A Box full of Lobsters

It’s a late September Sunday, about seven a.m. In summer we'd be out earlier: the fishermen go out when the sun’s coming up, as that’s when there are fish. 

I say hello to Nikos and meet his brother Stelios; I’ve been invited by the third fisherman, Stelios L., who’s been fishing with them for more than ten summers. The three change into orange overalls and rubber boots. A teenager, young Alexandros (‘the great’), sits at the back in shorts and t-shirt to steer the boat. I’m given a seat in the middle where I can see everything.

NB: Most of the photos to go with this blogpost won't load this morning, so please view them on my Facebook page!

The wooden boat heads first to the headland to the south of Livadia bay. It’s a nice calm morning, cool, a few wisps of cloud on the hilltops. On this side, the water is still a grey. It’s one of the last weeks before they change the boat over to a different kind of nets, when the season opens for trata.

We arrive at the first spot. One of the guys hooks the float out of the water using a wooden pole, reels in the rope, then a motor winches the net over a series of three wheels that keep it coming continuously. Nikos leans over the side, watching to see what’s coming in.
‘Good skaros, take it,’ he shouts to his brother who pulls the net off the wheels, winding it into a heap and at the same time pulling out the fish and tossing them into a bucket of sea water. Stelios L. winds the empty nets into a pile at the back of the boat and helps pulling out the fish when needed. Nikos shouts instructions to Alexandros on the rudder to keep the boat in the right place. ‘Mpros!’ Forward. ‘Anichta!’ Away from land. ‘Isia!’ Straight.
The first fish to come over the side include some spiky orange skorpio (scorpion fish), and some yermano (Germans – they came to the area during the Second World War) with poisonous spines that can give a very nasty sting. All these Stelios extracts from the nets with his bare hands. For a while there’s nothing, and then about six good-sized fish all at once. And then a karavitha, like a reddish-brown lobster with no pincers or feelers but a big, powerful tail that curls and snaps back. And a sinagritha, two kilos at least, the ‘king of fish’, blue-ish silver with pink around the mouth. All this in the first half hour: a good start. When eventually there’s nothing more coming up on the nets but weeds, it’s time to move swiftly on. Feegeh! Go! The lobster was a good find. Lobster is worth up to forty euros a kilo.
Crossing the bay to the north side allows a brief break for a cigarette and fresh coffees. A sudden panic: no more coffees! The great coffee crisis ensues and searches are conducted for the disposable plastic frappe cups. A brief despondent lull, knowing there’s no more coffee this morning.

The island looks different from the sea; the sun is coming up now over the side of the mountain and brightening all the colours. We skirt the shore where the cliffs and the coves are a rich red, reflecting in the still water. We pass Donkey Island, then stop at the next net and start pulling it up. Tiny fish have to be extricated and thrown back, but soon the fish bucket starts filling up. There’s a flurry of excitement when a couple of strange-looking fish appear, blue-green spots on top, bright white belly: lagokefalos. Poisonous.
The belly of one is puffed out, bloated, and Nikos stabs it in the head with a knife before throwing it overboard. Clearly you have to know your fish; you can’t just catch and eat anything.
Then someone finds a seahorse in the net, an alogaki tis thalassas, or ippocampos. They put it in my hand. ‘Take this home. It’s beautiful for the house!’ It’s beautiful, of course, a tiny perfect grey dragon-like creature. But it’s alive, and it doesn’t want to die. Its mouth forms an ‘o’ as it gasps for air and it flexes its body and curls its tail in and out. I keep it in my hand and try to ignore it while we celebrate the arrival of a nice catch of reddish-white barbounia, red mullet, a good fish to sell.
‘To ena alogo, eineh mavro… ’ sings Stelios at the front of the boat, a popular old song about a white horse and a black.
It’s horrible watching a seahorse die. It is taking forever. It doesn’t want to die, its little body stretching out in what looks like agony. I look at the sad thing in my hand, wrapping its tail around my pen (figurative blood on my hands), and Stelios assures me, ‘There are lots of them.’ And it hits me of course that all the fish we’re catching are meeting the same fate, so why do I feel this way about the damn seahorse?

