Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Down and out in Naxos and Corfu

Eleven months to the day, date and hour since I had first passed her in the wolf light of early dawn, I got off the ferry in Corfu. I had descended from a mountain in Naxos a few days before, where I had been pleasantly marooned for five months without access to electricity, running water or people, other than my landlord and host, a man called Hodge.
I was met at the bus station in Corfu Town by my new owner, or boss, and hauled off to her hotel, the Villa Magdalena, some twelve kilometres away, in the centre of the island. She kindly allowed me two hours rest before putting me to work with a gang of Greeks, Albanians and Glenn, another English refugee, preparing the hotel for the arrival of a group of forty or so Germans the following day. This explained why she had been so keen for me to come at once, although she did not explain this on the ‘phone. After a blissfully hot shower, my first in several months, I presented myself for work. I cannot remember when we stopped that day, but it was certainly late in the evening. We resumed at seven the following morning. I continued to work eighteen hour days for the next fortnight until the Germans left. A baptism of fire into the life of an unpaid volunteer in the hospitality business. Once the Albanians had left and the Germans arrived four of us remained to cook, feed, clean up and man the bar.
One evening I got rather drunk (I was possibly also exhausted) and compounded my felony by swearing in front of the guests and falling over one of them, who was unfortunately “rolly” (German for wheel chair) bound. For some reason my owner did not sack me.
I had left Naxos in a hurry. I’d spent my last days in Naxos City, a.k.a. Sodom and Gomorrah, and each day I inevitably spent a little more of the pittance left after eleven months. I had just enough cash to buy a ferry ticket and a small bottle of water. I disembarked in Athens with €1.50 in my pocket. I was able to touch an old work mate for a loan - he had a whip round in his office for me.
This is not an unusual situation in Greece. In January I was helping Mikhailis redecorate his house in return for a mattress and a meal, usually lentil soup and bread, and some krasi from his taverna. I asked him to lend me €10 to buy some tobacco. He declined, explaining that he had no cash until the end of the month, when he received his pension. Meanwhile he was surviving on tick from local shops and the remaining stock at his taverna, closed for the winter. I realised I knew no one on Naxos who had any money. I posted a jokey reference to this on FaceBook. A Greek American friend spotted it, and immediately offered to sub me. I subsequently heard he had done the same for Mikhaili and possibly others. He had to return to the US to apply for Greek citizenship, so he could continue to live on Naxos, and promptly had his bank accounts frozen by the IRS over some misunderstanding about his tax. The Naxos cash crisis deepened.
When I arrived on Naxos I had a wodge of money, thanks to a loan from my wife who had precipitated my departure for Greece by throwing me out of her house. For a while I cheerfully extracted cash from ATMs, assuming something Micawber-like would turn up. It didn’t, but I survived anyway. At first I had great difficulty spending the money – every time I offered a bar, taverna or shop a €50, the only notes the ATMs dished out, the retailer would run off frantically looking for change. Things perked up later, when the Germans and Scandinavians arrived and injected their cash into the Naxian economy. Once they leave, Naxians revert to tick from their friends, and the food everyone grows on their plots of land. The rest of the Cyclades disparagingly refers to Naxians as “farmers”, but at least they are not in total hock to the tourist industry for their survival. They grow four crops of potatoes a year.
Shortly after my arrival on Corfu our German guests gave us a €500 note. They wanted to make sure they could keep eating and drinking. My fellow Englander had been doing the washing up all morning and the note had got rather damp in his pocket. He fished it out with a very wet hand and gave it to Magda. Far from being delighted with the rather pretty pale lilac note, she had a total tizzy. Do €500 notes dissolve? Melt? Magda dragged me off to town (one of my jobs is to sit in her illegally parked car while she does errands) and took the note into not one but two banks to have it checked. I began to understand her distress. If the note was fake, or even damaged, she would be unable to spend it. It was the first time in my life I had seen so much money represented by a single note. In England banks refuse to accept euro notes larger than €100 because of fear of fraud. Earlier, I’d had a problem trying to use a €10 note to pay for a sandwich and a beer. It had a tiny tear on one edge, and the shop assistant refused to accept it. Her boss reluctantly agreed she could. I had only just been handed it, as change, like some hot potato.
And the other reason for her unenthusiastic reception of the note was that it was already spent. She got rid of it in the space of a half hour, drip feeding various creditors just enough to keep them happy for a few more days. She is running her business on credit cards and paying 22% interest on what she owes them. She is in a permanent state of near hysteria. I feel for her as, until I left England, I had been playing much the same game.
This is the opposite of a cash economy. I feel very much at home.

