Happy Holidays...

Bet you thought I'd be frolicking on an Australian beach and preparing to throw another shrimp on the barbie, mate. Well, so did I, but here on the south coast of New South Wales, the weather's a little patchy. Cloudy. I did go for an extremely swift swim in a very cold ocean, but I thought we'd all prefer to see some sunshine from around this time last year back in Tilos...

 My heartfelt thanks to all of you for continuing to support the Octopus in my Ouzo and Falling in Honey this year. I've been using my time away to write a lot. I've also been having plenty of fun with pet-sitting adventures off the beaten track in New South Wales. I'll leave you with photos of some of the new friends I've made in the last few months. 
Warm wishes for the holidays, wherever you are!



A Field Guide to Happiness

Linda Leaming has lived in the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan for much of her adult life and already published a memoir called Married to Bhutan. Her new book, A Field Guide to Happiness: What I Learned in Bhutan about Living, Loving, and Waking Up, explores how life can be happier in a remote place without all the trappings of modern life, the traffic and supermarkets and busy-ness; in a refuge relatively unpolluted by the rest of the world because of its remoteness.
          Having moved to the tiny, isolated Greek island of Tilos to make my own life happier, I can relate. I read this book so quickly that it was almost over too fast. One of the things that makes Tilos special for me is the extreme ‘otherness’ of life there, compared to many parts of the world, which helps me to make the most of each day. I’ve given such things much thought since, through force of circumstance, I’ve spent most of this year temporarily living in Australia. Throughout Linda Leaming’s funny, interesting, thought-provoking book, I found myself saying, ‘Exactly…’
          Living in Bhutan has made her think differently about pretty much everything, from time, work and money to nature, family and other people. And that isn’t because it’s been a walk in the park. Often it’s the challenges that have made her appreciate how simple happiness can be. She talks about losing your baggage, calming down and learning to breathe, illustrating each life lesson with Buddhist ideas and with smartly written, entertaining anecdotes from her life spent between Bhutan and her native Tennessee.
          With food, for example, the range of ingredients in Bhutan is limited; its remoteness means the shops ‘aren’t perpetually stocked’, and sometimes they have to make do. Yet they eat very well with what they have, and appreciate it. It’s satisfying, fresh, wholesome, natural.
          One of the things I’ve learned not to do in Tilos is to look at recipes for yummy things for which half of the ingredients will not be available. Better to buy what looks good, then make something from it; wondering what to have for dinner is not really something I need to think about, then. When I first arrived in Australia and could shop in large supermarkets again, the array of foodstuffs, rather than being exciting, left me baffled. How do you know where to start when you can have anything? The choice did not make me happier. Whereas in Tilos, the arrival of fresh vegetables after a winter storm has left us cut off for a week is a cause for celebration.
          Leaming has a beautiful way of describing the simple pleasures of life. Walking in high mountains, she says, ‘slows me down mentally and diminishes the volume of my inner voice’. The simple matter of getting from A to B, with nothing to do but ‘relax in that feeling of suspension’, induces a meditative frame of mind. There’s a lovely story she tells about divorce mediation (not hers), which has absolutely nothing to do with lawyers, and which has a happy ending. There’s also a delightful story about sending her husband Namgay into town to buy a part for a washing machine, and him returning instead with a salad spinner.
          Although on the surface it’s an easy-to-read, funny and accessible guide to increasing your inner peace wherever you are, the book also subtly demonstrates that one country can be more conducive to happiness than others. Bhutan is famous for its Gross National Happiness, which Leaming explains was originally a whimsical comment made by the fourth king of Bhutan during an interview, but has developed into something more like a manifesto. Government policy is determined not purely by economic factors but by consideration for the environment and culture. Which brings her back to the point that for happiness, both on a large and a small scale, it’s important to decide ‘what’s important besides money’. Clearly money alone doesn’t bring happiness, so why pursue it so doggedly? *
          Having lived in several different countries, I find it fascinating to observe the subtle variations in the way people do things, and I’ve always tried to absorb lessons; that’s also why I love books by people who immerse themselves in different cultures and have challenging experiences. Did Leaming learn to enjoy life more by living in Bhutan? Part of it was simply her character and life happening around her, but being forced to reassess her values constantly helped put it into focus. When you’re always learning, your mind is alert to small differences. If you’re changing your whole life, it’s easier to change the way you do the small things.
          There are parts of the book that you may disagree with, which makes me think it’s an interesting pick for a book club. Linda and her husband, a Buddhist painter, spend part of their year in the USA, where Namgay has a weakness for buying gadgets. There was a jolt for me when she mentioned him using a leaf-blower, which strikes me as a piece of unnecessary baggage that has potential to infringe on other people’s happiness: I am happy to say my peace and quiet has never yet been torn asunder by the noise of a leaf-blower on Tilos – though it was torn asunder by plenty of other things.
          But one of the pleasures of this book is its idiosyncrasies and its tone; she’s not claiming to be perfectly happy or enlightened or to have all the answers. It’s a book that makes you think while it gives you pleasure, and for me that’s a five-star reading experience.
          Bhutan seems to inspire beautiful books; this one will go on the shelf alongside Jamie Zeppa’s Beyond the Sky and the Earth, and Britta Das’s Buttertea at Sunrise. I say ‘on the shelf’, but I mean it metaphorically as I currently don’t have any bookshelves. How’s that for getting rid of baggage? Instead I’ll keep it on my Kindle and read it again more slowly, calming down and taking time to breathe.
A big thank you to Hay House for the review copy. And to Linda for the use of her photos of Bhutan (that's Linda and Namgay in the photo above), and for sharing her thoughts and experiences in this book. Here's a link to her website: 

