Winter Holidays

Himoniatikes diakopes!’ – winter holidays – says Anna, one of the local ladies, as I pass her on the seafront. Half an hour ago I heard her shouting to a neighbour and realised she was in the sea.
‘I saw you swimming,’ I say.
‘Yes, it’s beautiful… but I have to get dressed afterwards.’ She’s now bundled up in her winter clothes. I laugh knowingly. She asks after my family.
It’s always good weather when I’m leaving Tilos for England in December. I’ve skipped one or two, but mostly I go away for a couple of weeks of work and seeing friends and family for the holidays, the yortes.
At the start of December, there were days of warm, calm weather, and balmy nights when I would step outside my apartment in the dark to see the moonlight shimmering softly on the bay.
In the early morning, I like the moment at 5.30 a.m. when the streetlight outside my bedroom window is switched off, leaving just the first of the daylight. On the 5th December it was so calm, I listened to the faint chugging of the fishing boat as the sky brightened. There was also a big cargo ship in the bay.
When I threw on some clothes and took Lisa out, I heard the cry of ‘Psaria!’ – the dulcet tones of Nikos, captain of the Sofia, announcing fish for sale. Sure enough, his truck was in the square and the fishermen enjoying a coffee at Georgos’ kafeneio. I bought a bag of marides, the small fish that are in season right now, and sat down for a coffee and a chat with Stelios while waiting for Savvas to open the post office. Georgos, handing me my Greek coffee, tutted that my black leggings were covered in dog hairs.
As I walked back home with my bag of fish, Panayiotis was sitting outside his mini-market and told me to wait while he filled a little bag with dried rosemary.
‘When you fry fish, put rosemary in for flavour.’
Then a freezing north wind held us in its grip for a couple of days. I had to close the wooden shutters as their metal hooks were clanking. The sea wind was howling and the waves crashing roughly on the pebbles, and there were whitecaps out beyond the bay, the horizon bumpy. Inland it might feel much warmer, but I love being so close to the sea, intensely aware of its mood. It was a good time to remember Saint Nikolaos, protector of fishermen, with his name day on 6th December.

These winter days I’m busy with editing work, so a mid-morning break to buy food and treats is inevitable. Seeing the white van in the square means there will be olive oil, oranges, lemons, lettuce and spinach. And having got accustomed to making my own bread for the last few years, I’m now making the most of the bakery. Lately there have been calzouni, pastries with cheese and honey, and little syrup cakes made with tahini… All the more reason, then, to put on hiking boots and get some exercise in the early afternoon.
Lisa shakes her hairs all over the place and jumps around excitedly, nose in my face as I try to lace up my boots. It might be a walk towards Lethra for a swim, or a hike up one of the tracks behind Livadia to the ridge above, the silent high places where people lived long ago in now-abandoned stone houses. The hillsides are turning green with fresh shoots; there are acorns underfoot and autumn leaves, crocus blooming and the leaves of cyclamen appearing – their flowers something to look forward to in the coming month. After the cold wind dropped, there were two sunny days with flat clear seas and I swam, enjoying the feel of the water for the last couple of times before the end of the year.

As I walked back from the red beach a couple of days ago, Ilias was outside his hotel, sweeping after the latest round of pruning of the bushes. ‘Lots of walking!’ he commented. ‘And swimming?’ I said I did – it was such a beautiful day.
‘Few people know that it’s paradise at this time of year,’ he said.
Those of us who stay for the winter – it’s only a few hundred – stay because we love it. And it is a very friendly community.
Ilias reminds me to keep my phone with me when I walk alone and remember the emergency number, 112. I thank him.
I’ve been coming and going a lot with travels in October and November – to Halki and Nisyros, to Rhodes and Athens and the Meteora. To the harbour again this morning with a bigger bag this time. And with ‘many kisses’ for my parents from Delos, who treated me to an extra glass of wine with the pork gyros and Greek salad at Kyriakos Grill last night.
‘Are you leaving?’ asked Panayiotis, standing on the dock. Just for a few weeks, I say. 
He says he’s meeting his wife off the boat… but not until tomorrow. Bit early, I think.  
His daughter’s living in Strasbourg and keeps inviting him but he likes to stay in Tilos and not go anywhere. ‘I tell her – I’m coming!’ Then he adds, grinning: ‘With the fishing boat….’
Once I’m up on deck, I watch him and other guys hanging around the ferry as it waits for the time to leave, joking with one another. Stelios Stefanakis walks off the ramp, laughing at something, throws down his cigarette and gets on his scooter to zip back the hundred yards to his office. That’s the signal, and the ramp starts to move.
As I sat writing this on the ferry to Rhodes, where I’m connecting to my flight, I felt a finger poking me on the shoulder and it was the priest from Megalo Horio, Papa Manolis, grinning at me and asking, ‘What are you writing now?’