“Where are you from?”

It’s almost like talking about the weather.
An obvious opener, in a hotel full of young persons travelling, but I find it difficult to answer. Or rather, I’m reluctant to answer it. Just as I was reluctant on Naxos to agree that I was English, and would usually say I’m half Scots, half Irish (and deny Granny, who was a Lancashire mill girl, but really became Scots by adoption, living out her days in Beauly near Inverness).
The question, or its answer, sort of implies that, wherever it is, that’s where I’ll be going back to. And it pigeon-holes or labels me in a way that I don’t wish to be labelled. If I really was “from Scotland” I’d be delighted to tell them. But I could just as easily say, I’m from Eiserlohn, where I was born, and whose location, oddly, I only have the vaguest idea about. Perhaps I should visit. Or Listowel, in Kerry, which is where my FaceBook page says is my home town, the one constant as I grew up. I’m not “from” Wormingford, or Coggeshall, or Ampleforth – they’re just places where I lived for a while. Where I always felt like an alien, an interloper, a visitor, just passing through. But here I call home, without thinking, in the most innocent of contexts – writing a list of things to do when I go to England (not “back” to England) and ending with “Monday 7th July, fly home” and don’t even notice until later. Yet I have no actual “home”, no spiti – a bed somewhere, a meal from someone, for a while. But if I was sitting on a mountain in Greece, with a campfire, a bottle of krasi, and my sheet of plastic for a tent, it would feel more like home to me than any of these places. Perhaps because I chose it, or it chose me, or my “higher power” led me to it, seemingly by a series of accidents.
So what is it that makes me feel I belong here, in a way I’ve never felt anywhere else, apart possibly from Loch Spelve on Mull, or Hope in Sutherland, which I would have loved to call home.
The light. The heat. The Greeks. How I wish I could speak to them, as one of them. The fruit. The trees. The rocks. The mountains and the sea. The sea. The flowers. The ramshaklecality of it all, bodged and half finished. The talk. The shouting. The quiet. The cymballing of the goats and sheep. The magic. The madness. The way it won’t let you walk away from this present moment, its intensity and aliveness, that neither past or future has any weight, compared to the electricity of now, the intensity of it all, the assault on the senses. Only it’s not an assault, it’s a seduction, a caress. I’m in love with Ellaada, and most people I meet seem to feel the same way.
So to answer, “I’m from here”, is not a lie, not a presumption, not precious or pretentious – it’s the literal truth.

Funny Money

Funny Money

I have just moved to Corfu (Kerkira to the Greeks) to help Magda with her hotels. A few days ago, Magda was given a €500 note by one of our German guests. This was kind of them, but probably entirely self interested as they wanted us to continue feeding them. Forty Germans get through an astonishing amount of food every day and Magda and I seem to have spent the best part of half a day, every day, exploring the wealth of supermarkets and cash ’n carries in Kerkira for the best priced deals. Magda is a bogof queen. Which means she sort of assumes bogof applies to everything, and if one of something is a bargain, ten of the same must be an even bigger one. This plays hell with her cashflow.

So I was surprised at her reaction to the €500 note. Instead of being wreathed in smiles, and momentarily delighted with life, she seemed to go into a complete decline. She said in fact she was having a panic attack. Glenn, her best man, had been given the note by Katherina, a well built girl who is responsible for the Germans. This means she has the biggest tab at the bar, and unlike everyone else, has not as yet deigned to settle it. Glenn had been doing the breakfast washing up all morning. His dress code is shell / track suit / trainers and he refuses to wear the extremely smart faux leather apron I persuaded Magda to buy at the Chinese shop, so he was very wet. When he handed Magda the note fished from his pocket with a very wet hand she had conniptions. Do €500 notes melt? We immediately departed to town and her bank, which she rushed into to get the note checked. She then went to another bank and repeated the exercise. They both confirmed the note was OK.

