Nikos has lost his kafeneo.
Never asking a single customer to pay their bill, drinking through his own stock night after night…it seems these weren’t great business ideas. The warped, faded, rose-coloured doors have now been bolted. The bar is dead. Nikos has found work in Hector’s old bakery instead. He works with small Nikos – the Albanian. Giristroula and I visit in the early hours of the morning after a night out: primitive black stone ovens and burnt, heat-stained walls. The two of them in their dirty, sweat-soaked t-shirts and white hats throwing the bread into the scorching forges. Nikos kneading and pulling at the clingy sheets of flour with a cigarette burning in his mouth, the ash bending long over the dough. A blackened silver Madonna icon sits above the ovens.
Nikos the Albanian wants to move to England. He wants me to write him a testimonial for his visa. Every day we find he has left something from his garden on our doorstep: a bag full of tomatoes and cucumbers, a pyramid of balanced oranges, a headless chicken. The other Nikos took me into his confidence yesterday, pulling me to one side of the alley as I walked through the village.
“Eh, are you thinking of writing him the letter? I wouldn’t do it…His brother…His brother’s a gangster you know. Arrested back in Albania for people smuggling…”
This morning a fresh gift of three giant watermelons have been left on our door step. I see Nikos the Albanian down by the church. He smiles and waves, and acts out a hopeful mime of a letter being written.
Summer in Corfu is too rich, too full. Like a song that’s all chorus and no verse. Spring had been good – flowers appearing rapidly in ones and twos on the hillside like firecrackers going off. Hundreds of new insects I’d never seen before and couldn’t recognise. The re-emergence of the lizards: darting across a hot wall, pausing at the sight of me, frozen with one leg in the air. The sun returning like a briefly deposed king.
Easter had come with the raining down of pots thrown from the windows of the high Venetian houses in Corfu Town.
This tradition on Easter Saturday, only on this island, is, so they say, either wake up Persephone, the goddess of Spring, or a good way of getting rid of the old so that the new year will bring you new, better, things. We watched the sombre Good Friday procession too: coffins and drum beats and brass bands. Crowds lining the paths. I saw one old woman staggering back and forth with her husband on her back so he could grasp a good view over the heads. Easter is a far bigger deal in Greece than Christmas. The dark drama of death far more appealing to Greek senses than the light serenity of Christ’s birth I guess.
While we packed the square watching the sky fill with falling pots, I had recognised a woman who had a shop in the narrow tight lanes by the island’s main St Spiridon church – one of the hawkers who set up their stalls next to the church. The large yellow clock-towered, 500 year-old church always looks as if it has been surrounded, attacked, like an old elephant by a tenacious pack of hyenas selling their carved wooden trinkets, football shirts or bottles of Corfu’s bright orange kumquat liqueurs. She clunked Giristroula on the head with her umbrella “Anepithimiti…” she said – You’re not welcome. “You outsiders coming here for our traditions, getting in my way, stopping my enjoyment… Why don’t you just go home?” A week or so later, as we had passed her shop she grinned and stretched out her arms for us to come in and buy some of her tourist tat. “Kiria mou…” she sang in a sweet imploring voice.
One late evening in early May, Olympiakos lost the Greek football cup final. There was a great ringing commotion in the church square. Everyone had come out of their houses to see what was happening and found Markos, the old villager with his black and white beard down to his navel and bald head, swinging high in the night sky from the church bells. Markos is such a fan of Panathinaikos – Olympiakos’ rival – he has painted his centuries’ old stone villagers’ house with huge green shamrocks and great daubs of Panathinaikos slogans. Markos was now drunk as a skunk, hanging from the bells, the priest below shouting cursed words up at him. Markos, uncaring, swung to and fro, his blissful sozzled face emerging and disappearing in the moonlight. The bells clanging out late into the night for his enemy’s defeat.
I have a job working for the British Council conducting English examinations. The end of June in Greece is when the frontistiria take their English examinations. Frontistiria are the private schools in Greece that all parents send their kids to as the state schools are too underfunded and the teachers too unfulfilled for there to be much of a chance of any kid passing their end of school examinations. If you can’t afford to send you child to one of these after-hour schools…well that’s just too bad. I hawk myself round these private schools to see if I can get a bit of extra work. As I am a qualified, trained, English examiner with the British Council I had thought someone might want me.
“Do you live here in Corfu?” one of the school’s owners asks me.
