Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Lambri Triti in Olympos, Karpathos

The biggest day of Easter in Olympos is Lambri Triti, Bright Tuesday. In the morning, the bells start to ring and a few men carry the large icons out of the church and around the village, stopping at different chapels with the priest before gradually making their way down to the cemetery. There, he'll bless the family graves. The women wear their best traditional dress, bright stiff skirts and puffy sleeves in an almost Elizabethan style with much sparkling trim; it's a striking scene, a big draw for photographers. Last year, when I followed the procession I felt very conscious that we small group of tourists looked like scruffy papparazzi.

There again, as I said to Raymond from northern France yesterday evening, the locals take photographs of their cultural events just as much as the outsiders do. Raymond, carrying a fairly big camera, had been expressing similar concern about the number of photographers jostling for position. Yet all the village kafeneia have their walls covered in photos from years and decades past, a document of village life. There were mobile phones aplenty recording the musicians playing in the square, and at one point we laughed as a local young woman in full traditional dress held two mobile phones to record the proceedings – capturing footage of us in the process.

Last year, it had been too cold for the music to happen in the square in the evening – it was moved to a hall at the edge of the village and happened very late – so it was a treat to experience yesterday. In the afternoon someone was playing tsambouna, the goatskin bagpipe, in the Zografidis kafeneio. A little later, tables were set up outside and a small group of men old and young sang mantinades, improvised verses, to music played on laouto and lyra. Every now and then a fresh whisky bottle appeared on the table. The mantinades, the few I could understand, tended to be about how they appreciated one another’s company and how good it was to celebrate together.

Gradually more and more people gathered around the company to listen, as the sun went down and the night wore on. A cold wind blew off the sea and the mountain but the musicians were kept warm by the crowd gathered around, and perhaps the Johnny Walker. The men on the lyra and laouto were replaced by younger men, whose fingers never left the instruments - one of the nearby men placed cigarettes and cups of whisky to their lips. 
A few men and then women began to dance – less of a dance than a very slow shuffle around the table. More hours passed. Finally, after midnight, came the moment we’d all been waiting for, and everyone moved up the steps to the square in front of the church, where there was more room for everyone to join in the dancing.

The men who led the dance displayed some flamboyant leaps and moves. For most of the rest of the circle clasping hands, it was the same tiny, subtle, bouncy steps for what seemed like hour upon hour, though towards the end there was a break towards something livelier. Then the party broke up around 4 a.m., and the village went to sleep.

Check out photographs from last Lambri Triti by my friend Michael Pappas:

Monday, 17 April 2017

Happy Easter

Today’s been a lazy, quiet day, after a splendid Easter Sunday here at Ayios Minas – around a year since I first came here. 
In the last six weeks, much has happened. In March we spent a hot, sunny day in Avlona, Lisa and I walking the footpath from Olympos while Minas and his uncle trimmed their vines, then we all drove on to a valley beyond there to see the peonies.

One of the first guests of the year staying at our studios in Olympos arrived at the end of March just as a huge thunderstorm came with a deluge of rain. It knocked out the power temporarily, and left roads broken and covered in rockslides. I was amazed by the noise of streams rushing down the mountains in Olympos. The riverbed turned to a gushing river, which changed the colour of the sea. Gorgeous waterfalls appeared in the valley. When the sun came out again, the air was so clear and the light intense. Thankfully, Juliette had chance that week to sit in sunshine on the terrace.
Here down at Ayios Minas, the riverbed also turned into a river, the banks thick with flowers, bordered by fragrant pine trees and olive trees. Lisa loved the rock pools and I sat and listened with happiness to little temporary waterfalls. Thanks to all the rain this winter, the abundance of flowers has been breath-taking. So many flowers, different types every day in every colour in the lush green fields and deeper green hills.

In early April, we took the opportunity to visit some places in the south of the island where I’d not been yet, including Amoopi with its pretty pale sand beaches. 
Lately we’ve seen the occasional hoopoe, Bonelli’s eagle, peregrine or kestrel. One day, Lisa barked at something in the next field. We looked and there was what looked like a heron, but more colourful than the grey herons I'd seen before. It seemed tired and didn’t fly far. That day, I walked down to the beach for a swim, and I hadn’t got very far out when a fishing boat appeared around the headland. I thought it was probably passing but it turned into the bay, and lo and behold it was Stamatis, his first visit to us since September. He handed us a keep-net full of flapping menoula. We put some tables together and grilled the fish on the barbecue. It was another sign that summer’s almost here.
On Easter Saturday, I went up to Olympos with Minas, who was helping his uncle Nick for a few evenings at Geia Mas taverna. Immediately I arrived, I said hello to a French man and an English man sitting at a table and they invited me to drink some wine with them. They were visiting Olympos for the first time and had just met that evening in one of the other hostelries. We all got along, the evening flying by. We could hear traditional music coming from next door at Parthenon taverna, and see the people going into church, and hear the firecrackers, and when the service ended we went outside to greet friends with Christos Anesti.
Over the course of the evening we’d met a young woman from Athens who came in looking for a cigarette, and when she said she and her partner were off to Kafeneio Kriti to meet some other friends, Minas and I decided to join them to give Easter greetings to Archontoula and Philippas too. We all sat down to eat together.
Greeks are used to eating mayeiritsa on the night of Easter Saturday. A soup made with green vegetables and the intestines of the goat, it’s the first meat dish to break the fast of Lent, intended to prepare you for the goat feast the next day. But this was patsa, morsels of goat’s stomach cooked in an egg-and-lemon broth, and they nervously pushed bits of tripe around the plate. Something about seeing the city folk squirm – plus, to be fair, the large quantity of wine I’d drunk – made me dig in with gusto. Minas did too, and we found it pretty tasty. 
And so, after being up until 3 a.m. drinking wine and eating goat-stomach soup, I was feeling not quite at my best the next morning when we got up not long after 7 to start preparing for the day. But no matter. The weather couldn’t have been more beautiful: not a breeze or a cloud to bother the blue sky. I kneaded bread dough and left it to rise while Minas lit the charcoal and attached the whole goat to the spit. It had been slaughtered at the top of the valley a couple of nights earlier when he went to pick up the goat’s cheese. He’d made tzatziki and melitzanosalata, aubergine salad. We cleaned and organised, then relaxed as the meat roasted. I went to the beach for a swim, and the pebbles and sand were too hot to walk on – first time this year.
Lisa announced the first guests with some loud barking. Over the winter so few people come down to Ayios Minas, it’s handy to have a Distant Early Warning Signal when a vehicle appears. But yesterday, Lisa’s vocal cords and our ears were tested. Our Swiss visitors were walking down the track, and her barks accompanied them all the way.
By early afternoon, the sea was flat calm, and everyone seemed happy to enjoy the beach while waiting for the meat to be ready. After a long swim, I went for a walk up the riverbed and noticed the little yellow pom-poms of the overhanging trees had overnight been shed, leaving the ground dusted with gold, and to compensate, the yellow broom flowers were now smelling so sweet – I picked a few, and we decided to decorate the tables with them.

The food was ready just as the sun began to drop towards the hilltops, and everyone joined the tables together to eat.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Life on a Greek island (or two)

I’m sitting in my sunny corner of the taverna at Ayios Minas, listening to the birds. We stayed up late last night, dancing to music in our empty valley.
February brought some fierce, cold winds to these islands. One day, I set off boldly up the dirt track and was almost blown over as I turned the first corner, so I headed home again. But a week later it was calm and warm, and my work deadlines were easing up, and I decided to walk the loop: taking the first track a few kilometres uphill to the road, a little way along the road that follows the ridge, and then descending the second track a few kilometres back down to the valley.
‘I’ll come with you,’ said M.
I nearly fell over, and it wasn’t the wind this time. I explained where I was planning to walk and that it would take an hour or two.
‘Let’s take a bottle of water, then,’ he said.
M has been seriously bonding with Lisa. He looked after her for the weeks I was away in England over December and January. He’s trained her: if you say ‘Heri,’ she gives you her paw, and presents her other paw with ‘Allo heri.’ But I didn’t think M really did walking. I thought that was my department. Who knew?
When we reached the top, his cousin and aunt were in the pick-up truck on the roadside, looking for stray goats. M’s friend Pavlos would be at their place in Argoni on the other side of the ridge next day, where they keep goats and make cheese. We arranged to all meet there with his other cousin and uncle. 
And so the next day we went for another walk through the river bed with cousins Evgenia and Georgia, two of my best friends in Olympos. 

We didn’t have time to walk all the way to the sea – that would be next time. Instead, we returned to the house for a big lunch cooked by aunt Sophia, then we went outside to play with dogs and watch the sun setting.

A few days later, I was leaving Karpathos on the Preveli…
waking up in Halki… on a morning that was so warm I had to wear my shorts, and you could practically hear the locals whispering, 'A tourist!'...

