Sunday, 11 December 2011

Walking in a Mediterranean Winter Wonderland

I don’t know if it’s always like this, but December so far has been perfect for walking – arguably much better than September or even October when most walkers come here. The temperature is just right, so you don’t need to carry gallons of water, or of course sunscreen or insect repellent. (Enjoying feeling unencumbered by stuff, I'm afraid I didn't even take a camera with me, so the pics were taken after I got home.) It’s by no means cold, but cool enough for hiking boots and socks, so you can cut across country. 
And the views keep changing. This afternoon there was no sign of Karpathos, as the view beyond Eristos was dark with gathering rainclouds; yet to the sunny north, against a blue sky, I saw the volcanic island of Nisyros more clearly than I have ever seen it before; every topographical feature clearly defined, including sheer cliffs plunging into the sea; you could practically see what they were having for dinner up in the village of Nikia on the rim of the caldera. Then over beyond Eristos, where the sea had become dark grey and almost navy blue, a gap in the clouds opened and a streak of silver spread across the water.
I explored the off-road path towards Livadia, then veered up to the abandoned village of Mikro Horio; actually not completely abandoned, as I definitely disturbed a couple of families of sheep, although the lambs were enjoying their lunch so much, wagging their little tails, that they didn’t notice, and it was only their mums that looked alarmed to see me.
I wandered back through ‘dead goat creek’, as I christened the path having seen a few old carcasses. Then I veered off again to explore a Byzantine chapel near Harkadio cave, one of the more unusually-shaped chapels that I’ve always meant to explore; inside, the floor showed it was definitely a home for goats these days, but the altar was ancient carved marble.
Back home, exhausted but happy, I boiled up some spinach-type greens and fried a couple of the lovely fresh eggs Pavlos and Maria generously brought around the other day (along with a huge bag full of freshly picked oranges and lemons, and jars of honey), and ate them with the last serving of roasted peppers, tomatoes, onions and courgettes in lots of oil and herbs from the fridge. No point in walking if there’s no feast at the end of it.
If any long-term Tilos residents are reading this, I'd love to know if this weather is normal for December!


Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Celebrating Saint Nikolaki: December on a Diminutive Greek Island

It may sound perverse, but I was excited to see grey rainclouds today. It’s been a while, after all. After I finished my morning’s work, it felt like a good day to lace up my hiking boots and head for the hills. I didn't take the camera as I had a feeling I was in for a soaking. 
Winter in Tilos is definitely reinforcing my hermit-like inclinations, and I am gravitating towards the lonelier side of the island, Ayios Antonis. With clouds brooding over the craggy granite hilltops, and a lonely boat on the grey sea in the distant misting rain, it felt beautifully desolate. If I ever write a mystery novel, it’s opening right there with the flotsam and jetsam on the empty beach.
I followed a road I’d never tried before, up the hill through dark green trees along the side of a reddish crevasse. At the top, I found Nikos just closing the gate on his goats. He was a little surprised to see me up there.
‘I was just walking,’ I said, ‘and didn’t know where this road went.’
‘Ah! It’s my road!’
Yesterday was the name day for St Nick, every Nikos and Niki was celebrating, and the Fisherman and I were invited in the evening to the house of Nikos and Ioanna from Ayios Antonis. We drove past the pretty Christmas lights at the entrance to Megalo Horio, simple white lights in the shape of a boat, down the dark road, almost missing the turn-off. But their house was warm and festive inside with red and gold Christmas decorations.
Glasses of red wine in hand, we chatted to the gathered company of family and friends, amid instructions to eat… Ioanna had been cooking for days, it seemed: keftedes or meat balls, revithokeftedes or chick pea fritters, dolmades made of cabbage leaves stuffed with rice and meat, salads, chicken in red peppers, sausage in beans – the plates just kept coming. I had to look away when she ladled gorgeous local honey into a jar and then mixed it with spicy ketchup for chicken wings (it reminds me of Stelios saying he can only drink retinsa with Coke). But she is an amazing cook and I wish I could learn a few of those recipes one day.
Nikos, in his thirties, with a black beard and glasses, keeps a fair few goats up on the hillside opposite, and he told me that one of the most prized goats for its ability to produce milk and young is an English breed, which has long ears and a spotted coat (‘like a dalmatian’). I nodded away, so pleased to be getting by in a Greek conversation about goat breeds that I didn’t stop to think – until later – that he might be winding me up. He has a mischievous streak…
But today, when I bumped into him on the hillside, I asked if he’d been making fun and he said no, he was serious. He pointed out an alpine goat clambering up the hillside, with wide twisted horns and very specific markings. The goats in the pen, fenced in, he said were just the bad goats.
‘Bad in what way?!’
‘They like to go down to the village to find food instead of looking for it up here.’
We admired the view over the sea and far down the valley. By this time I was a bit wet with the rain coming down, but not cold at all.
‘It’s good we’re getting some rain,’ said Nikos. ‘Without that, there’s no grass for the goats to eat and I have to buy maize. Fourteen euros a sack!’
Wow, that’s a lot. In summer, when there’s not much for the goats to eat in the wild, he has to spend sixty euros a day just on feeding them.
I explored some more, then followed the stone footpath back along the side of the opposite hill to my village, seeing a bird of prey hovering above (I’ve seen so many lately). Arriving at Megalo Horio, I was struck by how beautiful the tiny whitewashed alleyways in that part of the village are, the magenta bougainvillaea and lemon trees and the smell of the fig trees. This last month Tilos has been more beautiful than I’ve ever seen it, Eristos bay glowing silver with the afternoon sunshine and the air so clear: Karpathos felt so close I could touch it yesterday. It’s been the gentlest of Decembers… I was swimming in the sea a few days ago, and exercising in the sun on the beach. Merry Christmas all!

