Saturday, 21 May 2011

Dinner with Dimitris

What a good end of the week feeling as I set off, the sun dipping down behind the mountains, to walk the hour to Livadia. I pass a couple sitting at the side of the road outside a chapel, who smile at my fumbled Kali mera – uh, kali spera! Good day, I mean good evening! (I’ve been thinking in English all day.) The woman shouts encouragement for my walk, ‘me ta podakia sou!’ I like living in a place where people always say hello.


Walking that deceptively undulating road is easier than cycling, even though it takes a little longer. I stop to watch birds circling very high around a spot just before the halfway point, hunting.
As I enter the town I pass Trata restaurant and wish kali spera as usual to the man who’s cooking, the smell of the food makes me hungry for some meat, which I haven’t had much of lately, since the butcher is in Livadia and my kitchen is always plentifully stocked with vegetables and fruit (Pavlos brought me a huge papaya yesterday!) and eggs and cheese anyway. Suddenly, though, I NEED a pork gyros, juicy meat all crispy on the outside tucked into a soft pitta with tzatziki and salad. I haven't had one since I arrived. Time was, I'd live off gyros on holidays in Greece.
But Dimitris is cooking some special fish for dinner, so I resist.
Walking down to the sea, I see Vangelis sitting upstairs on his own in the ouzeri, and wave. Then I think, hang on, what’s the rush? And I go back and ask if I can join him for a bit.
It’s a beautiful location, looking out to the sea and the mountains, but cosy too. Vangelis’ son Nikos just opened it, and Vangelis says he already had a busy lunch crowd. In the summer, when the Greeks come, it should be good business. As Vangelis has told me before, the Greeks, especially those who live abroad, don’t look at the price when they order. And they like to order fish when they’re by the sea.
‘It’s exciting coming into town and seeing people,’ I tell him. ‘Some days I only talk to the donkeys!’ Of course I also chat with Pavlos, and sometimes with with Dimitris II, Tropicana Dimitris, my vegetable man at Eristos, who always shouts something about me being a good vegetarian when I arrive to buy my many kilos of oranges and tomatoes and zucchini.
Vangelis likes the idea that I talk to the donkeys. ‘These are not Tilos donkeys by your house, though – Tilos donkeys are smaller, and more’ - he searches to show me the colour – ‘not blue exactly…’
‘Grey?’ My neighbour donkeys are chocolate brown and furry, and they look all embarrassed when I catch them rolling in the dust.
‘Yes, grey. There are now not many original Tilos donkeys. One time, every family had a donkey. You know why?’
‘Ah, I think I do! Pavlos showed me the thing for the olives, the olive press, and said the donkey walked in a circle and pulled the stone around to make the oil…?’ Pavlos had finally asked the other day if I knew what that stone thing in the middle of the garden was. I’d assumed it was some sort of well but hadn’t understood the flat top.
‘Yes! And also, for the work in the fields, the donkeys bring back the fruits… But after the war, when the people leave Tilos, they kill the donkeys. They didn’t think… Now, one man he have two and he try to breed them. I remember right over the mountain there, you know Gera? Up on the top of the mountain was the OTE, the telephone station, and the man who worked there had a donkey to carry the diesel and the water up there to keep the telephone going. It was in fifty-eight, maybe.’
‘You have so many more stories – you’ll have to expand the book!’ Vangelis has written an account of life on the island sixty years ago, Tilos in the Past, which an Austrian friend translated into English for him and I helped to get printed up this spring. It’s already selling well.
‘I think maybe in the winter, yes, after the treatment, I would like to write something more. I think of things.’ He’s still got to get through another round of chemotherapy.
The wind’s picked up and Vangelis is cold and needs to go inside, while I need to dash off to meet Dimitris for dinner. He has filleted a fish called loutsos, ‘the Greek edition of barracuda’, and grills it so the skin lifts away and the flesh is lean, delicate and delicious. He serves it with tomato salad and crusty, cake-like freshly baked bread.
The wine I’ve bought at the last minute at the new shop around the corner, on the other hand, is atrociously bad, half sweet and half sour. Dimitris teaches me a new phrase, i sapouni halvas na to fas, ‘You’ll eat it whether it’s halva or soap’ – so we drink a bit; at least he can use it to make vinegar. He drives me home late, after we wander down to Kafe Ino and stand outside watching the sea while people come and go.
*
This afternoon, after gorging on papaya, I cycle to Ayios Antoni. I notice how pretty it looks, and sadly how much rubbish does get washed up on that beach. But what I love about Tilos is its wild, empty spaces – there aren’t rows of houses and the seafront isn’t lined with hotels, it’s just rocks and goats, mainly.
I meet Dimitris, leave my bike there and he drives us to Plaka, and of course he’s right about going there. It’s windy and rough at Ayios Antoni, but at Plaka it’s calm and peaceful, the only sound that of the peacocks in the park behind the beach. They make a squawk something between a crow and a yowling cat. It gives Plaka an otherworldly feeling, especially with its strange spiky aloe plants too. Though the hills are still incredibly green; the dry season is very late this year.
The sea is so clear, and I know that it’s just what I need to sort out my drowsiness after the late night. I take the mask and snorkel and see lots of beautiful fish, so many different ones; my favourite of the day being white with vertical chocolate brown stripes and a billowing yellow tail and fins. I go back in after less than half an hour as the water’s cold and my fingers are going numb; time to fall asleep on the hot sand. When Dimitris emerges, he’s holding aloft a beautiful, dead octopus. Another one bites the dust. That’s what I wrote to him when he emailed me a photo of the last one, which kept him guessing what his catch had to do with a Queen song. Sometimes he emails saying: today only two fishes, I am not lucky every day. Thankfully, some days the fishes win.
Cycling home, I stop to say hello to a bunch of piglets, gorgeous little things, all poking their noses out towards me hoping I have something for them, and the mother watching over them…
Maybe I feel less like that pork gyros now. Will I ever eat meat again?!
When I’m having a shower back at home, Pavlos and Maria come round after cleaning out the chickens. I come out to find Pavlos is watering all the flowers, while Maria deadheads them. She goes off to the car and brings me a handful of fresh eggs.