“Yes,” I say.
“Pah,” he throws his pen contemptuously down on the desk. “How could I think of employing you then? Any one of the parents here could come up to you and bribe you. Are you stupid or something?”
He says this to me as if it is all my fault for not thinking of the potential for corruption.
“Well, wouldn’t that be them acting illegally?” I suggest.
“What, and you think you can just freely walk around Corfu town tempting the parents? Are you a crazy man?” He makes the Greek sign of twisting his hand bunched into a claw at the side of his head to fully indicate the stupidity of my proposition.
Spiros seems to have given up on his acting. He was furious when his one small scene in the Durrell’s television adaptation was left on the cutting room floor. He had gathered the whole of the village round his house and brought a TV set outside for us all to see his performance.
“Erhete….” It’s coming…. “Kontevei…” It’s close…”Ante…!”
His face then went through his whole range: twisting confusion, bafflement, realisation, anger, as his walk-on part in a crowd scene didn’t appear.
“Ok. You all go home now,” he said as he snapped the tv off, stomping back inside his house, slamming the door.
Spiros has now opened a taverna higher up the road in the village. No passing tourist ever seems to go in though. I walk past in the evenings, the restaurant is always empty. Framed pictures of Spiros on stage – acting in Greek tragedies, holding up a skull to the spotlight, clutching a sword to his breast – line every spare space on the walls. I wave as I pass but Spiros, surrounded by empty wine bottles, has his eyes closed. He’s wearing long blue robes and his face is plastered with make-up and theatrical greasepaint. He strums a small mandolin and sings deep and low to himself.
Giristroula and I climb to the tiny 10th Century church, Agia Kyriaki – Saint Sunday – on the evening before the Saint’s great feast. A white chapel all alone, steeply high up mule paths above the village, Byzantine frescoes on the walls. Empress Sissi was said to come and find her peace here while living on the island down below in her crazed, tasteless Achilleion Palace. We stand and stare as the whole island is spread underneath us in a vivid sweep, glowing and altering in the final leaking light of the sun. There is a rustling noise behind. It’s the village priest. He’s up here fixing the church for the celebrations tomorrow. He growls but doesn’t say a word to us. Out of his priests robes, the flies on his trousers bust and gaping wide open, his filthy shirt hanging down low. 70 years old or more, prodigious stomach, hair fallen straggily out of his Orthodox ponytail, beard soaked in sweat. We try and follow him down the steep hill back to the village over the rocks and stones but he is uncatchable. Like an ibex gamboling nimbly over the loose crags.
The heat of the day has become extreme lately, not comfortable to be out in the sun for more than 10 minutes. The land is baked and cracked. There is no wind and the blue sky sits like the sealed hemisphere lid of a box oven, leaving us sweating and poached below. The sea is just a warm flat pool.
We catch a boat to sail out to the three small islands north of Corfu. The Diapontia Islands: Erikoussa, Othoni and Mathraki. A population of less than 300 on each one of them. The ferry slowly plods along from Corfu like a fat man after a heavy meal. Occasionally burping on the hooter. We land at tiny Erikoussa island and disembark alongside all the goods from the real world stacked up and wheeled down the ramp to sustain this small community. A man with his whole life piled up in one tiny broken down car: bags, beds, family, fridge, bath tied on to the roof. We are stared at by old men from chairs outside a white stone old cafe a few yards in front of the dock. The rest of the island appears completely asleep, just a filthy dog sat having a long and satisfying scratch to himself in the sun. So we join the few here in this cafe. Eventually the island wakes up to its new visitors, shutters open, vans splutter into life to take people to the two or three places to stay on the island. I’m struck at how many American accents there were as we made our way from the port area, some people easily swapping back and forth between Greek and American English. Apparently this collection of small islands north of Corfu figured heavily in the great 20th century emigration trail of Greeks fleeing poverty to America. Almost the whole of Erikoussa was cleared by people moving away. Now relatives come back to visit the land of their ancestors. Coca cola and ouzo bottles sitting side-by-side on the café tables.
