Kill your mosquitoes

[This blog is a few days out of date. Put it down to unreliable internet access and oh, that blue Aegean Sea.]

It’s our last night in Thessaloniki and we’ve just come back from a meal of dolmades and baked vegetables at a local taverna. After weeks of blue skies and heat, it rained heavily this afternoon, but by time for dinner, the heat had dried out everything and people were back to eating outside in the squares and on the streets. I finished the revisions on my novel (this round, at least), and sent it off to my agents, and Alan has finished his research at a small monastery library. We’ve been here three weeks, and for me it has been an odd mixture of sitting in my hotel room, writing about a recluse’s cell in thirteenth-century England, with a busy, ancient and modern Greek city buzzing outside the window. Late afternoon and evening we would head out into the heat. We feel a bit sad to be leaving, though when I arrived, looking at this busy city that seemed a bit worn out and downtrodden in places, I didn’t think I’d feel this way.BarShipOnBoard copy

I’m not a fan of cities, especially ones with cars, which means just about every city except Venice, I suppose. And Thessaloniki has lots of cars. They don’t take much notice of pedestrian crossings, or at least pedestrians on crossings, even at traffic lights. They park on corners, literally, they double park, or go up onto footpaths if there’s nowhere else, and no one seems to care much. It has lots of tall buildings, quite a few of them empty, some only half finished, and I imagine that a lot of this is because of the economy; I heard on the BBC World News that unemployment here is expected to reach 27% soon. A woman who served us at a café asked where we are from, then asked us if we like Greece. Beautiful, we said. We love it, too, she said. But they hate us. They hate us. She didn’t stay to tell us who ‘they’ was, presumably the government and its austerity measures, or the EU.

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There are some astonishing old monuments, mosaics, churches, remains of Roman and Byzantine buildings. The older style buildings with their bricks worn and rounded, their arched windows, wooden doors and terracotta roofs have a softness I especially like —thanks to the Ottomans, I gather. But what I’ve really enjoyed are the lanes where we have wandered (some would call that ‘being lost’, but it depends where you want to go), lanes that are narrow, disorganised, odd, grungy in places, and always fascinating.HamamRestaurantAreaNight copy

They have everything: hardware shops, antique shops, shady-looking bars, shops selling spices or shade cloth or rolls of cardboard, stylish shops selling perfume. Every now and then, a gateway in a frontage no wider than a shop will open out into a larger courtyard and a church, somehow tucked in amongst all the rest. There are gracious buildings from the prosperous nineteenth-century phase of the city, some run down, some maintained. In one lane we found a group of cafes inhabiting what was once an old bank, with imposing high ceilings, marble steps leading up from the bar to the tables, even the remains of frescoes on the walls of what is now the kitchen.

And the lanes have farmers selling their fruit. On one corner, two farmers, probably husband and wife, sell nectarines from the back of their battered green ute, the tray full of boxes and the passenger seat full of stuff — I didn’t snoop to see what, but I couldn’t miss the ironing board lying across the top of it all. Not quite sure how they both got home — one in the tray, presumably. When we asked for a kilo of nectarines, the man immediately tore one open and handed the pieces to us, dripping juice, having a piece himself as well, smiling, rubbing his belly and presumably telling us how good they were. And they were. The woman handed around serviettes, asked us English? and, like most people here, went wide-eyed when we told her. Av-stralia. Ah, Av-stralia (the ‘u’ being pronounced as ‘v’ in Greece).ThessLane

Another corner, another day, another ute, this time with two men selling peaches. When Alan asked the man putting peaches into a bag who he should pay, him, or the other man standing nearby, he replied, No, no. I am boss. He is but-ler. He threw back his head and laughed. We were all still laughing as we headed off down the street, peaches in hand.

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And so the chaos and the jumble reveals its treasures.

