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.


  1. Well speaking from my England-based version of holiday heaven, it sounds like those Swedes have got it right! Life at the cantina must be fun. I found the first volume of The Girl with the DT quite gripping but gave up on ch1 of volume 2. Very nice to be name-checked on the blog - an honour! xx

  2. Glad to hear you're in holiday heaven! I bet I'll enjoy the rest of GDT when I do pick it up again - maybe I'll try this weekend. Still, slightly puzzling that it became such a runaway bestseller - and nice that publishing is continually full of surprises. xx

  3. Jennifer: I have no idea what your book is about, but how about "Headfirst into Honey" or "Dancing in the Honey" for a title.

    No foreigner should ever pretend to understand Greek politics, but I have nice memories of Nea Demokratia because many years ago I found myself in the middle of one of their demonstrations in Syntagma Square and it was just a big happy party and everyone seemed delighted that I, a foreigner, had seen through the bare-faced duplicities of PASOK and come out to support them. I was actually just sitting there writing postcards.

    1. Nice story! And thanks for the title suggestions. Falling in Honey is a Greek expression that one of my friends in the book uses for falling in love...

  4. Kalispera Jennifer,
    I came across your blog whilst 'googling' Tilos. Unfortunately the missing englishman is the father of my good friend, I was searching for information about the island for her.
    I live on Rhodes in the south near Gennadi and my husband is also a fisherman (O Psaras!).
    I enjoy your blog very much and will look forward to reading your book when it is published. Good luck with everything and I too would choose 'Falling in Honey'
    Best Wishes Janette

    1. Yeia sou Janette,
      Thanks so much for getting in touch with such a nice message. I can only imagine what your friend has been going through. I haven't heard anything more. There are signs up everywhere asking for information but I don't know what else is happening. I hope she's holding up somehow.
      I visited the area around Gennadi last summer and thought it was beautiful. Funny that your husband is a fisherman too! My fisherman has finally got a couple of weeks off as their kaiki has gone away for servicing, so for once he wasn't up at four this morning...
      Appreciate the comments about the blog - I love doing it and it's a great way of connecting with people. (And thanks for the vote on the book title!)
      All best wishes,

  5. Hello Jennifer, My friend's father, Russell Ward, still has not been located and his family have now started a Facebook group
    I know you are busy with everything but please if you can look at it and if you are able 'like' and 'share' it. The wider the audience the better chances are of finding him. After spending almost three weeks walking the island of Tilos Sara came back to Rhodes. His family and friends are desperate to find out what happened to him. Any help is greatly appreciated. thanks Janette

    1. Hi Janette,
      Of course, have just shared the link on my Facebook page. We've been talking about the situation over the weekend, wondering if there was any more news. If the family wanted me to write something more about it, or do anything here in Tilos, let me know and I'd be happy to. I'll be in Rhodes on 19th and 20th of this month and could meet Sara. Though let's hope there's some news before then. Thanks and please feel free to email me directly at barclayjennifer at hotmail dot com. All best wishes.

  6. Jenn, A trivial and only distantly related question: What does a little cup of Greek coffee cost these days? Going though old notes I find that in Athens in 1981, I paid about 25 cents (US) for a cup and six years later at the same shop paid 45 cents. Looking online I have found loud complaints about 4-euro frapees, but nothing about the price of a basic elliniko.

    1. Hello! A basic elliniko at the kantina is 1.20, a double 1.50, and frappe 1.50 (which we've been told is cheap for the beach). I think I've paid 2.50 for a frappe elsewhere, but elliniko is always cheaper - oddly, because it's better and take more time to prepare!

  7. Hi Jennifer, im hopefully planning to visit Tilos for the first time next summer. I see you mention in this post about tents on beaches. Is it possible to camp freely on the beaches on Tilos? Seems like a lovely way to stay on the island.



    1. Hi Harriet,
      Yes, although free camping is technically illegal in Greece, the municipality has encouraged free camping on Eristos beach for over twenty years. It gets contested and grumbled about every year, but so far it's always been allowed. There are showers and toilets - all free to use - and several tavernas nearby and of course the kantina on the beach. Free camping is also allowed on Plaka beach, which is beautiful but smaller and with no facilities. Eristos gets packed with tents from about mid-July to late August, and then it can be hard to find a shady spot! But early July or September are perfect.

      If you need more info, just contact me through the contact form!