I’m on holiday. I need to fess up. I’m in Greece on the island of Chios in a remote village where I have a tiny bolt-hole. Plus internet.
My daily routine is too heavenly to describe without having you all unlike me on Facebook and never visit my website again. I just tried it! Amongst all this heaven I do a more or less daily run and that’s what I want to talk about today.
Above the village there’s a dam and a reservoir, newly built. (EU money, but don’t let’s go there.) For the last couple of years, my running routine when I’m here has been to trot up through the olive groves to the dam (and there’s a steep bit of ‘up’ at the end), along the reservoir wall to its end, turn round and come back again. Takes me 30 minutes in all.
This year, and especially after seeing how much fun all those folk were having at the Masters World Mountain Running Championships in Wales, which is where I was just before I came here, I decided I needed to push myself further. 30 minutes? Pah. Small potatoes. From the top of the wall it looks like there’s a path round the reservoir, so I thought I’d do that. And that’s become my running routine. Except it hasn’t quite.
“I’m starting to think of that reservoir as having magical charms – and the paths too. They’re like the paths of fairy-tales. Not sure they go anywhere, but things happen along them.”
Thing is, the path goes all the way round the water (about 3K? I don’t have a GPS watch that would tell me) until it comes to about 20 metres of completing its circle. And then: nada. It stops. Do you know how frustrating that is? And yet there seem to be paths up in the hills above. So now my daily routine is to find one that gets me out of there without having to retrace my steps (or clamber up the rocks to the bridge, my current slightly precarious solution). I still haven’t found the path but every day I look for it and every day I have a new encounter, a new adventure, or so it seems. I’m starting to think of that reservoir as having magical charms – and the paths too. They’re like the paths of fairy-tales. Not sure they go anywhere, but things happen along them. There’s no one there. And yet you meet people.
Take yesterday. Three workmen were fixing the road at the top of the hill just by the wall. It’s remote out here and, as I say, not exactly teeming with people (understatement). I stopped and said hi and asked them if they knew of a path over the other side that would get me back again. Yes, they said, there is one. One of them said he’d point it out to me, so we stood at one end of the wall, gazing at the hillside opposite as he tried to direct my gaze to apparently various (but to me, invisible) paths. It’s there, he said. See it? See it? You’ll find it. Not for cars, but a footpath.
But anyway, he said. Where are you from? (My Greek gets me by, but it’s a giveaway.) England, I replied. So how are things over there? He asked. Oh, you know, I said, not wanting to commit myself. Not exactly plain sailing. Well, he said. Have you any idea how it all is over here? I made a kind of pretty-awful-I-think? eye rolling expression. He then proceeded to give me a political analysis of the Greek situation of such finesse and depth and understanding that I was left lost for words. We simple people, he concluded, we’re the ones that pay for it all, that suffer. We’re just simple folk, he repeated. But the bills come to us.
I’d only asked the way but Greeks love talking about politics and Babis, my new friend, had seized the opportunity to share his thoughts with me once we’d got the path issue – about which I’m now convinced he knew nothing – out of the way. And boy, were his thoughts both despairing and sophisticated. ‘Simple’? My goodness we need a new definition of the word if that applies to him. I’ve stopped listening to the news, he said. Doesn’t matter who you listen to or when. They’re all the same. The-pause-Same-pause. And at the end of the day, we’re the ones who pay the price.
He was brilliant on politics but his directions turned out to be totally rubbish.
A couple of days ago, as I was running along another track up above the water, trying to find this elusive darn path that would finish off the circle, I bumped into someone else. What on earth are you doing here? He asked. (I told you it’s pretty deserted.) Oh running round, or trying to, I said. I’m trying to find the way round the reservoir. Ha! He replied. There isn’t one. I own all this land up here and I too wish they’d finish off the road. But, I said, I was told there was a footpath at least somewhere up here. You’d think if there’s a 3k path all the way round, it wouldn’t stop 20m before the end. Why on earth would anyone not just finish it off?
There’s a wonderful language of gestures in Greek, very rich. He pointed to his head, indicating where the brain (of, in this case, the planners) should be. Then he pointed to his backside, indicating its current location. That’s why, he said.
Another time I asked the same question about the path to another solitary workman. He didn’t even bother to answer. Why are you running? He asked. To keep fit, I said, and also because I like it. To keep fit! He made an expression of the don’t-you-know-anything? type. Running is the worst thing you could be doing, he said. I’ve got the books to prove it. Running makes you die earlier. This theory, his theory (and I’ve heard this elsewhere) is not, in short, use it or lose it, rather it’s use it and lose it. We’ve all got a finite amount of energy, or so this line of thinking goes. Therefore if you use yours up too soon, poof! It’s gone, and then you’re gone.
So we had a bit of a disagreement up there on the dust track and then we discovered that we were both the same age, 49-ers (that’s born in 49, folks, not aged 49 of course). We shook hands on this and agreed it had been a vintage year. Turned out I had a month’s seniority on him, so I told him he’d better respect that. And that I was right about the running.
Today as I was running up to the dam, I passed a guy hacking away at some rangy plants by the roadside underneath an olive tree. I said hello and when I came back (having failed again in my search of course), he was still there in the dust and heat, still at it. What are you doing, I asked? These are weeds, he said, and I have to get rid of them or they’ll destroy my olive tree. Tough work, I said. Can’t you use poison? Well, he said. See now. That would poison my olive tree as well. Time for that gesture again? He was far too polite to use it but mentally I was saying it to myself. Where’s your brain now, Alex? That’s where…
But I’ve left the best till last. On Sunday it was the first day of my quest for the trail round the reservoir. I’d almost reached the dead end, but I didn’t know it yet. A guy on a motorbike overtook me, the only person I’d seen all morning. I waved and said hi. As I ran on round the next corner, he came back. What’s going on? I asked. Please don’t tell me you can’t get all the way round. Sorry to say, he answered in English, you can’t. The track just stops. Oh no! I said. Does that mean I’ve got to run all the way back again in order to get out? Afraid it does, he said. Well, or I could give you a lift.
Don’t worry I said. Thank you, but no. The run will do me good. But then I thought about how far it had been, how long I’d been running and how hot it was and I changed my mind. He seemed nice.
You know what? I told him. That would be lovely.
“I was reminded that life does indeed go on, whatever the numbers are that go to mark your age. And that it can go on surprising us, if only we let it.”
Turns out he had biked down through Europe and Turkey from his native Belgium, hopped the short distance across to Chios on a ferry, and was about to set off northwards through the Balkans and Europe, finishing off his own circular route home. He was out on his own road-trip, on his own adventure. So I accepted the ride and it was lovely. In fact it turned out to be a magical day. One where I was reminded that life does indeed go on, whatever the numbers are that go to mark your age. And that it can go on surprising us, if only we let it. I also thought about paths, of course, and how maybe the ones that do the job they’re meant to do and take you from one point to another are perhaps never quite as good as those that abandon you and leave you lost in the thicket.