Sunday, 28 August 2011

Dancing the Summer Away on a Greek Island

You go dancing through doorways / Just to see what you will find…’ (‘Love Over Gold’, Dire Straits)

This last week of August has been the last big week of the summer holidays, the last big festival of the summer, and very hot. I’ve been picking the last of the ripe figs and prickly pears as I walk past, sometimes eating the figs still warm from the sunshine. I try washing the prickly pears - fragosika, or Frankish figs, because the Knights of the Crusade brought them to the Dodecanese - in the sea as Hari suggested to remove the spiny hairs that otherwise lodge in your fingers, then peeling off their skin. Nights are magical with the castle lit up above the village – a string of fairy lights leading up the hill to soft honey-coloured walls – and the clear sky full of piercingly bright stars and the pale arc of the Milky Way.
I walk beneath all this the three kilometres to Kamariani, a church on the otherwise empty hillside towards Plaka and the monastery. On such a hot night it’s beautiful to reach the shore at Ayios Andonis and hear the waves (except having to walk between the two snarling dogs chained at either side of the road by the converted windmill, supposedly to keep the goats from coming down from the mountain). In the distance are the little lights of villages in Nisyros and Kos and Turkey.

The tables are packed with people and I wander saying hello to people I know. The priest with his black robes and long grey beard makes sure everyone gets fed, then sits down to drink retsina and eat fried potatoes.Young Saeed, in his cool pork pie hat, is working hard serving people. Dina from Kastro restaurant walks around with her grandchild in her arms. The first dance is led as usual by Fotis, a man so well known for being an enthusiastic dancer that the musicians include some words about him in the song. I don’t feel comfortable dancing in my running shoes while all the other women are wearing pretty sandals; plus it’s easier when you’re with company.
Eleftheria’s mum from the shop is dishing out food from the huge cauldrons of goat in tomato sauce and potatoes. ‘Have you eaten?’ she asks as I walk past. ‘Ela, here,’ and she piles up a plate for me.


*
Next morning I pick up two satisfyingly thick packages of work-related reading from my new post office box in the village and decide to head up to the kafeneion. Sofia’s husband, dusting off a crate of beer bottles, asks me how I am and now I realise why there is so much stating of the obvious about the weather - ‘Zesti, zesti!’ Sometimes it’s too hot to think of anything else – all you can summon the energy to say is ‘it’s hot’. The cafĂ© is empty and I head towards my favourite spot in the narrow corner with a view over the valley, which gets a tiny bit of breeze.
He shouts for Sofia. I tell him not to worry – I’m not in a rush. I open my parcels and read. My toes start burning when the square of sunlight creeps closer, and I move them.
When Sofia arrives she laughs. ‘My husband calls me and says “It’s a kopella poli gnosti!”’ Not only do I have a post office box, but I am well known! ‘How are you, koukla? Where’ve you been? Did you know about the festival last night?’
‘Yes, I was there! Not for long though. How are you?’
‘Oh, I cooked, I worked, didn’t get to bed til five…’ Finally, as an afterthought she asks: ‘Did you want anything?’
I ask for an iced coffee and it arrives just perfect. Her husband comes back in and sees me reading, laughs. ‘You’re always writing, reading!’ After a while, I hear them eating their lunch in the next room. I get caught up reading and it’s two o’clock when he comes in to say ‘We’re going to sleep.’ Sofia says I’m welcome to stay where I am and she’ll leave the door open but I thank them and scamper off – just too late for Eleni’s shop. ‘Did you want anything?’ she asks, locking the door. ‘It’s OK, it can wait!’

