With a Song in My Heart

I followed the track up between a fold in the hills. The wind ploughed through the olive trees on the terraces, setting their leaves flashing silvery-green. In the brittle sunlight, everything glittered and shone, but the truth be told, I was beginning to fade. My legs felt like lead as I plodded uphill. I began to regret refusing that lift (Where was Yianni now? I wondered). It was discouraging, therefore, to find my progress impeded, towards the top of the slope, by an unwieldy steel gate secured with three separate lengths of rope, each of which some mindless zealot had tied in a knot of diabolical complexity. I could have screamed, except I was too weary. As it was, it took me ten minutes and a lot of cursing before I had worked my way free and was able to continue. Beneath the blank gaze of the abandoned houses of Micro Horio, which spilled down the mountainside opposite, I arrived at the main road in a poor state, discomfited in body and mind and, what’s more, in absolutely no mood for walking. I was just in time to hear the two-stroke whine of a bike approaching from the direction of Livadia.

I paused and watched as the bike came into view around a bend in the road. Seated upon it I recognised Vince, the young and obliging Bulgarian stepson of Pantelis from Dream Taverna. He pulled up when he saw me and, a broad grin splitting his fresh-featured face, asked in a husky voice, ‘Pou pas?’ Where are you going?

‘Sto horio,’ I replied. To the village.

‘Ela, na se paro,’ he said. Come on, I’ll take you, and as he spoke he slid forward on the seat to make room for me to get on.

I didn’t normally take lifts, out of pride mostly, but this seemed like a special occasion. I had just spent the night drinking with Santa Claus, after all. There weren’t too many people who could honestly say that. I was also exhausted, as I have already mentioned. Sure, I could have made it if I’d had to, but Vince’s offer seemed to present an opportunity, the chance to do something different for a change, and something inside me leapt at it. Feeling suddenly drunk again, I climbed aboard and, placing my hands lightly on Vince’s waist, shouted into his right ear, ‘Pame!

Let’s go!

Vince duly opened the throttle and we got underway, tentatively at first. I laughed and shouted ‘Opa!’ as the bike wobbled precariously across the road. A hairy old billygoat, standing nearby, imperiously snorted. Seconds later Vince gave the machine more gas and we began to move, regaining a straight trajectory as the bike picked up speed, zipping along the bottom of the valley that bisected the island. The wind blew straight into our faces, cold and exhilarating. On either side of us craggy mountains soared against the sky. Steely shadows blanketed the slope nearer the sea. The other, climbing towards the centre of the island, lay awash with sunlight that lit the grey terrace walls and the rust-red earth and the wiry, winter-green phrygana in a bold golden glow. After a hesitant start, I began to gain confidence. Soon, as the joy of movement took over, I removed my hands from Vince’s waist and held them by my sides like I’d seen the locals do. We were really moving now, the grey tarmac slipping away beneath my feet and trees and mountainsides flashing by.

At one point the road dipped into the long stretch of shadow and the temperature plummeted. I laughed with the thrill of it, feeling my bones start to rattle. The roar of the engine was loud in my ears. It blended with the buffeting wind that blew into my face. Soon the road climbed again, back into sunlight, and as the warmth of it swept over me I saw, ahead in the distance, the whitewashed houses of Megalo Horio strewn across the flank of a lofty crag crowned by a ruined castle. Sunlight edged among the houses, infiltrating the shadows. In its gentle emergence the village looked magical and not quite real, like something out of a storybook, a fantasy city in a faraway land. Peering over Vince’s shoulder, I drank in the vision and felt at once exhilarated and moved beyond words. At the same time almost, the mountains parted to the left of the road revealing the lush greenery of the Eristos plain and, beyond it, brushed flat by the wind, the blue Aegean stretching towards an empty horizon.

At that point, motivated by I know not what impulse, I lifted my arms until they were horizontal to the road, just like Jack Nicholson did in the 1969 cult classic, Easy Rider. Under the circumstances, the action seemed perfect. It honestly felt like the best thing I could do. I laughed with the thrill of it, crazily, and shouted, ‘Ela, Vince… Pameeee…’ Then, the next I knew, I was singing, shouting into the wind the hypnotic and nonsensical refrain of Dirlada, an old Greek song which I barely knew apart this mad syncopation: ‘la la dir la da da… la la dir la da da…’

I gave it the works, arms extended, as we raced along. I sang it over and over, ‘la la dir la da da, la la dir la da da… la la dir la da da’ swooping downhill between rows of eucalypt trees, the leaves shaking and shimmering in the noisy turbulence. Golden shafts of light angled down over the ridge to the east, parting the shadows to alight on scrubby fields. In the wind-bright morning, the island looked more vibrant and beautiful than I had ever seen it. We zoomed past the helipad and a whitewashed chapel. I think I saw donkeys standing in a field. Further on, dirt tracks forked off on both sides of the road, winding away under the bare branches of turpentine trees whose thick grizzly trunks were mottled with mustard-coloured lichen. ‘La la dir la da da, la la dir la da da …’ I bellowed, at the top of my lungs, as the road climbed again and we turned towards the village, which was directly overhead now, the individual houses clearly visible in the broadening sunlight. Cypress trees appeared, darkly elegant, by the roadside and I looked out at ruined buildings and long green grass and sheep and goats happily grazing. ‘La la dir la da da, La la dir la da da…’ The sun poured down on the fields and everything glittered in the clean cold air. I can’t describe how truly and deeply alive I felt.