Breaking the Pomegranate


'We say spame to rodi,' said Dimos at Faros taverna yesterday evening, handing me a pomegranate to break for luck with my new home. We'd just finished a dinner of calamari and briam and fried small fish, which are just available again since the season began for fishing with trata nets. I'd learned of this good news after running into Stelios on Friday's Blue Star ferry to Rhodes. (On the way back, a couple of young guys were playing lyra and laouto on the top deck.)

I told Dimos I'd already broken and eaten a pomegranate in my new home on the seafront in Livadia. At first it felt strange living in Livadia after so many years in Megalo Horio. One of the benefits of living here is wandering down to the square mid-morning to see which of the farmers from Megalo Horio or Eristos is selling fresh produce. A couple of days ago I'd bought green guava that flooded the kitchen with their apple-pear aroma, and pomegranates, and olive oil, and fresh olives that I'm soaking in water to prepare them for eating. 

On the way to dinner, walking along the seafront, I had run into people I know with their dog. They asked where I was living now and I told them. It's directly facing the sea, and they weren't the first to warn me that it could get lively there with winds and waves. 'The question is how you'll get out the door in the winter!' laughed Seva. Her husband said, 'Ah, she'll be OK, she's lived in north Karpathos!'

So here I am, with the red fruit on my hand-woven tablecloth that I bought from Anna Lentaki in Avlona a couple of days before leaving Karpathos. I have rented this place for the winter, and then we'll see. The first of the autumn rain came down on Friday night, accompanied by a power cut, and more rain came down this morning as I was waking up, and now the sun is peeking through the clouds on a silvery blue sea. The sounds are the water sweeping up to the beach, and some crows - and now, the deep rumble of the big Blue Star ferry backing into the quay. I'll work for a while, then go for a walk - there have been many beautiful walks over the last two weeks since I arrived. Oh, but first of course I'll break a pomegranate.

A Warm Afternoon in Olympos

It was a warm afternoon, as Archontoula and Anezoula both said later. But I had to seize the opportunity and go. For once, I wasn't too busy or rushing back down to Agios Minas. It wasn't cloudy or windy. So I waited until after five, drank some water so I wouldn't have to carry anything, put on my walking boots and set off up Profitis Ilias.

Olympos is roughly halfway up the mountain. I walked to the edge of the village and followed the path, gradually zigzagging up the rocky slope, the day's heat bringing out the aroma of sage and thyme. Approaching the ridge, suddenly a swathe of green appeared, sweeping down to an amphitheatre of semi-circular field terraces.

Had it been a clearer day, I'd have seen Tilos to the north. But the horizon had been hidden in a heat haze since the morning. No matter, I'll be seeing Tilos soon enough. I thought about what an amazing experience I've had since arriving in Olympos a year and a half ago. Walking here on that first day, I'd been offered a ride for the last section of the journey by kind locals. Another branch of the same family have been making life impossible at Agios Minas all summer. It got so bad that I left for a break, went back to Tilos, found myself a little house to rent for the winter. So now these are my last weeks in Olympos for some time, and I want to make the most of them.

The signage was both clear and confusing. One sign at the start of the path had said it was twenty minutes to Profitis Ilias. I must be walking very slowly, I thought as the little church on the top never seemed to get closer. I realised later that twenty minutes must mean to the point where the Olympos-Spoa intersects with the path to Profitis Ilias. I was thirsty as I pulled myself up the mountain. It was something of a relief when the sign at the top said it was an hour and a half down. Except that by then, the sun was setting...


