Thursday, 6 December 2018

Bad Timing

The wind and waves pounded Ayios Antonis all night. I closed the shutters at the front of the house, and let a lively wind blow fresh air through a small high window that looks west to the vine. Winter weather seems to have come early – a rainstorm (kataigitha) with thunder and lightning last week and now a windstorm (fortuna) with winds up to 8 Beaufort, 90 mph. But it wasn’t cold under the duvet, and I enjoyed watching morning patches of sunlight glow from the back window to the east, while the occasional blue showed ahead.
Thankfully Yiannis had managed to finish installing my solar-powered water heater on the roof yesterday. His work is being tested today as the fortuna blows white foam from the waves across the fields. In the harbour, someone was rescuing a submerged boat, said the other Yiannis as he arrived at the house. He, Lisa and I walked inland, enjoying a morning volta among green fields and grazing goats. We had to make a visit to the post office, borrowing Edward’s car to get the job done faster.

Sunlight dappled the hilltops as we drove across the island. Edward had asked us to put some petrol in as the venzinadiko would be closed for the next ten days, and sure enough, men were digging up the forecourt – to replace the lines, said Zafeiris – and vehicles gathering to stock up with fuel. Michalis, wearing his woolly hat as always though surprisingly with no cigarette between clamped lips, was carrying two big containers to keep his fishing boat topped up.
The owner of the car in front of me was an army officer in full dress uniform. I remembered as I drove down the hill that it was the festival of St Nicholas – the patron saint of fishermen, and the saint to whom the main church in Livadia is dedicated. Eleftheria had mentioned she’d been making a cake to take to the celebration yesterday on the eve of the festival at the little church at Plaka.
Sure enough, people were out and about around the square, dressed up and on their way back from church, some sitting having coffee at Yorgos’ kafeneion, some filling the tables at Roula’s. One of the port policemen crossed our path wearing a white peaked cap, and Pantelis was nattily dressed in a blue suit and a blue striped jumper. It was clearly a big day.
At the post office, three parcels awaited us. Merkouris popped in to ask Savvas the postmaster to do him a favour, kissing him on the forehead cheekily. A lady from the village commented that Savvas was all neatly barbered – it had been his name day the day before. Papa Manolis, the priest of Megalo Horio, was there.
Yiannis asked him, ‘How are you?’ In Greek this is literally, ‘What are you doing?’
The answer came as the usual, ‘What can I do? I’m here!’
‘It’s winter,’ Yiannis commented, eliciting mockery.
‘Are you cold?!’ There is usually good-natured banter between Yiannis and the local men, each side pretending they’ve walked a higher mountain that day. ‘How far did you swim today? How many fish did you catch?’
The weather seems to think it’s winter, though. When Yiannis asked when the next post would come, as he was waiting for a letter, Savvas replied with his dry smile, ‘Only God knows. Only God knows when the boat will come!’
Vegetable supplies at (other) Yiannis’ supermarket were dwindling, the last delivery of produce past its best. Panayiotis at the supermarket next door said he hadn’t yet prepared any octopus for me, as the weather hadn’t been calm enough to go out in his little boat, his varka. ‘I can’t go out in the big fishing boat any more, I’m seventy years old! Let the young ones fish now.’ But he would certainly be dancing later in the square for the St Nicholas celebrations.
The flames of a barbecue had already been lit in the square, although it would likely be quite a few hours before the music began. It still seemed a shame to be driving back across the island – Antonis shouted out to Yianni as we drove past, ‘Come and dance!’ – but work has to be done. We’d timed our visit to Livadia wrong. Still, I love the fact that the islanders keep and enjoy their celebrations.

Chatting with Yianni the electrician as he worked on my house this week, he told me that even when he and his family returned to the island from America in the eighties, Tilos was more village-y. If they had to go to Plaka, it was quite a journey and they’d stay there while they looked after their animals or fields, not like today when it’s five minutes in the truck. If someone needed a house, all their relatives would get together and build them a house with their hands, out of stone. These are the things I’ve been researching for my next book. Not just on Tilos but across the Dodecanese, I’m looking at how life changed dramatically over the last century – even half a century – but also looking for traditions that survived.
This house that’s now my home evolved over the last half-century. Pantelis and Sophia built and cared for their home and planted olives and figs and grapes in the garden. Their children moved away, and gradually they did too, and the house had been more or less abandoned for at least five years. Everything had been left as if they hoped to come back. It’s good to be caring for the house again, with friends and family helping.
Just a week ago, I celebrated my birthday with a swim in the sea – just as a huge thunderstorm brought a deluge of rain, and my mum sheltered in a cave on the beach with Lisa as the water poured over the edge. We sat around the kitchen table that evening and then danced around the table in our own way. The next day, we ate fresh fish caught so close to the house that we could listen to the fishermen on the boat.
Today, it’s a good day for fishermen to be safely in harbour. The gale-force winds are a good excuse for me not to be outside fixing holes in the wall, but instead running around Ayios Antonis dodging sea-foam and taking pictures…

Saturday, 13 October 2018

An Island Home

When I returned to Tilos in August 2017, after my short trip to Olympos in the north of Karpathos turned into a year and a half, I rented a studio near the sea where I could listen to the waves. The experience and inspiration of my time in Karpathos had been invaluable, but I needed a base. And however much I loved Karpathos, Tilos felt like my real home.

