'Just for a couple of days in Rodos! I'm taking the bus now and then the Diagoras.' The big ship that comes from Athens and stops in Tilos on the way to Rodos twice a week.
'Ah, we'll forget you again!'
I hauled my bag along the path through the overgrown field, the shorter route to the village. I was early and the driver was cleaning the bus so I went to wait on the bench in the shade. An old man came down and joined me within a few minutes and we got chatting. He said I spoke good Greek.
‘I don’t think so! At the moment I want to say so much and I don’t know how!’ Ever since I got back from England I’ve been forgetting how to say things, too self-conscious, feeling I should know more. I’ve become lazy about opening the grammar books; when I finish work I want to relax. The previous day, I went to Eristos and had a long swim, all the way beyond the headland and around to the red sand beach - completely deserted, and utterly beautiful… The cliffs rust and purple, with splashes of green caper bushes, watermelon-coloured sand, and the water around the white rocks turquoise.
‘Ah, don’t worry, slowly you’ll learn,' said the old man. 'You can’t know it automatically! I’m going to Ayios Antoni for a swim. It gets hot up here in the village at midday.’ I realised that was his trunks he was carrying in a little plastic bag, bless him. Then down from the shop came Irini, closely followed by Pantelis, grandfather of my Tilos family. Irini and I exchanged kisses, she asked where I’d been and I told her I’d been travelling, and was heading back to Rodos with the Diagoras again for a few days.
‘Oh, it’s late! Still in Kalymnos.’ She must have been on the phone to someone.
‘Oh no! So I’ll have to wait a couple of hours in Livadia?’
‘Longer,’ said the young woman with a little son who’d joined us at the bench. ‘How long does it take from Kalymnos?’ she asked the old man, who wasn’t sure but everyone offered an opinion.
‘I could always take the Sea Star at four,’ I said, ‘though it costs more, pio poli…’
‘Pio polla,’ corrected the old man with a smile. ‘See, I’ve taught you one thing today!’
The bus came and I was wished kalo taxithi and some of us left and some stayed. If I had a car, I thought, it would be so much more convenient. But I’d have missed all of this.
I really didn’t expect to be staying in Rodos quite this long. I worry about the garden, but life’s too short to worry about courgettes when the menu just got unexpectedly interesting. I’d been worrying I was forgetting to speak Greek: now I’m on a crash immersion course here in Domestic Bliss, Rhodes Island. With cooking lessons.
After a big night out in the Old Town on Saturday, Hari and I made the most of a relaxing Sunday at Afandou beach, in and out of the clear blue water. No music, not too many people, just the beach. We laughed at the man next to us who spent half an hour trying to put up his umbrella; in the end we didn’t bother putting up the umbrella or using the rackets we’d brought. Why, when we could relax and pour on the sun oil and make frappe coffee and eat sandwiches instead? We even skipped the planned stop for mojitos on the way back, and instead went home for hortopita: vegetable pie. Hari had finished work early on Saturday and cooked up all the vegetables in advance, adding in some couscous for texture. He rolled out the pastry, spread out the thick vegetable filling and covered it with cheese, layered more pastry on top and baked until golden brown – like the chef.
I haven’t ironed shirts since I left home, but since Hari told his cleaner not to come so I could work at home undisturbed, I thought I’d make inroads into the shirt mountain as a thank you and a break from the desk. I switched on the radio and found ironing not only therapeutic in itself, but it brought back memories of growing up, when I would help mum iron dad’s shirts in return for spending money. Just as cigar smoke makes me happy because I associate it with dad working at home in the study, ironing shirts felt like home.
Then Hari came home and made giouvetsi. First, he boiled the meat to take off all the bad stuff, so in my new role as sous-chef I got to do the scooping of white foam off the top of the boiling pan when Hari got bored with it. The water was then poured off into a bowl to be used later and we cut the meat into smallish chunks. I chopped red onions and green peppers to cook in oil and butter, with mushrooms and two cinnamon sticks and bay leaves, until soft. We added the rice-like pasta, with wine and tomato juice, salt and pepper and sugar. I stirred it as instructed, to stop it from sticking to the bottom of the pan, gradually adding in the meat juice, and couldn’t help grinning at the lovely language: we ‘baptise’ the meat in the liquid, we wait for the pasta to ‘drink’ the liquid. When it was al dente, we switched off the heat and put on the lid and left it to rest. Like the chef.
Meanwhile, with a cold glass of beer to hand, I made the salad – lettuce, cucumber, tomato, avocado, spring onion and of course anetho, always the feathery aniseed herbs. Hari would add loads of balsamico and seasoning.
I was supposed to get the ferry back to Tilos after meeting my friend Andrea in town, so I packed up my things. Hari came home with armfuls of food as usual around midday and stuffed them into the fridge. He laughed at all the empty bags – ‘plastic, plastic!’ – after our ecological discussion the other night. He was playful and happy. We made arrangements for him to come back between meetings mid-afternoon and take me into town.
‘So we eat after you see your friend?’
‘No, I can’t, the boat’s at six thirty…’
‘The boat to Tilos!’
‘Eh, what, you go back to Tilos now? Why you not stay?’
‘What, forever?!’ I’m grinning now. And there I was worrying I might outstay my welcome.
‘Not forever but it’s the weekend in a few days, re… What, you go and immediately you come back? Well, you think about it and decide what you want to do.’
As if there was a choice.
Later: ‘So, you didn’t tell me what you decided.’
‘Of course I’m going to stay…’
I’d been protesting that I was putting on weight with all this food, healthy as it is, and sitting at the desk all day. So on his way to work he dropped me off at Zephyros beach. It’s just below the market, the laiki, separated from a handful of fish tavernas by the road out of town. By eight thirty there were already a dozen or so older women and men taking their morning exercise. Women bobbing around in big flowery swimsuits and cotton hats wished me kalimera. Families were arriving, grandmothers and children. I was swimming for the exercise, up and down, and it was lovely to watch.