Wednesday, 18 May 2011

A Day of Going Nowhere

The end of a long day at the desk, punctuated by moments of going outside to look at the view, or feel the hot sun on my skin, and even at lunchtime to nap in the sun. I made snacks using the fresh cheese, mizithra, that the lady in the shop recommended I try when I was hesitating over something in the fridge. She showed me the good stuff, went to wash her hands and carefully cut me a piece and wrapped it in paper. They're exciting times in the supermarket these days, as the dusty aisles have been completely spruced up and rearranged for ease of browsing, though I feel a sort of sentimental pang for the old days. Still, I feel like I am going through initiation. This week, the proper cheese; who knows what next?

I'm editing a brilliant book (Are We Nearly There Yet? by Ben Hatch, about family and memories and growing up and a mad journey) so I don't mind that it was a long day. I came up for air this evening when Pavlos was watering his vegetables, and he shouted up to me that we'd be eating potatoes before long, and did I want some onions? I went down to see him, and he pulled up some beauties for me, instructing me to help myself whenever I'm making salad.


We talked for a bit - he never wants to interrupt me when I'm working but he also knows it's good for me to practice speaking Greek. He told me he never uses pesticides or fertilizers to make the vegetables big, like they do some places (which makes the size of those onions even more astonishing). They get a lot of love and watering. I notice something I've not noticed before in the vegetable patch, a big stone trough of some kind, and ask if it's for water. 'Stafilia,' he says. Grapes. And he mimes treading grapes with his feet, and shows me where the juice comes out at one end. 'In August, we make wine -- good wine!'

Perhaps better than the cheap retsina I'm drinking now, at dusk, but there's something about retsina that livens up the evening. A dog's barking, a car is driving away somewhere, as I sit at the table on the terrace. The lights just now have come on in the pretty village to the right of me that clings to the mountain, which is already in dark silhouette, a pale blue and lemon yellow sky above. The wind has dropped today and the sea below in the distance is still.