Sunday, 27 November 2011

The Failed Rabbit Killer: November on a Greek Island


People have been asking me a lot if I’ve been affected by the economic crisis in Greece. It will take a while for changes to affect life here, though I have just heard that our local boat connection to Rhodes, the Sea Star, is stopping for a while due to lack of funds. We still have two other boats that stop in a couple of times a week, but there was something quite social about the Wednesday trip on the Sea Star.
It’s a good job we went last week. While I spent hours choosing teaching books and ink cartridges and a newspaper and warm winter socks and organic muesli, Stelios went to the supermarket and stocked up with brown rice and pasta and flour and dark chocolate. Just as we were staggering to the boat laden with bags of goodies unavailable in Tilos, Stelios had a phone call: his fishing mates ordering fifty euros worth of home made baklava and ice cream from a well known place. No food shortages here then, just yet.
I also did something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. No, not that, I did that ages ago. I mean I took my recycling over to Rhodes. Yes, I took a big bag full of plastic and glass and deposited it in the recycling bins outside the old town. Good old Stelios didn’t mind my eccentric behaviour and actually helped.

‘I am a failed rabbit killer,’ said Stelios the other night – as we figured out after rummaging in the dictionary for a while. He would love to hit a rabbit ‘accidentally’ while driving home, and cook it up. Not in my kitchen, I said, remembering what skinned rabbits looked like in the butchers’ shops in France.
But I’m happy to receive oranges freshly picked from the trees, and bags of fish. Last week he told me he’d bought four kilos of local pork; stupidly, I expected it to come as steaks, not just a large section of pig. But he stomped in with his fishing clothes on and proceeded to chop it up like a serial killer. (Not a failed rabbit killer.) Meanwhile, I am still foraging a few tomatoes and courgettes, lettuce and rocket and basil from the garden.

On the subject of shopping, the supermarket in Megalo Horio, after its new aisle arrangement in the spring, is delightfully chaotic again. But it has pretty much everything hidden somewhere, if you have the patience to find it. (And frankly, if you don’t have patience, what are you doing on a Greek island?) I asked Eleftheria to help me find some coloured pencils in the ‘stationery section’, which looks a bit like a few teenagers’ school lockers which have not been tidied all year. She gamely rummaged around for a while and said her little boy Kyriakos had probably taken them, hunted a little more under some random stacks of paper (sounds of things falling off the shelf at the back) and eventually found exactly what I was looking for. If you’re thinking Eleftheria sounds like a very nice person, you would be absolutely spot on. I took my pack of pencils to the English lessons – and on opening the packet, found that a little boy had indeed been in there. Red pencil missing and another broken.

Teaching English is gradually becoming something of a joy. I am learning that if the younger class gets too chaotic, you get them to draw seahorses and give everyone gold stars.
The little girls arrive early and write the date on the board and usually Maria tells me with great fervour about something she’s been doing – last week it seemed to be dancing on ice. At some point in the class there is always some outraged shouting about someone making fun of someone else, and who started it, and who said what, and it is hilarious to watch their tiny serious faces and their tiny hands calling for justice. I ask them ‘Kai pios pethane?’ Who died? And they smile sheepishly and say ‘No-one…’ and we get back to work.
I hid little animals around the classroom for a treasure hunt, cunningly designed to get them to practice some language; the kids spotted all the animals within seconds of arrival, but were still thrilled by the game. And yet when I tried some songs I’d downloaded from the internet to help with learning colours, Michaelis asked if we could listen to ‘Back in Black’ instead. They also have an inordinate love of photocopies. The rumour runs around the room if I have some: Fototipies!!!
One of the smaller children moved up to the bigger class; the little ones all told me they were sad that he wouldn’t be with them any more, and asked if he could just sit in the classroom with them for company. The older class are at least as wonderful. One exercise in the book involved writing about ‘your best friend’. ‘Miss?’ asked Chris. ‘Can I write about more than one best friend? Because I have five best friends and I don’t want any of them to feel bad.’

