Sebald on the Beach (October, 2017)

These words came at 4am, one sleepless, humid night in Greece. They were written in the Notes app on my phone while lying in bed and were forgotten about – until now.

The rain wakes us up from our shared shallow doze, drumming its anxious fingertips across the awning. The town cats scatter for shelter into the flower beds, their kittens dripping wet behind the plant pots, softly mewling for milk and mother. From the veranda, the town appears to be built on top of itself, building upon building, all facing west, facing the sea. The town is hidden from the harshness of the Greek sun at this time of the morning by the ridge of limestone mountains behind, green with olive groves and tall with cypress trees. This indirect morning light picks everything out in momentary clarity before the day’s stifling heat hides headlands, mountains beyond mountains, islands and churches that don’t reappear until the setting sun cuts through the haze, restores the landscape and honey-coloured cliffs appear as if by magic.

We take the narrow side streets to the harbour, between brightly coloured walls flaking paint and shuttered windows flung open to reveal the outside world to the canaries singing in their cages. Taking the table nearest to the water we drink espresso and chocolate milk, surrounded by fisherman from the harbour wall, watching the shallows flickering with light and silvered with seabream, while cats stick their heads into buckets of bait and chew. We get to try the delicacy of new words on the tip of our tongues, the fresh meat of kalimera, kalispera, kalinichta. We get to luxuriate in the differences of culture.

The Greek rain, at least not here, not now, doesn’t last long. Another shower drums into the pavement and people flee to the cafes for the few minutes until it passes. And after it does, it leaves a gift. Swallows. Fifteen or so, flitting above the harbour, blue on dazzling blue. They flicker, sweeping low over the rippling sea, collecting insects, moving south in one flock minutes later, nothing more than a fleeting, weather-deposited glimpse of the world’s workings. 

The world is – has always been – more connected then we’ve recognised, or perhaps accepted. The swallows are not Greek swallows or European swallows or the northern hemisphere’s. They are the world’s swallows. Birds of summer wherever they go, whether they’re breeding or not. And the problems they face are not local either. They face being shot in Malta, trapped in Cyprus, washed by a Mediterranean storm into the sea, held up by the wrong winds in the Sahara, starving if it’s an arid year in the Sahel, while trusting with their tiny battered bodies to bear themselves south, to Southern Africa. And when they get there their reedbed roosts might not have survived another season or global warming might have dangerously changed their food source. Any loss isn’t just felt by their species or us or any one of those places – but all of them. And this journey is taken in reverse by other migrants – people from Syria, Libya, further south beyond the belts of desert, trusting their bodies, or placing their lives at the mercy of ramshackle boats or bastard criminal traffickers who will abandon them to whatever fate befalls them. After payment, of course.

And on Valtos beach WG Sebald whispers The Emigrants into my ear, his own indirect reckoning with the holocaust and the natures of evil and grief through the lives and deaths of four Jewish emigres, while I sit on the sand, trying to change the colour of my skin, staring out on a placid sea that is nothing of the sort. ffffffffffff

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