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.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Up to Megalo Horio

In late June, I leave the lovely apartment by the sea. The local children have now finished school, tourists pass up and down and it’s even warm enough for the Syrian refugee ladies to wade into the sea in their flowing black dresses. The vegetable trucks drive up and down selling watermelons. It’s charming but not conducive to work. I knew from the start that the owner needed the apartment for the summer, and I need to be somewhere quiet to write.

On a hot day I clean the apartment from top to bottom and then carry the last of my things to the bus – the new island taxi suddenly nowhere to be found and the rental cars all rented out. It takes me three trips but I manage. The bus is mercifully almost empty on its way up, though I’m sure it will fill with people at Eristos. The driver stops outside the place I’ll stay for most of July, one of the large, shady studios opposite the shop in Megalo Horio, the old village on the hill.

I’ve also rented a space in the centre of the village by the church and the kafeneio. Panayiotis’ father had it as a pantopoleio, selling rice and beans and sugar and so on. After he died, Panayiotis and his brothers rented it as an office to the municipality, but recently the office moved and it became available. It’s exquisitely located but has no bathroom so I can only keep things in it; perfect for allowing me to live clutter-free for the summer.

Leaving my bags for now, I walk across the upper footpath to Agios Antonis for a swim at the little beach by the harbour. Returning, I listen to the cicadas grow louder in the trees around my balcony, until dusk turns to dark and they are replaced by scops owls. I fall asleep with a light breeze blowing through the window. And the next day in early afternoon, I walk to my favourite beach. I haven’t been there for months.

The valley is vivid green with thyme and oleander and other bushy plants. There’s a north wind blowing across the flat deep blue sea, making the Turkish cape perfectly clear ahead. After a first swim across the bay I lie on my towel on the coarse pink sand, heat seeping into my back muscles, my heels burning; when my body gets too warm, flies force me back into the cold sapphire sea. It’s peaceful, secluded, private: one couple hidden in the cove around the rocks, the occasional ship passing out to sea.

I walk back to the village and to my surprise and delight spot a single, almost-ripe yellow fig among the still-hard green ones, pick and eat it, a taste of wild summer.