Life on an isolated island can be challenging, especially in these days of economic crisis, but it’s never dull. Author and Greek island resident Jennifer Barclay explains why
I can honestly say I haven’t been bored since I moved to Tilos two years ago, even though it’s only eight miles long by a few miles wide with a permanent population of just over 300 people.
To me, boring is traffic, packed trains, supermarket queues, looking for parking spaces, not seeing the sun or the sky for days on end; there’s none of that here. Sure, it’s possible to vegetate on a beach all day until it’s time for the first ouzo. But there’s so much more to Greek island life than that...
Every year at the end of October, all the restaurants and tourist rooms shut down; it’s time for people to get back to their land. Winter heralds the olive harvest with all hands on deck, and the trees must be trimmed. Walking mounds of olive branches progressing up paths are a common sight, as someone carts them away. Throughout the winter there are wild greens to gather, including asparagus, and capers growing on cliffs are gathered and pickled. As spring approaches, goat-keepers are busy making cheese. I’ve watched honey being extracted and eaten it straight from the honeycomb.
With limited supplies in the shops and most restaurants shut, residents are forced to be resourceful. We grow our own potatoes and vegetables (or can buy from local farmers), and we’ve planted orange, fig, walnut and pomegranate trees. We get eggs from local chickens, fresh green olive oil by the keg, and wine from a village on a nearby island. We eat whatever fish has been caught that day, or pork when someone slaughters a pig. The goats look nervous when Easter approaches...
Old footpaths criss-cross the island. There are abandoned villages to be explored, seven ruined medieval castles, over 300 remote chapels clinging to hillsides. Each has its own story, with crumbling frescoes hundreds of years old or scrawled graffiti from Italian soldiers in the Second World War. Visitors can hike up to a monastery built on the site of an ancient temple to Poseidon, and scramble down to secluded coves in fjord-like inlets. You can be as adventurous as you like, as long as you take plenty of water and let someone know where you’re going.
Very often as I’m walking I surprise a bunch of grazing goats, which make me laugh as they leap away down the hillside; lizards sunning themselves on rocks scarper into crevices, and flocks of partridge flap into the air and out of sight. Often there will be eagles or falcons circling slowly overhead. The views change spectacularly on a small, S-shaped island with steep hills and colourful cliffs.
Even from the kitchen window I can see the sea: whipped up to a frenzy by a winter storm, or glistening silver, or deep blue; different islands are visible from different angles depending on the weather. And except for a few months a year, it’s warm enough for me to swim. In summer I can swim far across the bay, or take my time spotting different types of fish. I’ve held octopus and starfish in my hands and spotted eels hiding under rocks, and love the long thin reed-fish that change colour. Sometimes a cormorant will be diving nearby.
It’s fascinating to watch the fishing boats coming into harbour, bringing in lobsters, small sharks, red mullet, hundreds of small tuna; or watch them cleaning the octopus ready to eat. Living with a fisherman, I’ve been lucky enough to go out in the caique (fishing boat) and have seen dolphins and monk seals that use the fishing nets as a freshly-stocked larder – they do a lot of damage, but I say it’s a small price to pay for having a sizeable number of an endangered species around these shores. Big turtles are sometimes seen in the harbour.
The seasons on this little exposed Mediterranean rock can be extreme. Winter storms can lash the island mercilessly – wind howls around the house, rain washes the dirt roads away, and waves crash up over the beaches. The weather changes fast; a storm can give way to blue sky, then suddenly lightning flashes through the house. If it’s blowing more than 8 Beaufort, even the big ship can’t come from Athens so we’re cut off for a few days.
Then as suddenly as it started, we’re back to blue skies, the sun is warm, and everything is bursting with life, lush fields and green hillsides, the aroma of wild sage and oregano in the air. Every few days, it seems, there’s a different type of flower exploding with colour. From May to October, there’ll be no rain at all and everything turns arid, you can camp on the beach and stay up all night dancing under the Milky Way.
I’d always wanted to learn Greek dancing, and now I attend a weekly class with the local ladies, which is a good way to get to know people too. At a huge traditional wedding last October, it occurred to me that traditional dance isn’t just a quirky museum piece here; if you don’t know the dances, you really can’t be seen as part of the community. At the summer festivals, everyone joins in, from the oldest to the youngest, rich and poor, outsiders welcome: it’s the great leveller.
Still, sitting in the square, going to the café-bar, even just a trip to the shop here means a social occasion – Greeks are not known for being reserved. As the weather warms up, those who live elsewhere during the winter start returning to the island, and we’re reunited with friends. There will be evenings sitting outdoors in our favourite restaurants again. Now that we’ve taken over running the kantina on Eristos Beach, summer will mean welcoming visitors from all different countries back to the island, and they will lie in the sun for a week or two to recharge their batteries, and probably sometimes wonder if it gets boring living on such a small island all year round.