The heavy load of a post-modern life
Trying to find your ‘voice’ is harder than it may seem. Many people have asked that Abby and I start documenting our journey from a bustling UK urban existence to a more stripped back life in a small mountain village on an island in Greece. The idea of sharing our experience is enticing but scary. Where do you start in a new world of technology where millions of people are divulging their stories and versions of reality? The constant visual noise of the internet is overwhelming.
The first thing that has been stopping me is this question:
why would anyone want to hear anything I would have to say?
The world is saturated with books, blogs, vlogs, Instagram accounts, podcasts, images, personal accounts of intrepid undertakings. What Abby and I are doing is not extraordinary, thousands have passed before us and in much more style and adventure. The last thing I want to do is another “Under the Tuscan Sun” or “Driving Over Lemons”, not that there is anything wrong with them. It just seems that they are products of the 80’s and 90’s. Then I think: well, even if I did entertain the idea, what would I write about? Dry scientific facts about ecology? Mundane day to day experiences, like how the compost toilet can take 7 days of two peoples’ shit before smelling? How to manuals on processing olives? Funny interactions with my local shepherd? And then what medium? Writing? Blog? Social media? Videos? Podcasts? And what would be the point of sharing anything anyway? For my ego? To show off? To educate? For light entertainment for frustrated city dwellers? For my parents’ approval? It seems easier not to do any of it and smooth the cat instead, as they say in Bristol.
I started writing this on Οχι day, meaning ‘No’ day, which is a national holiday celebrating the day the Greeks said ‘No’ and resisted the Mussolini-led Italian troops who tried to enter the country in 1940. I spent the day in bed with a migraine and plenty of time to feel sorry for myself and question what it is I am doing with my life. Here I am, in bed on a late October Thursday, in a stone house, in a mountain village on an island in Northern Greece, in a country where I have no real ancestry.
What I am doing? Why am I here? What am I running away from? There is a long list of things that brought me up this mountain, far away from city life, perhaps that will be for another essay.
Even the islanders are baffled as to why we are living here. The most common question we get asked when we first meet a local Greek is: ‘How much did you pay for your house?’. The next question is: ‘Do you live in the village through the winter?’. When we reply yes, we get raised eyebrows (and usually a vocalised ‘why?’). You can see in their expression they are surprised that we would choose to go up there, when their ancestors chose to go down to the coast for an easier lifestyle. A lovely book about the island I am reading, written by two Dutch ladies, sums it up: ‘coastal life is pleasant, the ladies can walk along the beaches after the tourist season, mountain village life is hard, a lot of work…’
I have heard stories of some older folk who had never been to the coast there was so much work to do in the mountain villages.
The next question we are asked is regarding what work we do, that allows us to live in the mountain village all year. Explaining that I work as an illustrator via the internet always feels inadequate in this environment, where life would have been lived mostly outside. Survival would have involved your whole body and intimate knowledge of the flora and fauna. The inhabitants of this village would have been in relationship with every plant, rock, tree. They would have tended to the soil, used the clay for building and making, every act would have been of physical creativity, all would have been used are reused in a myriad of ways. In any case, the islanders still seem impressed that I have a job that allows me to be in a mountain village all year, some Greeks even long for the distant opportunity to return one day, I can see the wistful glint in their eye.
The first thing we knew after making our decision to buy this little house is that we would have to considerably reduce our belongings. Before moving, Abby and I went through a, painful, laborious process of sorting through things over and over again, asking ourselves:
‘is this really necessary in our lives?’
We gave away so many things to friends and to charity. We gave away good things: beautiful handmade bags, clothes, objects that we had collected over the years. It was hard to separate from all these wonderful works of art, many items had a story, a memory associated to them. We had accumulated more and more tokens of our life together, as we had progressed along our path. We began the great sort out with the knowledge that we had exactly two tonnes of ‘stuff’ trailing behind us. It sounds shocking when you hear it like that, but it was actually quite little in volume and didn’t involve any furniture apart from a coffee table and a mattress. The reason we knew this, was because when we left the UK and sent our ‘stuff’ on its way to Belgium, (our first stop before Greece), the truck got pulled over by the police, just outside of Bristol for being overweight. That day we found out just how much we owned.
Loading up our two tonnes in Bristol.
It’s funny how we slowly began to notice that our ‘stuff’ seemed to be causing us repeated trouble. Eventually, when we had paired our precious belongings down to the bare minimum, we filled a Citroen Picasso that had been gifted to us and set off on our biggest road trip, with a pen in our pocket to sign for the house in Greece. Two days into the drive, the trusty car we nick-named the Mother-ship that had driven Abby’s mum across Europe numerous times before, did its last kilometre in Switzerland. On an uninspiring stretch of motorway, followed by a stressful few days in an equally uninspiring motorway town, we laid the Mother-Ship to rest. It was our three-year wedding anniversary and we had planned to be fine dining on lake Como with the film stars flying over in their private jets. Instead, we shared the most expensive (and uninspiring) pizza I have ever eaten in a Swiss motel in Egerkingen.
Loading up the Mother-ship with our stripped back belongings.
Celebrating our third wedding anniversary in a Swiss motel.
