Monday, 25 August 2014

A Walk to Plaka

Everything was packed and organised. Plaka was where I'd decided to spend 12 July, my last day in Tilos for months. I set out with Lisa in late morning. Walking by Elpida, the taverna by the sea where the road turns one way to Ayios Andonis, the other to Plaka, on impulse I stopped and bought dolmades se paketo to take to the beach for lunch. The clouds that had kept the day cool seemed to be clearing, and I might want to linger by the sea.
The dolmades were warm as I wrapped them up and tucked them in my backpack. Sotiris, the taverna owner, sat down again on the terrace and asked about Yianni, when he was coming back from Australia. Not yet, I said. His mother needs him. But he wants to come back. I asked Sotiri to fill up my water bottle, needing enough for Lisa and me for the day.
The walk was beautiful; though it’s a road, not a footpath, there are hardly ever any cars. I kept Lisa on the lead so she couldn’t chase the goats. We passed the little monastery of Kamariani, where back at the start of the year I had arranged to meet Ian – known to locals as Yianni – for a walk to Plaka.
After eight years in Tilos, he had to leave, he said, as his 82-year-old mum needed help. He would go at the end of January. We’d been friends since I arrived on the island but never close – strangely, as we both loved writing and books and walking. Until recently, I'd assumed the 'S' he wrote about in his blog was still his girlfriend; and on the other side of the mountain I'd been with my own S, though quietly I'd felt it wasn't to last.

In the final days before he left, realising there might be something more between us, we got to know one another, walking to some of our favourite places in the hills and swimming in ice-cold sea together. And now, six months later, I was leaving Tilos too for a while. Why would anyone leave Tilos in the summer to go to Australia in the winter? For love, of course.

When Lisa and I reached the top of the track that leads down to Plaka beach, the sea looked clear and blue and perfect. I let her off the lead so she could run to the sea to cool off.
There'd been a fire at Plaka just a week before. My mum had been staying with me, and we’d seen the plume of smoke rising from the side of the mountain one day as we returned home. They’d managed to put it out quickly, dropping seawater from above, though that night we’d seen the red lights of the helipad still illuminated.
Now I made my way slowly down the rough track, surveying the fire damage. A large area of the park was charred to dark grey. The peacocks, I'd heard, had all survived. When I looked up from the beach, there was still a view of trees and green hillsides, but when I swam out into the sea, large blackened sections of ground were visible. It would probably take the winter rains to start things growing again.

People used fire sometimes to help things grow better, didn’t they? What can seem terrible damage one day… like what I’d done at the end of January… that was for the best, I hoped.

Along the beach was a scattering of hippyish Greek holidaymakers. I walked farther around to my favourite place, and found Lisa some shade to sleep in. I swam underwater over the posidonia, the sea grass that sustains so much sea life, as it flowed back and forth with the waves. Using Dimitris’ old mask, which his family gave me, I got up close to some of the fish: a skaros below me tilted its body a little to look up, then spotted me and shot away; a yermanos, mottled grey and white and black, had ferocious spines sticking up from its back although it was only half the length of my hand. I touched bright orange-red anemones and swam into shoals of tiny fish, and watched groups of others as pale and uniform as the Christian ichthus.
As Lisa and I walked back across the beach, peacocks stalked the sand, moving their heads back and forth under delicate tiaras. A couple of them flew up onto the crumbling gateposts as if pretending to be ornamental; then they stared at one another, and leaped down into the park.
I considered what I love about Tilos: it’s rugged, wild, vibrantly colourful, diverse and yet empty, like living in a national park. Yet it’s small enough to get to know intimately, to see how the view changes from season to season, from morning to evening or depending on the way the wind’s blowing. It’s uninhabited enough – except for its roaming animals and underwater life – that you can believe it’s your own.

Those last few days had been intense, with many powerful emotions coursing through me. But it was time to leave and continue getting to know the man who also loved this place in very similar ways, who loved being alone in the emptiest parts of the island and who also cried to leave it. At these times when I felt utterly in love with my surroundings, he was the only person I could really imagine walking and swimming with.
After I got back to Megalo Horio, I went to say goodbye to my landlord, Antoni, and he told me he wanted to keep the house for me when I returned, and that I should pass on his greetings to Yianni. As I walked up the hill, Vasiliki was at Kali Kardia and Lisa attacked her with love, holding her face in her front paws. Vasiliki said she’d make sure Lisa got to spend some time at their house over the summer with their dog Freddie. I couldn't take her with me, but she'd be happy at home with Stelios in Tilos.

Nikos and Rena were sitting outside the supermarket. ‘I’m leaving tomorrow,’ I said, and Nikos nodded to Rena, who went inside and came back, smiling, with the aluminium bottle that Nikos had asked me to take to Yianni. Ouzo. Nikos never tired of telling me how Yianni would hike up to the monastery in the rain or swim all the way across Ayios Andonis bay. ‘Tell him to come back sooner!’

I sat on my terrace looking out at the dark with a glass of wine, listening to the footsteps of people passing through the alley in front of the house, Lisa growling or barking at a person or a cat from time to time. I hadn't managed to see Michaelia before leaving; like so many people in Megalo Horio, she has relatives in Australia. 

