Thursday, 28 June 2012

Tales from the Kantina

Warning: long blog; reading time possibly several weeks (and I complain that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is too long…)

June morning on Eristos Beach

Six a.m. Tilos time, and a cockerel crows. The pink-orange light hits the craggy tops of the limestone hills, sliding slowly down to reveal the castle, terraces and lingering patches of green. Bees buzz around the flowers in the garden. Wisps of cloud cling to the hilltops, birds sing, crows flap overhead. I sweep out the house – a mix of sand, garden-earth, dried sea grass and probably a few ants.
June seems to be Ants Month in our bit of Tilos; they’ve been exploring my computer and the kettle, muesli if not hidden in the fridge, and I’ve got used to carrying one occasionally like a very small pet on my arm or leg, like a Parisian with a pug (only different).
‘It’s something you use to paint with… You use this to close something with a key… It’s two plugs in one plug.’
Stelios had asked me to pick up a few things he needed for the Kantina while I was in Rhodes for the day. I understood what he wanted, but I didn’t remember the words he used. So I played party games (Greek version of Articulate) in the hardware shop trying to explain what I wanted without knowing the words for paintbrush, padlock and – well, what do we call two plugs in one plug in English? In Greek I later learned it’s called a ‘taf’ – the Greek word for the letter T. The guy in the hardware shop sorted me out with what I needed and made me a coffee.
I walked back to town with my frappe and found the bus I needed, which naturally had the craziest bus driver in the world; the Number 3 was just a venue for his daily performance and he had a joke for everyone as we sat there waiting for the time to depart. ‘I am sorry,’ he said to a German lady, ‘but I am original, I am Greek!’ She offered him some chocolate.
Red mullet are in season. Stelios brings home a handful for lunch. Red mullet are dolphins’ favourite food, he says, but I think they might be mine, too. Sweet, simple, fried in olive oil. I’m so hungry I eat them standing by the stove as soon as they cool down enough.
I am just making dinner when Maria shouts ‘Jennifer!’ and when I look up she is at the end of the path, arms laden with two types of cucumbers, green peppers and zucchini, straight from the earth. I make salad with the cucumbers and peppers along with onions, rocket and boiled potatoes from our own garden, pickled capers from Tilos, and the first of the tomatoes from the farm on the road to Eristos, which I pass cycling down to the Kantina.
17 June, a big day. The Greek elections, yes, but also my first day opening up the Kantina. I unlocked the fridges, organised food, put ice in the bucket. And finally I decided to make a ‘practice’ frappĂ© coffee and sat one of the wooden tables, looking out over beautiful Eristos beach, not a soul in sight, waves crashing in and a little breeze blowing through the trees, and enough shade to see my computer screen. Birds were twittering in the trees and cicadas revving up.
The day before, Stelios and cousin Popi and I were loading the fridge with beers and soft drinks when our first customer arrived, a very nice English chap. While Stelios fixed him a Greek coffee, he showed me photos he’d taken of an owl on the way down to Skafi. He even left a tip. As did Stelios’ friend who runs the nursery school here (a magnanimous gesture given that her salary is one of those that’s been reduced by a third – ‘We don’t talk about that!’ she said).
It was also a weekend to celebrate as I finished the final edits on my book. It is a great feeling – especially now it’s been through the editorial wringer and is A LOT better. My editor, Abbie, confirmed that it’s on track to be published next spring. A cover will be designed soon, and in the meantime we have to decide which title sounds best: Falling in the Honey, or Falling in Honey. The subtitle? Life and Love on a Greek Island, of course.
In the evening I watered the garden as usual; no rain here since April and unlikely to see any before October. I put up bamboo canes and fishing nets over the tomatoes as touches of red are appearing. The temperature’s been well over thirty degrees for weeks now and the upstairs of the house is very hot, so I’ve also planted my tent in the garden. I can sleep with a view of the stars through the netting.
The elections happened and I don’t think anyone could be unhappy with that result. Enough people voted for the right-wing Nea Dimokratia that the new coalition government can try to meet the European bailout terms. And in the meantime, the left-wing Syriza got such a massive show of support (much increased even from May) that it’s as if they are waiting in the wings in case things don’t work out.
I did a fast re-draft of an article I’d been invited to write to alleviate holidaymakers’ questions about the situation in Greece this summer: I forgot to add at the end of the article: the only thing you need to worry about is the danger that you might fall in love with the place and stay.
To the Kantina come a retired English couple who live in Boston and are island-hopping for six weeks, clever people; and Stephanos, a man from Thessaloniki who came here seven years ago and built a house on the hill nearby, and who I notice has a tattoo of the island of Tilos on his meaty arm, along with the name Irinna: the famous ancient poet of Tilos, after whom he named his daughter. Another day all the kids from the high school arrive together and leap barefoot over the hot sand (Kaei! It burns!), order hamburgers (made fresh by the butcher) and toasted sandwiches.
A woman from northern Greece who’s staying with friends on the beach for a few weeks comes by for her kafedaki, her mid-morning coffee, and tells me very carefully how she likes it: very specific instructions about how much water/coffee/sugar. Nectarios, local honey-maker (you couldn’t make up a better name for a honey-maker, could you?), stops in his truck to grab a frozen bottle of water. A smiley Norwegian giant orders two cheeseburgers and we try to figure out what kind of Norwegian hamburger dressing his girlfriend is allergic to.
