Thursday, 29 November 2012

Autumn Celebrations

It’s still dark and I can hear Stelios on the phone to Nikos as they arrange where they’re meeting for fishing.
‘No, I can’t take the car, Jennifer needs it…’
I’m puzzled (do I need the car?) and mumble from bed, ‘I don’t need the car…’
A few minutes later he’s upstairs.
Moraki mou, could you do me a little favour…?’ And I learn why I need the car.
Which is why I was driving to the post office in Livadia just after eight yesterday morning, and saw the centre of the island looking breathtakingly beautiful. The early ygrasia, the moisture in the air, had coated the grass and turned it all silvery-white in the sunshine, and the trees darker than usual so their reddish-brown autumn leaves glistened.
When I arrived, the post office man was standing out in the square watching the junior school kids gathering for a school outing (Yeia sas Kyria Jennifer!!). Surprise surprise, there was no queue to get Stelios’ money transfer done.
So I walked down to the rocks, where the water was glassy calm, and went for a swim as far as the rock stack, where I got close to a cormorant. The water was clear enough to see the fish down below, and the only sound was a fishing boat chugging across the bay. A few guys were fishing off the quay, and the morning light was still hazy. Fabulous.

Stelios and I have been celebrating this week – my birthday, and his name-day or yorti, which is more important than a birthday in Greece.
‘Don’t you have a name day?’ asked Stelios.
‘No, we don’t do that,’ I said. ‘I don’t think there is a Saint Jennifer anyway.’
Eleftheria explained to me it’s easier to remember someone’s saint’s day than their birthday, and I suddenly realised what a good idea it is after all.
Life on Tilos takes away any commercialisation of birthdays too. I quickly ruled out the idea of finding him a gift in any of the shops here, and since I’d bought him a book last week on the ferry back from Rhodes anyway, I made him chocolate brownies instead. They were supposed to be chocolate lava cakes but the measurements were a bit tricky.
He said it would be similarly difficult to get anything for me, so he bought some fresh fish from another fisherman, some balades, and even cleaned them ready for cooking (and cleaned the kitchen afterwards!). They’re not the prettiest fish with those huge eyes, which apparently they need for seeing at over 200 metres deep, but they’re tasty.

‘Oh, I forgot, I got this for you when I went to the shop, moraki mou!’ A Kit-Kat emerges from the pocket of the holey fisherman’s pants.
‘How long’s it been there?’ It looked like it had been there a while. But it's always the thought that counts.
Fish, wine, salad, chocolate… we don’t need to go out for dinner. Which is just as well because at this time of year, there's not very much choice in Tilos.
I admit, I had a delightful time in Rhodes last week: being able to go out to cafes like Casa la Femme in the evening and listen to music and the buzz of chatter; being able to pick up a sandwich or have a salad made for me at Eatery whenever I want. I had a massage (too much digging in the field) and went to a yoga class run by a lovely woman I met at the kantina this summer. I even – finally – found time to look around the modern art museum, where I enjoyed the playful portraits of soldiers with moustaches by Theofilos, and the modern icons by Spyros Vasileou, and his lovely painting of ‘Supper on the First Day of Lent 1950’. And then I got talking to the curator, Takis, and he read me his poetry…

I could have stayed for longer. I came back laden with goodies – a reading lamp, a casserole dish, a tasty cheese covered in black peppercorns, a jar of strange pickled leaves. But of course I was instantly reminded of how magical Tilos is. I drove down to Greek Dance class, had so much fun and when I drove back the hills were bathed in silver moonlight. And wherever I walk, the fields are being readied for planting new crops, people shout hello, and the olives are being harvested (and we have a promise of some fresh olive oil soon!). And when I go for a walk, the startled goats and cats make me laugh out loud.

If you ever wondered what noises farm animals (and tractors) make in Greece, you have to see this video 'To Poulaki Tsiou' that’s been doing the rounds over here:

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The birds and the bees, all over again. And the crocodiles.

