We threaded our way out of the noise and confusion of the airport into the brilliant sunshine of Corfu. There they were: the tiers of multi-coloured houses, green shuttered, piled haphazardly. There was the bay beyond, blue and smooth as a plate. Here was our new life on the island, laid out before us like a feast. Or so it seemed.
Word had been sent a few days earlier, while we were in Athens, that someone would be able to help us and there would be a place for us to stay somewhere here in Corfu Town. What we had to do now was to find it.
What we found was an incredibly dark, damp basement, smelling of mould, fusty and with a crack of dirt that fell into our eyes as I shunted the door open with my shoulder.
But it was a dark, damp basement on Spianada.
Spianada: the largest square in Greece. The largest in the whole of the Balkans, so people told me. Built by the French when they controlled Corfu – as compared to when the British did, or the Venetians, all of whom left their indelible marks on the architecture of the city as well.
Here was Liston, a handsome long columned esplanade running down one side. On the other side, a grand rose-coloured ash-walled old fortress towered above. Our dank couple of rooms were next door to the Ionian Academy, a pink birthday cake of a building, the first educational institution in modern Greece. It was now part of the Ionian University, and where Giristroula had managed to wrangle a job due to start in the next few days, teaching music.
Standing on tiptoe we could see out of the grimy windows of our rooms at pavement level as the socked and sandaled feet of tourists flowed past. The tourists past the purple flowers growing up the walls and out of the cracks of our old building, the flood rolled past the statue of the first prime minster of Greece, Kapodistrias, saluting across the narrow channel of 20 miles of sea back to the mainland.
There were bugs in the bed and fleas in the room which left us with red bloody sores whenever we sat down. We couldn’t stay here. And besides, Corfu was shining too brilliantly outside to ignore.
We took a walk into the old town. Past the church of the saint of this island, Saint Spiros, with his icons and holy relics fussed over and protected and kissed and gripped by tiny dark headscarfed old women. The architecture here was unlike anything I’d seen in Greece. Collapsing rows of houses above the old port, still lived in, no mere window dressing for the tourists. Ancient Italian or French, pastel shades of yellow and pink, blurred, not re-painted in centuries. Hanging laundry criss-crossing on lines above the paved passageways. The old Jewish Quarter. Narrow alleyways and colonnades. Flaking, damp-ruined walls. Balconies and details on every building.
We met up with Anthi, one of the student teachers at the university, in a bar just off grassy Spianada square with its games of cricket left over from the British reign – and over a tzitzibeera, a ginger beer, another peculiarity popular in Corfu coming from the old British days, she told us what to expect on this island.
“They’ll cheat you.”
The crisis that had suffocated the whole of Greece had avoided Corfu. The tourists that clogged the streets of Corfu Town in the summer (middle-aged British couples, rucksacks, maps, suncream, spectacles and hat) or crammed the beach bars in the south of the island (single young Brits, topless, tattoos, clutching hedonism to lobster-red chests) had kept Corfu in the money. And everyone who owned a business here knew they didn’t need to appeal to the customer. They knew who ran this island, and they knew they didn’t need you.
“16 evro? ” I’d hear angered old local women saying, coming out of greengrocers with their bags. “Oh yes, you’ve got tourism now. Oh yes, you’re making money today! In the winter though – don’t forget it – you’ll be back trying to take it from us…” they would caterwaul over their shoulders. “Ama me ksanadeis, na me vrasees!” – If you see me in your shop again, boil me! The large moustached greengrocer in his white apron overall would give a pleased-with-himself, uncaring wave of the hand, flapping them away, shutting the door on their backsides.
“I feel bad saying it,” said Anthi quietly “But..some of them…they’re…well, they’re quite stupid.” As a teacher she’d seen, first hand, the children of the island. “Their parents all have hotels and tavernas. They make so much money in the summer. The kids are just going to work in, and eventually inherit, these tavernas. They don’t need education. They often just don’t come to school. Many of my students leave unable to read. Illiterate.”
It was my first surprise. But we then walked out of town, through the area of Kanoni, past the palace Mon Repos and out onto a rock headland to watch the sun draping itself in pinks and golds into the sea behind Pontikonissi – Mouse Island – the icon of Corfu, with its 16th century church set on its little islet out on the sea. Its white walls, its red roof and frescoes. Green hills with the groves of olives and myrtle trees climbing away behind. How could anything unattractive or asinine or unappealing ever exist here, I thought to myself. On this island that seemed to have materialised like something straight out of a dream… The shadow of a huge aeroplane grew larger, darker, rippling on the hillsides, and roared straight over Mouse Island, shaking us as it landed meters from Corfu’s famous island symbol, with a shriek of breaks and a howl of engines.