We spend a night camping on the long sweep of beach and then the next day get on the early boat to the next island, Othonoi. The Othonoions stand at port side, awaiting their essential deliveries, staring at our arrival. There is a strong scent of Cypress in the air. This island is where Homer’s Odysseus washed up on his long trek home, imprisoned for 10 years by the nymph Calypso in her cave, unable to leave and make his way back to Ithaca. I’m imprisoned too. For two days I’m struck by a food poisoning and stuck in my white cell of a hotel room, a generator rumbling loudly outside all night and day. A storm blows up while I’m on my sick bed, rain and wind lashing the island. When I finally emerge I find there is no one who will take us to Calypso’s beach to see her cave. We walk from person to person, shop to tavern, all of the old men with their beards and their sea-dog tales have been scared by the storm.
“The sea takes three days to calm down. Don’t you know this? No, no, no. There’s no way I’ll risk my boat…”
So we tell them we’ll try and swim it. It is only a few miles from the town, round the rocks, down the coast.
“Swim!” they say, throwing their hands up. “It’s too deep… No, no, no… The seals will get you…”
Eventually we find one man who will take us in his broken-down boat. We have to slop out sea water continuously from round our ankles as we chug our way to Calypso’s beach. And then, there it is. The cave where the nymph goddess kept Odysseus, forcing him to stay and make love to her – apparently reluctantly and to his great mortification – again and again and again. The shore where he sat and watched all those rosy-fingered dawns. The clear turquoise waters, the ribboning cliffs and white sands. Even an immortal visitor would gaze in wonder.
When Odysseus was finally released, it took him 18 days to get to Corfu – the island looking like a shield on the misty sea. We are back, passing Corfu’s Mouse Island – Odysseus’ boat turned into rock by an envious Poseidon, so they say – five hours after leaving Othonoi, having crossed the wine-dark sea from Greece’s very most westerly point. I can’t think what kept him so long.
Nikos has seen me reading under a tree in the olive groves outside of the village. He approaches Giristroula to tell her what he has seen, he seems embarrassed as if he has caught me with another woman. “Reading…” he says quietly, disgusted. Nikos has lost his job at the bakery. Falling foul to Hector’s capricious ways, he is now out watering olive trees all night for 20 euros. He also goes out fishing after his work watering, but he can never seem to catch a thing. Giristroula and I often watch from the hills of the village down over the roofs – on the nights when the moon isn’t crawling across the warm tiles and lighting up the sea, so the dark water is good for the men to go out fishing. We look down towards the sea and the rows of fishing boats with their suspended light bulbs pointing down into the water illuminating the fish and think of Nikos out there, catching nothing.
The other night as we stood on the road one of the village gypsy boys came walking by, calling out to his friend. “Gianni, Gianni… Petyha mia koukouvagia!” – I’ve just shot an owl! We’re shocked by this and watch him as he walks along. “Tha tin fao!” – I’m going to eat it!
Nikos, who has not passed high school, wants Giristroula’s mother to speak to the mayor of Corfu and use some influence he feels she must have as an MP, even though she is an MP miles away down in the south of Greece. He wants a rousfeti – a Greek favour. He wants her to get him a job working on the bins.
Giristroula and I are getting tired of life in the small red house here in the village. Getting fed up of our neighbour – Hector’s son – treating our house like his own. We find him most days in our garden digging up our vegetables and plants, never smiling, never saying a word apart from to tell us things he has observed us doing round the village from his window that he doesn’t agree with and that he thinks are all wrong. The rent is ludicrously high for such a small house so far from the town too. We tell Demetris our landlord. We give him plenty of notice. “Malista,” he says – fine. “There are plenty of other people who want it.” He puts on the great Greek act of not being bothered, even a little scornful about why we would even bother him with such trivia. Come leaving day we pack up our things and hire a van to take them away. After we’ve driven off in our car the workmen later tell us Demetris, who had been hiding behind a wall, came out and said to them “Where are you taking these things? Where are they going? They can’t just leave. Who will rent this…” he waved his hand at his house. “This…” his anger getting the better of him “Who will rent this piece of shit place off me? Where will I get my money?” He grabbed the workman by the collar of his shirt. He rooted through the boxes, tried to take some of our things, but the men wouldn’t let him. The van drove out of the village down the narrow road with old man Demetris clinging desperately to the back. “Min fevgete!!” – You can’t go!!
North of the island. This time we want to find somewhere to live north of Corfu Town. We are driven around by a grossly fat estate agent. On the dashboard of his seedy blue Mercedes is the Holy Trinity of photos I see in many family men’s cars: the Virgin Mary, his daughter, and a topless model with her boobs out.
