Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Celebrating Saint Nikolaki: December on a Diminutive Greek Island

It may sound perverse, but I was excited to see grey rainclouds today. It’s been a while, after all. After I finished my morning’s work, it felt like a good day to lace up my hiking boots and head for the hills. I didn't take the camera as I had a feeling I was in for a soaking. 
Winter in Tilos is definitely reinforcing my hermit-like inclinations, and I am gravitating towards the lonelier side of the island, Ayios Antonis. With clouds brooding over the craggy granite hilltops, and a lonely boat on the grey sea in the distant misting rain, it felt beautifully desolate. If I ever write a mystery novel, it’s opening right there with the flotsam and jetsam on the empty beach.
I followed a road I’d never tried before, up the hill through dark green trees along the side of a reddish crevasse. At the top, I found Nikos just closing the gate on his goats. He was a little surprised to see me up there.
‘I was just walking,’ I said, ‘and didn’t know where this road went.’
‘Ah! It’s my road!’
Yesterday was the name day for St Nick, every Nikos and Niki was celebrating, and the Fisherman and I were invited in the evening to the house of Nikos and Ioanna from Ayios Antonis. We drove past the pretty Christmas lights at the entrance to Megalo Horio, simple white lights in the shape of a boat, down the dark road, almost missing the turn-off. But their house was warm and festive inside with red and gold Christmas decorations.
Glasses of red wine in hand, we chatted to the gathered company of family and friends, amid instructions to eat… Ioanna had been cooking for days, it seemed: keftedes or meat balls, revithokeftedes or chick pea fritters, dolmades made of cabbage leaves stuffed with rice and meat, salads, chicken in red peppers, sausage in beans – the plates just kept coming. I had to look away when she ladled gorgeous local honey into a jar and then mixed it with spicy ketchup for chicken wings (it reminds me of Stelios saying he can only drink retinsa with Coke). But she is an amazing cook and I wish I could learn a few of those recipes one day.
Nikos, in his thirties, with a black beard and glasses, keeps a fair few goats up on the hillside opposite, and he told me that one of the most prized goats for its ability to produce milk and young is an English breed, which has long ears and a spotted coat (‘like a dalmatian’). I nodded away, so pleased to be getting by in a Greek conversation about goat breeds that I didn’t stop to think – until later – that he might be winding me up. He has a mischievous streak…
But today, when I bumped into him on the hillside, I asked if he’d been making fun and he said no, he was serious. He pointed out an alpine goat clambering up the hillside, with wide twisted horns and very specific markings. The goats in the pen, fenced in, he said were just the bad goats.
‘Bad in what way?!’
‘They like to go down to the village to find food instead of looking for it up here.’
We admired the view over the sea and far down the valley. By this time I was a bit wet with the rain coming down, but not cold at all.
‘It’s good we’re getting some rain,’ said Nikos. ‘Without that, there’s no grass for the goats to eat and I have to buy maize. Fourteen euros a sack!’
Wow, that’s a lot. In summer, when there’s not much for the goats to eat in the wild, he has to spend sixty euros a day just on feeding them.
I explored some more, then followed the stone footpath back along the side of the opposite hill to my village, seeing a bird of prey hovering above (I’ve seen so many lately). Arriving at Megalo Horio, I was struck by how beautiful the tiny whitewashed alleyways in that part of the village are, the magenta bougainvillaea and lemon trees and the smell of the fig trees. This last month Tilos has been more beautiful than I’ve ever seen it, Eristos bay glowing silver with the afternoon sunshine and the air so clear: Karpathos felt so close I could touch it yesterday. It’s been the gentlest of Decembers… I was swimming in the sea a few days ago, and exercising in the sun on the beach. Merry Christmas all!


  1. Merry X'mas Jennifer from the land of ice and snow - northern Ontario, Canada. I like how you turn an accidental conversation with a goat herder into an exciting recount. I would like to read about some of the more mundane aspects of life such as how you found your accomodation, what it cost, what paper work you need for an extended stay, cost of living ect

    Carlton McEachern

  2. Hi Carlton and Merry Christmas to you! How far north are you? I used to live in Toronto and loved going up to Algonquin and the lakes... Thanks so much for your lovely comment. I found my accommodation through friends I'd met on previous trips; if you're renting for a whole year it tends to cost between 250 and 500 euros a month; for a shorter stay it's about 30 euros a day. Paperwork varies depending on your nationality I guess - I am British so I can stay indefinitely, though I'm not sure yet how my taxes will work out. Cost of living also varies - stuff in the shops is expensive as it all has to be shipped in, but then you can grow vegetables and maybe even catch your own fish..! And there's very little to spend money on - the best fun is just exploring. I pay for electricity and water and internet access and mobile phone - I guess that adds up to about 70 to 100 euros a month. Let me know if you want any more info. Happy holidays...