Now that the revisions and restructuring of my novel are finished (for the time being), I’ve begun to see my hours of total confusion about timelines, narrative perspective, sequences of cause and effect, resolve themselves, a bit like becoming familiar with the meandering network of lanes and squares. Day by day, they start to sort themselves into spaces that are recognisable and functioning, just as the paragraphs shake themselves down into their new shape, and hopefully, the occasional treasure. Annie Dillard, as usual, describes the process well:

‘You can easily get so confused writing a thirty-page chapter that in order to make an outline for the second draft, you have to rent a hall. I have often “written” with the mechanical aid of a twenty-foot conference table. You lay your pages along the table’s edge and pace out the work. You walk along the rows; you weed bits, move bits, and dig out bits, bent over the rows with full hands like a gardener. After a couple of hours, you have taken an exceedingly dull nine-mile hike. You go home and soak your feet.’

She’s right: the writing hike was usually dull and exhausting, but at least I got to wander some lanes, find great food, ‘fruit utes’ and friendly people. We leave the lanes of Thessaloniki as my revisions finish.

So, the whoosh, finally, of the manuscript flying into the ether on our dodgy hotel internet connection: at first relief, and then, slowly, the anxiety sets in, niggles about the saggy middle, the ending, too resolved, not resolved enough, enough plot, too much plot … It’s a weary litany, so back to Annie:

‘Another luxury for an idle imagination is the writer’s own feeling about the work. There is neither a proportional relationship, nor an inverse one, between a writer’s estimation of a work in progress and its actual quality. The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged.’

No killing your darlings, but kill your mosquitoes. We haven’t come across many in Greece (not many flies, either), but I’m Australian, I can do that.

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in which the traveller visits various archaeological sites and reflects on the transience of life OR hot-footing it around Macedonia

We’ve arrived in Thessalonika for a week’s stay after hot-footing it around Macedonia with an archaeological group that Alan is connected with. It’s good to stop and take a breath, but I also have novel revisions to finish and send off. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to write about travel and the idea that you never really understand the journey until well after it’s over. There’s something daunting about seeing new places and cultures; it takes time for them to really sink in and take some kind of shape, so there may be more of that, later. But for now …

The last ten days have been a mixture of friendly locals, archaeological experts, astonishing landscapes and ancient sites, some dating back to the sixth century BCE. We’ve wandered around huge areas of erected and fallen stones, trying to imagine how a square of low stone wall was once the butcher’s shop, or the potter’s shop, or a pile of broken pillars was once a temple.

All of this has me thinking about the strange mixture of transience, and the resistance to it, that I found in these places. Earthquakes or some other catastrophe and the settlements collapse, are deserted, the townspeople move on somewhere else. Or they’re invaded and others take over, reuse their stones to make different buildings, walls, streets, temples.

Zonê Site

But still, even when the original settlement is gone, signs of them remain: inscriptions, signs in the ground and on the stones of what they once had, and in the museum, rescued artifacts that fill in the picture a bit more: cooking pots, jugs, coins, small statuettes, fine gold earrings, and glass beads. I began to fill in the picture that the stones outlined, to imagine the people through the things they owned or wore. The display case that always drew my attention was the one with kids’ toys: clay figurines of people, dogs, even a monkey riding a rooster, a Knucklebones from Pella  boy riding a goose, puppets with jointed limbs, and knucklebones just like I had as a kid. I was surprised to see that quite a few of the academics in the group were also drawn to these, but it makes sense, I suppose; the toys are some of the most poignant examples of how much we have in common with these people we know so little about.

Byzantine AmphoraeThe group worked hard: up early each day, off in a bus to one, or two, sometimes three sites under clear skies, hot sun. But they also knew, thankfully, how to have a good time: wine-tasting and nibbles in the garden of a hotel built overlooking its vineyards, then on to the sea; late dinners at tavernas on the seafront in Thassos; a dinner on the final night high up in one of the mountains of Samothrace. Oh, and did I mention the food? Seafood, eggplant cooked just right, great salads, really good olives and way too much feta cheese and yoghurt. And beer that seems just right for the hot weather. So we haven’t suffered too much …

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