Got chatting to Pavlos today, as I was getting out of the car - he happened to notice that I was getting out of the passenger door even though I'd been driving. The driver door doesn't open any more, see. Well, I reckon that car has done pretty well, considering the rally driving it's subjected to, bumping along that dirt track through dust-clouds and over rocks and ruts... not to mention all the rabbit-killing. Anyway.
We discussed his passion fruit trees for a while, and when he cut one of the fruit open to show me, we got on to the subject of pomegranates. The mice ate all his pomegranates this year, he said. They run up the trees. He said he pulled down a branch to pick some fruit and a mouse ran out. Don't the eagles eat the mice, I asked? But no, said Pavlos, he'd never seen a bird go for a mouse.
Then I asked him where the bees were. Turns out they are all on holiday in Rhodes. This time of year, there's not much for them to eat here in Tilos so they go to Rhodes, for what sounds like an extended gourmet break.
The bees don't worry about mice, but apparently the 'little crocodiles' - a local name for the big lizards or savres - get them. The lizards sit outside the hive and close their eyes - they have a thick skin that's impervious to stinging, so it's only their eyes that are sensitive - and eat the bees as they come out of the hive.
Sometimes I'm so pleased that I'm understanding all this in Greek that I miss the obvious. Was Pavlos having a laugh - was he winding me up? You never can tell with Pavlos.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Greek Island Autumn Walking

Gradually this year, green signposts have been appearing all over the island, pointing out footpaths. We have one at the end of our road, the way to Skafi; it makes for a better class of landmark than the broken-down cement mixer.
I’ve been all over recently, although some days in the last month it has been too hot for walking. It was hot sunshine the late-October morning I walked to Livadia – a social occasion with everyone waving or stopping to say hello or offer a lift. The bay was mirror-like, cats in the middle of the road, birds twittering, oranges on the trees, flowers everywhere. Someone singing outside the kafeneion and a woman cleaning fish under the little bridge on the seafront, with an audience of cats, while a man cycled over it with his son on the crossbar.
We’ve also had days of rainstorms. But other days it’s been an in-between temperature perfect for walking – maybe a few clouds scudding across the blue sky, or a soft, beautiful, grey day with blue sky peeking through, no need really to carry water or look for shade. Many people who only visit Tilos in the summer don’t get to see the spectacular views from its hilltops.
The eagles circled in slow motion around the cliffs above me and chukar or partridge flew up from the ground as I walked from Ayios Antonis to Megalo Horio; I'd walked to Plaka for a dip, and found the Ikonomou fishing boat there, watched them with the trata nets while I swam.
Anna, Stelios and I walked to Gera from Livadia. Stelios pointed out the plants that were poison – dilitiri, deleterious. We wandered around the abandoned village, the summer retreats of villagers from Mikro Horio before they moved down to Livadia in the 1950s-60s; some of the houses still with roof beams and fireplaces.

After a hectic day of work on Friday, I wandered to Eristos and then, enjoying blustery yet balmy weather, followed the road over the headland to Ayios Petros, taking a fast dip in the sea which was gleaming silver where it met the grey cliffs dotted with shrubs. The fields where the goats were grazing were brilliant green with new grass.
So Saturday afternoon I went out in the mood for a walk, but not sure where to go; it was very blowy - 7 to 8 Beaufort - and I wasn’t sure if I was energetic enough, after a brilliant evening of traditional dancing at Bozi the night before. But it wasn’t cold, so I headed up the road in jeans and a jumper, then noticed the green sign near the helicopter pad pointing up the path to the Italian house. This is known for being one of the most spectacular peaks on the island. I didn't plan a full assault on the top, but was intrigued to see what the path was like.

It was certainly improved from last time I went up, almost exactly a year ago. There were stones marking the edges of a mostly clear track, and cairns or red spots on the rocks marking the way. I kept going and got into my stride. Once you start, the views just keep getting better and better and it was easy to gain height fast. The view to effort ratio was a persuasive argument to keep going - all of Eristos valley and bay, the village of Megalo Horio and its castle soon far below.
I was amused to find a really helpful information board halfway up the hill in Greek and English. It seemed to encourage walkers to continue up the path, so I did, passing some lovely crocuses.
Soon I could see the sea at Ayios Antonis to the north, and the sea at Livadia to the south, with the islands of Nisyros and Halki and Rhodes clear beyond. It was hard to hold the camera straight, it was so windy.

