Saturday, 22 March 2014

Island Sunshine

‘I can’t believe I was so stupid!’ I said to Eleftheria as she was weighing the vegetables, keying the prices into the till and loading my shopping into the bag the other evening. ‘I was going to drive to Ayios Andonis, and I’d left the key in the ignition, turned on. The battery was flat!’

‘Oh, I’ve done that myself,’ said Eleftheria, smiling.

‘I felt so stupid…’

Another lady from the village was standing by the counter. ‘Ara,’ she said, ‘so, are you saying Eleftheria’s stupid too?’ she said, smiling at the hole I’d dug for myself.

‘No, no!’ I protested, laughing, and Eleftheria said we made a good team, the Tilos hazoula  and the foreign hazoula.

‘We’ll sort out your car tomorrow,’ she said. I went home and made dinner.

The weather was grey, rainy and windy for about ten days this month. A neighbour had a friend visiting from England during the stormy weather, which led to her boat to Rhodes being cancelled and her trip curtailed. With all that and still no functioning ATM on the island after three months (nice to know Alpha Bank care so much!), she must have wondered how we all survive.

But now, now spring is here, and it’s nice not to have to worry about unplugging the power and phone cables when I go out. Although the rain was needed, the sunshine has palpably changed everyone’s mood. There’s a feeling that summer is on its way: people are cleaning out their restaurants, rebuilding walls, laying new patios. And I’m loving the warmth and sunshine.

The island is green and lush. The springy greenery gives the mountainsides a softer aspect, and fields are bushy with huge daisies and oversized clover. One morning, I made the mistake of taking the old stony track from Kastro restaurant down towards the fields; the weeds are more than knee-high, and I ended up with shoes and jeans soaked with dew. There's also a breath-taking diversity of different flowers. 

When I’m out and about with Lisa, people often ask if I’m going for a walk, a volta, but the other afternoon the deep blue skies brought on a burst of diminutives, with one lady asking if I was going for a voltoula, and Despina calling out, ‘Kali voltitsa!’ as she and her mother gathered horta in a meadow.

I later walked towards Plaka in the peace of the early evening. The sound of my boots on the road was intrusive. I stopped and listened to the waves lapping the shore below. Lisa and I startled the partridges out of the undergrowth as we passed, and goats twisted their heads towards us, curious.

I was out walking early this week when I dropped my camera, and for some reason although the camera was fine, it deleted the stored photos. In fact it’s something of a relief, as I’m always hoarding photos, just as I hoard interesting bits of paper containing useful ideas for things I should do but never get around to. This month I did a spring cleaning of my office, and feel a lot better without all those bits of paper.

When I looked properly at the camera after I got home, it turned out the memory was empty except for a handful of photos which had somehow survived: they were of my lovely great-aunt Cath, sitting in my mum’s garden with the rest of the family, in the week before I moved to Tilos. Cath died this month at the age of 86. Her last holiday was last summer in Tilos.

There was also a funeral in the village this week. Later, I ran into two friends, chatting and looking tearful. They said they wanted to talk about good-humoured things, after being sad for a while, and I learned a lovely Greek expression:

‘Never a wedding without tears, or a funeral without laughter.’

It sometimes appears that life is a bed of roses, or oversized daisies (which would probably make for a more comfortable bed, when you think about it). But even here… sometimes….

I’m walking this morning when my phone rings. ‘Kyria Barclay? Do you speak Greek? I’m calling from the hospital. It’s about the miscarriage surgery you had last March. Do you remember?’

I wonder if she later feels stupid for asking that. She continues.

‘The insurance company won’t cover it because…’ Her Greek becomes very fast and I don’t understand a word. I ask her to repeat it and she says it at the same speed. I make out something about how they would only cover it in conjunction with another insurance policy. ‘Do you have IKA?’ Of course I don’t have IKA – if I did, why would I need private insurance?

Europeans living in Greece have health care covered by their EHIC card. But annoyingly, because I earned money in more than one EU country the year before last, it got more complicated and I opted to take out health insurance.
It’s taken the private insurance company, Ethniki, a year to decide they’re not covering the cost of my operation. Is it just a coincidence that last week I told Ethniki I wasn’t renewing my policy?