(*note how I cunningly inserted a picture of a Bhutanese dog, clearly not in the slightest bit interested in pursuing money doggedly...)

The Pet Project

On my last nights in Tilos back in mid-July, I slept on the terrace under the stars, and Lisa spent her nights either curled up on the comfy chair nearby, or waking me up by cracking bones with her teeth. Once she came over to where I was sleeping and nuzzled me through the mosquito net.
On the final morning, waking at a few minutes to five, I took her for a morning stroll. There was a big full moon over the mountain of Profitis Ilias. Back home, I dragged my big suitcase out to the car, then came back and rubbed her belly while she gnawed on the old no-longer-stuffed toy (she took the stuffing out of it last time I left). When it was time to leave, she graciously accepted a treat to eat as I left, so I didn’t have to look at sad eyes, but a happy dog.
Still, I didn’t really stop crying for her until I was halfway around the world.
Now, the whole point of our being in Australia, Ian and I, is to look after his mum. But that means being tied to her house, in a place on the South Coast of New South Wales that is very pretty but - a little way back from this spectacular coastline - has lots of houses and cars and not enough hills that you can get to without a car. OK, we’re pretty picky, after living in Tilos. We’re used to being free to move around a lot. We’re also used to having pets around; in my case, one demanding dog, in Ian’s case a large number of cats.
I started dreaming of Tilos, and dreaming of Lisa; it didn't help that I was working on my new book and looking over old photos of her. Every day we walked up or down the coast paths, and were making friends with more dogs in the neighbourhood than people, almost.
One day, walking back from the shops, I saw a dog running down the street and heard the man shout to it, ‘Katse kato!’ Are you Greek, I asked. Yes, he said, from Chios. He’d lived in Australia decades but still talked to his dog in Greek.
Something needed to be done; we needed to go somewhere; we all needed a change of scene, as Ann, Ian’s mum, wasn’t happy staying at home all the time anyway. So it occurred to me that after my experience with house-sitters earlier this year when I needed someone to look after Lisa, we could do some house- and pet-sitting ourselves. I signed up to an Australian house-sitting website.
It took a while to find the right assignments, but finally we started in mid-September in one of our favourite places, the Blue Mountains. Our first assignment was to look after five cats, seven chickens and a diamond python, which I thought sounded perfect. And it was. The hosts were happy for the three of us to stay. We were able to explore lots of new walks.
I’ve just started my second assignment in the mountains, looking after a lovely dog called Major (I feel a little like Basil Fawlty calling ‘Major!’). This one I’ll do on my own, and will use the quiet time for working. On my first day, today, he enjoyed his walk around the neighbourhood but gave me that familiar sad-eye expression when I left alone to go into town. Then he only ate his own food when he was absolutely sure my own food wasn’t on the menu. Dogs!
We’re already booked in for two more assignments in the coming months, so we have plenty of new experiences coming up. I don’t think there will be too many dull moments.