In December, I broached the subject with my parents of giving up the flat I owned in England in order to buy a place here. I’d been happy to rent for years, but it felt time to have a place of my own again. Giving up the security of property in England would be a big step, but my parents fully supported the idea. And so, in January, I put my Chichester flat on the market. I’d been told a few years earlier that it hadn’t increased much in value since I bought it over ten years ago, and I had a sizeable mortgage, but I’d see what money I could raise.

An offer came in and I nervously declined, hoping my estate agent Tom knew what he was doing, and then a better offer came in. I was on the island of Nisyros in late February, staying in a half-deserted village and going on long walks every day with my dog Lisa, when the deal was done and I celebrated with a raki. Then Lisa and I travelled to England and by the time we returned in late April, the sale was complete and I enjoyed looking at my bank account and temporarily feeling very rich.

Very busy with writing and editing work, I wasn’t able to start looking at houses properly until June. Since there’s no longer an estate agent’s office on Tilos, I decided the way to find out what was for sale was to tell everyone I know on the island. Soon, everyone was telling me about properties for sale.

I pretty much liked everything I saw, from the old houses that were cheap but needed a lot of structural work, to those that were ready to move into but more expensive. Most were old properties in Megalo Horio, up little alleyways that are picturesque but impossible to drive building materials to. A builder told me, only half-joking, that replacing a roof and repairing some walls would take two years. I wasn’t sure I wanted the frustrations and rising costs of a building project.

I’d almost decided on borrowing money to buy a beautifully restored old house in the village, though I was wary about having neighbours very close. And then one day when I stopped on the road to Eristos to buy vegetables from Michali, he said:

‘Are you still looking for a house? My relative has the keys to a nice place for not too much money at Ayios Antonis.’

It had just gone on the market, and was close to the sea in the north of the island. I got the keys and went to take a look. It was in an overgrown garden, hidden behind trees; not big, but not too small. The owners were an old couple who used to live there but had moved to Athens to be close to the children and to hospitals. I spoke to the man, Pantelis, on the phone. He had built the place himself. The house inside looked well cared for, although it had been closed up for five years. Goats had broken through the fence and eaten what they could in the garden, but the figs and grapes were good and there was bougainvillaea.
A friend in Megalo Horio gave me the number of her lawyer. I needed to check the legalities. I didn’t want to get too excited, but I loved the views of mountains and sea. The sound of the waves, the feeling of space. The lawyer and the surveyor worked on things...

In late summer, Michalis asked me, ‘What happened with the house that’s for sale?’

‘It’s not for sale,’ I said. Then I smiled. ‘Because I’ve bought it.’ Well, almost.

There was still paperwork to do. In September, I suddenly had to acquire a Greek bank account and transfer large sums of money. I’d hesitated, worried there would be another Greek financial crisis... At first I was told I didn’t have the necessary paperwork to open a Greek bank account. But then the lawyer, Maria, spoke to the bank and suddenly it was possible.

I was told to hurry over to Rhodes for the signing of the contract, only to find that we were still missing a piece of paper. But it wouldn’t be Greece if it went smoothly. ‘We are waiting for the bureaucracy,’ said the lawyer Maria and her assistant Maria. Everyone – the bank manager, the notary – had been exceptionally nice and helpful and down to earth.

Then last Sunday, I went over to Rhodes again, assured that everything was now in place. There was a bit of a panic at the bank. Thanks to capital controls, a suitably absurd conundrum exists whereby a large bank draft cannot be issued without a contract proving it’s for the purchase of a house; but a contract for the purchase of a house cannot be signed without the presence of said large bank draft. Everyone in the bank was very nice but they kept passing the responsibility for this problem from one to another like basketball players.

‘But other people buy houses,’ I said.

‘Not many, recently,’ said Maria. But she somehow got it done. And in the meantime we drew up a civil agreement detailing the items that would stay in the house.

I arrived at Maria's office to sign the contract on Tuesday with a box of chocolates as a gift for the two miracle-working Marias, and was humbled when she handed me a beautiful painting, the masterful work of her art class teacher.

‘A gift for your new house,’ she said.

Pantelis’ daughter was there, and the notary read the contract to us and we signed. A few days later, I am in Tilos, the owner of a house by the sea.