‘So,’ the woman continues, ‘you have to pay us.’ Then suddenly she gets aggressive, as if I’m to blame for this year-old unsettled account. ‘You have to pay amesa! Immediately! AMESA!’

I hang up and try to block out her voice as I head to the beach. The day is warming up. All I’m doing amesa is going for a swim.

The sea at Ayios Andonis is perfectly calm and clear blue: out near the end of the promontory to the right of the bay, it’s like glass. I have a long swim up and down the beach under the windmill. Lisa tears up and down the sand, dribbling an old punctured football she found in a cave. On the way back, I stop to chat with a friend and he offers to get my car going; if I drive down to Livadia then, it will recharge the battery.

Like Lisa, I get excited about an excursion to Livadia – it’s good to say hello to folks we haven’t seen for a while. Everyone’s in a good mood; I get a friendly welcome at the post office where I go to send back the contracts for the Bulgarian edition of Falling in Honey; the other night, when I was excitedly signing them, I looked up the name of the publisher, and it turns out it means ‘sun’, appropriately enough. When I go to buy wine and vegetables from Sotiris, he is very enthusiastic about a new brand of milk he’s ordered. ‘Try it and tell me what you think!’

The sage bushes with their mauve flowers crowd the edges of the back road like giant purple heather. I can’t resist another swim, diving off the white pebbles into deep blue water, and swimming far out, the whole bay to myself.

Later, the sun is warm enough for a nap on the terrace.

Back at home, I have some pleasant work to do: drafting answers to a Q&A about my life on Tilos for Islands magazine.

All month I’ve been busy writing guest blogs to spread the word about the US publication of Falling in Honey, and I’ve had some great support from bloggers (see links on the Falling in Honey page). I’ve also had some surprising messages from readers. Someone just wrote to say they’d been inspired to spend a month on Halki last year and will be going back for longer, while another person said he’d been inspired to pack up working next year and live a simpler life. Are we starting a movement, folks?! Opa! I like to think so!

The Octopus will be mostly away in April and May, having adventures and trying to put pen to paper from time to time. Enjoy your days, wherever you are.


Sunday, 2 March 2014

Apokries, or Carnival

This dog which I profess to love woke me at four thirty one morning recently. I tossed and turned for an hour, then, defeated, decided it would be light soon anyway, so I might as well take her for her morning walk. I threw on the two closest jumpers and a pair of jeans and wellies, and set off.
It was dark as we walked through the sleeping village. But when we reached the fields below, the songbirds and roosters were beginning to wake. And soon I could hear crashing waves down at Eristos, like a siren call… Lisa was pulling that way too, so we went. Walking at dawn is a nice way to wake up, I rationalised, while thinking about the cup of tea I’d make when I got back.
It was just getting light as we neared the beach, where waves were smoothly rolling in and crashing with white foam on the sand. I looked up to the sky to the southeast, where thick fingers of cloud had started turning a vibrant red, growing deeper by the moment. As it glowed crimson, I looked down and the sea was red, as if flooded with blood. It was an almost scary spectacle. Five minutes later, it was gone. The clouds became orange and then paled.
We turned back, taking the dirt track that passes En Plo, passing the chickens clucking around a field. Towards Profitis Ilias, the rocky hilltop was beginning to be touched by sunlight. Then the mountain seemed to receive the rising sun with full intensity; like switching on an electric fire, when the bar transforms from ash pale to bright orange-red. The top of the mountain was alive, while below and all around remained grey. No wonder the ancients came up with myths.
Again, it lasted five minutes and then faded as the sun rose higher, and as we returned to the village, the sky was blue with puffy pink and purple clouds here and there, a benign and friendly sunshine beginning to spread about generally, and no hint of the mysteries we’d witnessed in that witching hour.