I'm also posting stories also on the 'Australia' page of the blog, and photos on my Facebook page.

A Walk to Plaka

Everything was packed and organised. Plaka was where I'd decided to spend 12 July, my last day in Tilos for months. I set out with Lisa in late morning. Walking by Elpida, the taverna by the sea where the road turns one way to Ayios Andonis, the other to Plaka, on impulse I stopped and bought dolmades se paketo to take to the beach for lunch. The clouds that had kept the day cool seemed to be clearing, and I might want to linger by the sea.
The dolmades were warm as I wrapped them up and tucked them in my backpack. Sotiris, the taverna owner, sat down again on the terrace and asked about Yianni, when he was coming back from Australia. Not yet, I said. His mother needs him. But he wants to come back. I asked Sotiri to fill up my water bottle, needing enough for Lisa and me for the day.
The walk was beautiful; though it’s a road, not a footpath, there are hardly ever any cars. I kept Lisa on the lead so she couldn’t chase the goats. We passed the little monastery of Kamariani, where back at the start of the year I had arranged to meet Ian – known to locals as Yianni – for a walk to Plaka.
After eight years in Tilos, he had to leave, he said, as his 82-year-old mum needed help. He would go at the end of January. We’d been friends since I arrived on the island but never close – strangely, as we both loved writing and books and walking. Until recently, I'd assumed the 'S' he wrote about in his blog was still his girlfriend; and on the other side of the mountain I'd been with my own S, though quietly I'd felt it wasn't to last.

In the final days before he left, realising there might be something more between us, we got to know one another, walking to some of our favourite places in the hills and swimming in ice-cold sea together. And now, six months later, I was leaving Tilos too for a while. Why would anyone leave Tilos in the summer to go to Australia in the winter? For love, of course.

When Lisa and I reached the top of the track that leads down to Plaka beach, the sea looked clear and blue and perfect. I let her off the lead so she could run to the sea to cool off.
There'd been a fire at Plaka just a week before. My mum had been staying with me, and we’d seen the plume of smoke rising from the side of the mountain one day as we returned home. They’d managed to put it out quickly, dropping seawater from above, though that night we’d seen the red lights of the helipad still illuminated.
Now I made my way slowly down the rough track, surveying the fire damage. A large area of the park was charred to dark grey. The peacocks, I'd heard, had all survived. When I looked up from the beach, there was still a view of trees and green hillsides, but when I swam out into the sea, large blackened sections of ground were visible. It would probably take the winter rains to start things growing again.

People used fire sometimes to help things grow better, didn’t they? What can seem terrible damage one day… like what I’d done at the end of January… that was for the best, I hoped.

Along the beach was a scattering of hippyish Greek holidaymakers. I walked farther around to my favourite place, and found Lisa some shade to sleep in. I swam underwater over the posidonia, the sea grass that sustains so much sea life, as it flowed back and forth with the waves. Using Dimitris’ old mask, which his family gave me, I got up close to some of the fish: a skaros below me tilted its body a little to look up, then spotted me and shot away; a yermanos, mottled grey and white and black, had ferocious spines sticking up from its back although it was only half the length of my hand. I touched bright orange-red anemones and swam into shoals of tiny fish, and watched groups of others as pale and uniform as the Christian ichthus.
As Lisa and I walked back across the beach, peacocks stalked the sand, moving their heads back and forth under delicate tiaras. A couple of them flew up onto the crumbling gateposts as if pretending to be ornamental; then they stared at one another, and leaped down into the park.
I considered what I love about Tilos: it’s rugged, wild, vibrantly colourful, diverse and yet empty, like living in a national park. Yet it’s small enough to get to know intimately, to see how the view changes from season to season, from morning to evening or depending on the way the wind’s blowing. It’s uninhabited enough – except for its roaming animals and underwater life – that you can believe it’s your own.

