Friday, 31 May 2013


Well, somehow a trip to another island challenges and potentially changes so many preconceptions. True metaphorically of life in general, of course. 

So heading to Nissyros on the ferry – for an overnight stay and an early start to see the volcano before the day trippers arrived from Kos – proved something of a culture shock. Tourist tat lines the road into the port town, and you just don't see that kind of thing on Tilos! We hoped to bus up to the crater's edge village of Emborios but I found the idea of a 7.30 bus departure after no breakfast a bit too much of a good thing and we hired a car instead. €25 changed hands with no paperwork in sight, and we were off. 

And we just made it. The crater and the sulfurous plumes of smoke were truly spectacular. Equally spectacular, from our vantage point down in the 'caldera', ahead of the crowds, was the snaking line of the occupants of eight tourist buses descending the path down the crater's edge towards us:

Ironically, having gone under our own steam, rather than being restricted to the stingy 45 minutes allocated to the coach hordes to dash down and scramble back on board, we were able to venture further afield and 'discovered' a second caldera a few hundred yards away which offered a far more exciting and challenging experience, not least because out of the perhaps 300 people in the volcano, we were two of only four visitors to see and enjoy the second crater and its extraordinary colours, shapes and depths. Like a miniature Grand Canyon I guess (I've never been there).

Like Tilos, Nissyros was once densely populated, sustaining considerable populations because its hillsides were lined to extraordinary heights with fertile man-made terraces. Both islands have plenty of fresh water, and in any case the terraces clearly tended to retain what rainwater there is rather than letting it all run off. The terraced fertile strips are still there with their countless hundreds of miles of retaining walls, but the agricultural practices were abandoned in the last century mainly it seems in the fifties and the islands depopulated. Whole villages were abandoned and people emigrated en masse. But these smaller islands have a pride about them, and both the elderly residents and the new young generations of those who stayed on are working hard to make their islands capable of surviving into the future in a responsible way while appealing to more intelligent and sensitive tourists. 

Descendants of the Germans who starved many villagers to death and burned out villages where they found resistance to the occupation now come as holidaymakers to Greece and the islands and sail their yachts into these Greek harbours. 

Monday, 27 May 2013

A proud island

Well, joining the euro and being told how to run its economy has seriously damaged life here and it's obvious at every turn. 

Expensive to fly to and with taverna meals only a little cheaper on average than in pubs in the UK, though here on Tilos at least cooked to a far higher standard for the money and with better ingredients, Greece has lost a lot of its monetary competitive edge in the holiday market. 

On the other hand, book your own flights and arrange accommodation with local agents or direct with owners, and you can halve the cost of a holiday booked with a travel company. Very attractive studios for 2 with balcony and air con, sea view and simple cooking facilities are available here in May and June for 30 euros a night per room. Above is the view from our balcony: an almost private beach is just below!

At the moment, though, it's hard not to gloat when using the wifi in the bar to check the weather back home. It's wall to wall sun here with light warm breezes and temperatures around 21—24 degC. The restful and relaxed feel to the place comes partly from the fact that the 600+ islanders mostly know one another, partly from the fact that they are very proud of their island and what makes it different. They have an intelligent and imaginative mayor who has banned hunting and created nature reserves and encouraged walking while restricting new building in Livadia to two storeys. 

When the hunting ban was announced, hunters from Rhodes announced their intention to flaunt it and came over on the ferry. The islanders formed a human chain to  keep them away and they had to return. That's an island I'm proud to be staying on!

Friday, 17 May 2013

Three and a half weeks

This is going to be the longest holiday from work I've ever had! Of course going to a tiny Greek island these days (Tilos has a local population of 750) doesn't actually cut you off from much: wifi is everywhere and the mobile signal covers much of the island. Last time I was in Greece was so long ago I took a shortwave radio with me and certainly no mobile!

Surprisingly two people have told me they have been to Tilos. Small world.

Still, we've arranged with Angela's brother in South Africa to spend a month with him early next year, so that may be an even longer break. Life is becoming one long holiday. Well, let's hope so!

Walking across the fields a couple of evenings ago we looked again in vain for swallows or swifts. Will they ever make it? Will we ever hear a cuckoo? The skylarks are there aplenty. I hope they can raise their young and protect their eggs between downpours and frosts.

To the Memorial Hall this evening and a performance by the Charlbury Community Choir and Kismet. A real feel-good musical evening. Charlbury feels really warm and vibrant on occasions like this and it's as if all your friends are there. You can't believe, just for a moment, that anyone could be absent. Then you pinch yourself and realise that of the 3000 people who live here, well over 2900 will have stayed away. Such is life and such are communities.

Next morning — well, good news on the swallow front. Heard last night that they have been skimming the lakes in Cornbury since mid April. And someone has heard a cuckoo. 

Concert lived up to expectations. Lovely to be in such an upbeat and happy place.  