I arrived back in the village as it was getting dark. Archontoula said my face was red. I showered, then went back to Kafeneion Kriti for a beer, and a hearty dinner of meat and potatoes and bread. I spent the evening wandering from place to place seeing friends. I'm not finished with Olympos yet.

A Rendezvous in Diafani

The old Russian lady was a solid and reliable member of team Anemos last year. Strong as an ox, she carried heavy loads up and down the hills of Karpathos. Her body may be a bit the worse for wear these days, but Ms Lada Niva is a fine old girl and hardly ever gave us any trouble.

Sure, something needed to be unplugged if she was going to be left alone a few days, or the battery would be drained. But when the engine refused to start one morning and M had urgent business to deal with, he got it going using a piece of machinery that usually makes a goat rotate on the spit.
And sure, her interior was pretty rusted up too. The lack of a seriously effective hand-brake worried me when I had the time to think about it; and as I was driving downhill, the driver seat occasionally slid forward so far that my knees were bent up around the steering wheel, restricting access to important things like acceleration and braking. The back door is held up no longer by hydraulics but by a stick or a hand, and there has been the occasional misunderstanding leading to it falling on M’s head.
Every now and then one of us has insisted we need to replace the Lada, but for sentimental and cash flow reasons, we put it off and put it off. At the start of the summer, cash is thin on the ground for taverna and studios owners like M. Then ten days ago as M and I were heading to Pigadia together to shop for supplies, there was a strange rattle which turned out to be a bearing in the gearbox giving us due warning that it was getting ready to quit. The cost of replacement according to the mechanic, four hundred euros, seemed too much to spend on something held together by rust and good fortune.

So M talked to people and hunted around online and found a very similar car for sale in Crete for an amount that was manageable with a small business loan from Barclay’s bank (i.e. me). We knew it wouldn’t be perfect, but since it was the same model as our old Lada, M could swap around some parts here or there. Ideally he would have flown the half hour to Crete to test-drive it, but flights appeared to go via Athens and cost about three times as much as a return flight to Rome, so we asked our friend Manolis in Herakleion if he could take a quick look at it. He said it seemed fine, apart from a bit of rust and a dent or two, and he could put it on the ferry he was taking to Karpathos. And so on Saturday evening, we left Lisa with a full belly and a commission to guard the nascent veggie patch from goats and hedgehogs, and took the old Lada – its gears still rattling but still going for now – to Diafani, the harbour for Olympos just a little north of here, to wait for the ferry.
The Preveli, one of just two that service the island of Karpathos, is a good old-fashioned ferry. It’s been going for plenty of years; Yiannis the former headmaster in Olympos told me it arrived reconditioned when he first came from Crete to teach at the school in Olympos, and now he’s retired… And yet it has a wonderfully dreamy route from Piraeus down to Santorini and Anafi and Milos, on to Herakleion and Sitia in Crete (I took it to Sitia a couple of years ago with Lisa) and Kasos and Karpathos and Halki (a lovely connection to Tilos) and then to Rhodes. I have fantasies of spending a year just hopping on and off the Preveli…

Diafani looked pretty in the early evening light. We went first to take a look around Dorana Studios, owned by a cousin of M, another Minas. He was showing off a fine mane of black hair, some of it on his head but the rest of it liberally distributed over his bare upper body. He seemed a very friend chap and had nice rooms with a view of the sea and the church and mountains, which I figured would be good to recommend to friends and family. Then we went to get a drink on the seafront at Blue.
Very soon after, summer resident Roger Jinkinson strolled by, and stopped to say hello. He was ready to partake of an ouzo next door on the little terrace of the most traditional kafeneion in Diafani. The old lady who runs it, Anna, is the only person in all north of Karpathos who sells cigarettes and tobacco when the seafront kiosk is closed, and she is very cautious about letting anyone take more than their fair share. She keeps them in a wooden cabinet in the little café, along with the chocolate. She brought Jinks his ouzo with a little bread and olives, and a figure leaned out of the door and insisted on paying for it.
I apologised to Anna for sitting on her wall so I could chat with Roger, who has written a couple of books revealing the inside minutiae of local life as he’s come to know it over decades. Among other things, he told me how the old ladies of these villages have always commanded a lot of respect because they guarded valuable information about who was related to whom, and therefore who could marry whom.

