This is an ode to off-season island living. This could well be a warning to anyone contemplating such a thing. This might be a test, in the tradition of Hercules’ Labours, though I wasn’t aware that there was anything to prove.
An epic battle took place in Sifnos this week, a battle of almost Homeric proportions. It was All Mod Cons versus The Elements. Electricity, Plumbing and Telecoms testing their strength against Earth, Wind and Water (with Fire sadly absent, as my chimney doesn’t work), and one semi-reclusive writer in the middle, mostly unwashed, trying to either make sense or art out of it. It was a lesson.
It began last Wednesday, in the bathroom. Our lovely, modern wet room type of a bathroom, where the shower area is only delineated by the curtain hanging around it, and sloping tiles lead the water into the drain. Wonderful in summer. Not so much in winter, when cold ceramic tiles, two external walls and a draughty window make my ninety-second showers even less of a pleasure than they sound. (Ninety seconds, incidentally, is precisely all the hot water I get. At ninety-one it turns instantly cold.) On this occasion, however, around midway through the experience, I enjoyed the very pleasant sensation of warm, soapy water pooling around my feet. It took a few seconds for logic to break through the pleasure response in my brain and nudge me with the terrifying implications: warm water pooling around my feet. As in: not draining. I splashed around in total panic, washed the shampoo out of my hair, turned the tap off and watched miserably as the water spread out and my wet room lived up to its name as never before. I mopped it up as best I could, delighted at all the extra humidity I’d invited into my home on this already wet day, and pushed aside thoughts of over-full septic tanks as the water, slowly, showed signs of draining away. I practised the ancient art of Not Thinking About It, and carried on with my day.
On Thursday morning, the fun happened when I flushed the toilet. The water poured into the bowl, and rose and rose and rose, and I watched in utter horror and prayed in my head to the island gods and the fairies of rural septic tanks and even muttered some words out loud because there was no one there to judge me except the cats, and they judge me anyway, and I mentally ran through all the times I’d broken the cardinal rule of Greek island living (“Never flush paper down the toilet”, and variations thereof) and concluded indignantly that it really wasn’t that many, I mean come on, this isn’t my fault! and I held my breath as the rising water reached the brim, and stopped. One of the cats, who’d been watching this scene unfold from the bathroom rug, padded up to the toilet bowl, put his paws up on the seat and inspected the contents with mild interest. He gave me a look that clearly conveyed the sentiment you’re screwed, and stalked off to play with an almond.
I called Antonis the plumber. I was surprised when he picked up; I’ve been borderline stalking him for the last few weeks, and I’m sure, by now, the sight of my number flashing upon his screen fills him with dread. The poor, kind man, upon hearing that I couldn’t use my fireplace because the chimney had totally failed at its job of drawing the smoke out, had offered to order and install a spinny gadget thingy that would assist it with said task, and prevent my death from CO2 poisoning. So far, so good, except no: so far, close to six weeks later, no gadget thingy had materialised, on account of a satanic combination of bad weather (cancelled boats), port strikes (cancelled boats), the Christmas holidays (nobody cares about your chimney gadget), and a fairly typical lack of urgency, overall. Basically, not so good. Hence the stalking.
‘It’s me again!’ I announced brightly. ‘But it’s not about the thingy this time!’
‘Right,’ he said, with understandable reservation.
‘I think my septic tank wants something,’ I continued.
To his credit, Antonis appeared totally unfazed by this slightly unconventional request for his services. ‘Like what?’
‘Like maybe, I think, to overflow?’ I described the situation, and added my tentative diagnosis that the septic tank and its “absorption field” (I looked it up) had become oversaturated as a result of heavy rainfall. Whereupon Antonis emitted a most worrying array of sounds – grunts, gasps and muttered curses – mumbled something about pumping it out as a matter of the utmost urgency, and then cheerfully bade me farewell with no indication as to when this very urgent activity might take place. I was left holding the phone and repeating mantras of patience, and letting go of the need to control. Three cats gathered around my feet in a semi-circle and judged me quietly. I threatened to withhold their food if they didn’t improve their attitude, but I didn’t mean it.
The following day was the sixth of January: Epiphany. A massive religious and national holiday. The Festival of Lights except, when I woke up and reached for the switch by my bed, there was none. No light, no heat, no internet. No coffee. I threw some water on my face and some layers on over my pyjamas, and took to the streets. I banged on Manolis’ door but there was no response, so I continued down to Vangelia’s.
