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.


  1. It is a disgrace that Greece has been branded as a country where nobody works. Anyone who has been there will know this is not true. I heard an analysis of the Greek situation on BBC radio and it seems that the truth is that they work very hard - longer hours than Germans for instance - but they are not very productive.

    This is something that many less developed countries have in common, and I gather it's to do with the infrastructure and the way the country is run. It's about the amount of opportunity that is actually provided within the country for ordinary people to do well. So a better and less corrupt government really is the only way.

    Hm, a return to the drachma... I think it's dangerous to do that. It would impact all the higher end Greek businesses, including high end holiday resorts, because of the difficulty of finding foreign suppliers willing to accept drachmas for fixtures and fittings, fabrics, appliances, etc. that higher end businesses use.

    The best answer would be for Greek factories to start producing international-standard stuff, but that might prove hard if they are stuck with the drachma as they wouldn't be able to buy the foreign machinery and raw materials for making these high end goods.

    A return to the drachma might benefit businesses offering genuine rural charm at a lower price than they'd get in France and Italy. But equally likely, I regret to say, companies who want to run rock bottom cheapo resort holidays at less than anything found in the Eurozone.

    So I hope that even in their current plight, the Greeks need to guard against pressures to return to the drachma, become the bargain bucket of Europe and lose their chance to upgrade their domestic industries to international standards.

    Greece is one of my favourite countries and I sure hope it will find a way out of this.

  2. That's a really interesting and thoughtful comment. Many thanks! Much appreciated.