Walking the dog through the fields near our house, I’ve found a favourite place: just down the Potamia valley, covered by pine trees, are the remains of a bar that existed about ten years ago. The benches and tables are all still there, the fridges and the ‘entrance’ sign. As is the Tilos way, it’s all been left to the elements.
It’s a beautiful spot. Stelios says it belongs to his godparents, but they don’t live here now. There’s a little patch of grass where I imagine lying in summer.
Stelios remembers when it was one of three bars in Megalo Horio, and he and his friends used to go from one to the other. Now there are none, which is sad. There were more young people around ten to fifteen years ago, it was livelier.
It reminds me that the taxi run by Nikos and Toula has now shut down. They had to pay the same taxes and licence as a taxi driver on the busy island of Rhodes, making it financially unviable. So Tilos no longer has a taxi service.
We all know the signs of Greek island populations dwindling over the last half-century, and now the Greek diaspora has begun again, the economic crisis forcing people to move abroad to seek career opportunities.
The island could use a few more visitors, just as it could use a few more permanent residents, and more work. It’s good to see a new stone wall being built at the bus stop in Megalo Horio, with benches, mostly for the Russian tourists who visit the village by coach in the summer. An old workshop is being turned into a shop for traditional products. Our mayor will be able to oversee it all from her apartment window. The newly planted trees on Eristos Beach are also sprouting green growth, so there’ll be more shade for visitors this summer.
Down in Livadia, I’m saddened by the electric ‘Cretan Restaurant’ sign transforming what was lovely Irinna, but as I look down the seafront it’s hardly the only electric sign. Still, I wish they’d left it. That’s one of the reasons I love Omonia, under the trees off the square, as old-fashioned as ever year after year, with its hand-painted ‘We have a card-phone’ sign, yet constantly busy during the summer.
Some regular visitors to Tilos who remember the days when it was truly untouched are uncomfortable about developments such as high-speed internet. But unromantic as it is, I think it can help the island promote itself and flourish; promoting online is cheap. And it makes it possible for more people to live here year-round, and do simple things like check how late the big ferry from Athens is running.
The post office was closed for a week as the man who runs it had to go away; I rushed down there when it re-opened, but still no sign of my copies of Falling in Honey.
I remember back in the autumn, a couple of friends kindly read the bookproof for me to check if I’d made any big gaffes, and they gently asked whether it would be a good idea to change the name of the island. What if the book took off and the island was overrun with Brits?! I considered, but reasoned that the few it might bring would be good people, who would help the island to retain its character and traditions. I portrayed the place as it is, and that's not everyone's cup of tea.
A couple of weeks ago, an author friend who writes for a certain large-circulation British newspaper managed to get her editor interested in doing a story on my book; focusing on the twist in the tale, when I find out that the funny, generous, loving man I’d been planning to move to Greece with wasn’t coming with me after all. It was thrilling to think of the publicity. But they wanted to identify the real ‘Matt’, and focus on that part of the story, instead of the ending that I’m proud of, coming to Tilos alone after all. So, under advisement, I said no, and felt slightly sick for doing so. It could have mean a huge leap in numbers and attention – but would it have been the right kind?
And there’s a parallel there between what an island is prepared to do to promote tourism, surely. Like an obscure book from an unknown writer, a little-known island that’s hard to get to, like Tilos, needs to work hard to spread the word that it’s open for business. It has to look after the free campers on Eristos beach as well as the high-end Russian coach parties, because every little contribution from a new face on the island helps a family business.
But you don’t sell out. You stay the way you are. We love Tilos because it’s quirky; because of the old sofa outside the petrol station that closes for lunch; because if you turn up late at Omonia, Michalis tells you you’ll have to wait a long time to eat; because if the man who runs the post office has to go away for a week, the post office is closed; because even if there isn’t a taxi, you know someone will stop and offer a lift. If all this changed and the island did something drastic to bring in scads of package tourists, even built proper roads to the secluded beaches as I’ve heard suggested at times, the rest of us wouldn’t love it any more.
And so, happy to remain toiling in semi-obscurity myself, grateful for the kindness of friends posting reviews on Amazon and Goodreads and recommending to friends and book clubs, I’ve been writing articles and guest blog posts this week, pieces that I hope will keep the message positive. I’d love to have a successful book, but success can be judged in different ways. For an island, it’s keeping its character and still drawing tourists. For me, it’s when readers ‘get’ the book, when people see it as a message of hope, of making the most of life (because life is too short not to reach out for what makes you happy), of finding beauty in the simplest moments.
PS: I was down in Livadia last week one sunny lunchtime and talking with Lyn and Ian, and the dog was learning that cats don’t always play fair. Vassilis came over and asked the dog’s name. Lisa, I replied.
‘What, you call your dog rabies?’
It turns out leeza is how her name should be pronounced, not leessa, which does indeed mean rabies. Just as I was confused when it sounded like Stelios had been mending a leaky boat with pizza he found washed up on a beach; pissa is tar.