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

One swallow would make my summer

The lateness of this summer fills me with some foreboding. Nearly the middle of May and still no swallows, martins or swifts. And I haven't seen a bat, though I heard today that they are out nearby — or one is.

And I haven't heard a cuckoo yet either, though we've been walking far and wide locally this past week.

My worry is that if the migrants are so late arriving, they and their offspring will be as late leaving, when the weather will be changing and their food supplies dwindling so that the birds cannot fuel themselves adequately for their transcontinental flights home. They will be trapped here to die.

Not a cheery thought.

Onward and upward

A couple of weeks ago I went to a meditation in Oxford Town Hall. It was led by Sharon Salzberg, and the photo of her here is taken from her website.

Sharon is described on her website as "one of America's leading insight meditation teachers and spirituality writers". She was in Oxford between a week's teaching in Ireland, and further teaching in London from where, if I remember rightly, she was going to France. 

There were about 100 people in the hall and I'm reliably told that the average 'dana' or voluntary contribution per person would be £10, so £1000 in all. (This is given directly to her in cash: the expenses of hiring the hall, putting her up and paying her travel were met by the organisers by charging participants £20 each.)

Born in New York City in 1952 to a Jewish family, Sharon had a troubled early life (in the words of Wikipedia). Her parents divorced when she was four, and her father abandoned the family. At nine, her mother died and she went to live with her father's parents. Though her father returned when she was eleven, he soon overdosed and was subsequently hospitalized. He was soon placed in the mental health system, where he remained until his death. By 16, Sharon had lived with five different families.

At the State University of New York in 1969, Salzberg encountered Buddhism during a course in Asian philosophy. The following year, she took an independent study trip to India, and in January 1971 attended her first intensive meditation course at Bodh Gaya. After returning to the US in 1974, she began teaching vipassana (insight) meditation.

A tough start to life, and it is easy to see how Buddhism and meditation would have given her a foundation on which to build a more stable life and create a more loving environment. 'Lovingkindness' is a word that recurs frequently in what she says and writes. She has said herself that the meditation community is her family, and makes up for the broken family of her childhood and the partner and children she has not had since.

It's not entirely surprising that Sharon teaching today, age 61, looks as in the second photo here: a tad dishevelled and certainly obese. But this is quite unlike the photograph above that she puts on her website. I admit I was rather surprised, less with how she looked than with her apparent reluctance to come to terms with the changes we undergo as we get older. On the other hand, part of me is secretly pleased that a teacher and practitioner of Buddhist meditation should be vain enough to dye her hair!!

I'd like to know more about what she has learnt about her childhood traumas (if that is what they were) in her subsequent 40 years of meditation and Buddhist practice. What has the growing process been like? How has it informed her meditation practice and teaching? The Wikipedia article on her has a link to
Sharon Salzberg talks about her childhood and early life, June 2011. Unfortunately the interview, originally posted on Vimeo, was deleted in February this year, as you will see. I wonder what she said that she no longer wishes to say? The only clue to the power of that early background that I can find is on DharmaWeb: 'An early realization of the power of meditation to overcome personal suffering determined her life direction. Her teaching and writing now communicates that power to a worldwide audience of practitioners.'

Yet that first hour was as basic and introductory as it comes. Although there was a forest of hands raised when she asked who had practised meditation before, I heard nothing new and was taken to no new places. Sadly I didn't stay.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

New beginnings

Is it auspicious to begin a blog on one's birthday? In a way I'm celebrating not being 70 (yet!), because I'm uncertain how that will feel. At the same time I'm enjoying life more than ever and feeling younger than ever in all the ways that matter. Thanks, Angela! (The picture below is hers too, from a long time back.) Life is starting over, as an American would put it.

I find the first months of the year an exciting time. There is so much hope and rebirth in the air, starting right from Christmas. We forget that after midwinter the world around us is looking forward, whether it's the badgers mating and gestating underground, or the catkins swelling on the hazels, or dog's mercury peeping up beneath the hedges. We poor humans, on the other hand, just get depressed and miserable, failing to see the signs of hope and promise and dwelling on the cold, the damp, the flooding rivers, all of which we turn into bad news, but which are all essential for the success of the year and the seasons ahead.

Last evening we walked up to the Plough in Finstock for a meal. It was so good. If only other locals would give their food the thought and care that Joe devotes to his cooking in Finstock. And Martin keeps great beer and wine. There was a group of folk musicians casually playing round a table in the back bar, while we tucked into succulently tender local lamb and a superb raspberry cheesecake. It helps that it is a small pub and the two owners are very hands-on, not paying other people to cook the food and provide the ambience, but doing it (and enjoying it) themselves.

On my way in to the shop this morning I found myself chatting to someone who had been pulling up the wild garlic in his garden, treating it as a weed. His neighbour, he told me, does the same. I begged him to save the next lot for me so I can plant it out at home, and extolled the virtues of the leaves (and flowers) in salads and chopped into stews, couscous, omelettes and so on. He was unimpressed.