Being on the island (or Rock) is always a bittersweet experience.  The part I enjoy most is the fact that usually I am there with my immediate and extended family which means I spend more time with brother, sisters, cousins, nephews and nieces.  I hadn’t stepped foot there in 4 years, which is unusual for me, in fact I hadn’t had a holiday in that long, so I was super-ready to relax, get some colour and spend time with family & friends.The Rock is small.  I do not say that lightly.  It really is small.  There are five places to eat (only two of which are actually worth eating at and one of which isn’t really a restaurant), one place to have a drink, four or five shops, one of which is a supermarket, a bakery, a (new) pharmacy, a bank (with no ATM) and a post office.  In addition to this there is a Maritime Museum, a stadium, and of course the prerequisite 4,000 churches.  The pharmacy is so new that they have put signs up every 20m or so announcing it; starting as you get off the ferry – Pharmacy – 200m and up the hill – Pharmacy 180m etc etc.  When we talk about the island to our friends who haven’t been and we tell them that it is small, there’s nothing to do etc. etc. they think we are exaggerating, but we really aren’t.  If you aren’t at the Yacht Club in the evening having a drink, you are at home, or visiting someone else’s home. It sounds like I don’t like the place, but it’s not true.  For me the beauty of the island is that there is really nothing to do except hang out and talk to each other.

For those of us who have been going there since we were children, it is what it is.  We were never led to believe that it was going to be anything more.  For people who have come to it late in life, it is harder to see the charm.  It’s a bit like Marmite, you either love it or you hate it.  If we had spent our childhood summers in Mykonos, it is possible that it would seem boring by comparison.  Since I grew up going there, it feels like an old friend, always there when you need it, no need for long periods of reacquaintance.

The one thing that is indisputable is that the waters around it are crystal clear, and beautiful.  People come from the neighbouring islands to swim in the waters there.  The sea is clean, welcoming, and extremely refreshing (read: freezing).  The coldness of the water is one of the top 5 topics of conversation open to people on the island.  I remember as a child standing ankle deep in the water crying while my Nan (who couldn’t swim) would drag us deeper and deeper until we were fully submerged.

“It’s cold!”

“It’s good for you!  Come on!  No wimps allowed, be glad we aren’t in Eastbourne.”

She definitely had a point there.

Eventually we would acclimatise (or go numb – it was hard to tell) and four hours later it was impossible to drag us out of the water.  Only the lure of food would get us out into the sun, fingers and toes pruned up and stomachs growling.  I don’t know about English picnic lunches but here the picnics were epic. Not for us dainty sandwiches and maybe a few crisps, we brought kilos and kilos of meatballs, pasta dishes, potato balls, (almost anything fried was fair game really) tomatoes, cucumbers, dip, boiled eggs, cheese, fruit and that’s just the stuff I can think of offhand.

We would leave for the beach weighed down with food and the ‘necessities’: beach towels, suncreams, balls, rackets, frisbees, masks, flippers and snorkels, hats and when we were older a tape deck with 5 or 6 mix tapes and a tavli (backgammon) board.  The adults would chase us around and slather us in suncream and every time the wind blew we would get a fine coating of sand like doughnuts.

I always remember my time on the island to be as close as I ever got to freedom.  My parents were strict, so maybe freedom isn’t exactly the right word, but this was freedom from heavy coats, and woolly hats, from closed shoes and socks, from wearing a vest.  With no traffic to worry about, we were able to bungee that little bit further from the adults before the elastic snapped us back to their sides.  We all had bikes and we rode them everywhere after our enforced siestas and before dinner.

The island really hasn’t changed much in appearance since then.  Oh there are new homes, and more modern structures (the stadium now has astro turf.  Yes! Astro turf! On a rock in the Aegean with not enough people living on it to actually form a football team!) Every so often a new café or restaurant or nightclub opens up, stays open for one or two years and then closes again and we are left wondering if they ever existed.

