Sunday, 10 February 2019

Last Day in Astypalea

The cheese man isn’t there. Maybe because it's Saturday, although a few days ago at the cafĂ© he said, ‘Any day, just come here at ten.’ The door of the kafeneio is padlocked, and on a table by the door are some remains from the night before, I guess: a glass, a bottle and a cigarette lighter.

A few evenings before, I ate a delicious saganaki here, local cheese lightly pan-fried. Panayiotis the owner, wearing leather boots, his black beard knotted under his chin, asked if I liked it and said if I wanted to buy some, he could call the man who makes it.

‘What I’d really like,’ I said, ‘is to go to where he makes it and see how it’s done. But I don’t know if that would be possible.’

The kafeneio in Maltezana was in ruins until Panayiotis decided to fix it up. Panayiotis' father was from Astypalea but like many families from the island they lived in Athens. Panayiotis grew up in the city and did building work, but there wasn't much going on with the economic crisis so ten years ago he came here and restored this kafeneio. He kept the original stone building from 1956 but added his touch of colour. The fishing and farming village has only eighty permanent residents, though plenty of tourists stay here in the summer. In February it is calm and sleepy. A guy came in for a coffee. A woman played with her phone. The dogs sniffed around, looking for food and attention. 
As I was finishing the salad of tomatoes and paximadia with lots of oregano and olive oil, a large man in a rain jacket walked in and sat by the wood-burning stove with a beer, and Panayiotis said, ‘This is the man who makes the cheese.’

The cheese man was talkative and full of stories, like a lot of the people I've met here. He used to work on boats, but since retiring from that he raises sheep and goats, and he makes cheese regularly from Easter onwards, though just in small quantities at this time of year when the animals need their milk to feed their young. The fresh, unaged cheese is called klori. He keeps about five hundred animals.

‘We had a big problem when it didn’t rain for the last three years.’ Without rain, there’s no grass and they have to buy feed. This year there’d been plenty of rain, and clear streams were flowing down the hillsides into the dam. ‘There are twelve and a half thousand animals on the island,’ he said. ‘They mostly belong to the church. But there are farms with animals all over the island.’ He reeled off a list of places. Astypalea is a small island with only three villages; most of these places are in the hills. 

It's a beautiful day and perhaps it would be a shame to be indoors all day watching milk boil. Maybe he’s out on a fishing boat instead, catching calamari… Since the kafeneio is closed, I have a coffee at the taverna overlooking the sea instead. I can make the most of the sunshine and go for a walk and maybe a swim. Just along the coast there are fishing boats, a church with a dovecote, a path covered in mauve, purple and blue flowers, and the remains of a mosaic floor from the fifth century AD, the late Roman/early Christian era. It’s only my second trip to the island; maybe next time, I’ll catch up again with the cheese man.

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…