I must have quietened down as we entered the village. I hope I did. Vince eased off the gas after we’d turned into the main street and I lowered my arms as we coasted down past the supermarket and under the pergola which took a battering that winter. Outside the KEP office, Vince pulled up and I dismounted and, laughing, slapped him the back. ‘Okay?’ he said, in English, and looked at me, I thought, somewhat doubtfully, the grin on his face lacking its usual conviction.

‘Kala eimai,’ I said, I’m fine, and then I thanked him for the lift and watched as, raising a valedictory hand, he rolled off down the road and disappeared around the corner. As the whine of the reignited engine carried back to me, I turned and, hankering for a strong Greek coffee, headed up the lane towards the kafeneion, taking the steps two at a time.








9 thoughts on “With a Song in My Heart

  1. Ian Smith

    Hello Samahab,

    Thank you. I’m very pleased you like it. Sofia was there when this story took place but, so far as I know, has since handed the reins of the kafeneion over to someone else.



  2. Jim Osborne

    Hi Smithy……we are off to Tilos tomorrow for the first visit since my climbing accident in March 2013—its now 4 years since the last visit which was for a month in 2012. I was thinking about you and then thought I should check out your blog…..and when I did was delighted to discover you have been writing quite a lot over the last 8 months – so I have a lot of reading to catch up with!.We are over for 3 week and staying at Eden Villas with Rob and Annie for a change. Hope to do plenty walking again but will have to see how the body stands up to the rigours – still improving but still some way to go to get back to a level of fitness I will be happy with. Will be in touch again soon.

  3. Ian Smith

    Hello Jim,

    It’s good to hear from you. I have actually been thinking of you and wondering whether you were going to make it to Tilos this spring. I booked a ticket for Greece myself but had to cancel in the end due to circumstances that weren’t quite within my control – a familiar story of late, I’m afraid.

    I will be interested to know how you find staying on the other side of the island, the best side, to my way of thinking, although there are of course many good walks in the Livadia region. The winter, I believe, has been relatively dry and mild and so I imagine the island won’t be as green as you have seen it in former years; Sibylle reports from Crete that even up relatively high, the wildflowers have begun to wither. Not to worry. It will still be beautiful and I am sure you will have a wonderful time meeting old friends and re-investigating all the familiar places with a new vision rendered keener and more appreciative by virtue of your enforced absence. I wish you all the best with it.


    1. Hi Ian, we are now holed up in Rhodes town overnight with the Dodekanissos Express to catch to Tilos at 9 tomorrow morning. Excitement is mounting and I could not resist pulling my own guidebook out of my rucksack to do some plotting on the hotel veranda overlooking Mandraki. I agree totally that the north of Tilos is the best bit and, as you know, the Profitis Ilias range is my fondest stomping ground. I am expecting most of that to be out of reach, at least for this year although I think I will manage the trek out to Kefala where we bivouaced in 2009 and will probably have a go af Patela via the Eristos to Pandeleimona trail. I still have ideas for expanding the guidebook….including an exploration on the Askelou peninsula which you told me about after your venture there with Phillippe in 2012 after I had left. I still hope to get an Exploring Tilos website up and running and will think some more about it after this trip is over.
      I will keep you posted on how the return to Tilos is going.


  4. Ian Smith

    Thanks, John. It’s nice to be remembered. Sad to say, though, it’s not shyness on my part that has prevented me from posting links, but a diabolical lack of productivity. Hopefully I can change this soon, but at the moment I’m preoccupied trying to keep my head above water among the shades and the shadows in the Land of the Living Dead. It feels like a long way from here to my beloved Arse-end of Tilos.

  5. jimosborne2013

    Hi Smithy….I can fully empathise with you. I lost all interest in reading about mountaineering etc and even in my own logs and records of my own activities over the last 25 years and more, my photograph collection and the films I have made over the last few years. It is only now that I find the enthusiasm for it all returning and that is because my fitness is now back at a level where I am starting to get back out on the mountains again – not climbing again as I can’t feel my feet properly because of nerve damage relating to my back injury – but back out and managing some of the higher summits here in Scotland. Its been a long haul but I remember you reassuring me that I would get there eventually. I doubted it for a long time but soldiered on anyway – there is not other choice unless you are willing to lie down and give up on life. I am sure that you are finding it hard having to tough it out in an environment that stifles you but you will get through it eventually and when you do I am looking forward to reading your wonderful blog again. Regards. JIM

    1. Ian Smith

      Yes Jim,

      It’s truly a matter of sticking at it and not giving up in the face of tricky circumstances. But it’s such a fucking drag. I’m managing to write, but not so much about Tilos, and although on the whole I’m travelling okay where I am, I just can’t find that jovial, happy go lucky mood in which I always wrote my blog posts. I miss the mountains and the wilderness and the un-fucked up nature of the life I knew in Greece. I miss ouzo and retsina and waking up on winter mornings with a force 10 gale battering the windows and half-a-dozen cats sprawled across my bed. I miss the jangle of goat bells that used to echo off the cliffs behind the house and having thyme and sage and oregano, and scores of other plants, growing all over the place. I miss drinking with Menelaus in his apothiki and shopping in Megalo Horio… I could go on, but you get the picture. I, thank god, haven’t suffered an injury like yours but the sense of loss and dislocation I have felt these past few years, plus the lack of good companionship, hasn’t been much fun. But who knows, maybe we’ll meet again in 2017.

      All the best,


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