The first lot of fish are moved from the bucket to a box, sluiced down with fresh sea water and covered with wet hessian in the shade. We continue past the pretty beach of Lethra, accessible on foot, the valley filled with green pines, another little island and mineral-blue rocks that drop sheer into the sea until we reach turquoise water, where on a slither of pale beach a couple of goats are coming down the rocks to drink. It’s amazingly beautiful.
‘How can the goats here drink salt water?’ I ask.
‘I don’t know. There’s nothing else in the summer. It’s evolution!’ says Stelios L. (He’s posing a little at the side of the boat, one arm casually hanging off the roof, showing off his muscles: forget firemen’s calendars, girls, how about a fishermen’s calendar?)
We stop, and the routine begins again, Nikos directing, the other guys gathering the net as it comes in again, unsnagging knots, pulling off rocks and plants, sometimes singing a little to pass the time. There are no fish for a while, and they all look a little edgy. Then suddenly, we know why. Fokia. A seal.
The big grey seal flips over in the sea nearby, does a taunting turn or two – or maybe it’s just looking to see what’s going on – and then disappears again.
‘This is why we take no fish here.’ The seals eat the fish from the nets. They actually eat through the nets to get at the fish – the guys show me the holes. It’s an easy feast. The seal surfaces again on the other side of the boat.
‘That was a small one,’ says Nikos. ‘They get bigger.’ No wonder if they eat that many fish. The net here is empty, alas. Quietly, curses probably kept under breath because of my presence, we take off in a more sombre mood south again but further out. The jagged rocks of the islands silhouetted black and grey look like Thailand. Two cormorants stand on some low rocks. The seal comes up again, eating a fish. They’re not afraid: it’s illegal to harm them. Stelios adds the few fish from that net to the boxes and covers them in ice.
Next time, we’re fishing a little deeper. The winch winds up rope for a while before the net. And soon up over the side is a lobster, an astrako this time with pincers and feelers, purple with orange markings. There’s also a cuttlefish, soupia. And because we’re fishing deep, there are lots of rocks too, or clumps of compacted earth and weeds that get caught in the nets and have to be stamped out flamenco-style, leaving a big mess in the boat. But on the upside, there are lots of fish coming up, keeping Stelios busy extricating fins and gills, while Nikos struggles to untangle the lobster.
It’s hard working deeper, stamping out all the chunks of dirt. Winding all those nets into piles, standing up for hours leaning over to pull out the fish, it’s got to be tiring – when I think of how tired I get after an hour’s gardening. They wind the nets twice over a wooden pole to clean out all the dirt, and then sweep and sluice the deck. All the rope and net and spiny fish and salt water every day – it must take a while to toughen your hands up for that.
But the result is several big lobsters which must be worth a fair bit. Nikos places them carefully under the wet hessian sack – ‘ipno!’, sleep – although when another one goes in they all wake up and start thwacking their tails powerfully.
‘That was a good net.’ Seals don’t eat lobsters, thankfully.
When they’re getting good fish, no-one complains about the work as it’s good money. But it’s the same work whatever comes in. And you never know exactly what will come in. The currents can move the nets from where you place them: in summer they didn’t see any lobsters as the currents move the nets. Occasionally a fish caught in the net has been eaten away by something else before the fishermen get to it, and they still have to extricate the remains and throw it overboard. With all that winding in and cleaning and sorting for each net – and winding them out again at night – no wonder they don’t like it when the catch gets stolen, and no wonder there’s excitement at a good catch.