Eventually I joined M again, who was sitting with a group of local men, and I enjoyed trying to follow their conversation, even if I only caught about a third of what they were talking about. At one point, a chap with a white moustache stopped in the alley and looked at M.
‘I know you, don’t I? Are you from Olympos? You’re a Drakos from which part of the village/family? So we have the same great-grandfather and are second cousins! I knew it.’ He sat down with us, and I got the impression he now lived elsewhere but was back in the village. He asked, ‘So why do all the locks turn the wrong way here?’ I was pleased to hear it wasn’t just me having this problem. Olympos has its own rules.

As darkness began to fall, Vasilis arrived with a just-slaughtered goat and a box of cheese in his car; cats prowled around it. A thick-set man with a no-nonsense demeanour and occasionally twinkling eyes, Vasilis used to be a plumber and now keeps goats and makes cheese and honey underneath the church at the top of the ridge from Agios Minas. He supplies us with feta-type cheese from spring onwards for salads at the taverna, and had slaughtered the goat for Manolis and his friends who were arriving from Crete. He’d keep it in his car for now, safe from cats, as the driver window of our old Lada could only be wound up using a wrench.
The Preveli should have arrived at ten past eight, but Captain Nikos said it would be sometime after nine and it showed its face sometime close to ten. We walked over to wait for the big ferry to dock. M helped someone with their bags onto the boat, then he drove off in the new/old Lada. We loaded Vasilis’ goat and a box of cheese in the back, and I had a few minutes to acquaint myself with the new old Lada before setting off up the winding road in the dark in convoy with M in the faulty old Lada and Manolis and company in his truck.
All went well, until we were driving down the dirt track that winds around the hill ridges with mountain on one side and sheer drop on the other. But I’m familiar with this route now and was appointed to drive ahead. As someone who refused to drive a car, aka death machine, for twenty years, I’ve come a long way. I was pleased to see a hare bounding around in the headlights before disappearing into the bushes. Then the lights behind me disappeared too. I paused a while, hoping everything was OK, since Manolis’ truck was big and heavily loaded and he didn’t know the bends in the road. I had visions of him misjudging a turn… There again, maybe he’d just stopped to try to catch the hare. I decided it was best for me to continue and make sure I got safely home, given that we didn’t know what problems the new old Lada might have.
I got back to the usual effusive welcome from Lisa, and waited for the other guys. And waited, and waited. Eventually, a phone call: Manolis’ truck had broken down. Which just goes to show that two rusty old Lada Nivas are still more reliable than anything else.

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P.S. Mum, I make all this stuff up, really.

A walk from Ayios Minas

You know that feeling when you don’t want the holiday to end…?

I took the month of May off from my editing and literary agency work, in order to rough out a first draft for a new manuscript which may turn into a book. I worked on it until I was sick of it and thought it was useless, and then I knew it was time for a break. I’ll give it time, letting ideas come to me as I do other things... 

In the meantime, we’ve had people staying in our rooms in Olympos and others coming to the taverna at Ayios Minas beach. It’s not too busy, just like having friends over – from various parts of Europe. Lella and Pierangelo left their car at the main road and walked the few kilometres down the track to the beach in the late afternoon, and sat by the sea for a while. They came to drink some wine and decided to stay for an early dinner. They devoured their salad, saying bellissimo

The man with the beautiful smile, Pierangelo from central Portugal, ate calamari stuffed with brown rice and spinach – Minas’ fantastic new recipe – and Lella, from Milano, ate lamb chops. Then Lella sang happy birthday to M in a voice that was astonishingly operatic.

‘Darling, let me tell you something,’ said M to Lella. ‘It’s not really my birthday. I told you it was my birthday because I wanted to buy you a drink.’

M sang a Greek song for her and they sang Beatles songs together and we laughed and danced, and finally we hugged and kissed and M drove the couple up to their car, Lella insisting she was sorry that she’d interrupted his birthday (which wasn't his birthday). I remembered what’s special about running a taverna here; when you meet people like Pierangelo and Lella, people you’d like to be friends with.