Pavlos left and then came back, walked up the path with some pale flattish shapes in his hands. What the bees make. Honeycombs - wax, keri.



The bee-eaters seem to have moved on, so they're free to keep making it. It was around seven thirty, and there's a lovely sound that seems to signal it's time to stop work and pour a glass of wine: from down at the little army base, the sound of a trumpet playing - what it it called? A reveille, I want to say, but that's in the morning I think.


Yesterday I went down to Livadia on the bike. It cut the journey time but was tougher! I had a long swim across the bay and then had my Greek dancing lesson with a handful of lively local women, Eleftheria gamely trying to translate some of the jokes for me. Then cycled back. Today, after all that, is a day for not moving very far at all.

And who needs to?


Saturday, 14 May 2011

The Birds and the Bees

There’s something about looking up at that ruined castle on top of the hill every day that just makes me feel like climbing up there on Monday. The route starts off proudly with shiny road signs pointing the way to the Ancient Settlement. I follow a steep road up the side of the village, past some beautiful homes, one of which has fresh goat skins drying on a washing line outside.

On a gate which is, like so many gates here, made of a few planks falling away from some wire fencing and fastened by another loop of wire, is a hand-written sign in sort of serial-killer scrawl saying ‘Kastro’ in three languages. We are unfailingly international here, if somewhat informal.

I was talking to my author friend Edward Enfield a few days ago, and because he is very interested in Greece, he asked me to send him a postcard. I explained there weren’t any postcards as such in my village, except in the Elephant Museum which isn’t always open. ‘But surely they sell postcards at this ruined castle you told me about!’ Edward protested. I think of him as I proceeded past where he imagines a kiosk and souvenir shop might be, picking my way through rocks and scrub.
The trail follows a vertiginous course and I’m soon admiring the views over the village of Megalo Horio below, and the area where I live called Potamies, the old riverbed, and far, far beyond. It passes a few of the overgrown, abandoned buildings of the former village, from back when the people needed to be close enough to the castle to retreat behind its walls in times of danger. A few times I have to look carefully to find the path, to see if I should scale this rock or push through the bushes and undergrowth.  I stop to take photos and get my breath back, and hear the brittle leaves of the drying bushes crackling in the sun.

About half an hour and those walls suddenly loom close, and I’m feeling the welcome breeze across the top, and looking down all the way to the sea, calm as a swimming pool down between Ayios Antoni and Plaka.  I can hear the sound of the waves coming in. The view is amazingly clear of the volcanic island of Nisyros with a white village perched on top of the caldera, and beyond, the tiny island where they mine the pumice, and beyond even that to the low end of Kos.

The entranceway and steps to the castle feel like they belong to the ancient acropolis which stood here once, with their big, smooth, white stones, though I’ve no idea if that’s true, and now the entrance is clearly used mostly by goats. The site was taken over in medieval times by the Knights of St John, hospitaller knights of the crusade, who probably built the tall walls of the citadel that are still so imposing. The Orthodox chapel in the middle is definitely given over to the goats, though faint traces of frescoes, perhaps a couple of hundred years old, remain. The whole thing is completely overgrown, and clearly no-one has been up there very recently, as every few minutes I walk into a big spider’s web.
Not bad for a lunch break.
*
I have been carried away by a moonlight shadow, without going anywhere near an eighties disco. And I have inaugurated the Tilos triathlon or Iron Woman.
The way to do this is: first, start walking innocuously down to Livadia at lunchtime to go to the post office. A mile into the journey, be offered a lift by Charlie and end up invited for a coffee in the square by Charlie and Karen, who call Vangelis to let him know I’m in the square. Mention to Vangelis about dancing for his birthday. Vangelis mentions Greek dancing lessons. Karen is going tonight at six o’clock.
Always wanted to learn Greek dancing! And how will I go to festivals all summer and not know how to dance?
Finish coffee, jump on bus back to Megalo Horio to finish work quickly.
Walk all the way down to Livadia in the afternoon. Arrive an hour later rather warm, jump in sea for very quick cool off. Dress again, walk up to school for Greek dancing lesson with Karen and a dozen women from the village perfecting their skills. Arrange with Eleftheria that she will give you a lift back to Megalo Horio if you meet in the square in half an hour. Be tempted for a beer with Karen. Eleftheria completely forgets. Walk all the way home again.
En route, overcome skittishness about darkness. So beautiful! Last red of sunset in northwest. Absolute peace – just the occasional noise of goats. Mountains silhouetted. A third of moon then so bright – notice moonlight shadow! Wow! Stars coming out. Gradually all hillsides lit up by moon. Village lights come into view.
*
Everything in the Garden – or a Lesson in the Birds and the Bees