In the evening I meet Anna off the bus. She texted to say she’s heard there’s a Koupa tonight, another night of dancing. But as I walk up to meet her I pass Artin and his friend sitting on the terrace, who say there’s nothing tonight. Irini in the shop and then Sofia confirm this – Koupa’s tomorrow. We are slightly overdressed for the kafeneion in our dancing finery, me in my sparkly dress and Anna in her figure-hugging short number, but at least we amuse the others and we are caught up in one conversation after another. I go in for another bottle of retsina and Sofia warns: ‘You won’t be dancing tomorrow if you get drunk tonight…’ So I grab a big bottle of water too. Sofia and her sister keep laughing at my shoes (the shoes I thought I would never wear in Tilos) and say I’ll never be able to dance in those anyway. ‘Tomorrow!’ they cackle. We will be remembered always as the women who got the day wrong.
*
Watering my plants in the morning, I think the early bird here doesn’t need to catch the worm. It has a fresh supply of tomatoes.
It’s hard to say if I’ll ever eat a fully ripe tomato from my garden at this point. Just a few days ago, it seemed that I was simply tending an even more elaborate bird feeder, although Pavlos seems confident about my tomato cage, and another local farmer said I was doing the right thing. On a day with no wind, the CDs hang like Christmas decorations, while clearly some birds are still coming along each day and eating away at a large tomato through the big holes in the string hammock. But a few tomatoes are gradually reddening.
As I sit working in the cool and shade of the early morning at the big wooden table, I’m distracted when a rabbit runs across the terrace. Then the little lizard comes along to his favourite piece of driftwood and clings to it, watching the insects.
Pavlos has taken the rest of my sunflower seeds to plant, as the bees love them so much. The melon plant also seems to love the sunflowers – a bit too much. The melon plant – if indeed that’s what it is – has become what can only be described as a bit clingy. The sunflowers are being stoic about it but I think a conversation about needing space is on the cards. It’s throwing out tendrils like there’s no tomorrow and wrapping them deftly and securely around everything it can reach. Mostly that’s the sunflowers but it actually wrapped a tendril around a bit of tumbleweed too, which is pretty fascinating. I wish it would wrap tendrils around the rabbit that bites off all its fruit.
*
Koupa, the cup, is an old local tradition, an informal night of dancing in the village to raise money for the church or for a couple who want to get married. At eight the tables in the church square are still empty, the older ladies stoically sitting around what will later be the dance floor, while the men are warming up inside the kafeneion. In fact it sounds like they might have been warming up for a while. There’s singing (some of it tuneful) and music and a bit of dancing, so we settle onto the terrace overlooking the church and the mosaic pebbles of the square, with a bottle of retsina. The singing gets louder and the ladies down below still sit quietly.
‘I don’t think they’re going anywhere,’ says Anna. ‘I’m not sure if they’ll actually make it down the steps anyway.’ But then there’s a stirring, and suddenly the procession is on, the group of older men playing their instruments and singing in their deep voices, shoulder to shoulder as they make their way down through the archway, down the steps and into the square, where the church windows are open, offering glimpses of the nineteenth century iconostasis inside.

And the dancing starts. Anna and I met at the dance classes, though she knows much more than me, and with the combined enthusiasm and a nip of the grape liqueur souma from Stelios who joins our table we have ourselves a lively evening. When in the early hours we’ve had enough of the haunting sound of the dances – though plenty of old folks are still going strong – we mellow out at the driftwood and bamboo bar on Eristos Beach.
*
It’s certainly been a lively summer in the so-called quiet island of Tilos. When I walk up to the village the next day, only slightly the worse for wear, I think maybe it’s only a quiet place the morning after the Koupa.
In the next few days, the people who have set up elaborate camp under the trees at Eristos for the month of August are packing up, dismantling it all for another year. Telis in En Plo says how crazy it is that one week the restaurant is packed, the beach full of tents, and the next week there’s no-one.

Hari texts from Rodos, where he’s focused on the final push to get his customers, the restaurant owners, to pay their bills at the end of their busiest month before they start shutting down.
‘Where have you disappeared to? No more paniyiri and dance, OK?!’ He went to the Old Town on Friday night, to the bar Fuego where they play all the summer pop with the silly names like ‘In My Bedroom’ and ‘Move Like a Freak’ that we usually dance to. ‘They play all the music we know but I didn’t move even my little finger.’
*
On 27 August, a special service is being sung in the church, the beautiful rising and falling voice of the priest amplified across all of the village and valley at eight o’clock on Saturday morning. A cockerel is still crowing somewhere. Pantelis, sprightly grandfather of my Tilos family, frequenter of kafeneion and festivals, later sits down in the shade with me and says well done for dancing at Koupa, then explains the church service was for Ayios Fanourios.
I look him up and find out Fanourios is the saint of lost things: much loved and prayed to as the saint of lost causes, people and things. His name means ‘revelations’, and when you find what you are looking for, you bake him a cake, a fanouropita. I like him already.
In the evening, I go down to Livadia for a performance of traditional dance in the square overlooking the harbour. Anna and I end up sitting on the steps next to the Mayor and some people with bodyguard in tow who have arrived on a monstrous  gin palace that dwarfs the Sea Star ferry. We’re very curious to know who they are.

There’s a group of younger children dancing from the local primary school, wearing blue jeans and white t-shirts and arranged in order of height. Our dance class teacher is encouraging them and reminding them to get everything right. It makes me want to make sure I keep going to dance class. ‘The nice thing is,’ says Anna as we watch the children, some of them tiny, ‘they’re learning it young.’ She points out that one of the kids can be quite a ruffian normally but here he is proudly showing off his footwork. I love the fact that it’s one of the twenty-something guys from Paralia bar who leads the dancing in traditional costume the older girls perform.
Later, after we’ve had dinner and are waiting for the bus up to the bar in the abandoned village, we hear live music continuing in the square and go to see who’s dancing. It’s the young schoolkids from earlier, arms on shoulders, still circling around and kicking up their feet in time to the music.

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