or on board. By night, those private vessels small enough approach the main harbour, when, twinkling, sparkling and glittering, their lights add to the glaring shop and street illumination on land. Idling by, some of us try to go through the looking-glass, speculating on who we’d meet aboard these modern wonders of the world. Others, smelling the cash (and heady on the aroma), trip over themselves to entice that money into their business.

The vast bulk of people see The Rock for the first time as day trippers on excursion boats. Emptied into the hot cauldron of the harbour, organized groups recover awed breath (lost at first sight of the harbour), put cameras away and look around for their guide. The guide who’s going to tell them ‘all-about-the-island’ whilst leading them past sponge and herb retailers at a pace suitable for product placement (not for dawdling), before plopping them down, hot, laden with ‘facts’ and shopping, at a restaurant. Food, under starter’s orders, leaves the kitchen as soon as the group arrives. Later, some may choose to take the little train around the headland to enjoy the views, the breeze and cheesy music. Others may cool off with a swim or at a bar until departure time. Many are back on their boat well before it’s time to set sail, having ‘done’ The Rock and it having ‘done’ them, too.

Those of us who choose to stay awhile spread ourselves out over the few hotels, numerous holiday rooms and apartments. Slowly but surely over the years, the choice and quality of this accommodation has improved. With restrictions on water supply, however, its density is limited – which, of course, adds to its attraction. The Rock is a holiday destination which also attracts a certain competitive element. Loud, alcohol-fueled, conversations detail the speaker’s belief in their intimate knowledge of the island and certain of its inhabitants. One visit more, one year earlier, than their audience and they’re content. For all of us who choose to visit, for however long and since whatever date, the sheer beauty of the place and its environment helps steer us past certain human anomalies.

The island is a welcome relief to all of us, none more so than the refugees. For years now, people smugglers have dumped those who could afford their extortionate fees on or offshore and fled the scene. The hapless folk left to fend for themselves in the perilous waves and on the treacherous stones are soon found. Sometimes, just in time. For those of us fortunate enough to be entitled to the right passport, the return taxi-boat fare from the harbour to the island’s southernmost beaches is €14. For those others, it is currently €4000 one-way in unspeakable conditions. Holidaymakers and locals take care of the people for whom that beautiful view is breathtaking for completely different reasons. Once found, they are taken to the police station, given medical treatment and looked after until they can be moved on. From the arched first floor of the police station, men, women and children from Syria and Afghanistan look out over the luxury yachts, the neo-classical architecture and the Aegean and wait.

In this world and yet not of it: we all escaped something during our stay. The Rock is a world away.


Number 47

My name is Jane. I began at Number 47. It’s where I was conceived and spent the first five years of my life, though I was not born there. I was born at the Lexden Road Maternity Home. That is also where my mother (and some of the best people I know) came into this world. After some nights spent there, where the new mothers were given Guinness to build up their strength, my mother took me home to where she and my father had started their married life four years earlier.

Number 47 is a sixteenth-century house, already divided into a downstairs office with a split-level apartment upstairs by the time I arrived. We lived ‘over the shop’, as downstairs was my father’s drawing office. My earliest memory is of hiding under his drawing board and watching the legs of all the passers-by, until someone rumbled me and then it was all faces, not legs. I started running off at an early age. (There’s a little more about that, here)

When we lived there, no-one wanted older property; everyone wanted new places filled with new stuff. We had gargoyles, wall paintings and mismatched antiques. Others had fitted carpets, three-piece suites and wallpaper. That’s just how it was. Before my parents moved in, another newly-married couple had lived there briefly. They moved out because of the door thing. The woman saw a door that wasn’t there, but had been centuries before. It got to her, she said they had to leave and they did. So, we were there and we co-existed with the door thing quite happily.

The door thing also meant that doors occasionally opened and closed without being visibly touched. My parents were pragmatic about this; if we were happy and the house was happy there was nothing broke to fix. They were right, of course. You can’t live in the centre of ‘Britain’s Oldest Recorded Town’ without some story or other attaching itself to the property. An added bonus was that you never felt alone in any room in the house, especially the living room where we had the door that wasn’t there.

The only time history got in the way was in the garden. The house had been built on the site of a very large Roman villa (as had most of the top half of North Hill). As a result, my father, a man of few words and very rare expletives (the exact opposite of my mother, but that’s another story) would appear borderline garrulous and profane when digging. Shards of pottery, coins, tiles, and all manner of ancient refuse conspired to make gardening a chore.

I loved it there and felt at home. There was a sense of belonging that went beyond the tangible, the practical and the everyday. On my mother’s side of the family we go back for generations in that town. Number 47 was simply a five-minute walk from where some of my ancestors had arrived and settled as Flemish Protestant refugees in the sixteenth century. That same Dutch Quarter had, three hundred years later, also been home to my great-great-great grandmother. At the age of fifteen she left her family to marry a German soldier at Colchester Garrison and start a new life in South Africa. She came back, we always do. We run off, we come back.

Since we all left Number 47, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to revisit two times. The first was when it was on the market for sale in 2006. I posed as a potential buyer and the estate agent was ecstatic – it was (and still is) a difficult property to market (its design, its location and the fact that it’s Grade II listed mean that there’s very little you can do to the property). I was shown round, while the agent spoke nonsense, and a lot of it. So little had changed in the house that I was quite taken aback. I spent longest in the room where my sister was born, it felt good in there (especially as the agent left me alone while he took a call).

The second time I visited was this year. The front door was open, well actually it was off, so I went in. I met the man who bought it in 2006 – he and his family have only now put together the money to renovate the house. We had a long chat over a cup of tea, as you do. Then he asked me about the door thing, said he found it a bit odd but not troubling. I agreed, but for me it was never odd – I’d known no different growing up there. The door thing is a North Hill thing, too – at least two other buildings, to my knowledge, have it.

That comforts me, a sense of community and continuity in a time of increasingly swift change. Number 47 is still my home.