Those last few days had been intense, with many powerful emotions coursing through me. But it was time to leave and continue getting to know the man who also loved this place in very similar ways, who loved being alone in the emptiest parts of the island and who also cried to leave it. At these times when I felt utterly in love with my surroundings, he was the only person I could really imagine walking and swimming with.
After I got back to Megalo Horio, I went to say goodbye to my landlord, Antoni, and he told me he wanted to keep the house for me when I returned, and that I should pass on his greetings to Yianni. As I walked up the hill, Vasiliki was at Kali Kardia and Lisa attacked her with love, holding her face in her front paws. Vasiliki said she’d make sure Lisa got to spend some time at their house over the summer with their dog Freddie. I couldn't take her with me, but she'd be happy at home with Stelios in Tilos.

Nikos and Rena were sitting outside the supermarket. ‘I’m leaving tomorrow,’ I said, and Nikos nodded to Rena, who went inside and came back, smiling, with the aluminium bottle that Nikos had asked me to take to Yianni. Ouzo. Nikos never tired of telling me how Yianni would hike up to the monastery in the rain or swim all the way across Ayios Andonis bay. ‘Tell him to come back sooner!’

I sat on my terrace looking out at the dark with a glass of wine, listening to the footsteps of people passing through the alley in front of the house, Lisa growling or barking at a person or a cat from time to time. I hadn't managed to see Michaelia before leaving; like so many people in Megalo Horio, she has relatives in Australia. 

When Lisa and I arrived at Kali Kardia, it was busy with people from the village and for a while Maria sat down with me, pretending to be a customer so she could get off her feet. Michalis and Vasiliki invited me to join their table but understood when I said I wanted to sit alone tonight. Lisa had picked up on my mood and sat quietly, looking out over the balcony. When it was time to go, everyone wished me a good journey to Australia and sent ‘many, many greetings to Yianni’.

‘We are waiting for you!’ they shouted and waved goodbye as we walked up into the village. 

So now, for a little while, ‘an octopus in my ouzo’ is based in Oz – as is that other Tilos blog, ‘when the wine is bitter’ – writing about Tilos and listening to Greek songs... I hope both will be back in Greece before too long.

Courage to Lose Sight of the Shore

This may be a little hard to follow. Bear with me. In the long run, I hope things will be clearer.

My friend Fran, who once went to Crete for a holiday and stayed for ten years, wrote: ‘We must always trust and follow our hearts. It can take us to some very happy places.’

This year for me has so far been full of adventure, which is what I hoped for, after two years when – in spite of being in a place I love, living my dream life – I spent too much time having to be cautious as I fell pregnant and miscarried and then did IVF and, in spite of everything looking apparently excellent, didn’t get pregnant at all. I’d had enough of doctors and hospitals for a while.

People ask from time to time how Falling in Honey ‘ended’, and the answer is that it didn’t. The media, for whose interest I was certainly very grateful, wanted a story that ended with me ‘finally finding true love’. But my life is messier and more complex than newspaper stories (as if you didn’t know that). Most lives probably are.

There was an Epiphany on the sixth of January. There was happiness and there was sadness. Then, after saying I wasn’t going to Australia, I went to Australia for six weeks to try things out. I returned to Tilos for six weeks to pack up ready to fly back to Australia, with the plan that I’d stay until next year.

It wasn’t so easy. I almost couldn’t leave Tilos. I knew it was only temporary, but it was harder than I’d expected to cut ties for a while with the place that has been such a reliable source of happiness.

Someone wrote me a kind message about my book around that time, and wished me ‘smooth sailing’ and blessings on life’s journey. Then I saw on her website she had a quote from Andre Gide: ‘Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.’

I booked my ticket. Greece would still be waiting when I returned. Lisa would be fine in my absence.

Michaelia asked one morning how I was, and I replied I was very well, but a little sad because I was leaving. ‘Look,’ she said. ‘If you’re just going to Australia for a holiday, then don’t go. But if you’re going for something more serious,’ which she knew I was, ‘why not?’

Knowing I’d be gone for a while intensified my feelings for Tilos, brought them into focus. For the last week, I gave up trying to work and simply made the most of every single day, walking as far as I could. I slept outside on a mattress on the terrace, under the stars. Crows woke me at dawn. I drank fresh lemonade made from the lemons that fell off the tree every day. The kitchen smelled of melon. There were beach days and taverna nights.

Up early one morning – though Lisa had woken me during the night cracking bones between her teeth, then padding over to my mattress to lick me through the mosquito net – I drove us down to Livadia for 7 a.m., picked up breakfast at the bakery then walked to Tholos for a blissful couple of hours on the dark sand alone. The swimming was wonderful. It was hot work going back up the hill just before midday. Back home, I ate cold melon then fell asleep.

That evening, we walked to Ayios Andonis in the evening. I watched the beautiful golden sun set behind the island, then started walking to the harbour, and a red sliver of sun came into view again and I had a second chance to watch it set. Stopped for a drink and a chat by the sea, and when I got up to leave, a bank of fog was spreading over the island. After the intense heat of the day, it was delicious to walk home through damp cloud.

The following afternoon was my first ever walk to Agriosykia. I was determined to do as much as I could. Long, tough walks, swimming at my favourite places... 

...and if Michaelis invited me to help pick watermelons at 7.30 a.m. one morning, that's what I'd do.

‘I catch, I no catch? Because I don’ know exackly.’

Michaelis was shuffling around the field of watermelons, a roll-up in his mouth, his shoulders hunched. With baggy shorts falling off his hips, he peered at melons twice the size of his head, trying to determine which ones were white enough to be sweet.

‘I no wan’ catch if no ready. Where is Grigoris? He go somewhere with the goats.’ The Norwegians who just moved to Megalo Horio were getting married and needed watermelons for the meal, and their friend Michaelis had arranged to buy them from Grigoris the farmer. After a drink with them at Kali Kardia the previous evening, I was invited along. But there was no sign of Grigoris and he wasn’t picking up his phone. Finally, after we’d stacked half a dozen watermelons, Michaelis called Sofia, Grigoris’ wife, at the kafeneion. He hung up the phone and cursed.

‘Grigoris drink coffee!’

We picked another half dozen and carried them to the gate, covering them with tarps so the crows didn’t eat them. I picked up a rock to hold the tarp in place and Michaelis told me to be careful of scorpions. I walked back, taking a look inside the little church of St George that I’d never really looked at before behind the football field, with ancient marble columns worked into the bricks. As I walked back through the village, I noticed almonds drying on a table in a courtyard on the way up to my house. Those last days, I wasn’t just learning how much I loved Tilos, but the pleasure of making the most of every day.

Washed Up on Skafi Beach

We were leaving Skafi beach when Mum and I noticed lifejackets strewn on the pebbles.

All sorts of things wash up on Skafi; visitors make shelters out of driftwood and artworks out of old shoes, and clothes are sometimes hung across the cave at the far end to scare the goats away when the farmer, Menelaus, doesn’t want them drinking seawater.
The lifejackets were odd, though. They seemed expensive and new, and I wondered if they’d inadvertently been lost from a charter yacht. This is the season for yachts to be mishandled by holidaymakers, and in fact during these days at the start of July, one was just about to enter the harbour at Livadia in an ill-advised way during a storm, and sink Nikos the fisherman’s little varka.
Closer inspection revealed the floatation devices were different sizes, including a few for small children. Alongside were items of clothing. Hours later we learned there’d been a new arrival of Syrian refugees, and I guessed they must have arrived at Skafi.

This month, Tilos became a dropping-off point of choice for people smugglers. Not for the first time, this fairly empty bit of rock with its deserted coves just a few miles from Turkey has become a convenient place to leave people who’ve paid to escape a war-torn country for a new life in Europe.