I mean WHO puts their airport right in the middle of a town?
We took a trip out up on the hills, looking down high over concentrated Corfu Town, the houses spreading thinner out to Kanoni and Lake Halikiopoulou and then separated from us by the rolling green and yellow patchwork fields. Nearby was Achillion, the absurdly vulgar dream-like palace built by the Austrian Empress Sisi for her holidaying two centuries back.
We walked in the dusty roads in the scorching heat, the only things seemingly awake on the whole island – us and the cicadas. And then we came across it. A battered, old, forgotten village… A crumbling church standing above everything, the still bell in the arch of the old bell tower suspended in the heat. Ruined ancient houses below with heavy, marked, blistered wooden shutters hanging off hinges, unglassed windows. Tiny ginnels running off into the dark down the sides of skewed old crooked buildings. Rough-cut rocky steps that lead up God-knows where.
We walked around in silence gazing at this dilapidatedly beautiful village, set like a hot yellow stone half way up the cleavage of two tree-thick mountains.
“Psahneteh katee” – Are you looking for something?
I peered into the dark where the voice had come from. Sat on a rickety chair outside the only shop in the village, the bakery, was a white haired old man. Pickled-walnut faced, as old looking as the village itself.
He heaved himself up on to his stick. “Are you looking for a house? I know a house that’s empty.”
Giristroula and I hadn’t said anything to the other about living here. It hadn’t even crossed my mind until this creaking venerable old man – so totally Greek and aged and utterly in keeping with his surroundings – mentioned it. We looked at each other. “Yes,” we replied at the same time.
The old man was Hector. The self-appointed arhontas – the president – of the village. The ancient bakery he now sat outside every day had once been his. It had been taken over in recent years by a harassed woman who now had to deal daily with Hector still coming in, prodding the breads, sniffing the pittas. Hector liked to sit outside in his small pool of dark in the otherwise intense yellow light that smothered everything else in the village, watching all that went on and knowing everyone’s business. He was often accompanied by two or three headscarfed, also greatly aged, ladies who all seemed hopelessly in love with him.
Hector introduced us to Demetris. We met Demetris outside the house he had to rent. It was – perfectly – a strawberry-pink villa. Small and square and standing with determination in a tiny garden. In the arch of the stone gateway to the garden a flower emblem and a carving told us that it had been built in 1804. There was a dirty old outside toilet in the garden which was overhung by twisting vines of deep-purple grapes and pearl-white blooms, thick with wasps. Sprawling squares of thick olive tree fields ran behind, rolling away with continual hills as far as you could see. And hiding in these great grey-green carpets, hundreds of loud endlessly barking, seemingly convulsed, Greek dogs.
Demetris told us he had been born in this house almost 80 years ago and had lived with his family of five in the three rooms. He was still a large, sprightly man, with a moustache that danced as he talked and eyes that were both laughing and cunning.
“I’m a communist”, he told us. “I fought out there,” he waved a vague arm to the hills. “You can rely on me. I won’t cheat you.” For some reason, this was enough for us. We took the keys.
There was no electricity. This new home of ours didn’t have an address, didn’t have a door number, it was all too old for that. All post in the village had to be sent to Hector’s old wood and tin metal dark bakery. We didn’t know how we would contact anyone for electricity.
As we stood there, looking at the house, wondering what to do, a man on the barest skeleton of an old moped, with a bald head and a long badger-like black and grey beard stopped outside the house. Without introduction, he got off the moped and in silence connected the wires of the house to a telegraph pole outside to syphon off, for free, the electricity. He did this wordlessly, with no explanation, without even looking at us, before driving off again. With a salute. Must have been the trick of the village.
We called in at the local kafeneo. The hub of any Greek village or town. This one was old, of course, solid sand-coloured brick and then, the higher levels, a faded rose colour. Shutters ancient and warped.
We entered, blinking into the dark and met Nikos, the owner. Nikos would open his bar at 5am for coffee. He liked to drink his with ouzo in it. He would be drunk by 7am and slowly get more unrescuably drunker as the day wore on. Closing at midday, he would then return, Lazarus–like after his siesta to steadily drink again until midnight.
Sometimes Nikos would be all alone aside from the broken wicker chairs, faded portraits and trinkets. Sometimes the bar would be full with card-playing characters from the surrounding countryside all wreathed in smoke and arguments and laughter. The old men in their thick suits, even in the roasting temperatures, nibbling at sunflower or pumpkin seeds. Cracking the small shell between their front teeth, spitting out the bits, scattering them on the floor between their feet. Passatempo I’m told these seeds are called, but also the action is known as passatempo too. It’s a hobby, a past time. The old men passatempo-ing their days away. Nibbling and spitting. Killing the summer-slow time.
