The sea at twilight

After three days of work, my painter’s eye is beginning to focus. I’m sitting over my supper at the outdoor tressle table, studying the milky blue line which divides the twilight sea from the twilight hills of the Turkish coast. It just dawned on me that above the milky blue line, which is the edge of the sea, there’s an inky, dark line. It’s very subtle, but it’s there allright. This evening the cloud’s very low. A few moments ago the colour of the Turkish hills, which are only visible in silhouette, was identical to the colour of the sea. But now the sea has grown lighter and the milky blue line has changed to milky turquoise. However anybody succeeds in painting at twilight, god knows. You have to work at lightning speed.

In the middle of the expanse of pale blue sea a dazzlingly white boat drifts slowly towards Lesbos. It won’t be a refugee boat, more like a pleasure cruiser. The refugees come in rubber dinghies.

Last night one of my students told me that his father and grandmother have six thousand olive trees on their land in Syria. The olive oil they make is out of this world delicious, but they don’t sell it, they use it all. I imagine that means for the whole extended family. He thought the average yield was four hundred litres, but I suspect it’s much more. At least one litre per tree – possibly a lot more. He’s the third Syrian I’ve met who’s told me about their family’s olive trees. I remember when I was in Syria in 1992, at Christmas time, a friend and I took a bus out of Aleppo to explore the countryside. After a bumpy ride of more than an hour, we were dropped on the edge of a village, among low, scrubby hills planted with olives. It was sleeting but we were well wrapped up. We walked freely between the trees: there were no fences and we didn’t meet anybody until we got back on the next bus to return to the city.

While I was writing that, the Turkish hills melted into the sky and a very faint chain of pale yellow began to show above the dark blue line: the lights of the coast.

This morning I climbed the steep hill behind my place, looking for a place to sit and paint. It’s not always easy to find somewhere I can sit reasonably comfortably for a couple of hours, with a view which I want to work from. I went a little way along the dirt road which begins where the concrete one ends. Over to the south between two olive trees I saw, for the first time, an orange-roofed village high up on the shoulder of a small mountain. A road zig zagged down the hill out of the village; the sky was an intense blue above the roofs. The land fell away steeply into a deep valley between the dirt track and the village, so I was able to perch on the edge of the track with my legs comfortably below me. I sat there all morning, driven a bit mad by a strong wind which kept trying to blow my palette away. For the first twenty minutes, a dog barked aggressively somewhere below me in the valley. It wasn’t worryingly close, but the sound is never very pleasant. Then, over towards the village, a donkey started to bray. I have a thing about donkeys, so I liked that. And all the while, a couple of birds were calling their sweet, plaintive song, a bit like the sound a peewith makes.

Now the sea has turned a uniform pink, reflecting the pink clouds up above. I’m getting cold.