Saturday, 17 March 2018

A Dog from the Dodecanese (1)

So there I was, walking through Rhodes town, my left hand grasping my dog’s lead as she attempted to sniff every interesting urban aroma, while my right hand pulled a trolley on which was precariously balanced a giant dog crate, semi-secured in roughly improvised island style by a rope I usually used as her lead
It was late February, and although much of the month had been beautifully sunny, now the sky promised more rain. I’d spent over two hundred euros on this set-up and still had no idea, at this point, whether Lisa was going to get in the crate, or if it was exactly the right size, or how I was going to transport all of us to the airport when buses and taxis don’t allow dogs.
Lisa is actually a golden retriever crossed with a hunting dog, or so the vet guesses. She became mine when she was two months old, five years ago. Born on Rhodes, she’s lived mostly on Tilos and for a while on Karpathos. We travel together regularly by ferry around the Dodecanese islands. The big ferries have upper-deck cubicles for dogs, generally with one or two unhappily barking occupants. Lisa likes to sniff around them before declaring she’d rather sit outside and get to know the other passengers. I almost always give in, which is why I usually travel with a big rucksack stuffed with fleece blankets and sleeping bag.

I’d never considered taking her to England. During my brief trips to the UK someone usually pet-sits her, and we’ve made new friends through pet-sitting sites. This time, however, I planned to stay in England for a couple of months. I’d been under the impression that it cost a huge amount to fly with a dog to the UK, but David emailed me a link to the relevant sectionof the Aegean Air website, stating that a dog accompanying its owner can travel for 150 euros or less.
I was wary about the notion of putting my dog in the hold of a plane, but my friend Steven reasoned that it couldn’t be much worse than his commuter train. And at least she’d be happy when we arrived. Still unsure, I took Lisa to Rhodes to begin the procedure for a pet passport, which would need to be started at least a month before travel.
Lisa allowed me to lift her onto the vet’s table for her microchip and rabies injection and only tried jumping off once. Hari the vet was very gentle with her and she responded to the offer of treats afterwards with happy tail-wagging. Hari told me the earliest date we could travel and said that if necessary he could drive us to the airport in his jeep when the time came. Before we left, I asked his young assistant to show me the IATA-approved dog crates. Since we’d have to fly from Rhodes, I’d pick up the crate a couple of days before travel.
According to strict regulations, the crate (klouvi in Greek) must be 5–10 cm taller than the dog’s head when it’s standing normally, and the dog must have enough room to turn around and lie in a normal position. I tried to coax Lisa inside one of the larger models to check for size. She was a changed dog within seconds, resisting so vehemently with yelps and contortions and baring of teeth that I finally was forced to give up, afraid the vet’s assistant would think I was used to torturing my dog. I noted the crates’ dimensions and bought a tape measure, hoping it could be determined at home in relaxed conditions.

I decided to book a ‘Flexi’ flight to London in case of difficulties, and emailed Aegean Air to check some details. I received a helpful email back, detailing what I had already learned, plus one paragraph right at the end that said it would cost 890 euros for the dog.
It turned out that 'Transportation of dogs, cats and ferrets to the UK is only permitted for flights to London Heathrow and only to be sent as cargo,' charged according to weight.
The friendly person at Aegean confirmed that flying to any other European destination with Aegean, there would be no such extra charge. Only the UK. 
I considered alternatives. If we went by trains, buses and ferries, we would save on airfares but might still have to buy the crate. I found a couple of useful sites online, such as The Man in Seat 61. Each section of the route, it seemed, would have its own guidelines and challenges, and Lisa could well be cooped up for much longer, in more difficult conditions. I remembered my experience in Crete when I was told that to travel by bus, she’d have to go in a crate among the suitcases in the unventilated space underneath… Other countries might have far worse regulations and I wouldn’t be able to communicate so well.
Driving would make for a good adventure, but I don’t have a car and my driving experience is mostly limited to quiet roads and small towns. For a brief moment I considered doing an Ishbel ‘World Bike Girl’ and cycling it; but soon ruled that one out. However, it did give me the idea of asking Ishbel for advice, since we work together and she was at that moment fundraising to fly two rescue dogs from Brazil to the UK. She confirmed most people taking their dogs to the UK have to fly to France or Holland, then drive or take trains and ferries from there – though I should be careful as some ferries only allow pets inside a vehicle. 
Short of brute force, how would I get Lisa inside the crate? I asked Ishbel.
'Chicken,' she replied. 'Chicken always works.'
I emailed a couple of ferry companies and confirmed that the one ferry that would allow me to travel as a foot passenger with a dog was the Dieppe–Newhaven Transmanche. I’d been to Newhaven before so was comfortable arriving there. So I just needed to figure out the section from Paris to Dieppe.
David lives in Paris but he travels to Greece often, and I sometimes travel to Paris. When I told him the new plan, he said – as I had hoped – he would meet me and Lisa at Charles de Gaulle airport and travel with us for fun to Dieppe.