Kodokali. A yellow sprawling villa. It even has its own little church built in the grounds.
“This is a very nice house. Peaceful,” the estate agent says, breathing meatily.
We say we’ll take it.
“Vasili!! Eat something. You haven’t finished your food. Eat!”
A small boy slams out of one of the doors, his mother chases him out of another holding a spoon.
A man in his underpants and a vest appears after them shouting, singing, neighing at his other children all pouring out behind him.
“Oh ho!” he says, spotting us. “You must be our new neighbours!”
Wiping his hands down his thighs, he gives us great garlicky hugs. “Kalos erthate!” he booms. “Welcome!”
This is the Lappas family.
The chickens of the Lappas family walk freely through our house at all times of the day. Followed by the strutting cocky rooster. We have a bare couple of rooms. The Lappas house is decorated with perhaps a thousand icons. It is hard to exactly gauge how big their family is, there always seems to be another child added every time I try a headcount. Each time I pass through their open door to see them, a baby is planted in my hands. Lappas will appear – a large upended sofa of a man – and set me down at the kitchen table, pouring out great big tumblers of tsipouro. Always wanting to argue, always finding new ideas to fit the things he does – never the other way round. Childlike himself in that he can never leave any idea unexplored or any conversation unfinished. Pounding the table with rage one moment, gurgling with laughter the next.
Back in June, Britain voted to leave Europe. I have grave misgivings about this. For immigrants like me, life living abroad is going to get very precarious now. The pound has already plunged straight away, making Giristroula and I poorer still. The Greeks seem to think Britain has done something heroic though. People come up and congratulate me. “We couldn’t do it, but you can. You’ll bring the European Union down for us…” I tell them it’s not perhaps the noble fight they think it is. Greece may have suffered terribly at the hands of the EU, with the forced austerity crippling the country, but people back in Britain have voted to leave for many different, many dishonourable reasons.
“We were ready,” says Lappas to me, brandishing a great fistful of his collection of old drachma notes. “When we had our own referendum, we were ready,” he bashes his fist into his chest. “We were ready to starve if we had to!”
Lappas is always wiping wine from his beard, always wiping a piece of olive oil soaked bread round a bowl. I’m woken every day by Lappas, down below my window, rolling out of bed in his night clothes roaring at his children. The children that he loves more than life itself.
I’ve been asked by a friend who edits a magazine back in London to write a few observations on Corfu, so I send a few vague thoughts on the look and sound of the Corfiots.
Tourism has altered ways of doing things here. Altered the pace of life. The openness of many in Corfu is now often only an exterior, not durable to anything more than just loose association – as opposed to Corfu of the past, or the ways of Greeks in other, wilder, less mercantile areas of the country.
But the Corfiots can’t avoid the long line of history running through them, back down the years. It’s there in their individual look: the distinct chubby round faces. It’s there in the blue eyes and blonde hair that many Corfiots have – very uncommon in Greece – coming from the years of Venetians in Corfu, and the British (both now and then) and the Albanians just across the Straight of Corfu.
The Straight of Corfu, in the north of the island, seems almost a swimmable distance. And many refugees put this to the test during the era of Albanian dictator Hoja. The island has a hundred stories of desperate young men clinging to tyres, old ladies in bath tubs coming across, aiming for Corfu’s rich shoreline.
The Corfu language is full of idiosyncrasies. The common “re” that all Greek’s prefix every conversation with, to express surprise or get attention, is replaced by an “o re” here in Corfu. Corfiots will also call anyone they meet “agapi” – my love – anyone: strangers, children, old people, anyone. Even during arguments with their most hated foe. And fools or stupid people get their completely-specific-to-Corfu word “niorandes”.
The muja – the open-palm, splayed-fingered contemptuous hand gesture that all Greeks sling in the direction of someone who has just cut-up their car, made a idiotic remark or generally got on their nerves – is replaced on this island by a bunched fist with the thumb poking through the first and second fingers. And Corfiots like to swear. More so than in other parts of Greece – and Greeks as a whole are never really that shy with a bellowed malediction – the Corfiots will turn to the sky with an inventive series of profanities. But unlike in other parts of the country, it’s the island’s patron saint of Spiridon that gets the highest traffic of cursed words coming his way. Only then followed by the usual Devils – “Ai sto diaolo!”- and Christs – “Ma ton Christo!”
