Saturday, 13 October 2018

An Island Home


When I returned to Tilos in August 2017, after my short trip to Olympos in the north of Karpathos turned into a year and a half, I rented a studio near the sea where I could listen to the waves. The experience and inspiration of my time in Karpathos had been invaluable, but I needed a base. And however much I loved Karpathos, Tilos felt like my real home.

In December, I broached the subject with my parents of giving up the flat I owned in England in order to buy a place here. I’d been happy to rent for years, but it felt time to have a place of my own again. Giving up the security of property in England would be a big step, but my parents fully supported the idea. And so, in January, I put my Chichester flat on the market. I’d been told a few years earlier that it hadn’t increased much in value since I bought it over ten years ago, and I had a sizeable mortgage, but I’d see what money I could raise.

An offer came in and I nervously declined, hoping my estate agent Tom knew what he was doing, and then a better offer came in. I was on the island of Nisyros in late February, staying in a half-deserted village and going on long walks every day with my dog Lisa, when the deal was done and I celebrated with a raki. Then Lisa and I travelled to England and by the time we returned in late April, the sale was complete and I enjoyed looking at my bank account and temporarily feeling very rich.

Very busy with writing and editing work, I wasn’t able to start looking at houses properly until June. Since there’s no longer an estate agent’s office on Tilos, I decided the way to find out what was for sale was to tell everyone I know on the island. Soon, everyone was telling me about properties for sale.

I pretty much liked everything I saw, from the old houses that were cheap but needed a lot of structural work, to those that were ready to move into but more expensive. Most were old properties in Megalo Horio, up little alleyways that are picturesque but impossible to drive building materials to. A builder told me, only half-joking, that replacing a roof and repairing some walls would take two years. I wasn’t sure I wanted the frustrations and rising costs of a building project.

I’d almost decided on borrowing money to buy a beautifully restored old house in the village, though I was wary about having neighbours very close. And then one day when I stopped on the road to Eristos to buy vegetables from Michali, he said:

‘Are you still looking for a house? My relative has the keys to a nice place for not too much money at Ayios Antonis.’

It had just gone on the market, and was close to the sea in the north of the island. I got the keys and went to take a look. It was in an overgrown garden, hidden behind trees; not big, but not too small. The owners were an old couple who used to live there but had moved to Athens to be close to the children and to hospitals. I spoke to the man, Pantelis, on the phone. He had built the place himself. The house inside looked well cared for, although it had been closed up for five years. Goats had broken through the fence and eaten what they could in the garden, but the figs and grapes were good and there was bougainvillaea.
A friend in Megalo Horio gave me the number of her lawyer. I needed to check the legalities. I didn’t want to get too excited, but I loved the views of mountains and sea. The sound of the waves, the feeling of space. The lawyer and the surveyor worked on things...

In late summer, Michalis asked me, ‘What happened with the house that’s for sale?’

‘It’s not for sale,’ I said. Then I smiled. ‘Because I’ve bought it.’ Well, almost.

There was still paperwork to do. In September, I suddenly had to acquire a Greek bank account and transfer large sums of money. I’d hesitated, worried there would be another Greek financial crisis... At first I was told I didn’t have the necessary paperwork to open a Greek bank account. But then the lawyer, Maria, spoke to the bank and suddenly it was possible.

I was told to hurry over to Rhodes for the signing of the contract, only to find that we were still missing a piece of paper. But it wouldn’t be Greece if it went smoothly. ‘We are waiting for the bureaucracy,’ said the lawyer Maria and her assistant Maria. Everyone – the bank manager, the notary – had been exceptionally nice and helpful and down to earth.

Then last Sunday, I went over to Rhodes again, assured that everything was now in place. There was a bit of a panic at the bank. Thanks to capital controls, a suitably absurd conundrum exists whereby a large bank draft cannot be issued without a contract proving it’s for the purchase of a house; but a contract for the purchase of a house cannot be signed without the presence of said large bank draft. Everyone in the bank was very nice but they kept passing the responsibility for this problem from one to another like basketball players.

‘But other people buy houses,’ I said.

‘Not many, recently,’ said Maria. But she somehow got it done. And in the meantime we drew up a civil agreement detailing the items that would stay in the house.

I arrived at Maria's office to sign the contract on Tuesday with a box of chocolates as a gift for the two miracle-working Marias, and was humbled when she handed me a beautiful painting, the masterful work of her art class teacher.

‘A gift for your new house,’ she said.

Pantelis’ daughter was there, and the notary read the contract to us and we signed. A few days later, I am in Tilos, the owner of a house by the sea.