She told me how on another occasion she had gone into her bank to pay some cash in. She couldn’t understand why they put a single €5 note through the note counting machine. Surely, she thought, they could count a single €5 note. The cashier gently explained that the note counter didn’t just count notes, it also checked them. On my way to Kerkyra from Athens, I had tried to pay for a beer and a sausage roll with a €10 note. It had a small nick on one edge. The girl on the till tried to refuse it. I protested, and her boss said grudgingly that it was OK and she then accepted it.

Within half an hour, Magda had got rid of most of the €500. She used it to make part payments on some of her more pressing accounts, and about a third of the minimum payment due on her credit card. This was probably a case of good money after badmoney down the drain. She has already had several of her cards cancelled due to her being late on her payments, and she’s desperate to keep at least one credit card alive. Once cancelled, she cannot reapply for another, and her business is kept afloat on credit cards.

Three months ago I was working for my friend Mikhailis, helping him to refurbish the shutters for his windows and doors. In return he gave me lentil soup and bread, a mattress, and the last of his restaurant’s stock of krasi, each day. I had no money and one day I tried to borrow €10 from him to buy some tobacco. He regretfully explained that he would have no money until the end of the month, then twenty days away, when his pension was paid. He meant, he literally had no money. I suddenly realised I knew no one on Naxos, where I then was, who had any money. I made a joking reference to this fact on Facebook, and a kind Greek American called Lou or Elias, depending on whether he was being American or Greek, said he’d be happy to lend me some. I subsequently found out he’d done the same for Mikhaili, who still owed Lou/Elias €500 when I left Naxos in April. Meanwhile Lou/Elias had returned to Philadelphia to apply for Greek citizenship, and had had his bank account frozen by the IRS over some misunderstanding about his taxes. So the credit crisis deepens.

Kiki, who runs the hotel really, while Magda flies around in an almost permanent panic attack, showed me the €500 note before she entrusted it to Glenn’s damp track suit trouser pocket. It’s a rather beautiful pale lilac colour and I was struck by the fact that this was the first time I had seen so much money represented by a single note. I can understand why Magda felt so nervous.

When I first arrived in Greece, I was quite flush for a time, and constantly interviewed ATMs who happily excreted bundles of €50 notes for me. But I had the greatest difficulty spending them. Invariably I would offer some hapless Greek retailer a €50 note and he or she would rush off down the street searching for someone who could give them change. This was in May, before the season had really started. It became less of a problem later when the tourists started to inject a bit more cash into the Naxian economy.

In January Mikhaili, waiting for his pension, survived on tick from friends – supermarkets, corner shops, hardware stores, petrol stations. He and his family ate and drank what was left of last year’s stock at their taverna (like much of Naxos they close down from October to April). Mike, in turn, kept a number of friends, mostly frail and elderly, supplied with free meals from the taverna when it was open. One of them was a carpenter, and reciprocated by carefully cutting out all the rot from Mike’s shutters, and refilling them with wood inserts and glue, for nothing. His painter and decorator, Giorgiou, did much the same.

Many Naxians, whom other Cycladic islanders refer to disparagingly as “farmers”, live almost entirely and exclusively off what they themselves can grow and produce – potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, several varieties of beans, tomatoes, zuchini, melanzanes, orta (Greek for weeds, wild greens), lettuce, oranges, lemons, kumquats, olives, chickens, cheese from their goats and sheep, krasi and raki from their vines. And mostly, they are extraordinarily generous with what they have.

This is the opposite of a cash economy.