‘Do you have light?’ I greeted her at her kitchen door.
‘No light,’ she confirmed. ‘No one has light.’ She rattled off a list of names from the village who also shared this predicament while clearing a space for me at the kitchen table, randomly pushing objects aside. ‘Come in. Sit.’
I did as I was told. ‘Coffee? I have a little gas stove. I made mine already, look.’ She swirled her coffee around in her mug, to demonstrate.
‘Oh god, yes please!’ I almost cried with gratitude as the Greek coffee began to bubble up in the pot, releasing its life-saving aroma into the dark kitchen. Vangelia mumbled highlights of neighbourhood news, health complaints, laments about the weather, her pension and the sorry state of our electricity transformers, even managing a bit of product placement inspired by the latest offers in her son’s shop, flitting from one subject to another as she flitted about the room, from stove to fridge to various cupboards, to produce the usual array of sweet and savoury offerings that she piled up high in front of me, and which included, on this occasion: four giants chunks of vassilopita cake, an industrial-sized tub brimming with savoury biscuits and rusks, several traditional Christmas melomakarona biscuits, homemade goat’s cheese, and a tin of condensed milk. ‘Eat,’ she said.
‘Thank you,’ I said meekly, almost completely obscured by this tower of treats.
Our Powercut Party was gradually joined by most of the remaining residents of the village who, one by one, drifted to Vangelia’s kitchen and stuck their heads round the door; they asked the same question, ‘Do you have light?’, and received the same response, to the word. Chairs and stools were pulled up, more coffee brewed, more space cleared and more food items added to the table. Neighbourhood gossip flowed freely in that crazy lyrical Sifnos dialect that I am slowly coming to understand. I sat back on my corner of the divan, sipping my second coffee and smoking cigarette after cigarette, and let the banter wash over me, smiling at intervals, and joining in with the laughter, the head-shaking and the tutting where appropriate, but I said very little. This was my place: in the corner, on the margins of this community, accepted and given refuge from the dark and fattened up with treats, and added to the list of names who had no light, but quiet, unobtrusive; like a stray cat that you’ve let in from the cold and that you’ve grown to love, reluctantly, despite its wet paws and vagabond ways, but isn’t quite your pet. It could take off again, on any day, just like it came. But, unlike the cats: grateful. For the privilege of this corner, for the warmth that didn’t come from Vangelia’s stone-cold three-bar electric heater, still plugged in and waiting for the power to return. I had no tokens of gossip to give them, these people who’ve widened their circle to make room for me, nothing to elicit those rounds of raucous laughter and enthusiastic head-shaking that everyone else brought to the table. I raised a few smiles by pointing out the irony of this day being the Festival of Lights; I tried to make myself useful by calling DEI, the electricity company, to check on the progress of the repairs and, later, by bringing Vangelia a small jar of St. John’s Wart oil that I thought might help with a burn on her hand. But Vangelia outdid me, with her casual kindness, by sending me home, once the power had been restored, with a bagful of cake and biscuits and a tupperware box stuffed full of slabs of home-baked lasagne.
Home. Where, after I plugged all my heating appliances back in and turned on several lights, just because I could, I beheld The Leaning Tower of Sifnos. This local landmark was, in fact, a telephone pole installed in my field and connecting me and several neighbours to the telecoms network by means of half a dozen cables stretching out in various directions. And which had enjoyed a fairly upright position in this life until this morning, when the storm that had knocked our power out had apparently taken a swipe at this guy as well, and he was now dangling over my vegetable patch. This was not a sight that gladdened my heart. I contemplated life without the internet, and then seriously considered hanging myself from one of the looser telephone cables, tantalisingly within arm’s reach.
But I still have things to live for, so I decided, instead, to take positive action. I tried several numbers for OTE, the Greek telecoms company. One was disconnected; another just rang and rang. All the others featured a stern, recorded message insisting that I call 13888, the general fault-reporting helpline. I gave in, bracing myself for the hilarity that was certain to ensue. I wasn’t disappointed. After patiently listening to all the recorded options, none of which included “telephone pole leaning precariously over your rocket bed”, I selected “fault on the line you are calling from” and was subjected to an automated check that established my line was, in fact, faultless. I was instructed to hold for an actual person who would deal with this baffling paradox.
‘Good morning,’ she said. ‘What can I help you with?’ She didn’t sound too enthusiastic, understandably, perhaps, given that 1) she had drawn the short straw and was on shift on a national holiday and 2) she had me pegged as a troublemaker, calling to be judgmental about a telephone line that was clearly operational.