They don’t slow down long enough for me to tell if they are swallows or martens, to see if they have red cheeks, but I think what we have is a mix of both: glossy blue-black backs, white bellies, forked tails of which some are long and thin and trailing and others more trim and stubby. They shoot across so fast, doing their daredevil turns in the sky.
What’s the point of being freelance if you can’t take the day off? Never let it be said that I am not a good boss who rewards hard work. Not that I have been entirely wedded to the computer. Yesterday I had a lunchtime run to Eristos and then a long swim in aquamarine sea, and even ran much of the way home again, which is why I need a restful day today. Especially since the sun is nice and warm.

After doing an hour or two’s work I walk into the village. I have promised to send a non-computerised friend back home a postcard, and I know there are some in the Elephant Museum.
The museum is one of our claims to fame, and I love it. It is housed in one tiny room between the church and the road, and it’s been run by Vicky for many years. It houses the bones of a mother and baby elephant that lived on Tilos four thousand years ago, as well as some deer bones and some human skulls from the Byzantine period. Elephants came from Africa 45,000 years ago, walking and swimming when the continents were closer, and evolved to a smaller species gradually by living on an island. The last forty or so elephants in Tilos – and maybe in Europe – died trapped in a cave just a mile from my house during the eruption of the volcano on the next island of Nisyros. Excavations begun in the 1970s, documented in the museum, have halted until the cave can be made safe, and most of the finds are in Vienna. A gleaming new stone and glass museum building was constructed near the cave, but somehow the European money wasn’t enough to finish it off, and when I last visited it was inhabited by goats. And the elephant bones are still in the village.
When I arrive, Vicky is just finishing a talk to a small group of English visitors, and in fact she is showing them some of the postcards made by German photographer Sibylle.
‘Ah, and look, here is the pelican! You see? This pelican was injured and was taken in and nursed back to health by some people in Eristos.’
The tourists lean forward to see the photograph and smile at the happy story. A woman looks at her husband, perhaps wondering whether they will go to see the pelican.
‘And then,’ continues Vicky, ‘a scorpion bite him! And he died. Now, if you like I will show you inside the church…’
In the uneasy moment’s silence I buy a few postcards and sneak ahead of them to the offices across the mosaic courtyard from the church to ask about Greek lessons. Someone told me there were Greek language lessons available. Unfortunately, neither the man nor the woman working at their desks surrounded by files are aware of this, and neither are the men outside that they ask, who look like they might be waiting for the kafeneion to open.

