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Life on Greek Islands.

COCKERELS tie up the ends of the night in Gaios. Midnight and four-thirty a.m. only occur if those fowl voice them. You never know whether you heard one as you pushed off into sleep, or whether one bumped you awake. They guard time here, no doubt of it. Clocks are purposeless toys beneath these skies, which have, anyway, their own, separate schedule. Humidity banks up over days, to be ripped down the middle by a rain, a thunder that makes even the autonomous cockerels duck and cover.

But the night is not the cockerels' or thunder's patch alone. Other sounds own it, careen through it like cars on a blind cruise over stop-lights. Music, not of this island, launches itself at the sky, showering in at windows for miles around. Much of it is for the tourist: the kind he left packed in forgotten radios, tucked in the speakers of home airports. Here it is again, an airborne welcome carpet. As in many such centres, it is assumed that this is what the tourist wants to hear. Over the years, that assumption has taken on the contours of law. So the water drips onto the stone, eroding the tourist's capacity -- perhaps, finally, even his will -- to distinguish between indigenous and heterogenous music. And at last, worn round the ears, he concludes that the sounds supposedly abandoned beyond the Alps have all the time been thriving here.

Motors, too, buzz the night away in Gaios, as though robotically paying out wire to stake and fence in their part of it. There are a few cars, some vans -- but mainly bikes, scooters, mopeds. And they take on the town centre as though it were a plain, as though the direction of the streets were just a whim of the rider. Altercations occur. Rights of way are proclaimed by cockerel horns. Despite signed restrictions on motor use during the dark hours, someone always acts as though challenging Gaios to a drag on the flat or a game of 'chicken'. But tourists, those sanctioned Goths, do not usually buzz and drag thus. A few do bring their cars across to Paxos, showing a greater or lesser degree of wisdom. Mainland Greeks and Italians (the latter emphatically present in August) probably know what to expect from Gaios' clogged traffic, the few country roads all laid out like a maniac's dream. A number of English, however, also 'motor', having hoisted their vehicles across one thousand and four hundred miles of air. Perhaps some wish to boast after of the commending charms of Ionian sideswipes and whiplash. Perhaps others wish to honour that peculiarly English sense of satisfaction that comes from surveying all through a windscreen and then shrinking the perceived splendour to fit a pocket epithet: 'smashing', maybe, or 'super'. Or perhaps they all just want to nip about smartly, to get clear of the fug of sour grapes which may be exuded by the sweltering pedestrian. If any do have an exotic crash-wish, however, the Paxiots, at least, deny its fulfilment. They smile and manoeuvre round.

But this is by no means an aggressively touristic place. Setting aside the broadcasts of drum machines and cover versions of elderly pop songs, Paxos as a whole does not let the Goths drag it where they will. Of course, it is not anti-tourist either. In a manner of speaking, much fresh-baked bread is warmly buttered on the right side during the summer season. It is, though, an unassuming place and also a place with strong self-regard. Tourists can swim, trek, shriek and haggle, but in a space allotted and circumscribed by an older, unyielding culture. For example, lined up against Gaios harbour are the islands of St. Nicholas and Panagia. The latter houses a monastery and church. But no bursting boats lose their human load at its jetty. And if you stare at Panagia for hours together, you will see no United Colors of Benetton bringing down disharmony on its groves like a thump round the ear.

Loggos and Lakka are the island's other centres. The former, a (roughly) north-easterly coastal village, manages a kind of workaday beguilement without a twitch of strain. The GB plates muster here. And above the burning, map-and-beachmat plastered windscreens, villas bite into the hillside: each impressive, each more or less Hellenic in design and effect. But closer inspection yields a nagging incongruity. To the gates of these villas are clamped letting agency plaques, each bearing a robust Home Countries address. The incongruity can tickle, however, even if it can't amuse outright. One such agency is called 'Positively Paxos', or something like: another example of how to take word-cheating beauty and scribble a grinning adverb on it, the result resembling a plaster on a gash. The positive Paxiots don't seem to venture much beyond Loggos. You imagine them bolted onto a suitable taverna -- 'Godalming Georgiou's', maybe -- and then unscrewing themselves for re-bolting onto a boat, 'Pride of Penge', before effecting a tidy loll, tableau-style, on a really rather marvellous beach. Loggos itself, though, remains largely untouched by these shenanigans, even while accommodating them, rather like

someone who has mastered the trick of appearing to heed a prize bore and enjoying the sleep of the dead at the same time.