The Italian influence is always slipping in again and again, unheeded, on this island: Corfiots say, for example, “Libretto” of their shutters if they are partially closed – Italian for a half opened book. “Liberta!” if they’re flung open wide. “Tsito!” the cafe owner shouts at the stray cats around his doorway “Tsito!” What is this word? Only heard in Corfu. Again, some strain of Italian I guess. I’m told there are over 3,000 words that are particular only to Corfu, not heard anywhere else in Greece. “I’m going to write a dictionary of them all” says the unshaven Corfiot I see most days sat over his ouzo in the ‘Apothiki’ bar in town. And of course he never will.
There’s the accent too that is also so unusual and peculiar to this island. ‘Tragoudista’ Greeks from other parts of the country call it – a singing voice. Rising on and falling on syllables, like a musical tide. Maybe this is connected to the Italian influence as well? Or the unique musical aspect that exists here – the brass bands in the towns, the villagers singing in their fields…
Kodokali has a community of British people living round the town. Many of them spend their time drinking their days away in The Old Barrels pub. Lappas can’t understand the British at all. He stands outside the windows of the Old Barrels, his face flushed with excitement.
“What are they doing in there?” he points through the glass. “What are they doing?!”
It seems to me that a few old men are just sat in the darkness, drinking in silence. An air of Tuesday afternoon alcoholic gloom hanging about the place. But Lappas is astounded, bewildered.
“What’s happening? Is this normal in Britain?” he asks, pointing again through the window.
“Well why don’t we go in?” I say to Lappas.
“Nooo…” he recoils, waving his hands in the air, smiling nervously at the idea, as if I’ve suggested the most inappropriate, unbelievable proposal. He goes back to looking through the window.
“What are they doing there?” he shakes his head, stupefied.
The magazine has rejected my article.
Before Corfu’s damp green winter sets in, the olives have to be harvested. Corfu, it’s said, has two million olive trees on the island. But they are unruly, not cultivated well. The olives here aren’t the best. Back in Venetian times they used the oil for fuel and rewarded the Corfiots for planting as many trees and growing them as high as they could. Now the trees push up with clawing fingers into the sky. Many Corfiots just lazily leave nets down on the ground to collect the olives – but this isn’t good, once they’ve fallen they’re already going bad. I walk past some olive groves on the hills above the sea. Old women in black headscarves, dungarees and thick socks stand on stepladders, whacking at the branches with sticks trying to knock the black bullets down. We wave greetings as I pass. They were probably great beauties once upon a time, back when they met their husbands, the farmers and owners of these little plots of olive trees. Now the women look tired. They are bent with pain and spend their days smelling of animal droppings.
I offer to take the Lappas children into town to visit the old cinema. Watching a film in Greece is a ridiculous experience: no one stops talking during the whole film’s screening. The audience compete with each other to shout out spoilers as loudly as they can, everyone cackling along at this routine. I sit in the cinema, watching the latest Hollywood film on ancient maroon velvet seats as kids run and shriek around me. More than one father chases his son up onto the high-rise part at the front of the cinema, puts his boy over his knee and thwacks at him for an age, all hugely silhouetted up on the screen. Then, halfway through, the projectionist just stops the film, mid-dialogue, for 20 minutes. He puts the lights on so everyone can walk around and chat with old friends, gossip, greedily smoke cigarettes, happily forget why they were here in the first place. And then the film just starts up again, everyone back to their seats, to shout out as loud as they can for the rest of the performance.
I left the Lappas home with five kids. I seem to be returning with eight.
We have been away, living in different parts of the country while Giristroula has been researching children’s playground games throughout Greece. We have returned to the chaos of the yellow villa just as the Lappas’ are having a baptism for a new addition to their family.
In the church the priest blesses the water, dunks the baby three times, and then slavers the child in olive oil.
“Where did you get the oil?” someone asks the nonos, the godfather. “Is it good oil? If the boy has problems later, if he goes crazy, it will be your fault, you know, if that oil wasn’t good…”
“Apetaxo to Satana?” – have you renounced Satan? – the Priest asks three times. “Emfississon kai emptyson afto!” – Breath and spit upon him! The crowd stand pressed together, clutching candles. The baby’s hair is cut. “God grant you many years!” we repeat again and again.
