Notes on Hydra

I was going to link to an awesome photo of one of the views or sunsets, but thought I'd go for this one instead, as it shows me boozing and gaming. And that's the way I roll.

I can never quite stop thinking it must be facing south. The little matter of the European Continent sitting across the straits from me never seems evidence against it. What’s trillions upon trillions of tonnes of rock versus a Midlander’s knowledge indoctrinated by holidays to the coast that any beach worthy of the name must face south?You can take a holiday from many things, but never your provinciality.

I spent the last week in Hydra on holiday. “Holiday”. Now there’s a word we’ll come back to. It’s a (relatively) small island south of Greece. The only real cluster of urbanisation are the urban-planner’s nightmare of houses in Hydra town itself, each clinging to the sides of the steep-walled harbour. It looks like a naturally – and humans building settlements is “natural” as far as I’m concerned – formed Colosseum, with these white-walled buildings the spectators looking down upon the gladiator ships on the blue-arena floor.

It’s a place where a good view is sacred. I’m told of a bylaw which makes any property overlooking another have to have any windows facing that way boarded. No-one nearby overlooks whatever garden or rooftop you have. That view is yours, and you’re part of no-one else’s. At least, not a close part of any. From our rented apartment we glance over at others far away. The town is so small that the tiny movements of people are part of its nature – the sight of humans moving from flat to flat, or sunning themselves on rooftops as much a part of its habitat as tits bobbing between clusters of mud-nests.

Hydra is, before I forget, beautiful beyond my scant ability to describe.

The Lady spends the first day just stopping every second sentence to gush over how perfect it is. I’m more stoic – Christ, I’m not going to let something as small as beauty to move me to compliments, y’know? – but I’m still captivated by the place. On the second day, she finds the section in Henry Miller’s Colossus of Maroussi where he describes the island on his travels. It is very clear that Henry Miller has feelings for Hydra men don’t normally hold for enormous lumps of stone sticking out of the sea.

We start to share them. We spend our days and nights doing nothing, and plenty of it. Beaches, reading, swimming, board-gaming, reading (her, mainly the aforementioned Miller and Dante. Me, the heartbreakingly brilliant The Corner. I was planning something heavy and Russian, but got distracted by Burns/Simon’s in WH Smiths at the Airport), gasping in wonderment at the mark-ups from the mainland prices, devouring the fifth series of the Shield late at night and spending far beyond our means in restaurants.

And the sunsets. Every day a new unique blossom in the sky, falling slowly from sight. At most, despite being someone who leans more sentimental than romantic, I found myself thinking if I only had a ring.

It wasn’t purely sappy, though it was pretty solipistic. Outside of the pair, no more than a half-dozen sentences were exchanged with any other human. It’s the animals which loomed large in our attention. The Donkeys, we knew about. Bar a handful of exceptions, there’s no motor-transport on hydra. Instead, the steeply-cobbled steps are traversed by trains of donkeys. Skipping mounds of dung and hoping that puddle you stepped in was someone’s water-hose residue rather than a passing donkey’s – er – hose residue is all part of the Hydra experience. But despite their integral part of the Island’s infrastructure, it never seemed their town. It was the cats. I haven’t had such an omnipresent feline presence in my life since my time sharing with Rossignol and Ricaud . They’re everywhere. I knew they’d be everywhere since stepping off the hydrofoil and seeing a cat, stretched, almost car-crushed-flat on the harbour streets, without a care in the world. It knew that the port was his. I saw the same cat every time we walked that way. I’m not sure it moved for the entire week. His fellows covered the town – house cats with their bells, the feral gangs, the restaurant jackals, the veterans with missing sockets or both eyes cataract-clouded, the mobs of impossi-cute kittens feeding from their mothers in a cardboard box sanctuary near the centre of town… cats. Cats everywhere. They’d taken over my imagination within seconds, with me playing with short story ideas around them, or the rough design for a boardgame called The Cats Of Hydra about social standing and tactical sleeping. The saddest single image of the week was what appeared to be a “Lost Cat” sign down by the habour. Needle and haystacks.

(Dogs were almost entirely absent – their sporadic appearance always showing a scared, outflanked loners. They knew this island wasn’t theirs. This changed sharply in the last few hours, when the harbour seemed to have been invaded by bright-eyed brilliant dogs, sniffing everywhere, causing a rout of the whiskered-ones. Watch the news for street-battles between these newcomers. They fight like cats an… oh, you know.)

The invertebrate kept a fine showing. Flies who acted like wasps and wasps who sounded like flies teamed up to keep a low level of panic in our holidaying party. And the ants who marched back and forth around the flat were a daily entertainment, a trail to whatever insect in the area who had the misfortune to keel over when tiny marching feet were nearby. And we never quite worked out why they seemed so fascinated marching up the air-conditioning.

While I’ve been away for 75% of the weekends in the last few months, this is probably my first true holiday in this decade. Games Journalists always trick themselves that the free time in trips away to see developers make them holidays… but it’s never so. No matter how much fun is there, they’re not. There’s always a front there, and the keeping up of that a purpose even when you’re just drinking a bar dry. I’ve thought of San Diego comic con as a holiday – but one where you spend 10 hours a day at a table, talking shit at anyone who has the misfortune to step anywhere near you isn’t a holiday. You don’t lose your voice by Saturday on holiday. It’s…

Well, I’ve always had problems with holidays. As a kid, while I didn’t despise family holidays, I never saw the point. As opposed to my parents, I didn’t see why getting my skin a slightly different shade to its basal palour was a suitable reason for lying in the sun all day. It just got in the way of what I was up to. I tended to treat holidays like I later treated tedious jobs. I broke the holiday up into sections – after today, I was 1/7th through. Tomorrow, I’d be over a 1/4 through. The day after may as well be half. I treated it like a prison sentence, something to be endured before I could get back to whatever I would be doing if I had control over my own life.

(Except, of course, those minutes in the day I’d managed to beg some coins for whatever arcade machine was near where we were staying. But my yearly adoration of a string of games is another story.)

With Hydra, despite not planning to, despite being struck by the beauty of the place, the company… well, I started doing that early on. It was what I’d trained myself to do. This may be awesome, but I have things to do. I’m a bit of a workaholic. A disorganised one – which is why I don’t ever feel as if I produce enough – but my work is on my mind almost all the time. Which is part of any kind of writing, of course, but makes it hard to step away from you desk when your desk is the inside of your head. And there’s more. Part of it may link back to my quasi-marxist zinekid period, when I looked on Holidays as an opium for the masses, something to distract people from the fact their life wasn’t worth living, something for them to look forward to, divorcing themselves from the present, an escape-valve from ever having to change anything. Ah, yeah: I used to be even more unbearable than I am now.

My point being, against all that unknown-to-Easyjet extra-baggage I took with me on the flight, I got past it. This, written as we jet away from that island of cats, donkeys and bastard, beautiful flies, is the first thing I wrote in the week. And as I stood on the quayside, licking an inappropriate and gloriously classless whipped ice-cream and waiting for a big red hydrofoil, I wished it didn’t have to end.

It was a fine holiday. I’d recommend Hydra to anyone.