One of our regular customers is secretary to Mr Tsipras, leader of the opposition Syriza party. She wears a cool long dress and floppy hat.
‘How can you be here now?!’ I asked her.
‘I told Alexis I must go to Tilos for the month of June, as I do every year. I don’t like to come later in the summer when there are more tents, more people.’ I’ve seen her sitting on the beach just looking at the sea, perfectly peaceful. ‘He understands. One year after when he was running to be mayor of Athens, we each went off for our summer holidays to the islands, but didn’t discuss where we were going. I got here and was on the beach one day when I heard a voice and thought “That sounds familiar…” We’d both come to Tilos.’
The mystery of the missing tourist continues. A British man in his seventies arrived in the first week or two of June, and the hotel maid noticed he didn’t seem to be coming back to the room. His daughter in Rhodes said he hadn’t been in touch. A helicopter started circling, looking for him: perhaps he went out walking on his own in a remote area. Tilos is such a small island, but there are empty parts where nobody goes. He wasn’t registered as leaving the island on one of the scheduled ferries, but there are of course private boats. I like to think he found some buried treasure or perhaps eloped, but it’s sad to think what might have happened.
So when a very friendly Italian couple who sit down with us at the Kantina to eat their ice creams say they’re off to do some walking in the heat of the day, Stelios asks where they’re going, to be on the safe side. They misunderstand and tell us where they’ve been: everywhere, it seems, nary a trail on the island has been left untrod by the happy people from the village near Milan. They are hoping to retire to a Greek island one day and haven’t decided which one yet.
June 21. I’m not a big fan of Summer Solstice. Just as you’re enjoying those long summer evenings, it comes along and threatens to start taking them away from you bit by bit. Maybe it’s just a reminder to make the most of these days. But 21 June is also European Music Day. In France it’s one of my favourite nights of the year, when anyone who can play or sing takes to the streets to perform live.
This Summer Solstice I’m heading to Barbara and Ian’s villa across the valley for a birthday barbecue. As I turn towards their lane, sheep come hurtling down the road. On the rooftop terrace, apart from local Greek neighbours I meet a Flemish writer who lives in Goa, an artist with her dog and English musicians John and Terry. When I first came to Tilos as a tourist, I only wanted to hear Greek music, but now I’ve been here for over a year it doesn’t feel strange to listen to English songs. To sit under the stars, eat and drink well, make new friends and listen to a great voice and guitar: it’s a perfect midsummer Tilos evening. Stelios arrives after he gets back from work, trying to stay awake after fishing-kantina-fishing since four a.m. We come away with a recipe for Zucchini and Chocolate Cake, and Ian’s favourite song ‘Big River’ in my head for days (it's called a Music Worm, apparently!).
 In the peace of the morning at the Kantina, I sometimes have a quick swim and then read or edit at the wooden table in the shade. (Ntelos, my honey-making landlord, says he’s had ‘two and a half’ swims this year so far; locals love to count their yearly bania, I find.) When Stelios is done fishing, he roars up on the bike, I have a longer swim and then go back home for my working day proper. I’ve been busy this month, editing and negotiating for new projects. I got a lovely email from a friend in England who’d just got back from a wonderful holiday in Skiathos but didn’t think she could ‘slow down enough’ to live on a Greek island. I couldn’t help grinning; life doesn’t feel exactly slow right now – though I wouldn’t have it any other way.
We don’t have much business at the Kantina yet, but it gives us a chance to feel our way around. The appearance of a couple of German walkers and a young German guy taking photos and videos of this and nearby islands shows that sensible German tourists are not staying away from Greece at all; and they speak Greek.
By Saturday, the woman who comes for her kafedaki is still asking for infinitesimal variations on the way I make her coffee. Is it possible Greeks take their coffees a wee bit too seriously? There again, I grew up in an England in which you were grateful for a drinkable coffee, an England into which Starbucks arrived as a sort of emergency Beverages-Sans-Frontieres; we don’t have a tradition of ‘English coffee’ and I’m not sure you’d want to drink it if we did. Perhaps just as well I’m learning to make elliniko.
Customers of the week for me are the Swedish couple who swim and sun themselves on their favourite spot right by the sea until late morning then come and get a couple of Mythos beer and fall asleep… Then more swimming and sun and a couple more Mythos before taking the bus back to Livadia. In Rhodes on the way here they saw all the young people and the noise and thought ‘been there, done that’, and seem blissfully happy having a big swathe of beach to themselves and cold beer a few steps away.
Since it’s the weekend, when Stelios arrives to take over I escape to the end of the beach and spend an hour or two just reading then jumping in the sea to cool off, over and over, until I feel perfectly content.
I’m reading an unputdownable book; I love it when that happens (unlike the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo which I have unfortunately found quite putdownable; I’ve read hundreds of pages but there are seemingly thousands to go).
With In Dependence on my Kindle I go up to the roof terrace in the evening and watch the pink and orange light of the setting sun spread over the hillsides. Ants are conspicuously absent, perhaps carting away the furniture downstairs, so eventually I lie down on the smooth concrete from where I can only see the tops of the hills all around and the sky changing colour. It’s moments like this that I cherish. A couple of hawks fly overhead and the noises of the night begin, as the lights come on in the village.