This time of year is known here as Apokries – the Greek version of Carnival. I first started being intrigued by the Apokries customs after a visit to a museum in Athens which displayed some of the freaky traditional costumes, some with animal fur covering their heads. In the Christian calendar, this time of year is all about the giving up of meat for Lent; apokries combining the words ‘away from’ and ‘meat’. Though clearly, it’s all wrapped up with ancient pagan customs too.
There was a party at Bozi on Tsiknopempti, the day for gorging on all the meat you’re about to give up. We arrived when a group of children in fancy dress were dancing zumba. It was entertaining, but the end of the event, and we were left standing in the aftermath of a kids’ party: paper plates, streamers, and little people in fancy dress running around fighting with balloon swords, while tired parents and relatives wandered zombie-like in their wake.
So, we asked anyone who’d listen: if Tsiknopempti is the day for feasting on sizzling barbecued meat before Lent, why are there another ten days before Kathari Deftera, Clean Monday? There are three stages, it turns out. The following week you can still eat animal products.
We hustled a souvlaki from the grill. I’d gone there with Sibylle, our good friend from over at The Island Bus. She’d been over to the house to use the internet that afternoon. Recovering from being loved-up by Lisa, she went to make herself a cup of tea. I turned around to see water streaming out of the kettle, and I had to apologise. You see, I bought that kettle in a supermarket in Rhodes about a year ago. As soon as I got it home I found out that it leaked from the handle if you filled it with water for more than one mug. If I lived in Rhodes, of course, I’d have taken it straight back to the shop. But when you live in Tilos, and the choice is taking it back on the ferry next time you go, and in the meantime living without a kettle… Well, you just keep it. I think of it as an eco-friendly kettle, as if you boil more water than you need for one cup, you’re at risk of electrocution.
A few days later, clearly she had forgiven me, as I was deliberating where to take Lisa for her afternoon walk when a message arrived from Sibylle suggesting we go to the Apokries festivities in Livadia. So that became my destination for the walk, and we arranged to meet there. The weather was cloudy, but hot when the sun peeked out; so, arriving early after our walk, Lisa and I went for a surreptitious dip in the sea.
The festivities began with dances by the young children; then by women wearing brightly coloured flowers in their hair. Then what looked just like a maypole with a mask on top was carried out into the square, and a dance followed with twelve women weaving the ribbons around it. This Greek carnival custom is called the gaitanaki; the twelve ribbons relate to the months of the year, while the interweaving of the ribbons, or gaitania, symbolizes the circle of life and death, winter and spring. This springtime tradition, which occurs in May in northern Europe, happens in late February here when the flowers are already blooming.
Then the dance floor was opened up to all, and we danced. One dance seemed to go on forever, and as the line of dancers got longer with more women joining in, it was a pleasure to see the sea, and the late afternoon sun on the hills; so few festivals take place in daytime, as in summer it’s too hot to dance in the midday sun.
Just as dusk was closing in, there was a commotion and the maskers arrived: villagers dressed up with masks and scarves covering their faces, carrying kitchen tools to clatter and shake in our faces: comical but sinister. Someone had the face of an old man and wore a flowery house-dress. Another wore a pink evening gown and gloves, with slippers and a pink wig, carrying a ladle.
After watching for a while, I decided to do something I haven’t done for ages, and walk home across the island in the dark. Soon Lisa and I were leaving the noise of the music behind, and the lights of the bay; and there were just the high-pitched piped notes of the birds; the different smells as we passed different terrain; and, especially right in the middle of the island, utter calm, with layers of stars up above in the clear gap between the clouds. Only four times in the whole hour was the peace disrupted by a car driving by; the rest of the time, we had the island to ourselves. And when we reached the last quarter of the journey, I could hear the waves down at Eristos. The journey of a few days came full circle with that sound in the darkness. 

The big Apokries celebrations happened this weekend, with more partying and parades. But I’m observing my personal ritual of being borderline antisocial in order to recharge my batteries. Lisa and I have been walking and swimming, and I’ve been celebrating spring by marvelling at the mauve flowers on the sage bushes, the yellow spiny broom and the new, pale green leaves on the trees.
As I started writing this, after an afternoon’s walk to Plaka, I realised on doing some online research that it was good that I had just cut myself a meze plate of graviera, as it is 2 March, tirofagis, the day for eating cheese. Tomorrow is Kathari Deftera, the start of fasting for Easter – which starts, of course, with a feast of seafood…