There are no hotels.  If you are there, you either have a home there or you know someone who does.  The only ‘tourists’ we get are sailors who moor their boats for a few days or people who come from the neighbouring island on the Sunday ‘Tour’.  There are about 250 permanent residents there in the winter and this goes up to two or three thousand in the summertime peaking around August 15th when the island feels like it may sink under the weight of all the bodies.

Anyway, the point (which I have probably belaboured) is that it is small.  And as a small island place it comes equipped with all the idiosyncrasies associated with small town living.

1)      Everyone knows everyone so privacy is not an option.

2)      Everyone feels they have a right to comment/offer advice and generally meddle in each other’s affairs

3)      You cannot go anywhere without stopping to say hello to everyone you know (which is everyone)

Here is a typical conversation:

“Hello!  When did you get here?”

“Hi, last night.”

“Welcome, when are you leaving?”

“On the 27th, you?

“We’re here until Tuesday.”

Awkward silence.

“Well, see you later”

“See you.”

You can have that conversation with the same person every day of your holiday (sometimes more than once in a day).  It’s a tiny bit weird that we haven’t reached the stage where a vague nod or wave in each other’s direction will suffice after the first 5 conversations of this type.  For the most part though, it is all about re-connecting with people that you do like and get along with, and all having the time to catch up without the usual distractions of work, school, television and internet. I mean, we do have internet connection at home on the island, but I have to be standing in a particular spot in the house (the centre of my parents’ bedroom) with one arm in the air in order to get reception.  Hardly conducive for surfing or indeed blog posting.

The thing about the island which I find is particular to me is that whenever I go there, I always seem to need to see the doctor.  I live in London permanently and content myself with a visit every other year or so, but here, I am there at least once per visit.  Maybe my body prefers to rebel in the summer, or it could just be dumb luck, but nevertheless, I visit him a lot.

It started when I was young.  I am blessed with clumsiness in abundance and it was the combination of riding my bike everywhere, extreme short-sightedness, not particularly good roads and the general ability to trip over anything more substantial than air, that earned me the reputation of world’s most accident prone person.

One year, a few days shy of my 10th birthday, my cousins and I took our bikes up to the shop by the church (at the time, the only shop on the island and known affectionately as Harrods).  I got into an argument with one of my cousins and his au pair sent me home in disgrace.

I started down the steep hill on my bike, furious at the injustice of having been sent home when clearly it had been his fault.  I was nearly 10 and he was 4 – I should have known better.

As I descended the hill, I began to be more aware of my surroundings.  I had picked up an alarming amount of speed and was currently hurtling towards a bend in the road.  I pressed my brake anxiously and heard a twang.  Nothing happened to my speed.

In my head, though not in reality,  everything slowed down a bit.  I started to turn the handlebars in a vain attempt to slow down, somehow I thought that slaloming down a mountain would be safer than going straight down it. You know what?  I was 10 – give me a break.

Before you know it, I hit my head on an overhanging branch and everything went a bit fuzzy.  I must have hit the wall at the curve and gone over it because next thing I knew, I was tumbling down the hill trying to break my fall with my hands, my bike separated from me.  Eventually I stopped and took stock.

Body: ouch.

Clothes: torn

Watch: broken

Bike: mangled.

The last three worried me most. Mum’s going to kill me, I thought, and started to cry.

Some kids who had seen me racing by heard the crash and came running up.  We were on a Greek Island, of course they spoke Greek.  At the time, I didn’t.

(Greek) “Are you ok?”

“My shorts are torn…”

(Greek) “Where do you live?”

“And my watch and the bike! Mum’s going to be so annoyed…”

(Greek) “What’s your name?”

At last one I knew.

“Maria”

Once they had gleaned my first and last name, they were able to take me home to my grandmother’s house (handy having traditional parents who named me after her).

The guy who helped out at the house, T, took one look at me and almost fainted. He sent for the doctor who was at the beach so someone was dispatched to the beach to go and get him.  In the meantime, they also thought they should tell my parents.