Monday, 4 June 2012

'Life is Short - Enjoy your Coffee' on a Small Greek Island

Mytha the Cat is back and ready to be fed, please

In two weeks’ time, Greece will vote again in elections that could create monumental change, deciding not only on a government but whether they are more or less likely to be able to stay in the Eurozone.

Well, I spent two weeks in England this month, and spent enough time talking and thinking about that. Here’s what Tilos looked like on the morning I left:

And here’s what England looked like when I arrived:

Anyone who thinks the Greeks are lazy – as one London cabbie made clear he did, while I pretended to check messages on my phone to avoid getting into a discussion – should consider dolmades. Would you make something so fiddly for an ordinary mid-week lunch? I went to buy eggs the other day and was directed into Eleftheria’s kitchen, where she was hidden behind a mound of vine leaves and a pan of rice stuffing, preparing lunch for her extended family of ten.

Megalo Horio
Anyone who thinks the Greeks don’t want to work should meet the lovely cabbie who drove me and a Swedish couple from Rhodes airport into town on my return. A tall, skinny guy (unlike his London counterpart). We were heading for the bus stop when he came over and offered to drop us off exactly where we wanted to go for less than three-quarters of the normal cab fare, only just more than the bus. He was fed up with waiting at the back of a long line of taxis. ‘Better for me to keep working,’ he said.

He chatted to us all the way and threw in tips for the tourists when they asked where to eat. The subject of The Crisis came up and the young Swedish guy made a gauche comment about how the Greeks now will ‘have to work’. There was a quiet pause, while the driver wondered if the young guy was joking, then he just shrugged and said he worked twelve hours a day, though takings were down 50%.
As for the vote ahead, he said: ‘It’s crazy we have elections in the summer, though, the tourist season. And who can we vote for? This one steals, the other steals more. I’ll vote for who steals the least! Anyway, I think is better to go back to the drachma. Sure it will be hard for years, but not as bad. People will go back to the villages – life is easier in the villages – and make things again.’

Spring figs!

Seva in aerobics class this week was talking about how when she came to Tilos around thirty years ago (only from the next island over, Nisyros), it was behind in a lot of ways, but it also had more life, more young people.
Yes, I am back at aeroviki and loving it, and back at Greek dance class too although that’s a bit more difficult. ‘Irthes, you came?!’ commented Anna, our teacher, as it has been a while. I got my feet in a bit of a twist a few times, and my hands: when you hold hands across the people next to you, one hand faces upwards and the other down. (I ask you, would a lazy people really invent those complicated Greek dances?) ‘You remembered that one?’ joked Anna when I finally managed a full dance without getting mixed up.