Nothing on Naxos

I am sitting in my room. Outside it is raining, the sky dark with storm clouds. I am drinking an ouzo and reading a history of the Ottoman Empire. I am very happy. I feel I should be doing something else, but as it is not obvious to me what that might be, I shall, for now, continue not doing it.
So, what is nothing? No money. No plans or prospects. No regrets. Just food (enough). Warmth. A glass of krasi. Tobacco. Coffee. Something to do. Or read. Or watch. No “God”. Just whatever is, today, now, this instant.
God” went west in May. With Him (it was/is a “He”) out of the way, life became simpler. One foot in front of the other, one minute, hour, day, at a time. And the real god (we need a new pronoun for the real god) started shining through. In the kindness of strangers. In happy accidents. In children. In friends, old and new. In bus timetables, ferries, taxi drivers. And, eventually, in Naxos.
Eliot wrote “April is the cruellest month” but for me, it has always been late August. Everything dead, or dying. Crops in. Trees still green, but dull, no longer exuberant with life. But here October brings a second spring – the ground covered with swathes of wild cyclamen, autumn crocus, cistus, daisies, wild thyme, the trees greening, bees busy buzzing, fungi everywhere, the hillsides as green as Ireland, meadows and terraces covered in sorrel and dandelion – the Greeks call it all “orta” (weeds), and eat it with abandon.
So you walk. And look. And breathe. And live.
Walking is good. It takes time. You meet raki distillers. You get lifts. It gets you from A to B (sometimes) quicker than a car – they weren’t idiots, the old Greeks; nor are the new ones – they give you a lift when you ask. Modern roads cost money, and modern cars don’t like to go uphill too fast. So, not many roads, and they take the long way round to get from here to there. The old footpaths go straight, up and down hill, and get you to where you’re going in short order. And while you’re walking, you have time to notice things. The view. The flowers. The time.
I always thought sculpting would drive me mad. It takes so long. Bashing away at a piece of rock with a hammer and chisel, slowly finding a shape. Actually, it’s a kind of meditation, a complete absorption in the material, the process. And an enforced detachment – Naxos marble is beautiful, but very crystalline, so it glitters like diamonds and lets light shine through, but is also painfully liable to crack, just when you think you have made something worthwhile. It’s done it to me twice now. You just have to start again. Fail. Fail again. Fail better.
From our eyrie, 1200 feet above the Aegean, looking north and east, on a clear day, we can see Ikaria, where the inhabitants are reputed to live to over a hundred. Beyond is Patmos, where Saint John wrote his gospel and strange revelations. South east on the far horizon, between Donoussa and Amorgos, you can see Rhodes, the original home, after Jerusalem and Cyprus, of the knights of Saint John. And, after dark, we see the flashes of thunderstorms over Turkey, and the lights of Smyrna reflected on the clouds, 150 kilometres away.
We live on Lagos Raki – the Hare’s Back – a kilometre or so north of Mesi, on the northern tip of Naxos. We are off the grid – no electricity, other than what we can make for ourselves, no water other than what god chooses to let down on us by way of rain on the roof funnelled into a cistern, no heat other than sunshine and firewood. I had a bath (a wash in a plastic basin with water heated on the stove) the other day, and found out how long it takes to gather and chop enough wood to heat water for a shave and a thorough clean. About 45 minutes. It makes you think twice about turning on a tap and getting instant hot water, or getting water at all.
Ditto food. We gather – fungi from the fields, peppers, tomatoes, beetroot, beans, potatoes, from Stuart’s garden. Bread may come, from the nearest village, 6 kilometres across the valley, an hour’s walk. Fish, if we hear the fishman’s van, crying his catch, and get to him before he’s gone on to the next village. Meat from Chora, 50 kilometres and two hours’ bus ride away to the south. Some days we don’t eat much.
I run out of tobacco. To get more, I must walk for an hour down to Apollon. Hope the little shop is open. Hope Yanni has some tobacco. Walk back up the hill to the Hare’s Back. Do I really want a smoke that badly? I want to see Eleni, my sculpture teacher. Friends have a car and drop me off. I stay the night. Yanni plays his lyre and baglamas, a kind of small bouzouki. On Sunday morning, the sky is clear although it is blowing a howling gale. I look at my map. It will, I think, take 4 or 5 hours to walk home. I could go by road, and take the chance of a lift (everyone will stop, but you can walk for two hours and not see a car) or walk over Mavro Vouni, the third high mountain on the island, and have an adventure. Seven hours later, I get home. I have walked over Scottish moorland, down verdant spring fed valleys, been blown sideways by the wind, seen both sides of this little kingdom in the sea, got lost twice, and been frightened, a bit.
I am richer than Croesus. What he had could be taken from him. Having nothing, there is nothing to lose, and everything is pure gift.