And then we are out in the garden, which has been laid out with tables. 40 of Lappas’ hens have been slaughtered for the guests. Great barrels of wine. A band plays under the trees and guests dance in circles under the bright sun: adult, adult, child, adult, all gripping each other’s shoulders, kicked steps forward and back. A man slapping at his full belly next to me making the sound just like a bass drum. I meet Lappas’ brother who plays with the musicians with his clarinet. He has come from Thessaloniki and tells me of a gledi he played at on a farm outside the city to celebrate the making of the year’s tsipouro. There was a great tragedy as, while they played and drank and danced, the farmer got trapped in his huge vat of tsiporou and drowned.
“What a way to go…” Lappas’ brother says, shaking his head, draining his glass.
The party goes on late into the night, bodies lay out on the ground as I wind my unsteady way to bed.I see Lappas under the trees, striped by the moonlight, holding his latest son in his arms. He is flushed with quite the most enormous pride and joy.
A new school year at the free Greek classes that are run in the evenings at the primary school in the centre of town. The priests arrive and bless the school for the year, shaking holy water off bunches of basil into every corner. Greeks will ask a priest to bless anything that’s new – I’ve even seen priests gathered round the open bonnet of a new car, crossing themselves and granting the car a hymn of blessing.
I turn up at Maria’s class but it’s a different crowd to the last time I was here. Now at the front of the class are a group of Syrian and Afghanistani men. Refugees who took boats over the Aegean sea in the summer and have been relocated to Corfu while they wait to be granted permission to continue their travel further into Europe. They are keen students. Despite the fact they don’t particularly want to stay in Greece, they want to learn the language. They don’t know how long they’ll have to stay here. Mine, and the other English students’ lazy, slow attempts at learning Greek are looked-down on. They have questions for Maria, they write assiduous notes, they want to learn this language quickly. They don’t want to be dragged down by our half-arsed efforts. What’s wrong with us, why don’t we take it more seriously?
I walk past the marina in Gouvia, along the promenade past all the masts and yachts and moneyed foreigners sipping in the cafes. Suddenly I hear the clack of leather on willow. The main cricket pitch in Corfu has moved from Spiniada Square – they’ve built a car park in the covers and down at fine leg now – to here, by the marina. The Greek national team are practising. I stand and watched for a while. Eventually they ask me to join in. I send a few balls down – the first in 10 years or so – my body creaking like an old gate. Then they ask me if I want to play for them in their next game. This seems ridiculous, but they tell me many of their players are away on holiday, they need extras.
“I’m not Greek” I point out to them. They brush this off. “Your wife is Greek, yes? It’s enough, it’s enough…” the captain tells me, wafting a dismissive hand in their air.
The next game is against a Rest Of The World team. There are riotous scenes as one of the Greeks is given out for the fairly unknown, but perfectly legitimate, law of hitting the ball twice. The Greeks suspect great crookedness, players rush from the pavilion onto the field, pushing and shoving, accusations of cheating, fingers pointed in the umpire’s faces. “Malaka! Malaka!” It takes half an hour to calm things down and for the game to continue.
“Eh Spiro,” one of the players calls to the man putting the scores on the board. “It’s 183 for four, nor three.”
The man is offended, slings the numbers down on the floor, pushes over the the board.
“Are you trying to tell ME my job?”
After the match, which the Rest Of The World win comfortably, I listen in as an Australian tells one of the Greek batsmen who earlier clearly knew he was out but didn’t admit to it, that he should have walked. How it was in the spirit of the game, the spirit of fair play. The Greek stares at him dumb-struck. The Australian might as well have been explaining neuroscience to a penguin. The Greek obviously long schooled in the old saying: ‘Better to be a cheat than a fool…’
I take no wickets, score no runs. No one asks me to come back for the next game.
Saint Spiros’ day. The saint of the island. Spiros was a simple shepherd who dedicated himself to God and was given the power of healing. After his death in 384BC his body – remarkably preserved, still at normal human temperature, so people say – was moved round and round: Cyprus, Constantinople… Since 1453 though, he has been holed up in his great silver sarcophagus in the main church in Corfu Town. Today he is brought out, small and black, mummified and frightening-looking, crouched in his glass box. He is carried on an ornate stretcher around the town. Corfiots gather and jostle and fight to get to see the saint, to kiss his feet. He is the hero of the island, saving it from fires and plagues and, in 1716, driving away the Ottoman invasion – his apparition flying at the Turkish fleet with a flaming sword. Most boys born on the island will be given the name Sprios.
