Friday, 16 September 2011

From the Dirty Old Town to the Bar on the Roof of the Island

One hope one quest enjoy every minute unstoppable open your eyes and you will see have as much fun as possible… - from street art in Athens

Last time I wrote, I mentioned dancing through doorways, just to see what you can find... On the last day of August I didn’t go to Rhodes as planned; I stayed in Tilos instead, continuing to dance through an unexpected doorway on this island. I hadn’t foreseen it, and neither had Hari, who was understandably shocked and upset when I told him I wasn’t going to see him anymore. Clearly there must have been something missing, and I spent a few days trying to figure out what that had been, gradually seeing from the other side of that doorway that I’d made the right choice.
Then at the start of September I went to Athens.
*
I lived in Athens a long time ago, and I have much affection for the dirty old town that it remains, in spite of polishing up here and there for the Olympics. The air no longer gives you nosebleeds and the smell of drains only persists here and there, but the lingering grittiness of part of its appeal for me. The apartment where I was invited to stay was not far from my old neighbourhood of Galatsi (where I taught English to the students of Yannokopoulou school), with hazy views across the bowl of dirty-white crystals that is Athens, to the low mountains and the gleaming silver sea beyond.

The main objectives of the trip were to see a rock concert and to visit the Acropolis Museum. But it was three days in Athens in the company of Greek friends, which basically meant spending six hours at a time drinking coffee and the rest of the time waiting, either for other friends or to find a good place to eat.

On the first day a concession was made by friends Stelios and Stratos to the English tourist: we sat drinking coffee with a view of the Acropolis from Thission. I got the view, while the two friends got to talk for hours and exchange news. In the evening, we drove on motorbikes all the way across the city to the concert venue in Petroupoli where another friend was the warm-up act for aging Greek rocker Vasilis Papaconstantinou. So much time was spent eating souvlakia, chatting and waiting outside the gates for the rest of our company of friends, our parea, that we actually missed the performance we’d come to see.
The second day, we sat and had coffee in Monastiraki and then met up with more friends to see about getting to the Acropolis Museum.
‘But first we should eat,’ said Stratos. He and Sophia debated where we should eat, decided on the place they knew that was the closest, and we set off on the motorbikes down one of the big main roads that lead off Omonia Square. I loved the street art that covered the grimy buildings. We drove a fair way and then circled back again.
‘Isn’t this the street we drove down before?’ I asked after we’d been riding for about twenty minutes. The graffiti was looking quite familiar. It turned out no-one remembered exactly how to get to the restaurant. But just as I was getting impatient in a very non-Greek way again, we turned down an unpromising side street and found ourselves in an extremely cool neighbourhood of street art and organic cafes, called Gazi after the gas works that used to be there. In a shady courtyard we ate fried anchovies, fried cheese, falafel with tahini and delicious vegetables. And after the ouzo, no-one really felt in the mood for the museum.


After the missed concert it had been decided that everyone would gather again in a park in the suburbs the next night so we could hear our friend sing; she has an amazing voice. Once again, we drove across the city, finding ourselves in a strange place with ducks swimming around a pond. By one a.m., we were still waiting for half the company to return with souvlakia. I am the worst person in the world at waiting around. No wonder everyone smokes – you need to do something to pass the time.
On the last day, after stopping for food and coffee, we finally made it to the Acropolis Museum. I fell in love again with a kore statue, maybe the same one I used to come to visit on Sundays when I lived here. We laughed and admired and learned… The upper floor was dedicated in a very pointed way to all the marble frescoes that were ‘violently plundered’ by Lord Elgin and are still on display in the British Museum, leaving only replicas here. It’s surely time for them to come back to Athens.
The boys drove me down Piraeus Street to the ferry dock, me wishing I’d kept my camera out to photograph the street art, Stratos pretending he didn’t know the way so I’d miss the boat. They had both looked after me so well. ‘Stratos,’ I said when we arrived and I had my ticket, ‘you look after Stelios. And Stelios, you look after Stratos.’ ‘We always do,’ they replied. I waved from the ferry as it pulled away.
*
I was going back via Kos, to pick up my friend Claire arriving from England. We found a great taverna called Diosmaraki and swam at the hot springs of Therma and I did a pre-Tilos raid on the shops: a haircut, interesting wine, stationery, netting for the garden, shoes. We caught a ferry back in the early hours. I was overjoyed to be home again in Tilos.



