I am now really married into this world.
We had left England for good – and already it had been blown out like a candle in my mind. Me and my new wife, my travelling companion – my Giristroula as they say in Greece for a girl who wanders – had been touring the country looking for a good place to settle.
We landed in Corfu. The Garden of Greece. We threaded our way out of the noise and confusion of the airport into the brilliant sunshine.
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 here and there would be a place for us to stay somewhere in Corfu Town. What we had to do now was now find it.
What we found was an incredibly dark, damp basement. Smelling of mould. Fusty and with a crack of dirt falling 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 say. Built – with incredible style – by the French when they controlled Corfu (compared to when the British did. Or the Venetians. All of whom left their indelible marks on the architecture of the city too).
Here was Liston, a handsome, long, columned esplanade running down one side. On the other side, a grandiose rose-coloured old ash-walled fortress towered above.
Our dank couple of rooms were next door to the Ionian Academy, a glorious pink birthday cake building set up in the early 1800s by the 5th Earl of Guildford as the first educational institution in modern Greece and now part of the Ionian University, where my Giristroula had managed to wrangle a job and was 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. Past the purple flowers growing up the walls and out of the cracks of our building.
The flood of tourists 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 in the room that sucked our blood in our sleep and left us with welts and weals and sores. We couldn’t stay here.
And all the time Corfu continued to shine 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 was unlike anything I’d seen in Greece.
Tiers of old 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. The old Jewish Quarter. Narrow alleyways and colonnades. Flaking, damp-ruined walls. Balconies and details on all the houses.
We met up with Anthi, one of the student teachers at the university, in a bar off Spianada – Spianada with its games of cricket left over from the British reign – and over a tzitzibeera, a ginger beer, another peculiarity popular in Corfu, leftover from the British, she told us what to expect on this island.
“They’ll cheat you.”
The crisis that has suffocated the whole of Greece has avoided Corfu. The tourists that clog the streets of Corfu Town in the summer (middle-aged British couples. Rucksacks, maps, suncream, spectacles and hat) or cram the beach bars in the south of the island (single young Brits. Topless, tattoos, clutching hedonism to their lobster-red chests) have kept Corfu in the money.
And everyone who owns a business here knows they don’t need to appeal to the customer. They know who runs this island. And they know they don’t need you.
“16 evro? ” I heard angered 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 trying to take it from us, the loyal Corfiots…” 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 saw, 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.
We 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 the islet on the sea. Its white walls, its red roof and frescoes. Green hills with the groves of olives and myrtles climbing away behind.
How could anything unattractive or asinine or unappealing ever exist here, on Corfu, a land that seemed to have materialised before me here like some figure straight from a dream?
The shadow of a huge aeroplane grew larger, darker, rippling on the hill sides, and roared over Mouse Island. Shaking us as it landed mere meters from Corfu’s famous, captivating 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 olive tree fields.
Near here was Achillion, the absurd 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 awake on the whole island – us and the cicadas.
And there we came across it.
A battered, old, seemingly forgotten village.
A crumbling church stood above everything. A still bell in the arch of the old bell tower, suspended in the heat.
There were ruined ancient houses below.
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 to who knew where.
We walked around in silence gazing at this dilapidatedly beautiful village, set like a hot arenaceous 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.”
We 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.
Giristroula and I looked at each other.
“Yes,” we replied at the same time.
This was Hector. The self-appointed arhontas – El Presidente – of the village.
The ancient bakery he now sat outside every day once had been his. It had been taken over in recent years by a harassed woman who had to deal daily with Hector still coming in, prodding the breads, sniffing the pittas.
Hector sat in his small pool of dark in the otherwise intense yellow light that smothered everywhere else in the village, watching everything 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 their magical great grey-green carpets, hundreds of loud endlessly barking, seemingly convulsed, Greek dogs.
Demetris told us he had been born here almost 80 years ago and had lived with his family of five in this small three room house. He was a 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. “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. It was too old for that. All post in the village had to be sent to Hector’s old wood and tin, dark bakery. We didn’t know how to 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 and without asking, 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 really looking at us, before driving off again. With a salute.
Must be the trick of the village.
We called in 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 sozzled as the day wore on.
Closing at midday, he would 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.