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Late October on a Tiny Greek Island

Fishing boat in Livadia on Monday

Cat on the steps

Donkey on the walk down to Eristos

Someone is making charcoal

Football on Tuesday

Finally, got the beach to myself again (yesterday, mid-afternoon)

Yep, definitely empty...

Benefits of having a boyfriend who's a fisherman, #162.
Old fishing nets available to cover up the new plants.

Other benefits include eating fish practically every day. What else am I eating? Most days it starts with some combination of muesli, milk, yoghurt, tahini and honey (food of the gods, I assure you); an orange; half a pomegranate; and maybe an onion, a tomato, a zucchini and a green pepper fried or roasted in olive oil with some fresh herbs, and some fresh fish. Oh, plus some dark chocolate. I've been editing a book this week called 50 Things You Can Do Today to Manage Stress. My diet is a textbook example of the anti-stress diet.

It is very exciting to see oranges ripening on the trees! I admit i raised my eyebrows a little when I handed over 17 euros last week for spinach, rocket and oranges. But I couldn't help it: the rocket (well, roka, which is a bit like watercress) was still growing in the garden when he picked it. The oranges were still on the tree. Zero food miles except the mile I walked home. And with mounds of spinach, that's pretty much all I needed all week.

And if that wasn't enough to make me healthy, I've walked to and/or from Livadia (four miles) three times this week. Twice to teach my English classes, once to celebrate Dimitris' Name Day. It was beautiful walking home late at night under the stars (I saw maybe three cars the whole way). But am not sure I'm being a very good teacher; it didn't feel like I handled the little ones very well on Friday.

Feeling full of doubt as to whether it is possible to work four days a week as an editor, revise my book, do blogging for Korea and teach English six hours a week, not to mention all the prep time and the bits of online journalism I do, and look after my garden, I relaxed totally yesterday with a very good book, a walk and a swim, followed by good food and a glass of wine with a tired but smiling man who'd just spent twelve or more hours on a fishing boat.

And guess what? As I sit here in the kitchen writing, my ankles are getting a sun tan. Life is sweet when you live next to the honey factory.

Friday, 21 October 2011

The Austerity Diet in Pictures - and the Department of Silly Walks

Saligaria: a word that fills me with even more foreboding than the thought of teaching this evening. Here in Tilos, thanks to the rain last weekend, we’ve been eating snails, saligaria. Far, far more snails than I thought I’d ever want to eat.




After catching them, you have to leave them for a few days with some food. We left them with herbs from the hillside in the hope it would give them flavour. I went out the next day and found the sack we’d tied around the pan had come off, and they were making their way slowing down the chair, trying to escape, and felt a bit sorry as I dropped them all back in the pot...

You have to leave them a few days in case they’ve been eating anything poisonous before; you have to let the new food go through their system – yes, that’s right, you have to clean off snail poo afterwards. (‘You’ in this instance being Stelios; I suddenly became very busy with an urgent work deadline.) And there’s a clicking of shells in the sink as they wake up and try to escape again. Snails can move surprisingly fast out of a sink when they want to.

And then it gets even better – you boil them to get the slime out. ‘But you’ll like them afterwards!’ said Stelios, who really likes snails, and who is an exceptionally good cook. In case you’re interested in having your own snail-fest back home, you heat up in a big pot: olive oil, bay leaf, roughly chopped onion, salt and pepper, chopped garlic… snails… and a tin of tomatoes and water. Bring to boil then let simmer.
The smell becomes rich and hearty as they cook and the sauce is good, especially with warm, fresh-from-the oven, home-made-by-Stelios bread. Am just not terribly keen on the snails themselves, although in the days when meat was harder to acquire, finding snails on the side of the mountain would be a huge treat.



Thankfully, there are plenty of other things to gather and eat on the island. Lemons, fresh from Pavlos’ chorafaki or little field; not perfect on the outside but when you cut them open the smell and taste is delicious. ‘Why did you buy lemons? Always ask first if we have any!’

These green fruits, also from Pavlos’ garden are gavafes, guava, which make the kitchen smell heavenly.
Stelios also brought skate wing back from fishing, and delicious anchovies which you just dust with flour and fry in olive oil. And huge red juicy pomegranates. I never understood the point of pomegranates until I tasted these.


