Sunday, 17 March 2013

Success can be judged in different ways


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. 





Sunday, 3 March 2013

Dog Class on the Diagoras

The Greeks are not known as a nation of dog-lovers, but we met a whole lot of them on Friday. 

It was time to take Lisa the labrador pup to the vet for her check-up. We were down at the port by 6 a.m., but the good ship Diagoras was delayed on its long journey from Athens, and daylight arrived while we waited.

It had been an exciting week, as my book Falling in Honey is now out, and the Daily Express published a fabulous story about my move to Tilos. I was thrilled by the support of friends who helped spread the word online. But it was good to leave the computer behind for the day. I'd be spending an entire day, from dawn til midnight, with the dog. And I thought writing a book was hard work...

 

Lisa took to her first cruise quite happily - naturally, as she was a star from the moment we went up the escalators; the ship's crew were already blowing kisses at her. Up on the top deck, the only section where dogs are allowed, one of them took photos. We also met plenty of other travellers who asked to stroke her and told us about their own dogs. A little boy from Nisyros asked if he could take her for a walk around the deck. 

 
Once in Rhodes, we went to the vet, who gave her inoculations; we bought a hefty supply of bones and chews at the shop; then it was off to explore. First stop, the old town, full of interesting smells for dogs - not a fast walk, then. 

We made it at last to Mandraki where I managed to shop while balancing a wriggling dog in my arms. I didn't think we'd be allowed into the smart cosmetics shop Sephora, but we almost weren't allowed to leave, so many people wanted to get to know her - giggling teenagers, pretty beauticians, the security guy. Stelios called: could I buy some screws so he could finish building the dog's new house? Of course...

I'd planned to walk her on Elli beach, but had forgotten what a long way it was, especially when we had to stop every few minutes to discuss her breed, find out where we got her. Finally, after carrying bags of shopping and an exhausted pup, I sat down on a step on a street corner with her to give her a drink and a rest, and sitting there in my hairy dog-clothes I realised people might start throwing spare change into the dog bowl. I was too tired to care.



I love Rhodes on a sunny day out of season, when you can see snow on the mountains in Turkey. We ventured back through the old town and found this lovely street, which gets packed with tourists in summer, absolutely empty now and bathed in sunshine. Exhausted, I lay down on a bench doing my homeless person act again, with the sun on my face, while Lisa devoured a chew; but soon we had company again. 

It was a pleasure to meet so many nice people. I usually have my nose buried in a book. An elegant old lady in black was taking a walk down a cobbled street and chuckled at Lisa.

The ship was due to leave Rhodes for Tilos at 7 p.m., but knowing it's often delayed, I hoped to find a friendly cafe. The Technourgeio Cafe is one of my favourite places for its recycled wood decor, art on the walls and eclectic menu. It just happens to look out towards where the Diagoras docks, so it's the perfect place to wait. I hesitantly carried Lisa in my arms, asking if there was any chance we could come in...



The waitress gave me a welcoming smile and told me she loved dogs, and to sit anywhere. So I got to eat, and Lisa got to sleep for a while... until we met a lovely seven year old girl who laughed when Lisa licked her face, and told me tricks I need to teach her.



Finally, it was back to the boat, to try to get a little rest up on deck. Lisa had behaved impeccably all day. Soon we were chatting with a couple of guys on leave from military service, and being introduced to beautiful huskies and other dogs with booming barks. 

It was getting cold so we found a little spot just inside the door at the top of the stairs. Lisa spread herself out right in the middle so that all passers-by would be sure to see her. 

We sat for a while with a young chap who'd just lost his job as a mechanic in Rhodes due to lack of business, and was heading up to northern Greece to live with his girlfriend there, grow some vegetables and start a different life. His parents in Kalymnos would be coming down to see the boat when it docked at 4 a.m., just to see him for a few minutes. As he talked, he stroked Lisa to sleep.

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And in case you missed it, here's the link to the Daily Express story!
http://www.express.co.uk/life-style/travel/380464/I-am-a-real-life-Shirley-Valentine