When Lisa and I arrived at Kali Kardia, it was busy with people from the village and for a while Maria sat down with me, pretending to be a customer so she could get off her feet. Michalis and Vasiliki invited me to join their table but understood when I said I wanted to sit alone tonight. Lisa had picked up on my mood and sat quietly, looking out over the balcony. When it was time to go, everyone wished me a good journey to Australia and sent ‘many, many greetings to Yianni’.

‘We are waiting for you!’ they shouted and waved goodbye as we walked up into the village. 

So now, for a little while, ‘an octopus in my ouzo’ is based in Oz – as is that other Tilos blog, ‘when the wine is bitter’ – writing about Tilos and listening to Greek songs... I hope both will be back in Greece before too long.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Courage to Lose Sight of the Shore

This may be a little hard to follow. Bear with me. In the long run, I hope things will be clearer.

My friend Fran, who once went to Crete for a holiday and stayed for ten years, wrote: ‘We must always trust and follow our hearts. It can take us to some very happy places.’

This year for me has so far been full of adventure, which is what I hoped for, after two years when – in spite of being in a place I love, living my dream life – I spent too much time having to be cautious as I fell pregnant and miscarried and then did IVF and, in spite of everything looking apparently excellent, didn’t get pregnant at all. I’d had enough of doctors and hospitals for a while.

People ask from time to time how Falling in Honey ‘ended’, and the answer is that it didn’t. The media, for whose interest I was certainly very grateful, wanted a story that ended with me ‘finally finding true love’. But my life is messier and more complex than newspaper stories (as if you didn’t know that). Most lives probably are.

There was an Epiphany on the sixth of January. There was happiness and there was sadness. Then, after saying I wasn’t going to Australia, I went to Australia for six weeks to try things out. I returned to Tilos for six weeks to pack up ready to fly back to Australia, with the plan that I’d stay until next year.

It wasn’t so easy. I almost couldn’t leave Tilos. I knew it was only temporary, but it was harder than I’d expected to cut ties for a while with the place that has been such a reliable source of happiness.

Someone wrote me a kind message about my book around that time, and wished me ‘smooth sailing’ and blessings on life’s journey. Then I saw on her website she had a quote from Andre Gide: ‘Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.’

I booked my ticket. Greece would still be waiting when I returned. Lisa would be fine in my absence.

Michaelia asked one morning how I was, and I replied I was very well, but a little sad because I was leaving. ‘Look,’ she said. ‘If you’re just going to Australia for a holiday, then don’t go. But if you’re going for something more serious,’ which she knew I was, ‘why not?’

Knowing I’d be gone for a while intensified my feelings for Tilos, brought them into focus. For the last week, I gave up trying to work and simply made the most of every single day, walking as far as I could. I slept outside on a mattress on the terrace, under the stars. Crows woke me at dawn. I drank fresh lemonade made from the lemons that fell off the tree every day. The kitchen smelled of melon. There were beach days and taverna nights.

Up early one morning – though Lisa had woken me during the night cracking bones between her teeth, then padding over to my mattress to lick me through the mosquito net – I drove us down to Livadia for 7 a.m., picked up breakfast at the bakery then walked to Tholos for a blissful couple of hours on the dark sand alone. The swimming was wonderful. It was hot work going back up the hill just before midday. Back home, I ate cold melon then fell asleep.

That evening, we walked to Ayios Andonis in the evening. I watched the beautiful golden sun set behind the island, then started walking to the harbour, and a red sliver of sun came into view again and I had a second chance to watch it set. Stopped for a drink and a chat by the sea, and when I got up to leave, a bank of fog was spreading over the island. After the intense heat of the day, it was delicious to walk home through damp cloud.

The following afternoon was my first ever walk to Agriosykia. I was determined to do as much as I could. Long, tough walks, swimming at my favourite places... 


...and if Michaelis invited me to help pick watermelons at 7.30 a.m. one morning, that's what I'd do.

‘I catch, I no catch? Because I don’ know exackly.’

Michaelis was shuffling around the field of watermelons, a roll-up in his mouth, his shoulders hunched. With baggy shorts falling off his hips, he peered at melons twice the size of his head, trying to determine which ones were white enough to be sweet.

‘I no wan’ catch if no ready. Where is Grigoris? He go somewhere with the goats.’ The Norwegians who just moved to Megalo Horio were getting married and needed watermelons for the meal, and their friend Michaelis had arranged to buy them from Grigoris the farmer. After a drink with them at Kali Kardia the previous evening, I was invited along. But there was no sign of Grigoris and he wasn’t picking up his phone. Finally, after we’d stacked half a dozen watermelons, Michaelis called Sofia, Grigoris’ wife, at the kafeneion. He hung up the phone and cursed.

‘Grigoris drink coffee!’

We picked another half dozen and carried them to the gate, covering them with tarps so the crows didn’t eat them. I picked up a rock to hold the tarp in place and Michaelis told me to be careful of scorpions. I walked back, taking a look inside the little church of St George that I’d never really looked at before behind the football field, with ancient marble columns worked into the bricks. As I walked back through the village, I noticed almonds drying on a table in a courtyard on the way up to my house. Those last days, I wasn’t just learning how much I loved Tilos, but the pleasure of making the most of every day.