The rain stopped and the sun came out again and there is now green grass. The green, green grass of... Tilos? It doesn't seem right!
It's been perfect walking weather. I finished work one afternoon and went off up the mountain behind my house. I hadn't planned on walking quite so far but the top look tantalisingly close and it was such a clear day, I knew the views would be spectacular from the top. I do have a habit of going for long unplanned walks. When it comes to the Department of Silly Walks, John Cleese has nothing on me. For more pictures, see here:


Saturday, 15 October 2011

The Girl who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest

In early afternoon, feeling like some exercise, I put on vest t-shirt and shorts, and decided to walk up to the castle. I hadn’t been up there since late spring and neither had many other people, by the looks of the overgrown path. I wondered why a fly kept landing on my arm. I think it was trying to warn me.
A moment later, there were hornets buzzing around my head and in my hair. I felt a sting on my back as I started to run down the path, trying to shield my head somehow without losing my footing. Eventually I left them behind and went back home. I’d had hornets buzzing around my house before and they’d been harmless: I must have kicked a nest by mistake, perhaps. I showered and made myself tea and looked after myself for the afternoon.
*

Sunday: the wonderful smell of the open countryside after the first rain falls on the herbs. I’ve never experienced it before. The day had started with violent winds and by afternoon there was a torrential downpour. I went for a walk down the track as the rain softened to a gentle pattering, and it was like walking through a church filled with incense. It was so still and clear, I could hear the waves crashing on the shore at Eristos. A cockerel crowed as the rain died away. White wispy clouds were playing over the tops of the mountains. The air was fresh and the rain brought out the colours of things differently – the stones of ruined buildings, the trees, the mountainsides.


It rained some more. And then it rained some more. I found myself thinking ‘it’s good for the garden’. And then I started worrying that the newly planted seeds would all have drowned or been washed away.

On Tuesday, the skies cleared in time for midday football against a team from Rhodes. By the time I met Anna there, the sun was hot. The Tilos lads got off to an unfortunate start and were a couple of goals down by the time they started to take serious issue with the linesman’s decisions. The ref took them to one side, and they shouted at the ref (although to be fair, shouting is the default setting for a normal Greek voice). Then a guy from the crowd approached, yelling abuse. A couple of women started running over to try to calm things down. The ref called the linesmen and they all walked into the changing rooms. Eventually everyone returned, calm, the Tilos team looking bitter but determined to play. I had to leave at half time, as the rain starting falling again, to get back to work. I noticed some fat olives at the roadside.

For a week or so now, the Tilos ATM has not been working. ‘Use another branch nearest you,’ it said. That would be on another island, an hour away by boat; perhaps someone pointed this out. A few days later, on Tuesday evening when I went to Greek dance class, the technician had still not arrived, but the message had been changed: ‘Normal service will be resumed in a few minutes.’
I’ve felt a bit like that myself this week.
It’s been a busy week, but a good one. On Wednesday Stelios had to take his motorbike to the mechanic in Rhodes so I went with him for company and we ended up buying lots of things you can’t buy in Tilos: some plain white bowls, wholewheat flour, wholewheat pasta, brown rice and very dark chocolate. Then we went for food: very non-wholewheat but delicious gyros pita at a neighbourhood place: warm fluffy pita stuffed with slivers of pork cooked to perfection, fresh creamy tsatsiki, tomatoes and red onions; these were huge, a meal in themselves. Three of those plus an excellent Greek salad, bread and a large beer – dinner for three – came to just twelve euros.

The weather returned to sunny and warm. I walked down to Eristos for a long swim, and ran into Dimitris from Tropicana, carrying his towel.
‘Number eighty-six!’ Eighty-six swims this year. When he reaches a hundred swims, he’ll stop.
Passing by the other farm where I buy vegetables, I saw Georgos planting cabbages and cauliflowers. He gave me a bag of seedlings and wouldn’t take any money for them, but instructed me to plant them that day, 60 cm apart. I got home and started preparing the ground for them, while Stelios ‘made bread and chaos’ (as Anna put it) in the kitchen.
‘Jennifer!’ I run inside.
‘Can you add some flour?’
‘Jennifer!’ I drop the trowel again and go inside.
‘Can you plug in my mobile?’
‘Jennifer!’ I dig a little more and then go inside. The oven door is open, the bread under a towel.
‘OK, we leave it now to get big. Have you finished in the garden yet?’
Er, no, not yet. But the half-drowned seeds we planted are also beginning to grow little green shoots. I now eye flocks of birds warily. I must find some nets. The lettuce and basil is looking healthy and a couple of new melons have even nonchalantly appeared near the fading courgette patch.
The brown bread is delicious warm with a salad.

