Friday, 11 December 2015

My First Greek Island Christmas

Welcome to a special post where I have the opportunity to introduce five other Greek biased bloggers via a Christmas ‘blog hop’. First up is a taster of the story I’ll be telling in my upcoming book, An Octopus in My Ouzo; at the end you’ll find links to the other blog posts which go live at the same time – so enjoy, comment and in the true Christmas spirit, share with family and friends! Here’s My First Greek Island Christmas…
At dusk, a man was scaling a huge fish on the road through the village; a couple of ladies sat on a terrace sorting vegetables; a little boy was out walking alone. Low voices could be heard from the kafeneion, and conversations from houses carried into the curving, whitewashed alleys. December 2011 was my first living on the island of Tilos.
There was none of the fuss that too often goes with Christmas, no spending frenzy, no sales – the two village shops in Megalo Horio were exactly the same as all year round, and mercifully without Christmas tunes. The only signs of the approach of Christmas were at the entrance to the village: a string of simple white stars strung over the road and the white outline of a boat with the words Khronia Polla – the exhortation ‘many years’, like ‘many happy returns’.
It had been the gentlest of Decembers; warm enough to swim in the sea and yet cool enough to be perfect for walking – no need to carry water, and I could cut across country and head for the hills, spotting yellow crocus and mauve colchicums. I felt very lucky to be here for the winter. For my last swim of the year in mid-December, I walked to the beach and little fish leaped out of the sea. By three in the afternoon, the shadow of the hillside was creeping over; as I returned home at four, the sun was just going behind the mountain. Pavlos arrived soon after on his little scooter, switched it off and lit up his cigarette.
Iremia,’ he said, appreciating the peace and quiet. He put his hands in his jacket pockets and, like a magician, pulled out four fresh eggs.
I would love a quiet Christmas here, I thought, but it would have to wait for another year. On Christmas Day in London, I met my ten-year-old cousin for the first time. She grew up on a farm, and I recognised that she was bored stuck in the house all day surrounded by adults. So I walked with her down to the river where we watched the geese and the swans, and she climbed on railings and ran down the muddy path, and I told her about the magical island where I now lived. 
By December 2012, I was feeling more and more at home on Tilos. One day old Hippocrates, who seemed gruff at first, stopped his ancient moped to offer me a lift to the village. It felt like a breakthrough though I declined, not sure the moped would survive.
Thinking about our upcoming trip to England for Christmas, Stelios and I laughed as we had ‘fish and chips’ for dinner. Much as I love English fish and chips, I was very happy for my South Aegean version to be fresh fish caught that morning, potatoes newly dug from the garden, both fried in local olive oil with local lemon squeezed on top and oregano from the fields around the house. I made mulled wine with thyme honey and orange from the island, cinnamon and cloves.  
In Megalo Horio, the bougainvillaea was heavy with magenta flowers. This last month the island had been more beautiful than I’d ever seen it, the light so clear. On a sunny afternoon at Ayios Andonis, looking across to the island of Nisyros you could practically see what they were having for dinner up in the village on the rim of the caldera. From my house, looking down the Eristos valley, the island of Karpathos was often visible on the horizon like a rock rising from mist.
On the last day before we left in mid-December, the bay at Eristos was bright silver in warm sunshine and, as I had my last swim of the year on an empty beach, I thought how hard it was to leave. The next day Remezzo, the café at the ferry dock, was a bustling mix of those leaving and those staying, kisses goodbye. The big ferry arrived and on deck I watched the blue and silver seascape.
A summer of speaking English with customers at his kantina on the beach had given Stelios confidence and he charmed my friends and family, but he found the weather in England grey and the society too restrictive – he couldn’t smoke anywhere he wanted. He had brought a plastic water bottle of souma, the strong local spirit, to contribute to our family Christmas lunch in London. Everyone politely declined, preferring to drink champagne as they bantered merrily, but he continued to thrust the slightly grubby-looking bottle at them oblivious, enjoying himself.