We would sit in the café during the searing bright days, with the old men embalmed in their pleasures, staring into space. A drunken Nikos would tell us cock-and-bull stories about his past – being a drug runner in South America, a gigolo on the French Riviera. My guess was he had never been out of Corfu in his life, but he was a good story teller, while he kept himself upright.
As all good kafeneo owners should, Nikos knew everyone in Corfu. As all of our possessions lay in storage in a warehouse near Athens on the Piraeas harbour side, having been shipped over from London, we needed someone to get them to us here in Corfu. “Kanena provlima” – no problem – said Nikos, rocking slightly, his knee dropping in a little drunken lurch. “I know people…”
The owner of the shipping company was a woman of barely four foot tall. And as pleasant as she was tall. She shouted, threatened, gesticulated, smoked two cigarettes at once as we stood in her office trying to offer her a job and our money. She spat on the floor as she took the cash and counted it. Our possessions would be shipped over from Athens in three days’ time she told us.
Three days later we received a call. “I have your things here,” the growl of a voice came down the phone. “I want more money…”
What could we do? All of our world was there, in her warehouse. She grinned with her brown teeth and gums bared as we entered her grim office again to pay her more. Despicable words were thrown at us as we left, having handed over the required ransom. They weren’t welcomes to Corfu. But in her way she had given us a good introduction to the island. Just as accurate to life in Corfu as the dying sunsets, or those views over the gangs of turtle-back hills over on the mainland, or the cliffs eaten into by the swaying curtain of blue sea with clattering pebbles in the surf below. Better to suffer in heaven than be served well in hell, I guess…
When we opened the crates we found some pictures were missing. Musical instruments too.
“Don’t worry,” slurred Nikos in the cocoon of his bar, seeing three of us and focusing on none. “I’ll get them back. Just a mistake…”
True to his word, the next day we walked up to Nikos’ in the early morning sunshine and there was this large, unsteady on his feet, thickset Greek man, cigarette dead in the corner of his mouth, sheepishly waving the instrument cases in his great paw-like hands. A suspicious-looking bruised mark over his eye. “It…er…it didn’t cost me much.”
The summer stayed, it seemed, for ever. A happy reveller refusing to leave the party. Each morning I woke up worried that the covers of the night would have been pulled back to reveal a grey autumnal day, but every day emerged as the last: heat-scorched, luminously-bright, eucalyptus-smelling, cicada-orchestrated.
We stood in the garden eating figs for breakfast one late summer day and found our conversation was being listened in on by an enormous green and red lizard: a foot long, bearded, mohicaned with spiky frill. It licked its eyeball at us, winked a morning greeting.
A little further down from our house on the winding path was the village church, squeezed into the small alleyways like a fat man bursting out of his suit. This yellow painted church – 300 years old, very cracked at the seams – had a priest who enjoyed cranking the old church tannoy and delivering his endless “Kirialation! Kirialation! Kirialation!”s at varied times. Favouring early Sundays or late nights. Setting off a thousand villagers’ dogs. The priest – heavy black robes, stove-pipe hat, jewelled necklaces, flowing beard – swept down the ginnelled paths of the village regularly, knocking on doors and, as soon as they opened, waving his smoking handbag – his thymiateria – into the newly opened doorway, whether asked or not, to ward off any lurking evil spirits inside. Just the once he made a perfunctory glance at our house. And then slid soundlessly by, uninterested. His robes held up by the eager young boys of the church.
On the few times I entered the old church to look around – standing under the faded gold Byzantine scenes above me, Christ and the saints looking down from the ceilings – the look fired from the priest as he fiddled in his ornate crypt, the unwelcoming shake of the head, the growl as he bent back down again, had me leaving quickly. A beautiful, but maybe not a broad church.
There was a tiny man who lived in the village. Rodent-faced, deep tanned skin like a battered brown leather boot – and, quite obviously, simple. I never saw anyone happier than this man when, after being mocked as the figure of fun in the kafeneo, drinks were finally bought for him and he was slapped around and a chair was brought out for him and he was allowed to sit down for a while with the men of the village. Grinning like a fool.
Most bright mornings, out of my window, I would see this small simple man, having been ratted out from behind the church where the old priest kept his moped, scurrying away fast, guiltily, his arms over his head, fleeing the pursuing old priest – the priest raining blows down on him with his rolled up papers. He would salute the greetings from the old ladies outside the bakery as he ran, cowering from the blows.