  

*
‘Miss! Hello miss!’ I’d better get used to hearing this when I walk across the square, or anywhere I might run into a child or two. Because I think I’ve agreed to teach English to twenty of them.
It all started when Irini wanted to speak to me. A group of parents were looking around for someone to teach after-school English to their children. I used to teach in a language school or Frontistirion in Athens years ago, and I’d asked my friend Dimitris, the school headmaster, to let me know if anyone was looking for lessons. Although I already have a full time job, most of my days are spent working at a desk with people abroad, so I thought it would be good to get involved a little more with the community. It turned out to be a little more involved than I’d expected.
On Monday, I met with the parents, mostly mothers and one father. I arrived at the primary school and they all settled into the little desks, and there I was at the front of the class. Thankfully their main questions were whether I was staying here permanently and how much the lessons would cost. In the last few months, salaries in the public sector in Greece have been slashed by over a quarter, while basic food prices increase regularly and a new property tax will be imposed via electricity bills (meaning if you don’t pay, your power gets cut off). At least in Tilos you can grow some food. Many thousands of Greeks have already emigrated to Australia and other countries to find work. Now more than ever, children need to learn English.
After doing some quick sums to see how we could organise this, and taking names and notes, I left with my head spinning, and a date to meet the kids: first the advanced level and then the beginners. In the space of an hour I’d got to know half a dozen parents who cared a lot about their children’s education. There was no longer any question of whether I’d go ahead and give this my best shot. Parents in Greece still make their children’s education a big priority, and I’m in a position to help somehow. I emailed a writer friend in Athens, Becky (see links to her blog on my Facebook page 'Great Travel Reading'), and she kindly sent me long messages filled with information about books and exams.
So last night I had my first meeting with the children. The teenagers were kind and polite and surprised me with their excellent English. I think I’m going to enjoy getting to know them, and if we can keep up their progress it will be a good thing. 'What animals are there in Tilos?' I asked as one of my questions to test their level. 'Cats! Goats! Sheep! Eagles! Elephants!' Well, the elephants did die out about 4,000 years ago but we do technically still have them in the museum.
I admit I brought bribery biscuits to my meeting with the younger children. It’s funny how smaller children produce much more sound, even before you feed them sugar. They started well, and my Greek was good enough to reassure the shyer ones, but it was easy to spot the ‘problem areas’. The main problem will be my propensity to laugh at their jokes, which will only encourage them. But it’s hard not to, as even the little terrors are adorable. ‘Any questions?’ I asked in Greek at the end. One hand flew up – one of the more advanced children. ‘Yes miss. When can we eat the biscuits?’

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Beware Greeks, Even Those Bearing Gifts


The path from Menelaos’ farm to my house is a rough, slippery track of rocks and sand. Look at these crazy people on a motorbike scrambling down the hill with a bag of potatoes on the handlebars and a sack of manure balanced precariously on the seat in front. The woman looks terrified as they slalom down, the man shouting at her in Greek to do – what? She has no idea, because that woman would be me, and I only just heard the word for sack the first time today so how would I know Stelios wants me to grab hold of it to stop it sliding off?
I am beginning to rue the day I introduced Stelios to gardening. He is even more obsessed than me, and we are actually fighting over who gets to dig the earth.
‘It’s my garden!’ I protested. Why do I feel the need for blisters on my hands? It’s partly because I like experimenting with my very first garden. But of course I am grateful for the help and for Stelios’ ability to know exactly where to procure some goat manure for fertiliser. Menelaos has two thousand goats, he told me, so I’m sure he can spare a little.
Partly I want to dig my garden for the exercise. But if I try digging my garden in front of Stelios and Pavlos, they will laugh at my girly feebleness. Which is why I must sneak in some gardening when no-one’s around.
‘What’s that,’ said Pavlos, pointing at my new plant, ‘dendrolivano?’ Yes, I admit, it’s rosemary, knowing exactly what he’s going to say next.
‘Why did you buy that? Where, in Rhodes? We have lots of it here in Tilos! How much did you pay?’
Thing is, I’ve heard exactly the same from Stelios. I find myself lying again about the price, just to defend myself: I say two euros, when it was actually three.
‘Oh. That’s OK.’
It reminds me a bit of the laughter that ensued when I brought my lovely wooden dining table from England for the terrace. ‘We have tables here!’ Well yes, but I love the way the sun has bleached the pine and the way I can photograph fruit on this table and it looks beautiful. It used to be my dad’s and it gives me a lot more pleasure than a rickety white plastic one, however much more practical and, well, Greek that might be.
And I did manage to grow a good crop of tomatoes this year, and am still harvesting a couple of courgettes a day and some rocket, and even got a couple of ripe melons - one of which was shared with an earlier riser...