I walked back via the market: fresh fruit and vegetables piled high along the rows of stalls. I bought a hot pepper plant and a big sweet melon. Then took a wrong turning and a long route home. ‘Eeneh mia eftheea,’ Hari had said, straight, but a twist at the end because of a one-way system threw me. Thankfully Hari had told me the name of the big street, and a lady carrying bags back from the market gave me directions.
Home sweet home. There, waiting on my closed laptop, was a plate of little pastries fresh from the bakery.
In the afternoon he came back hot from driving around in the sun, but singing. He had a bag of big mackerel, kolio. ‘We eat this in August: we say August is kolio because there are many at this time.’ It’s only a week or so until August, but they were still expensive, ten euros a kilo and each one weighed about a kilo. I peeled the potatoes and he chopped them into rough-cut chips and arranged them in the baking tray with the fish. I joked: fish and chips. ‘Ela re, is not the same!’ He scored the fish skin and seasoned with garlic, salt and pepper, and he added cooking wine. Ravenous and tired all day from the last late night and the long early morning swim, I ate my whole mackerel, which fell easily off the bones it was so fresh, and finished off the potatoes later, after I woke up.
‘Ki-mi-thi-kes?’ Did you sleep, he asked, as we were driving into town later. He’d decided the only way for me to learn Greek was for him to speak to me in Greek but slowly, like a small child.
‘Then pre-pei na mi-las to-so ar-ga,’ I joked back. No need to speak quite that slowly. Nai, yes, I slept very well. Eprepeh, I needed it.
‘Nomizo oti archizeis na sinithizeis.’ I think you’re beginning to get used to it. He’s right. We wake up, he says we’re leaving in ten minutes, we get ready and are sitting having an espresso in Kafeneion by ten. We have a chat with Salvatore and whoever else is there.
Hari came back from the market with five or so heavy bags of vegetables. ‘You know how much all this cost? Six euros!’ We put some in the fridge and kept out the courgettes, aubergines, beef tomatoes, two types of peppers to prepare for making stuffed vegetables, gemista. And he explained how you prepare each one, and what you keep. He’d be back about three to help with the rest.
I’ve said many times life is too short to stuff a mushroom, quoting someone famous; I don’t mess about with food. So it was with a degree of surprise that I lovingly set about carving out the insides of several kilos of vegetables. But it turns out that preparing vegetables this way, a bit like the ironing, can be a huge pleasure. When I first started I was worried about making a mistake and puncturing the skin (the vegetables', not mine, though you never know), but gradually I realised you just had to feel your way around, get a feel for the texture, perfect the technique for each vegetable. I got quite absorbed.
‘Bravo, re!’ Hari said admiringly of my tray of vegetables when he came home, arranged as he’d asked more or less. ‘If I have a sous-chef like you I will open one taverna!’
Stuffing vegetables isn’t what I thought it was. It’s about getting your hands dirty. It’s messy and delicious.
I’d kept all the scraped out insides of the courgettes and aubergines and tomatoes in a big bowl, and to this we added a big bunch of maindano, parsley, and red onion chopped fairly fine, and I mixed it up with my hands, mashing all the bits of vegetables together. Then Hari got the easy bit of making it a little smoother with the electric blender.
We added bacon chopped into smallish pieces, and a couple of cups of rice, and I mixed it all together again along with some raisins and prunes that had been left to steep in red wine for a while and then stoned and chopped into small pieces, and some pine nuts. Finally, I spooned the mixture into the vegetables, making sure it went into all the corners, watched so carefully by Hari that I made a bit of a mess with it. He added lots of cooking wine to the tray and some olive oil, and some bread crumbs and sugar to the tops of the vegetables, and that was about it – into the oven for about an hour.
Ah, but before we rested: the tzatziki. Now I understood how to get the cucumber fine enough – use a special cucumber shredder. I took off half of the cucumber skin – leaving stripes – then shredded four little cucumbers. Hari squeezed all the juice out of the shredded cucumber into a cup for me to drink. We added about half a kilo tub of yoghurt, pressed a clove of garlic into it, added a good drizzling of olive oil and I was told to mix it dinata, vigorously, with a spoon (wot no hands?), adding in a good splash of wine vinegar and – of course – a bunch of anetho. Gorgeous – the best, freshest tzatziki.
Sitting down in front of the TV news to wait for the gemista to cook, I noticed a fair bit of my new coral (‘Samba in Rio’) nail varnish had come off. I hoped it went down the drain while washing up, not into the stuffed vegetables. Hari laughed. I replaced it with the other colour he bought me, the turquoise.
‘We’re leaving in ten minutes,’ said Hari after he showered in the evening, my cue to get up from the computer and rush around like a mad thing finding something to wear. We had a big night out last night, so I thought this one should be quiet. It’s so hot this week, Hari waits until the last minute to put on his shirt. Then curses as all the spaces are taken where he likes to park near Kafeneion. We arrive for our espresso and it’s busy – I remember it’s one of the nights they have live music. Two hours later, we’re drinking wine (me) and tsipouro (Hari) with masses of ice, eating sea urchin roe and salt-cured anchovies and marinated octopus.
‘The life is too short. You must enjoy while you can! Because who knows what is around the corner? We could leave here and get hit by a train. OK, we don’t have trains here in Rodos, but anyway…’
And so it continues. There was a raising of voice over the making of bechamel sauce on Saturday, but frankly if you can make bechamel sauce together and survive... Anyway, the pastitsio was worth it.