Late summer was spent lounging outside the house watching mournful-faced men pass, taking clanging belled goats down the road out onto the hills. Often followed by the sad sound of a gunshot ringing through the village lanes.
We would walk down the hills. Cutting through the fields, passing the long fingers of cypress trees pointing up, alerting us, as if we needed telling, to cloudless deep skies above. Birds would fly out of the trees in an explosion of colours, like a flare going off in the branches. We would head through the fields to Kaiser Beach, a quiet strip by the sea next to the ruined Kaiser Bridge – put up by the Germans in the time of their King’s holidaying at Achillion in 1907, smashed by the Germans, so their tanks could roll under it, in 1944 – and we swam, as late in the year as the end of November. The warm water, turquoise blue, clear deep down right to the sandy floor, slow black schools of fish below that would suddenly turn silver and green as they flashed round to take a different course. Giristroula swimming with the speed of dolphin in the sea, me splashing and lumbering on behind.
Demetris’ brother was Spiros. Spiros had actually been born in the Achillion Palace, during the war, when it was used as a military hospital, but he had grown up with his brother in the chaos of our small villa. He still lived in the village, in a large house directly under the small church square.
“I’m glad you two are living in my family’s house,” Spiros told us. “I like you two…” He gave us a long hard stare, that didn’t necessarily seem to show much congeniality. Staring deep into our souls, looking for something, God knows what.
Spiros had good English though, unlike his brother who couldn’t speak a word.
“Ach. He couldn’t be bothered to learn English. He was always chasing money from the moment he could walk.”
I thought of enquiringly as to the validity of his brothers’ communist claims, but decided better of it. It was clear the brothers didn’t get on.
“I am an artist”, said Spiros, rising himself up, puffing out his chest, straightening the small blue cap on his head and handkerchief round his neck.
While Demetris had become the owner of the island’s largest insurance office, Spiros had spent his life as an actor here on Corfu. He had recently been approached to appear in a film of the story of the Durrells – who he, and most Corfiots, had never heard of but which had excited many of the locals as rumour of its filming filtered through the island. He coaxed me into coming along too to volunteer as an English extra. He would not talk to me about his brother though. “Ehoumeh yeenee apo dyo horia horiates” – we have become two villagers from different villages, he would tell me when I asked about their relationship. Meaning, I guessed, that they were chalk and cheese.
“He has his life, I have mine,” Spiros said. There was then a silence. It seemed Spiros had made his point so I opened my mouth to speak… “My life is better,” Spiros added with a final snap, nodding to himself.
Demetris would come round to our villa unannounced, his cackling face appearing at the small, roughhewn open window. He would tell Giristroula that his workmen wanted to come and fix jobs in the house they’d already fixed as they’d all fallen in love with her, nudging me violently in the ribs as he told his stories. Stories always with Demetris heroic. Stories that always ended with Demetris triumphant. Stories that would last forever,going on until the sun had slipped well behind one of the mountain tops high behind the village. If Spiros passed the house however, Demetris would fall into muted silence and the two brothers would barely look at each other as Spiros walked by wishing the two of us, in his deep low actorly voice “Kalimera.”
Village life continued like this as summer, finally, imperceptibly, changed into autumn; and as autumn changed just as carefully and deliberately, with tiny movements, into winter.
New Year arrived, with the priest waking everyone at dawn with his proclamations from his tinny speakers, and a full philharmonic brass band passing down the tiny paths directly underneath our windows.
Corfu is a strangely musical island and many towns and even small villages like ours have their own philharmonic orchestras. Our band played in a grand hall further up on the twisting road that eventually led down the hill, the only route away from the village, out onto the main road pointing towards Corfu Town. They were close enough so that we would still regularly hear the timpani section’s practices riding over the heavy air: setting off a million stray dogs hiding out in the fields.
The band today though, in their navies and purples, tassels, epilates and polished helmets with plumped-up plumes, carried on past our house. We rushed out of bed to follow behind the train of people as it led us past the church, past the crumbling houses, out into vineyards of overgrown trees, up moss coated steps. Then onto a small road where a stone fountain stood, around a natural spring, that had been built hundreds of years ago. We’d been happy to find this fountain and it was where we had been getting our drinking water for the last few months.
The priest was waiting for all of us up here. He embarked on a long ritual, blessing the water for the coming year, ending the performance by throwing his ornate jewelled cross through the open grill gate into the dark blue natatorium of water. The cross was quickly followed by the shirtless, shoeless young men of the village. They swam and scrapped with each other in the dark agitated waters to retrieve this trinketed little ikon. Eventually one held it up aloft out of the water and this winner then handed it over and received an extra blessing from the pontiff – regal and haughty in his ridiculous hat.