‘Where’s your father?’ asks Pantelis, grandfather of my Tilos family, when I go into the village. ‘He’s gone already? Just two days in Tilos?’
‘Unfortunately yes – he’s always working!’ I say. I was delighted my dad made it here for a couple of days. ‘But I’m sure he’ll be back – he loved it!’ He fed peanuts to the ants on the terrace of the kafeneion; I wasn’t sure Sofia would be keen to have him back so soon, but she seems to have taken it that eccentricity runs in the family.
‘And your mother, when is she coming back?’
I love this. Once you’ve visited Tilos once, not coming back at least for regular visits seems like some sort of betrayal.


I go to the supermarket and young Georgos the nurse is in there too. He looks up and down one aisle while I look up and down the other, then we swap and do the same as if it’s a sit-com.
‘What are you looking for?’
Chlorini, bleach.’
‘Me too! Where is it?’
We swap aisles again and look in vain. When we give up, Rena comes and points it out, hidden behind something else.
‘Here we are,’ says Georgos, handing me a bottle, grinning. ‘Good for the hair.’
This week I got a message from Dimitris to talk to Irini about something. The next day, Stelios said ‘Oh, something I had to tell you’ and it was that Irini wanted to speak to me about something. Then I got a message from Evgenia saying her mum, Maria, wanted to see me. I wondered what it was about as I walked up to the house, but of course – it was that Irini wanted to talk to me. (Ve haf vays of making you talk.) It was good to go and see Maria anyway, and as a side benefit I got fed fried aubergines and delicious locally made cheese marinated in red wine, and given a care package to take home with more food for tomorrow.
Meanwhile, I still have half of this fish to eat. Kinigos, hunter, it's called in Greece. Stelios arrived with it in a plastic bag.
'Wow! When did you catch it?'
'Now.'


As you can see, it was pretty big, as in the full length of the oven baking tray. I cleaned it and, thankfully, my fish-gutting skills were not called into question. We ended up cooking it in pieces with oil and wine, onions and peppers and tomatoes. The thick white meat fell off the bones beautifully.
Best news of all this week: my book about falling in love with Greece in general and Tilos in particular will be published next summer by Summersdale. Called maybe 'Greek Honey'. Thanks to my exceptionally perceptive colleagues for seeing potential in it.
'I hope you don't think this is insulting, but it reminded me of Mamma Mia,' said Claire in the office. Insulting? Far from it - bring it on! I want that scrawled over the cover, along with author Ben Hatch's comment on my last blog post about fishing:
'I am so jealous of your life. I just went to Tesco's, for goodness sake.'

Sunday, 25 September 2011

A Box full of Lobsters

It’s a late September Sunday, about seven a.m. In summer we'd be out earlier: the fishermen go out when the sun’s coming up, as that’s when there are fish. 

I say hello to Nikos and meet his brother Stelios; I’ve been invited by the third fisherman, Stelios L., who’s been fishing with them for more than ten summers. The three change into orange overalls and rubber boots. A teenager, young Alexandros (‘the great’), sits at the back in shorts and t-shirt to steer the boat. I’m given a seat in the middle where I can see everything.

NB: Most of the photos to go with this blogpost won't load this morning, so please view them on my Facebook page!
http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150385941285803.403889.646565802#!/media/set/?set=a.10150385941285803.403889.646565802&type=1



The wooden boat heads first to the headland to the south of Livadia bay. It’s a nice calm morning, cool, a few wisps of cloud on the hilltops. On this side, the water is still a grey. It’s one of the last weeks before they change the boat over to a different kind of nets, when the season opens for trata.