… to catch the Dodecanese Express to Tilos.
When I came to Karpathos last year, I kept on renting the house with the lemon tree in Megalo Horio, and invited other visitors to stay there to cover my costs. But it was a lot of work, and a big expense over the winter, and it no longer seemed necessary to keep it on. So on Thursday and Friday I started packing up my things to send them to Karpathos, and cleaning the house to give it back to Antoni.
On Saturday morning, I called Yorgos, the man with the truck who ferried my boxes on the last stage of their journey from England to Tilos back in 2011. He asked how much stuff I was sending and if it would be leaving on the boat the next morning.
Avrio?!’ Of course, the Blue Star was the next morning, and Yorgos would need to put everything on his truck that evening. I had a mad, sweaty scramble to finish packing up. Ed and Eleftheria kindly supplied extra boxes. I had about twelve boxes, five chairs, two bookshelves, a big wooden table.
Costas from Crete, who owns the house next door and visits for only a few weeks a year, just happened to be around. He asked if I wanted help. I looked at him.
‘What?’ he asked.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘I’m not going to say no…’
So when Yorgos arrived, Costas brought his carotsa, his wheelbarrow, and my other neighbour Andreas came too, and the guys all ferried my stuff down the narrow alley to the big truck. Phew. I tried to give Costa something to buy a drink that evening, but he refused.
‘But you helped me so much,’ I said.
Eimaste anthropi,’ he said. We are people.
I ran into so many people, friends, over the next couple of days as I went to a few favourite places in between bouts of cleaning the house and giving things away. It was difficult. Tilos has meant a lot to me since I moved there in April 2011. But keeping on the house was cluttering my life in a way I didn't need, and life has changed in a good way since I came to Karpathos last April, and it’s time to embrace the next chapter.
My neighbour Michaelia was sad at first that I was letting the house go, but she understood when I explained and said, in her slightly scolding way, it would be good for me to settle down. Antonis said more pragmatically, ‘I know you’re an eleftheros anthropos,’ a free person, ‘and anytime you want to come back…’ Irini asked, more pragmatically still, for my pots of parsley. I had no time to see the apokries celebrations but there was fresh fish to eat, mayatiko, on two evenings; and even Eleftheria came out for a drink one night at Kali Kardia. On the Tuesday, in a free moment, I went inside the very old chapel overlooked by the house, which Michaelia keeps so beautifully, to see the frescoes.
I love that ramshackle old house, perhaps a bit more without all my junk in it. I sat there alone one night, thinking how wonderfully peaceful it was. Was it always that peaceful? Suddenly I remembered why I’d wanted to leave the house even before I came to Karpathos. I’d left Lisa with M this time – but if she’d been with me, she’d have been barking at every neighbour’s footfall and every passing cat. And Menelaos, if he’d been walking by clearing his throat, would have cursed at her as always… And I’d have been shouting at her and running up the steps to bring her inside.
Antonis and Ed both came to help me with the four bags and a box (king-sized duvet, clothes, stereo, kitchenware, books, paperwork…) I still had left over to take on the ferry. As Ed drove me down to the port, he must have rolled his eyes listening to me again saying, ‘What am I thinking, leaving Tilos?!’ We pulled up outside Remezzo, the bar on the port, to wait for the boat.
‘Vodka tonic,’ said Ed, and it seemed a good idea. I heard my name inside at the bar and as I went in, I saw a few usual suspects including lovely Pavlos the bus driver. We’d exchanged hellos over the last few days in Megalo Horio, but I guessed that maybe he’d forgotten my name, seeing me without Lisa, and he’d just said, ‘Yeia sou…’ This time, he remembered, and shouted out his habitual greeting for me:
Yeia sou Jennifer Lopez!’


Sunday, 5 February 2017

Listening to the Waves

This is a peaceful time of year; except for one or two stormy days, the weather has been calm since I returned from England two weeks ago. All evening, until I fall asleep, I can hear the waves coming in to shore. I love falling asleep to the sound of the waves, and waking up with the sun. More and more anemones, like mauve and pink poppies, are carpeting the path to the beach, and under the olive trees are lush green patches of clover with yellow Bermuda buttercups. 

There are few visitors to Ayios Minas valley at this time of year - just occasionally people come to look after their land, or their goats, or to hunt. Minas has been busy doing renovations to the taverna and occasionally going up to the villages to fix someone's fridge, returning with fresh goat's cheese or some interestingly fizzy pomegranate juice.

I've had three swims in the sea in the last fortnight. My editing and literary agency work has been so busy for the last few months, I've barely had time for anything else, but it's been good to have some exciting projects, and even better now that life is gradually getting back to normal. I celebrated this weekend by writing up notes from last summer, and making the most of spring-like weather today with a walk to Agnontia with Lisa.
It's an easy walk, just following the first track from Ayios Minas up towards the road to the signposted turnoff, then winding back down again to the valley. We had a very quick cool-off in the sea, scrambled up the headland to what turned out to be a hair-raising sheer cliff, then explored the riverbed and the little old houses before heading back. 

And now the clouds are pink in a dusky pale blue sky. And the only sound is the sea, and the hiss of the wood on the fire.