There we were with our ‘stuff’, a cumbersome load attached to our being which we had to somehow get from Switzerland to Greece. I sometimes think of all the ‘stuff’ I have consumed and picture it dragging behind me, like a giant weight. I can’t even begin to conceive how much packaging, white goods, paper, paints, plastic toys from my childhood and other sundry are trailing behind me. I am someone who has been attentive to my consumption for some years now. But imagine, everyone you walk past in the street, visualise the load that they are carrying. There would be no room around us, we wouldn’t be able to get into our houses. We would all be living atop our isolated islands of ‘stuff’, trying to remember what we owned and why we hung on to it.
Abby would sometimes torment me during our clear out: If you can’t remember what’s in that box, you’re not keeping any of it.
Fortunately, our accumulations are not circling around our being on a permanent basis. I like to take a moment to think what happened to the ‘stuff’ that we have discarded, that got broken or was not of use anymore. Waste is a new phenomenon. A few decades ago, it was just broken pieces of terracotta you find tipped in the earth on the edges of our garden here in Greece. But now imagine: if everything we used was attached to us by a piece of string and we had to carry it with us. Imagine if we consciously choose what to tie to that cord? It’s not for no reason that hunter gatherer societies only own what they can carry.
This was not the only time our ‘stuff’ had caused us trouble. A few years prior to our British exodus we were moving from the grimy city centre to the suburbs in a second-hand Peugeot named the ‘Shark’. One west-country evening, in sleet, as we were moving our precious belongings, I accidentally stalled and the engine fell out. The bolts holding the engine in place actually snapped right off the frame. Unlucky, the mechanic told us. We hadn’t realised then, that we were being sent a message about the weight of all we were trailing around with us.
Now that we have arrived, we have acquired things again, but what we accumulate is very different, a spade, some buckets, a hoe, a second-hand wool jumper, some preserving jars. People gift things to us like seeds, clamps, axes. We also do a lot of sharing of tools and equipment. Our neighbour has our spade at the moment, sometimes we use their machete. We are thinking of group-buying a chainsaw with them, although we have been talking about it for a year and I think we actually all prefer the meditation of using a hand saw. We reuse and save jars, string, wood, tins. We pick up things we find washed up on the beach or discarded next to the bins or at the end of the market. My Dad has discovered skip diving for food, which is something I would never have imagined him getting into. We now have a network of bins that we dip into.
Our tiny house in the Greek island mountains.
When we first started out here, we needed to strip everything down to the bare minimum and see what it was like without modern luxuries and then slowly build up what we deemed was necessary. Our first stay was for six months, we had no car, no fridge, no toilet, no cooker, no bed. We walked out in the mountains for our number two and ventured out whatever the weather to pee in the garden. We did buy a small electric hob, as fires are banned in the summer and we placed it on a stone outside. We have been cooking like that for two years come rain or shine or snow or ice or storm. We bought two terracotta pots that fitted inside each other and collected some sand from the beach to fill in the gap between the two pots. This was our fridge, you wet the sand every day and it keeps the inside temperature cool. In the winter, we just hang the food outside, out of reach of the passing critters. We didn’t get a wood burning stove until quite late that winter, so we kept warm by working the land. At night, we slept on sheep skins. For those first six months we ran 5 km into town once a week on market day with backpacks on our back and hitch-hiked back up. We met so many people this way, this was pre-corona days.
Sometimes we would decide to go to the beach, that was a 7km run. I kind of miss those days, we were outside a lot and we used our bodies much more. I think during that time I was the fittest and healthiest I have ever been. We foraged around the village every morning for seasonal fruit and nuts, taking just what we needed that day. We bought fish on market day and treated ourselves to a meat dinner and an alcoholic drink once a week in the village taverna. With no fridge, the rest of the week was vegan and alcohol-free, as bottles were too heavy to carry up with the rest of the shopping. We really appreciated the food that we ate, which was usually a one pot dinner cooked on the electric hob outside, fighting off the stray village cats. We were very aware of the weather patterns, of the change in season and the flux of the animals and insects as they came in out and out of hibernation and reproductive seasons. We got to know some, like the geckos intimately, as they came out at the same time every day to go about their business.
Building a compost toilet.
Now we are just starting to upgrade, it comes with a sadness and a longing for simpler ways but we have had to find a middle ground. We are building a kitchen and we decided that we would get a cooker so that we could bake bread in the summer. In the winter we have a wood stove which doubles up as our heating and cooking oven. We have also bought a fridge for the summer months to help reduce the spoiling of our food. I really struggled with this decision and it took me two months before I accepted it, along with a lot of arguments. For the toilet, we have upgraded to a compost toilet which we built from scratch. Our next project is to build a separate toilet for the urine, for now we make do with the garden and a glass jar for the cold nights. We have a sofa and a bed. My parents have now moved to the village and we share the use of their car. With these luxuries we spend less time outside and it sometimes feels that we are stepping backwards by stepping forwards on the treadmill of growth. On a rainy day, it is easy to spend most of it without stepping out and even looking at the breath-taking view across the valley to the sea. With the stripped back life there was no other option but to live most of the days outdoors. That is the price to pay for things and comfort, you lose your connection to the real living world outside. This is a real loss. We can’t help but ask: how can we get back outside, now that we have everything we need inside?
It seems that I have managed to write something despite my hesitance and self-doubt. In may take some time to find my ‘voice’. Perhaps gradually something will emerge. For now, I will step out in the open air on this cold wet December day and head to my swim spot in the gorge and remember as I immerse myself in the rushing river where my flesh and bones come from. They may not have been birthed in these Northern Greek mountains but they were certainly birthed from the water, the soil, the minerals, the bacteria, the plants, the funghi and the energy of this beautiful planet Earth.
Written by Leah Heming