A Spring Morning on Tilos

  It’s a sunny morning and I’m driving to Livadia. Goats lounge by the side of the road where it passes through the middle of the island amid hills of reddish earth covered in low scrub and oak trees, and dotted with old stone walls and chapels. I glance up at the ruins of one of the island’s medieval castles – but quickly look back at the road in case a goat dashes across. I pass two cars coming the other way – a busy morning. 

  Just past the venzinadiko, the petrol station, I see Nikos walking down the road, and offer him a lift. Nikos used to be the travelling barber, buzzing around the island on his scooter. He’s now retired and doesn’t have any means of transport, and there’s no bus at this hour on a Sunday, but he likes to go down to the port when the big ship comes in. On previous occasions I’ve struggled to understand a single sentence Nikos says, but today we manage. As we start the descent to Livadia on the zigzagging road, he says his neck problem is better now that he’s looking after his diet, and he and his wife are also hoping to receive their pension soon. ‘Where d’you want to be dropped?’ I ask. ‘Here at the kafeneion. Thank you!’ Stopping to let him out, I smile hello to the guys sitting outside the kafeneion and at the edge of the square, then I go and park. 

  I’m heading to Zumba class, which is held in the primary school. Zumba, the Latin-inspired fitness regime, initially seems a little incongruous on a small Greek island. But it’s good exercise and also social, which is important from November to Easter, when the population drops to a few hundred, and activities are limited. Quite a few of our group practice traditional Greek dances once or twice a week too, also in the primary school classroom.

  As I walk up the hill I catch up with classmates Georgia, with her young daughter, and Anna who makes one-of-a-kind jewellery that sells on the island during the summer at a little shop called Silversmith. Even on a Zumba morning, she looks stylish. Eleftheria is waiting at the door, and I compliment her on her pretty earrings.

  ‘Ah, I was at church this morning! That’s why I’m dressed up still. It’s a special service today, and we take flowers.’ Eleftheria’s family have the ‘supermarket’ in Megalo Horio where I live; it’s a small shop but it does seem to have pretty much everything hidden somewhere on its packed shelves, if only you can find it. She asks if I feel like walking up to the Italian House with her this week: it’s an observation post dating back to the Italian occupation in the early part of the twentieth century, and makes for a good hike up the highest mountain near our village, with spectacular views from the top. We say we’ll make a plan.

  Our teacher, Sotiria, arrives followed by sisters Marina and Dikaia – both run accommodation here in Livadia – and Sveta. I talk to Anna about the beautiful, sunny weather we’ve been having – I’ve seen her working in her field – and she says she is sad the winter’s ending. ‘Because of the weather or the peace and quiet?’ ‘The peace and quiet.’ In the summer, everyone works too hard for a few months. Halfway through the class there’s a discussion about when the ship is expected, as our teacher Sotiria has to catch it to Rhodes. Georgia calls her husband, a fisherman, as he is sending fish on the boat today and usually communicates with Nisyros, the island stop before Tilos, for an update on the arrival time. Everyone agrees, laughing, that Nikos the fisherman is more likely to tell you the real time the boat is arriving, unlike Stelios the canny ticket agent, who always tells you an earlier time so that everyone gets to the port promptly and he’s not issuing tickets at the last minute.

  After gymnastiki, I head down to the square again where now the crowd is bigger, partly because the hour of the ship is approaching, and partly because Nikos the fisherman, with his suntanned face and unruly black hair, is selling fish from the back of his truck and all the guys are crowding around to see what he’s got. Pavlos the bus driver, leaning over the side of the truck, sees me and shouts, ‘Zumba?’, guessing from my sporty outfit. Pavlos always gives me a friendly wave whenever he passes me walking my dog along the road. One time he stopped just to give me a lift up the hill into the village. Bus driver doesn’t quite cover his job description: he delivers the bread and the post to the villages, takes bank deposits from the shop. 

  Next to the fish truck is Vassilis’ van, and I peer inside to see what he’s got: oranges, potatoes, herbs. I buy two kilos of oranges and two kilos of the thick, green olive oil in an old ouzo bottle. I pick up vegetables from Gianni’s supermarket, leave the shopping in the car – unlocked, as always – and walk two minutes to the seafront. Livadia is built on a huge, curving bay, with hills all around, and the blue of the water on a sunny day is magnificent, set off by the white pebbles of the shore. Pantelis is heading my way, dressed up in a fancy jacket and carrying an empty holdall: clearly, he’s off to Rhodes on the ship. This he confirms, saying he needs to buy paint to decorate his restaurant, Dream, ready for summer. Meanwhile, Mary is again leaning over the pretty flower beds outside her gift shop, just as she was the other day. ‘Working again?’ I joke. ‘Until it’s finished, yes!’ she says, looking immaculate even in her gardening overalls. 

  Seva and her husband are walking their dog, and ask after mine, who I left at home this morning. I say I’m off for a swim in the sea and Seva, a friend from traditional dance class, says she had been thinking of doing the same. She sits on a bench overlooking the bay, and when she sees me ready to dive in, she calls over, ‘Let me know if it’s icy – I’ll know if I hear you shout!’ I swim far out, away from the port: there’s something about the vastness of the bay, the shapes of the jagged hills around with their thick trees and the little buildings hugging the shore that I find deeply peaceful, especially early in the year when there’s no-one else in the water. As I swim back, the big ship is just rounding the headland, and an older lady comes out of her house just to sit in the sun and watch it. There’s always something exciting about the big ship coming in.

  Down at the dock now, people will be finishing their coffees at Remezzo bar, picking up their bags. People will be asking ‘Are you leaving?’, wishing friends a good journey; some will be getting into their cars ready to drive on, others moving forward to meet whoever’s arriving or unload a delivery. Some days, it seems that half the island is leaving to run errands on the big island of Rhodes a few hours away. It’s an essential part of life here – whether you need to see the dentist or buy a screwdriver, every now and then you need to make the trip. 

  But today I’m going nowhere except the ten-minute drive home. As I’m driving along the one-way street to leave Livadia, someone careers around the corner from the bakery, talking on his mobile and looking elsewhere, so I slam on the brakes and hear the olive oil and oranges roll around in the boot. He gives me a sheepish look and I grin back; the one-way rules are only rarely applied. I head up the hill out of the village, and have just rounded the last bend when I see a car stopped on the road, a man talking on his mobile. I slow down and a lady in black who I know from the village asks if I can give her a lift. As she gets in I ask what happened. ‘It’s broken. It got sick!’ I make conversation as we pass the abandoned village of Mikro Horio, and I wave to the petrol station owner (another Nikos – no wonder so many people are known by their nicknames), who is sitting on a little wall eating an orange. The goats are still lounging in their favourite spot.

  Megalo Horio comes into view, a beautiful sight with its houses built into the side of the mountain under the ruined castle; blue sea appears down to the left at Eristos and further ahead at Ayios Andonis. The lady in the car is saying that when my mother comes to visit, I must bring her for coffee, and it takes me a moment to realise she means at her house. I’ve been living on Tilos for three years now, and I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather call home.

Jennifer Barclay is the author of Falling in Honey (just published by Sourcebooks in the US, and by Summersdale in the UK) about how she came to live on Tilos in the Dodecanese Islands of Greece.

She writes a blog about island life at www.octopus-in-my-ouzo.blogspot.com.