I still had an hour of daylight, I estimated, as I neared the top, tiring a little but hoping the eastern views to Turkey would be just over the next rise – and then I was hit by a gale-force wind. I crouched low to the ground but it wasn’t letting up. I wasn’t going to risk being blown down a cliff just to touch the Italian house. Maybe next time.
I headed down, jogging down the best bits of the path, watching the sun sinking towards the shoulders of Profitis Ilias, where the monastery is, and the wind whipping up the water in Eristos bay below it.
Back at the road. I double-checked the green sign pointing the way I’d just come: it did say ‘Profitis Ilias’ ? Confusing. Anyway, I hurried back, seeing the first lights coming on in the village, and thought about food.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Of Wine and a Wedding

Taking a break the other day, I walked towards the sea at Ayios Andonis and instead got chatting to a Swedish family who have been slowly building a house. Edward was helping them instal an efficient solar water heater; they invited me inside to see the wood-burning stove that heats water for under-floor heating, windows that open by themselves when it gets too hot, and solar powered lighting. Inspiring stuff! During the building they unearthed the remains of another house; the archaeologists found it to be 6th century, with a plastered bath in the kitchen floor - the old style of eco-friendly refrigeration. 

On the way home, I veered down the Eristos road to see if Michalis, the farmer, had any vegetables. He didn't, but he was happy to go and pick me some tomatoes and peppers. I waited for fifteen minutes, sitting in the sun and watching a little cat playing, which passed the time. The peppers smelled zingy - and Michalis insisted on giving me a watermelon to carry home with my five kilos of vegetables, which completed my exercise for the day. I made a salad with olive oil from Hippocrates at Eristos, local thyme, and olives and pickled capers from Rhodes. My Fisherman is fishing again, so we ate it with fresh sardines. I laugh in the face of food miles.

Stelios and I paid a visit to Rhodes after he closed up the kantina for the year. I wanted to explore a part of Rhodes I didn't know, and he felt like tasting souma (the local spirit made out of grapes) to buy for the kantina for next year (or that was his excuse anyway), so we drove up to Embona. It's up in the mountains, surrounded by pine trees and vineyards, and feels like a different world. Everyone in Embona drives a pickup truck for hauling around grapes. After a lunch of grilled local pork, salad and tzatziki and local wine, we felt like staying, and found a room just ten minutes' walk away. Surprisingly, it had a pool. We lounged in the late afternoon sun.

The next day, Stelios met a guy from Tilos who has married a girl from Embona and now makes wine with the Merkouris family. I got a tour of the winery while Stelios sat with the older guys and tasted 70% proof souma straight out of the still. It's not for drinking at that strength (try telling Stelios that); old ladies use it to rub on their aches and pains in the winter; but you can mix it with water or with weaker souma.

We stocked up on supplies, then drove on to the village of Ayios Isidoros where we stopped for a heavenly lunch at a friendly place called To Aletro, with more local wine and souma.

And guess what? It was essential research for the guest blog I was writing for the lovely folks at Cox & Kings, who organise luxury holidays to Greece, on how to make the most of 72 Hours in Rhodes:

Then it was back to Tilos to don our best clothes and put on our dancing shoes, ready for a traditional Tilos wedding to which the whole island was invited. Georgos, one of two handsome sons from the taverna at Eristos, was marrying Georgia, one of three beautiful daughters from the taverna at Ayios Andonis. Forty goats were killed for the feast. You couldn't make this stuff up.