So I walk back down, passing Irini in her tiny shop who asks where I’ve been, and I find Georgos sitting on a bench, a nice surprise. He’s wearing a dark sports top and dark stubble which suits his short black hair and dark eyes. I only usually see him in Livadia so I assume he must be working. This he confirms by pulling out of his satchel a thermometer and blood pressure gauge.
‘Yes, I go round to see all the grandmothers and grandfathers. You want me to test you?’
‘It’s OK, I drink faskomilo…
Georgos talks fast in Greek but clearly enough that I can understand a lot of what he says. He’s a trained nurse, but I got to know Georgos as so many visitors did because he was always standing outside Irina restaurant on the seafront, where he worked lunchtimes and evenings. When I stayed in Livadia for a month, I walked past every day and his ‘yeia sou Jennifer’ and few words of chat became part of my happy routine. He never deigned to invite you into the restaurant, and when I did eat there his rather deadpan, sardonic manner of speaking made it seem almost like he didn’t care whether you ate or not. That was until he started showing me photographs of his patients, the elderly of Tilos, and suddenly he lit up, scrolling on his digital camera through hundreds of pictures. It seemed surprising for a young guy with an inordinate love of football, but what a blessing for the old folks of the island.
‘Are you working at the restaurant?’
‘No, it is closed. The cook died.’
Sadly, it turns out the cook smoked too much and didn’t look after his health, and the owner has gone away, and the restaurant won’t be opening. Only the other day, I heard about another death in the family of one of the nearby seafront restaurants, too.
As if on cue to remind us that there’s life in Tilos yet, a hardy-looking old woman with a stick ambles to sit down on the bench, and Georgos offers her a little flower bud, which she laughs at and throws on the ground. I would like to understand her better but it’s difficult, so I say goodbye.
Proseche, siga-siga!’ says Georgos. Take care, take it easy. So I do.
I continue to the ‘supermarket’, not too hopeful of finding bread today as yesterday they were rearranging the aisles and everything was in delightful chaos. But I find my favourite bread, a round one with seeds on top, and wander off down the road, a spring in my step, breaking off bits of chewy loaf. Charlie stops to offer me a lift but I’m only off home. I watch the bee-eaters, all fiery orange, electric blue and yellow, like a sunset. I take pictures of the poppies, the daisies, the roses. This season is windy but full of colours.

It’s time to treat myself to a good brunch – Pavlos’ onions from the garden, which are the most delicious onions I have ever tasted, big white bulbs with long green tops which turn so sweet when you fry them in oil; a couple of fat olives chopped up, a little fresh tomato; and then when it’s all cooking, a couple of eggs that Maria brought me yesterday from their hens. Everyone is always telling me what good people Pavlos and Maria and family are, and it’s hardly surprising. I eat outside as the sun is now hot, with the bees buzzing around; one lands in the egg yolk and does a sort of comedy slide and buzzes quickly away as if embarrassed.
Here at Bee Central we are coming to think the bee-eaters have rather outstayed their welcome. According to Pavlos, they are now officially Ena Kako, a Bad Thing, because the bees are scared to come out of their hives. So I have taken to shooing them off the electricity line running above the hives where otherwise they will sit in a line and swoop down to scoop up our bees. Enough is enough.
Today sitting inside at the computer doesn’t seem like the right thing to do, so I go for a walk to Skafi and watch the wildlife, trying to get a closer look at the swallows/martens and a golden oriole. I brave the mad Cerberus brothers, the two dogs (thankfully chained up) that howl ferociously guarding the way to Menelaos’ sheep farm, though one of them is always wagging his tail with a loaf of bread in his mouth. Where the other day there were snails on the path when it rained, now there are lizards darting out of the way. It’s a season of change. It’s so windy down at Skafi that the waves are actually crashing on the rocks, and I decide against extreme swimming today, and watch the sea for a while instead.



When I get home, there's a picture message in my email inbox from Dimitris of an unfortunate octopus, one that didn't get away today. 

*

Sunday, 8 May 2011

A rocky journey can be a good one

I feel like I’ve been here forever already, even though it’s less than two weeks. I wake up rested, stretching out and making the most of having a bed to myself, then go outside and say hello to the day. I work in the kitchen with the doors open, looking out at the view. I go outside again to peel a juicy orange (from the two and a half kilos I bought from the farm), looking down beyond the honey factory and the green trees towards the deep blue bay, and watch an ant meander over hopefully.  A couple of them valiantly staggered under the weight of a scrap of peel yesterday.