My parents were at the cemetery.  This was before everyone had a mobile phone, and the residents of the cemetery don’t have much use for a phone.  People started calling from house to house to get word to my parents.  As with all Chinese whispers situations, the call started as:

“Tell M & P that Maria is hurt, and to come home at once.”

By the time they got the message it was closer to:

“Tell M & P to stay where they are, we’re bringing Maria up in a box.”

My mum ran home where someone had had the clever idea to put me in the shower to see what was injuries and what was blood.  I had previously been bleeding from cuts on my forehead and nose, all down my arms and legs and generally looked pretty bad.  After the shower, it was easier to see that it was mainly my left arm and leg that had gathered all the gravel from the hill and there was a tear on my forehead and nose.  Because of the bleeding head, they kept trying to ask me questions to make sure I didn’t have a concussion, but unfortunately I didn’t speak enough Greek to answer them correctly so they were really worried that I was concussed. When I saw Mum I cried harder apologising for the state of my stuff.  Obviously Mum couldn’t give a shit about the stuff, she asked me the questions and we were able to establish that I was not concussed.

What followed can only be described as comi-tragic.  T put a plastic tablecloth onto my bed so that I wouldn’t bleed all over the sheets and so I was to lie on a sweaty sticky surface for the next three hours.  The doctor came and started to try and remove the hillside from my leg.  The light in the room was bad, so T was holding a lamp over my leg in one hand and with the other hand he was feeding the doctor biscuits & meatballs because it’s rude not to offer something when someone comes into your house.

At some point, both my grandmothers woke up from their afternoon siestas and reacted in different ways.  Granny M went straight to the icons, lit an incense burner and started wailing prayers and waving incense in my face and over me.  The Doctor now had to deal with being in the dark, being force-fed, choking on the smoke, and me sneezing and coughing as I am allergic to the incense.  Granny K reacted by lighting about 4 cigarettes simultaneously and went to the drinks cabinet to get the cognac.  She spent the next three hours chain smoking and pouring herself shots of brandy ‘for the shock’ and bemoaning her fate.

The phone rang and my Dad started to have a really difficult conversation with my uncle who couldn’t quite hear him so there was a lot of yelling from next door.  All of my cousins came back and started crying because I was hurt.  The au pair got a bollocking from my cousin’s parents.  The doctor worked steadily on removing stones (and probably crumbs) from my wounds.  Finally, because he didn’t have any stitches to hand, he used what is called a clip to close up the wound.  A clip is an overglorified staple and yes, in case you were wondering, I do still remember how much it hurts to staple your skin together.

Finally, the doctor left with instructions to go to the hospital on the big island the next day for x-rays.  My cousins calmed down, I was able to get out of the torn clothes and off the plastic sheeting and we even played cards that night.

The next day we went to the hospital and X-rayed my knee.  When the doctor looked at them he said:

“Well it’s perfectly clear, as you can see here, she has broken her patella.”

“But, she walked in here, how is that possible?”

“I agree that it is unusual, usually I would expect her not to be able to put any weight onto a broken kneecap, but the fracture is quite obvious.”

“There must be some mistake, look – Maria get up and walk.”

I was just the subject.  I got up and walked around.

“Hmm.  More X-rays I think.”

Off I went for more X-rays, this time they did both legs.  When we got back the doctor was smiling.

“It’s not broken.  They both are.  Her kneecaps both have splits down the centre which look like fractures, but it’s just a congenital abnormality.”

Oh goody, I’m not injured, I’m a freak.

That was the first time I visited the doctor on the island.  I thought I would probably get away with not going this year, after all, I no longer ride a bicycle when I am there, I walk everywhere so no longer get boat related injuries (long story, maybe another time) and am generally in good health.  If you add to that the fact that I usually don’t call the doctor unless I feel like I am terminal, I was feeling quite smug about it.  The trip to the Rock may not have started smoothly, but it was going to continue smoothly, I could tell.

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