‘Good morning,’ I replied. ‘Chronia polla!’ (“Many years”: all-purpose wish for national, religious and personal celebrations.) I explained that I was trying to get hold of someone in Sifnos, but had been directed to this helpline.
‘OK,’ she said drily, not keen on encouraging me.
‘It’s just that I’ve got one your telephone poles on my property, and we’ve had bad weather so now it’s tipped over to the side and I’m worried it’s going to go down and take the telecoms of the entire village with it.’ I delivered this in one breath, and added ‘So I thought I should report it’.
A pause. ‘Indeed. What is the address?’
‘There is no address,’ I said apologetically. ‘I’m in Sifnos.’
It was as if I hadn’t spoken. ‘But what is the address of your property where the pole is located?’ Slowly, Athenian to resident of Sifnos – wherever the fuck that was – who was obviously a bit rural and struggled to grasp basic concepts of civilised society.
‘Overgrown field, Eleimonas, Sifnos,’ I supplied, deadpan, as Sifnos Chick took over to stand up for all of us rurals who existed outside the tidy realm of street addresses and postcodes. It did not go down well.
‘Um,’ said the lady.
‘Haha,’ I relented, glaring at Sifnos Chick to silence her. ‘I’m sorry. I was trying to be funny. There really is no address. I’m in a small village.’
OTE Lady recovered somewhat; enough to ask whether the pole was visible from the street. Desperately trying to snatch some order out of this chaos.
‘Well.’ Awkward! ‘There is no street, as such.’ I was a little worried for her then, that this might be the final stroke that would tip her over, much like the telephone pole that I was still no closer to setting upright. We both sighed.
‘Look,’ I said reasonably, ‘I’m sure if you pass this on to someone on the island, they’ll know where to find me.’
‘Yes,’ she agreed, sounding marginally less deranged. ‘I have logged the issue in our system. We will be in touch.’
I thanked her, and wished her chronia polla again, out loud, and then I wished her well, silently, in my head, because it wasn’t her fault that islands and villages exist alongside cities, or that each of us exists within the specific context that we understand. City Girl reminded me of the days, not long ago, when the absence of a postcode meant you were nowhere at all, and I nodded as somewhere outside my window a telephone pole swayed gently in the wind.
The next morning, the Saturday, an electricity pole went down and plunged the entire island into cold, damp darkness. I was amused and also patently not amused when I was thus informed by the dude on phone duty at the local DEI office. The “click and nothingness” exercise felt too much like Groundhog Day on this second day running. I wasn’t up for another full-on Powercut Party, so I gatecrashed Manolis’ morning coffee, instead. He is a private man, quietly content in his own company, but he received me very graciously and provided only the essentials: a large cup of Greek coffee and an ashtray. He muttered something about biscuits, almost as awkward about the formalities of impromptu visitor hospitality as I am, but I shook my head, held up my cigarette and touched the brim of my cup. ‘This is exactly what I need.’
He smiled. ‘Yes,’ he agreed, lighting his own cigarette and taking a sip of his coffee. ‘This is all we need.’
We sat in companionable silence, only a little brittle, and broken, occasionally, by references to topics of mutual interest, such as the weather and our joint-custody cats. Who, we observed philosophically, were not at all bothered by the lack of electrical current flowing into our homes. We let that sink in for a while and made a comment about the things we take for granted, as we warmed our hands on our coffee cups. Manolis reminisced about the days when domestic power was only supplied for a couple of hours each day and before, when there was no power at all. But once you have a thing, you forget about not having it. You forget how not to have it, and what to do with yourself when it’s taken away.
By midday, power had gradually been restored to most villages, but not yet to Polyna’s and the neighbouring village of Kastro, which are closer to the fallen pole and more remote than the rest of us. At Polyna’s house, the electric garage gate was holding the car hostage inside and it was hours before they managed to manually override it and escape. They picked me up in town, Polyna, Nefeli and Yiannis, and we drove to Kamares in shell-shocked silence, still reeling from our sojourn into the chaos and wilderness that was an entire morning without electricity. At Katerina’s cafe, we were given restoring hugs and steaming cups of coffee, and we all huddled around the radiator in our usual corner, and exchanged tales of horror of all the necessities we had been denied, like internet access and hot water for showering, and hair straighteners. Later, we had a big, banquet-style lunch in honour of Yiannis’ nameday, followed by more coffee and chocolate and a game of cards, and the morning’s trauma was consigned to history, the heroic tale of how we survived that morning when the power went down, to be retold with an air of stoicism, while fridges buzzed and radiators burned hot and our mobiles pinged with facebook notifications.