Even though the deck has been cleaned to ship shape, we’re preparing to pull in another deep net again. This one’s coming from 140 metres, outside the mouth of Livadia harbour in view of the town. I’d forgotten we were so close. This net brings in a smerna, a moray eel, glistening brown and yellow. Nikos give it a swift blow to the head with his boot to kill it quickly, as if it smells blood or food (the other fish) it can be dangerous. We get a large scorpion fish and a starfish, among mounds of dirt. And then the small sharks or dog fish, galeos, start to come in, one after another, five or six of them. They do look like miniature sharks, with very smooth, silky, dark grey skin and extraordinary blue glassy marbles for eyes. I notice Stelios L. opening a shell – a scallop shell. He hands me a fresh scallop to eat.
As it gets closer to lunchtime, the sun gets hotter overhead and since the boat is continually moving around, they need to make sure the fish in the middle of the boat stay cool and wet. Those overalls and rubber boots also seems a little warm at this time – imagine what it was like in July and August.
As we start to chug back towards Livadia, Nikos gets a call.
‘Yes? I’ve got lobster – d’you want a lobster? And dogfish. I’m coming.’
Nikos has been doing this since he was twelve – thirty years – and he works continuously as a fisherman, summer and winter. In the summer season, he sells direct to the restaurants in Livadia: Armenon, Michalis, Naftilos. In winter, when restaurants in Tilos are closed, the catch goes to Rhodes and to Athens. Of course, things have changed over the years and there aren’t as many fish. The water has warmed up too, so there are more fish from Africa like yermanos and the poisonous lagokefalos and no more mackerel.
It seems like a good day’s work to me: a few boxes of fish large and small, a box of lobsters, a few cuttlefish, a box of sharks. (Not to mention the sea horse and starfish.) I ask whether it was a good day.
‘Not a bad day – fine,’ says Niko, shrugging. ‘Not as good as yesterday – not as many skorpio or barbouni.’
‘The seal ate them all!’ says Stelios L.
I wonder how much of the takings go to fuel and maintenance of equipment?
‘The takings are divided into five,’ says Stelios L. ‘Three parts for the fisherman, and two parts for the boat.’
The cleaning work continues as we head back, and there’s a little more singing while the hard work of winding and sorting progresses. I’ve never seen three Greek men smoke so few cigarettes: there’s no time.
There are so many details I’d never have thought about. I’d somehow always imagined fish would fall effortlessly out of nets – but not with this kind of fishing. I’d never have imagined so much cleaning was involved the clumps of sea-earth that have to be smashed and then shaken out of the nets, swept up and washed out.
‘We finish quickly if we fish shallow water. When we go deep, we get lots of dirt.’
I have also learned there are few sexier things than watching a man pull a shark (OK, a very small shark) out of a net. And that you can eat good fresh fish and lobster in Tilos and watching it being caught makes me want to eat more.
Just when you think it’s over, back in harbour, there is more work to do: Stelios L. has to clean and wind nets into neat piles ready for the evening, while Nikos sells a few lots of fish and fillets the dogfish. I think of doing all this work day in, day out. It's one thirty, over six hours since we went out.
‘Got any skarous?’
‘No big ones. I can give you two kilos of these for 15 euros…’
A man comes down to buy and leaves followed by a posse of cats.