We arrive at the first spot. One of the guys hooks the float out of the water using a wooden pole, reels in the rope, then a motor winches the net over a series of three wheels that keep it coming continuously. Nikos leans over the side, watching to see what’s coming in.
‘Good skaros, take it,’ he shouts to his brother who pulls the net off the wheels, winding it into a heap and at the same time pulling out the fish and tossing them into a bucket of sea water. Stelios L. winds the empty nets into a pile at the back of the boat and helps pulling out the fish when needed. Nikos shouts instructions to Alexandros on the rudder to keep the boat in the right place. ‘Mpros!’ Forward. ‘Anichta!’ Away from land. ‘Isia!’ Straight.
The first fish to come over the side include some spiky orange skorpio (scorpion fish), and some yermano (Germans – they came to the area during the Second World War) with poisonous spines that can give a very nasty sting. All these Stelios extracts from the nets with his bare hands. For a while there’s nothing, and then about six good-sized fish all at once. And then a karavitha, like a reddish-brown lobster with no pincers or feelers but a big, powerful tail that curls and snaps back. And a sinagritha, two kilos at least, the ‘king of fish’, blue-ish silver with pink around the mouth. All this in the first half hour: a good start. When eventually there’s nothing more coming up on the nets but weeds, it’s time to move swiftly on. Feegeh! Go! The lobster was a good find. Lobster is worth up to forty euros a kilo.
Crossing the bay to the north side allows a brief break for a cigarette and fresh coffees. A sudden panic: no more coffees! The great coffee crisis ensues and searches are conducted for the disposable plastic frappe cups. A brief despondent lull, knowing there’s no more coffee this morning.

The island looks different from the sea; the sun is coming up now over the side of the mountain and brightening all the colours. We skirt the shore where the cliffs and the coves are a rich red, reflecting in the still water. We pass Donkey Island, then stop at the next net and start pulling it up. Tiny fish have to be extricated and thrown back, but soon the fish bucket starts filling up. There’s a flurry of excitement when a couple of strange-looking fish appear, blue-green spots on top, bright white belly: lagokefalos. Poisonous.
The belly of one is puffed out, bloated, and Nikos stabs it in the head with a knife before throwing it overboard. Clearly you have to know your fish; you can’t just catch and eat anything.
Then someone finds a seahorse in the net, an alogaki tis thalassas, or ippocampos. They put it in my hand. ‘Take this home. It’s beautiful for the house!’ It’s beautiful, of course, a tiny perfect grey dragon-like creature. But it’s alive, and it doesn’t want to die. Its mouth forms an ‘o’ as it gasps for air and it flexes its body and curls its tail in and out. I keep it in my hand and try to ignore it while we celebrate the arrival of a nice catch of reddish-white barbounia, red mullet, a good fish to sell.
‘To ena alogo, eineh mavro… ’ sings Stelios at the front of the boat, a popular old song about a white horse and a black.
It’s horrible watching a seahorse die. It is taking forever. It doesn’t want to die, its little body stretching out in what looks like agony. I look at the sad thing in my hand, wrapping its tail around my pen (figurative blood on my hands), and Stelios assures me, ‘There are lots of them.’ And it hits me of course that all the fish we’re catching are meeting the same fate, so why do I feel this way about the damn seahorse?