I was told this is the great Greek New Year tradition in every town and village in the country. I turned to remark to one of the members of the crowd standing here – and everyone was here: all the smiling gargoyle characters from the kafeneo; the old ladies from outside the bakery; Demetris and Spiros, stood at opposite ends from each other; Hector, sat in prime position; the musicians; the teachers and the students from the tiny village school; the farmers, their goats. I said it didn’t seem particularly hygienic to be doing all this in our drinking water.
“Oh we don’t drink this water anymore. Haven’t you seen all the worms floating in there? We haven’t drunk this water for years! Well.. apart from him,” she nodded towards a small man in old trousers, belted by string.
I didn’t feel so well that New Year.
I took a trip into Corfu Town one bright morning. I stood for 20 minutes outside the bank just to draw some money out of the machine. With nothing else to do I listened in on the old men stood around, chatting as they watched life going past. It would be good to practice my Greek I thought. My smile faded though as I slowly worked out the conversations going on.
“Look, there’s an Albanian…And there’s another one…God damn Albanians. They get everywhere.”
“See him..?” one said, summoning over a small boy playing by the road, and pointing at another man walking along the street. “See him..? He’s a God damn Albanian… Palio Alvanos…”
I turned to the men and asked if they really needed to talk like this.
“I’m sorry…” said one, “Se kseroume?” – Do we know you? They continued, unaffected.
Another old man who had come out of the bank dropped his bank book. I called out and went over and handed it back to him. He smiled, but then looked confused by this random act of quite insignificant help.
“I’m sorry…but tell me…why did you come over and give this back to me?” he said. Se ksero?” – Do I know you?”
Surrounded by Corfiot beauty, I wondered if I would ever fathom Corfiot ways. The nature had got me. Of course it had. It could be hard – I encountered my first earthquake early one morning, shaken out of my bed by a magnitude 6.5 – but Corfu’s nature with the paintbrush heads of the trees seemingly coating the sky a new deep blue every day; the sea flat as a meadow with the hands of both Greece and Albania cupping it at either end; the green folded mountains of the islands central range…Corfu’s nature was special. The people had got to me though. Some of them anyway. The mores and manners of the islanders; the sly incursions and the creeping money-obsessed ways. The restaurant owners plying only for the tourist trade – “Oh you live here?” one taverna owner said to me having served me a terrible Sofrito, the meaty Corfiot signature dish. “I though you were on holiday and I would never see you again…” Impressive honesty I suppose, as I poked at the shoe-leather meal, but not quite the Greek conviviality I’d come to expect. Hotel owners prostituting the beauty of their home island for the wealthy Germans and Russians, standing on the balconies of their hideous blots on the landscapes drawing in great lungfuls of the monied air and exhaling them, eyes closed in ecstasy. The men who sat smugly, bathing like walruses in largesse in Nikos’ desperate kafeneo, snapping their fingers for another drink and boasting “Pay my share? Tomorrow, my friend, tomorrow…”
Back in our village, still halfway up those old green hills, still flooded by sunlight, life in the village seemed to have change. There was a turn in the air. A dark feeling had fallen over the place like a heavy cloak. I noticed everyone all of a sudden was dressed in black, all faces unsmiling. The ancient old ladies, gathered, milling slowly like sombre pigeons, outside Hector’s old bakery. One of them told me what had happened. Spiros’ son had been killed in a car accident on the mainland, somewhere north of Athens. One of the old ladies, overcome with emotion, hugged me as this news was told, the priest of the village appeared at my side too and even he, this grim man of God, placed a hand on my shoulder giving me a brief, sad conciliatory smile.
Spiros’ son hadn’t visited the village since he was a boy. He was a stranger to most of these people, but I saw here how the Corfiot character – that same Corfiot character that so frequently needled me – now exploded into one of great care and concern. Everybody’s house was open, Nikos wouldn’t think of you paying for a drink, food was brought out for all to eat and everyone wanted to sit and to talk. Neighbours went from house to house to check all was ok.
And then the sight that really moved me – that made me feel that, just as with all the nature on offer on this island, maybe a paradise amongst the Corfiots could be found here after all… Along the paths of our small village, a desolate broken Spiros came, walking slowly. Supported all along the way by a fixed unfaltering Demetris, his arms close around his brother. They made their way down towards the rough-cut steps behind the church and out towards the fields of overgrown olive trees beyond.
The dogs staying silent for once.