TI-LOS! TI-LOS! Football on a Small Greek Island

In spite of the best efforts of my father, revered football commentator Patrick Barclay, to educate me in such things, I know woefully little of football. I buy The Times mainly just to see the photo of my dad. But after this afternoon at Tilos football club, I just might be giving the beautiful game another try.
This is extremely local football. The ground is a leisurely ten minute walk from my house. I pass a barbecue set up at one corner being tended by Nikos from Livadia. There is no queue to get in. Scanning the grandstand for my friend Anna, I see Pantelis from my Tilos family – ‘Are you looking for me?’ he quips – and lots of other friends and acquaintances, one of whom points me over to where Anna’s sitting. On the pitch, warming up, are a team of guys I know from the bars, restaurants and shops of Tilos – most of them work in one or another.

There’s no distracting advertising around the pitch, just a couple of posters of the mayor. The backdrop is our beautiful mountains and the edge of the village of Megalo Horio clinging to the rock. It’s a sunny day and clear after a storm last night.
It’s all very friendly until the visiting team in yellow huddle together and erupt in an aggressive shout: ‘Sy-mi!’ Symi’s another small island between here and Rhodes. I’ve heard Tilos matches have been known to get a little heated, with the odd fight or two. Game on.

At first, our boys in red and blue look as if they might be out of practice – it is the first game of the season after all – but soon they are passing gracefully and pushing forward confidently. Within the first fifteen minutes, Tilos have scored. Goooooaal!

It turns out we’re in a very vocal part of the crowd. The Greek ladies next to us lead everyone in a round of 'Ti-los, Ti-los!' And the pace of the game gets quite lively. Symi equalise quite soon. And soon, also, the number of yellow cards start to mount up. There’s a bit of rolling around the pitch, and Georgos makes an appearance as the doctor. A group of army lads in uniform from the base across the road join the supporters partway through the first half.

Both teams, it has to be said, are an assortment of shapes and sizes. Some look like professional football players, some less so. But the point is they’re out there playing their hearts out. So when someone in the crowd lets their disappointment show after one of our players misses a chance at a second goal, it seems a little mean, and Stelios chimes in: ‘It’s OK. We’re going to get another goal now.’
And we do. In fact, by half time, imichrono, the score is 3-1 to Tilos. Two tiny boys in football strips help carrying stuff across the pitch.
Anna and I celebrate by buying souvlakia and drinks, and again there’s no queue, just a chance to say hello to friends. The pork souvlakia are juicy and delicious fresh from the grill – irresistible.
School must have finished because a few teenage girls with school bags saunter in to join the crowd, asking the score. Alas, Symi score again soon in the second half. It’s 3-2. Have we celebrated too soon? The rest of the match is somewhat dominated by the ladies next to me, who gradually shout themselves hoarse. The downside of local football is that these ladies know all the boys on the pitch very well and are somehow related to most of them.
In case there are any blind people in the audience, the lady in pink next to me is now directing the match play by play, coach/commentator, instructing each of the boys by name as he gets control of the ball. The older lady next to her is using some choice language that makes the army boys grin. I'm glad I don't live next door on a day like today, but bless them, they care about the local team all right.
But Tilos have an excellent defence and a superb goalie, and they’re not letting Symi through. We get a few more chances at goal, but it seems there’s no more luck to be had there. The best our boys can do is hold on to their lead, and they do, just. A few balls shoot over the fence into the eucalyptus trees. Both teams get a few more yellow cards, and at one time an injury at one end of the pitch is ignored as a fight nearly breaks out at the other. It’s never a dull game. We hang on to our win and it’s a happy moment when victory is ours.
As we leave, it occurs to me that the population of Tilos is a lot smaller than Symi, meaning that Tilos would be very much the underdogs, with a smaller pool of talent to draw from. I check with Stelios.
‘Yes, Symi is four thousand people. We are three hundred.’ Plus, he confirms, the Tilos team drink and smoke a lot…
I wonder if this is closer to what football was like when my dad grew up in Dundee. A bit smaller, a bit sunnier, but a similar feeling. I think I might come out to support this feisty team again. TI-LOS!

From the Dirty Old Town to the Bar on the Roof of the Island

One hope one quest enjoy every minute unstoppable open your eyes and you will see have as much fun as possible… - from street art in Athens

Last time I wrote, I mentioned dancing through doorways, just to see what you can find... On the last day of August I didn’t go to Rhodes as planned; I stayed in Tilos instead, continuing to dance through an unexpected doorway on this island. I hadn’t foreseen it, and neither had Hari, who was understandably shocked and upset when I told him I wasn’t going to see him anymore. Clearly there must have been something missing, and I spent a few days trying to figure out what that had been, gradually seeing from the other side of that doorway that I’d made the right choice.
Then at the start of September I went to Athens.
I lived in Athens a long time ago, and I have much affection for the dirty old town that it remains, in spite of polishing up here and there for the Olympics. The air no longer gives you nosebleeds and the smell of drains only persists here and there, but the lingering grittiness of part of its appeal for me. The apartment where I was invited to stay was not far from my old neighbourhood of Galatsi (where I taught English to the students of Yannokopoulou school), with hazy views across the bowl of dirty-white crystals that is Athens, to the low mountains and the gleaming silver sea beyond.