I think I’ll have to draw this story to a close manually, because once you start along the path of things being imperfect, there is no shortage of examples, just as there are infinite moments of perfection scattered in between, and lessons that both perfect and imperfect might teach us, in themselves or in their juxtaposition. Once you get started, the battles and the trials and the labours never end, and this particular tale spun off, from where I left it above, into three full days, Sunday to Tuesday, of total plumbing breakdown. Three days when the oversaturated earth could take not a single drop of water more, and every tentative attempt to run a tap, fuelled by denial and hope, resulted in raw sewage bubbling up through the bathroom drain. Three days when I couldn’t wash myself or my clothes or my dishes, couldn’t flush the toilet, couldn’t pour the pasta water into the sink, and developed a fear of consuming liquids for the inevitable consequence of them coming out. There were terrible moments involving a child’s pink plastic potty, and al fresco peeing in a snowstorm with an audience of over-excited cats, and dignity was just a word I’d once heard mentioned in passing. Three days of increasingly desperate phonecalls to Antonis, and being confined to the house waiting for him to turn up, and not feeling brave like Hercules at all, only filthy and tired and helpless, and wanting nothing more than the things I took for granted to be granted once again. But in between, reassuringly, moments when I glimpsed the funny side, when I declared myself a veteran of island living, having proven my worth, and deserving at least of a medal, if not a small statue somewhere, in a village square; when I turned this trial into a tale and made people laugh, people living in other contexts, within the safety of postcodes and apartment blocks, where they could flush their toilets with wild abandon and not a trace of fear. Moments when I remembered how much there could be to be afraid of, and that a fear of flushing toilets actually features quite low on the list, and that the balance of have and have not is blatantly tipped in my favour, even on days when I have to pee outside; and Powercut Parties, and coffee and cake and kindness and community and cats, and that wonderful ability of humans to forget and carry on and turn their trials into epic tales of how, once again, they survived.
And when Antonis finally turned up, like a Sifnos Superhero, armed with the unlikely magic of pumping shit out of a septic tank, everything was instantly right with the world, all bright and sparkly and rainbow tinted, and I skipped around, trying to be helpful, as he did unspeakable things with a pump, a hosepipe and my mop, and I used the word “perfect” far too many times – but how can it not be perfect when a man with a pump can literally take all your troubles away? We sat down after, in the kitchen, and I gave him coffee and a bouquet of fresh rocket to take home, and I made him laugh with the story of OTE Lady and the Leaning Tower of Nowhere (an anecdote already, though the tower still leans over the gaping hole of my septic tank), and then we talked about my book and how many copies I’d have to sell in order to winter-proof my house. We didn’t speak of the spinny gadget; that was a battle for another day.
When he left, refusing to discuss payment, I ran to the bathroom and peed to my heart’s content, and then I flushed and watched as the water poured into the bowl and disappeared down the drain with a happy gurgle, and I remembered to relish this moment, the only time in my life when flushing gave me such joy, because the next time I did it, I would take it entirely for granted. Which is exactly how it should be, in this perfect world of All Mod Cons, and if we went around being grateful for electricity and plumbing and upright telephone poles all the time, we wouldn’t get much else done. But there is room for appreciating them, sometimes, granted though they are, like when I finally had a shower that evening, and I appreciated the hell out of it. Except I was so busy being grateful for hot water and the coldness of the tiles beneath my feet that I forgot about the ninety second rule, and my gratitude session was brought to an abrupt and freezing end. And as I shivered and rubbed myself dry under the judgemental gaze of two cats (who were obviously tasked with monitoring my bathroom activities), I thought about my week of trials, those seven days of tests I wasn’t sure I’d passed, or what passing them meant, or what even counted as passing; and how, apart from giving me a few stories to tell, the events of those seven days had changed absolutely nothing at all, and I was exactly where I had been a week ago, showering and flushing toilets and turning lights on and off, with the fridge buzzing and the radiators burning and facebook informing me that someone’s baby had worn a hat. And it occurred to me, in a moment that’s becoming history even as I write about it, that perhaps the lesson is that, for all of the tests that we pass or we fail, there has never been anything to prove.