In December 2013, for difficult reasons, I finally found an excuse to remain on Tilos for my first Greek island Christmas. I would have Christmas Day on the island for the first time, walking our dog in the wind and sun, high on hilltops. 
I made a simple festive decoration for the fireplace from greenery gathered in the valley, and from the bakery Stelios bought melomacarona, honey cakes, and kourabiedes, shortbread dusted in sugar. I spent the cold evenings as I always wanted, reading books in front of the fire. Village kids came around to the house on Christmas Eve to sing carols off-key. Tha ta poumeh?
A little international group of friends met that night at the taverna in the village, Kali Kardia – the ‘good heart’. I learned that Santa comes on New Year's Eve in Greece, not Christmas Eve. Well of course – he can't be everywhere at once, can he? New Year’s Eve saw us with the same group of friends, eating and drinking and talking at a house by the harbour. As the evening progressed, Stelios kept looking at the clock, as anything after ten seemed late when he was back to a routine of fishing at dawn. So there was no danger of missing midnight – though we might have otherwise, with no television, no mobile phone reception, no other people about. To welcome in the New Year, we took our glasses outside in the dark, stood on the end of the jetty at the end of the island and looked up at the thousands of bright stars.
If you'd like to visit more blogs celebrating Greek Christmas themes, then take a hop through the list below – I’m excited about reading them myself! If you could leave a comment on one or more of the blogs, we’ll all be delighted.

Sugared Almond Biscuits (Κουραμπιέδες) by Amanda Bidirni

Kritsa Christmas by Yvonne Payne



Christmas Stock In by Richard Stevens



Thursday, 3 December 2015

Neighbours

It often strikes me how intimately we live among our few neighbours here in Megalo Horio – laughing to myself at the sounds (some not so pleasant) that distinguish one person from another as they pass down the narrow alley in front of my house. The young children play outside, Michaelia stops by for chat and Irini calls good morning through my office window. But I’m rarely bothered by my neighbours because the houses on either side are empty. One, like so many in the village, is abandoned, the other well-kept by someone who only visits for a couple of weeks a year. I enjoy the privacy of not being overlooked and not overlooking anyone else; not having to listen to anyone else’s noise or worry about my own. So I was surprised the other day when I went outside to find out why Lisa was barking, and found not a cat but Kostas the Cretan sitting on the upstairs wall.
We were pleased to see one another; I missed his visit last year, but remember a convivial evening at his house with Menelaos the year before. Kostas comes here for a holiday so he spent his first afternoon outside in the sunshine, talking to friends on his phone, opening up the house. And when he comes here he likes to invite friends over and party. He and Menelaos and other men were engaged yesterday in a rowdy discussion over glasses of raki from late morning. When he offered me a glass, I declined, saying I had work to do, though by then I’d actually finished my work and was ready to go for a walk. A raki might have been just the thing, I realised too late, remembering that I walked the Samaria Gorge after having raki and chestnuts for breakfast. Still, I avoided the men later in the dark of the evening when they called out to me and I realised they were still on the booze. I retreated into my kitchen and kept a low profile.
At least in the winter you can go inside. In the summer when it’s so hot I have to sleep outside on my terrace, I’ve cursed neighbours of various nationalities for their late-night parties when I have to work the next day, and have gone to bed thinking I must move away from the village again, back to somewhere remote surrounded by fields and animals. Lisa loves living in the village because of all the activity. The problem is that she has a habit of barking not only at potential intruders, but also at her favourite people. She likes attention and is worried they may go by without stroking her unless she makes a fuss. Then I have to shout at her to be quiet. The neighbours must curse me too.
The wind is wild this morning outside my cosy kitchen where I’m drinking my Greek coffee. Outside, the sky is blue and bright; usually by lunchtime the sun is warm and I’m ready for a walk and a swim, but sometimes the wind whips up the sea into crashing waves. Yesterday evening it turned seriously cold after dark, and when I hurried to the shop for a few supplies, the usual trio of villagers who sit outside at the table were being invited to set up their chairs inside instead. Nikos L. sat down holding his stick in front of him and garbled something about summer, erupting in a scale of laughter. The only fresh vegetables were carrots and tomatoes, but down at Eristos yesterday I was excited to see one of the farmers had fresh potatoes and spinach in the back of his truck.
The day could not have been more perfect for a walk, a quick swim and a birthday feast last weekend. I'd been too caught up with an important piece of work to organise anything beforehand for friends. Thanks to Yianni (aka John Ageos) for keeping me away from my computer, for coffee and a walk above the monastery, the fish barbecue and the birthday cake and the photos of me and Lisa.