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Chapter 5: culture: Travel

Pefkos Beach, Rhodes – for Anxiety

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You haven’t come to Rhodes to explore the medieval old town or the ancient temple of Apollo. You’ve not been drawn by a longing to try the local delicacy of chickpea fritters and unsalted ewe’s milk cheese. Your more sophisticated acquaintances would think it trivial. But you have come here for just one thing: to get some sun.

On the beach, here, there are recliners under big straw sunshades on the beach. The water is warm. The heat envelops you and seems to ease the knotted muscles in your left shoulder. 

Every day, the sky is perfectly blue and unclouded. From your hotel balcony, you look out onto an arid, scrubby hill; you love the sight of the baked and cracked earth because it speaks of week after week of hot, dry weather. For months – practically for your whole life, it feels – you have been craving sunshine. 

In the north, the environment doesn’t feel benign. It can’t be trusted. You are always fending off something: the wind, the rain, the cold. Through the impossibly long winter and wintry spring you have been swaddling yourself in layers of garments. You hardly ever see your own legs – beyond a reluctant glance at their pasty paleness in the bath. You seriously wonder if anyone could find your body attractive these days. You eat for comfort. You’re always wanting scones or pies or big helpings of apple crumble. And it shows – somewhere under the habitual jumpers and coats. 

But deep within you, you feel as if you are a creature essentially made for sunny mornings, hot, lazy afternoons and warm nights. That’s where you, homo sapiens, were designed to live. But by ingenious, effortful and it seems rather fateful manoeuvers, we humans have managed to sustain ourselves in fundamentally alien places that are reliably windswept, wet, icy and dreary for most of the year and only fitfully, capriciously anything else. We’ve made good lives for ourselves up there – in Wiesbaden, Trondheim, Hyvinkää and Calgary. But at a cost.

Sunshine isn’t merely ‘nice’. It has a profound role in our lives. It is an agent of moral qualities: of generosity, courage, the appreciation of the present moment, confidence… When the world seems bountiful, material accumulation looks less impressive. When there is easy living, competition loses its edge. When it is so hot, there is no point trying to read – or even think too much. One is merely in the present.

These are corrective attitudes. Too much of them and they turn against themselves. If the ways of the north are too dominant and entrenched in your life you need the virtues of the south. You have come to lie on the beach at Pefkos not because you are light minded or indolent. But precisely because you have become – by habit – so dutiful, serious, hard working, disconnected from your body, over-cerebral and cautious. 

It is a deeply noble search for wisdom and balance (which are the ideal goals of art and civilisation) that has led you here – to the world of sun cream, dark glasses, recliners and vividly coloured cocktails by the pool.

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