Saturday, 14 May 2011

The Birds and the Bees

There’s something about looking up at that ruined castle on top of the hill every day that just makes me feel like climbing up there on Monday. The route starts off proudly with shiny road signs pointing the way to the Ancient Settlement. I follow a steep road up the side of the village, past some beautiful homes, one of which has fresh goat skins drying on a washing line outside.

On a gate which is, like so many gates here, made of a few planks falling away from some wire fencing and fastened by another loop of wire, is a hand-written sign in sort of serial-killer scrawl saying ‘Kastro’ in three languages. We are unfailingly international here, if somewhat informal.

I was talking to my author friend Edward Enfield a few days ago, and because he is very interested in Greece, he asked me to send him a postcard. I explained there weren’t any postcards as such in my village, except in the Elephant Museum which isn’t always open. ‘But surely they sell postcards at this ruined castle you told me about!’ Edward protested. I think of him as I proceeded past where he imagines a kiosk and souvenir shop might be, picking my way through rocks and scrub.
The trail follows a vertiginous course and I’m soon admiring the views over the village of Megalo Horio below, and the area where I live called Potamies, the old riverbed, and far, far beyond. It passes a few of the overgrown, abandoned buildings of the former village, from back when the people needed to be close enough to the castle to retreat behind its walls in times of danger. A few times I have to look carefully to find the path, to see if I should scale this rock or push through the bushes and undergrowth.  I stop to take photos and get my breath back, and hear the brittle leaves of the drying bushes crackling in the sun.

About half an hour and those walls suddenly loom close, and I’m feeling the welcome breeze across the top, and looking down all the way to the sea, calm as a swimming pool down between Ayios Antoni and Plaka.  I can hear the sound of the waves coming in. The view is amazingly clear of the volcanic island of Nisyros with a white village perched on top of the caldera, and beyond, the tiny island where they mine the pumice, and beyond even that to the low end of Kos.

The entranceway and steps to the castle feel like they belong to the ancient acropolis which stood here once, with their big, smooth, white stones, though I’ve no idea if that’s true, and now the entrance is clearly used mostly by goats. The site was taken over in medieval times by the Knights of St John, hospitaller knights of the crusade, who probably built the tall walls of the citadel that are still so imposing. The Orthodox chapel in the middle is definitely given over to the goats, though faint traces of frescoes, perhaps a couple of hundred years old, remain. The whole thing is completely overgrown, and clearly no-one has been up there very recently, as every few minutes I walk into a big spider’s web.
Not bad for a lunch break.
I have been carried away by a moonlight shadow, without going anywhere near an eighties disco. And I have inaugurated the Tilos triathlon or Iron Woman.
The way to do this is: first, start walking innocuously down to Livadia at lunchtime to go to the post office. A mile into the journey, be offered a lift by Charlie and end up invited for a coffee in the square by Charlie and Karen, who call Vangelis to let him know I’m in the square. Mention to Vangelis about dancing for his birthday. Vangelis mentions Greek dancing lessons. Karen is going tonight at six o’clock.
Always wanted to learn Greek dancing! And how will I go to festivals all summer and not know how to dance?
Finish coffee, jump on bus back to Megalo Horio to finish work quickly.
Walk all the way down to Livadia in the afternoon. Arrive an hour later rather warm, jump in sea for very quick cool off. Dress again, walk up to school for Greek dancing lesson with Karen and a dozen women from the village perfecting their skills. Arrange with Eleftheria that she will give you a lift back to Megalo Horio if you meet in the square in half an hour. Be tempted for a beer with Karen. Eleftheria completely forgets. Walk all the way home again.
En route, overcome skittishness about darkness. So beautiful! Last red of sunset in northwest. Absolute peace – just the occasional noise of goats. Mountains silhouetted. A third of moon then so bright – notice moonlight shadow! Wow! Stars coming out. Gradually all hillsides lit up by moon. Village lights come into view.
Everything in the Garden – or a Lesson in the Birds and the Bees

They don’t slow down long enough for me to tell if they are swallows or martens, to see if they have red cheeks, but I think what we have is a mix of both: glossy blue-black backs, white bellies, forked tails of which some are long and thin and trailing and others more trim and stubby. They shoot across so fast, doing their daredevil turns in the sky.
What’s the point of being freelance if you can’t take the day off? Never let it be said that I am not a good boss who rewards hard work. Not that I have been entirely wedded to the computer. Yesterday I had a lunchtime run to Eristos and then a long swim in aquamarine sea, and even ran much of the way home again, which is why I need a restful day today. Especially since the sun is nice and warm.

