(Taken from my diary for 24-29 June 2002)
You’re never alone on Tilos. You may think you are, but you’re the centre of attention. You’re never alone. My sister doesn’t want me to be alone, not right now anyway. She doesn’t think it healthy. She may have a point. In any case, I’m here and reminded of the first time I ever visited the Greek islands years ago – the smells, sounds, sights, ambience, mood. Well, a bit. We’ve all changed since then, haven’t we – as my sister reminded me earlier today in a call. At the port when I arrive, there are fights around the island catamaran ‘Sea Star’. The shouting and scuffles have been brought on by overbooking at Pentecost and a change of schedule. They’ve also brought out the full cast of port police, mayor, crew and municipal police. The overworked vessel eventually makes two later runs to Rhodes, at 18:30 and 22:00.
I find accommodation quickly in a small block of unremarkable tourist rooms a short walk from the harbour. The area’s not too picturesque but is extremely well-kept, with its neat gardens and alleys. The building itself is family owned and run, of course. The woman and her son do the work. The man tells them how to do it. The mother has a voice constantly on the verge of hysteria – ‘I’m so happy I could cry!’. She is childlike, looks younger than her years and is definitely not of this earth. She skips everywhere, taking great delight in the tiniest detail. I find her tiring company and am relieved that she is more a dreamer than a talker. I’m still having problems getting to sleep and staying there. I thought I might make a better job of it here, but no. On my first night, I was still up at 01:00, restless and claustrophobic, though have no idea why. After a fitful sleep, I woke at 05:00 with the smell of bread from the nearby bakery wafting through my open window. For a couple of nights, there’s an Italian couple staying next door to me. They fuck often and loudly through the night. They reduce me to tears, their lust for each other and life is too painful.
Cannot stop thinking about work and realise the more I try, the worse it gets. Time for a swim, so I take the bus to Eristos, and an odd comfort from three other passengers saying they’d had a bad night’s sleep as they couldn’t get their minds off work, either. The beach at our destination seems to go on forever – there are no cantinas and only 9 sunbeds and umbrellas on the whole stretch. The bus disgorges us four tourists. Just a note: the other three insist upon being described as ‘travellers’, despite having come on a package holiday, but I’m having none of it and so have used the word ‘tourist’ as much as possible during the bus ride. Unsurprisingly, they move as far away from me as they can on the beach – and stay there. I watch two fishing boats land their catch, then spend a detached afternoon swimming and reading before hitching a ride back on a farm truck.
A few days in and I decide it’s time to leave. I’m down at the port watching the island catamaran set sail and think, suddenly, ‘I must, too!’. My experiment with ‘being alone’ is done. I head to the local travel agent to buy my boat ticket, to find out that they cannot sell me one for the catamaran or the flying dolphin (there’s only one place I can do that, and it’s not there) and that the inter-island ferry which normally calls once a week has broken a propellor and is out of action for at least a fortnight. I go visit an oleaginous, imperious little man who happens to be the one who can sell me that much-needed ticket. My desire to leave is now so compelling, I cannot wait until Sunday for the ‘Sea Star’ and I take a ticket for the next passenger vessel out – tomorrow’s flying dolphin which takes two hours to reach Rhodes as it calls at Halki en route. Not ideal, but it’ll do. I go eat, relieved.
At the restaurant, I tuck myself away at a table under the trees – I don’t want company and I can smell the loneliness of all those long-distance travellers desperate to tell their tales to someone. Body language designed to repel travellers doesn’t have any effect on locals. Within five minutes, I’m joined by the restaurant owner and one of the waiters. Maria (the owner) remembers me from my days teaching in Rhodes and Hassan (the waiter) remembers me from my days teaching in Damascus (his home). Hassan is looking for a German wife, he might accept an English one (they tell me) – do I know anyone suitable? I say, no, I really don’t. My food arrives. They get up to leave. Maria hesitates. ‘Jane, are you married?’ ‘No, I’m recently widowed – very recently.’ She hugs me and apologises. I eat, pay and leave.
I go back to my room, dodging desperately bored flirts. Cheap chat up lines from men who can’t even be bothered to stand up to deliver them, punctuated by whistling and catcalling. In the dark, below my balcony, I’m offered a boat trip by moonlight. No. Just no. The old woman opposite comes out onto her balcony with news. She shouts across ‘You’ll sleep well tonight. The Italians sailed out on the freighter!’, waves and disappears into her own private shadows. It’ll be a while until I sleep through the night again, but tonight the silence of solitude is a welcome blanket.