The church, dark and decorated inside, is a place I like to come and sit in the peace, out of the sun and the heat. Saint Spiros always lies there, closed and locked up in his case in his sanctuary. People leave little silver icons – tamatas – with the image appropriate for whatever prayer they want to be answered: a little silver boat hanging above Saint Spiros if someone’s husband has gone on a long dangerous fishing journey; a silver representation of a leg if someone’s child has been born handicapped; a pair of eyes engraved into a square piece of silver hanging from a silk string if their eyesight is failing. The Corfiots are sure Saint Sprios will do what he can. Chanting goes on at the front of the church – a small drone, like a bluebottle caught on a window pain. Christ looks down from the ceiling on the few of us sat on the pews here: the farmer, the fisherman, the rich Corfiot businessman. Once I saw a man sat at the front with a pile of scratchcards, slinging them to the ground as each one revealed nothing, swearing under his breath as he slung. Then he got a winner. He rose to his feet and cried out in joy and rushed to the altar, falling to his knees, kissing over and over again at Saint Spiros’ silver coffin.
We climb up Pantokrator – the tallest mountain of Corfu – to take a look down at the island below us. As if to make sure everything is ok. Just like Kaiser’s Throne in Pelakas, or the unmarked path that leads up between the small towns of Doukades and Agia Anna, up to the ancient miniature white-washed church of Agia Simeon clinging completely on its own over a sheer drop towards Paleokastritsa and the surrounding ribs of mountain rock alive with birds – Corfu has some incredible peaks to stand and to contemplate.
I have been involved in a Christmas panto the British community are putting on here down in the town in the Anglican church. Greeks don’t know what a panto is, the Dames and Widow Twankys quite baffling them. A few Greeks have been roped in to help, but predictable arguments spill out in the old church hall. Two Greeks in the pantomime cow costume was never going to be a good idea. But even though they don’t really understand it, the Greeks love acting. A large swarthy Greek, Kostas, is playing the evil Count – there is no need for a fake moustache to twirl, he has his own. We will give a performance in the main Corfu theatre. It could either be brilliant or unimaginably awful.
New Year’s Day arrives and Lappas greets it with the tradition of hurling a fat pomegranate to smash on our doorstep. The seeds spilling out for good luck. We are moving in the next few days. Moving back south of the main town again, to rooms in a white villa in the middle of an olive grove looking down over the sea. The owner has cats and dogs she wants looking after while she’s not around. We will miss the Lappas family terribly.
Moving back to our old area has alerted Demetris our old landlord, who had felt personally wronged when we left hos house. As we were being shown round the white villa I could see Demetris had sent one of his spies to see what we were doing. Unfortunately for him, he had sent Adonis the fat fisherman. Adonis tried to hide behind a tree to see what we was going on – his stomach stuck out a mile.
There have been storms this new year. Storms always seem to bring electricity cuts to the island. I once had an appointment at the dentist when all the power went – unperturbed the dentist just carried on doing his rooting around in my mouth by the light of his phone’s torch. He seemed very used to power cuts. Then as I was sat back in the chair, his phone hovering above my wide open mouth, his torch died too. He continued the rest of the routine clutching a candle.
Visiting the hospital here can be a challenge too. I was once walking on Kodokali’s empty beach when a stray dog appeared from nowhere and bit me hard on the backside. I went to the Corfu hospital casualty department and they told me I should have a tetanus jab. I was reluctant as I can’t stand needles, but eventually they talked me into it.
“You should have the tatanus jab,” they said.
“I don’t really want to.”
“You’ll do it?” they asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Ok good…Now can you go and buy us the tetanus jabs. We have run out…”
So I had to go to the chemist and buy a stack of tetanus jabs. When other doctors in the hospital cotton-on that I was going to the chemists, they all came up to me with a long list of other things I could buy for them too.
The rain has ruined the road in the hills above our house. Half of it has fallen down the hillside. I gingerly walk along the edge and meet a car coming the other way.
“Can I get through?” the man says.
“No,” I say. “Look at the signs…” I point at the ‘Danger – No Entry’ signs.
The man gives me the Greek sagging shoulders, the mouth pulled down in a scoffing pose…
“Yes, but can I drive through?” he says.
“The road really is very bad,” I tell him.
I can see him looking over his steering wheel though, down the road. I can see he still think he can make it. I walk back half an hour later, his car is stuck. Two wheels hanging over the edge, workmen pushing at it to get back up the landslide. He shouts and shouts, plunging his arms down low, angrily, as if it’s all someone else fault.
