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TRAVEL WRITING

 

Llama in Machu Pichu

 

I love to travel and I’ve travelled a lot .   Curiosity and a taste for the exotic got me started.   Lack of money had me hitch-hiking, camping and staying in hostels.    First world guilt got me doing volunteer work.   Both brought me to places Package Holidays don’t go.

Here’s how it  started.

ITCHY FEET  *

I blame my Aunty Eileen.    It was she who infected me with the itchy feet of a traveller.  It’s her fault that, every time I look at a map, I become bewitched by place names like Ishfahan, Urumbamba, Valparaiso, Zanzibar and I just want to get up and go.

My extended family is large.   I have aunts, uncles and cousins by the score, they all lived in Dublin so there were regular family parties where everyone was expected to sing, play the piano or failing that, at least say a poem.    Aunty Eileen had a lovely soprano voice, so she was always the star turn, she got the most enthusiastic applause and the greatest number of encores.    And she didn’t just sing ordinary songs like “The Road to Ballyshee” and “the Kerry Dances.”; she sang proper opera as well.   That, combined with her perfume, her glamorous clothes and her cameo broach made her, in my eyes, a real lady.    The kind I wished I could be when I grew up.

All of us cousins loved when she came to visit because she talked to us properly, like real people.  She never asked “What class are you in? or “How many slaps did you get to day?”, or “What do you want to be when you grow up?”    Instead she listened to what we said with care.     She’d comment, maybe ask you to explain a bit more, she might argue a point, or pose a challenging question just like you were a real adult.    And always, always, she’d find something to praise.    And her praise was special because it was always an accurate recognition of something you knew to be true and knowing that she knew it too gave you a glow in your heart.

She was a member of Our Lady’s Choral Society which I thought was terribly impressive.    Our Lady’s Choral Society  sang Handel’s Messiah every Christmas and, my mother assured us, this was the highlight of Dublin’s musical year.   On top of that, the choir was invited to travel to foreign countries to sing for important people.    They were even invited to sing for the Pope.    They went to Berlin, and Monaco, Switzerland, Salzburg and Paris and, every time, my Aunty Eileen went with them.     She was the most widely travelled person I’d ever met.

When she returned from her travels my mother would invite her to tea so that we could quiz her about her adventures.    I don’t remember much about the travels but what I do remember are the exotic gifts  she brought home.    There was the coffee table with curly legs, its surface slick as a mirror, inlaid with marquetry flowers, swags, vine leaves and bunches of grapes.   It was the most ornate piece of furniture I’d seen in my life and I coveted it with all my heart.  She brought terracotta figures of monks drinking wine at a refectory table and plates painted in madder and orange and yellow and blue with the heads of Renaissance ladies.     She brought a black lace mantilla, a silvery silk fan and a mother-of-pearl box that gleamed with a light that was holy.     I told all my friends it was made from the wings of real angels.

There was only one time that I doubted my Aunty Eileen’s travel experience.   She came back one time from Spain and showed us a photo of a cobbled street with whitewashed houses and bright red geraniums hanging on the walls.    Walking along, in the shadow cast by houses, there was old lady, dressed completely in black.

“It’s so hot in Spain,” Aunty Eileen said, “that people avoid the sun and walk in the shade.”

That, I thought, was clearly ridiculous.   How could anyone not like to walk  in the sun?   There must be some mistake.I couldn’t wait to be grown up and find out for myself.

As a child I thought that becoming  grown up was something that happened suddenly, overnight.   You’d come to some kind of crevasse that you had to cross over, some watershed, some kind of …I don’t quite know what.   Then you’d wake up one fine summer morning and there you’d be, all grown up.   And I knew what my very first act as an adult would be.    I could see the day clearly.   The sun would be shining.    I’d get up.   I’d get dressed.   I’d have my breakfast and, without a word to my parents, I’d go straight into town and I’d join Our Lady’s Choral Society.   Then I’d be ready to travel the world.