Lakka, word of mouth and some guide books will tell you, is cancerous with new developments. True, these are visible as the 'bus swings and grates down into the port. But you have to half-scramble through the window, like a pantomime felon, to spot them. They are few in number, slight in dimension. Even when complete, they will doubtless remain 'lovingly lapped', as a 'Positively Paxos' brochure would probably have it, in grove-branches. But Lakka, on the north of the island, is also where the coastline starts getting feisty. Move a little further round, to the western side, and you're into deep, rocky stretches; above these, currents occasionally haul themselves around in a way that challenges the swimmer's inclination and expertise. The slim strands, too, are cockily pebbled. But they are also far less frequented than elsewhere.

On eastern Paxiot beaches, meanwhile, business goes smartly forward. One or two resemble a Botany Bay for current luxury durables. Boats ring them at anchor, skimming music at each other's hulls. Now and then, some cheeky tyke of a launch zig-zags round them, like a kid hammering front doors and scarpering over hedges. Bats and balls echo out, dropping their stitches: one knock, two, three, and a dead ball in the shallows. A severely-groomed dog might pick its way on the sand as on a catwalk. Suddenly, all primping shaken loose, it will size up the beach anew as a series of lamp-posts invisible to all but itself. Under their freight of sleepers, airbeds graze pebbles at the water's edge. Minutes later, or so it seems, they are pink, green and yellow dots -- bubbles making landfall on Corfu. Sun cream is heard but somehow not seen, in a brisk and endless Tyrolean slap-dance of application and massage. And bodies, independent of their owners' minds, contest the earth's refusal to accommodate their shapes. Face-down is essayed; then belly-up; then, for a few stone-rattling seconds, sideways. Legs are gathered, flung out into dividers or wishbones. On high, Bushy Berkeley's ghost watches, marvels, somehow contrives to kick himself for not working such moves into his majestic, unrestful revues.

Admittedly, this description bristles with easy targets. And it covers any beach which is equally covered by those with enough cash to leave quality litter. As such, it does Paxos a dis-service. Only a handful of the island's eastern beaches follow the contours of the above identikit. And they have become tanning parks solely because the western coast defies tourism in swarming numbers. But, fascinating and forbidding, the west coast is worth a slow, deliberate survey: which is exactly what you make if you're in one of the many sluggish, lope-along motor-boats for hire here. Western coves are kept cagily separate from each other, like suspects under interrogation, by sheer and well-seamed cliffs: the granite stuff of nightmare. Arches and caves fight the racing chop of the waves -- and, over the years, imperceptibly lose. Outcrops are towers madly built or the upthrust of bitten fingers: sorry havens from the prospect of drowning.

But the west side hooks your attention. The whole island does, with its busy and static ways of being, its human and non-human players: the spilling packs of walking cashpoints on the Gaios coast; the swinging, half-toppling buses; the way the play-thing yachts of some rub hulls with the livelihoods of others. You could call Paxos a film. Most of its features would fit inside that image, with room to spare: short duration, compact setting, scenes altered and re-shot endlessly, absorbingly. But there is the Panagia monastery; there is the dense and sleeping valley, a soft concavity in the spine of the island; there are the black-clad Paxiots of the remote villages, quietly insistent that you should go first at a narrow twist in a path, making it easy for you to thank them in their language, untroubled by the spiky knowledge that you mugged up the words an hour before. More than vague extras, they predate the see-through airbeds at 2,500 drachmae a go, the smackwater ferries, the 'best moussaka in the Med'. And they give the eye and the mind something still to rest on, should the lights grow too bright, the bike engines tear too harshly.
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Author:Thomas, Michael
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jun 1, 1994
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