It is Carnival time here in Corfu, in the run-up to Lent. My favourite thing, only seen on this island, is the Petegoletsa: The Gossips. Woman lean out of their windows in the old town, on their balconies over the alleyways and squares, hanging out their washing and discuss loudly and indiscreetly all the secrets and perceived failings of various famous figures around Corfu. Or their husband’s poor behaviour and poor efforts in bed. Or the state of other people’s laundry… All in the thick Corfu City dialect – which is different from all the other unique dialects of the rest of the island. Sometimes the women will lean back and sing an Ionian serenade. It’s all actors nowadays, brightly made-up, wearing old women’s cleaning clothes and headscarves, but this is a real tradition stretching back hundreds of years. The crowd gather below to listen to the lewd conversations, cackling with their red round Corfiot faces turned to the high Venetian balconies. On an island that has lost so much of its identity through tourism, I find this is all a great, spirited connection to Corfu’s past.
Above Argirades – Silver Town – an old village down in the south of the island, an ancient old woman stands in the doorway of the church, her head tied tight in a blue headscarf.
“Apo pou?” she says to me – where are you from.
“Londthino” I reply – London.
“Londthino?” she says, absolute confusion on her face. “Londthino..?” she repeats to herself quietly, looking at the ground.
“Gastouri,” I try again, the village just a few kilometres down the road.
“Ah Gastouri!” she brightens “Kala! Po, po, po..!” she’s impressed. “He’s from Gastouri!” I hear her telling the other old men and women who appear in the tiny village lanes. “Gastouri. He’s come here to see us from Gastouri!” I hear floating down the hill as she calls up to her friend in a top window, a voice of utter amazement, as if I’d arrived from somewhere in central Africa.
We pass an old woman walking up the slope as we go down. She has two very large logs that she’s taking back to her fireplace balanced one on top of the other on her head. In these real rural parts of Corfu the Corfiots still even today use the the duration of a cigarette as a record of distance. It seems incredible. I’ve asked someone before something like “Poso makria einai Corfu town?” And got the reply “Eh… Oxi makria. Tha kapnisis dyo…” – Not far. You’ll smoke two…
We stand out on the veranda. Stripes of moonlight on the sea, the warm wind blowing up onto the balcony through the olive trees. The occasional thud of an orange falling to the ground somewhere out in the dark. It could be paradise here, I’m sure of it now. During the bright days I also stand on the balcony and look out over the cypresses trees hanging on the sky like long thin puffs of dark green smoke. I look past them to the honey-smooth sea with the Greek mainland and the mountains of Albania both just a gleaming distance away. I feel so incredibly lucky. I watch a pair of eagles languidly fly in circles overhead. I remember how excited I used to get when there was just a magpie in the tree outside my Streatham window. I love this island, but we are to part soon.
Daphnie won’t have music in her taverna any longer. Ever since Giorgos the bouzouki player ran away to Paris with her daughter, she won’t allow any of the musicians to set up in ‘Hayiati’. So nowadays we all pile into the small dark bar ‘Berdes’ in the centre of town. A berdes is the tent of a Karagiozis show and this great bar is festooned in old Karagiozis and rebetiko paraphernalia. Musicians play, smoke, laughter, thrown-back bottles of raki.
Giristroula and I go into town this evening. We walk along the old Venetians lanes and get souvlakis and gyros pitas to eat. Weirdly, only in Corfu, this classic Greek takeout always gets served with a tangy red sauce, like a spaghetti sauce. I don’t know why they do this, perhaps it’s the Italian influence once again? Then we join the crowd in Berdes. Everyone is here. Lappas is free from his children for the night, a collection of bottles in front of him already. He is shouting something to me about God. The Karagiozis theatre players are all here – Ilias, Giannis, Pavlos, Aphrodite. Giristroula joins one table to talk to some of her students from the music university. Other musicians pluck down an instrument – a bouzouki or a violin – hanging from the ceiling here and start to play. Spiros, the son of Maria my Greek teacher, pours me out another drink.
We will leave this island tomorrow. There are other places in Greece we have said we want to visit, other places we have to see. I still can’t believe we are going to go though. I can’t contemplate that we will leave all this behind us. And I know I will always think of all those Corfu days that were just not to be.