I found this a great scene in an old characterful café, wreathed in smoke, 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. Passatempo the food is called, but also the action. It’s a hobby, a past time. The old men passatempo-ing their days away. Killing the summer-slow time.
Until slowly, as my Greek improved, their conversations became apparent to me.
“We should bring back (old dictator) Papadopoulos. That would sort the people out…” said one.
And then something I’d never heard before anywhere in Greece. “We should bring back… the King!”
Enlightened thinking around the card table was not something much called for really.
We would sit in the café during the searing bright days, often never paying for a drink, as a drunken Nikos told us cock-and-bull stories about being a drug runner in South America, living the high life in bachelor pads in London’s Belgravia.
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.
All of our possessions lay in storage in a warehouse on Athens’ 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, his eyes struggling to focus, “I know people…”
The owner of ‘Kerkyra Express’ shipping company was a woman of barely four foot tall. And as pleasant as she was tall. A face carved in pure malevolence.
She shouted, threatened, gesticulated, ranted, smoked three 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”, came the tobacco-ladened obscene bark of a voice down the phone. “I need more money.”
More money for what? For why? But 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 with the money.
More angry words were thrown at us as we left, having handed over the required ransom.
They weren’t welcomes to Corfu.
But in a way, this tiny grotesque dragon had given us a good introduction to the island. As accurate an introduction to life in Corfu as the dying sunsets, or those views over the gangs of turtle-back hills, or the cliffs eaten into by the swaying curtain of blue sea with the clattering pebbles in the surf below.
When we opened the crates we found some pictures missing. Musical instruments too.
“Don’t worry,” slurred Nikos in the cocoon of his bar, seeing three of us and looking at 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, slightly 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 mark over a slightly blackened 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 black covers of the night would have been pulled off to reveal an 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 to by the most enormous green and red lizard. Over 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 vivid painted church – 300 years old, very cracked at the seams – had a resident 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 – glided 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 house, 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 incredible old church to look around – the faded gold Byzantine scenes above me on the ceilings – the severe look fired from the priest as he looked up from his fiddling in his ornate crypt had me scuttling out 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 when he was being mocked as the figure of fun in the kafeneo before 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 with the men of the village for a while. 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 persuing 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.
We needed furniture. The house was sparse.
We had a sofa and chairs made from a few orange crates. A bed was sent by my mother-in-law from the Omonia antique markets in Athens. We needed a table.
We approached ‘Vedouras’ the carpenter on the long road north into Corfu Town. The alarm bells should have rung as we entered.
Vedouras was on the phone.
“You know who I am. I am Vedouras. Who are you?” he bellowed. “Yes, well… I think you should get your boss to call me. I’m not going to talk to you. He is the one to say what he can do for me. Remember, I am Vedouras..!”
The phone went down. He looked us over with undisguised disgust. This was the man who supplied all the hotels and grand restaurants of Corfu with work. We were nobodies in his warehouse.
He reluctantly took our order for a table and took our money with contempt, cleaning his teeth with a fingernail as he counted, spitting the contents out onto the ground by our feet.
It’ll be ready in three days he told us.
Three days later we returned to the warehouse. Vedouras held the wood in his hands.
“I want more money.”
This time I made some meek complaint.
Before I knew it, the money we’d paid earlier, the deposit, a flutter of euro notes, had been thrown into my face.
“You. Don’t. Talk. To. Me… I.. I am Vedouras.”
Vedouras puffed himself up to his full height, and strutted back into his office decorated with photos of himself, slammed the door, shaking the portraits violently.
Late summer was spent lounging outside the house, watching mournful faced, raggedly dressed 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. The goat rather than the shepherd, I always guessed. But who could be sure?)
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.
We would often 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 swam, as late in the year as the middle of November.
The warm water, turquoise blue, clear deep down to a sandy floor. Giristroula swimming with the speed of dolphin in the sea, while I lumbered on behind.
Demetris’ brother was Spiros. He had actually been born in the Achillion Palace, during the war, when it was used as a military hospital, but 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.”
He gave us a long hard stare, that didn’t necessarily seem to show much congeniality. Staring into our souls, looking for something. Who knew what.
Spiros had good English, 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 Durrells’ life story being filmed on the island and coaxed me into coming along too to appear 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 they were chalk and cheese. “He has his life, I have mine.”
