Alone, in a tent, with no home and no anchor. Riding through the world, prehistoric and free. When you choose this life, it turns out, there’s only so long you can go without needing to just be still, to just be indoors, lie on a sofa, use an oven, clean your clothes, hang them in a garden that you shaped and grew, in a town that you know every inch of. Get up when you wish, close your eyes when you want, knowing your warm, your safe, living in a home, like most people do, if only for a moment to remind you off the freedom you’ve now got.
When I reached Komotini, I think it had got to that stage. Though I’d chosen a life in the saddle, and though I loved it more than anything, somehow, here at the damp edge of winter, a need for the comforts of a home were forming in my mind. In couch surfing I found solace and, for another week, my bike stayed locked in the courtyard of a small house, in the muslim quarter of Komotini.
Georgios and his own pals were initially so proud to have hosted me. It was easy to feel like I’d known them for a long time. His circle was full of photographers and filmmakers and painters, they were debated and intelligent. Their faces shone when they heard of my own photographic adventure.
Who were these people? I now ask. Though, then, I had inserted myself into their lives without a second thought, as if I had always been amongst them. It was as if I was trying to build a normal world around myself, living in a town, hanging out with friends. But they weren’t my friends. I suppose, not since my school days, had I really ever had a life like that, never really a circle of friends my own. For years I had journeyed home from work, seeing other’s on a friday night drinking, laughing on pub street corners with people all around them. How was it I never had this? How did it miss me by?
After a week in Komotini, with Georgios, he and his friends became aware of these facts, that I was just a traveller, who was passing through and that I was still there, not moving on, sleeping in the spare room at the back of his courtyard.
The world around me was changing so rapdily. Clay houses. Mosques. Dustier roads. Slum like villages. Rockier hillsides. A barrenness was forming in the spaces between towns and Komotini itself was tight and narrow and more middle eastern in it’s nature. I was resisting moving forward. I was scared. I moved from Georgios home to his friend, Mary’s, place for a final three days.
Mary lived in a small flat in the centre of a small town. She was a cook, a gardener, an artist and a teacher. She looked my age, but was much older. She dressed in bohemiam clothing all swaying and different. She had a dog. She walked it each morning. She liked to drink homegrown tea from her homegrown garden on the outskirts of town. Everything organic. Everything fairtrade. She smiled at everyone and everything. She saw kindness in others and gave kindness back. She didn’t judge, only asked questions and enjoyed the answers.
She saw good in me and I moved from Georgios’s place to hers. She was calm, controlled, wise and patient, in every movement and every look. For Mary, the most important things in life were those that came free. Family. Creativitiy. Giving. Always self-sufficient. Ever graceful. And it showed. I was perplexed by how young she looked for her age. In five days never did she once worry or frown or doubt or grow frustrated and I was sure this was the secret to her youthfullness.
With her mother growing old, she had returned from a time in England to help care for her sister. She had left everything to be with her family, in the town she grew up in and had asked for nothing in return. And I, sleeping on a sofa in her lounge, was witness to this. Never did I feel a burden. We cooked together. We laughed together. Discussedstories. Ideas. Philosophies. Shared photographs. Shared memories.
We walked through the streets of Komotini, through the slum towns, she my guide, greeting everyone, attracting friendship wherever she went.
We dug the earth of her garden, sowed seeds for future harvests. Cycled through the backroads beneath the browning winter mountains. My soul calmed. My body had stopped and, now, my mind was stopping too. I had cycled a long way. Met a lot of people. Thought over all the lives living amongst all the streets in all the endless, twinkling towns throughout Europe, throughout my journey, lives I would never know.
Through it all, Mary was the one who shone. A friend. Amongst all the darkness. She stood for so much that I had never had, that I’d clearly always wanted and, hardest of all, none of this was going to last. But I’d learnt to accept this. In another time, another life, she would have been a best friend. As it was, I had to move on.
Mary’s main job was in teaching children English. The children would come and go throughout the day. Her flat turning from home to classroom and back again. The moment came when she said ‘Would you like to join me in some of my lessons? Be a special guest?’
For the first time in years, with Mary, I welcomed the idea of teaching children, inspiring them, in fact just talking to them at all. I got a buzz from sharing my trip, seeing their eyes light up. They got to talk with an English speaker, got to ask questions, whilst I got to interest and help them. She was proud of her idea to bring me into the lessons. The excitement on our faces, when the kids left to go home, was shining.
With Mary there was a real feeling of pride in all things given or produced or created and, of all the people I’d met in Europe, Mary I would miss the most. After Komotini, my mind and needs returned to cycling. I became calmer. It became easier. For a time, a short one, I’d been able to have the life I’d missed out on, I’d always wanted.
To say thank you to her for the week I spent with, for the first time since leaving England, I bought proper ingredients and made proper food. Chicken stuffed with mozeralla and herbs and sun blushed tomatoes, wrapped in proschetta, with buttery, mashed carrot and potatoes, skills from my old teen chef days. Mary made up a salad using some of the organics we’d gathered from her garden the day before and I made a desert of Tarte Tatin – caramelized apples in pastry and syrup.
Georgios came round with cakes and Ouzo and sampled some of my desert. I’d loved my time with all of them, yet a dull ache still remained in my stomach and I struggled to sleep that night, on Mary’s couch. My mind heavy and racing with feelings of disconnectedness. This was not my home, though I wished it was.