My garden was once again overgrown but thriving. Two melons had grown to full size and just needed to yellow. I spent two hours re-netting and staking the tomato patch which had blown over in the wind, thrilled to have ripe red tomatoes at last.  In the evening we had an impromptu dinner party with fresh-caught red and grey mullet. I gutted the fish and tried frying them but was firmly instructed by the Greek chef that far more olive oil was needed in the pan. At least my salad from the garden was good. And then after dinner, a few of us went up to Mikro Horio bar.
Mikro Horio was once a village of two thousand people or so, up in the mountains where they were safe from pirates. Back in the 1950s, it was decided that pirates were no longer much of a problem in this part of the Aegean and life by the port would be easier. By then, the population had already declined drastically following wartime occupation by the German army; their livestock was plundered and their farms suffered under curfew, and emigration was the best option. The villagers who remained all moved down to the meadows by the sea, an area which became known as Livadia. The village of Mikro Horio remained deserted. Then some enterprising types came up with the idea of a summer music bar.
Mikro Horio music cafe is spectacular, perhaps the best in the Dodecanese. The front of an old stone house has been turned into a bar area, looking out across the dark empty mountains of the middle of the island. A few other houses on the hillside around are lit up for atmosphere. A terrace is the dance floor, flooded by moonlight, thousands of stars up above.
Last time we went up there, Stelios sauntered over with news that he’d seen a girl with a pretty face and his friend said nonchalantly, ‘Oh, that’s Jennifer Aniston.’ Celebrities do swan in and out of Tilos from time to time, safe in the knowledge that they won’t be mobbed by fans here. Earlier in the summer there were rumours of Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones being spotted on Eristos Beach. At the end of August, the owner of an airline had arrived unannounced in a helicopter and apparently the Greek army boys stationed in Tilos scrambled to investigate, presumably fearing Turkish invasion, according to my friend Anna.
This Saturday Anna and I decided the Greek pop music and the crowd of almost exclusively locals was too good to pass up, given that the bar would be shutting down for the winter soon. I wasn’t going to make it to dawn, even though some would, but we stayed until four, dancing and talking to friends in the balmy late summer night.
*
Today is the 47th of August, apparently – meaning that summer is continuing, blissfully unaware that it should be turning to autumn. There’s a cool breeze at night sometimes but the days are hot. Swimming and cold showers are still the order of the day here in Tilos. My honey-making Tilos family have returned from a trip to Athens also, where they stayed in Piraeus for a wedding.
Zougla!’ complained Pavlos of Athens, and I learned a new word – a jungle, or chaos. Like me, he was very happy to be home in Tilos, and spent the first day back sorting out his garden.
Claire and I went up to my Tilos family’s house to see Maria and Evgenia in the evening. Sipping soumada, almond cordial, on the terrace and shooing away a cat that was determined to get in the house, we learned from Maria that someone had been stealing the eggs from their free-range hens.
‘What,’ I asked, surprised, ‘an animal was stealing them?’
‘No, people have been stealing them! It happens a lot.’
Goodness. Claire and I are both surprised to hear of that happening here. As Maria has just been saying, in Athens you have to hold you bag close and lock everything up, not like life in Tilos.
‘Well,’ says Maria, putting it in context, ‘in Athens they rob banks – in Tilos it’s just eggs!’
She doesn’t seem too perturbed but it does mean they’ll have to lock the chickens up at night rather than leaving them to roam. It’s also a reminder, though, of what grandfather Pantelis was saying the other night when he treated us to a bottle of retsina in the kafeneion. Life is hard in Greece at the moment, with people losing their livelihood, the prices of everything going up and no way to pay for it all. It’s OK here because we can grow our own food. In a city like Athens, what do you do?
Well, there is one thing, but maybe the story of a local boy who has found rather unusual work in Athens is for another time. Tilos is always full of surprises.

Meanwhile, Claire went back to England having walked to several beaches and feasted on local octopus and local goat in tomato sauce, ouzo and retsina, yoghurt and honey and watermelon. And Dina at Kastro restaurant said she'd find her a husband in Tilos. By the end of the week, she was warming to the idea...

'The Coven'

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