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Say Yes!

by Jane Shortall

 

I have always loved the message in Kander & Ebb’s song Yes, belted out with such gusto by Liza Minnelli. Lucky me, having had the opportunity to see her in London many years ago. The song begins with the words “Life keeps happening, every day. Say ‘Yes‘.” And goes on to point out all the opportunities missed by not saying yes and taking a chance on the outcome being positive.

Seeing my half-century birthday looming ever nearer, last year I took a giant leap and totally changed my lifestyle. As a result I now have more of that precious commodity, time, and although I occasionally have a fleeting thought of the significant salary I gave up, I would not swap this life for a king’s ransom. So that was a yes, one of my biggest to date.

Having time means that one of the things I can now do is to go through a massive amount of notes written during my various holidays over the years. For a very long time, my one or two holidays each year were the only time I ever seemed to be able to write anything significant down. I have always been in awe of stockbrokers and doctors who can finish their busy working day and then come home and write novels in their spare time. Sometimes, according to one of our best lady novelists, in the middle of the night at the kitchen table!

Some of my little notes are intriguing to read now. They positively point out that I was changing and growing all the time, and now that I am here in this wild part of southern France, they make so much more sense. I seem to have been on a journey to this point in my life, even if only my subconscious knew about it. The ‘yes’ word features again and again.

The following little story is a case in point. Had I not said a definite ‘yes,‘ what an enchanting day I would have missed? What a person I would have missed, who in his own quiet dignified way sowed the seeds of a different life being possible. Even if on that particular day, my resounding ‘yes’ to myself was heard only by a lizard, sitting on a very hot rock on a Greek island.

When I lived in the splendidly green but very rainy Ireland, I spent holidays on Greek or Italian islands, or in North Africa, where it‘s guaranteed sun. I get up very early on holiday, walk a lot, and can usually count on about four or five hours alone each day. There is something very freeing about being in a different country and doing something new and daring on your own. It is a wonderful feeling. Not only can you exist alone, but you can thrive.

On the Greek Island of Rhodes, I stayed a bit outside a tiny resort. A magnificent setting, but quite unfashionable, absolutely non-trendy and full of possibilities. The sea to the right, a spectacular mountain view to the left. It truly was glorious ancient Greece. I don’t swim and I love walking in the colourful scented countryside, dotted with the familiar white and blue painted low houses.

After a few days of getting my bearings locally, I headed into the fabulous countryside. Having walked for about an hour, I came across arrows painted in white at intervals of a few yards on the road. Written under each of the arrows were two words, Mike — Horses. Intrigued, and Irish — if there‘s horse in the area I will find it — I followed the arrows along the quiet country road, meeting hardly anyone, and finding no sign of Mike or the horses. It got very hot indeed, and most unusual for me, I was not carrying water. I turned back, deciding to try again tomorrow. I got up earlier the next day and, with water and sun cream in bag, wearing a big hat and better footwear, set off determined to find this Mike and his horses.

The next few hours took me through the most beautiful, peaceful and fragrant countryside. The heat was quite something by ten o’clock, and I was still following the arrows but finding nothing. I stopped, sat on a rock, and I admit I did ponder, just for a few minutes, on the folly of this trip, as I watched a large lizard basking beside me. I thought it through rationally. Mike hardly lived on the other side of the island if the arrows started fairly near our tiny resort? But who paints arrows on public roads? And who was this Mike? I had no mobile phone. I had passed very few houses during the last half-hour. I was deep in the countryside. The lizard continued to bask. I drank water and mulled over the situation a bit more. So, to say yes or no to going on with my quest?

The yes vote won of course, and eventually, and if I am honest, with a sense of relief, the arrows pointed me down a small lane. Thrilled with myself now for not turning back, I came into the most magical scene. A long, low, rambling dazzling white farmhouse with a dark red tiled roof stood at the end of the little drive, fields on either side of it full of heavenly scented small gnarled trees and bushes. Dusty, resting, farm animals barely raised their heads at my intrusion. The only sound was the buzzing of insects, the only living things keeping busy at this time of day.

The area seemed to be covered in a gauzy heat haze. An olive green and yellow landscape with the bluest sky ever. I had the sense of being in one of those impressionist paintings where people sort of drift through fields of flowers in a heat haze. On reaching the house a dark eyed, slightly built, merry man who turned out to be Mike, appeared and welcomed me warmly. He professed himself delighted that I had followed his arrows, alone and with no idea of how far inland from my base his farm was. Mike had that look, that if you met him on the moon, you would know he was involved with horses.