There was then a silence. It seemed Spiros had made his point. I opened my mouth to speak…
“My life is better,” he added with a final snap, nodding to himself.
Demetris would come round to the strawberry-pink villa unannounced, his cackling face appearing at the small, roughhewn window. Telling 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 alwayys ending with Demetris triumphant. Stories that would last forever. Stories that would go on until the sun had slipped well behind one of the mountain tops high behind the village.
If Spiros passed the house though, 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, a good day. “Kalimera.”
Village life continued like this as summer, finally, imperceptibly, changed into autumn. And as autumn changed just as carefully and deliberately into winter.
New Year arrived with the priest waking everyone at dawn with his proclamations from his tinny speakers.
And then a full philharmonic brass band passed down the tiny sinuous 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 an impressively grand hall further up on the twisting road that eventually led down the hill, the only route away from our sequestered niche, out onto the main road pointing to Corfu Town.
But 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, 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 stood a stone fountain around a natural spring that had been built hundreds of years ago. We had been happy to find this fountain and it was where we had been getting our free drinking water for the last few months. It was one of those great little adornments to the village that got us to love the place.
The priest was waiting for us all 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 and the surrounding areas.
They swam and scrapped with each other, in the dark agitated waters to retrieve this trinketed ikon, eventually one holding it aloft out of the water and the winner handing it back to receive an extra blessing from the pontiff, regal and haughty in his ridiculous hat.
I turned to remark to one of the members of the crowd standing here – and everyone was here: all the gargoyle characters from the kafeneo; the old ladies from outside the bakery; Demetris and Spiros, stood at opposite ends from each other; Hector, the only one 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 felt ill that New Year.
But in this new year it was also clear that something in the slow tranquility of life in the village had changed. There was a turn, a turn in the air. Something had fallen over the place, like a heavy cloak.
Many times on the island I’d been enraged by the contumacious old fashioned Greeks.
One day I took a trip into Corfu Town, and stood for 20 minutes outside the bank, just to draw some money out of the machine.
I listened to the old men stood around, as they watched life going past, and heard them say to each other “Look, there’s an Albanian.” “There’s another one.” “God damn Albanians. They get everywhere.” “See him..?” they said, summoning over a small boy playing by the road, and pointing at another man walking along the street. “See him..?” they said “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, quite unaffected.
I then felt equally bemused by another old man who had come out of the bank and 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 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. The magic of the island sticking to me like pollen to my trousers as I crashed through the brilliantly lighted, brilliantly coloured fields, having discovered, hungrily, all the beauty the island had on offer.
It could be hard – I encountered my first earthquake early one morning, shaken out of my bed by a magnitude 7 quake – but Corfu’s nature: the paintbrush heads of the cyprus trees seemingly coating the sky a deep blue every day; the thirsting sea with the hands of both Greece and Albania cupping it, visible from Corfu’s shore or up on its hills, always left me happy.
The people had got to me though. Some of them anyway.
The mores and manners of the islanders; the sly incursions and the creeping surreptitious ways; the old women who would yell and shout and demand and harangue, endlessly and over nothing; the restaurant owners plying only for tourist trade; the men who would smugly sit, bathing like walruses in largesse in Nikos’ desperate kafeneo and boast “Pay tax? Tomorrow, my friend, tomorrow…”
And in our village, still halfway up those old green hills, still flooded by sunlight, I could feel something had gone very wrong.
A disconcerting quiet had entered the place. Village life had dimmed. I noticed everyone was all of a sudden dressed in black, all faces unsmiling.
The ancient old ladies, gathered, milling slowly, like sombre pigeons, outside Hector’s old bakery.
They told me what had happened.
Spiros’ son had been killed in a car accident on the mainland, somewhere north of Athens.
One of the little old ladies, overcome with emotion, hugged me as this news was relayed to us.
The priest of the village appeared at my side 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 had needled me – now exploded into the most bighearted display of care and concern.
Everyone’s house was open. Everyone wanted to speak and share. Nikos wouldn’t think of you paying for a drink. Food was brought out for everyone to eat. And to sit and to talk.
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 could been found here after all.
Along the paths of our small, inelaborate 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, the fields of overgrown olive trees beyond.
The dogs staying silent for once.