The next day, though it was very hot, Mum and I walked with Lisa to Politissa, the ‘monastery’ in the hills above Livadia that’s only used once a year for the celebration of the Holy Virgin in August, or for the occasional wedding. It’s recently become a useful spot to house the refugees, and their friendly faces lit up to see Lisa cooling off in some flowing water.
It encouraged us to walk up and say hello, which is how we met a young woman speaking excellent English who’d just a day earlier been washed ashore in an unknown land with her children. They’d arrived at Skafi in the dark of night, and been told the boat had a problem and they must get out at once, taking nothing with them. Several of the children – shy, wide-eyed, now gleefully stroking Lisa and clutching their toys – were very young, while over in the corner a smiling man held a baby only a few months old. It must have been terrifying as they jumped ashore on a wild beach surrounded by rugged hills, with no lights visible. They lit a fire, and in the morning they saw a path and the young men walked to see where it led.
For now, they were safe, although the mother found it hard to explain to her kids why they couldn’t go for a swim in that lovely blue sea down the valley (they’d been told, as their papers were processed, that they could go for a walk in the early evening). They could sleep in peace and make food and had been given clean clothes, and it was sad to think that these were probably the best days they’d have for a while, before they were shipped off to a holding centre somewhere.
Later, we swam, feeling grateful, and when we drove back to Livadia in the evening we went back to Politissa. A young man greeted us cautiously and asked what we wanted. We showed him a picture book and some finger-puppets for the kids – perhaps something to keep them entertained on the long ferry journey to come. He smiled. ‘You have one more for me?’ Beema had taken the kids for a walk down to the sea, and he asked if we wanted to wait but we expected they’d be a while, and I had a dance class to go to. We danced outside the church, in the cool of the evening.

A few days later, Mum and I went back to Skafi one morning, watching eagles circling above; having awoken early to the sound of cicadas and crows and bees, and set out swiftly, we had the beach to ourselves at just after nine, and the water was a perfect topaz blue.

At first, the lifejackets seemed to have been removed, but Mum figured out that the windstorm might have blown them in to shore, and sure enough we found them all in the scrub bushes. Fearing they’d be scorched by the sun and left as rubbish, we gathered them up and carried them towards home. As we stood in the shade of a tree near Menelaus’ enclosure on the way back to the village, tourists passed us on their way down to the beach, and I laughed, realising we looked like we were selling our armfuls of lifejackets; perhaps we’d do better business down in Livadia...
As we neared Megalo Horio, we looked down into the valley and saw people at the little chapel of Ayia Paraskevi. Only later did we find out it was Anna Parliara, the Silversmith jewellery maker, along with her partner and son, celebrating her birthday by painting her chapel.

A couple of days after Mum left, I went back to Skafi on my own one day with Lisa. The weather had turned strangely grey with clouds, though the beach was still colourful with brick-red sand, and the bay empty except for a yacht.
I swam around with a mask and snorkel and watched the fish: the loners with the rough, chocolate-brown downward stripes and a flash of blue on the side, which hide in the shadow of rocks when they see you; skaros, purple-brown with big scales like armour, and comical yellow eyes that look up at you anxiously; and the tiny ones with the forked black tails and white bellies, curious and bold, that swim right up to you.

When I got out and lay on the beach, I felt something strange – tiny drops of rain, just a few, lovely in the soft, warm afternoon air. On the walk back home, I saw a green-blue roller fly across the valley as I reached the top of the hill. And I noticed more lifejackets, and empty water bottles, and wondered if there had been more refugees.
It was true. Back in the village, Marios told me proudly that he was up all the night before. He’d been working on his car (as always) when he heard a voice in the dark, ‘My friend, I want water.’ He ended up walking up from Skafi with that group, helping them find their way. ‘I like Syrians. Is good people.’
Later, I was taking Lisa out for her final walk of the evening around midnight, when I saw Maria whispering over the wall to Marios.
‘More refugees!’ she said. ‘Kristoforos call me. They arrive now at Skafi.’ The two policemen had gone to Menelaus’ enclosure to try to find them. We joked that Tilos would become Syrian at this rate – after all, there are only 300 residents of Tilos, and if the Syrians keep coming every few days… ‘We give them Mikro Horio,’ joked Marios, referring to the abandoned village. Suddenly, we heard voices. ‘What’s that?’ But it was just the sound of a private party in the village.