This morning, as I was sitting at the kitchen table that doubles as a desk, there was an earth tremor. I’ve never felt one before. At first it felt like a very heavy vehicle was driving up the track, but that seemed less likely than an earthquake. I know we get them here. The house rocked gently for about thirty seconds. It was rather exciting.
Today is Mother’s Day around the world except for in England, but today is also another special day, said Dimitris today on the beach. It’s two years since I met him.
When I first met Dimitris, he was undressing. I was reading my book and looking at the sunset, sitting in a wooden fishing boat on the beach in Livadia that had been converted into seats for a beach bar. He had just emerged from the sea and was pulling off his hood, mask, wetsuit, flippers and various other paraphernalia he uses for fishing. We chatted for a while and then I said ‘See you again.’ ‘It is not difficult in Tilos,’ he said.
Soon we became good friends. Since then, he’s shown me all around Tilos taught me so much, and he’s been to visit in England, and entertained my boyfriend too when I brought him over last year. Now I’m on my own again and it’s very good to have his company. Plus, he knows where's best to go swimming on any given day. Yesterday, although it was very windy, we went to the iron-red cliffs at the southern end of Eristos and it was fine.


Today we drove down to Eristos and then walked over the northern headland to Ayios Petros. Going to see St Peter also means you’re going to die, in Greek as in English. And many pieces of plastic, skoupithia, wash up from the Mediterranean and come to die on this particular beach for some reason, which is why the people who live in the only house nearby say they are going elsewhere for their swim when we passed them; although I think it’s more likely because you can’t drive there, you have to walk.
High up above the huge bay, they have one of the best views on the island, as did the people who lived in the abandoned buildings just below them. They don’t look like ordinary houses, too functional, and Dimitris sees me looking at them. ‘A small Spinalonga,’ says Dimitris. A leper colony, from before the war.
My view is then distracted by a pair of falcons circling high above, and the pink flowers of the pikodafni or oleanders that grow in the dry river bed, and the strong fragrance of herbs around here. Faskomilo or sage, thymi. Tilos was famous for its perfumes in ancient times.
We surprise a few lovely long-haired goats, who stand haughtily on a dry stone wall for a few minutes, looking at us, then scamper off down the slopes. We follow their stony tracks that wind down to the water, which is a deep, deep blue today, reflecting a cloudless blue sky, and calmer than it’s been for days. The plastic tends to wash into one end of the beach, along with heaps of driftwood: all those plastic bottles and buckets, it’s so sad. Dimitris also points out a pen-shaped object filled with liquid: it’s a chemical, used to find fishing nets in the dark. ‘It’s a problem.’
But at our end of the beach is a little piece of heaven, empty and beautiful. I’m in the water almost immediately. Dimitris takes a while longer to put on all his gear. He catches up with me and points out a small sandy-coloured flat fish, good for eating apparently. I watch the fish for a while: hundreds of some of my favourites, little blackish ones with forked tails, which I learn are called ‘small monks’ because of their colour. And a couple of the electric blue and orange ones, and the melanouri. But I mostly swim along just watching the shapes of the waves in the sand going on and on. Then take off my mask and look up at the sloping hills, still so green and yellow with gorse in this season. Close to the beach is a little stone chapel. You can imagine arriving here on a little boat and feeling safe because of that church, even if you were going to see St Peter.
While I’m drying off and warming up in the sun, Dimitris tells me about it being two years since we met. So much has happened since then. It was when I came here to stay for a month, part work and part holiday, after an emotionally difficult winter back in England, a winter of heartbreaks. I came here and knew that this little island could always make me happy. Since then it has always been a refuge in my mind. It’s also been a temptation: knowing I could work from here, I kept wondering – why not? Why wait? I have this habit of thinking: if you knew you only had a year to live, how would you live it? So I worked hard at my job and hoped they’d let me bring some of it with me here. And here I am, feeling very lucky. Tomorrow, I’ll be at my desk for eight hours, doing work that I love. In a place that I love.

I fall asleep with the sun on my back for a while. When I wake up, I feel like going for another swim.  No wetsuit or mask this time, just plunging in gleefully, diving down and seeing the blue from underwater, feeling the life and energy of the sea. After, as always, Dimitris cuts up some apples for us to share.
Walking back from the beach, he picks me some faskomilo to make into tea. Apparently it’s good for the kidneys and lowers the blood pressure. I’m not sure that’s what I need exactly but I love the smell of it. We walk back, past the old threshing floor, past the falcons. I remember one time when we walked this way two years ago, I said wistfully how great it would be to live here; he brushed off the notion, saying it’s very difficult to make a living here. He’d met a woman who used to be a scientist in Chernobyl, now cleaning rooms during the summer season. But I persisted with my ridiculous notion of coming here anyway. That’s one of the reasons he likes me: my spirit, he calls it, optimism and energy perhaps.
By the time we get back to the car, the rays of sunlight are spilling over the top of the mountain that’s now in shadow. Dimitris has brought me a jar of octopus he caught and prepared in vinaigrette for me, knowing how I love it. My shoulders ache a little from the swimming and my skin is salty. It’s a good day.





Thursday, 5 May 2011

A Bird in the Bedroom! (Calm down, chaps, it's not what you think...)

There’s a bird in the bedroom! I wondered what that sound was, why it sounded so close. I looked up from where I was working at the kitchen table and saw it on the wooden railing of the mezzanine bedroom, a tiny delicate wren-like thing, sitting on the balcony. It must have flown in by mistake. I went upstairs to try to coax it down but it hopped off in the wrong directions, so I closed the bedroom curtain so it didn’t fly at the window, came down and opened the two kitchen doors wide and went outside for a while to let it escape without being frightened. I stood on my terrace and looked out at the clouds hanging on the mountaintops, sunshine further down in the valley, heard a dog barking and a farmer shouting at his animals somewhere.
I’d had visions of this happening a few months ago when I thought about renting the house: there’ll be goats in the kitchen, I just know it! And in fact I did find a goat outside my kitchen door the other day, in spite of grandfather Pavlos’ best efforts to keep them out and stop them eating his rose bushes. But no, a bird in the bedroom, that was a first. I came back in and sat down at the computer to continue with what I was working on, and a sudden panicked fluttering of wings erupted from behind the computer. It’s still flying round in circles every now and then. It’s not the brightest bird. And a bee has now joined it. I often have bees, but that’s normal when you live next to the honey factory.

The honey factory is a big shed with many hives close by, where my landlords come and potter around several times a day. I love the humming sound. I love the honey, too. All the paths here are full of flowers at this time of year as well as thyme and oregano and other herbs, and the bees love it.
Last night, after spending too many evenings as a hermit in my little house because it is pitch black all around after nine o’clock, I ventured the ten minute walk into my village of Megalo Horio. I’d practically run out of food, so called in at the little shop and got into a long conversation with Irini who runs it. She was sitting behind the door reading a book, perhaps a bible, when I entered the tiny room that is a convenience store. She carefully checked the dates on the tinned food I was buying, and told me I must go to the supermarket for bread – that is what we call the slightly dustier shop in the village that has more than one tiny room, and you never know what you might find on the crammed shelves, except for the one aisle that has only pasta and shoes.
Anyway, Irini and I spoke in Greek and she said she was pleased to meet me, and asked where I was staying. Ah, good people, she said. It turned out she keeps goats near where I’m staying: I knew I’d seen her before. I learned it’s her name day today, and there’s a panayiri, a festival at the little church in Eristos – aha, that’s the church I passed on my lunchtime run, where the priest was putting up bunting! I must come to eat something, said Irini.
Several people came by and joined in the conversation including Ian, an Australian who stays on the most remote part of the island with his girlfriend, and because we’d never met properly we went up the road to the kafeneion for a beer. Ian, in his walking boots, has something of a thousand-mile stare after wandering the remoter parts of the island for a while now, as well as other parts of the world. Soon the kafeneion filled up and I got into conversation with Vicky, who runs the elephant museum (of which more some other time). Her English is excellent from speaking to visitors, so we spoke mainly in English and she translated everything for the benefit of her husband and the rest of the men all sitting around in a rough circle drinking ouzo and eating mezzes and flicking their worry beads. The priest came by and flicked Ian on the shoulder with his worry beads. I mentioned the festival.
‘Irini – Irene in your language,’ said Vicky.
‘Yes, but I think Irini sounds better,’ I said. ‘It means peace, doesn’t it?’ We’d been talking before about what a waste of money the royal wedding was, which led Vicky on to a diatribe about revolutions caused by inequality, and how the middle way is better.
‘Yes!’ she said. ‘Ah, and there is a song – Goodnight Irene…’
She asked where I was living and when I told her I was staying in the house next to where the Koumpanios family make honey, she told everyone else.
Kaloi anthropoi,’ was the general consensus. Yes, good people.
It has become very clear that I have become a Megalo Horio person. I have taken sides. Tilos is a very small island, just eight miles long by a few miles wide, and its two villages are perhaps five or six miles apart. But there is a fierce rivalry. There was a tense moment in my conversation with Irini in her little shop, when I told her that two years ago I’d stayed in Livadia for a month.
‘But… Megalo Horio is better,’ I quickly added. ‘I like it better.’
‘Yes, kori mou, it is better…’

The other place, Livadia, for the record, is a very nice place. It is the main port, and it has grown up there from around the fifties when the people of Mikro Horio (meaning small village, note, not nearly as good as Megalo Horio, big village) decided it was safe to live near the sea as there were not so many pirates these days, and they built new houses on what had been the meadows, the livadia, and just brought the roofs of their old houses. It has grown a little haphazardly, but by most standards it is a beautiful, sleepy place with good people. I have friends in Livadia. On a day when I don’t have much to do, I can walk there. But I must admit, when I went there the other day, it felt a little strange at first. It was like crossing a border, or going into the big smoke, where people do things differently.
When I think of the glib way I made the decision of where to live a few months ago – the apartment close to all the amenities, the seafront bars and restaurants in Livadia, or this more rural house in Megalo Horio, I shudder to think how close I was to getting it wrong. When I talked to my friend Steven about it, he’d said ‘You know there’s no choice’ – I had to be in the place where there was a possibility of goats roaming into the kitchen. And indeed he was right, but he didn’t know why. They are good people in Megalo Horio.
Now, I am just hoping the bird will leave so I can go to Irini's name day festival.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Bee-eaters!

Bee-eaters, I think that's what they were. I just went for a lunchtime run down to Eristos beach - note how casually I slipped that in - startling the donkeys who were having a dust bath, and I ran right under a flock of them: kingfisher-blue bellies, sharply-triangular lemon-yellow wings with dark outlines, flattish pale heads and long sharp beaks, fanned-out tails... The amazing thing was the sound. I'd heard it earlier today and thought it was the wind whistling around the trees or the house. Sounds a bit like my hopeless attempts at whistling. Didn't have my camera but they looked a bit like this.


But if they eat my neighbours the bees, I don't know if I should like them so much. Meanwhile, Pavlos came by today and brought me handfuls of mousmoula: loquats. Delicious! Soft fleshy fruit, sometimes sharp, sometimes sweet, bit like a sharpish mango.

Monday, 2 May 2011

A Rose by Any Other Name


It's a triandafillo: thirty leaves.

Oh go on, while we're here...


Me on the beach. Trying to pretend someone else is taking the picture, but of course there was no-one else on the beach, so how could they?!

Sunday, 1 May 2011

First of May Swim

First, a walk around my village, Megalo Horio...




... and then to Plaka for a swim. It was cold and very windy - but thanks to the wetsuit it was wonderful!



... and finally, came home and noticed this beautiful rose. Didn't notice that a goat had been in and munched away at the flowers on the other side of the path - that's me, the one stopping so much to smell the roses she doesn't notice the carnage seconds away. But Pavlos did notice, and he planted some more, and brought me a lovely stephani, a wreath of flowers to hang by the door, the traditional thing for Protomayia!



Kali Protomayia - Happy First of May!

These photos are from yesterday in Livadia, or 'the big smoke'. Having spent several days as a hermit here in my little house surrounded by bees and donkeys and goats, it was exhausting seeing so many people, but lovely to be welcomed back by old friends. And that blue bay... Well, who could tire of looking at that?



It's been cool and grey here this morning, but the smell of the fresh air is beautiful, and I think I can see the sun beginning to glint on the mountains...