After I was offered fruit and encouraged to drink lots of water, although I felt fine, I was given a tour of the outbuildings. He showed me the horse end of the farm, most impressive, with some really good-looking horses in great stables, and an amazing amount of old carriages, but all in tip top condition. What was it all about? I hadn’t seen any sign for a riding establishment. I still didn’t twig.

Once Mike had established I was Irish and had ridden a fair amount, he dispensed with what I took to be the school horses and introduced me to Artimis. He hopped up on another horse and without any discussion took me out across his land, along tracks winding through stunning lemon and olive groves. Artimis, a truly noble animal, is a horse I will not easily forget. There was no doubting his strength, and had he decided to gallop to the ends of the earth, I would have been no match for him. For a horse that had only met me and in no time it seemed I was on its back and out into the countryside, Artimis looked after me like I was a beginner again. Even when he wanted to canter after Mike, he obeyed my gentle pull on the reins and slowed down.

The beauty of that day will stay forever in my mind, and if I focus enough, I imagine I can still get the mixed scent of the lemons and herbs of the Greek countryside. The freedom, coupled with the danger admittedly, of riding without a hat brought back memories of my early days on a Connemara pony in the west of Ireland. Unthinkable now of course but they were different days.

Now for the red faced bit of this story. Before I left I was invited into the main house to meet other members of the family and of course to refill my water bottle. On the walls of the big living room there were lots of stunning photographs. People in period clothing were sitting in carriages, and standing beside various horses. I recognised a face or two. Surely that was the handsome face of the actor Charles Dance? And wasn’t that was Ben Kingsley? And Helen Mirren? And others. ‘Ah,‘ laughed Mike, ‘I see you know them!’ ‘Yes, I think so’ I answered, very puzzled.

My new friend Mike turned out to be something of a celebrity. This most unassuming man went on to tell me that film crews making movies in and around the islands always use him, as he has the best collection of horses and carriages. I should have known when I didn't see any sign at the gate of course, but at that stage I was just so thrilled to have found the place. And anyway, what about the white arrows on the road? Who were they meant for? I hardly felt I could ask the question now, having arrived unannounced and being so gallantly taken out for a ride. By the film world’s favourite supplier of horses and carriages. And he very kindly never even mentioned that it wasn’t a riding school.

Although Mike told me I was the very first Irish person to visit him he gave me his idea of the island of Ireland as he imagined it. His view of the Emerald Isle, dreamed up by the very odd television or magazine article, is one I treasured. Mike, in his peaceful olive groves, said he felt that in Ireland nearly everyone must own a horse, and almost every family must have a collie dog for the sheep.

At that time I was working for a frantic Information Technology giant in the very trendy Pembroke Street area of Dublin City. I had a morning wake up time of 6.10, getting home between 6.30 — 7.00 each evening. The travelling, apart from feeder buses and standing on freezing railway stations — Dublin has no subway — involved a Bangladeshi like train journey from the north county Dublin to the centre of the city and back. The travelling public practically in each other’s pockets, standing pressed against each other for up to forty-five minutes. This was particularly nasty on those very wet dark winter evenings, when large overcoats and dripping umbrellas ensured steamed up windows, soaking wet feet and me wishing I were taller than 5 foot. I spoke to Mike about my average day and he looked at me askance, seemed to indicate that it wasn’t a life worth living and went on to suggest a slower pace being better for all of us. And to live in the sun was important also, and most of all in tune with nature. But to me at that time my life was satisfactory. I could afford a holiday in Greece, couldn’t I? Mike countered this by saying he never felt the need of a holiday. No answer to that one.

So my saying ‘yes’ on this occasion and my meeting with Mike perhaps sparked off something which lead to my changing, even if it took a few years to do it. Finding a beautiful place well off the beaten tourist track. Having a ride on a horse fit for a champion. Revelling in the utter peace of the magical Greek countryside made me begin to think that a different, a more simple way of life was perhaps not out of the question. To meet such a talented and unpretentious man, who told me he could never live anywhere else but in this exquisite countryside, was a rare privilege.

It didn’t happen immediately, but I am now out of that city life forever, and living in one of the most remote and under populated areas of the south of France. I am sure that my inner self was working away on this plan, even when I was running on a treadmill. But I had always given my unconscious mind the greatest go-ahead, by giving it the ‘yes’ word to work with.

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