The main objectives of the trip were to see a rock concert and to visit the Acropolis Museum. But it was three days in Athens in the company of Greek friends, which basically meant spending six hours at a time drinking coffee and the rest of the time waiting, either for other friends or to find a good place to eat.

On the first day a concession was made by friends Stelios and Stratos to the English tourist: we sat drinking coffee with a view of the Acropolis from Thission. I got the view, while the two friends got to talk for hours and exchange news. In the evening, we drove on motorbikes all the way across the city to the concert venue in Petroupoli where another friend was the warm-up act for aging Greek rocker Vasilis Papaconstantinou. So much time was spent eating souvlakia, chatting and waiting outside the gates for the rest of our company of friends, our parea, that we actually missed the performance we’d come to see.
The second day, we sat and had coffee in Monastiraki and then met up with more friends to see about getting to the Acropolis Museum.
‘But first we should eat,’ said Stratos. He and Sophia debated where we should eat, decided on the place they knew that was the closest, and we set off on the motorbikes down one of the big main roads that lead off Omonia Square. I loved the street art that covered the grimy buildings. We drove a fair way and then circled back again.
‘Isn’t this the street we drove down before?’ I asked after we’d been riding for about twenty minutes. The graffiti was looking quite familiar. It turned out no-one remembered exactly how to get to the restaurant. But just as I was getting impatient in a very non-Greek way again, we turned down an unpromising side street and found ourselves in an extremely cool neighbourhood of street art and organic cafes, called Gazi after the gas works that used to be there. In a shady courtyard we ate fried anchovies, fried cheese, falafel with tahini and delicious vegetables. And after the ouzo, no-one really felt in the mood for the museum.

After the missed concert it had been decided that everyone would gather again in a park in the suburbs the next night so we could hear our friend sing; she has an amazing voice. Once again, we drove across the city, finding ourselves in a strange place with ducks swimming around a pond. By one a.m., we were still waiting for half the company to return with souvlakia. I am the worst person in the world at waiting around. No wonder everyone smokes – you need to do something to pass the time.
On the last day, after stopping for food and coffee, we finally made it to the Acropolis Museum. I fell in love again with a kore statue, maybe the same one I used to come to visit on Sundays when I lived here. We laughed and admired and learned… The upper floor was dedicated in a very pointed way to all the marble frescoes that were ‘violently plundered’ by Lord Elgin and are still on display in the British Museum, leaving only replicas here. It’s surely time for them to come back to Athens.
The boys drove me down Piraeus Street to the ferry dock, me wishing I’d kept my camera out to photograph the street art, Stratos pretending he didn’t know the way so I’d miss the boat. They had both looked after me so well. ‘Stratos,’ I said when we arrived and I had my ticket, ‘you look after Stelios. And Stelios, you look after Stratos.’ ‘We always do,’ they replied. I waved from the ferry as it pulled away.
I was going back via Kos, to pick up my friend Claire arriving from England. We found a great taverna called Diosmaraki and swam at the hot springs of Therma and I did a pre-Tilos raid on the shops: a haircut, interesting wine, stationery, netting for the garden, shoes. We caught a ferry back in the early hours. I was overjoyed to be home again in Tilos.

