In the days leading up to the referendum, Tilos has been as calm and chaotic as ever.
(I've just started re-reading Henry Miller's Colossus of Maroussi, and he says that when he lived in France, he missed the qualities of confusion, chaos and passion - all things he found in Greece. 'The Greeks are an enthusiastic, curious-minded, passionate people,' he wrote in 1941.)
There were no queues at our ATM, and no problems taking out money. This is a luxury compared to early last year when we didn’t have a bank for several months; on an island like Tilos with only one ATM and few places that take credit cards, you try to keep cash on you anyway. You don’t worry about money being stolen here.
Greek friends might be cautious with money, wondering if they’ll get paid next month. But that didn’t stop people having a party at Kali Kardia in Megalo Horio on the eve of the vote.
Early summer is always a time for friends reuniting, seeing people you haven’t seen since last year. Add to that the people who live on Rhodes and elsewhere have come home to vote, and you have a happy occasion, whatever the circumstances. It’s a Greek thing.
When Edward and I arranged to meet at Kali Kardia, I’d hoped to overhear some discussion of the situation. I arrived a little early and a dozen people from our village and farms in Eristos valley, along with a few people I didn’t recognise, were sitting around the terrace in a large circle with their coffees or wine and mezzes. There was a good mood, not a hint of fist-banging debate. I guess everyone already knew which way they’d be voting by now.
Someone joked, ‘What about the Saint Panteleimon currency?’ referring to the fact that in the nineteenth century the island’s monastery printed banknotes. ‘We should bring that back in!’ This prompted a lively discussion of which Munich museum has samples of the old currency, and how busy the island was back then.
As more people arrived – some who live half the year in New York, others who live in Rhodes (and Sotiris had even come all the way from Livadia) – the decibels rose and Michalis and Maria were soon rushing around with plates of food. Nikos and Toula ‘Taxijis’, the former taxi drivers who retired a couple of years ago when the expenses got too high, were at our end of the terrace and cracking lots of jokes. I remembered the Easter Sunday when I drank home-made wine with Nikos, and he kept us draining the glasses and topping them up.
Suddenly there were musical instruments, a lute and a lyra, in the hands of two skilled musicians, a father and his teenage daughter; she was wearing artfully ripped jeans and smiled sweetly each time she was asked how she tore them. They started playing traditional songs and soon the folks were singing along with gusto, and teasing one another. Pantelis came over to ask at one point how Australia was, and I said the life was boring compared to Greece. He seemed satisfied with that answer. The suburban places I stayed in Australia rarely had inexpensive local places like this where people of all ages gather. And Greeks love to gather. A few older men have taken to simply sitting outside the village shop on chairs, to chat and see people who go by...
People by now were buying one another ouzos or little carafes of wine. Nikos was dragging people up to dance. Ela Jennifer, as tin Lisa tora… He made a little dig at me for always being with my dog (she was waiting patiently at home), and told me to get up and dance. I resisted, remembering the time at the koupa where he made me dance to something complicated that I didn’t actually know in front of everyone – very embarrassing. But when I was sure it was an easy one, I got up and joined in. Michalis brought us another little carafe of wine, and said we must stay until the sun comes up. Thankfully we didn’t, but it was after midnight when the party finally broke up.
I’d been thinking in the afternoon about village life. Polixeni, in her eighties, often chats to me when I’m taking Lisa for a walk. She’s usually on her way back from taking care of her husband’s grave – she visits him every day down in the cemetery, walks back up the steep hill to her house, catches her breath at the bus stop bench and gets the day’s news by greeting everyone as they pass. She’s basically fit as a fiddle, and her quality of life is as good as it could be. And my day is usually improved when Polixeni taps me playfully with her walking stick. She told me how her father uses to look after his animals. Those were good years then, she said.
In case there is still some notion that Tilos is a quiet place where nothing ever happens, it seems that we are back on the main route for people fleeing events in the Middle East. I walked up through the Skafi valley one afternoon this week, collecting bits of rubbish – Turkish kofte wrappers and water bottles – left by a recent arrival of refugees. I’d seen them after they arrived in my village, the police helping them into a truck to take them to the monastery above Livadia, where they could stay until the next boat to Athens. It still feels strange to be in the midst of events that most people only understand vaguely from the news.
A friend emailed me from the tiny island of Pserimos saying ten illegal immigrants had arrived and were waiting for a boat, all young, 12-24. They’d paid $2,500 for the very short crossing from Bodrum to Pserimos – people-smugglers are making a fortune out of these people who have left behind good homes to flee the war.
Beautiful birds circled above the Skafi valley; if only migrating people were so free. Skafi beach was littered with another batch of brand-new life-jackets, which I gathered up and covered with rocks to stop them blowing into the sea. It was the same as last July, and I amused myself with the thought that unemployed Greeks should go into business selling life-jackets back to Turkey.
When I went to buy vegetables one morning from the farm at Eristos, an Italian couple were waiting for Michali and we exchanged a few words in a mixture of Greek, English and Italian to pass the time. Michalis – still strong in his eighties from working in his fields – came back with some fresh-cut aubergines for them and they piled tomatoes, peppers, courgettes and watermelon into their car and drove off.
‘Can you speak Italian with them?’ I asked.
‘I’m shy to speak it, as I don’t know the grammar, but I understand them when they speak,’ he said. ‘I only did two years of Italian.’
I asked if he was at school when the Italians ruled Tilos. Italy took over the Dodecanese from the Turks in 1912. At first they let the islands continue with their own culture, as the Turks had for centuries. But then the Italian regime changed and became more oppressive. From 1938 to 1943, all school lessons were in Italian, and Greek language and history was forbidden.
‘I did two years,’ said Michalis, ‘and then I went to Rhodes. There, Greek school was taught in the churches.’
‘Secretly?’ I asked.
‘Yes, of course, krypha, secretly. But it was proper school! You had to do your homework and pass exams to pass to the next class, and all that. But after that, I couldn’t continue as there was no Greek high school.’
When the Germans took the islands over from the Italians, from 1943 to 1945, they allowed Greek schooling again. They had other things to deal with.
In the last hundred years, so many of the Dodecanese islands, previously highly populated, flourishing and self-sufficient, had their livelihoods taken away as they passed from one great power to another until they were almost abandoned by the time the Second World War ended. I’d thought about this a lot while in Kastellorizo, which went from 10,000 people to a few hundred.
We talked a little about current events and the dimopsifisma, the referendum. ‘If Greece leaves the euro,’ he said, ‘they’ll devalue the currency and you’ll need a big bag of money just to come down here and buy your tomatoes!’
I bought my tomatoes and peppers and zucchini, and Michalis gave me a melon as a gift. It’s a wonderful season for local fruit and vegetables. I’ve been cooking yemista (peppers and tomatoes stuffed with rice, meat and herbs) and melitzanes tiganites (slices of aubergine, salted to take out the bitterness, then dipped in flour and fried in oil). I also made karidopita, walnut cake soaked in honey syrup – made with local honey.
In the evening, I sit on the terrace in one of the comfortable old chairs I inherited from a friend who moved, with Lisa chewing a bone close by. My wine and olives on an improvised table made from a plank of wood and some bricks, I look out at the rugged hills and bright moon, hoping things won’t change too much.
If you're interested in pet-sitting Lisa when I have to go away in mid-August, mid-October, or over Christmas, please contact me through the contact form, Facebook or Twitter for more information. She's a lovely, affectionate dog and the house is in the heart of lovely Megalo Horio. Thanks!