Oleander was out in full bloom at the roadside when I arrived back in Tilos
Funny, it creates the opposite of road rage. As do the goats that loll around,
not really bothered that you're approaching.
So, will Greeks from Athens be able to afford the trip to Tilos this summer? The seafront restaurants in Livadia – including Irina, which has been opened up again by a Tilian/Cretan family – already have customers from England and Germany, France and Scandinavia. The sun is shining, the sea is blue; the island waits to see what the summer will bring.
And none more than the new owners of the Kantina on Eristos beach.
For the last several years, a Kantina among the trees serving drinks and snacks to people on the beach was run by Vangelis and his daughter, Martina; though last year, Vangelis was helping his son Nikos get set up in his new restaurant, Gorgona.
Last summer, I remember one day grabbing myself a cold lemonade and a sandwich at the Kantina, and Martina in a quiet moment was playing cards with Apostolis and Stelios, two new friends I’d met at the panayiri or festival in the village (little did I know…). Stelios, I later learned, has pretty much spent every summer on Eristos since he was a boy, and knows everyone. (Which is why, after he and I met again at another panayiri in the village, he invited me to the little bar on the beach…)
After the lovely Vangelis passed away in the winter, Martina decided Nikos would need help in the restaurant. So she put the Kantina up for sale, and offered it first to her friend Stelios. Why is why, a few days ago, he and I came to be clearing rocks from the beach.

And Stelios, after months of talking to people, procuring the tax documents, seeking permission from the local council, having tests done for a health certificate and doing all sorts of other expensive, stressful and time-consuming things (who knew that the till alone would cost hundreds of euros? and how many tourists see the hard work that goes into making their holiday feel laid-back?), is now preparing to open. The least I can do is shift a few of the stones the winter storms washed up on the beach, so that folks can relax in soft, sandy comfort as they sip their cool drinks.
(Little will they know that literally a stone’s throw away, a fisherman from Tilos and an editor from England got to know one another...)

The Kantina itself is now in place, but Stelios looks very worried about all the work he still has to do. He has to find an anthropos to help him haul the drinks fridge and the ice cream fridge into place and the wooden tables and chairs. Then he’s got to see if he can teach me to make a decent Greek coffee while he’s out fishing in the morning.
He’s so worried that he’s thinking about taking up smoking again. For the stress. ‘I was much less stressed when I smoked,’ he says. ‘And the doctor says I’ve got to be careful about my stress.’ It seems a shame to go back to the kapno after a few months without it; he smells a lot nicer and I don’t have to sweep up bits of tobacco every day. Not to mention the debatable health benefits.
‘There are some Angli, English people, next to the Kantina having a party,’ said Stelios on Saturday when I was preparing to go for a swim. I glimpsed Ian and Barbara as I passed by, and went to say hello. At once I was invited in to meet the crowd.

‘Are you the lady who writes the blog? We’ve brought you a book,’ said Rosie, who had read my post about using an illustrated story book to teach English to the little kids, and thought I might be able to use a book she’d found in England.
‘Come over here, there’s someone else who’d like to meet you…’ Here was a group of long-term Tilos-lovers who in their search online for things Tilos-related had found my ramblings and liked following the life of the island from afar. ‘Keep it up!’ they said. I’d met two other couples in Livadia the other night who said the same. Well, now I’d better. If only for the nicest group of people you’d ever expect to find having a Queen’s Jubilee Party on Eristos Beach in Tilos.

It’s dusk, and it’s warm out on the terrace. I’ve watered the garden – the potatoes which Stelios has been frying up, the onions and rocket for salad, the last of the radiccia with its blue flowers in the morning that disappear in the evening, our fledgling tomato and courgette plants. In the distance, in the deep blue sea, a big cruise ship crosses the horizon. I spot a donkey down in the field by the church. The bees are buzzing in the garden and a bat flits by. There is nowhere quite like this place.
These islands survived hundreds of years of Turkish occupation; then Italian occupation; followed by German army occupation during World War II, which decimated local farms. When finally the islands became independently Greek again, they suffered under the years of the military junta. There have been a few good decades since. Let’s hope Greece can get through this next challenge.
Meanwhile, as the saying goes: life is short – enjoy your coffee. Preferably at Eristos beach, at the Kantina… opening soon.