After doing an hour or two’s work I walk into the village. I have promised to send a non-computerised friend back home a postcard, and I know there are some in the Elephant Museum.
The museum is one of our claims to fame, and I love it. It is housed in one tiny room between the church and the road, and it’s been run by Vicky for many years. It houses the bones of a mother and baby elephant that lived on Tilos four thousand years ago, as well as some deer bones and some human skulls from the Byzantine period. Elephants came from Africa 45,000 years ago, walking and swimming when the continents were closer, and evolved to a smaller species gradually by living on an island. The last forty or so elephants in Tilos – and maybe in Europe – died trapped in a cave just a mile from my house during the eruption of the volcano on the next island of Nisyros. Excavations begun in the 1970s, documented in the museum, have halted until the cave can be made safe, and most of the finds are in Vienna. A gleaming new stone and glass museum building was constructed near the cave, but somehow the European money wasn’t enough to finish it off, and when I last visited it was inhabited by goats. And the elephant bones are still in the village.
When I arrive, Vicky is just finishing a talk to a small group of English visitors, and in fact she is showing them some of the postcards made by German photographer Sibylle.
‘Ah, and look, here is the pelican! You see? This pelican was injured and was taken in and nursed back to health by some people in Eristos.’
The tourists lean forward to see the photograph and smile at the happy story. A woman looks at her husband, perhaps wondering whether they will go to see the pelican.
‘And then,’ continues Vicky, ‘a scorpion bite him! And he died. Now, if you like I will show you inside the church…’
In the uneasy moment’s silence I buy a few postcards and sneak ahead of them to the offices across the mosaic courtyard from the church to ask about Greek lessons. Someone told me there were Greek language lessons available. Unfortunately, neither the man nor the woman working at their desks surrounded by files are aware of this, and neither are the men outside that they ask, who look like they might be waiting for the kafeneion to open.

So I walk back down, passing Irini in her tiny shop who asks where I’ve been, and I find Georgos sitting on a bench, a nice surprise. He’s wearing a dark sports top and dark stubble which suits his short black hair and dark eyes. I only usually see him in Livadia so I assume he must be working. This he confirms by pulling out of his satchel a thermometer and blood pressure gauge.
‘Yes, I go round to see all the grandmothers and grandfathers. You want me to test you?’
‘It’s OK, I drink faskomilo…
Georgos talks fast in Greek but clearly enough that I can understand a lot of what he says. He’s a trained nurse, but I got to know Georgos as so many visitors did because he was always standing outside Irina restaurant on the seafront, where he worked lunchtimes and evenings. When I stayed in Livadia for a month, I walked past every day and his ‘yeia sou Jennifer’ and few words of chat became part of my happy routine. He never deigned to invite you into the restaurant, and when I did eat there his rather deadpan, sardonic manner of speaking made it seem almost like he didn’t care whether you ate or not. That was until he started showing me photographs of his patients, the elderly of Tilos, and suddenly he lit up, scrolling on his digital camera through hundreds of pictures. It seemed surprising for a young guy with an inordinate love of football, but what a blessing for the old folks of the island.
‘Are you working at the restaurant?’
‘No, it is closed. The cook died.’
Sadly, it turns out the cook smoked too much and didn’t look after his health, and the owner has gone away, and the restaurant won’t be opening. Only the other day, I heard about another death in the family of one of the nearby seafront restaurants, too.
As if on cue to remind us that there’s life in Tilos yet, a hardy-looking old woman with a stick ambles to sit down on the bench, and Georgos offers her a little flower bud, which she laughs at and throws on the ground. I would like to understand her better but it’s difficult, so I say goodbye.
Proseche, siga-siga!’ says Georgos. Take care, take it easy. So I do.
I continue to the ‘supermarket’, not too hopeful of finding bread today as yesterday they were rearranging the aisles and everything was in delightful chaos. But I find my favourite bread, a round one with seeds on top, and wander off down the road, a spring in my step, breaking off bits of chewy loaf. Charlie stops to offer me a lift but I’m only off home. I watch the bee-eaters, all fiery orange, electric blue and yellow, like a sunset. I take pictures of the poppies, the daisies, the roses. This season is windy but full of colours.

It’s time to treat myself to a good brunch – Pavlos’ onions from the garden, which are the most delicious onions I have ever tasted, big white bulbs with long green tops which turn so sweet when you fry them in oil; a couple of fat olives chopped up, a little fresh tomato; and then when it’s all cooking, a couple of eggs that Maria brought me yesterday from their hens. Everyone is always telling me what good people Pavlos and Maria and family are, and it’s hardly surprising. I eat outside as the sun is now hot, with the bees buzzing around; one lands in the egg yolk and does a sort of comedy slide and buzzes quickly away as if embarrassed.
Here at Bee Central we are coming to think the bee-eaters have rather outstayed their welcome. According to Pavlos, they are now officially Ena Kako, a Bad Thing, because the bees are scared to come out of their hives. So I have taken to shooing them off the electricity line running above the hives where otherwise they will sit in a line and swoop down to scoop up our bees. Enough is enough.
Today sitting inside at the computer doesn’t seem like the right thing to do, so I go for a walk to Skafi and watch the wildlife, trying to get a closer look at the swallows/martens and a golden oriole. I brave the mad Cerberus brothers, the two dogs (thankfully chained up) that howl ferociously guarding the way to Menelaos’ sheep farm, though one of them is always wagging his tail with a loaf of bread in his mouth. Where the other day there were snails on the path when it rained, now there are lizards darting out of the way. It’s a season of change. It’s so windy down at Skafi that the waves are actually crashing on the rocks, and I decide against extreme swimming today, and watch the sea for a while instead.

When I get home, there's a picture message in my email inbox from Dimitris of an unfortunate octopus, one that didn't get away today. 


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