In 1988 I returned to the island of Sifnos after 8 years away. I had been back to Greece but had deliberately avoided the island. The summer I spent there was the best summer. One I did not want to even try and re-live . I wanted new experiences. I was just not that guy who sat in a bar saying “Yeah, this is OK but you should have been here when it was better”.
It was a big deal for me to return to Kastro. I walked there with my friend Luca. We approached the beautiful white village on the hill overlooking the sea. I was stepping back to some strong memories but I was ready. This was a day I had wanted to happen. When I left before I knew it was not the last time I would be here.
We explored, swam off the rocks, had a good day. That night we found a bar & got a little wasted. We slept in a small churchyard. In the morning we saw that a small wall hid a sheer drop of 150 metres. Lucky no-one walked in their sleep.
The valley which hit the sea near the village was a rarity on the Greek islands. A freshwater spring allowed a green growth which stood out from a brown sparseness in most of the landscape. In this oasis there was an old shepherd’s cottage, white and just one room. It had no power supply, a well for water. The woman who lived there, Christiane, from Berlin, had become a good friend. A group of us sat in the garden lit by the moon on many wonderful nights in the long summer I had stayed there.
When I returned to the island there was a new house in the valley. New power lines running to it. I had met Axel, Christiane’s partner, before. It seemed he must have been pretty loaded to finance this house. He was also a bit of an asshole. His arrival had caused friction for Christiane. A dinner in the garden had turned into the movie “Chinese Roulette”, a Fassbinder flick that I had really thought to be an exaggeration of the seriousness of Germans. Axel enjoyed stirring and agitating people, not my thing at all. I had kept my distance.
On my return, 8 years later, I walked up the valley to look at the house. I had no expectations, I did not even know if they were in the country. I stood at the gate to the new house and an old dog walked into the garden. The dog’s name was Christiane too. Named by the Greeks. She lived on the island. When her owner had returned to Berlin I had looked after her for 6 weeks. We went everywhere, me chasing and shouting in Greek. I was so tanned, long curly hair, bearded, with my dog. No-one knew I was English and boy did I like that. My, that dog brought some good memories with it.
Axel followed into the garden and acknowledged my presence. I did not expect instant recognition. I had the best summer memories of my life around here. He had every summer to make new ones. My long hair and beard were history, I looked different. I asked if the dog was Christiane, he said it was. I told him who I was and he remembered me. I was invited through the gate, into the house , to see my old friend again.
She was very pleased to see me. Drinks were poured and I was given a tour of this amazing new modern house in such a secluded and beautiful setting. The changes to their lives were in front of me. Their 5 year old daughter, shy of this stranger who could not speak German, was evidence of greater change. We caught up with the changes for both of us and it was comfortable.
After an hour they asked me where I was staying on the island. The night before I had slept in a churchyard. My usual place was under a tree on a beach 5 miles away. They told me that the guest house, the old shepherd’s cottage, was empty for 2 weeks and they invited me to stay there.
WHAT ! WHAT ! I told them that I had not visited to take advantage of their hospitality. This was, truly, out of the blue. They were cool and insisted they wanted me to stay. This cottage was a place I thought about just before sleep. It was beauty, it was peace, it was simplicity and now…for 2 weeks it was mine. WOW! WOW ! WOW !
I had to go back to my tree to pick up my things. I left, arranging to return later. I skipped down that valley. I sang as I walked down the road. This is living. I saw my friends and explained that it may seem selfish of me to leave them but this was a significant thing and I had to do it. I returned to the village, collected the keys and went with the family to an amazing fish restaurant at the sea’s edge. They picked up the tab and we said good night at the cottage gate…just what was happening ?