The first lot of fish are moved from the bucket to a box, sluiced down with fresh sea water and covered with wet hessian in the shade. We continue past the pretty beach of Lethra, accessible on foot, the valley filled with green pines, another little island and mineral-blue rocks that drop sheer into the sea until we reach turquoise water, where on a slither of pale beach a couple of goats are coming down the rocks to drink. It’s amazingly beautiful.
‘How can the goats here drink salt water?’ I ask.
‘I don’t know. There’s nothing else in the summer. It’s evolution!’ says Stelios L. (He’s posing a little at the side of the boat, one arm casually hanging off the roof, showing off his muscles: forget firemen’s calendars, girls, how about a fishermen’s calendar?)
We stop, and the routine begins again, Nikos directing, the other guys gathering the net as it comes in again, unsnagging knots, pulling off rocks and plants, sometimes singing a little to pass the time. There are no fish for a while, and they all look a little edgy. Then suddenly, we know why. Fokia. A seal.
The big grey seal flips over in the sea nearby, does a taunting turn or two – or maybe it’s just looking to see what’s going on – and then disappears again.
‘This is why we take no fish here.’ The seals eat the fish from the nets. They actually eat through the nets to get at the fish – the guys show me the holes. It’s an easy feast. The seal surfaces again on the other side of the boat.
‘That was a small one,’ says Nikos. ‘They get bigger.’ No wonder if they eat that many fish. The net here is empty, alas. Quietly, curses probably kept under breath because of my presence, we take off in a more sombre mood south again but further out. The jagged rocks of the islands silhouetted black and grey look like Thailand. Two cormorants stand on some low rocks. The seal comes up again, eating a fish. They’re not afraid: it’s illegal to harm them. Stelios adds the few fish from that net to the boxes and covers them in ice.
Next time, we’re fishing a little deeper. The winch winds up rope for a while before the net. And soon up over the side is a lobster, an astrako this time with pincers and feelers, purple with orange markings. There’s also a cuttlefish, soupia. And because we’re fishing deep, there are lots of rocks too, or clumps of compacted earth and weeds that get caught in the nets and have to be stamped out flamenco-style, leaving a big mess in the boat. But on the upside, there are lots of fish coming up, keeping Stelios busy extricating fins and gills, while Nikos struggles to untangle the lobster.
It’s hard working deeper, stamping out all the chunks of dirt. Winding all those nets into piles, standing up for hours leaning over to pull out the fish, it’s got to be tiring – when I think of how tired I get after an hour’s gardening. They wind the nets twice over a wooden pole to clean out all the dirt, and then sweep and sluice the deck. All the rope and net and spiny fish and salt water every day – it must take a while to toughen your hands up for that.
But the result is several big lobsters which must be worth a fair bit. Nikos places them carefully under the wet hessian sack – ‘ipno!’, sleep – although when another one goes in they all wake up and start thwacking their tails powerfully.
‘That was a good net.’ Seals don’t eat lobsters, thankfully.
When they’re getting good fish, no-one complains about the work as it’s good money. But it’s the same work whatever comes in. And you never know exactly what will come in. The currents can move the nets from where you place them: in summer they didn’t see any lobsters as the currents move the nets. Occasionally a fish caught in the net has been eaten away by something else before the fishermen get to it, and they still have to extricate the remains and throw it overboard. With all that winding in and cleaning and sorting for each net – and winding them out again at night – no wonder they don’t like it when the catch gets stolen, and no wonder there’s excitement at a good catch.
Even though the deck has been cleaned to ship shape, we’re preparing to pull in another deep net again. This one’s coming from 140 metres, outside the mouth of Livadia harbour in view of the town. I’d forgotten we were so close. This net brings in a smerna, a moray eel, glistening brown and yellow. Nikos give it a swift blow to the head with his boot to kill it quickly, as if it smells blood or food (the other fish) it can be dangerous. We get a large scorpion fish and a starfish, among mounds of dirt. And then the small sharks or dog fish, galeos, start to come in, one after another, five or six of them. They do look like miniature sharks, with very smooth, silky, dark grey skin and extraordinary blue glassy marbles for eyes. I notice Stelios L. opening a shell – a scallop shell. He hands me a fresh scallop to eat.
As it gets closer to lunchtime, the sun gets hotter overhead and since the boat is continually moving around, they need to make sure the fish in the middle of the boat stay cool and wet. Those overalls and rubber boots also seems a little warm at this time – imagine what it was like in July and August.
As we start to chug back towards Livadia, Nikos gets a call.
‘Yes? I’ve got lobster – d’you want a lobster? And dogfish. I’m coming.’
Nikos has been doing this since he was twelve – thirty years – and he works continuously as a fisherman, summer and winter. In the summer season, he sells direct to the restaurants in Livadia: Armenon, Michalis, Naftilos. In winter, when restaurants in Tilos are closed, the catch goes to Rhodes and to Athens. Of course, things have changed over the years and there aren’t as many fish. The water has warmed up too, so there are more fish from Africa like yermanos and the poisonous lagokefalos and no more mackerel.
It seems like a good day’s work to me: a few boxes of fish large and small, a box of lobsters, a few cuttlefish, a box of sharks. (Not to mention the sea horse and starfish.) I ask whether it was a good day.
‘Not a bad day – fine,’ says Niko, shrugging. ‘Not as good as yesterday – not as many skorpio or barbouni.’
‘The seal ate them all!’ says Stelios L.
I wonder how much of the takings go to fuel and maintenance of equipment?
‘The takings are divided into five,’ says Stelios L. ‘Three parts for the fisherman, and two parts for the boat.’
The cleaning work continues as we head back, and there’s a little more singing while the hard work of winding and sorting progresses. I’ve never seen three Greek men smoke so few cigarettes: there’s no time.
There are so many details I’d never have thought about. I’d somehow always imagined fish would fall effortlessly out of nets – but not with this kind of fishing. I’d never have imagined so much cleaning was involved the clumps of sea-earth that have to be smashed and then shaken out of the nets, swept up and washed out.
‘We finish quickly if we fish shallow water. When we go deep, we get lots of dirt.’
I have also learned there are few sexier things than watching a man pull a shark (OK, a very small shark) out of a net. And that you can eat good fresh fish and lobster in Tilos and watching it being caught makes me want to eat more.
Just when you think it’s over, back in harbour, there is more work to do: Stelios L. has to clean and wind nets into neat piles ready for the evening, while Nikos sells a few lots of fish and fillets the dogfish. I think of doing all this work day in, day out. It's one thirty, over six hours since we went out.
‘Got any skarous?’
‘No big ones. I can give you two kilos of these for 15 euros…’
A man comes down to buy and leaves followed by a posse of cats.