END

 

 

 

* SOTIRIOS *

 

The very first time I travelled abroad I had a burning desire to see the Acropolis in Athens.   I knew next to nothing about Greek history or culture except that there was lots of it.    But, as most Irish people at the time went either to Lourdes or Santa Ponza, I believed that my ambition to see the Acropolis made me sound cool and original.

I travelled with friends across Europe by train, stopping to work Vienna.   I got work cleaning floors in a convent.   My friends, who spoke German, worked in a restaurant  kitchen     When we finally got to Greece we saw the Acropolis and Delphi and the Corinth canal.   We saw the fiercely blue Aegean Sea, we drank ouzo, we ate stuffed vine leaves and then it was time to head off to an island.

We choose Poros because of a Greek woman.   We’d met her back in the Viennese kitchen where my friends  worked.   Her name was Dia.   She was small, black-browed and intense and she prayed to the goddess Athene like a Catholic prays to Our Lady.   Poros was her island home and that was reason enough for us to go there.

Tourism hadn’t yet hit Poros and, as we were living off the clippings of tin, we headed away from the harbour and town looking for somewhere to pitch our tent.   We found a flat space near a deserted beach.   It was perfect.   It had a pine tree for shade and it was sheltered by the stone wall which enclosed an orchard of fig trees.  But the tent, we soon realised, would be too hot for comfort.

Night fell and we laid our sleeping bags out under an inky blue sky splattered with stars.    They were so bright and so close that you felt you could reach up and pluck one to put in a bottle for light.   It was hard to sleep with that dazzling display.   And scent of the pines.   And the odd shooting star.   But we were healthy and young and we did.

Next morning we woke to a hesitant cough.   Behind us, standing on the sheltering wall, looking curiously down, stood a smiling, old man and two women.    The women stared, eyes wide, jaws hanging open and, when we said hello, they turned to clutch one another and giggle and run away.    But the old man stood firm.

“Gutten morgen.” he said, smiling and proffering a handful of freshly plucked figs.

My friends had good German and soon he’d come down from the wall and was sitting beside us telling his life story.

His name was Sotirios and he’d spent several years working in Munich.   His children still worked in far away Germany but he and his wife were back, at last, on their beloved island.   By night he played the bazouki in Epta Adephi, the Café of the Seven Brothers and by day, he collected resin from his pine tree.

We tried to explain where we were from but he’d never heard of Ireland.   Beyond Germany, we told him, there is Holland.   He nodded, yes, he knew Holland.   Beyond Holland there was the sea.   Yes, he knew that.   And then there is England.  Yes, yes, he knew England.    Beyond England there is more sea.   Yes, he knew that.    And then there is Ireland.   He smiled and nodded and looked totally blank.

It turned out that the pine tree under which we had slept was his.   W e apologised for trespassing and offered to move away but he wouldn’t hear of it.   We were sleeping under his tree therefore we were his guests.   He was honoured, he insisted, to have travellers come to his tree from so far away.

Every morning when we awoke, Sotirios was sitting under the tree, a plate of fresh figs on the ground beside him, fire lit and coffee brewing.    And one lunch-time he brought his wife.   She cooked dolmades for us over an open fire and served them with goat’s cheese, sweet tomatoes and bitter black olives.    Sotirios opened a bottle of retsina

“The divine paraffin.”   He announced proudly, holding the bottle aloft.  “It has resin from my tree.”

He patted the trunk like you would an old friend.   The very tree under which we were living!   Then he poured the wine into our plastic mugs and urged us to drink.

The food was delicious but this was my very first taste of retsina and I thought it disgusting.   However, being well reared, I sipped it politely and smiled while Sotirios and his wife told us about their sons and showed us photos of beautiful dark- eyed grandchildren gazing solemnly out at the world.

And what did they want in return for their warm generosity?      All they wanted was a photo of themselves sitting under their tree beside the three strangers who’d come to visit them from beyond the very edge of the known world.

 

END.

 

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