My garden was once again overgrown but thriving. Two melons had grown to full size and just needed to yellow. I spent two hours re-netting and staking the tomato patch which had blown over in the wind, thrilled to have ripe red tomatoes at last.  In the evening we had an impromptu dinner party with fresh-caught red and grey mullet. I gutted the fish and tried frying them but was firmly instructed by the Greek chef that far more olive oil was needed in the pan. At least my salad from the garden was good. And then after dinner, a few of us went up to Mikro Horio bar.
Mikro Horio was once a village of two thousand people or so, up in the mountains where they were safe from pirates. Back in the 1950s, it was decided that pirates were no longer much of a problem in this part of the Aegean and life by the port would be easier. By then, the population had already declined drastically following wartime occupation by the German army; their livestock was plundered and their farms suffered under curfew, and emigration was the best option. The villagers who remained all moved down to the meadows by the sea, an area which became known as Livadia. The village of Mikro Horio remained deserted. Then some enterprising types came up with the idea of a summer music bar.
Mikro Horio music cafe is spectacular, perhaps the best in the Dodecanese. The front of an old stone house has been turned into a bar area, looking out across the dark empty mountains of the middle of the island. A few other houses on the hillside around are lit up for atmosphere. A terrace is the dance floor, flooded by moonlight, thousands of stars up above.
Last time we went up there, Stelios sauntered over with news that he’d seen a girl with a pretty face and his friend said nonchalantly, ‘Oh, that’s Jennifer Aniston.’ Celebrities do swan in and out of Tilos from time to time, safe in the knowledge that they won’t be mobbed by fans here. Earlier in the summer there were rumours of Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones being spotted on Eristos Beach. At the end of August, the owner of an airline had arrived unannounced in a helicopter and apparently the Greek army boys stationed in Tilos scrambled to investigate, presumably fearing Turkish invasion, according to my friend Anna.
This Saturday Anna and I decided the Greek pop music and the crowd of almost exclusively locals was too good to pass up, given that the bar would be shutting down for the winter soon. I wasn’t going to make it to dawn, even though some would, but we stayed until four, dancing and talking to friends in the balmy late summer night.
Today is the 47th of August, apparently – meaning that summer is continuing, blissfully unaware that it should be turning to autumn. There’s a cool breeze at night sometimes but the days are hot. Swimming and cold showers are still the order of the day here in Tilos. My honey-making Tilos family have returned from a trip to Athens also, where they stayed in Piraeus for a wedding.
Zougla!’ complained Pavlos of Athens, and I learned a new word – a jungle, or chaos. Like me, he was very happy to be home in Tilos, and spent the first day back sorting out his garden.
Claire and I went up to my Tilos family’s house to see Maria and Evgenia in the evening. Sipping soumada, almond cordial, on the terrace and shooing away a cat that was determined to get in the house, we learned from Maria that someone had been stealing the eggs from their free-range hens.
‘What,’ I asked, surprised, ‘an animal was stealing them?’
‘No, people have been stealing them! It happens a lot.’
Goodness. Claire and I are both surprised to hear of that happening here. As Maria has just been saying, in Athens you have to hold you bag close and lock everything up, not like life in Tilos.
‘Well,’ says Maria, putting it in context, ‘in Athens they rob banks – in Tilos it’s just eggs!’
She doesn’t seem too perturbed but it does mean they’ll have to lock the chickens up at night rather than leaving them to roam. It’s also a reminder, though, of what grandfather Pantelis was saying the other night when he treated us to a bottle of retsina in the kafeneion. Life is hard in Greece at the moment, with people losing their livelihood, the prices of everything going up and no way to pay for it all. It’s OK here because we can grow our own food. In a city like Athens, what do you do?
Well, there is one thing, but maybe the story of a local boy who has found rather unusual work in Athens is for another time. Tilos is always full of surprises.

Meanwhile, Claire went back to England having walked to several beaches and feasted on local octopus and local goat in tomato sauce, ouzo and retsina, yoghurt and honey and watermelon. And Dina at Kastro restaurant said she'd find her a husband in Tilos. By the end of the week, she was warming to the idea...

'The Coven'