I had not slept in a bed for a month. I had a fridge, somewhere to cook, a private garden. I slept for maybe 12 hours, the most comfortable sleep I ever remember. I hung with the family on the beach, frustrated I could not communicate with the little girl. I cooked meals, stocked the fridge with beer and goodies. At night I went to a bar in the village where I got to know the owner. Later , by the light of an oil lamp, I wrote letters to England full of good luck and excitement. The village was more up-market now , the tourists different to the raggedy back-packers I had met before. As I became a regular for early drinks in the café there was interest in where I was staying. The panoramic view from the café let me point out the small cottage. The only question..how much are you paying for such a place ? It gave me such pleasure to tell these people, who measured the value of things by how much you had to pay for them, that I was paying…nothing.
The Greek bar owner became a friend. One afternoon I went from the sea to the village in search of peace and shade to read my book. The bar was closed but he was cleaning. For 3 hours we drank ouzo, ate snacks, talked and listened to music. I had to leave and offered something for the drinks. He refused payment. I gave him my Al Green cassette that he really liked. The barter system, that’s for me. The English woman I had arranged to meet for coffee was surprised that the quiet, well behaved man from the beach was pissed out of his head by 5 in the afternoon.
I wanted my beach mates to share in my good luck. I asked Christiane if it was OK to have people to stay overnight. I think I did not explain myself too well. She maybe did not quite get what I was asking. My 2 best friends on the island were Austrian women, Dagmar and Heidi. We had met on another island and were on the same beach when we met up again on this one. I went and told them that they should come for a night in the village and stay over.
It was a Saturday. After the beach we went into the village. Axel and Christiane were about at the same places. We had all met up on the beach but I kept my distance from them in the evening. I did not want a big group. The three of us was a better time. It was great to have my friends in my place. A good sleep, breakfast of coffee, bread and cheese. The women were starting to get their things together when Axel called me from the gate.
I went outside to meet the whole family, going to the beach. Axel said “One of the women must leave”. What the fuck was he talking about? He repeated the ridiculous order. I was shocked. I knew what he was insinuating but I, for sure, was not going to discuss his imagined worries about my behaviour last night.
One of the women. One is OK. Good for Mal, getting some. Two ? Well that’s getting too much. I was not about to explain that the extra body did not double the imagined activity. Fuck him and his mind. I also knew that he liked to argue and he liked to win. He could be free with giving and taking away his beneficence but he had no place lecturing me about some non-existent shit.
I stayed calm and explained that I did not think I had taken advantage of their hospitality. Christiane was quiet but showed her disapproval of her guest. All this time there was the implication that an orgy had taken place and I needed to know this was wrong. He said he was disappointed by these events. I did not bite. This guy had no fucking idea that men and women could sleep in the same room as friends. There had to be some fucking. I explained that I was very grateful for their hospitality, that I was not there to make them happy or otherwise. That their “ disappointment” really was irrelevant to me. I said that I would pack my things and leave within an hour. I would bring the keys to the beach.
All this time my friends stayed in the room. Their eyes were on me as I walked back in. They feared either an explosion or upset. I said “Did you hear all that ?”, they nodded. “Did you fucking believe it ?”. They were ready to leave. I asked them to wait, to help me pack and I would return to the beach with them.
Thank goodness they were there. If they had already left would they have believed this ridiculous story ? Their witnessing confirmed that this abrupt end to my stay was not my doing. Their presence also helped me to laugh at the situation. To know I did the right thing.
I was back to my tree. The other beach lifers wanted to know why I was back. I left it to Dagmar and Heidi to tell. You always give your side of the story when there are two. This time my side was given by two others. I had no web to spin. Within a couple of days everyone knew. I knew this because I had a new nickname. I was the “dirty old man”, what !! Even the “orgy guy”. My protestations of innocence only increased the hilarity. Now that’s just not fair !!
An amazing time. For 10 days I lived in my dream house. It had been given to me just like that and taken away the same. I hope I just took those 10 days for the blessing they were. The way it ended was just a joke, not some big drama. Some rich guy unable to understand that a life could be lived where gratification, financial or physical, was not the most important thing.
I am so, so glad this all happened.