On the Friday evening, we walked with the groom, the gambros, from his house in the village down to the house of the bride, the niphi, accompanied by musical instruments and singing. The groom fought his way past the sisters to his bride, and guests left money on the wedding bed. There was dancing until late. Saturday evening was the wedding itself up at the monastery of Ayios Panteleimonas, and the journey there was the stuff of movies:

After the ceremony, it was down to the monastery of Panayia Kamariani for the celebration. There was pinning of money on the wedding couple's clothes (in the old days, it would have been coins on the bride's dress), then eating and drinking but most importantly dancing all night. It's the dancing that truly sets it apart; where everyone comes together, holding hands, the talented at the front of the line vying to perform the fanciest footwork. I ended up at the end of one line of dancers - almost - except for a little child, so tiny I was afraid to step on her in my dancing shoes, who looked a little bewildered but joined in anyway, holding my hand.

The dancing continued the next day - we arrived too late to see the 'false groom' try to steal the bride away - and watching these families, it struck home that traditional Greek dancing isn't a museum piece, it's an important part of community life here. Back to the lessons, then...

P.S. If you find this blog page hard to read, let me know - I think a re-design is due, once I recover from Frankfurt Book Fair. Speaking of which, I'm off on the ferry this afternoon, so I'd better get packing. It's a beautiful day here, the light just perfect on the hillsides, silence apart from the occasional cock crowing and bee buzzing its way into the house. Sigh... Well, I'll be back at the weekend. It seems appropriate to leave you with two of my favourite pictures from September, from Plaka beach...

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Falling in Honey: Life and Love on a Greek Island

Ta-daaaaah! Finally, here it is, the cover of what will be - in March 2013 - my book about coming to live on the tiny, wild Greek island of Tilos, a funny (well, I do a lot of silly things) and romantic journey from heartbreak to happiness. The back cover blurb begins:

I came here looking for some kind of happiness. I think it might be the cleverest thing I've ever done.

What do you think of the cover design? It took me a while to get used to the swirliness, and maybe the subtitle is a swirl too far... But it's unusual, it invites you into a story, and shows the magic - that's what I love. I'd be delighted to get your feedback, as there is still time to make small changes. It's hard to please everybody but I hope this is a cover that will draw a lot of people in.

One rather special thing about the cover is the endorsement by Emma Woolf at the top. Emma is the author of An Apple a Day, a beautiful memoir of trying to recover from anorexia after falling in love and deciding she wanted a baby; you may have seen her in The Times or on TV; she and I met through books and have become friends. Imagine how it felt to receive these words from her:

'For anyone who's ever been unlucky - or lucky - in love, this book will make you laugh and cry and then laugh again. Against the backdrop of her idyllic Greek island, Falling in Honey is the story of one woman's odyssey to find happiness with or without the man of her dreams. I didn't want it to end...'

Gulp. How could anyone wish for better than that?

To cap all this good news, not only is the book being launched by Summersdale Publishers in March 2013, which is exciting enough already, but it's also going to be published in the U.S. by the fantastic Sourcebooks a year later thanks to my brilliant agent Caroline.

I'm hoping at some point to be able to give away a few review copies. In the meantime, Falling in Honey is available for pre-order on, although the cover isn't up there yet and the title isn't quite right - I'm jumping the gun a little by announcing all this, but I couldn't wait any longer...

So, I'd like to thank all of you lot. Some read early drafts of the manuscript and gave me advice. Some are even part of the story. Some of you are the lovely people who came up to me over the summer and said, 'We read your blog - keep it up!' Without you to read the stuff, there wouldn't be any point in my writing it. Thanks, and keep up the good work, folks...

Bye for now from a sunny, windy, bright September day in Tilos at the Honey Factory.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Rhodes Saturday Market - Photos

Wanderlust have just very nicely published another blog of mine, about the delicious temptations of the market in Rhodes town last week.

They used the lovely photo of the garlic seller's stand, but I think we need a few more photos of that wonderful fresh produce - and the people buying it. So here goes...
If you like the blog, please say so with a vote or a tweet or a share.
Thanks to Wanderlust and to you, the readers!
Pop down to the market on a Wednesday or Saturday.

Finally, the ancient city walls just on the other side of the busy road...