It was time to make one more effort to measure Lisa. She was extremely suspicious of the tape measure and lay unhelpfully on her back with her legs in the air each time I went near her to determine her ‘natural standing position’ height. But finally, affection and treats prevailed, and I found that she wasn’t going to fit into the crates I’d looked at.
It seemed absurd: she isn’t even a full-sized golden retriever. I called the vet’s office and spoke in Greek with one of the assistants, asking her to tell me the measurements of the biggest crate they had. There was a giant-looking one that I’d originally dismissed. The assistant was convinced that it was a metre high, which I was pretty sure couldn’t be true (maybe for a small giraffe rather than a dog), but I struggled to explain… I just had to hope it was the one I’d found online, and that it was a metre long. I’d keep my fingers crossed that it would be the correct fit.
We took a few days' trip to Nisyros, research for something I'm writing. Back home, with all that needed to be done for the UK trip, I found I couldn’t focus on anything else. Thinking about it more was only making me anxious: packing, closing up the house, all the time not really knowing... But either it would work out or it wouldn’t. It was time to go for it, look upon the whole thing as an adventure and enjoy it.
I decided to go out for a quiet dinner with friends at the kafeneio in Megalo Horio, then perhaps take the ferry the next morning and take things step by step. It was apokries, and the quiet dinner turned into dancing until 2 a.m… I made it to the ferry ticket office just moments before it closed, and suddenly we were off – on the first stage of our epic journey.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Winter Holidays

Himoniatikes diakopes!’ – winter holidays – says Anna, one of the local ladies, as I pass her on the seafront. Half an hour ago I heard her shouting to a neighbour and realised she was in the sea.
‘I saw you swimming,’ I say.
‘Yes, it’s beautiful… but I have to get dressed afterwards.’ She’s now bundled up in her winter clothes. I laugh knowingly. She asks after my family.
It’s always good weather when I’m leaving Tilos for England in December. I’ve skipped one or two, but mostly I go away for a couple of weeks of work and seeing friends and family for the holidays, the yortes.
At the start of December, there were days of warm, calm weather, and balmy nights when I would step outside my apartment in the dark to see the moonlight shimmering softly on the bay.
In the early morning, I like the moment at 5.30 a.m. when the streetlight outside my bedroom window is switched off, leaving just the first of the daylight. On the 5th December it was so calm, I listened to the faint chugging of the fishing boat as the sky brightened. There was also a big cargo ship in the bay.
When I threw on some clothes and took Lisa out, I heard the cry of ‘Psaria!’ – the dulcet tones of Nikos, captain of the Sofia, announcing fish for sale. Sure enough, his truck was in the square and the fishermen enjoying a coffee at Georgos’ kafeneio. I bought a bag of marides, the small fish that are in season right now, and sat down for a coffee and a chat with Stelios while waiting for Savvas to open the post office. Georgos, handing me my Greek coffee, tutted that my black leggings were covered in dog hairs.
As I walked back home with my bag of fish, Panayiotis was sitting outside his mini-market and told me to wait while he filled a little bag with dried rosemary.
‘When you fry fish, put rosemary in for flavour.’
Then a freezing north wind held us in its grip for a couple of days. I had to close the wooden shutters as their metal hooks were clanking. The sea wind was howling and the waves crashing roughly on the pebbles, and there were whitecaps out beyond the bay, the horizon bumpy. Inland it might feel much warmer, but I love being so close to the sea, intensely aware of its mood. It was a good time to remember Saint Nikolaos, protector of fishermen, with his name day on 6th December.

These winter days I’m busy with editing work, so a mid-morning break to buy food and treats is inevitable. Seeing the white van in the square means there will be olive oil, oranges, lemons, lettuce and spinach. And having got accustomed to making my own bread for the last few years, I’m now making the most of the bakery. Lately there have been calzouni, pastries with cheese and honey, and little syrup cakes made with tahini… All the more reason, then, to put on hiking boots and get some exercise in the early afternoon.
Lisa shakes her hairs all over the place and jumps around excitedly, nose in my face as I try to lace up my boots. It might be a walk towards Lethra for a swim, or a hike up one of the tracks behind Livadia to the ridge above, the silent high places where people lived long ago in now-abandoned stone houses. The hillsides are turning green with fresh shoots; there are acorns underfoot and autumn leaves, crocus blooming and the leaves of cyclamen appearing – their flowers something to look forward to in the coming month. After the cold wind dropped, there were two sunny days with flat clear seas and I swam, enjoying the feel of the water for the last couple of times before the end of the year.

As I walked back from the red beach a couple of days ago, Ilias was outside his hotel, sweeping after the latest round of pruning of the bushes. ‘Lots of walking!’ he commented. ‘And swimming?’ I said I did – it was such a beautiful day.
‘Few people know that it’s paradise at this time of year,’ he said.
Those of us who stay for the winter – it’s only a few hundred – stay because we love it. And it is a very friendly community.
Ilias reminds me to keep my phone with me when I walk alone and remember the emergency number, 112. I thank him.
I’ve been coming and going a lot with travels in October and November – to Halki and Nisyros, to Rhodes and Athens and the Meteora. To the harbour again this morning with a bigger bag this time. And with ‘many kisses’ for my parents from Delos, who treated me to an extra glass of wine with the pork gyros and Greek salad at Kyriakos Grill last night.
‘Are you leaving?’ asked Panayiotis, standing on the dock. Just for a few weeks, I say. 
He says he’s meeting his wife off the boat… but not until tomorrow. Bit early, I think.  
His daughter’s living in Strasbourg and keeps inviting him but he likes to stay in Tilos and not go anywhere. ‘I tell her – I’m coming!’ Then he adds, grinning: ‘With the fishing boat….’
Once I’m up on deck, I watch him and other guys hanging around the ferry as it waits for the time to leave, joking with one another. Stelios Stefanakis walks off the ramp, laughing at something, throws down his cigarette and gets on his scooter to zip back the hundred yards to his office. That’s the signal, and the ramp starts to move.
As I sat writing this on the ferry to Rhodes, where I’m connecting to my flight, I felt a finger poking me on the shoulder and it was the priest from Megalo Horio, Papa Manolis, grinning at me and asking, ‘What are you writing now?’