It’s been a lovely month, the sea warmer, swallows flitting around. When I walk Lisa around the valley, I come across families of perdikes (partridges), the tiny babies popping up seemingly out of the dry ground and the parent flying off and abandoning them. On the first day I started to notice them, I also saw an eagle circling – perhaps no coincidence.
In the last few quiet days of holiday, and before the weather gets too hot, I wanted to do some walking. I meant to get up early this morning, but the wine was going down easily last night and the bed was comfortable so I woke up around 8 a.m. I put some cheese and cold sausage in the backpack, a couple of lemon biscuits I made, a couple of big bottles of water and we were off up the hill, Lisa and I.

It was already warm, and still, a bit of heat haze, the sea glassy calm far in the distance towards Apella, as we passed the bee hives with one of the best views in the world. We reached the road and headed south a little until the sign that indicates the start of the footpath to Spoa. Lisa found a pool of fresh water and then some goats, and I somehow missed the start of the path up the mountain so instead we followed the track around the back of the mountain, which was magnificent.

A truck came up behind us and stopped at the little chapel of Ayia Marina (confusing as there’s another Ayia Marina a little northwest of there). We also passed markings for another footpath. I finally checked my map, and saw we were heading to the mostly abandoned settlement of Asia. When we reached the end of the road, amid old stone houses and threshing circles was the truck. An old lady in a white dress and black headscarf was waving her arms around and shouting in an effort to scare some goats out of the barn into a pen, from which they were being wrangled into the truck. The goats were being uncooperative.

Lisa was also being uncooperative. Whenever we reached a bit of shade, she walked in that direction and simply sat down, avoiding my eyes. We had some breakfast, and I decided to leave any footpaths for another day. We stopped at every freshwater pool on the way back, then close to the top of the track heading back down to Ayios Minas, to finish the rest of the picnic. The heady aroma of the pine trees in the hot midday sun made me think of retsina.

Lambri Triti in Olympos, Karpathos

The biggest day of Easter in Olympos is Lambri Triti, Bright Tuesday. In the morning, the bells start to ring and a few men carry the large icons out of the church and around the village, stopping at different chapels with the priest before gradually making their way down to the cemetery. There, he'll bless the family graves. The women wear their best traditional dress, bright stiff skirts and puffy sleeves in an almost Elizabethan style with much sparkling trim; it's a striking scene, a big draw for photographers. Last year, when I followed the procession I felt very conscious that we small group of tourists looked like scruffy papparazzi.

There again, as I said to Raymond from northern France yesterday evening, the locals take photographs of their cultural events just as much as the outsiders do. Raymond, carrying a fairly big camera, had been expressing similar concern about the number of photographers jostling for position. Yet all the village kafeneia have their walls covered in photos from years and decades past, a document of village life. There were mobile phones aplenty recording the musicians playing in the square, and at one point we laughed as a local young woman in full traditional dress held two mobile phones to record the proceedings – capturing footage of us in the process.

Last year, it had been too cold for the music to happen in the square in the evening – it was moved to a hall at the edge of the village and happened very late – so it was a treat to experience yesterday. In the afternoon someone was playing tsambouna, the goatskin bagpipe, in the Zografidis kafeneio. A little later, tables were set up outside and a small group of men old and young sang mantinades, improvised verses, to music played on laouto and lyra. Every now and then a fresh whisky bottle appeared on the table. The mantinades, the few I could understand, tended to be about how they appreciated one another’s company and how good it was to celebrate together.

Gradually more and more people gathered around the company to listen, as the sun went down and the night wore on. A cold wind blew off the sea and the mountain but the musicians were kept warm by the crowd gathered around, and perhaps the Johnny Walker. The men on the lyra and laouto were replaced by younger men, whose fingers never left the instruments - one of the nearby men placed cigarettes and cups of whisky to their lips. 
A few men and then women began to dance – less of a dance than a very slow shuffle around the table. More hours passed. Finally, after midnight, came the moment we’d all been waiting for, and everyone moved up the steps to the square in front of the church, where there was more room for everyone to join in the dancing.

The men who led the dance displayed some flamboyant leaps and moves. For most of the rest of the circle clasping hands, it was the same tiny, subtle, bouncy steps for what seemed like hour upon hour, though towards the end there was a break towards something livelier. Then the party broke up around 4 a.m., and the village went to sleep.

Check out photographs from last Lambri Triti by my friend Michael Pappas: