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.

*

Friday, 19 August 2011

Three Aubergines and a Marrow

I spent an hour this morning looking after my tomatoes. I’d been wondering why there were so many green tomatoes but they never seemed to ripen. There were a handful of reddening ones last night, and none this morning, which suggests to me I am tending an elaborate bird-feeder. I wouldn’t mind, but I really like tomatoes.
So I carefully pushed bamboo stakes into the ground – brought back from Skafi beach – and string between them, then selected the CDs from my collection least likely to be missed and hung them to dangle and sparkle in the wind. We shall see how much the birds like The Ibiza Sunset Sessions Disk Three and Learn to Speak Korean in 60 Minutes.

Then, in a stroke of inspiration, after scouring the shelves of the village shop yesterday for something that might serve as netting, in the absence of anything close to a garden centre on this island, I remembered my portable string hammock – unlikely to be used while the campers are inhabiting the trees of Eristos beach this month – and draped it over the whole lot. I am protecting my babies like a wolverine. Fingers crossed.

To gouneli irtheh?’ asked Pavlos. He’s convinced it’s the rabbit. ‘Ercheteh tin nichta!’ It comes in the night, he says, and I imagine the rabbit stealthily tip-toeing into the garden wearing a black mask and a swag bag. If he’s right and it’s the rabbit eating my tomatoes, I’ll have to come up with another plan. It’s undoubtedly the rabbit that’s been eating the sweet melon; you can see where the fruits have been very carefully nipped off. My solution? Kitchen scouring pads, opened out into silver netting. You can laugh now.


Why I couldn’t go shopping for all this in Rhodes, I don’t know. It’s just that the garden centres are all out of town and when we pass them in the car, we’re totally focused on getting to the beach and going ‘Ah….’ Although I have started a mini-garden at Hari’s place, with herbs bought from the laiki, the market: rosemary and two kinds of basil and hot red peppers and some thyme that isn’t doing so well. ‘Bring me three thenthrolivano,’ says Hari as he’s cooking. The basil was a great success when we made our own pesto.
‘I have the good news and I have the bad news,’ said Hari later, after his son had stopped by for a bite to eat. ‘The good news is my son likes the pesto. The bad news is there is no more pesto.’ He’d been eating it with a spoon straight from the pot.
Of course, when I got back to Tilos after ten days in Rhodes, the garden here was a small forest, completely overgrown, and I spent a morning cutting things back, mostly the vlita which had grown into a tree. Am not sure whether I should be stopping the rocket from flowering – the bees do like the flowers. They certainly like the sunflowers – my pride and joy, the sunflowers. It’s unfortunate that I stuck them out of the way in the corner, thinking maybe they would provide a wall to mask the compost heap. The seeds were from a small gardening co-operative in Provence and they seem to thrive here.

But what to do with the courgettes that grew into huge marrows? And what to do with the slightly past-their-best aubergines still in my fridge from two weeks ago?
Use my newly acquired skills in the kitchen, of course! Thanks to Hari…
Stuffed Vegetables (Gemista) and Aubergine Salad (Melitzanosalata)
After returning from Skafi beach in the late afternoon fairly ravenous, in spite of picking a few figs on the way, I decided to start using the kitchen. I turned on the oven to 180 and stuck the aubergines in there on a baking tray along with a few cloves of garlic.
Then I took one of the huge marrows and cut it in half lengthways, and scooped out all the soft flesh, leaving no more than a centimetre thick of outer shell. Mum used to make stuffed marrows when we were kids. The soft flesh I chopped roughly and mixed up with:
half a red onion
a good quality tin of tomatoes
a handful of mint and a handful of basil fresh from the garden
a cup or so of rice
a slosh of red wine
a slosh of olive oil
black pepper
a little fresh hot red pepper
six or so roughly chopped black olives






When it was thoroughly mixed (and already tasty), it went into the marrows and they went into the oven. They cooked for about an hour and then I turned off the oven while I went for a walk and left them in there. I walked up to Harkadio Cave, which is lit up in the summer as is the castle. The Greek music concert advertised at the stage there had attracted plenty of cars but I realised I wasn’t really in the mood for paying ten euros to sit at a formal concert. I heard lovely music for free from my balcony the night before, and the week before at Kafeneion in Rhodes. So I came back and continued cooking.
By the time I got back, the stuffed marrows were just ready: leave to cool for a while and they'd be ready to eat. In the meantime, to make the aubergine salad or dip, melitzanosalata, I took out the aubergines, cut off the tops and peeled off the skin, putting just the flesh into a mixing bowl. Then I squeezed the roasted garlic out of its skin too and into the bowl; the roasting had given it a lovely smooth smokiness and taken away any harshness. I decided to keep it simple and not add feta cheese to this one to see how it came out, just:
a slosh of olive oil
half a very juicy fresh lemon
fresh ground black pepper
A couple of minutes with the hand blender and that was it, done, and tasting amazing. When you know how, it’s so easy… The ingredients couldn’t have been simpler – just what was in the fridge, the cupboard and the garden.



Strange Goat Incident

That’s what it says in my notebook, followed by a few obscure scribbled notes. This is why I must write stories regularly. You, dear readers, are saving me from having nothing more than a notebook filled with things like ‘Strange goat incident!!’.


So, this is what happened a couple of weeks ago. It started when I was indoors working and heard a strange commotion in the garden. By the angry sound of Pavlos’ voice, I thought it was maybe the Rabbit Returned – for weeks Pavlos has been threatening to shoot the pest for rabbit stew for eating all his melon plants. Then I heard hooves. A couple of goats had got in and were hungrily eyeing all the flowers and plants. Pavlos was shouting at them outraged for sneaking in – though to be fair to the goats, the gate was wide open. Pavlos, in his red football t-shirt and baseball cap and shorts, had been working on the honey again inside.
The goats ran across my garden and leapt over the wall. Wherever you walk in Tilos, goats leap away over walls or the edges of mountains with proverbial agility. They’ve clearly heard the stories: they know that when it comes to a treat, there’s no meat Tilians like better than a bit of roasted goat. So these two nimbly leapt over the wall – and one of them got trapped between the wall and the fence.
It was a black and white short-haired one with average horns and a big belly. Some Tilos goats are beautiful, noble-looking creatures with chestnut-coloured or jet black flowing hair so glossy they should advertise Pantene shampoo, with twisting wide horns and long beards; some are pretty pale faun-coloured ones.
This one was your average Joe goat, albeit with a slightly scared look in its eye as Pavlos grabbed its horns and pulled it back over the wall. I also noticed it wasn’t wearing a tag.
‘Bring me a knife!’
‘What?!’
He was still yanking the goat up by the horns. ‘Bring me a knife! We’ll put it on the spit…’
‘No!’ I said more quietly, laughing. Was he joking, gentle Pavlos, the guy who won’t even put chemicals on his vegetables in case the birds eat them? He had a determined look on his face, though, winding rope around its horns to keep hold of it at a distance. He’s been working hard, and his wife is in mourning after the death of a very close cousin so he didn’t get to go to the paniyiri for Ayios Panteleimonas as it wouldn’t have been right, sosto. And a big part of a paniyiri is the free goat stew and potatoes that gets cooked up in huge vats on the coals.
Muttering something about finding a place to tie the animal, he pulled it out the gate and went to rope it to a tree on the slope of the hill just out of sight. Then I heard him drive off on his motorbike.
Was he off to get a knife, seriously?
I heard the goat scrabbling around, then it stopped. I went out to take a look. It seemed to have got the rope twisted around itself in a panic, and was lying with its hind legs pulling the tope taut, front legs somewhere trapped underneath its heavy body, and head twisted below at an awkward angle. I approached carefully and tried to help it get upright, but the rope  tightened around its neck and it was panting heavily, gasping for breath, its tongue hanging out. Then it stopped moving, the panting stopped. It looked like it was dying a nasty death: surely Pavlos hadn’t intended that? Reaching out, I managed to untangle it somehow, pulling it this way and that until the rope was no longer strangling it. Still it didn’t move. Then suddenly the breath came again. Somehow, pulling the rope away here and there, I got it onto its feet again.
Was it the right thing to do, interfering? It’s a village, and you have to respect the way people do things in the country, their relationship with animals. I thought I’d get out of the way before he came back. Whatever he wanted to do with it, at least it hadn’t strangled itself in the glaring sun. I had to go up to the village anyway.
I took overgrown path through the field, the shortcut, which brings me out halfway up the road into the village. Just then the bus was coming round the corner. I stood to one side to let it pass but it slowed down. ‘It’s OK!’ I said, but it turned out he was just stopping to give me a lift the few minutes’ walk up the hill. ‘Eh, it’s difficult in this heat!’ I arrived at the shop with a big smile on my face. Eleftheria, juggling two mobile phones and a land line, managed to stop long enough to sort me out with what I needed. The KEP office gave me the key to my new post office box – I am a local citizen with my own village post box! Outside, I noticed the deep magenta bougainvillaea, the lush green of the village trees and the view across the valley to my stone house on the wild brush-covered hillside. What a place to live…


I came back with a couple of bottles of retsina clinking in my bag, and as I approached the house I saw the red splash of Pavlos’ t-shirt as he bent down over the goat. My heart sank.
Then as I approached, the goat came tearing down the track then leapt away up the hill and out of sight.
‘I freed it,’ said Pavlos.
Maybe he’d asked Maria for a knife and she’d said no. Or maybe he only intended to give it a scare.
‘I don’t think it will be back,’ I said.